Towards the East an Eye Gazes

From its genesis, Zionism sought the favor of Western powers and was virtually uninterested in Asian nations. Three new books look at the exceptions that confirm the rule.

In the wake of World War II, scores of newly independent nations emerged in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, restoring sovereignty to the ancient people of the East, including the Jews. Unlike the people of Asia, who had been subjugated to colonial rule since the seventeenth century but were never uprooted from their lands, the Jews had been victims of one of the world’s earliest imperialist powers—the Roman Empire. They lost not only their independence but also their homeland, their “Asiatic” roots and natural ties with the nations of the region severed in the process. The Jews and the nations of modern Asia measure their history not in centuries, but in millennia, their narratives of nationhood reaching back four or five thousand years. While most of modern Israel’s population hail from Eastern and Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, their original roots are in the East. The East is the soil which nurtured their legends, beliefs and ideas; it is the foundation upon which Jewish religious and spiritual life developed.

Over the years, the mainstream Jewish communities of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East had virtually no contact with the peoples east of Iran, and had virtually no ties at all with the tiny Jewish communities of India and China—and after the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan and the nations of South East Asia. These communities were seen by their non-Jewish neighbors as an integral part of the European colonial presence; since most of these Jews never learned the local languages or engaged fully with the dominant cultures, and thus contributed virtually nothing to the political, academic, cultural development of these nations. Unlike in Europe, there were no Jewish names linked with the national independence movements of the people of Asia.

Whilst modern Zionism emerged from the specific circumstances of nineteenth-century Europe, the notion of the return to Zion is as old as the Jewish dispersal itself. The same historical circumstances that gave rise to the national movements in Europe—first the liberation of Greece from Turkish rule, later the unifications of Germany and Italy, and then in the twentieth century the establishment of independent Poland and the foundation of Czechoslovakia—gave a powerful impetus to movements which in due course ushered in the establishment of a chain of independent states stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the frontiers of China. The same forces also played a tremendous role in the successful efforts of both China and India to drive away foreign domination. All this was watched from afar by the emerging Zionist movement.

Possibly because of its origins in the more modern Jewish communities of Europe, Zionism preceded the national awakening in some of the countries of Asia and the Middle East, including the Arab nations. In that region, too, Western influences played a very important role in bringing nationalism to the East. George Antonius, an early historian of Arab nationalism, famously pointed out that the American University of Beirut was the cradle of Arab nationalism. Chronologically, the First Zionist Congress, which took place in Basle in 1897, preceded by a few years the first formal gathering of Arab nationalists, which was held in Paris in 1913. The beginning of modern Asian nationalism in the colonial era is usually placed a few years before this, in 1905, prompted by the victory of a sister Asian nation—Japan—over Czarist Russia. That victory was also, incidentally, greeted warmly by the fledgling Zionist movement.

The Jewish and Arab national liberation movements sought from the start to engage the support of Europe and the United States. This was in part because much of Asia was still under foreign domination; but also, many of the leaders of the various movements had themselves been educated in European and American schools. As a result, no serious consideration was given to the (separate) suggestions that the Zionist or the Arab national movements seek help and support from India, China, or even Japan. In fact, there was no organized contact between the nationalist groups of the Middle East and their counterparts in South East Asia and the Far East. The Asian nationalists did not pin their hopes on aid from the West—except, perhaps, the Chinese nationalists and America. But even this evaporated after Sun Yat -Sen, the leader of the modern Chinese nationalist movement, entered an accord with the Soviet Union in 1923. Already by 1896, Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, had shown his failure to engage with the nature of modern Asian nationalism in his novel Judenstat: “For Europe we shall construct part of the defense wall against Asia, we shall serve as a cultural outpost against the Barbarians. We shall continue to maintain contact with all of Europe, that would have to guarantee our existence.”

The Western orientation of the Zionist movement was a natural outcome of the fact that it emerged from the numerous Jewish communities of Europe and North America. These diaspora communities were instrumental in facilitating the first tentative approaches to Western governments, seeking recognition of the broader Zionist goals. These ultimately led to the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, the British government promising to “view with favour the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.” After the Great War, a League of Nations Mandate placed Palestine under British rule, which led to Zionist diplomatic activity largely aggregating in London. In parallel, significant effort was invested in spreading the ideals of Zionism (and seeking support) in the United States—the center of international Jewish life, after the Russian Revolution of 1917 severed the largest Jewish community from the rest of the Jewish world.

