Friday, April 11, 2014

10 Striking Similarities Between India and Israel

Israeli prime minister and founder, David Ben Gurion, plays chess, the game India invented, as Ghandi observes amid flags of both countries
Israeli prime minister and founder, David Ben Gurion, plays chess, the game India invented, as Ghandi observes amid flags of both countries

As I mentioned before (see here and 8 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About India), I'm reading a book about India by Shashi Tharoor, and I was pretty surprised to see many similarities between my country, Israel, and India:

1 – Same Birthday: Well, almost. India was freed from British rule on 15 of August, 1947. Israel was born about a year later, on 15 May, 1948, the day the British Mandate expired.

2 – British misrule: Both countries emerged from British rule. The Brits ruled India from 1858 and 1947 as the British Raj, a period which does not include the previous 100 year reign of the British East India Company (see details here). Britain conquered Palestine from the Ottomans in 1917-1918 and ruled the country under the legal framework of a UN Mandate from 1920-1948.

3- British influence: Both countries have been greatly influenced by British rule. In Israel, the legal and political system was inherited from the British (who inherited parts of it from the Ottomans) and in many ways remained unchanged until recently. The damage done by the British mishandling/violation of the Mandate, the almost arbitrary redrawing of regional borders, and blatant anti-Semitism (which included not letting any Jews from Europe enter the near empty country in the 1930s, when it was still possible to save them from Hitler) is a legacy Jews and Arabs are still struggling with. In India the influence of the British and the damage they wrought has been far greater. We can only guess how far ahead India would have been if it had not been plundered, divided, and misruled by the British for two centuries.

3 – Traumatic birth: For both countries, birth and independence was a traumatic experience, which involved partition and bloody conflict with a Muslim rival. Tharoor calls India's independence, "a birth that was also an abortion"

4 – Unsettled borders: In the years since independence both countries have experienced several wars and are still threatened by their neighbors. India has experienced four wars with Pakistan, one war with China, and numerous other battles (12 wars/battles in all, according to this Wikipedia article). India's last war was in 1999. Israel has experienced 6 major wars with its Muslim neighbors, the last one in 2006.

5 – Unsettled identity: Before statehood, Jews and Indians had a settled identity. Jews were defined by their religion, which was different from that of surrounding society (Muslim or Christian), and according to Tharoor, Indians had a common, settled identity, even if was not clearly defined. In fact, India did not need such a definition of its national character until the establishment of the modern state. However, in both Israel and India, the modern state raised more questions of identity than it solved. In India the emphasis on caste/non-caste, linguistic,  ethnic, regional, and religious identities has raised questions about the very existence of a common Indian identity, while in Israel the conflict between the well-established religious Jewish identity and the modern secular-national Israeli identity is threatening to tear the country apart (again!)

6 – Expatriates: This was a big surprise to me. Both Israel and India have a special tie with their expatriates, both grant them special privileges, and both are not quite sure how to deal with them. Conversely, both expatriate communities seem to have a difficult time disconnecting from their mother country (resulting in both love and hatred), both wish to influence and participate in its life - even from afar - and both have been immensely successful in their newly adopted countries, due to what Tharoor describes as qualities that are typically Indian: hard work, discipline, self-sacrifice, and thrift. Successful Israelis also have these traits, but to this list I would add "chutzpah" and "wild creativity" as well. According to Tharoor, Indians are the ethnic group with the highest per capita income in the United States (I thought this title belonged to Jews, but my attempts to find updated data about this failed due to so many different ways of measuring income and the conflation of Indians with all other Asians).

