This week’s historic visit to Israel by India’s prime minister revived memories of my previous associations with Indian leaders and the Indian Jewish community in the 1980s.
India at that time was still a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, dependent on Arab oil and expatriate income from the Gulf states in addition to accommodating a population of over 140 million Muslims.
I will never forget my unpleasant meeting with the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at her home in New Delhi on December 21, 1981. She bitterly claimed that American Jews had turned the U.S. government and media against her, maligning her because they opposed her policies toward Israel. The discussion became hostile and despite her claim to like Jews, she came close to becoming anti-Semitic. I reminded her—to no avail—that during her childhood in the United Kingdom, Anglo Jews such the late Harold Laski—a leading professor of political science at the London School of Economics—were among the most fervent supporters of Indian independence. That meeting left me deeply distressed and pessimistic about prospects for the future.
India’s policy during the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War basically echoed the Soviet line on Israel. Mrs. Gandhi sought to strengthen Indian support for the Arab world and intensified her hostility against Israel. When her son Rajiv became prime minister following her assassination in 1984, he maintained the anti-Israel policies, and if anything, they were even intensified.
But at the same time, India is one country that never had a record of anti-Semitism and, unlike Muslims and Christians, Hindus never saw themselves as triumphant over Judaism or as a proselytizing faith.
Although the bulk of the Indian Jewish community made aliyah, they did so freely, and the remnant of the ancient Bene Israel, who claim ancestry back to the Lost Tribes of Israel, maintain their synagogues and community centers.
For many years, I continued to advocate for a change in Indian policy toward Israel. Indian External Affairs Ministry officials listened to me courteously and then politely dismissed whatever was discussed.
by Isi Leibler