Less Obvious Reasons Israelis Go to India
Less Obvious Reasons Israelis Go to India
Personal / Spiritual:
Religious / spiritual:
The "Less Obvious" Reasons Israelis to to India
This post is a continuation of the previous post:
I know there might be quite a few comments on this particular post. Not everybody, I’m sure, both Israelis and non-Israelis, will agree with many of my postulates and theories. Hopefully, though, some people will find a bit of themselves here, or at least enough interest or food for thought, perhaps even some inspiration. That will make this endevor worthwhile.
And, of course, many of the motives mentioned here are not unique to Israelis, but some are enhanced by our one-of-a-kind situation in the world.
If anybody would like to add to the already lengthy list of “reasons” or “motives” – the obvious (previous post) or the less obvious (here) – please feel free to suggest it in English in the comments section below, or send me your thoughts directly in English or in Hebrew. If I add something of yours, you’ll be credited.
I’ll appreciate keeping comments civil.
Thanks. Namaste. תודה
Reasons Israelis go to India - Personal Issues
Oftentimes the reasons Israelis go to India are personal issues, difficulties, problems or life crises. Sometimes, issues come up in India that were not on the surface before.
Several Israeli books describe the “Voyage to India” as an opportunity for an epic sea-change in people’s lives. The change often leads to new, more mature or, conversely, more daring, personal relationships. It affects how we come to terms with grief, with death. It can lead to a spiritual awakening.
Fogs over Himalayan Mountains, viewed from Beit Chabad, Bhagsu, Himachal Pradesh
The personal reasons why Israelis (and others) go to India are as varied as expected. Following are a few examples I encountered on my trip:
What shall I do with my life now?
In the Evergreen Cafe in Bhagsu I used to eat a nice lunch after my daily Odissi dance classes. There was a handsome Israeli guy, who used to sit there at the same time. When I first saw him, he was quiet, always immersed in a book or a movie on his phone. Eventually, we started talking and he slowly opened up.
He had just finished his bachelor and was considering taking a position as an army psychologist, but was not “closed” on that. The “problem” was that since India was so cheap he could “smear” the time, keep hanging out, which he really enjoyed despite himself.
He did not not feel great about this seemingly purposeless wasting of time, but dreaded coming back home and having to make decisions, deal with expensive Tel Aviv rentals, relationships, and the advance of his career…
I tried my best at the “old auntie” role, but am not sure I helped any…
This man was looking for his “male side”…
By the entrance to Tushita Meditation Center, I drank fresh orange juice with an Israeli guy – 30, also a psychologist, who came to India to “strengthen his masculine side”. I was intrigued. It wasn’t about machoism, he explained. It was about sticking with a plan and delivering it, unencumbered by other people’s needs, as he tended to allow until now – yes – parents, partners. He wanted to write a blog and just could not get it together. But now, in India, he seemed to be able to generate the necessary impetus, confidence and creative zest he saw as the needed male energy to advance his project. He, too, wanted my “old auntie” input.
When even India can’t help…
A woman I met in a guesthouse in Ladakh was a “returnee”, who remembered her great time in India from years before. When she had a life crisis, her first instinct was to go to India, if not to get answers there, then at least to get some “space”.
In truth, her problem sounded a lot like her own making. At 40, she got married for the first time, but despite that and her love for the man and his children, she betrayed him with a common friend. Now he wanted a divorce. She was devastated, contrite. Despite using India as a “space for reflection”, in reality, she did not even allow herself and India much of a chance. Too preoccupied, she changed her ticket and flew back a week earlier than planned. Her suitcase was packed with gifts for the man and his children and with jewelry and Himalaya products for herself.
Indians also need “India”
In Tushita we had daily discussions in small groups about the teachings. I was lucky to have a wonderful melange of people – two Israeli post-army guys, one Israeli of Russian origin, one French woman, one Spanish lady who now lived in New York, one Indian guy and myself.
On our first meeting, the Indian guy expressed puzzlement why we came to Tushita for our vacations to do meditations about death. Why don’t we just go to a good hotel and relax? I explained that many Israelis do, indeed, go to 5-star hotels in Turkey or Eastern Europe for their vacations, but that we here were another kind of tourists, or rather, travellers / people on a journey.
Interestingly, as time moved on, he himself shared some pretty profound personal problems for which he was actually seeking answers here – work issues, family issues, marriage issues – only he wasn’t aware of them, or willing to admit his difficulties! When he heard us sharing, he eventually opened up, eager to bring his issues to the table. Naturally, he started with the less intimate concerns, but gradually he got comfortable, and it went pretty deep…
All 7 of us, for sure, had a lot to share!
Ground and water
Mother India is like a huge bosom, or if you will, an electrical ground for our emotional entanglements, a quencher, cleanser and sometimes an amplifier. The very size of it, the continuous habitation, the cultural depth, the underlying philosophy of life and death and how it manifests in daily life, the unfamiliar yet familiar perspective – all these can act as powerful psychological transformers.
