The India-Israel bilateral is more than the diplomatic ties shared by the two governments. The two countries enjoy a connection that goes back 2000 years. Jennifer Bligh speaks to Jaideep Sarkar who served as India’s Ambassador to Israel until March 2016:
Q: Most that people know about Israel-India relations is that India is a great tourist destination for Israelis choosing to travel after their stint in the IDF. Would you agree?
Of course, 40 000 Israelis who travel to India each year are important indeed – and the same amount of Indians come to Israel as well! However, when I think about Jewish-Indian relations I wouldn’t necessarily focus on tourism alone. I am concentrating on the Indian Jews in Israel and re-connecting them with their roots. I further set as goal for my tenure to establish a more intensive partnership with the Indian-Jewish diaspora.
Q: The extent of the connection between India and Israel is not known. Could you give a historical perspective of the connection between the two countries?
Jewish communities were established more than 2,000 years ago in India, therefore this is by far no new phenomenon. There are four different Jewish communities in India — the Bene Israel from the Maharashtra region around Mumbai; the Cochini Jews from the state of Kerala; Baghdadis, who were once prevalent in Mumbai but have mostly left the country; and the Bnei Menashe from states of Manipur and Mizoram in the country’s northeast. Nowadays there are around 5,000 Jews in India, most of them live around Mumbai. There has been news that their numbers are increasing again. Traditionally, however, the Jewish communities were rather isolated and yet it is interesting that there has never been anti-Semitism in India. The connection goes back centuries and it is my ambition to revive this rich heritage.
Q: There is a sizeable Jewish population in Israel that emigrated from India. How do you plan to reconnect with this group?
In the 1950s and 1960s two major Aliyah waves to Israel took place, and now there are around 85, 000 Jews with Indian heritage in Israel. My idea is to offer journeys from Israel to the Jewish sights in India – we are going to visit the places where their grandparents came from. The idea is ‘Back to the Roots’, and visiting the recently renovated synagogues and monuments is a part of it.
Q: What are your specific plans?
I am going to start on a very broad level: firstly, I would like to tighten the community strings within the Indian Jewish community in Israel. We are already talking about the third generation. Around 3,500 met at the Third National Congress I recently organized for the Indian-Jewish community. Secondly, my goal is to strengthen the Indian-Jewish Diaspora community. These two pillars are sustainable: discover the own origins and re-intensify Diaspora connections.
We are also working on an oral database of memories. For this we record the family stories and memories of Indian Jews who emigrated to Israel. This happened in the 1950s and we fear that if we don’t record it soon, the memories would be lost forever. We work together with the organisation Beit Hatfutsot, the Diaspora Museum and the Ravdori Project. Their employees visit school classes and encourage students to ask at home. These family stories are then fed into the database.
Q: Has the Indian government taken any steps to encourage tourism for Israelis headed there?
We introduced a new electronic visa that is valid for 30 days. You can apply for it online from most countries. It has never been easier to come to India for one month and to visit the Jewish places along the journey.
Jaideep Sarkar (*1963) came to Israel in October 2012 and served as Ambassador until March 2016. He is married with two children.