Zionist reliance on the goodwill of the West was sufficient reason for the few in Asia who had heard about this movement to view it with distrust. Some Indian leaders, Gandhi and Nehru among them, felt that the Balfour Declaration was intended to serve British imperial interests in the Near East, and thus saw Zionism as a tool of British imperialism. Some Indian intellectuals argued that Zionism was a product of the Balfour Declaration, rather than the obverse—that the Balfour Declaration came about due to Zionist diplomatic efforts. As for the leading Asian Muslims, among them the pioneers of the movement that led to Partition the creation of Pakistan, they were unanimously negative about Zionism. As for the tiny Jewish communities in China and India, or even Thailand and Singapore, there was no point in the Zionist leaders hoping that they might be able to exercise any influence in their locales—the fact was that they had no clout whatsoever, political or otherwise.

No wonder then that very few Jewish intellectuals and Zionist leaders of the period looked to Asia for support. But there were exceptions. These outliers are the themes of new studies by Shimon Lev and Hanan Harif. The two monographs, both developing on their authors’ doctoral dissertations, focus on what is presented as a forgotten aspect of Zionist history: contacts with the leaders of the rising Asian nationalist movements. While Lev is concerned specifically with India, Harif explores the writings of a number of Jewish advocates—and advocates for the Jewish national cause—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It should be stated, early and clearly, that these writers and theorists had virtually no impact on the diplomatic efforts of the Zionist leadership; indeed mainstream Zionist thinkers and activists largely considered them as esoteric, consigning them to the margins.

The main theme of the two studies is the disappointment that some Jewish intellectuals felt about the relative indifference of the European powers to Zionism, and their argument for a reorientation of Zionist overtures toward the East.

However, the key problem with Harif’s analysis is that none of the writers whom he discusses—among them Moshe Leib Lillienblum, Moshe Eisman, Mordechai Ze’ev Fierberg, Binyamin Redler and Moshe Ya’acov Ben Gavriel—ever visited Asia. None had contacts among the Asian intelligentsia and nationalist movements, and none spoke any of the local languages. What they knew about modern Asian nationalism was largely gleaned from Western sources, in the main English, German, Russian and French publications. Most importantly, none of them, with the possible exception of Martin Buber, had any influence whatsoever on mainstream Zionism. Even today, few Israelis have heard of most of the writers referenced in Harif’s book.

What pushed these cheerleaders for the Zionist cause toward Asia? Some believed that with time, a Jewish state in Palestine could serve as a bridge between Asian and European civilizations, and that the Jews thus could play an important role in furthering the goals of Asian nationalism. Some of them – specifically Benyamin Redler and the Jerusalem based Sanskrit scholar Immanuel Olsvanger argued that because there were no established schools of anti-Semitism in Asia, the leaders of those emerging nationalist movements would be happy to use the Jews—who were already known to have vast international connections—to help them attain their goals.

Lev and Harif have both done a sterling job of marshalling hundreds of little-known sources—little known because no one else has bothered to draw the writings of Jewish thinkers on Asia into a coherent line of analysis. Most of the studies on Israel-Asia relations, chief among them Moshe Yegar’s seminal The Long Journey to Asia – A Chapter in the Diplomatic History of Israel (Haifa University Press, 2004), choose to focus on diplomatic relations. As to cultural ties, little has been written about them for the simple reason that there were virtually none.

Of the two books, Lev’s study is more useful for understanding the history of relations between modern Israel and modern India. The antipathy—and at times outright hostility—evinced by Gandhi, Nehru and other Indian nationalists toward Zionism (and, after 1948, to Israel), has been explored in a number of earlier studies. Lev devotes most of his book to Gandhi’s thinking about Jews and Zionism. As it happens, this also forms the crux of a new book by P.R. Kumaraswamy, one of India’s leading scholars on Israeli history and diplomacy, about Mahatma Ghandi and the Jewish national home. In this very important and well documented book, the writer argues that some aspects of Gandhi’s attitude to Zionism have been misunderstood. Both Kumaraswamy and Lev explore Gandhi’s early contacts with Jews in South Africa, where he lived for more than two decades. Both highlight his friendship with Hermann Kallenbach, who was a close friend and collaborator for many years and for a while a go-between Gandhi and the Zionist leadership in London in the hope, soon dashed, for a diplomatic gain.