Some Israelis, as I mentioned in my post about grass, music and the spiritual salad, sadly get lost. Others turn to our own religion, Judaism, or if already religious, adhere to it ever more strongly. Others quit the religion altogether. Some find partners, others lose partners. Some “find themselves”, others get even more confused. But hardly anybody comes back home unchanged on some level. This is the power of India.
Personal / Spiritual
Reasons Israelis go to India: Time, Light and Magic
One of the reasons Israelis go to India is a sense that the sub-continent is inbued with magic and the super and supra-natural.
I heard countless stories from Israelis about the time in India that seemed to flow at a different pace.
I also heard about the quality of the light in India, that is unique and magical.
I heard that once in India, nothing happened by chance. Things are saturated with meaning. If a train is tardied, there is a reason. If things don’t work the way you planned or expected, there is a life lesson. We, impatient Israelis, come to this land to learn to accept, believe, receive, surrender even.
I can personally attest to some of this being true. The best experience of my Indian venture took place because I gave up on something I presumably wanted, and “incidentally” reached another place that answered my internal needs much better. For my future post on the experience in Likir and others, subscribe to keep updated.
Reasons Israelis go to India - Vision Quest
Rites of passage
Non-obvious reasons Israelis go to India can also be vision quests and rites of passage. These, of course, do not apply only to Israelis, but to many Western and other youth who travel to India, Latin America and other exotic destinations.
The concept of vision quest comes from the American Indian traditions, but it is relevant to many cultures who have a rite of passage. The youth is seeking a transformation, a vision for their emerging adulthood, a connection to the beyond and the divine and understading of their place in the world.
In India the outside divinity and the inside divinity are seen as one and the same – The Atman is The Brahman. That means the quest can be external, internal or both. The austerities of a trip serve a similar role to those in the American Indian quests, even if they are not as extreme.
A vision quest is possible at any stage in life, when transitions, changes take place and a new vision needed. That is a deep reason many older people keep going to India at crucial junctions in their lives. India is so different, so full of religiosity, so enabling spiritually, that people do go through experiences. Sometimes with the help of plants. Others go to oracles, palm readers, psychics, channelers, etc.
An Indian guy told me: Have you ever had a feeling of deja vu here in India? Like you had been to a certain place before? I had to admit that I did. He said most western tourists did.
I was sitting for a Kirtan (sacred chanting) in a yoga place in Dharamkot. The facilitator and teacher, originally Portugeuse, lit a candle in front of the dancing Shiva figurine. The gigantic shadow it created on the wall transformed me in time and place to some “memory”. Real? Imaginary? Don’t know. Don’t care. Since it is inside of me, it has a meaning. For me. That is sufficient.
Shiva dancing with his shadow and with mine…
Searching for the Mother
Some westerners seek the maternal element. Cold mothers, occupied mothers, non-nursing mothers, psychologically- complex mothers, struggling mothers, remote, unavailable, disfunctional, abusive fathers – these and many other family issues can create an internal emotional vacancy. Even with the best possible parents, this quest might be a part and parcel of our psychological makeup as a species.
It feels natural to search for this element in parts of the world that had been less affected by modernity, more grounded in earth, tradition, family.
I’ll never forget the simple village woman in Ecuador who brought me warm soup when I started to “lose it” following a mushroom trip. Thank you.
Indian women, indeed, dote on their children to an extreme. I’ve only seen gentleness and love to the little ones. In the article about Indian sexuality I quote above, they say:
Indian children are pampered as much as possible, often until age 6 or 7.
Reasons Israelis go to India: Attraction to the Forbidden
OK. I know this will be controversial, but I think it plays a role, at least for some people, if unconsciously.
Two things baffle my mind more than anything else regarding India (and there are many baffling things!): the status of women and the attitudes towards sexuality. Both seem fraught with contradictions, which is understandable considering the complexity of the history.
I dealt a little bit with the status of women in my post “Cow Dung and the Feminine Element”. Researching this left me as perplexed as I was before.
Regarding sexuality, I am even more at sea, but can say that pictures like the ones below, mantras chanted about the Shiva Lingham, the libations, etc. are things unimaginable in our vicinities.
A good Jew, Mr. Sigmund Freud, notoriouly said that we are attracted to the forbidden, the repressed parts of our psyche, where things are delegated to the unconscious. Carl Jung, in his turn, talked about “the shadow”.
Images from the shadow of our patriarchal monotheism can be found exhibited in Indian temples and on street corners.
India displays sexual symbols in plain sight everywhere. It takes some getting used to. Like in the West, some of it is art, but mostly it is at the core and heart of the religion, and that is what makes it so fascinating.
When you ask a Hindu: What is this?
the answer will simply be: Shiva.
The picture below is not porno. We are actually in the realm of the sacred! (See also my post on the sacred cows).
