Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Israel Diary

Dairy Israel
New Indian Express (Chennai), June 4, 2008.
The Jerusalem Take on Muslims

Two-day academic conferences on Asian studies would be smack of chutzpah in any country in the Middle East. But not Israel. In the third week of May, the Hebrew University which started functioning in 1925, hosted the Seventh and the largest academic conference on Asia. Devoted to cultural, religious, social and literary aspects of the content, it attracted over a hundred scholarly papers spread over more than two-dozen simultaneous sessions. The result was a mixed bag. Some provocative and some pedestrian.

Though most were in Hebrew, my rudimentary knowledge of the language was good enough to appreciate the big picture. Besides the discussions, I got an opportunity to meet a number of my old friends, former colleagues and intellectual fellow travellers. The Malayalam-fluent Ophira, Raquel who specialises in Japanese energy policy or Sofia who lives in Chinese classical poetry, all under one roof.
Uneasy Money
One scholar used the troubles facing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and speculation about him receiving hefty envelopes filled with dollar bills to add some lighter moments. The Chinese government was uneasy about its missiles supplied to Iran reaching Hezbollah that used them against Israel during the Second Lebanese war in 2006. During the recent visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Chinese officials highlighted Iran's end-user commitments but the speaker mischievously observed: "I don't know if Olmert was given envelopes by the Chinese."
A matter of Apparel
What to wear for the occasion? I was in a dilemma. I remembered an incident involving veteran Israeli diplomat Abba Eban. The Labour Party was still identified with the working class and party stalwarts and members were assembled in Tel Aviv to elect the list for the forthcoming Knesset election. Eban being an outsider could not be more pronounced. Only he came in a bow tie and failed to get his name in a realistic slot on the party list. He soon bowed out the politics.
So I settled for informal attire. Seeing me in T-shirt for my session, my old friend and Sinologist Professor Yitzhak Shichor recollected an anecdote. "The ambassador from Japan had just arrived and he was new to Israeli customs. For his first official function he went in formal suit, only to found that he was the only one in the entire crowd to be dressed formally. Not to repeat the same mistake, next time he went in informally. He was foxed again as the entire gathering was dressed formally. The ambassador gave up worrying about dressing for the occasion." Then Professor Shichor added, "We are a crazy people. When it comes to dress, anything goes…"
Indians Absent
Representatives from China, Japan and Korea were present during much of the deliberations and partly supported the conference. Seoul's ambassador to Israel Shin Kak-Soo broke off from the original schedule and did a mini presentation comparing the nuclear controversies surrounding North Korea and Iran. A notable absentee was the Indian embassy. With six panels devoted to various aspects of India's diversity, the absence was rather conspicuous and strange.
Notable exception
"Don't bother us with intellectual nonsense." This does not appear to be the attitude of the Israeli foreign office. A number of retired as well as serving diplomats could be noticed through the conference. An uncommon sight in India. They were hopping from one panel to the other but they were there. Some are soon returning to India's neighbourhood.
Sachar was there
The UPA government would be extremely happy that the Sachar Committee report is popular not just in India but also among Indologists in Israel. It figured prominently in the panel on Religion, Society and State in India. Though Israel is considered a favourite of the Hindutva brigade, the panelists used the report to highlight the marginalisation of Muslims. The Hindu right came in for some severe treatment. Some on the panel felt Muslims are not protected in India and that 'secularism' is also a sign of the Indian state appropriating the cultural traits of the Hindu majority. An academic from Ben-Gurion University recalled a remark by Syed Shahabuddin who reportedly said: "Muslims in India are like the Jews in Nazi Germany!" The remark did not go unnoticed in a country that remembers the Holocaust.
Sad old home
During the lunch break I took time off and went my old home: the library of the Harry S Truman Institute at the northern corner of the Hebrew University campus. Over looking the far off Dead See, its dilapidated present condition is exemplified by a lonely reader from Europe.
The once lively place hectic with readers, researchers and students is badly in need of a PR to exhibit its hidden treasures. When the University budget shrinks, the library often is the first casualty and Truman Library, which has some of the best collections on Asia in Israel, had seen better days before the late 1990s. I went there to meet my old friend Amnon. Most of my academic sharpness of the complex Arab-Israeli conflict occurred during my daily coffee seasons with him in the café in Frank Sinatra plaza. Amnon still remains cheerful but not the library. It needs a few scholars to utilise its wealth!

1 comment:

Atul said...

Dear Sir,

The post on the appropriateness of dress in Israeli gatherings is awesome.

About the Indian absence, I guess they are yet to appreciate the niceties of world politics and have to learn a lot.

Keep posting..