Three years ago when I first moved to India, I was surprised when I discovered how people responded when I brought up the subject of Palestine, a place where I had lived for a couple of years and whose liberation is a cause deeply embedded in my heart.
There were many oddities I observed, especially in my first year in Bangalore. Each time I'd venture out and meet a new person and Palestine came up, people responded to me with comments like: "Oh, I used to work for an Israeli company" or "I have an Israeli friend." Lest one think this is some anomaly that exists in a techie bubble, most of these comments were made by people I encountered in progressive circles: a feminist mentioned growing up reading Leon Uris and living on a kibbutz in 1982 (without any mention of Israel's catastrophic military bombardments of Lebanon that year); a Tibetan activist commented that a number of Israelis help a great deal with the Tibetan refugee community in India; organisers of a queer film festival seemed to see no contradiction in screening an Israeli film.
"The more time I spent living and working in India, the more I realised how deeply normalised Israel has become among ordinary Indian people."
While these conversations perplexed me, they were just the tip of the iceberg. The more time I spent living and working in India, the more I realised how deeply normalised Israel has become among ordinary Indian people. At school I sat through a presentation about Sadhana Forest in Auroville, a forestation project spearheaded by an Israeli couple. The library at my school has an entire shelf devoted to the propagandistic novels by Leon Uris (though, until I arrived, there was not one novel by a single Palestinian author) and far more narratives about Nazi Germany than about Indian partition. When I presented an assembly about Palestine, one of my students wrote in her journal, "The best part about Israel is that everyone above the age of 18 has to serve in the army." (The only reference to the Israeli army in my talk was in reference to their daily violence inflicted upon Palestinian people.) When I showed Mai Masri's film Frontiers of Dreams and Fears to my students, a parent asked if I would also be showing Waltz with Bashir. This parent, who identified himself as a leftist, didn't seem to understand why it might be important to educate students from the Palestinian refugee's point of view rather than an Israeli soldier's point of view. My school also engages in folk dancing every weekend, including to the song "Mayim", which means water in Hebrew. It is one of many folk dances which Zionists appropriated for themselves after having studied Palestinian dabke during the 1930s and 40s in an effort to create a non-European culture for themselves since there was no such thing as Israeli culture. The song is particularly painful to hear, especially when one knows the details of the extensive theft and misuse of water by Israelis, depriving Palestinians of those water tables even though most exist inside the West Bank.
My own experience seems to be mirrored in the Indian media. In The Hindu alone, over the past three years, there have been numerous articles about Israel that normalise it in a way that clearly paved the way for the current state of affairs. Everything from travel articles like "Things to do in Israel" to "Kicking it with Krav Maga" (touted as a means for Indian women to defend themselves from rapists by using methods designed by the Israeli army) to the celebration of Israeli filmmakers, dancers, theatre, and food. It seems that Israeli films are integrated as readily into Indian film festivals as "Israeli food" is on menus of multi-cuisine restaurants.
In my travels around the country I've noticed various Israeli colonies--especially in Hampi and Dharmasala--where one can find plenty of Palestinian food masquerading as "Israeli food" in Israeli-owned restaurants. In Dharamasla, there are areas where there is so much Hebrew it can be a challenge to find any Hindi or English signs. No one seems to be bothered that many of these Israelis just completed their military service and what that entails given the Israeli army's brutal subjugation of Palestinian people.
"Ironically, although one can read in Indian periodicals about the wonders of Israel's creation of drip irrigation, there never seems to be any acknowledgement that, in fact, India is responsible for creating this technology centuries ago."
All of this soft power has clearly laid the groundwork for ordinary Indians to humanise Israelis and to even identify with them. Something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. It has led Indians to invite Israelis to help with irrigation and agriculture, having succumbed to the mythology that Israel "made the desert bloom". Ironically, although one can read in Indian periodicals about the wonders of Israel's creation of drip irrigation, there never seems to be any acknowledgement that, in fact, India is responsible for creating this technology centuries ago. Nor do Indians engaged in agriculture seem to be leery of inviting Israelis, who farm on stolen land and who have cut down over 800,000 Palestinian olive trees and destroy their farmlands, to assist Indians in their so-called Centres of Excellence.
I think it's a mistake to blame this transformation of Indian people's sense of what's happening in West Asia on Hindutva. From where I stand, it's far more insidious than that. Whether Congress or BJP, India would have been sending political officials to Israel sooner or later. And so India is making history next week by sending its President, Pranab Mukherjee, to Israel. This visit comes at a time of intensified violence from Gaza to Jerusalem. It comes at a time when Israel is escalating its killing and detention of children and of firing on young Palestinian protestors whose only weapons are stones.
Palestinian voices seem to be relatively absent in India today except when being described in AP reports about "violence" or "terrorism". It makes me think of Martin Luther King Jr.'s aphorism that "violence in the language of the unheard". And yet even with the escalation of violence in Palestine, why is it so hard for us to listen to Palestinians in the India of today?