Indian-Americans seeking guidance from US Jews

Indian-Americans seeking guidance from US Jews

When Anil Godhwani and his brother Gautam looked into creating a community centre for Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley, they turned to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco as a model. When the Hindu American Foundation began, it looked to groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for guidance with its advocacy and lobbying efforts.

Indian-Americans, who now number 2.4 million in the US, are turning to American Jews as role models and partners in areas such as establishing community centres, advocating on civil rights issues and lobbying Congress. Indians often say they see a version of themselves and what they hope to be in the experience of Jews in American politics: A small minority that has succeeded in combating prejudice and building political clout.

Sanjay Puri, the chairman of the US India Political Action Committee, said: “What the Jewish community has achieved politically is tremendous, and members of Congress definitely pay a lot of attention to issues that are important to them. We will use our own model to get to where we want, but we have used them as a benchmark."

One instance of Indians following the example of Jews occurred last year when Indian-American groups, including associations of doctors and hotel owners, banded together with political activists to win passage of the United States-India Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Act, a landmark agreement that allows New Delhi to buy fuel, reactors and other technology to expand its civilian nuclear programme.

“Indian-Americans have taken a page out of the Jewish community’s book to enhance relations between the homeland and the motherland," said Nissim B. Reuben, programme officer for India-Israel-United States Relations at the American Jewish Committee and himself an Indian Jew.

The American Jewish Committee, like some other Jewish groups, has worked with Indians on immigration and hate crimes legislation. It has taken three groups of Indian-Americans on trips to Israel, where they have met Arabs and Palestinians, as well as Jews.

Many Indian-Americans, such as the Godhwanis and others with the India Community Center in Milpitas, California, have taken an avowedly non-sectarian approach in creating institutions.

But among Hindus, and Indian-Americans here, some assert that a vital bond they share with Jews is the threat to India and Israel from Muslim terrorists.

“Some on both sides of the discussion feel that way, and take a stance that is anti-Muslim or anti-terrorist, depending on your point of view," said Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami, and an expert on Indo-Judaic studies. Most Jewish groups, however, have tried to avoid a sectarian cast to their work with Indian-Americans. Instead, Jews said they were struck by the parallels between the issues that Jews and Indians had faced. “It echoes 30 years ago," said rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Centre. “There is the same feeling of a growing community that says, ‘We want our voices to be represented, and how do we that?’"

For years, many Indians who immigrated to the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s considered India their home.Now, most are rooted in the US, as are their children, and they have moved with astonishing speed into politics, said Congressman Frank Pallone Jr, a New Jersey Democrat, where there is a large Indian-American constituency.

Pallone is a founder of the Congressional Caucus on India. Congressman Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Louisiana, who is Indian-American, is running for governor of his state, and Indian-Americans hold or are vying for other local elected positions nationwide. Indian-Americans have reached out to American Jews, in part, because of the growing friendship between India and Israel, whose chilly Cold War relations began to thaw in the 1990s. Indian and Israeli heads of state have recently visited each other’s countries.

In February, the chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, met with Hindu leaders in India, after which the Jewish and Hindu clerics declared their many common beliefs, among them that their “respective traditions teach that there is one supreme being." The statement was a breakthrough because many Jews had long considered Hinduism a form of idolatry, Katz said. ©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES