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.

Olivia Acland
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The closure of small businesses in Calais is punishing entrepreneurial refugees like Wakil

We meet the Afghan refugee who purchased a plywood shelter, painted it with blue hearts and green flowers, and stocked it with basic supplies. The police have just destroyed his makeshift shop.

French police have returned to the Calais migrant camp, known as the “Jungle”, to continue dismantling the businesses there. Last Friday was the fourth consecutive day that they had been in the camp seizing stock from shops, restaurants and barbers.

They have arrested at least 13 proprietors and accused them of running illegal businesses without authorisation, sustaining an underground economy, and not having the required health and safety measures in place. The majority of the “Jungle” businesses have now been dismantled.

Many small enterprises have cropped up in the Calais camp over the last year, and a mud road lined with plywood shacks has been nicknamed “the high street”. Here you can find Afghan restaurants, Pakistani cafes, hairdressing salons and small convenience shops. 

The Mayor of Calais, Natacha Boucher, recently announced that the camp is to be demolished imminently, and closing down its micro-economy seems to be the first step in realising this plan.


The authorities enter the Calais camp. Photo: Juliette Lyons​

The makeshift town – which is home to more than 4,000 people – has been cowering under the threat of demolition since January, when attempts were made to bulldoze its southern stretch. Most of the people living here have come from war-torn Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Syria, and a lot of them have been on the move for years. The shops and restaurants were bringing a degree of normality back to their lives.

The businesses were mainly run by refugees who had given up trying to cross the border into Britain and were seeking some stability within the makeshift world.

Wakil, the owner of a small convenience store, was one of these people. He left Afghanistan four years ago, where he worked first as a journalist, and then as lorry driver for the US military. He tells me that he misses his old life and job greatly: “I studied at university for four years in order to become a journalist, I am passionate about that work and I dream of doing it again.”

Forced out of his hometown after writing articles that criticised the Taliban, he moved to Kabul and found work as a lorry driver for the US Army. When the US pulled out of Afghanistan, Wakil deemed it too dangerous to stay and set off on a journey to Europe.

He travelled over land through Iran, Turkey, and Greece, and then made it to Italy in a flimsy boat. With very little money, he was forced to sleep rough until he managed to find work in a restaurant where the owner was willing to overlook the fact that he did not have the right papers.

He started to establish a life in northern Italy, taking classes to learn the language and renting. Then, when the restaurant changed hands and the new owner refused to employ anyone without a work permit, he was once again jobless and without prospects. 

“After this happened, I decided to go to England,” he says. “Back home I had met some English people and they told me that life is good over there.”

Wakil then travelled by bus through France, and ended up stuck in Calais. He says: “I tried to cross the border but a policeman caught me in the back of a lorry – he beat me and sprayed me with pepper spray. After that I was frightened and I stopped trying. I decided to stay here for a while, and I set up this business to give me something to do.”


A view of tents in the camp. Photo: Olivia Acland

After just ten days in the Jungle, Wakil managed to purchase a plywood shelter off another Afghan refugee for €370. Smuggling building supplies into the camp had become very difficult, so “property prices” within the micro-economy were on the rise.

He painted the shack with blue hearts and green flowers, and stencilled the words “Jungle Shop” onto the side in mauve. When his improvised store was ready, he borrowed a bicycle and headed into Calais to buy basic supplies from cheap supermarkets.

He filled the shelves with tomatoes, fizzy drinks, milk cartons and biscuits. Each time a customer came asking for something that he didn’t have, he’d note it down and incorporate it into his next shop. In this way, his business grew and although the profits were small (around €250 a month), Wakil was relieved to be busy and working again.

Wakil’s business wasn’t raided the first day that the police came in, but after watching other shops being emptied of stock and the owners being taken to prison, he became extremely anxious. On the evening of the first raid, he invited friends to his shop to eat or take away as much of his supplies as they wanted.

“I was too worried to eat,” he says. “But I knew that the police would come for my shop in the next days and I didn’t want everything I’d bought to be wasted.”

Fearing arrest, Wakil then went to hide in Calais and returned at the end of last week to find his shop empty. 

“The police took everything,” he tells me. “When I came back and saw it all gone I felt terrible. Many more of my friends had also disappeared – I’m told they were taken to prison.”

When I express my sympathies, he replies: “Don’t worry about me; others from the Jungle are in worse situations. This has happened to many of us.”

Most of the businesses that were providing some kind of stability for displaced people like Wakil are now just empty shells. A volunteer at Care 4 Calais (a charity distributing aid in the camp) Alexandra Simmons says, “the businesses were giving independence to refugees who had lost everything. They were extremely good for people’s mental health.”

The bare shops now serve as stark reminders that it is just a matter of time before the camp is emptied of its people too.