Letter from New Delhi
Watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in Israel on TV, Kul Bhushan recounts his enduring memories of his own tour of this country
“Are you coming from India?” asked the hotel receptionist in chaste Gujarati. Considering that this was Jerusalem where I had landed a couple of hours ago, this shook me out of my wits. I replied that although of Indian origin, I lived in Nairobi, East Africa.
This incident came to my mind when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Israel to be greeted in Hindi by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Aapka swagat hai, mere dost.” (You are welcome, my friend.) Modi landed on the 41st anniversary of the famous Entebbe Raid by Israeli commandos to free Jewish hostages.
My week-long hectic tour of Israel in 1972 was hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. First, my guide took me to see what is considered by many the “holiest city” in the world: The Old City of Jerusalem. Why the holiest? Because the holiest places of worship for three major religions are located very near each other.
For Christians, the Church of Sepulcher has two of holiest sites: the spot where Jesus was crucified and Jesus’ empty tomb where he is said to be buried and resurrected. Thronged with Christians from all over the world, the church bustled with grim pilgrims. Imagining the suffering of Jesus, a shiver ran down my spine. A very sobering experience.
Walking through winding, narrow streets with small shops run by Arabs, we came to the Western Wall, the holiest pilgrimage for Jews. This ancient off-white limestone wall was crowded by Jews wearing skull caps, and Orthodox Jews wearing black wide-brim hats, black suits with long coats and flowing beards. Proceeding to the long wall, as they touched it, they started to cry loudly. No wonder it is also called ‘the weeping or wailing wall’. Others inserted pieces of paper in the cracks which were written prayers. The mystical qualities associated with this ritual are underlined in a popular Israeli song: “There are people with hearts of stone, and stones with hearts of people.”
Right next to this wall are steps going up to a magnificent mosque with a golden dome: the Al-Aqsa mosque from where Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. Thus, it is the holiest pilgrimage for Muslims after Mecca. Not just one, but there are several mosques in this complex. It is reported, “It was the scene for the most extraordinary gathering in the history of mankind – when every Prophet that ever lived were gathered together for a congregational prayer behind Prophet Muhammad.” (muslimmatters.org)
A famous Sufi Master from Punjab, Baba Farid, visited it 800 years ago; swept its floors and went into silence in a nearby cave. Today, an Indian Hospice functions next to this mosque; President P. Mukerjee visited it in 2015. Three religious sites almost next to each other is mind boggling.
The following day started with a visit to the Knesset or the parliament which was interesting. A huge wall mural by the famed artist Marc Chagall is in modern art but the seven branched ‘menorah’ or lamp that stands outside the building is the identifying icon for Israel.
Hebrew University was the next stop. Its first Board of Governors included Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, among others. The campus was distinguished by the sculpture of the draped woman by the famous Henry Moore. Of course, the star attraction was the Dead Sea Scrolls displayed in its humongous library.
After a short trip the following day, we reached Yad Vashem, Martyrs and Heroes Memorial, the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust that killed six million European Jews by the Nazis. Walk down a corridor and you come to a high dome covered with photos of the victims who stare down with empty eyes. See the Nazi posters, news and photos of victims transported by goods trains to concentration camps. And experience life and death in the concentration camp. The enduring memory of Yad Vashem is the recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto complete with overcrowded, starving Jews enhanced with the sounds and smells of this horrendous episode. Not for the faint hearted.
The climax of the tour was my interview with the then Foreign Minister, Dr Abba Eban in Tel Aviv, which I had requested because he was a renowned scholar of Hebrew and Arabic languages, soldier and intelligence officer, historian, orator, politician and diplomat who used words with fluency and accuracy. During his career, he was Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Ambassador to USA and UNO and Vice President of the UN General Assembly.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt, he greeted me warmly and talked as if we knew each other for years. The interview went off very well as he answered questions about Holocaust, Jewish and Indian diaspora and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He graciously autographed one of his books before I came out elated.
We proceed to Golan Heights where the Israeli soldiers faced Syrian troops in their bunkers atop the hills. Between the first Arab-Israeli War and the Six-Day War, the Syrians constantly harassed Israeli border communities by firing artillery shells from their dominant positions on the Golan Heights. After the Six-Day War in June 1967, Syria’s shelling greatly intensified but the Israeli army captured the Golan Heights. Climbing the hills and observing the bunkers made clear the grit of the Israeli soldiers. Later, I clicked photos atop a captured Syrian tank.
Next came a Kibbutz, a farming community living together. Common dining, singing, dancing after a day’s hard work… that’s kibbutz. At the camp fire, it was the famous folk dance ‘Hava Ngila’ that got me going.
Nazareth was our destination the next morning and its many famous places of worship are astounding but the most memorable is the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. The last stop was the city of Haifa and its beautiful Bahai Gardens.
When I watched Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, all these memories whizzed through my mind.
Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi