This spring, Arun Upadhyay, International President of Hindu Struggle Committee, realized a long- cherished dream: he visited Israel. While the world marvels at the growing relationship between Israel and India, numerous individuals are making it work at a person-to-person level. Arun, a Hindu activist, has worked on building the India-Israel relationship at the grass roots level for more than a decade—back to a time when the previous Indian government pushed back against our efforts, sent agents to spy on us, and harassed our associates. We were heckled on Indian campuses and threatened, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly; and we faced angry protestors who warned that our work represented a conspiracy of “Zionism and Hindutva against Muslims.” Nevertheless, along with our colleague and inspiration, Amitabh Tripathi, and with strong support from the Middle East Forum and Dr. Daniel Pipes we persevered. We persevered because we believed in the natural alliance between Israel and India, and because despite detractors and threats, we kept encountering more and more students and faculty who supported strong relations with Israel.
Moreover, our Asian friends do not buy the false dichotomy between “Israel” and “the West Bank” that we in the West have been fed for decades. Nor do they use the phrase, “occupied territories” because for them, there is but one united Israel. In the West especially in Europe, the United Nations, and on the left—people try to mask their anti-Israel bias with that false distinction. They ignore the fact that the Arabs were calling for an end to “Israeli occupation” when Jordan occupied the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza. They ignore the fact that the Israelis offered the Arabs their desired Palestinian State, including Jerusalem, only to have it thrown back in their faces. In Asia, the people I encounter are either open in their desire to see Israel eradicated entirely or clear in their support for the Jewish State. Significantly, the US State Department recently joined the latter group by dropping that pejorative and inaccurate phrase, “occupied territories.". They are not occupied but only those lands that Arab armies controlled after their combined forces failed to destroy the newly born State of Israel in 1948. During hours of pre-trip discussions, as well as more than a decade of work with me, Arun never parsed an old and new city of Jerusalem or called Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria “settlements.” So when Israeli activist and Shomron Regional Council spokesman, David Ha-ivri invited Arun to visit Ariel, Homesh, and the Council; it was no different than an invitation to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
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Arun touched down at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport just after the Jewish festival of Passover and the next morning (Sunday, April 8), made the 25 mile (40 kilometer) trip east to Barkan, a town of less than 2000 in northern Samaria. Ha-ivri greeted him with three days of “VIP treatment.” It began with a trip to Jerusalem, less than 25 miles south of Barkan, that included a tour of the Temple Mount’s ancient subterranean tunnels; and by the end of the trip, this young Hindu was quoting Biblical verses to support a Jewish homeland throughout the entire land: “Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria” (Jeramiah 31:5).
After a day-long educational tour and greeting in Shomron, the fruits of which Arun expects to share with other Indians, Ha’ivri arranged a full day of “high profile political and academic meetings” that he said represented a “Golden Age in Israel-India relations.” Arun discussed academic, agricultural, and commercial development with Shomron Regional Council head, Yossi Dagan, as well as ways to expand India-Israel relations. The first concrete result of those talks could very well secure Israel’s place in the hearts of Hindus. Arun came determined to enlist Israeli technology for the massive cleanup project of the heavily polluted Ganges River. The “Ganga” is holy to the world’s billion plus Hindus and as central to their religious narrative as the Jordan River is for Jews and Christians. There are purification rites that involve bathing in the Ganges. Right now, it’s not so bad the closer you get to the glacial source in the Himalayas (which is where I bathed) but difficult throughout much of the river’s path. Good news: within days of these talks, the process began. India’s National Mission for Clean Ganga and Israel’s Ariel University began active discussions about a cooperative project. While these talks continue, another trip to Israel involving Hindus from India, as well as Pashtuns, Baloch and Sindhi, is being prepared.
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Ha’ivri also proposed a sister city relationship, and I will be following up with Arun in the coming months. Shortly after hosting Arun, Ha’ivri brought community leaders from Zambia and Kenya, and leaders of First Nations peoples to Shomron, debunking two false accusations at once: that Israel is a western, colonial outpost, hostile to peoples of color; and that Judea and Samaria are any less Israeli than Tel Aviv.
Along with Amitabh Tripathi and me, Arun Upadhyay has been a leader in building strong pro-Israel coalitions, especially on Indian college campuses. He has worked within Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and closely with Anant Hegde, Modi’s Union Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. Most recently, he has been organising Indians to actively combat the ongoing persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh that threatens their very existence and is described in my book, A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus.
– Dr. Richard Benkin is a reputed American Jewish Human rights activist, co-founder of ‘Interfaith Strength’, journalist, writer and lecturer. He’s also a member of Folks Magazine’s Editorial Board. He also specialises in South Asian affairs and geo politics.