Deputy Indian ambassador Santosh Jha says the annual Hanukkah event reflects India’s diversity.
WASHINGTON, DC – The celebration of Hanukkah by the Indian Embassy in the US capital city is always an eagerly-awaited event, fruitful in its outreach to members of the Jewish community who commemorate the festival of lights with faith and fervor.
Now in its sixteenth year, the observance on Saturday evening drew a packed crowd of US officials, Jewish leaders, congressional staff, representatives of business, think-tanks, press and media, to the Indian Chancery.
Welcoming the 140-strong gathering, Deputy Chief of Mission Santosh Jha noted, “The celebration of Hanukkah at the Embassy every year is a reflection of India’s diversity. We are very proud of this tradition”, he said. “The fact that we are, perhaps, the most diverse country in the world, the fact that we have multiple religions, (people) who live together in harmony and with mutual respect”.
The senior official pointed out, “India is one of the countries where anti-Semitism did not exist. We lived over the years in harmony, as one people”, he emphasized, noting that Hanukkah is also celebrated in Pushkar, Rajasthan, an ancient holy city for Hindus, and that a Jewish conference will be held in Kerala early next year.
Referring to the tenth anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, solemnly marked last month, Jha told the gathering, “India, Israel and the US are all united in the fight against terrorism. This is a global scourge. This is something that affects all of us equally”.
The high-ranking diplomat expressed a sense of fascination and admiration for Israel, the way it exists in the face of adversity, emerging as a vibrant country in the Middle East.
“Like India-US relations, we call it a national relationship”, he said about India-Israel ties. “This is one very national relationship that we have. The best manifestation of this was when Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian leader to visit Israel in July 2017″.
Earlier this year, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited India, he became the first senior foreign leader to open the country’s signature Raisina Dialogue, a multilateral conference held annually in New Delhi, the deputy ambassador noted. “The kind of reception he (Netanyahu) received in India is much like what we would associate with countries like the United States”, he said.
Jha credited Nissim Reuben, a prominent Indian-American Jewish leader, for playing a key role in coordinating the embassy’s Hanukkah celebration. Reuben serves as Assistant Director of the Asia Pacific Institute (API), a global office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Since 2002, “he has been singularly responsible for keeping us motivated”, the deputy ambassador said calling Reuben “the best exponent of the India-US-Israel triangle” and “the most interesting person” he meets regularly.
Jha led the guest speakers in lighting the Menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, for the seventh night of Hanukkah. This year, the festival began at sunset on December 2 and ends at sundown on December 10 according to the Hebrew calendar.
Congressman Jamie Raskin noted, “It is a time of the year when we think of all the blessings of freedom that we have living in democracies. And, of course, India is our largest democracy, America is our oldest democracy. Neither country is perfect, but both are striving to become even greater”. Together, he said, they can help other countries around the world who do not have the same freedom and human rights, to achieve them.
The Maryland Democrat commended Reuben for uniting the Indian and Jewish communities for “a delightful and joyful affair” at the Chancery.
Martin Peled, Minister for Congressional Affairs at the Embassy of Israel, said, “It is an honor to participate in what has become a venerable Washington tradition: the Indian Embassy reception for Hanukkah”.
He noted, “both Jews and Indians have ancient civilizations which are multi-faceted, which have behind them thousands of years of history. Jews have had to fight for their spiritual and political existence. India also has a history of perseverance in the face of all sorts of challenges”.
Peled described relations between Israel and India as “extremely good” citing the enhanced economic and technology cooperation, “political alignment” including confronting the same challenges, and people-to-people ties characterized by “mutual respect and affection”.
Toby Dershowitz, AJC Washington Regional President, expressed gratitude to deputy ambassador Jha and “the tremendous staff” at the embassy for hosting the Hanukkah event. “We appreciate the open door you have extended tonight”, she said. “It is an honor to partner with the Indian Embassy to host this wonderful Hanukkah celebration for the last 16 years marking not only the holiday, but the strong, enduring and deep ties between our communities as well as the close ties between US, India and Israel”.
In her address, Dershowitz spoke of the persecution of Jews since the early ages, how some members found safe refuge in India where they have lived ever since.
“Today, there are many places of darkness in the world”, she said. “The act of lighting the Hanukkah candles remind us of the importance of bringing light into these dark places no matter how dark it gets, no matter how hopeless it feels, no matter how much we want to give up and say, ‘it’s complicated’. We need to bring back light, to spark that hope, that commitment to bringing about the possible”.
Recalling his one-year stay in India some two decades ago, Rabbi Hyim Shafner told the gathering that he “experienced not only the diversity and tolerance of India, but learnt what it was like to be a religious person”.
“There is truly a special kinship between the Indian people and the Jewish people”, said Kenneth Weinstein, President and CEO of Hudson Institute. “Together, we constitute almost one-sixth of the world’s population”, he quipped drawing laughter. On a more serious note, he spoke of commonalities including a dedication to family, tradition, education, and tolerance.
Among the other guests at the embassy event were: Clifford May, founder and president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; Rabbanit Hadas Fruchter, assistant spiritual leader of the Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, an orthodox synagogue in Potomac, Maryland; David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; and Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Members of a Jewish young professionals group rendered traditional Hanukkah songs which are typically sung after the lighting of the menorah and are a joyous and integral part of the experience of celebrating the festival of lights.