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Published in: SPME Faculty Voices March 11, 2011

I have been coming to South Asia steadily for five years and have addressed various student groups and universities on each trip. During my most recent visit in February, however, something happened-or more accurately did not happen-that represented a watershed for our continuing efforts with Indian youth.

For two days, I addressed students at Delhi University and a more general group of journalism students at an unaffiliated site in New Delhi. For two days, we discussed a wide range of subjects and talked about the students’ and the young journalists’ roles in shaping the future not only of their nation but that of the entire world, given India’s growing importance. As always, the students were engaged, and I had to field some tough questions challenging US actions in South Asia ranging from our support for Pakistan to our actions in Afghanistan. My Australian colleague Miriam Guttman-Jones had to explain the severe attacks on Indian students last year Down Under. Yet, for the first time since I have been addressing Indian youth, there was not a single question that criticized Israel or supported “Palestinian rights.”

To understand the significance of this, one must look beyond the (justified) hype about the new Israel-India alliance; because as real as that is, its significance has not penetrated Indian society comprehensively. This is due in part to complex international relations and in part due to domestic Indian politics. Support for the Arab and later the Palestinian cause has been an article of faith for the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and most in their almost perpetually ruling Congress Party. For many, that includes viewing Israel as an arm of the “imperialist west.”[1] (Recall that India voted to ratify the Goldstone Report, and its President Pratibha Devisingh Patil publicly supported Syria’s claims in its dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights.[2] ) Thus, Indians have been feted to an almost uninterrupted demonization of Israel from the quarters one might expect to see it. The mainstream media has an almost knee-jerk response to any news item on the Middle East, condemning Israel and uncritically accepting the Arab position-even if that position is ultimately contrary to Indian interests. An editorial in The Hindu about Israel’s 2009 war against terrorists in Gaza was typical. It claimed Israel “massacred 40 Palestinians” (factually incorrect and inflammatory by intent) and accused Israel of a “potential war crime” (never proven and a well-worn anti-Israel talking point). In the midst of its screed, The Hindu never once mentioned the unprovoked and indiscriminate Arab attacks on Israeli civilians that prompted Israel’s defensive action. Yet, this was little more than a month after the horrific terror attacks on Mumbai and a general cry for revenge among Indians; but the media never made the connection.[3] The Economic Times was guilty of the same hyperbole when it screeched that Israel’s 2010 attack on the terrorist-inspired and funded Gaza flotilla was “nothing short of an act of piracy, of state terrorism.”[4]

The anti-Israel sentiment that persists on Indian campuses frequently manifests itself in anti-Israel attacks when I speak there. Some try to disrupt my address; others try to turn its human rights agenda into and anti-Israel one. Elsewhere, Indian university students consistently report that many professors push the standard anti-Israel narrative as if it was objective truth; and while most campuses offer Arab or Islamic studies, they virulently reject any classes on Judaism, Jewish history, or Israel from other than an ideological and anti-Israel perspective.[5] But that is changing with an expanding disconnect between the elites’ anachronistic policies and a growing pro-Israel sentiment among the people. Amitabh Tripathi, founder of the South Asia Forum, has been working for years to help build a strong India-Israel relationship. He contends that India’s future is with Israel’s in a principled fight against a singular terrorist threat. He works almost exclusively with Indians under the age of 30 and believes that this realization is taking hold among the generation of Indians several decades removed from the old assumptions that drove Indian policy during the Cold War years. As one journalist for a major Indian news outlet told me, "there is something of a generation gap between the [established and generally older] editors and publishers" and today’s younger professionals.[6] The disconnect he and others told me, exists in part because of the fast pace at which realities and relationships have changed.

The key to maintaining that generational momentum, Tripathi told me in Delhi last month, is continued effort to counteract the one-sided information and perspectives otherwise available especially among students. He has helped students form numerous pro-Israel groups and galvanized students to engage in pro-Israel activism as something consistent with pro-Indian activism. One of these groups, which I addressed in 2010, is even thriving on the notorious hotbed of leftist and anti-Israel activism, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Student Union elections that same year at Delhi University (DU) reflected the strength of those efforts. Students of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, all of whom are associated with these pro-Israel groups, won three of four posts, including the presidency.[7] All of this has meant that DU students are empowered now as never before to be vocal with their pro-Israel views and the passion with which they tie them to India’s well-being. Thus, the “watershed” this year did not happen by chance.

The battle for free and unbiased information on India’s campuses is not over, however. One colleague of mine has to embed any discussion of Israel or even Judaism in larger discussions or face censorship and perhaps disciplinary action. While waiting for that to change, he continues to find legitimate ways to keep his students informed of current, and perhaps more important, historical events that shaped today’s Middle East. Despite that sort of political censorship on academic freedom, we continue to make steady progress. In large part, that is because of a real hunger among Indian students and faculty for news and information about Israel. Throughout the subcontinent, they pepper me with questions about Israeli technology and life in general, but the most frequent question is: “How has Israel defeated the terrorists arrayed against it, and how can India learn from their example?”[8] In 2008 class of more than two dozen journalism students at Lucknow University, only one openly supported the Arab cause. After a civil exchange of ideas and information, devoid of sloganeering, the student maintained his stance but expressed a desire for more information from varied sources: for principled debate over charges and counter-charges. Here, too, the key is organized efforts to expand the range of unbiased information available to students.

[1] Subhash Kapila, “India’s Payback Time to Israel, South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No. 442, April 10, 2002.

[2] See Samir Pradhan, “India’s Economic and Political Presence in the Gulf: A Gulf Perspective, in Gulf Research Center, India’s Growing Role in the Gulf Implications for the Region and the United States, 2009; pp. 15-39. Also, “Patil lauds role of Indian expatriates in development of India, UAE,” The Indian News, November 22, 2010.

[3] “Facing up to Gaza Truths, The Hindu, February 7, 2010.

[4] “Israel’s act of piracy,” The Economic Times, June 2, 2010.

[5] These and many other comments throughout the article came from personal experiences with students and faculty at several Indian campuses in the North and Northeast.

[6] Richard L. Benkin, “Indian Conservatives Struggle to Build Alternative Media,” American Thinker, May 31, 2008.

[7] “ABVP Wins Delhi University Elections 2010,”, September 4, 2010.

[8] The cited incidents occurred from 2008 through 2010 at several universities in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and elsewhere.

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