Mughals and Queen Victoria
Guardians of India’s morality
Regardless of the possible disconnect of current Indian sexuality from the Kama Sutra, we can gather that the picture used to be, and probably still is, to some extent, intriguing.
the British Raj era … put India much more at the mercy of Britain’s official guardians of morality. Victorian values stigmatized Indian sexual liberalism. The pluralism of Hinduism, and its liberal attitudes were condemned as “barbaric” and proof of inferiority of the East.
It will take India a while to get over this, especially since anything West, and in particular, British, was internalized as somehow superior. They only now succeeded to turn over the British ban on homosexuality.
I hope they succeed with this cultural rejuvenation, since the whole world, in my opinion, needs sexual/spiritual redemption, and India’s historical contribution is of vast importance. But, first of all, such a revolution is needed for the sake of the Indian woman herself, and by extension, for the Indian man.
Interestingly, educated Indians acknowledge that they have something to contribute to the world in the sexual dimension, but have to do the healing and transformational work on themselves first:
The famous Indian sensuality, quoted incessantly in the world, by mentions of Tantric life styles, Kamasutras and erotic arts will change the face of the world again in coming decades when Indian people find themselves again.
Today, female sexuality in India is fenced in by a wall of taboos.
India was the first culture to have sexual education, but today the situation is sorrowfully pathetic, as this hillariously funny (and actually tragic…) article from Quartz India demonstrates…
Still, many Israelis come back from India practicing and teaching Tantra. Today you can say the word “goddess” in some Israeli circles without people raising an eyebrow. Sacred sex is an idea that is making an inroad.
Reasons Israelis go to India: Goddesses. Seeking the Eternal Feminine
India – the only country where goddesses are allowed to be
A special bracket of the fobidden is the goddesses or The Goddess. India is the only major country where goddesses are actively worshipped. That is a great allure for both women seeking our spirituality and for men seeking the feminine side of the Divine. Goddesses, even chaste and compliant, still fall in Judaism under the bracket of the occult and the dangerous.
But you cannot repress and wish away something of that psychological and spiritual magnitude forever and everywhere, which is also probably why the feminine element resurged in mystical Judaism, the Kabbalah.
See below on the deep meaning of Kali, the feminine depiction of Time, and of Shakti, the primeval energy.
The problem with Hinduism for the foreigner is how confusing it is. Greek religion and mythology are a breeze in comparison. To make things especially difficult, all goddesses are apparently interchangeable, as are all gods. They just keep switching forms, names and roles. Reading a Wikipeida article on the goddess Gayatri as an example, got my head spinning. Try this at your own risk…
Here is a 6-7th century Parvathi with her yogi Shiva from the amazing caves at Elaphanta Island, Mumbai:
Eighty witches hung in one day
In our religion, with the exception of the Kabbalah, that in principle is only fit for men over 40, the feminine aspect is non-existent in the divine realm. Neither loving and faithful, nor fierce and ferocious, and certainly, God forbid, not sexual. Islam is even more extreme. We, at least, have some goddess substitutes like the shekhina or Queen Shabbat, and in Kabbalah, – the Sephirot.
Biblically, any goddess worship was severely prohibited and punished as idolatry. Witches, whatever they really were, were commanded to be put to death. A rabbinic scholar and a president of the Sanhedrin, Shimon Ben Shetach (120-40 BCE), had actually put this command to practice and hung 80 “witches” in one day in Ashkelon.
Black hole in the psyche
Psychologiaclly, there is a “black hole” in our psyche. Jungian psychology deals extensively with the anima and the animus, the male part in the female and the female part in the male, as well as with our so-called “shadow” in general. India is one of the only places where there is an external material expression for the feminine side in divinity.
Regardless of the male-female relationships at home (a mixed affair) and the status of women in the actual Indian society (a complicated matter), which are still predominantly patriarchal, goddesses are worshipped widely in India today. Stories of great faithfulness and devotion, but also of magic, cunning and power, are a part of the mythology. Without Lakshmi in the house, there is no peace and prosperity. Shakti gives the energy to the universe. And Kali… Here is a philosophical article explaining Kali’s dance on Shiva.
Excerpts from the article:
Kali is the personification of time and it’s not surprising that she has a terrifying image. After all, time is the slayer of all. Time is the very stuff our lives are made of – to waste time is to waste life.
Time is the great womb – the great mother – from which we are all created – therefore it has a feminine quality.
Yet, through the action of time, comes our salvation. Over repeated births, we experience all that we have to learn in order to eventually merge back into eternal existence, from which we have descended into limited the time and space.
Kali is the deity of transformation. By worshipping her and accessing her grace, yoga practitioners unlock the transformative power which enables attachment and negative tendencies to fall away on the path towards higher states of consciousness and realisation.
Kali (time) dances over the ultimate, unchanging timeless reality of Shiva. In this way she brings about the constant cycles of creation, life and death of all things in the universe. By understanding Kali we stop identifying ourselves as only our bodies…Hence Kali is said to kill the ego – the attachment to pettiness, which is represented in Her image by the severed head she hold in Her hand.
On the topic of Time as slayer, you can read my poem: Timely Considerations. When I wrote it 18 years ago I knew nothing of Kali…
In their own right
When you start searching, you find out that goddesses are not just consorts to the male deities, though they are that too. They are creators, maintainers and destroyers in “their own right”. This should not, in principle, be surprising to anyone, since we, women, are obviously the ones who give birth, nurse and do most of the caretaking (creators and maintainers), but Jewish patriarchy made the obvious and natural esoteric. The Bible actually tried to take away from us even the most obvious and primary power we have – birthing. In the fifth chapter of Genesis, it is men who give birth to men… The mothers, wives, daughters are not even worth being mentioned by name.
Shakti (Devanagari, lit. “power, ability, strength, might, effort, energy, capability”) is the primordial cosmic energy, and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe in Hinduism and Shaktism. Shakti is the concept or personification of divine feminine creative power, sometimes referred to as “The Great Divine Mother” in Hinduism.
The Kosher certification
What matters bottom line is that in India the feminine energy gets credit for being the primordial form of creativity in the universe. The goddesses can transform from sweet, pleasing forms to mighty, fierce manifestations, and they are all alive and well in the pantheon and in temples around the country.
Reasons Israelis go to India: Fundamental Issues with Our Religion
The Israeli dichotomy – religious or secular?
For political reasons (certain groups seeking to control the lives of others), the Israeli person has to choose between being religious and being secular. The Orthodox establishement keeps limiting and restricting the Reform and Conservative movements, even at the price of alienating the majority of American Jews, the only large Jewish community outside of Israel.
People who genuinely want to convert into our religion, still have to go through insurmountable hurdles the ultra-orthodox impose on converts. There is no civil marriage or burial. Interfaith marriages are impossible to execute in the country.
Bizzarely, the way our presumably-democractic country has developed, it is OK to be secular, even atheist, but it is not really OK to be a reform Jew. Seculars are still forced to marry, divorce and be buried according to Halacha (Jewish law, as interpreted by the Orthodox). Reform wedddings and conversions are not accepted by the state.
So these are the two options. Despite that, in practice there is a full spectrum in between (see below: traditionalism). People keep whatever rules they feel affinity to, adhere to whatever Jewish values they feel connected to, and drop the rest. The problem is more political – marriages, burials, conversions, etc. These, as I mentioned above, are a monopoly of the ultra-orthodox due to the way political coalitions are formed in Israel. The result? Many couples simply don’t bother to get married, or as we say, they “vote with their feet”.
Today, a new trend brings many more people to define themselves as “traditioanlists”. They “believe”, but are unwilling to carry the heavy load of the 613 mitzvas, a dressing code and a full orthodox lifestyle. They pick and choose. Further, many people mix Indian elements, like meditation, into their predominantly Jewish practice, or vice versa, center their lives around yoga or Buddhism, and celebrate the Jewish holidays.
In my post on the Israeli spiritual scene in India, I describe the interesting Jewish melange at the disposal of the Israeli traveler community.
Another dichotomy: body and mind
Rabbinical Judaism: non-existence of the body
Our bodies as moving, feeling wholes, do not really exist in traditional rabbinic Judaism. Apart from bowing and swaying as the men study their Talmud and pray, and some dancing at weddings and other events, also mostly carried by men, not much happens. The body is a dead territory. For women it is a vessel for carrying children.
At the pool’s edge
It makes me happy, though, to see that this is now changing to some degree. Religious boys play football in the nearby schoolyard. There are separate swimming hours for men and women in the neighborhood pool, though most of the Orthodox women just stand around at the pool’s edge and chat with their friends.
On the less extreme scale of orthodoxy, physical activity is gaining ground. My bellydance teacher, who is actually an India graduate turned-religious is wearing a scarf! There are national religious women who do Pilates with me. Many run, ride bicycles, etc.
The math Olympic
Even in the secular sector, the physical took some time to gain momentum. My high school principal once walked into our classroom to announce that in our school we prepare for the Math Olympics. The other one was of no importance to him! Whatever sports we had were competetive, and anybody who wasn’t up to standard was made to feel inferior.
Holiness of the body? You must be joking. Only later, in universtiy, I discovered yoga (hatha), and then dance, and they saved my life, but I will talk about that in a future post.
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The body is the temple
What a relief it was to hear from the swamis in the San Fransisco ashram that the “body is the temple of the soul“. How true, what a breath of fresh air, literally.
Due to our Diaspora history, preceded by the unhappy encounter with Greek/Hellenic civilization that was centered in the body, Jews developed an almost aversion to the physical. This article by a Jewish-Canadian scholar summarizes the history and the attitude well.
But the intellect is something else???
By the same token, we invested most of our energies to develop intellectual capacities through Talmudic scholarship, and later on – science. Here is an interesting article on how we influenced science and why. Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, have many magnificent achievements to show in all intellectual fields, but the physical part was generally neglected.
Rejuvenation – yes. Holism – not yet
Zionism as a movement put physical rejuvenation on its flag, and succeeded to an extent. Still, physicality was always viewed as separate and even antagonistic to the spiritual and mental, and generally as inferior.
