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Coalition of the Nerds

Israel and India, dominant at the World Chess Championship last week, share tourists, trade, and values

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India’s Viswanathan Anand (right) and Israel’s Boris Gelfand shake hands before a World Chess Championship match in Moscow on May 18, 2012. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

So, the conspiracy theorists were right: Indians and Israelis really have been plotting world domination. In a 20-day contest in Moscow that ended last week, 42-year-old Chennai native Viswanathan Anand and 43-year-old Israeli Boris Gelfand battled for the 2012 World Chess Championship. Anand, the defending world champion, held off his challenger, but not before being taken to a tie breaker.

Indians and Israelis ought to savor this rare moment of sporting glory. Not to put too fine a point on it, but try to imagine an Indian-Israeli final in any other sport.

Take soccer, the so-called beautiful game. India is ranked a lowly 158th in the world; Israel last qualified for the World Cup in 1970. Or how about the Olympics? In Bejing four years ago, Israel snagged a single bronze … for wind surfing. With one gold (shooting) and a pair of bronzes (wrestling and boxing), India didn’t exactly set the medals table alight either. Indeed, the classic Jewish joke from Airplane! works just as well with Indians. Light reading: Famous Hindu sporting legends. (Cricket, India’s national obsession, doesn’t count. Only 10 countries play it seriously, among them such sporting giants as Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.)

Chess, though, is another matter. It’s the one international sport where India and Israel find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being in the top 10 teams in the world. Between them they have 65 grand masters—the sport’s highest rung—and 121 international masters.

But what if you’re one of those folks who doesn’t think a couple of overweight, bespectacled middle-aged guys hunched over a board qualifies as sport? Well, there’s always politics. In 1972, when Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky squared off in Reykjavik for the so-called Match of the Century, the Cold War analogy virtually wrote itself. (Freedom won.) In the mid-1980s, the fabled rivalry between buttoned-down Anatoly Karpov and the flamboyant Garry Kasparov came to symbolize the struggle within the USSR between the Soviet establishment and reformers. In 1985, the brash 22-year-old Kasparov beat the Kremlin favorite to become the youngest-ever world champion.

Alas, Anand v. Gelfand doesn’t write itself quite as easily. To begin with, neither player exactly oozes charisma. Though Anand has won the so-called Chess Oscar six times, even his most partisan supporters won’t claim that he sets pulses racing among those who can’t tell their Ruy Lopez from their Queen’s Indian Defense. Your heart goes out to journalists struggling to make him sound interesting. (Hey, did you know he’s the only sportsman invited to a dinner by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for President Barack Obama in 2010?!)

As for the low-key and gym-averse Gelfand, even if you forgive him for being born in Minsk it’s kind of hard to get over his choice of an Israeli city to emigrate to: Rishon LeZion. (What’s wrong with Tel Aviv, Boris?)

But enough naysaying. For supporters of the India-Israel relationship, Gelfand v. Anand reinforces a geopolitical fact: New Delhi and Jerusalem—and by extension Chennai and Rishon LeZion—share a special bond.

In the 20 years since the two countries established full diplomatic relations, two-way trade has rocketed from an anemic $180 million to an estimated $5 billion. A trip to India after compulsory military service is now a rite of passage for many young Israelis: About 40,000 of them visit India each year. (Though it isn’t clear how many carry chess boards in their backpacks.) Israeli and Indian technology and pharmaceutical firms have invested in each others’ economies.

Four years ago, scientists in southern India launched Tecsar, an Israeli spy satellite reportedly aimed at improving the monitoring of Iranian military movements. The following year, India launched a modified version of the satellite bought from Israel for itself.

Over the past decade, Israel has emerged as one of India’s biggest arms suppliers—second only to Russia, by some estimates—and India in turn is one of the Israeli defense industry’s largest export markets. Among India’s purchases: surveillance drones, surface-to-air missiles, advanced artillery, airborne radar, and sensors to track cross-border infiltration by terrorists into Indian Kashmir. The two countries are also working together on a joint missile-defense program.

