OPINION: Why Israel is 'kosher' for Indian academic collaborations

Many in progressive, left-liberal camps do not find Israel acceptable for engagements

ISRAEL-PROTEST/ Representational image

The history of the state of Israel, and its image, are controversial matters in India. Israel has been a political and ideological question for India’s political class even before the establishment of the state in 1948. India’s diplomatic distance from Israel until 1992 was knotty due to the foundation of Israel at the cost of the Palestinian people, as well as India’s need for international support of the Arab states against Pakistan around the Kashmir issue. It was partly the principle of anti-colonialism and partly India’s immediate strategic priorities that did not work well for a friendship with Israel. It is naive to believe it was all ideological before 1991, as it is now to believe India’s Israel policy is any less ideological for the ‘good’ pragmatic needs of defence, agriculture and water. Israel continues to be an ideological question as it is an ideological state.

Many among progressive and left-liberal camps do not find Israel kosher (acceptable) to engage academically as an object of inquiry, or Israeli universities worthy of collaboration. Often journalistic, academic or cultural engagements with Israel or its people raise instant questions about the motives. A recent article had raised suspicions the Indian academicians who collaborate with Israeli academia. The author thinks “that many Indian academics are being lured by financial and professional incentives”.

It is beyond me to answer the dogmatic view of Indian academicians in the writer’s assumption. However, the article raises an important assumption, otherwise quite polemical, which is: ‘Why would Indian academic institutions partner with Israeli universities, especially given the shared history of non-alignment between India and Palestine in the not-too-distant past’. I am attempting to answer this relevant question as I direct the Centre for Israel Studies (leading collaborator with Israeli academia) at OP Jindal Global University that the author lists in her article for collaborating with Israeli academia and helping the oppression of the Palestinians by doing so. 

There are not many universities which have departments for international relations and area studies in India. In a few universities, located in metro cities, Israel is first and foremost an ideological issue and one cannot talk about it without raising suspicions about the politics (or lack of it) of the researcher or without placing on table the loyalty, in advance, to the Palestinian cause. Israel Studies is not like China Studies or America Studies–a subject of academic inquiry to begin with. I wonder if the scholars who engage with the universities in China are looked at with suspicion while the people of Tibet live in exile.

Being pro or anti-Israel is common, and that is not a problem. However, it sadly leaves little room for sincere efforts to understand the state or its complex society on its own terms in universities. Therefore, the first incentive to collaborate with Israeli academia is to create substantial knowledge about history, politics and society of Israel by exposing Indian students to Israeli universities. Effective political positions are possible when there is a better knowledge of the other.

Secondly, it is critical to engage with Israel academically, as the state of Israel was a significant question for Indian foreign policy in the past and it has become more relevant in the light of the growing relations post 1992. There is hardly any academic research on Israel beyond the works on India’s Israel policy. I suppose Indian academia is expected to fill this gap by studying and evaluating India-Israel relations for what they stand for. The existing notions have reduced Israel to an aggressive military state, Mossad (the intelligence agency) or a settler-colonial state (from the old Marxist-Leftist school of thinking). Recently, there was a controversial image-making of it when an Indian diplomat suggested the ‘Israeli model’ to re-settle the Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir. It is a completely misplaced view that undermines the oppressed lives of the Palestinian people under occupation. Also, Kashmiri Pandits are not the exiled and persecuted Jews either, if one knows the history of anti-Semitism and Holocaust. In another instance, Prime Minister Modi proudly boasted that India will emulate Israel for escalation, unilateralism and retaliation against Pakistan. The Hindu nationalists’ romanticism and advocacy for Israel in India is increasing with their rise in Indian politics and society. It is only through greater interaction with Israeli society that one can create a more nuanced understanding of Israel, its deeply divided society and the complex system of occupation.  

Thirdly, the call for academic boycott of Israeli academia bears mere rhetorical gains as the diplomatic boycott until 1992 did little for the oppressed Palestinians. It is legitimate to say it is a symbolic protest but, academically speaking, it serves no purpose when it comes to fathom the intricate nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Universities need rigorous engagement with the subject before falling for sloganeering. Indian academia is diverse; those who call of the academic boycott have a valid point-of-view but those who collaborate also have their own point of views and they are valid too. It is unfair to speculate that they are less academic, morally committed or the worst, “paid-off”, as the author alludes to.

Another serious problem with such a view is that it undermines the independent and critical minds of the Indian students who go to Israel as a result of academic collaborations. Indian student community, whether in public or private universities, is vibrant with critical thought and autonomous application of given knowledge. They are not gullible and do not return as the supporters of Israel. The first-hand-interaction and travel to Israel give them a better sense of the issues of the conflict and they deal or choose for themselves political positioning in a mature and fruitful way.

Dr Khinvraj Jangid is Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Israel Studies at Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the author's own. They do not purport to reflect the opinions of THE WEEK