Josh Glancy

The Jewish century is over, the Indian century has just begun

Jews and Indians share similar experiences of integration in Britain, a century apart


LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 18: Britain's Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons on January 18, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

January 19, 2023 09:36

Back in the distant days of 2008, Jeffrey Archer made a prescient remark. Speaking to an audience in Gurgaon, India, while on a book tour to promote his latest thriller, Archer was asked what change he could see happening in Britain. “It is going to be taken over by the Indians,” was the disgraced peer’s answer. “What you are doing is what the Jews did 30-40 years ago, when they came to England after the war.”

He went on to tell the interviewer: “You are young enough, I suspect, to live to see an Indian prime minister in England.”

Well, he was right about the prime minister, even if he phrased it all rather crudely. But was Archer right about the other thing too? Are Indians really the “new Jews”?

I was reminded of Archer’s comments this week when I was asked to speak at the 25th-anniversary meeting of the British Indian Jewish Association. I had no idea such an association existed but was thrilled to get the call-up nonetheless.

The association makes sense though, when you think about it, because Jews and Indians do tend to get on. In fact, some of them get on so well that America has invented a new portmanteau for Jewish-Indian couples: Hinjew.

Speaking at the BIJA event got me thinking as to why this might be. Some of the parallels are obvious to the point of cliché: hard-working, business-oriented, overbearing families, obsessions with food and educational achievement, attachment to religious traditions that are often honoured more in the breach than the observance. On a more emotional level, there’s a kind of shared hunger, the sense of a point to prove, all the more effective because we both tend to operate in tight, loyal familial units.

The two groups have followed similar immigrant paths in Britain: Jews, who came in large waves at the end of the 19th century, faced riots and racism. They were stigmatised and bullied and othered. But they forged a path through all that to find acceptance, becoming one of the wealthiest and most stable minorities in the land.

There are differences of course, but something fairly similar has happened to many of the Indians who came to Britain in the mid-20th century, following the collapse of the Raj and the horrors of partition. Both can make a reasonable claim to the “model minority” label coined by sociologist William Petersen.

There are political alignments, too. India wasn’t exactly sold on Israel in the era of Gandhi and Nehru, but now the two countries are closely aligned: India is Israel’s best customer for arms sales. Both countries have an issue with religious nationalism. Back home, many British Indian voters appear to be abandoning the Labour party, much as the past two generations of Jews have done.

But are they, as Archer suggested, supplanting Jews at the top table of British life? There is room for both, of course, but I think in some senses they are.

I’ve written before in these pages about the waning of diasporic Jewish genius, which has been replaced by more comfortable prosperity. If the era of Jewish greatness is abating, the time of Indian greatness could well be now. Indians in Britain are in the perfect sweet spot: one or two generations into their migrant journey. Long enough to have mastered language and lore, but still close enough to the pain of exile and arrival to nurture fierce ambition and self-discipline. They are the new alrightniks, as Jewish immigrants made good used to be called.

This hunger has fuelled the rise of a generation of Indian-origin politicians, from Rishi Sunak and Sadiq Khan to Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. Indian names — Hinduja, Agarwal and Mittal — now occupy the top of the Sunday Times Rich List, alongside the Reuben brothers, David and Simon, who get double points for being both Jewish and Indian.

Hints of decadence and complacency are creeping into the Jewish diaspora experience. We’re like the fourth generation of a parvenu family, some fading into stolid plenty, others — myself included — flirting with a bit of creative downward mobility. A similar pattern is emerging in America. Google and Microsoft may have been part-founded by Jews, but Indian CEOs, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, now run them. Expect more to follow.

The 20th century was in many ways, for better and worse, Jewish. This was the thesis of Yuri Slezkine’s superb book on the subject, The Jewish Century, which argued that Jews adapted so well to modernity that they became the premier symbol of modern life.

But the 21st century may well be the Asian century. Global power and geopolitical focus is shifting east, towards Asian superpowers India and China. This shift will also empower Asian diasporas in Europe and America, who have links and cultural affiliations with the new global eminences.

In the age when print, cinema and radio dominated the planet, European Jews, with their well-honed verbosity and long Talmudic traditions, were perfectly placed to succeed. But the 21st century is a digital one, dominated by numbers and engineers. There have been plenty of Jewish maths geniuses over the years, of course, but it is Indians who are now better situated to surf the waves of hyper-modernity.

The Jewish century is over then, it seems. The Indian one has just begun.

January 19, 2023 09:36

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