Understanding Israel as an Indian Muslim

Omair Ahmad
Omair AhmadJul 07, 2017 | 10:23

Understanding Israel as an Indian Muslim

A few years ago I was in Berlin for some work and was due to meet a friend in the Foreign Office for dinner. During the day she called and asked if it was okay for another friend to join us for dinner. "This is her first time visiting Germany," Elena explained, "and she doesn't wish to have dinner alone."

Berlin is one of the friendliest, safest cities I have had the pleasure to visit, but Elena's friend was not thinking of that. She was an Israeli Jew, and only a few decades ago a vicious regime based in Germany had made it a point to first separate, then humiliate, and then exterminate members of her community.


Much has changed since then. Germany has embraced the guilt of the crimes committed in its name and has vowed never again. Many Israeli artists prefer to come to Berlin to live and work, not least because of its great arts scene, low cost of living and excellent services.

Nevertheless, for Elena's friend, it was still an overwhelming experience, and there is nothing but sympathy that one can lend in such a situation.

For me, it was part of a long journey to try and understand something of Israel. As an Indian Muslim, I grew up with no sympathy for the country or its countrymen. I have no recollection of when I first heard its name, but maybe I noticed that on my first passport it said that it was valid for all countries except Israel and South Africa.

And my understanding of Israel was primarily shaped around the understanding that it was part of the European colonial movements like the one India had shrugged off in 1947. Much of this is what Israel itself communicates. If you read early Zionist literature, or the works of Chaim Weizmann, the President of the Zionist Organisation, and the first President of Israel, the use of terms like "colony" as to how the state of Israel is to be set up is normal.


The proponents of the movement famously used the phrase, "A land without people for a people without a land," negating the existence of an existing indigenous population, something that was common among Europeans when speaking of colonised areas - whether the United States or in Australia and New Zealand. All of this is understandable.


Most of the Zionist leaders were Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. They were speaking to European leaders and the European public. They spoke in the language that was already in use. This dominance of European culture did not go away after the founding of Israel.

Many people do not realise that there is a large community of Arab Jews in Israel, who are often referred to as Mizrahi. These communities were largely those expelled from Arab states after the founding of Israel. Despite their sizable numbers, they have a comparatively minor role in public life with the Ashkenazi community dominating the political parties of Labor and Likud.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the former defence minister of Israel and leader of the Labor Party, was one of the few Mizrahi Jews in high public office, and he used to tell a story which demonstrates the way that Mizrahi Jews were perceived as second class citizens because of their Arab background.


His nickname was Fuad, a very Arab name, but one that he was well known for. In 1972 he was in Bangkok when the Palestinian militant group, Black September, attacked the Israeli embassy there. Golda Meir, then the Prime Minister, phoned the embassy, and Ben-Eliezer picked up. When she asked who it was, he replied, "Fuad." She was shocked that the "Arabs" had taken the embassy.

More than this, there is another complicating factor. As an Indian Muslim, the idea of a homeland for a people in danger sounds uncomfortably close to the argument that the Muslim League made for the foundation of Pakistan. Faisal Devji explores this at length in his book Muslim Zion, in which he also notes that Jinnah seemed to have more books on the problems of European Jewry than that of any Muslim countries.

Nehru, too, saw the creation of Israel as an issue analogous to that of India-Pakistan, seeing the partition of Mandate-era Palestine into two communities based on the demand to have a homeland in the name of its own ethnicity.

For me, a person whose grandfather and two great-uncles served in the Second World War against the Axis powers, whose blood was in the battlefield against the regimes that tried to exterminate the Jews, I saw no reason why that same sacrifice should lead to the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands just because they were not Jewish, or their being incorporated into a state where their ethnic identity guaranteed second class treatment, as to who could marry, what land they could buy and how citizenship could be acquired.

Maybe also it was because my heroes numbered people like Jan Bloch and Rafael Lemkin, who saw the disaster their communities faced and tried to push through radical ideas - ending war, criminalising genocide - that would benefit all communities, keep all minorities safe.

This, to me, seemed a more effective route. Certainly, the creation of Pakistan has not kept South Asian Muslims safe. Pakistan's own actions in what is now Bangladesh are amongst the greatest human rights violations South Asian Muslims have seen after the Partition, not to mention its adventurism in Afghanistan and in Kashmir.

In the case of Israel, too, there are more Jews living outside its borders than within them. Israel's actions, especially its treatment of a captive Palestinian population in the name of Jewish nationhood has led to people who dislike a policy to start blaming people.

The kind of antisemitism present in Europe did not exist in other parts of the world, now it does, fanned as much by ugly extremist ideas within certain Islamist trends, as by unscrupulous Israeli politicians who have wrapped their unjustifiable actions in the flag of Jewish suffering, as the current Israeli Prime Minister did when he stated that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews.

But it is here, too, where the analogies break down. The suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust are too great to easily serve as an analogy to anything else, the sickness of the Nazi regime was far beyond anything near our experience.

To draw such analogies then becomes ridiculous. The crimes of the Nazis were the crimes of industrialised mass murder based on a fanatical hatred. Of post-WWII horrors, only the genocide in Rwanda comes close to the horror evoked. This is something that you only really understand once you visit Europe, the places where these murders happened, listen to the communities affected. It is hard to grudge the desire for walls to keep you safe, a nation you can call your own.

It does not obviate the injustice heaped upon the Palestinians, but it does breed sympathy for the desire of Israelis to desire a place of their own, and also an understanding as to why they would not trust the goodwill of humanity at large with their safety.

I am reminded of a saying that the creation of Israel is like a man jumping out of a burning house and landing on the back of a passerby. The passerby did not deserve the harm visited upon him, but you certainly cannot fault the man jumping out of the burning house. Today, as we see the rise of rabid rightwing politics seemingly across the world, where the anti-Semitic leader of the Ku Klux Klan declares his support for a candidate for the US Presidency, and that candidate wins, it is hard to tell minorities that they should believe multi-ethnic polities will keep them safe.

Could one convince those whose families had been systematically murdered that they should trust the systems of liberal democracy when the first modern democratic state crowns an unstable moron backed by racists and supremacists as the leader of the free world?

In the end, this is the question that we have to answer, the question that Israel confronts us with. Can we get beyond thinking of safety in terms of people, in terms of groups? Can we get beyond group identities and actually learn to defend individuals regardless of identity?

In today's world, where we increasingly are being divided into tribes yet again, where the use of murder and lynchings based on group identity feature as front page news in the world's largest democracy, this is not a surety we can give to anybody. It is this fear that we must allay. When I was younger I dismissed it, had no sympathy, thought that I knew the answer lay in our gentle progress to a better world, made possible by people like Jan Bloch and Rafael Lemkin. Today I am not sure that I have any answers. I do have a great deal of sympathy though.

Last updated: May 17, 2018 | 10:41
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