February 21, 2024

Review of Azad Essa, Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel

 Azad Essa has written a book critical for understanding recent right wing developments in India and Israel. Essa's book draws on, and is enriched by, reporting on the ground from multiple contexts, going back over the last decade. Hostile Homelands reviews nearly nine decades of history that begins with both countries under British rule and ends with the ascendance of right wing, religiously conservative, and xenophobic political parties to governance in both countries. Along the way Essa provides necessary historical context on the evolution of India-Israel relations: the way Indian leadership resolved its statements on Palestine with increasing interest in diplomatic rapprochement with Israel, how New Delhi used the war on terror as justification for labeling all internal dissenters to its militarizing policy in Kashmir as terrorists, how the election of Modi emboldened the Indian right wing, and how Modi's administration has extended its influence into diaspora. Essa explores the evolution of Hindutva, and its tangle of organizations as well as their diaspora arms, thus linking the issue of Israeli and India relations to their increasing influence on U.S. 'soft power'.

The book's ambition is to weave together a comparative narrative of accelerating relations with a particular emphasis on military and weapon sales between the two nations, alongside chapters exploring Hindutva and Zionism as ideologies of exclusionary ethnic nationalism. The stakes of the ambition to compare state relations and ideology shines through very clearly in a chapter on Kashmir, which compares its struggle not only to Palestine, but also to the Chinese state crackdown in Xinjiang on the Uighur population, as well as Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. The war on terror had the negative effect of causing the misrepresentation of nationalist demands made by Muslims as a form of Islamic extremism. 

At a moment when Biden is under heavy pressure from younger Democratic leaning voters to change U.S. policy towards Israel, particularly the disproportionate amount of military aid given towards its war in Gaza, Essa shows the historical background of Israeli and Indian militarization. These questions are particularly acute in both democracies, reflecting the fragility of the democratic idea of consensus in an international order still ruled by the de facto law of power and force.

Both India and the US will hold elections this year, and if Israel held elections, it is likely Netanyahu's government would fall, a not inconsiderable factor in the conduct of the war. The possibility of a second Trump term looms, as both India and Israel have been increasingly emboldened to conduct war near and far--Israel through an illegal bombing campaign, and India through targeted assassination of an Indian citizen in Canada. India has become the most populous nation in the world (In this way, Israel is very dissimilar to India), recently sent an expedition to the moon, and recently recorded fantastic levels of economic growth.  It has nuclear weapons (as does Israel). Its government increasingly understands itself as a global superpower. 

Another fascinating dimensions of the book is the way it portrays the 'roads not taken' in international statehood. On the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, India opposed the partition of the region between Arab and Jewish national interests and advocated a federal solution. Assuming for a moment that this road had been taken in the 1940s, would the resulting state still be anxiously dominated by a right wing Jewish voting bloc? Could there have been an alliance between progressive parties in both camps that could have aided the integration of newcomers without leading to violent displacement?

I will leave it to those more familiar with Indian politics than I to comment on the practical questions raised by the book on that topic. For me, the book raised the crucial issue of what a federal solution means currently to the issue in Palestine and Israel. This is an urgent issue for global stability, security, and peace, as well as being relevant first to the Palestinians (who have never had a state inclusive of them in their modern history) as well as to the existential identity of the Israeli state.


February 16, 2024

Why read Zanzibar Was A Country?

Why should you as an English language reader from the United States (as a large portion of my friend circle is) choose to read a long(-ish) non-fiction book about two small islands off the coast of East Africa?

In truth, this book was written primarily for Zanzibaris, wherever they may find themselves. In particular, it is for a diasporic Zanzibari community--East African-born Swahili-speakers in Oman, with whom I did oral histories during a Fulbright fellowship in 2012-2013.
Second, the book is written for East African Muslims more generally. My hope is it might assist them in thinking about their historic relations with Indian Ocean states, religious and cultural pluralism, and comparative approaches to integration and dialogue within the civic arenas of those countries.
Third, historians may be interested in the book as a new historical synthesis of modern Zanzibar history, written emphasizing the interdependence of material and ideological factors and focusing specifically on the transnational, diasporic, and extraterritorial dimensions of Zanzibar nationality.
So what about the average reader then? Well, in essence, my approach has been to weave real life stories of escape, covert travel, border crossings, detainment, and dilemmas of separation, into the narrative. These stories are extremely compelling in their own right, though I have had to anonymize a number of them. I treat the subjective dimensions of experience of my interviewees as evidence for several interwoven theses about historical change in the littoral societies of the western Indian Ocean:
1. There was a notable economic divergence between East Africa and the Gulf between 1950 and 1970 which drastically shifted patterns of migration between the two regions.
2. The migrations out of Zanzibar after the 1964 revolution are connected to this divergence and reflect its growing practical effects: the movement of littoral communities, especially those of Arab descent, to the Gulf.
3. Zanzibar nationalism has had an extraterritorial dimension in the modern era, which is also connected to the deeper history of Oman in East Africa.


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