7 – Socialist origins: The founders of both countries were profoundly influenced by Communist Russia and based their economic and social policies on the Soviet example. This meant that the public sector dominated the economy in both countries, and politics, patronage, protectionism, and corruption were its hallmarks. As one would expect, the results were not very good from an economic viewpoint. For instance, Tharoor gives a hilarious account (one of many) of a fertilizer plant in West Bengal which employed (in 1994) 1550 workmen, "but which has produced no fertilizer since it was set up at a cost of 1.2 billion dollars. Israel began a slow, lengthy process of liberalization and privatization in the 1980s, which really took off in the 1990s, and today it is a technological powerhouse and well-integrated in the global economy (a situation that is not without problems either). India started a decade later and is slowly and uneasily moving ahead; it's probably much easier to turn around a small country of 7 million as opposed to a country of over one billion…also, throughout the years, both countries lost many talented entrepreneurs who decided to emigrate rather than navigate the political and bureaucratic waters of the socialist economy.

8 – Political culture: Tharoor writes:
 "Some of the opposition parties seem to have been more interested in creating scenes and getting publicity in the press rather than contributing to informed discussion on vital issues." 
This is definitely true of Israel as well, where public discussions of important issues are simply degrading to all parties involved, participants and viewers alike; I stopped watching many years ago. However, I can say that I have had the opportunity to read protocols of Knesset committees (the government has been promoting transparency and paperless bureaucracy in recent years), and it appears that behind closed doors, the members of parliament behave in a relatively rational and collegial manner and actually get things done. According to Tharoor, the same is not true of India.
Tharoor also speaks harshly and explicitly of the corruption in India's politics, which has reached the point that criminals and politicians are sometimes one and the same. I don’t think this has happened yet in Israel, although some former prime ministers have been rumored or known to employ underworld figures during elections (such as Ehud Barak, if memory serves), and political figures have been convicted of various crimes (most recently, former PM Ehud Olmert). However, I don’t recall having a known criminal run for office in Israel. Of course, one can argue that anyone who enters politics is a criminal by definition, but that would be unfair to the handful of parliamentarians who actually care and do their best to serve the public.

9 - Holidays: I've always thought that Jews have the most holidays in the world, since we have so much to be sad about. In Israel, there are entire months where nothing can get done because of the holidays and everyone says "don’t talk to me now, we'll do it after the holidays". But India is not far behind, and in fact Tharoor claims that India has the most holidays in the world, amounting to a total of 44 official days off. This is due to all Indians tolerantly celebrating each other's holidays, whether they are religious, national, or secular. For the record, on average, Israeli workers get 16 days off a year for holidays and according to this table, India's workers actually get 16 days off for holidays too. So, I guess we're even :)

10 - Family: Family is very important in both countries. Tharoor writes that 
The family is the quintessential Indian social unit. We are neither individual in the Western mode, nor are we capable of the self-sacrificing ecumenism that idealistic communism demands. Instead, we operate within the cocoon of a family unit, not necessarily nuclear, which generates our most vital support.
This is very true of Israeli society as well.

Bonus: Life is sacred: This is a very basic tenet of Judaism, sometimes taken to an extreme by Israeli society. Tharoor writes:
Indians are a people with great reverence for human life; we celebrate birth and infant survival in a host of rituals, acknowledge obligations even to distant relatives, and mourn visibly and publicly when death takes a loved one away from us.
But then Tharoor goes on to enumerate a series of large scale tragedies that, sadly, seem to have become common place in India and do not arouse much public outcry. This is in stark contrast to Israel, where unnecessary deaths are severely condemned and much effort is taken to avoid them and punish those responsible.

Conclusion: There are probably many more similarities that could be discussed, such as the Indian tradition of tolerance, which Judaism shares in a specific way, the ability of both nations to hold contradicting ideas in their minds without going crazy, their inherently democratic culture, a very lengthy and eventful history, and great contributions to mankind made by both nations. I would never have guessed, before reading this book, that the two nations have so much in common.

Photos: Mahatma Ghandi and Israeli flag are CC license by Flicker user wisegie. Picture of Ben Gurion under CC license from Israel's GPO Flicker account (who knew??). India grunge flag by Sanjitchohan1 under CC license  from WikiMediaCommons. The collage itself was created quickly and easily in +PicMonkey (Thanks!).

Related post: 

 8 Surprising Facts You Didn't Know About India

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for wonderful thought.
    Indians and Israel are well-cultured nations.
    --Proud Indian


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