Both India and Israel are ancient civilisations with trade and cultural relations going back millennia. Both came into existence as modern nation states almost at the same time, separated by just a few months: India in August 1947 and Israel, nine months later, in May 1948. Both have had colonial experience with the British, and in both countries, the most widely practised religion is non-proselytising in nature: Judaism in Israel and Hinduism in India.
This year marks the completion of twenty-five years of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, on the occasion of which Narendra Modi would be visiting Israel in July, becoming the first Indian prime minister ever to do so. The two countries see each other as a natural partner because of the many commonalities of interests.
They are collaborating with each other in a number of sectors, including higher education. But India is yet to reciprocate the introduction of Indian Studies in Israel with the launch of Jewish Studies, which would automatically include Israel Studies, in its academia. Although Indian Studies thrive at Israeli institutions of higher education, Jewish Studies are largely non-existent in India.
The few exceptions are the Presidency University, Kolkata, which has an undergraduate course in Global Jewish History, the O P Jindal Global University in Haryana, which is home to India’s only Centre for Israel Studies, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has a few Israel-focused courses.
Although the Presidency University in Kolkata has taken the lead by launching an undergraduate course in Global Jewish History, the move cannot be seen as ushering in Jewish studies in Indian academia. Not unless a whole Master of Arts (MA) programme in Jewish Studies is established at an Indian institution, and offered as an alternative to Arab culture and Islamic studies. Anyone who wishes to take the University Grants Commission's (UGC) National Eligibility Test (NET) must have the choice of Jewish Studies as an alternative to Arab Culture and Islamic Studies to pursue lectureship in institutions of higher education. The availability of the subject for NET is extremely necessary to make it popular, for only that would make the degree holders in the subject employable for academia in India.
At a number of institutions across the world, Islamic Studies and Jewish Studies or Middle Eastern/Near East Studies and Jewish Studies come under the purview of the same department. Some of the prominent examples are Department of the Languages and Cultures of Near and Middle East, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Washington University in St Louis, Trinity College, University of Dublin; Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies, University of Denver; Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University, etc.
The students enjoy the choice of doing their MA either in Islamic Studies or Jewish Studies. The same can be done here in India, where almost every major institution of higher education offers MA in Islamic Studies or Arab Culture.
The fear that Indian Muslims might oppose it does not hold much ground because there are Muslim countries, including those that have fought wars with Israel, which have introduced Hebrew/Jewish/Israel Studies in their academia. For example, the Department of Hebrew Studies, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt and the Centre for Israel Studies, Amman, Jordan.
Jewish Studies ought to be established at all central universities in the country irrespective of the fact whether the subject Arab Culture/Islamic Studies is already there at the institution or not.
Jewish Studies are booming in Communist China with the establishment of the subject at a number of its universities, four of which even award PhD in Jewish/Judaic Studies. This is in spite of the fact that China doesn't even have a Jewish community of its own, for the one that existed got assimilated into the general population long ago unlike the Jews in India who have not only maintained their separate identity but also thrived in a friendly environment.
When Jews from seventy different countries settled in the newly established Jewish State of Israel, the ones from India were the only Jews who came with nostalgia for the country they had left behind instead of a heavy baggage of harsh memories of persecution and/or genocide, as was the case with Jews from the rest of the world. That is something that India should be proud of.
The only academic journal devoted to the study of the Indian experience of Jews is the peer-reviewed ‘Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies’ published by the Society for Indo-Judaic Studies and subsidised by grants from the Florida International University and the University of Saskatchewan. It has never received any patronage from India. Indo-Judaic Studies as a sub-field can get the attention it deserves only with the establishment of the broader field of Jewish Studies as an academic discipline at institutions of higher education.
The way to start would be the establishment of a Chair for Jewish Studies at a central university. Instead of establishing the chair at any of those central universities that have already received much state patronage and have already made a mark for themselves, it would be preferable to have it at one that is young and yet to make a name for itself, like the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow.
What would add to the importance of the introduction of Jewish Studies there is the geographical location of the institution. Lucknow is at once a major centre of Muslim scholarship and Muslim antisemitism. Muslims are 14.2 per cent of the total Indian population of 1.2 billion (17.05 per cent of the world’s population). A hundred and seventy-two million Indian Muslims make up the world’s third largest Muslim population.
Although around 742,529 Muslims in Lucknow are only 26.36 per cent of the city’s total population of 2.8 million, as estimated in 2011, yet Lucknow, which also serves as the administrative capital of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, is a major centre of Muslim scholarship. Two highly prestigious institutions of Islamic Studies, Firangi Mahal and Nadwatul Ulama, and a string of highly renowned Shia scholars across generations found their home in the city and it continues to be a place of active Muslim politics.
Except for a Jewish writer from Ahmedabad, Sheela Rohekar, who is the only Jewish writer in Hindi today and has settled in Lucknow and a few American and Israeli Jewish converts to Hinduism, there are no Jews in the city. Yet, they find frequent mention in the Muslim discourse there. The mention is usually negative in nature. Anti-Israel protests are common in the city and, during the America-led invasion of Iraq, flags of Israel and America were drawn on the floor at the entrance to the biggest tourist attraction there, the Shia Muslim monument, Asafi Imambara (also called Bara Imambara), so that nobody could enter it without trampling the flags.
Presence of a Jewish Studies programme in Lucknow can go a long way in checking right at the inception the antisemitic rhetoric that emerges there in its Islamist discourse and spreads across the world. We must remember what the former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had said: “The rise of anti-Semitism anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Thus, in fighting anti-Semitism we fight for the future of all humanity.”
Dr Navras Jaat Aafreedi is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!