Me in the middle of a sea of Indians. I had never seen so many Indians together in one place but that is because I haven’t been to India. Yet.
Some 8000 Indians gathered in Tel Aviv’s exhibition grounds (according to the Indian Embassy in Israel). Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India invited the entire Indian community to come to a special event during his historic visit to Israel: Israeli-Indians, Jews who made aliyah, Indian students and business people who came to study or work in Israel, Indian foreign workers who came to Israel to work mostly as caregivers for the elderly, VIPs, diplomats and media. And me!
We were standing in the heat, waiting to be let into the exhibition hall. If I wasn’t used to Israelis I might have been claustrophobic but instead, I found the situation funny in its familiarity. Who needs personal space? Lines? What’s that?
There were people carrying flags of India and of Israel. Everyone seemed to be taking selfies and pictures of the crowd. “MOVE BACK!!” One of the security guards screamed (there seemed to be too much pressure at the front). An Indian answered from the crowd: “Brother, these are Indians. We don’t know how to go back. We only know how to go forward!”
Just like Israelis.
Eventually, the security guards opened the gates and let everyone flood through. It was a relief to get into the air-conditioned building. The exhibition hall was filled with endless lines of chairs facing a stage with a VIP section in between. Each chair had a bottle of water and an Indian snack on it, made specifically for this event.
Looking for the best place to sit down, I picked a seat in the center, a few rows back (the first rows had already been filled). I could see the podium well but I did not take into consideration that there was absolutely no way the people in front would actually remain seated during the event.
The program started with an impressive video covering the achievements of the Modi government, using the slogans: “Narendra Modi, architect of new India” and “#IamNewIndia”.
We came to hear a speech. What we got was more like a rock concert.
The event was hosted by an Israeli woman and a Bollywood actor. I beg forgiveness of my Indian friends, I don’t know his name but the crowd sure did – they went nuts when he took the stage. A dance group from India performed Bollywood style dancing. They were followed by three Israeli women who loved India so much that they studied traditional dancing to a professional level. Then there was another group of Indian dancers, foreign workers in Israel who dance during their free time. All this was topped off with a Bollywood singer who, we were told, is the playback singer for a number of the famous Bollywood actors.
People who had been convinced to sit down popped out of their seats, some stood on their seats to take videos while others danced in the aisles waving Indian and Israeli flags or if they didn’t have flags, their shirts jumping up and down like soccer fans.
Throughout the event people in the back politely shouted at people in the front to sit down so they could see as well. It worked, for a few minutes. Interestingly, annoyed Indians don’t forget to say “please” and “thank you” and they calm down almost as quickly as they get annoyed.
Flamboyant, full of life and with absolutely no regard for order… our two nations are so different and yet so alike!
In general, Israelis love India. Many Israelis travel to India following their army service. Some Israelis travel to India in their 50s and 60s, sometimes with their post-army kids. Israelis love to travel everywhere but there is something about India that is like coming to a home away from home. The land is vast while ours is tiny but the wild mixture of everything all jumbled up together is very familiar. The people of India may look different (though not always as Indian Jews look like Indians of course!) but are very similar to Israelis in temperament and attitude. Both our people come from ancient lands, steeped in spirituality and our stories of gaining Independence from the British are very similar.
Unlike our American friends, with India, there is no common background. Christianity branched off from Judaism and the American story leaped forth from Zion. Israel and America have a common legacy and values that serve as the bedrock of our nations. There is no such commonality between Israel and India. Our story is not their story. They have their own ancient history and mystical legacy, very different from ours. At the same time, there is an inexplicable bond between our nations. While the Israel/America connection could be described as a bond of the mind, the Israel/India connection is a bond of the heart.
Behind me, someone asked if Netanyahu would also attend the event. He wasn’t scheduled to do so and, as he had already spent an extensive amount of time with PM Modi, I did not expect him to.
Suddenly I realized that the podium on the stage had the seal of the State of Israel on it. Would the Prime Minister of India speak from a podium with our seal on it? No, that didn’t make sense. I stood up and saw that there were TWO podiums on the stage.
Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi took the stage to thunderous applause.
Unlike other countries where loyalty is questioned, here it seemed absolutely natural and right that Israeli Indians were cheering for the Indian Prime Minister while Indians in Israel were cheering for the Israeli Prime Minister.
Netanyahu spoke first, urging Indians to come and visit Israel, like the Israelis who backpack in India. He said with a smile: “They don’t all have to come, just the same proportion as our travelers who visit India.”
Prime Minister Modi spoke in Hindi (thankfully I had a simultaneous translation transmitted to my ears). He started off by saying: “When friends meet they ask each other, how are you? This is both a question asked out of interest and a sort of admission that the friends should not have been so long apart. India has been distant from Israel for many decades but now, we will never part again.”
While President Macron of France was busy hugging Mahmoud Abbas (calling Israel a colonialist and agreeing that settlements are an obstacle to peace), Prime Minister Netanyahu developed a warm and sincere friendship with the Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world (who declared before his visit that he would not visit the Palestinian Authority, that this issue was not even up for discussion).
Yes, the largest democracy in the world. Larger than even you, America.
The evening before the community event the two PMs had dinner together and stayed up talking till 2:00 am. (I would be shocked to discover that Netanyahu spent half that time talking to President Trump).
PM Modi spoke, honoring Jewish contribution to Indian society, giving specific examples in politics, the military, business, and art. He said that “the Jewish community is very small but their contribution is very great and we honor them for that.”
Then he spoke of Indian contribution to Israeli society. He gave specific examples, showing familiarity with the stories of Indian Jews who made aliyah as well as Indians who came to work in Israel, Israeli Indians in the IDF and the Indian soldiers who fought in Israel during the first World War and were instrumental in liberating Haifa from the Ottoman Empire.
He spoke of Moshe Holtzberg and how he was moved to meet the boy who survived the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai in which his parents, Gavriel and Rivka, were murdered.
PM Modi seemed to have the endearing desire to note and honor all those who connected between our nations. “It is not,” he explained, “the size of a nation that determines her worth but the spirit of her people!”
PM Modi, the “Architect of New India” didn’t come to Israel just to build bonds between nations. He came to Israel with a blueprint and a timeline for a completely different India.
By 2022, India’s 75th anniversary of Independence PM Modi envisions an India where every person has a roof over their head, access to clean water, electricity, and gas for cooking. His government has already begun reducing corruption, simplifying tax laws and cutting bureaucracy with the intention of fostering an entrepreneurial spirit.
This ambitious vision is not a dream – it is a plan. PM Modi came to Israel to find the tools to make his vision a reality for the people of India.
I walked away from this event in awe. Never have I witnessed such deep, mutual respect and sincere friendship between ANY two nations. If America was half as friendly towards Israel, the world would be a completely different place.
In the meantime, it is India that will be changing the world, with a little help from her friend, Israel.