Anything that moves

Beyond terrorism, it is the threat of religious conservatism that unites India and Israel

If India has its bovine and traditional obsessions, one in every four Israeli students is getting little or no secular education.

As Narendra Modi makes his second visit to Israel, this time as prime minister of India, here are a few thoughts on that nation and our relationship with it.

The founding of Israel was a morally illegitimate act precipitated by a European colonial power acting in concert with European Zionists against the native population of the land. At some point, however, attempting to reverse a morally illegitimate act can itself become morally illegitimate. José Arcadio Buendía says, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” There are more than enough Israelis dead under the ground to justify the nation’s status as the homeland of those still alive. Supporting its continued existence need not any longer be based upon an acceptance of the theological basis of its founding.

The Palestinian Cause

The issue of Palestine remains unresolved, of course, and the current Israeli administration has shown even less inclination than past ones to negotiate a two-state solution. On the flipside, Muslim-majority nations in the region have for decades used the issue of Palestine to mask their own inadequacies and internal dissensions. The mask began to slip once Barack Obama told leaders of West Asian nations to fight their own battles. Now it has fallen off entirely, and Palestine can no longer be presented as the fundamental ethical issue facing the Middle East.

If Palestine is but one among a number of serious matters of contention in the region, the Indian prime minister’s visit to Israel is as justifiable as his earlier visit to Saudi Arabia, home to one of the world’s most ghastly regimes. And with the profile of the Palestinian cause shrinking on the international community’s radar, Modi’s refusal to travel to the West Bank during his Israel visit has caused less controversy than it would have done a few years ago.

Oil and Weapons

We need Israel just as we need Saudi Arabia. The latter sells us oil and provides jobs for working class Indian migrants, the former sells us precious military hardware and agricultural technology. It should be embarrassing, if not shameful, that a nation of over a billion people has to import weaponry from one that has less than a hundredth as many citizens and was founded a mere 70 years ago. For some reason, though, our abject failure to develop indigenous arms technologies has never given rise to a sense of humiliation among nationalists. We are convinced we are on our way to becoming a global superpower, though one of the qualities shared by superpowers for centuries has been self-sufficiency in arms technology.

For Israel, the appeal of India is obvious. When Israelis look east, they see a succession of politically and culturally hostile nations until they reach a place where their youth can hang out smoking weed after a hard year in the army without facing hatred or discrimination. Benjamin Netanyahu shares with Narendra Modi and Donald Trump a hatred of Islam and Muslims, though he and Modi are more sly in their expression of it than the US President.

A common threat

Israel, India and all the countries between them face a common threat. The threat, most pronounced in Muslim-majority countries, is growing in India under the Hindu nationalist administration, and might also undercut some of Israel’s achievements in the future. I am speaking about the threat of religious conservatism, which is quite different from that of terrorism.

Israel’s success makes clear that the creation of an economy based on knowledge is the surest way to sustainable economic gains in the world today. In contrast, much of the Middle East depends on a single commodity, oil, which will soon become redundant. Many of the nations that today depend on oil exports have nothing in place to replace it. I am convinced that Abu Dhabi and its ilk will suffer the same fate by the middle of the 21st century as cities like Detroit did towards the end of the 20th.

India is lucky, in a sense, to be relatively resource poor. It must depend on the hard work and ingenuity of its citizens to grow wealthier. Unfortunately, our educational system is so narrowly instrumental that it closes horizons instead of broadening them, leading to a shortfall in original science research and technological innovation. The Modi government has exacerbated the problem by focusing on trying to validate traditional Hindu beliefs and practices. Its bovine obsession hasn’t yet seriously affected our already weak innovation output, but the effect of diverting resources towards finding uses for cow faeces and urine will be felt down the line.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men scuffle with Israeli policemen. Image credit: Reuters/Oren Nahshon
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men scuffle with Israeli policemen. Image credit: Reuters/Oren Nahshon

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox

Israel, meanwhile, faces a peculiar demographic crisis. A little background will help explain it. Although Israel was created as a Jewish homeland, its early leaders belonged to the secular Left. Some ultra-religious Jewish denominations actually opposed Israel’s creation on the grounds that the nation had to emerge not as the result of human action but as a miracle performed by God. Most members of ultra-orthodox sects within Israel today survive on state doles, do little work, and send their children to the Jewish equivalent of madrassas, known as Haredi schools. Haredi schools offer very little secular education, and Benjamin Netanyahu has rolled back regulations that enforced a core curriculum on schools that received state funds. It seems a reasonable condition: you want to be funded by taxes, then teach your students some maths, some English, some science. It will help them get jobs should they choose to spend their time on something beside religious scripture. But right-wing religious parties in Netanyahu’s coalition would have none of it.

This wouldn’t be an issue had the population of the ultra-orthodox stayed tiny. But in Israel, as everywhere, liberals have fewer children than religious conservatives. The average Haredi woman produces 6.2 children and the average non-Haredi woman just 2.4. As a result, while Haredis are 10% of Israel’s population, their number is growing rapidly, and a full 25% of Jewish children in Israel today attend Haredi schools. Which is another way of saying that one in every four Israeli students is getting little or no secular education and will grow to adulthood ill-equipped to contribute to a knowledge-based economy.

The mixing of religion and politics poses an even greater danger to Israel than it does to India.

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