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15 January 2013

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

A rite of passage.

By Ritwik Deo

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.

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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.

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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.