Religion had no physical aspects, besides a recommendation by the Rambam to take a walk every morning. That’s where yoga and “The East” come in. Yoga does not treat the body like a machine, and you do not practice it with machines. Yoga spiritualises the body, connects it through the breath to the soul, makes it the temple for both spirit and mind / intellect.
Stephen Hawking is the proof that a well-functioning and healthy body is not a pre-requisite for a healthy, functioning mind/intellect. On the other hand, of course, there are many examples of physically-capable people who are not intellectually strong. Still, I have no doubt that body and mind are one, and that yoga discovered the key of how to connect them through the art of the breath.
Kundalini yoga practiced at Ashram Bamidbar, Arava, Israel.
Neshama, Neshina, Pranayama – Art of the breath
In Hebrew, the word Neshama (soul) and the word Neshima (breath) are of the same root. It shows our ancestors must have had some understanding of this connection, but that’s the end of it. There’s nothing to do regarding it. In turn, yoga (meaning, union) has a practical way of connecting the body and the mind through the breath – in the practice of Pranayama. Anybody who ever tried it, knows how powerful it is. And that includes the new trendy Israeli buzz of rebirthing, which is a system for unlocking hidden, repressed emotions by practicing circular breathing.
Israelis flock to ashrams, yoga classes and retreats all over India, and often bring home some good teachings about the body-mind whole, integrate it with Judaism, as described above, or just with their own personal lives.
Used to Variety - Feel at Home
One of the reasons Israelis go to India is that despite vast cultural differences, we feel very much at home there.
We are both warm (somtimes hot)-blooded people, friendly and easy to talk to. We initiate and maintain conversations with strangers naturally. We are flexible, not set in our ways.
Israelis and Indians are used to variety, diversity and living in a mixed ethnic society. Even color-wise, half the Israelis have brown skins. Many can easily be confused for Indians. The army, by default, necessity and policy, brings together people from various starta of society, who might not come in close contact otherwise. We learn and practice how to relate to the “other”, which by now has pretty much lost its “otherness”. In the army, a culture developed of seeing everyone as our “brothers” and “sisters”. This is a necessity for emotional survival, and has carried on into life in Israel generally, and farther into India, with the famous “Sahbak” culture.
Our Brothers and Sisters - Sahbak
Hakol Sababa, Achi
Among reasons Israelis go to India, that one follows on the former – “used to variety, feeling at home“. The youth movements, the army, the smallness of our country, the inevitable mixing of people from very different backgrounds, all force us to find common ground, to seek ways to ease inevitable tensions. In our existential situation we cannot afford to have a civil war, or irreconcilable differences, although we sometimes got close. Tensions have to be mitigated. And there’s no lack of conflicts – Mizrachi/ Ashkenazi, religious/secular, Arab/Jewish. The poetic “gathering of the exiles” is in actuality a challenging exercise in tolerating, then learning to live with, and eventually liking the other, merging into a new whole.
Learnt in the army, exported to India
This necessity to ease tensions engendered the Sahbak culture. More and more young people call each other “my brother”, “my sister”, “man”, even “aba’le” and “ima’le” (mommy and daddy…). The word “sababa” is ubiquitously used to connect and make easy, and is probably by now integrated into Hindi as well…
Biblical Hebrew of the earlier years of the country gave way to lighter, slangish variant rich in Arabic words, English words, Russian words and home-made army jargon. Light drugs and drinking that started to become popular in the 80s also help with this softening up of a harsh reality and of our national persona.
The young (and not so young) Israeli traveller treats the Indians s/he meets with the same camaraderie, thus inviting him or her to join in the Sahbak community. If there are drugs involved, it helps too.
Give and receive
Many of the Indians who work in Israeli-rich tourist contexts seem to enjoy this inclusivity, make friends, “get on the wavelength”. Many express a wish to come to Israel for a visit, or to work. They complain how hard it is for them to get the visa… I feel guilty!
There is a mutual learning process going on. You teach us about your culture. We teach you Israeli cooking, Hebrew language, songs.
You can hear Israeli music playing loudly out of Indian houses, or in restaurants. There is mixing and mingling. I already mentioned the not uncommon cases of mixed marriages as well…
So, bottom line, from our viewpoint, visiting India is, among other things, a very nice experience socially. Between ourselves, with other tourists, and with the local population we come in touch with.
Bridging First and the Third Worlds
I wouldn’t call it one of the reasons Israelis go to India, but I believe our position in the world informs our choices. It underlies our view of the world. So here comes one of my postulates. It follows naturally on the sahbak and the variety elements mentioned above.
The bridge and the slider
I propose that Israelis are uniquely situated between East and West, and can therefore move at ease between these poles.
The way I see it, Israel is equi-distant from the “West West” and the “East-East”, not just geographically, but also mentally. We can more easily adjust to an Eastern culture than the average westerner, and vice versa – we merge into the U.S., or into Western Europe with relative ease.