Kumaraswamy argues that since Gandhi’s writings consisted of some 50,000 pages, one can find in them quite a few contradictory citations on his attitude to Zionism and to the emerging Palestinian Arab nationalism. In the 1920s and 1930s, many of Gandhi’s pronouncements on Zionism were linked to his desire to incorporate India’s millions of Muslims into the struggle against British rule—and to steer away from the threat of partition. Both Lev’s and Kumaraswamy’s studies present new revelations about Gandhi’s changing attitude to the Zionist dream. Following the rise of Hitler and the brutality of National Socialism, Gandhi acknowledged the need to solve the Jewish problem through giving the Jews a national homeland; but by peaceful means alone, he believed, and with the consent of the Arabs of Palestine. He probably understood that this could never be achieved, but it suited his philosophy to espouse this belief. He opposed the partition of India and that of Palestine, and lived to see the early outcome of the partition in India – with millions of displaced Muslims escaping from India to Pakistan and millions of Hindus in the opposite direction. He lived to see the first two months of the civil war in Palestine after the 29 November 1947 UN Partition resolution. In that historic vote, the only Asian nation to support the establishment of a Jewish state was the Philippines. China abstained, Thailand was absent from the vote. India, Pakistan and Afghanistan voted against. To this day the Muslim nations in Asia – Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

None of the books directly consider the question why India only established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. What brought about the change, and why have ties between the two countries strengthened in almost every area since the ascension of the Modi government in 2014? One hint, perhaps, lies in the fact that Israel has become India’s third major arms supplier. Be that as it may, Lev’s and Harif’s books ought to be read by the over 50,000 Israelis who travel to India every year, mostly in order to rid their minds of pre-conceived notions that Gandhi and Nehru were anti-Semites and that the current friendship with India is a historical coincidence, if not aberration.

Whilst the three books are all quite good in describing the past, they shed little light on what the future might hold. Harif’s book will be of interest to the narrow constituency interested in the evolving attitudes of Jewish intellectuals to Asia across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The reader should bear in mind, though that none of the three books actively engages with the evolution of the diplomatic, political, economic and cultural ties that developed between Israel and the Asian nations in the past 70 years. But then, none of their protagonists ever envisioned Israel becoming a major hi-tech nation, possessing a very powerful army, and a leading exporter of farming and irrigation technologies. Perhaps, after all, in the final analysis, Israel has become a bridge linking modern Western science, innovation and technology with the East.

*Shimon Lev, Clear are the Paths to India: The Cultural and Political Encounter Between Indians and Jews in the Context of the Growth of their Respective National Movements (Hebrew), Gamma Publications 2018, 437 pp.

* Hanan Harif, For We Be Brethren: The Turn to the East in Zionist Thought (Hebrew), The Zalman Shazar Center 2019, 300 pp.

*P.R. Kumaraswamy, Squaring the Circle: Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish National Home, Knowledge World Publishers 2018, 234 pp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

A Joke, But a Very Serious One Indeed

Abe Silberstein

In a new book, historian Shlomo Sand presents an overview of the ideologies, movements and personalities associated with the political Left. The reactions of contemporary Leftists to Hamas' October 7 massacre serve as a pitch-perfect test of their legacy.

Classic Sephardic Judaism, Made in China

Aryeh Tepper

A formidable though short-lived Sephardi presence in early 20th-century Shanghai fostered unique interpretations of Jewish texts and perceptions. The community may have disappeared, but the ideas live on.

True Love or a Marriage of Convenience?

Rachel Harris

A new book looks at the vicissitudes of the relationship between Hollywood and Israel.

Understanding Kahane

Paul Gross

A new biography of Meir Kahane shows how integral he was to the American-Jewish story. Do recent events now show how integral he is becoming to the Israeli story?

The New New Antisemitism?

Abe Silberstein

Three recent books provide radically different answers to the question of whether and why antisemitism is on the rise.