Telling My Family and Friends That I Was Going to Study in Israel

I received an admission letter from Tel Aviv University, Israel, in the background of the 11-day war – a bloody and bruising altercation between Israel and Hamas in May 2021. The timing of it could not have been more ill-fated and awkward. I already had certain inhibitions about breaking the news about studying in Israel to my friends and family.

And when I did, just like I had foreseen, a lot of my university friends hid their discomfort under exasperated smiles and feeble wishes. However, others were not so well versed with the art of concealing one’s emotions. A perplexed friend, who vehemently believes in the boycott of Israel at all levels, could not simply understand the decision: “What makes me want to move from a soon-to-be dictatorship (India) to an apartheid state (Israel)?”

Still, sometimes one receives support from the most unexpected nooks and corners. I come from Punjab – a small northern state that witnesses a mass exodus of youngsters to Canada every year. Currently, Punjabis roughly comprise 2.3% of Canada’s total population. Hence, it wasn’t too presumptuous of me to assume that my Punjabi family members and friends would not approve of my decision of studying in a country dominated by the Jewish community.

Much to my surprise, I stumbled upon a few middle-aged men who did not only shower me with warm wishes but also deemed it as an excellent choice. One of my father’s colleagues and a long-time Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate even remarked, “Israel is a strong nation, it knows how to deal with its mess.” He might have been alluding to the several Indian media houses’ vainglorious depiction of Israel’s defense forces and its anti-missile technology during the 11-day war.

Nonetheless, it was his association with the RSS that prompted me to reckon how the RSS perceives Israel amidst the blossoming of India-Israel relations. The social and political capital of the RSS in India’s public discourse with the BJP in power must not be undermined. According to the RSS’s annual report 2019, it boasts of conducting nearly 59,266 daily meetings across 37,011 locations in India, with an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million active participants.

Several media pieces attempt to draw a historical link between the RSS and its admiration for Nazi ideology. Despite this, the RSS cannot still be interestingly labelled as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. In truth, it has always profoundly looked up to Israel as a kindred Jewish nation. It believes Israel has managed to successfully consolidate the “five unities” which are a must for the collective prosperity of any nation. These five units are land, race, religion, culture and language.

In other words, what the RSS admires about Israel is its uncanny ability to hierarchise its citizens where the people of the majority faith possess the maximum rights.

To add the icing on the cake, through a narrow parliamentary vote in 2018, Israel now self describes itself as “the nation-state of the Jewish people, which respects the rights of all its citizens”. One can arguably speculate a parallel between certain Indian government legislation (like the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens) and the Israeli government’s policies that hint towards a particular trend of social grading of its citizens. However, the convergence between the RSS’ thoughts on Israel and the BJP’s public policy warrants a much more elaborate and critical investigation to establish any concrete claim.

Nevertheless, the trend of normalising and even glorifying Israel’s policy of “retaliation for the sake of deterrence” or legitimising its unjust occupation of the Palestinian territories in Indian households is equally disconcerting and alarming. Such trends gradually disseminate, marinate and institutionalise the underlying prejudices against minorities, especially Muslims. This blind idolistion of Israel has also started expressing itself in a desire to emulate certain problematic policies of Israel. The propagators of such nefarious ideas often wish to import ready-made policies and apply them to India.

Neither do they concern themselves with India’s 1.3 billion population, its syncretic history, uniquely complex social and political dynamics nor do they fathom the violent ramifications of their misconstrued vision. Likewise, it is also futile to outrightly reject and boycott Israel in its totality because of the actions of its different governments. Thus, my motivation for studying in Israel lies somewhere between its blind glorification and its absolute condemnation.

As a citizen of the world and student of International Relations, it is my duty to neither blindly worship Israel nor reject it. Essentially, what forms a society? The foreign policy of any country, its domestic policies, its culture, cannot be studied from one single lens. One needs to identify as many inclusive and responsible lenses as one can find to capture the overlapping interactions between the various strands to be able to paint a larger picture that is closer to reality. One can interact with the irreconcilable other without compromising one’s reason and morality.

The only way to move beyond the absolute and extreme convictions is to sincerely treat the other as an equal entity with equally worthy experiences that need to be sympathetically heard, objectively contextualised and empathetically reciprocated.

Mandeep Singh Choudhary is a postgraduate student of International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at the Tel Aviv University, Israel.

Featured image: Illustration/Editing: LiveWire/Tanya Jha