What other Western country dedicates an entire TV channel to broadcast a Turkish telenovela (soap opera)?
The rainbow of our food, music, popular culture, has strong Middle Eastern colors, among others.
Constantly adjusting to the interphase East-West in our own melting pot of disaporas and through the de-facto co-existence with the Israeli Arabs, we by now travel almost seamlessly along this cultural slider. More on the Arab interaction below.
Some people would say our position best disposes us for the mission of Tikkun Olam (fixing the world). And indeed, there is a lot of Israeli voluntourism in India and Nepal.
Developing to developed
Moreover, we have only recently emerged from the status of a “developing country” to that of a “developed country” with the admission to the OECD . The years of hyper- inflation, when we were not allowed to have foreign currency and our money was devalued from day to day, are still in people’s memory. Many also remember the Ma’abarot and the Tzena austerity of the fifties.
Similarly, India is “in between” worlds, as an “emerging economy” and an up-and-coming world power.
I intend to write about India and the Israeli experience of the Ma’abarot. Keep posted. Subscribe.
It’s the location, buddy
We are located at the bellybutton of the Old World between three continents and two seas. Humanity travelled through here from Africa to both Asia and Europe. The old British train still connects us to Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra. Red Sea to Med Sea across Israel is the shortest land bridge between the Indian Ocean and “Mar Nostro”, around which western civilization developed.
A wild speculation about ancient connections
It is not an impossibility that “Abraham” was really a “brahmin” believing in the Brahman, who carried the monotheistic explanation of Hinduism via Assyria to its conclusion in the formation of Judaism in Israel.
Or the other way around. Abrahamism was carried from Israel to India to consolidate the multiple religious practices under One Ultimate Divinity – Brahman.
National / Existential
Reasons Israelis go to India: Our Unique Existential Situation
The bottom line
I’ve already related to our unique existential situation in the previous post (See Shanti, sweet shanti). I’ll elaborate more about this here.
The bottom line:
We live in a tiny ghettoized corner of the world, surrounded by fences and by institutionalized hatred. The only ways out are the two international airports and the sea ports. By land we can go to Jordan, but no further. Even in Egypt, with whom we supposedly have a peace accord, we can only go to the Sinai (and this is dangerous). The rest of the Middle (Near) East is a “black hole”.
Kibbutz Grofit’s old fence and bunker system. The defences were constructed to protect the men from all Kibbutzim in the area , while the women and children would be evacuated to the north in case of a sudden Jordanian attack. The fence system was neglected after the 1994 peace treaty, but a new fence was erected recently due to various threats.
Inside this corner of the world there are two more tiny, crowded states/entities that are basically hostile to our existence.
The total population of the three little states /entitites together is as large as a third of the Canadian population! The area is 158 times smaller than India, equal in size to the state of Mizoram, that constitutes 0.64% of the total area of the country.
More than a billion people in the “Muslim world” support, at least in theory, a narrative that calls for our destruction.
Moreover, a large chunk of the “liberal” West that calls itself enlightened, takes a similar position. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation, “fake news”, propaganda, incitement and hypocricy in circulation regarding us. That comes not just from Islam, but also from the western Left and the western Right.
On the whole, our little piece of real estate gets disproportional attention (some people call it obsession) due to religious history and geopolitical considerations.
The abnormal normal
The imperative to live
Almost everybody in the little country knows somebody, family or friend, who died or was injured in a war or a terrorist attack. A majority of people had personally experienced a missile attack, were in the vicinity of a terror attack, or participated in an active combat situation.
To exist, we have to keep an army on alert 24/7/365. As is well-known, we have a general draft at age 18 – three years for men, two for women. For religious reasons, some sectors, controversially, get an exemption. Many do civil service instead, including some Israeli Arabs. This endless war needs to be fed financially, hence the high taxes.
To exist, we have to keep an incredibly flexible mind to constantly figure out counter-measures to the ever-new methods our enemies try to employ against us. After solutions were found to the tunnels problem, the new trick was to send baloons with fire or explosives across the Gazan fence to burn the fields of kibbutzim along the border, make their daily lives into hell. Here is an article how a “startup nation seeks solution to the terror baloons”. Low tech can be almost as disruptive as high tech to a functioning civil society.
To exist we also keep the other two entities in a sort of ghettoized situation, a bit like Russian dolls… This does not make anybody happy, but is generally seen as a security necessity.
Sources: map – https://smartraveller.gov.au/Countries/middle-east/Pages/israel_gaza_strip_and_west_bank.aspx#
matrioshkas – https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/articulo/destinos/2017/05/20/que-esconde-la-matrioshka
Do we need the “death meditaion”?
Under such circumstances, and with our historical background, we never have the confidence that tomorrow we will exist as a people, as a country or as individuals. This goes beyond the “normal” apprehensive feeling every living human has about tomorrow’s uncertainty, as when they get behind the wheel to drive on the highway.
