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.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism