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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.