During the “death meditation” at Tushita, we were told dozens of ways in which we can die this minute or the next day. The emphasis was on how to prepare for it, how to create the best karma for this moment of death. And I thought to myself – we have lived with that kind of awareness more or less all our lives…
It never stops
Update: This (below) happened yesterday as I was writing about our existential situation.
In this context, see my post: Doomsday preppers, Cumbre Vieja and the Israeli Mamad
Searching for an explanation
The default and the search
With this kind of situation, and this is a very short synposis of a state of affairs that is ever more complicated, there’s no wonder we all seek explanations, answers, hidden meanings.
Some choose to get all the answers packaged in the form of nationalist religious Judaism, the default. The rest of us keep trying all throughout our lives to figure it out for ourselves.
One of the biggest dilemmas is the national religion. If the religion is what “kept” us for 2000 years in 70 diasporas, and supposedly “justifies” our life here today, how do we live with the fact that most of us are not “into it” any more? And, there is also the twin question: if God loves us so much, how come “He” allowed the Holocaust?
Nothing can be taken for granted
What I personally find intolerable is that somehow we are the only people on the planet who constantly need to keep “justifing” our existence and the earth underneath our feet. We are certainly the only people asked to give “back” our homeland. There is no precedent. There are no historical similarities.
To our credit, it must be said that despite all this, we are not depressive people. We don’t wallow, and we have built a wonderful, successful country, even with all its faults. After a terrorist attack, we pull ourseves back up, determined to keep enjoying our lives. The national psyche is somehow tuned to take all this in stride and move on. But there’s a part that seeks explanation. Why are we in this endless, seemingly senseless and unsolvable predicament? Why is there always somebody who wants to annihiliate us (the latest in this unhappy saga is, of course, the Iranians)? Why the incessant hatred?
Are the answers to be found in the East?
A trip to India, with its alternate metaphysics and big heart, seems like an opportunity to search for answers. To my understanding, this is a major component why Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, flock to India and to eastern religions. I described the phenomenon in my post about the Israeli outlier in Tushita. and in the Spiritual Salad.
Everybody Needs Love
I know, I heard of some bad incidents. Some of us over-haggle to a point of disrespect. Some of us do not understand the cultural differences and step over some taboos or sensitive spots. There are always those who simply don’t know how to behave and cause unnecessary frictions with the local population.
But as good as it gets
Still, for the most part, my impression of the Israel-Indian interactions was that they were positive. Positive bordering on love. The “sahbak” talk creates brotherhood and filial feelings in venues that supply for Israelis, and generally.
I felt that for many Indians it was easier to deal with us than with Europeans. I wrote above that we serve as a bridge between the third and the first worlds due to our own complex society and circumstances. As a consequence, I believe we are closer to the Indians mentally than many other westerners.
Young Israeli girls posing for my camera on a Pushkar street, Rajasthan
Political and historical similarities
Both Israel and India lived under the British. We both got independence the same year. In both cases, bloody wars ensued. We are both divided. India has Pakistan, we have the Palestinians. Non-stop wars took place since then until today. The wars more often than not now take the form of terrorism. We are both in a constant state of defence-offence. The two countries have a similar percentage of Muslims inside their borders, and for the most part live with them in peace and good relations.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attack, Israel helped India with our expertise in counter-terrorism, and with many security issues. There is a sizable military commerce and cooperation on all levels, including trainings, shared intelligence and joint military exercises.
On the same side
All of this taken together brings Israelis and Indians to feel we are “on the same side”. Prime minister Modi has recently taken a clear stance. According to Foreign Policy, “Modi’s Middle East Deals Snub Iran: “India’s newly aggressive strategy puts Gulf money and Israeli weapons first”.
That growing clarity from the top also creates a positive political atmosphere that seeps down to the common population.
I met a very nice, mellow, Indian man in his 50s who was traveling with his gifted daughter around India. She was creating an artistic website about the various Indian states, with unique drawings and writings. The father got out of his way to thank me for the help Israel gave India after the Mumbai attacks. He said Israel helped India extensively with the war on terrorism, with intelligence sharing and even military trainings.
Everybody, and especially Israelis, have a strong internal need to be accepted and celebrated as they are, without “ifs” and “buts”. That also goes back to what I wrote above about the search for the mother, for unconditioanl love.
In the current global atmsophere, this hardly happens for Israelis abroad. We are constantly judged on our politics, that are looked at under a microscope. That often gets in the way of personal relationships.
Many Europeans and American liberals expect from Israelis to disengage from our government as a condition for accepting us individually. It gets exhuasting to answer to all these opinionated, and usually misinformed people, even if you yourself don’t like certain Israeli politicians and do not agree with particular governmental policies. It is especially tiring while on vacation, when you just want to get some time off all this.
In contrast, nobody in India ever asked me: “So why do you guys treat the Palestinians ….?”, or attacked me because of the settlements. I did not hear the cliche: “Oh, I am not against Israel, only against its policies”. For the most part, we are spared all this in India. Fresh air.
