In the years following the Second World War, the political maps of South Asia and the Middle East were redrawn. The British Raj came to an end with partition into the two states of India and Pakistan. On the eastern flank of the subcontinent, the borders of East Pakistan were created by the Radcliffe Line in 1947. The State of Israel was created in 1948 with the end of the British Mandate for Palestine.
Both Israel and Bangladesh were founded in the wake of genocides. For Israel, the Holocaust; for Bangladesh, the atrocities during the 1971 Liberation War in which the pro-independence Bengali population was systematically targeted for their political beliefs, cultural identity and religious diversity. Just as there is the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, there is a Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh.
The war which transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh had several parallels with the Israeli experience, including the displacement of millions of refugees and a global stalemate involving the superpowers and their regional allies. A Jewish Indian military commander, J. F. R. Jacob, played a crucial role in negotiating the surrender of West Pakistani forces on 16 December 1971.
Both Israel and Bangladesh committed themselves to democracy at the time of independence. Bangladesh’s Proclamation of Independence enunciated the values of “equality, human dignity and social justice”; Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised a state “based on the principles of liberty, justice and freedom expressed by the prophets of Israel; it will affirm complete social and political equality for all its citizens.”
Religion and secular democracy are important to both nations. The two countries have a shared heritage of English common law as former parts of the British Empire. Both countries have parliamentary governments influenced by the Westminster tradition.
Israel was one of the earliest countries in the Middle East to recognize Bangladesh in 1972. It was reported on 7 February 1972 that the Israeli government offered diplomatic recognition to the newly independent nation. It came on the heels of Bangladesh’s quest for recognition since April 1971. However, Bangladesh did not accept the Israeli offer. It was keen to win the trust of Arab states.
Today, many of those same Arab states are warming up to Israel in unprecedented fashion. Israel is also an emerging ally of India – Bangladesh’s giant neighbor. Security cooperation could be an important part of Israel’s potential role in South Asia, and with Bangladesh in particular.
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Israel and India have developed impressively close defense and strategic ties over the past few years; an extension of that relationship of trust to Bangladesh – which enjoys a robust security partnership with India, especially in intelligence sharing – would be logical and mutually beneficial. Bangladesh also follows a “zero-tolerance” policy on terrorism and has largely been successful in containing the terror threat.
There is another shared heritage – even if largely unknown. Individual Jews have intersected with Bangladesh’s modern history in significant and surprising ways.
Rabindranath Tagore, one of Bangladesh’s key cultural icons, and the statesman Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin, cooperated in the matter of a Jewish academic from Germany who lived in British Bengal, Dr. Alex Aronson. It was a remarkable example of Hindu-Muslim unity borne out of appreciation for an exceptional individual. When WWII broke out, the British colonial rulers of India considered Aronson, a Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany, an “enemy alien” for Aronson was sent to several internment camps and only due to repeated interventions by Tagore and Nazimuddin was he released and remained free. Dr. Aronson spent two years living in Dhaka before migrating to Israel and settling down in Haifa.
Rabindranath Tagore writes to Khawaja Nazimuddin on behalf of Alex Aronson
In the 1960s, the American Jewish architect Louis I. Kahn was commissioned to design the parliament building in Dhaka which would become one of the world’s largest legislative complexes. After Bangladeshi independence, he continued traveling to Dhaka to check on the progress of its construction but did not live to see its completion in the 1980s. My father, who served in parliament during the 1980s, often describes the modernist grandeur of the building. The complex’s sprawling gardens and lakes are an oasis in the heart of Dhaka.
The last remnants of Bangladesh’s tiny Jewish community appear to be extinct. The last well-known Jewish resident in the country was a news anchor for state television. More and more Bangladeshis are aware of the history of anti-Semitism and its parallels with other peoples who have faced genocide – and the notorious politics of genocide denial. That denial is a sad reality for Jews, but also for Armenians (who were once a strong community in Dhaka but have also disappeared) and Bengalis, who have increasingly encountered a genocide denial campaign in recent years.
