Last month I started the summer off with a vacation in Dharamsala, in the northern part of India. I went there for the same cliched reason many other foreigners go there–for yoga and meditation. I’ve been meditating and practicing yoga for about 17 years. But for the past several years, since I first went to Palestine, I’ve struggled with this practice a bit. It’s been hard for me to reconcile the idea that working on one’s own inner peace, as it were, could lead to any global kind of peace. Moreover, the pessimist in me doesn’t believe that anyone in power would ever commit to such a practice, which is what would have to happen for such a change to emerge. True, it has happened in history–most notably with Ashoka who changed quite radically after his conversion to Buddhism. And there are others, too. In spite of my reservations, I’ve returned to these practices little by little in the past few years.
I recalled a demonstration against Israeli theft of Palestinian agricultural land for their settlements and apartheid wall, which I attended in Bil`in in 2005. There was a Buddhist monk who joined us, although I recalled him as Tibetan, looking at the photographs now he’s clearly not. Still, I found it striking watching him beating his drum while the soldiers began to open fire on us. I never had a chance to speak with him because I was arrested that day.
I remembered this image, though I hadn’t seen it in some time, because the more I explored Dharamsala and Tibetan history, the more I saw lucid parallels to Palestinian struggles. Just one glimpse of the images around McLeod Ganj, the main area where Tibetans, especially Tibetan monks, reside shows clearly an ongoing struggle for freedom, and not only in the Buddhist sense of liberation. At the Tibet Museum this resonated even more because I learned of the Tibetan resistance movement–I had not known that there had ever been armed struggle against the Chinese. But there are many similarities I noticed:
1. The time frame: Palestinians commemorate the nakba (catastrophe) on 15 May 1948, although the ethnic cleansing of Palestine began long before that and continues until this day. A year later, in 1949, China invaded Tibet.
2. Palestinians began their armed resistance movement to get their land back in 1968; the infamous Battle of Karameh marked its introduction to the world. In 1958, according the the museum catalog:
the flag of a united Tibetan resistance movement, the Tensung Danglang Maggar (‘Volunteer Freedom Fighters for Tibet’), was hoisted for the first time in Driguthang, Lhoka. Andrug Gompo Tashi was nominated as our chief commander. Many recruits from all parts of Tibet joined us and we soon had more than 5,000 members. Fighting began soon after. At Nyemo we faced our biggest battle, Less than 1,000 of us successfully fought against a much bigger Chinese force. (25)
3. Both Israel and China have led ongoing campaigns to destroy cultural religious buildings, among other structures, in Palestine and Tibet respectively. Israel also regularly destroys Palestinian homes (often forcing Palestinians to destroy their own homes and/or pay the fees for that process) and does not permit them to build or rebuilt as the case may be. In Tibet, according to the museum,
The systematic eradication of Tibetan culture and religion saw the destruction of over 6,000 monasteries and temples. The handful still standing today are used as tourist attractions, army barracks, or public toilets. Precious scriptures and sculptures were destroyed or sold in international art markets. The Chinese used scriptures as shoe soles and monks and nuns were forced to desecrate religious objects. (29)
4. Just as Israel practices Judaisation, China practices what Tibetans call Sinicisation, which is includes the erasure of Tibetan identity and the inculcation of a Chinese one–starting with language. The museum explains:
The Chinese language is given priority in education and administration, thus marginalizing Tibetans in every sphere of life. Even more worrying are the population transfers that are diluting our culture and are reducing Tibetans to a minority in our own country. China is actively engaged in denials of our history, culture–our very identity. (37)
5. As indicated above, China also practices transfer, a euphemism for ethnic cleansing that Zionists have used since their pre-state days. In both cases, the occupying nation moves its citizens into the areas or homes where Tibetans or Palestinians used to live. One example is the expulsion of people from Yaffa and another more recent example is the ongoing nakba affecting Bedouins in the Naqab desert known as the Prawer Plan.
6. Of course, when one is faced with forced expulsion one becomes a refugee. Approximately 750,000 Palestinian refugees were expelled in 1948 and many more since then including internally displaced people. Because this process is ongoing (and because of normal population growth) that number is 7.2 million today. In the case of Tibet:
Since 1959, about 100,000 Tibetans fled to neighboring countries. Many died on the way as a result of Chinese attacks and harsh conditions. Thousands continue to escape oppression and persecution in Tibet each year. (40)
7. Recent struggles for both Tibetans and Palestinians have included boycotting products made in China and Israel respectively. Additionally, Tibetans have resorted to self-immolation to call attention to their plight.
I lay out all of these comparisons here because while in Dharamsala I read a book called A Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz (1995). The book is not worth quoting, but essentially it is the tale of a variety of Jewish people–Orthodox, Conservative, Reform–primarily from the U.S. and Israel who come to Dharamsala to participate in a Buddhist-Jewish interfaith dialogue. From what I gleaned in the book, that dialogue was motivated by the Jewish delegation because of the great many Jews who leave their faith for Buddhism. There were so many odd concerns they held about joining this group and interacting with people who, for example, don’t keep kosher or who are formally addressed as “His Holiness.”
In the book, there didn’t yet seem to be an Israeli colony in Dharamsala yet. This is likely because relations between India and Israel were just beginning to publicly thaw in the early 1990s. But today there are many such colonies, (see here and here) most notably in this mountain top hill station and in Goa. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I went to explore these two areas, pretty far removed from each other–one on top of the mountain in Dharamkot and the other in a valley a few kilometres below, Bhagsu Naag. In Dharamkot there is a Chabad House (an Orthodox Jewish prayer house–the tall brick building, which is the tallest in the area). It’s a bit odd to see that here given that stories I hear and read about often detail the way in which Israelis come after their three (men) or two year (women) compulsory army service, trash the area, smoke a lot of hashish, and have a lot of sex. It doesn’t exactly seem like the type who would frequent an extremely religious space. The photographs above are from Dharamkot and those below from Bhagsu Naag.
The most disturbing aspect of this Israeli take over of this previously Indian and Tibetan community is the inclusion of what restauranteurs call “Israeli cuisine” (hummus, felafel, etc.) with no sense of irony. There are several photographs of menus above that illustrate this. Unfortunately none of the restaurant owners (most seemed to be Indian, not Tibetan) are aware that what they are serving is Arabic cuisine originating in the Levantine countries of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. This cultural theft is akin to what I listed above as one of the many ways Israel Judaises Palestine, often taking on Arabic or Palestinian culture and claiming it as its own. This would be akin to Chinese restaurants serving momos and tsampa and claiming it as their own. Of course, they do that too. Also, I find it odd that just because a group of foreigners frequents another country that “their” cuisine must be readily available. Why travel if you’re not going to eat local food. Seriously! Likewise why is there a need for all the signage to change from Tibetan, Hindi, and English to just two foreign languages: English and Hebrew?
Finally, Kamenetz’s book made it clear that through their interfaith exchange Tibetans and Israelis would begin working together towards a common cause. From their point of view, the Tibetan struggle mirrors the Jewish and Israeli one (he often conflates the two) and, not surprisingly, Palestine is barely mentioned at all. (See Gideon Levy on this.) Indeed, there is an Israeli-Tibet society. And Israelis seem to be collaborating with Tibetans on agricultural projects. However, if the Tibetans want to know what will come of such a venture, they should look at what people did in Andhra Pradesh at Kuppam once they realised how they were being deceived by Israeli promises to improve the agricultural practices here.
One final image: at my meditation centre there were only two languages used other than English and Hindi: Russian and Hebrew.