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Of Disturbing Commonalities and Failed Solidarities

Essa painstakingly traces the dark and disturbing history of the transition of India, from a country which initially seemed to offer solidarity to the Palestinian cause and also considered Zionism a majoritarian, settler-colonialist project, to one embracing both Israel and its foundational ideology with open arms.

– Shayma S

In Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel
Azad Essa
Pluto Press
2023

The author recounts a moment of extraordinary solidarity:

“In August 2020, activists with the group Palestine Action, rallied outside three London offices belonging to the Israeli company Elbit Systems. The rallies were one in a series of direct actions at the arms manufacturer over several months…Elbit Systems has four factories in the United Kingdom that produce parts for the drones used by Israel. The activists also spray painted several slogans on the sites, including: “Tested on Palestinians, Used in Kashmir.” A tiny gesture it may have been…but it carried a message that will forever reverberate.”

Through his crisp, unputdownable prose, Essa, an award-winning journalist based between Johannesburg and New York City who has worked for Al Jazeera and is currently a senior reporter for Middle East Eye, traces how Zionism has found a home beyond its ‘original’ home, in the ideologies of Hindu nationalism that have crept through the political and social ranks of India, from the complicities of the Congress-era to the outright majoritarian violence of post-2014 India.

With a foreword by Linah Al-Saafin, the book takes up various aspects – the strategies deployed and sympathies offered to the Palestinian cause in the era of Gandhi and Nehru, rather than any ideological or true solidarity; tracing the ‘two Partitions’, the Nakba and the South Asian one; the military-industrial complex within which the Indian-Israeli relationship flourished, under the table at first, and then outright, and the Hindutva lobby in the US, which has allied with Zionist efforts easily.

Essa painstakingly traces the dark and disturbing history of the transition of India, from a country which initially seemed to offer solidarity to the Palestinian cause and also considered Zionism a majoritarian, settler-colonialist project, to one embracing both Israel and its foundational ideology with open arms – literally, if one is to trace the warmth with which Benjamin Netanyahu was embraced by the current Prime Minister of India.

However, one important intervention of Essa is to expose how the solidarity offered by the leaders of post-Partition independent India also rested on geopolitical calculations, a fact that is overlooked today when we look back with nostalgia at India-Palestine relations.

While Nehru recognized that the Balfour Declaration had deliberately recast Palestine as a barren land to be populated by Jews, Gandhi was more ambivalent, with his positions towards Israel softening through the years. As Essa tracks, from an era of political solidarities (where, nevertheless, Indian politicians continued to meet Israelis covertly), to one where Palestine was completely erased from the question, India has come a long way, and not in a good way.

One major strength of the book is that it does not mince words, and yet is an accessible book for any non-academic who wishes to understand more deeply how Zionism and Indian majoritarianism have common roots, practices and ways of existence.

Essa quotes Edward Said the theorist: “There are Zionism and Israel for Jews, and Zionism and Israel for non-Jews.”

As Essa writes, “Zionism and Hindutva are both predicated on creating a supremacist nation built upon a single, united identity.”

Quoting Satradu Sen: “Zionism and Hindutva are both predicated on creating a supremacist nation built upon a single, united identity.”

The borrowing of concepts of internal enemies, mimicking Israel’s extensive security apparatus, and the changing of India’s citizenship framework to an ethnic-nationalist one all prove that while Zionism and Hindutva, or the Israeli model and the current Indian model are not identical, it chooses to borrow, share and swap ideas and concepts when needed, sharpening it to fit local contexts and situations.

Additionally, they exist on a dichotomy of projecting an all-powerful image, combined with a claim of victimhood – the way discourses around the Muslim population or Arab violence are circulated to perpetuate an image that the oppressor is instead, the oppressed and at risk of being overrun. Additionally, the figure of the shadowy, violent Muslim is emphasized to perpetuate a permanent threat to ‘peace’, which the state then has to ‘enforce’, ironically, through violence.

Essa’s understanding of the broader economic contexts is also a welcome insight in the study – the privatization of India’s economy in the 1990s and its growing proximity also shelved its commitments to ideological solidarities, in whatever shape or form they existed and brought it much closer to the United States and Israel.

The Congress’ swift descent into neoliberalism and its relationship with bodies such as the IMF also meant that Tel Aviv and Delhi became much closer. It opened the doors for the more muscular Hindutva nationalism that presides over today. Capital and colonialism are intimate bedfellows, shows Essa, as seen in the process of ‘normalization’, where oppression is papered over with announcements of investment, such as the Lulu Group’s desire to build a food processing plant, or Emaar Properties announcing a mall in Srinagar.

The book is a must-read for all those interested in the Zionist question, in current political developments in India, as well as the more fundamental questions of humanity and the necessity of solidarities in times of great upheaval and extraordinary violence that is being normalized by all forms of media propaganda.

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