During a visit to India in February, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, met with right-wing Hindu supremacist notables at the home of former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani, currently leader of the BJP (the official opposition) in the Indian parliament.
In the 1980s, Advani launched and led the “Rath yatra”, a provocative nation-wide tour aimed at mobilizing support for replacing the five hundred year old Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, north India, with a Ram Temple. The upshot was the violent demolition of the mosque in December 1992 by Hindu fanatics, an act of communal aggression which led to riots across the country and the loss of 2000 lives.
Advani had visited the besieged mosque on the very day of its demolition. Along with other leaders of the Hindu right, he was charged by police with making “inflammatory speeches to spread communal hatred". The legal case against him, reopened in 2005, is still pending.
As Home Minister in the BJP-led government of 1998-2004, Advani was complicit in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 which took the lives of 2,500 Muslims and left at least 150,000 homeless.
But for Metzger, Advani is a hero. “It is seldom that I go to somebody’s residence to participate in a reception,” he said, “Our custom does not allow this. But, here, I came to Shri L.K. Advani’s residence, as if I were going to my own home. It is a debt that we owe to the leader. As India’s Internal Minister, he was the first Indian top official to visit Israel. He played a major and sustained role in furthering and cementing the relations between the two countries. We immensely value this gesture.”
The reception led to the signing of an anodyne “Hindu-Jewish” declaration against terrorism and religious violence; its real import was made clear by Metzger to the Jerusalem Post: “Several Hindu leaders expressed their dismay at Muslim violence. They told me that both Judaism and Hinduism were the mothers from which all other religions suckled. But sometimes the offspring bite the breast that feeds them.” Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, who was also present, drove the point home: “Although, Muslim extremism was not singled out, it was at the forefront of many participants’ minds.”
Political, commercial and military ties between India and Israel have steadily intensified over the past decade. The Hindu supremacists of the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS, have long found common ground with Zionism (and no contradiction between that and their earlier admiration for Nazism); sadly, the Congress-led government that took power in 2004 has also adopted their predecessor’s enthusiasm for the alliance with Israel. Both Congress and BJP leaders happily join with Israeli representatives to celebrate what they like to call “common Hindu-Jewish values”. Metzger’s visit, widely publicised in India, is part of an Israeli effort to consolidate that mythology.
Two months before Metzger’s visit, in November 2006, 218 members of the Bnei Menashe, from Mizoram in north-east India, arrived in Israel and were promptly settled in the northern Galilee as part of a drive to strengthen the Jewish presence in the area after the war against Lebanon.
The Bnei Menashe are a Tibeto-Burman linguistic group who claim to be descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel (hence the name, “Sons of Manasseh”), but their link with Judaism is in fact of recent origin. Like other tribal peoples in north-eastern India, they had been converted from indigenous religious practises to protestant Christianity in the late 19th century. In 1951, a local Pentacostalist leader named Challianthanga announced that God had ordered his people to return to their pre-Christian religion, which he claimed was Judaism, and to their original homeland, which he claimed was Israel. He attracted a band of followers who adopted some Jewish customs while retaining faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
In 1979, an Israeli organisation dedicated to locating the lost tribes learned about the group and made contact with them. Over the following decades many were converted to Orthodox Judaism and some began settling in Israel and the Occupied Territories, principally Gaza. Significantly, much of the funding for this operation came from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a body that solicits Christian support for Israel and is effectively an arm of the powerful right wing Christian evangelical lobby in the USA.
The search for the lost tribes has been a theme of Christian messianism for at least three hundred years. At various times claims have been made that Native Americans, groups in China and sub-saharan Africa are descendants of the tribes – who perished in the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel (one of the two Hebrew states in ancient Palestine) in 722 BC.
But with the emergence of the Zionist state, these claims have taken on a new import. In Israel, champions of the Bnei Menashe openly describe their immigration as part of the solution to “the demographic problem”, i.e. the numerical preponderance of non-Jews in Palestine. Of course, for the Bnei Menashe to be eligible to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return, they must be accepted by the Rabbinate as Jewish, which means they must undergo formal conversion. This has caused controversy in India, where the issue of mass conversions is extremely sensitive.
In November 2005, the Israeli government halted conversions of the Bnei Menashe in Mizoram, noting that it was straining the vital relationship with India. However, in July 2006, it ruled that those Bnei Menashe who had already undergone conversion could settle in Israel, hence the arrival of the 218 immigrants late last year.
It’s likely that Rabbi Metzger discussed the conversion issue with his right-wing Hindu hosts, who while stridently opposed to Christian and Muslim proselytising in what they regard as “Hindu India”, welcome the Jewish variety, even though it automatically transforms Indian citizens into potential citizens of a foreign state. All of which shows not merely the inconsistency of the parties involved, but more significantly that in the pursuit of the common strategic hostility to Islam and support for the US “war on terror”, religion is a mere plaything for those who most loudly profess its social centrality, in both India and Israel.
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