Perhaps we, Israelis, also fulfil a need for the Indians themselves, as a subset of westerners who are closer to them, who identify with their geopolitocal difficulties.
Simulation of Peace
India as a practice ground for peace
Cynicism not in place here
I believe (here comes another of my speculations!) that the trips to India are a practice ground and preparation for a possible peace with the Palestinians and the Middle East generally.
I can verbalize part of this. Another part is a gut feeling.
Israelis are (mostly, nothing is perfect!) genuinely loved in India. We love them. They love us in return. Sure, they also make money off the travellers, but cynicism is not in place here. A lot of it goes beyond commerce and business.
Even if we don’t admit it, as I said above, we Israelis are desperate for love, peace and acceptance. We want to reach out. There’s so much unjustified and disproportional hatred directed at us, so much “fake news”, lies, distortions, evil propaganda, incitement. Children who have never seen an Israeli are raised to hate. Endless recriminations in the United Nations.
After the Second Intifada with all the senseless terrorist attacks in our cities, most Israelis stopped believing peace in our lifetime was a possibility. When the Egyptian “spring” erupted, initially everybody got excited, and then we all felt let down.
At the moment, we are reconciled to making do with a “state of no war” with the enemies, and a state of “cold peace” with the two countries we have peace agreements with, now based mostly on utilitarian considerations. The Middle East is not ripe for peace, we realize. It’s enough for us right now that missiles won’t fly over Tel Aviv, knives won’t be drawn in Jerusalem streets, bombs won’t explode over Shderot. We don’t “need” peace anymore.
The Right had succeeded in turning “peace” into a nonsense word, cliche, wishful thinking of naive people, but the psychological need for peace, real peace, exists inside all of us. Prayers for peace are part and parcel of Judaism.
A sense of what peace might feel like can be found in India.
India is neither Muslim nor Arab, but it is on the other side of the Asian land mass and on the cultural continuum. It has many similarities to the “black hole” countries that now separate us, like Iran.
Many positive interactions at home, too
A sense of what peace might feel like is to be found here in Israel itself, too, with the Israeli Arabs, but a certain “cloud” invariably hangs in the background.
Half the staff in an Internet coffehouse/restaurant in Ein Kerem, where I often sit to write, is Arabic. Me and the Arab waiter carry amicable conversations that go way beyond business. He is forthcoming, friendly and helpful. The work relationships in that place are exemplary.
Last time I was there, sitting at my computer, I heard beautiful music emanating from the upper lounge. I went up to see, and to my amazament, two Israeli women, one Dutch woman and the Arab staff members were all singing together a song of love and joy in Arabic. A totally spontaneous affair!
When I got my new car, it was the Arab worker who gave me the company logo to put on my key chain. The Jewish representative who delivered the keys, did not bother. Beyond the call of duty?
There are so many positive interactions with our brothers and cousins in The Land on a daily basis, but that does not interest CNN, even though this is the real stuff out of which peace could be made.
In India there is no cloud hanging. The love can be clean. What a great feeling. This is even true for the most part in interactions with Muslims in India. So much less loaded than here.
Great interactions with Muslims in India
It can happen. It is possible.
Isma’il, the practical manager in the Peace Guesthouse in Leh did not have to climb on the tree to get me apricots, but he did. And he helped in so many other ways beyond any call of duty!
A Kashmiri vendor in McLoed sold me a shawl for a good price, but then also invited me enthusiastically to come over to Kashmir. He will show me everything, take me on incredible treks, introduce me to his family. He was even ready to organize a ride for me with his father…I did not feel any weird vibrations. He was genuine!
Two Kashmiri Muslims “saved me” from missing a train that abruptly changed platform. If it wasn’t for them, I would have missed it for sure.
India’s effect on Israeli society
The very massivity of the flux of young Israelis to India after their service, about a third of post-army soldiers, is guaranteeing a change in Israeli society. It is apparent everywhere – in the friendly relations between Jews and Arabs who work together in restaurants and bars in Jerusalem, in the new “traditionalism”, a-la-Beit Binah, that allows religious and non-religious to find a common ground, in some new openess in the ultra-religious sector with its Beit Chabad chain, and in the general way people relate to each other today, so much more friendly and open than during my youth.
A lot of this is can be attributed to the marvellous effect India has on people who come open to receive what she has to offer.
I believe, likewise, that the Israelis also contribute to the Indian society, helping to open it up, see beyond some rigid outdated ways of doing things, especially in relation to women and class.
Dreaming by extrapolation
Perhaps one day a miracle happens and the “Black Hole” countries between us and India will fill up with colors. Maybe a new Iran will realize that opening its gates to a flood of interested, enthusiastic Israeli travellers will only bring it revenues, while keeping its current policies only brings it sanctions. Who knows?
My father was in Iran during the Shah and loved it.
From what I know, Iran has some of the most beautiful mountains and most interesting cities in the world!
Here are some Israeli and Iranian attempts by simple citizens to make contact:
And this Facebook group: Iran loves Israel
शान्ति صلح. سلام שלום