Israel and JNU? One could not find two other antitheses. Nothing could be farther from these two. Almost polls part. This has been the situation for a long, at least since the 1980s. Not only Israeli policies and practices came under closer scrutiny and condemnation, but even individuals studying Israel were also vilified, abused and called names.
JNU remained the heartland of uncritical adulation of pan-Arabism and Palestinian nationalism even after the fall of the Berlin Wall when a more nuanced regional appreciation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and an honourable and accommodative settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the norm. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's decision to pursue a balanced approach by abandoning the four-decade-old Nehruvian policy of 'recognition-without-relations' vis-à-vis Israel did not go down well within the campus elites. Despite Yasser Arafat's engagements with Israel, Rao's normalisation with Israel was viewed and presented as afront to Mahatma Gandhi (incidentally by the same forces that depicted him as a stooge of the British) and an unethical policy. The overtures of communist powers Russia and China towards Israel did not bother the hardcore ideologues. More Catholic than the Pope, the campus stalwarts were unmoved or unaware of the giant steps taken by China since the early 1980s.
The Indo-Israeli normalisation in 1992 and the subsequent upward trajectory of the bilateral relations resulted in Jawaharlal Nehru University reformulating its academic approach towards Israel. Despite considerable opposition from Muslim and Left-wing lobbies, in 1999, it created an independent position for Israel studies. Ideologues who framed Israel only through prisms of anti-imperialism, communism and Islamism could not digest this, especially when younger minds were more receptive and open to studying Israel with all its nuances.
The next decade was a struggle between an ideologically driven approach towards Israel and a more holistic understanding of the Jewish state. This contest became acute during the region's periodic upheavals, which inflamed a partisan narrative within the campus ably kindled by ideological linkages and surrogates outside. As a result, Israel and those studying and teaching Israel came under public scrutiny, poster campaigns and criticisms. On occasions, even student council reports criticised the methods of teaching Israel. Moreover, engagements between the students and the Israeli ambassador to India enraged some, and over a decade, such meetings have to be held outside the campus. As one Israeli diplomat lamented, is the JNU campus off-limits to Israeli diplomats?
The anti-Israeli sentiments reached their zenith, and the optional course on the Israeli foreign policy was suspended on the flimsy premise that country-specific courses should not be offered. This logic was presented by the ideologues when there were over a dozen similar country-specific courses for the MA programme in JNU. Some of the prominent faculty signing up for the academic boycott of Israel only made matters worse. Academic freedom in JNU was buried at the altar of ideological prejudices.
But things do change and did change. The arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought a new sense of urgency in the campus. While a person can be pro-Congress and pro-Israel, it is inconceivable that one can be pro-BJP and anti-Israel. Hence, the very same people, who vilified Israel as a 'settler-colonial state' and worked for the suspension of the Israel course began singing a different song. Asked to 'rectify' the anomaly, they restored the MA course and felicitated the expansion of Israeli studies to the BA language programme. This came amidst the lively Hebrew language programme.
A closer look at the campus atmosphere during the past two decades presents an interesting picture. The older generation is ideologically rooted and remains inflexible. This is not the case with the students. Irrespective of their social, ideological and even religious backgrounds, the younger ones are more curious and interested to know Israel. Even student union leaders with strong left-leanings have been studying Israel and interacting with Israel diplomats. The ideological orientation has not diminished their desire to understand Israel. During the past two decades, over 600 students of JNU have studied Israel; not that all of them have become friends of Israel, but they are definitely better informed than before.
Studying Israel also has an international dimension. Students from Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Iran do not recognise the Jewish state. Indeed, from the hardcore communists to the nationalists, one could find all ideological shades in the Israeli class. They all share the same passion for understanding Israel. When given passionate, non-confrontationist and holistic treatment, the response of the young minds is stunning. For a long, Israel was the anathema in the JNU campus, but in recent years, the Israel class offers that long-elusive and inclusive middle ground in JNU. Times do change.