Jews, Hindus face similar problems, say speakers

By PAUL LUNGEN, Staff Reporter
Thursday, 21 February 2008

TORONTO — It took until nearly the end of the program for someone to finally mention "the elephant in the room." But in a question-and-answer period, the two speakers, one a Jew, the other a Hindu, were asked to comment on the dangers both groups faced from radical Islam.

Until then, Ramesh Rao, a spokesman for the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum of Beth Tzedec Congregation, left, had largely – though not entirely – skirted the topic, focusing instead on community continuity strategies, discrimination (in particular on university campuses) and media distortions of their communities.

Rabbi Tanenbaum and Rao were the featured speakers at a business lunch lecture at the law offices of Minden Gross. The night before the two addressed another group at the York Woods Library Theatre. They were sponsored by The Speakers Action Group, an organization pledged to promoting tolerance and knowledge of issues that span communities.

Speaking on "Hinduphobia and Anti-Semitism: common issues," Rao said Israel and India are criticized when they defend themselves from radical Islamic aggression. Hindus ought to support Israel when it defends itself and Jews should support India when it fights back, he said.

Rao, a professor of communication studies at Longwood University in Virginia, referred to India’s longstanding "effort to make Muslims and Islam part of its composite culture."

Despite that, he continued, India had fought three wars with Muslim Pakistan, and Pakistan-trained terrorists have attacked India on repeated occasions.

"India is seeking to be a progressive, democratic nation that is struggling to deal with this without demonizing a very large group," he said.

Muslim extremism is a threat not only to India and Israel, but "around the world," he added.

Rabbi Tanenbaum agreed with that latter contention, saying "radical Islam poses threats to the world and to Israel and India in particular."

That goes some way to explaining Israel's and India's recent co-operation in launching an Israeli surveillance satellite atop an Indian rocket to gather intelligence over Pakistan and China, he said.

Rabbi Tanenbaum said the Jewish and Hindu communities face challenges that can bring them together.

Rao began his presentation by noting similarities in the Jewish and Hindu traditions. Both are spiritual, faith communities that have faced "challenges throughout history."

The Hindu American Foundation was created five years ago and has had to face misconceptions about Hindus in academe, the press and among lawmakers. One U.S. congressman, introduced to a HAF group, asked if they were Sunni or Shia (Muslims), he said.

Hindus have been saddled with three stereotypes: cows, caste and curry. Those have even been found in school texts in California, he said.

In universities, academics treat Hindu traditions and religious beliefs in a way that "pathologizes and anthropologizes Hindus as aberrant faith followers."

Rabbi Tanenbaum began by pointing out that Jews had lived peacefully in India for millennia and that 1948 was momentous for both as India and Israel achieved independence that year.

He reviewed aspects of modern Jewish history, and noted that Jews as a minority have historically been out of sync with mainstream society. To conform better to the mainstream, Jews have assimilated but as a result, have lost many of the distinctive features of earlier Jewish life. He referred to 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s advice that a Jew should be a mensch in the street and a Jew at home, saying that approach helped Jews integrate but it cost them some of their identity.

Hindus had told him their community had experienced much the same thing, Rabbi Tanenbaum added.

During the question period, one member of the audience suggested Mendelssohn’s advice was in concert with Jewish law, which required Jews to conform to local laws, and might be applicable to Muslims and other immigrants to better integrate them into host societies.