In Israel, children often grow up hearing the extraordinary tales of valor and survival during the Holocaust. In Bangladesh, we grow up hearing tales of liberation in 1971. But there is also a crossover: we also read about Anne Frank. One birthday, my maternal grandparents and uncles gifted me The Diary of Anne Frank which they bought from a bookshop in Dhaka. I was a young teenager at the time. The story of Anne Frank evokes the same emotions as hearing our grandparents’ tales of the Liberation War: how they hid from a marauding occupation army and yearned for freedom.
The Palestinian struggle continues to be important to the people of Bangladesh. Dhaka currently hosts a Palestinian embassy. I have in my family’s possession a photograph signed by the late Yasser Arafat, who often visited Dhaka to meet with Bangladeshi leaders. Arafat wrote on the back of that photograph of his wish to meet with us Bangladeshis in a “free Palestine.”
However, the breakdown of Palestinian governance poses questions about the future of the two-state solution. In the absence of democratic governance, the Palestinian issue has been hijacked by Islamic extremists across large parts of the Muslim world. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh itself, the Palestinian issue is seen by some through a bigoted prism with little regard for realities on the ground.
Israel has emerged as an exception in the Middle East with strong democratic institutions. Bangladesh was similarly founded on the common values of democracy and civil liberties. Bangladesh continues to face challenges in consolidating the rule of law and economic development. Nevertheless, the inherent pluralism of Bangladeshi society, which is multi-religious and multi-ethnic, is enduring and resilient. Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the constitutional order in Bangladesh. National holidays include festivals celebrated by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians.
But despite similarities in their independence struggles, the strong logic of a strategic relationship, and the lack of any direct hostilities between them, Bangladesh and Israel have no diplomatic ties. This is an illogical situation. After independence, both countries worked hard to ensure the survival of their states.
Both Bangladesh and Israel survive in difficult neighborhoods: Israel, as a Jewish state surrounded by the Arab world, with a cold peace with two of her neighbors; and Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority state surrounded by a neighborhood of non-Muslim majority states.
Bangladesh has to contend with growing Islamophobia and the rise of saffron (Hindu or Buddhist) nationalism in India and Myanmar. India’s new citizenship law has also been described by the United Nations as “fundamentally discriminatory” against Muslims. The controversial citizenship registration process in the Indian state of Assam (next door to Bangladesh) and which could potentially cause a flood of refugees, violates international law. This is in sharp contrast to Bangladesh’s own citizenship database funded by the World Bank.
Israel was founded on the principle of being a sanctuary for Jewish refugees who faced persecution. At the time of the Partition of India, Muslims from across British India began to migrate to the eastern and western wings of Pakistan. More recently, Bangladesh has emerged as a haven for stateless refugees, including 1.1 million Rohingya refugees who fled religious and ethnic persecution in Myanmar.
Bangladesh and Israel should build on common values. Perhaps, it can start with informal ties and develop towards full diplomatic recognition. There is much potential for cooperation.
Israeli companies can take advantage of Bangladesh’s growing economy, including the “Digital Bangladesh” scheme to develop hi-tech industries in the South Asian country. Defense procurement is another potential opportunity for Israeli companies and security cooperation: defense spending in Bangladesh grew 123 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Bangladesh, as the world’s second largest textile exporter, can find a new market in Israel. Bangladeshi and Israeli businesses can also cooperate in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture, diamonds, jute, leather, retail, food, banking, healthcare and tourism. Cooperation can be spurred in education, science, cultural relations, and inter-faith dialogue.
For any of this to take place, travel restrictions need to be lifted. Bangladeshi passports still bear the stipulation: “This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.”
2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust. 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation and the golden jubilee of its independence. The irony remains that Bangladesh and Israel still lack formal relations despite coming close to doing so back in 1972. It’s time to, belatedly, move forward and start a new chapter in bilateral relations.
Umran Chowdhury is a lawyer focusing on international law based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a graduate of the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School. Twitter: @umranchowdhury
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