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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

In Jews, Indian-Americans see a role model in activism - International Herald Tribune

International Herald Tribune

In Jews, Indian-Americans see a role model in activism
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

When Anil Godhwani and his brother, Gautam, looked into creating a community center for Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley, they turned to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco as a model.

When the Hindu American Foundation began, it looked to groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center for guidance with its advocacy and lobbying efforts.

Indian-Americans, who now number 2.4 million in this country, are turning to American Jews as role models and partners in areas like establishing community centers, advocating on civil rights issues and lobbying Congress.

Indians often say they see a version of themselves and what they hope to be in the experience of Jews in American politics: a small minority that has succeeded in combating prejudice and building political clout.

Sanjay Puri, the chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee, said: "What the Jewish community has achieved politically is tremendous, and members of Congress definitely pay a lot of attention to issues that are important to them. We will use our own model to get to where we want, but we have used them as a benchmark."

One instance of Indians following the example of Jews occurred last year when Indian-American groups, including associations of doctors and hotel owners, banded together with political activists to win passage of the United States-India Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Act, which allows New Delhi to buy fuel, reactors and other technology to expand its civilian nuclear program.

"Indian-Americans have taken a page out of the Jewish community's book to enhance relations between the homeland and the motherland," said Nissim Reuben, program officer for India-Israel-United States Relations at the American Jewish Committee and himself an Indian Jew.

The American Jewish Committee, like some other Jewish groups, has worked with Indians on immigration and hate crimes legislation. It has taken three groups of Indian-Americans to Israel, where they have met Arabs and Palestinians, as well as Jews.

Many Indian-Americans, like the Godhwanis and others with the India Community Center in Milpitas, California, have taken an avowedly nonsectarian approach in creating institutions. But among Hindus, who are a majority in India and among Indian-Americans here, some assert that a vital bond they share with Jews is the threat to India and Israel from Muslim terrorists.

"Some on both sides of the discussion feel that way, and take a stance that is anti-Muslim or anti-terrorist, depending on your point of view," said Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami.

Most Jewish groups, however, have tried to avoid a sectarian cast to their work with Indian-Americans. Instead, Jews said they were struck by the parallels between the issues that Jews and Indians had faced.

"It echoes 30 years ago," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal center. "There is the same feeling of a growing community that says, 'We want our voices to be represented, and how do we that?' "

For years, many Indians who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s considered India their home. Now, most are rooted in the United States, as are their children, and they have moved with astonishing speed into politics, said Representative Frank Pallone Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, where there is a large Indian-American constituency. Pallone is a founder of the congressional Caucus on India. Representative Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Louisiana who is Indian-American, is running for governor of his state, and Indian-Americans hold or are vying for other local elected positions nationwide.

Indian-Americans have reached out to American Jews, in part, because of the growing friendship between India and Israel, whose chilly cold war relations began to thaw in the 1990s.

Indian and Israeli heads of state have recently visited each other's countries. The countries have strengthened trade and intelligence ties. In February, the chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, met with Hindu leaders in India, after which the Jewish and Hindu clerics declared common beliefs, among them that their "respective traditions teach that there is one supreme being." The statement was a breakthrough because many Jews had long considered Hinduism a form of idolatry, Professor Katz said.

Inspired by the Wiesenthal Center, which produces a CD annually that compiles Internet hate speech, the Hindu American Foundation issued its own report this year about "online hatred and bigotry against Hindus," Suhag Shukla, the foundation's legal counsel, said. The foundation also learned from the success of Jewish groups that it needed a full-time staff member to lobby Congress.

The Hindu American Foundation is among those who contend that Jews and Hindus are natural allies because of the common threat Israel and India face from Islamic terrorists. "There are the shared terrorist threats where we are the religious minority, for example Jammu-Kashmir and Islamic terrorism there or the situation in Israel," Shukla said, referring to the anti-Indian insurgency in the northern state.

Those parallels disturb some Indian-Americans, who contend they veil a deeper anti-Muslim sentiment.

"This makes me relatively suspicious, because there is the desire to reduce the complexity of the issues in a conflict," said Vijay Prashad, professor of South Asian history at Trinity College in Hartford.

The India Community Center in Milpitas, California, represents the nonsectarian approach many Indian-Americans take to replicating the experience of American Jews. When Anil Godhwani began talking to other Indians in Silicon Valley about opening a center, "more than one person talked to us about making this a Hindu community center — sometimes in very strong terms," he said. That was never his intention, though he was raised Hindu.

A Silicon Valley millionaire who sold his company to Netscape in the late 1990s, Godhwani said he and his brother envisioned a place that promoted the variety of Indian culture to Indian-Americans and non-Indians alike. The Godhwanis canvassed other ethnic centers and the YMCA. But the Jewish Community Center model resonated with them. It celebrated Jewish culture while avoiding the divisiveness of politics and religion. And it welcomed outsiders. The India Community Center occupies a 40,000-square-foot building that offers, among other things, free medical care for the uninsured, Indian language classes and Bollywood-style aerobics but keeps out religious activities.

Talat Hassan, chairwoman of the center's board of trustees, said, "Those of us who grew up in the '50s, '60s and '70s in India grew up in a truly inclusive atmosphere, and that is the gift that India can give to rest of the world: the ability to embrace diversity in very deep way."

"Then we came here, and maybe India was changing in this way too," Hassan said, "but Indian-Americans were organized around religion, and we found that to be very divisive. We thought there should be a place where people can come together as Indian-Americans, period, regardless of religion."


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