New Delhi/Bangalore: Bernard began to fall in love with India after he was robbed. He was on a sleeper train to Ahmedabad for business, and had nodded off. He awoke at his stop, groggy, only to find that his bags—containing everything he owned—had been stolen.
“I had nothing, nothing. Not my visa, not my passport, nothing. It was crazy," recalls Bernard, who uses only one name, as he sits comfortably in his showroom in Ajay Guesthouse in Paharganj, Delhi’s backpackers’ haven.
Cross culture: Faruk Khan, a Kashmiri leather shop owner, attends to Israeli customers at his shop in Paharganj, New Delhi. Photograph by Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Today, Bernard runs a small showroom, Bubbles High Fashion Boutique, where he displays whimsical clothing designs that are sold in Israel. Known by many of the local shopkeepers as “Ganesh", he is one of a small number of Israeli businessmen who have come to India to stay. “I don’t think there are very many of us," he admits. “Most are backpackers who come only for a few months, then go back. But there are some who want to stay."
It was only in January 1992 that India established formal diplomatic relations with Israel even though the two countries achieved nationhood within less than a year of one another.
Indian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Indian National Congress opposed the creation of a “Jewish National Home", and India voted against the admission of Israel into the United Nations in May 1949, according to research by Brooking Institution scholar Subhash Kapila.
It was only after the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli peace process, an early attempt at smoothing tensions between Israel and Palestine, that India took the initiative to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Today, military and business ties between the two countries have grown rapidly, and tourism has flourished in the years since—particularly among Israeli youth.
Every year, between 40,000 and 50,000 Israelis come to India on tourist visas, according to the Israeli embassy. Most of them are men and women in their early 20s, who stay anywhere from six months to a year after completing their mandatory military service back home.
Watch Moshbe Inbar, an Israeli immigrant, talk about how the 1991 Gulf War affected him and how he’s found a home in the small town of Goa.
Not quite immigrants, yet something more than tourists, Israeli backpackers have been coming to India in impressive numbers since the two countries established diplomatic ties. For these young 20-somethings, this “gap year" in India has become a coming-of-age ritual.
“In some places, the Israelis make up 90% of the tourist population," Darya Maoz, one of several anthropologists who have studied the phenomenon, said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “And when hundreds or even thousands of Israelis are concentrated in one village or neighbourhood, you just can’t ignore their striking presence."
After nearly 20 years of tourism, backpackers have left a smattering of “little Israels"?in their wake—towns and villages outside Israeli tourist hot spots such as Goa, Rishikesh, Pushkar and Delhi—where even the locals speak a little Hebrew (some fluently), shop signs are displayed in bilingual Hebrew-Hindi, and local restaurants serve Israeli dishes alongside Indian fare.
The cultural and economic impact of these backpackers recently made international headlines: A Wall Street Journal article published a few months ago noted the presence of cyber cafes in Srinagar that provide Hebrew-only keyboards. Another article in the Christian Science Monitor pointed out several villages outside of Dharamsala where Israeli backpackers often outnumbered residents during the high tourist season, leading some locals to express concern that they may be at a risk of losing their cultural identity. In many of these areas, Israeli backpackers have also garnered a reputation for flagrant drug use.
But not everyone thinks of that: A few 100 metres from Bernard’s shop, down a small alley set away from the chaotic main market of Paharganj is Fida Ali’s leather shop. Invisible to most tourists, his shop is identifiable from the main road only by a small yellow sign hand-painted in arced Hebrew script.
Inside, Ali, a Kashmiri from Srinagar, stands amid piles of freshly tailored leather jackets, belts and bags. Known locally by the name of “Baba"—the word for father in Hebrew and in Hindi—he talks about his customers with Israeli enthusiasm.
“People have a very wrong impression of Israelis. They are really lovely people. They are so, so nice," he says.
His enthusiasm, while apparently genuine, is also well-grounded in profit: Israelis account for 90% of the business of all the Kashmiri shopkeepers in Paharganj, according to Ali, who has been selling to them for more than 20 years. Ali says he began really warming to Israelis after noting their devotion to family—many of his clients would buy expensive coats and bags for their relatives, but nothing for themselves.
“Israelis are like the Kashmiris— they value their family first," says Ali, who, on multiple occasions, has gone out of his way to help backpackers in distress—sending them money after they had been robbed and, in a few cases, his son to help them sort out their situations. He maintains a leather-bound book with photographs and letters from his “Israeli friends".
In Paharganj, the influence of the Israelis is such that most leather shop owners there have ceased marketing to other populations. The sole sign advertising Ali’s leather shop is written in Hebrew—the same language is neatly printed in black ink on his business cards. His shop attendants, who struggle with the nuances of English grammar, chatter amiably in Hebrew with such fluency that many Israeli customers have mistaken them for Israelis.
Faruk Khan is another Kashmiri leather shop owner whose primary clients are Israelis. Khan traces a cultural warming in the area to the first Israelis who came after the opening of the Paharganj railway station in the late 1990s. At that time, Waseem, Khan’s son, was only a boy. He grew up learning Hebrew while working in his father’s leather shop, and now speaks the language as fluently as he does Kashmiri and Hindi. “Israelis have asked me to show my passport to prove I am not from there," he boasts.
Even the targeting of a Jewish community centre in Mumbai during the 26 November 2008 terror attacks on the city and the car bomb targeting an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi in February this year have had only a marginal impact on Israeli tourism.
“Israelis and Indians work very well with terrorism—and the most important thing is to continue with life," said David Goldfarb, a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy. “26/11 was an extremely harsh example of where Israelis and Indians were specifically targeted, and you did not see any decline of Israelis to India; the opposite—in a way it brings us together."
At end of ‘Kosher Karma Trail’
Still, only a few Israelis have made India their home. Bernard decided to start his shop in Paharganj because he had fallen in love with the country. However, unfriendly laws for business can make it difficult to stay, he says.
“China is more good for business," he says. “But for our life, our art, we are more connected to the Indian people." While the number of Israeli expats— particularly those working in the agriculture and defence sectors—is on the rise, most stay for only two-three years before returning home.
Moshbe Inbar is an Israeli businessman who owns a small leather handicrafts shop in Goa. Inbar first fell in love with Goa after he completed his military training in 1996, and decided to settle down.
He had served in the military during the first Gulf War of 1991, and was deeply affected by the experience. “For me it was terrible. That was when I swore to myself that in case I get out of this war, I will never come back," he says. “After travelling, I found that there were other choices."
Inbar, who was a tennis player back in Israel, began to dabble with leather that he had first bought from Kashmiri shop owners in Delhi, and found that Goa was a good market for his products. Soon, he set up an artisan workshop where several artisans could come together in one place. Today, Artjuna, which has expanded into a cafe, sells products manufactured by around 30 designers, and even exports many of the goods.
While Inbar says that many Israelis would like to stay, only a few have managed to make a permanent home in India. “There was a time where it seemed like there would be a community here," he says. “Many have gone back, as some have to go back home, while others have realized that they cannot sustain themselves here. I am just lucky that I can."
This is the ninth of a 10-part series that profiles foreign communities that are contributing to India’s cosmopolitan culture.