Why are there so many Israeli ex-soldiers in India?

A rite of passage.

They tower over the natives: martial torsos; arms with coiled-wire sinews and a combat-hardened stare. Goliath hands clutch nervously at the tote bags. These are ex-Israeli soldiers and they are in India. Haggard and weather-beaten, fresh from military conscription they come to Delhi, Goa and the Himalayas to party and regale each other with stories of past.

It is a rite of passage for many young Israelis to visit India after finishing their compulsory military service.

The shekel goes a long way, the locals are friendly, drinks cheap and hashish and ecstasy circulated freely. While interactions between the Indians and Israelis are largely genial, there is a growing concern among certain rabbis that many are straying from the righteous path. When I say genial, I mean there aren’t any obvious tiffs but there is a hint of uneasiness luring around the corner.

Imagine your young military conscript − patrolling check-points, a gun slung over their shoulder and on perpetual alert – let loose in a funfair of a country where there they might go about unmolested. According to the Jewish Post, around 90 per cent take drugs in India with up to 2,000 ex-soldiers “flipping out” each year.

Last year, I was trekking north of New Delhi in MacLeodganj at the foothills of the Himalayas. The roads snaked around bulging soft turf hills. Trucks, cars and tuk-tuk carcasses rusted on the wayside. All was moss and lichen and fluorescent green. As I trudged along in a foggy February, rain, ferns and wildflowers led to a lone stone cottage on a knoll overlooking a sheer thousand-foot drop, festooned in Hebrew signs and mosiach flags.

Why do such an enormous number of ex-Israeli soldiers go to India, I remember asking the rabbi at the makeshift Chabad. He just shrugged.

Later on I met Moshe, a fresh-off-the boat IDF soldier from the West Bank, and asked him how he saw the natives. He told me that Indians were childlike and uncomprehending, “like a flock of sheep”.

One of the largest Jewish movements in the world has set up chabads or religious outreach centres to ensure that the young do not lose their way. These have been set up in places like the hashish-rich Manali in the Himalayan north and by the ecstasy-popping beach-towns of Goa.

Meanwhile, beach shacks have been known not to serve Indians. Whole parts of Goa are being bought up surreptitiously by Russians and Israelis. The Indian government is concerned. Chief Minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, was emphatic about not tolerating Russian and Israeli enclaves in his state and accused them of concealing drug dens. An Indian MP Shantaram Naik, accused the Israelis of “occupying Goa” and indulging in shady business activities.

An exasperated branch of the Catholic Church in Goa issued a statement accusing young ex-Israeli soldiers in Goa of being “dehumanised” after their compulsory stint in the army.

Authored by 11 seminarians and totalling some 96 pages, the investigative Catholic Church publication titled Claiming the Right to Say No: A Study of Israeli Tourist Behavior and Patterns in Goa accused the ex-soldiers of “unbecoming” behaviour incompatible with local beliefs and customs including drug trafficking, prostitution, all-night rave parties and crime sprees. In my own conversations with dodgy beach shack owners, the best way to get a chillum filled with weed was to follow the Hebrew signs.

India has had synagogues for a long time and I have always felt a tinge of pride at the absence of any anti-Semitism. As India’s stock rises in the world, her people travel outside and see the sights, many will start questioning our pill-popping guests.

For the moment India and Israel are consorts, co-operating on things like space programmes, defence and trade. But the Israeli government needs to get its act together. India is no longer the docile nation of yesteryear, to be taken for granted by the west. Given the large number of ex-military Israelis in India, the country has the potential to become the next proxy-war playground, as was clear from the early 2012 incident. It would be a pity if a resurgent confident India were to start cracking down on these ex-IDF soldiers. A whole millennia of accrued reputation would be lost, although some might say that it has started already. In August this year, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation arrested five Goan police officers for planting drugs on an Israeli citizen and claiming that he was a big time “drug dealer”.

Meanwhile, the sheer spectacle of an orthodox Jewish rabbi, clad in black, walking through the bustling bazaars, makes for a striking scene.


The beaches of Goa are particularly popular with ex-military Israelis. Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here