For those who found the Cold War-era chill between India and Israel inexplicable, this warmth is only natural. Both India and Israel represent ancient civilizations whose land carries a special spiritual significance for most of its people. Despite living in tough neighborhoods, both have chosen democracy over dictatorship. Though the Arab Spring may change this, traditionally you could drive the 2,500 miles between New Delhi and Jerusalem without encountering another plural society whose leaders are regularly elected to office.

Despite what conspiracy theorists may say, neither country has a quarrel with Islam—both house Muslim populations that enjoy more rights than their coreligionists in many places—but both are threatened by radical Islamist ideology and its cousin, jihadist terrorism. As former British colonies, India and Israel are kissing cousins of the Anglosphere, lands with distinct cultures that benefit from the liberal international order upheld by American power.

Closer to home, the 3-million-strong Indian-American community sees the Jewish-American community as a role model. The Hindu American Foundation has sought guidance from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League as it battles discriminatory text books and sexy yoga commercials. The lobbying group USINPAC has co-hosted events on Capitol Hill with the influential AIPAC. (It has a ways to go, however, to match AIPAC’s influence.) More broadly, many Indians share the belief that, as the Indian-American author Parag Khanna has put it, “Jews and Indians are assimilators, maintaining traditional values but adapting to any national context.”

In short, there’s a lot more to the India-Israel relationship than a chess face-off. Though if the relationship is to attain its full potential, perhaps it’s time American Jews started paying more attention to another area of nerdy achievement: the spelling bee.


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gwhepner says:

Israel was never a colony of Britain. Britain ruled it with a mandate provided by the League of Nations.

Lee Ratner says:

gehepner, this is technically and legally correct but Mandate Israel/Palestine was governed as a crown colony. It might not have been a crown colony de jure but it was de facto one. 

Moshan says:

India’s nonstop support for Palestinians are complicating things. And considering that the trailing energy supply of the world, oil, is slowly decreasing and/or stagnating, the importance of the middle east will increase.

This in turn will mean that this policy of India will not change.

Also, America’s energy picture looks far better than India’s. Although Israel would be wise to ally itself to any and all nations, India’s future in an energy-constrained world looks bleak.

China truly has surpassed it in all ways possible. The latest dismal GDP growth numbers only confirm this, the same is true to India’s bizarre socialist policies of reneging on foreign corporations’ investments.

All of which is to say.. India runs a real risk of being stuck in the ‘middle income trap’ if even that.

Interesting article but you’re wrong about cricket. Young Indians play cricket in much the same way as young South Americans play football. The game is played seriously in England, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa among other countries. India is a cricket powerhouse in the world which makes cricket one of the most watched sports on television in the world (more than American sports such as American football, basketball or baseball).
Olympic medals are usually a result of money spent on training the athlete. In the 2008 games India got 1 Gold and 1 Bronze. Argentina got 2 Gold and 4 Bronze. Pretty similar but Argentina are good at Football (a sport you deem significant) and India are good at cricket (a sport you deem insiginficant).
I know this article isn’t really about sport in India but I don’t live in the US and US-centric views of the world grate me. But otherwise interesting article!

    MumbaiMadrid says:

    Thanks, B, for explaining about cricket to the Americans (a bit like trying to explain baseball to the Germans or the French).  Mr. Dhume might have mentioned that the most ancient antecedents of chess are to be found in cultures of the Indian subcontinent.

phill2012 says:

why all the cheap shot putdowns in the first part of this article, and the title itself (nerds)?  for melodramatic effect? to pander to the presumed jock mentality of the average reader? for comic relief? 

Also India was a power in field hockey. Actually, Israel has improved in the. Olympics, having medaled in every game from 1992 on.

Also India was a power in field hockey. Actually, Israel has improved in the. Olympics, having medaled in every game from 1992 on.

Also India was a power in field hockey. Actually, Israel has improved in the. Olympics, having medaled in every game from 1992 on.


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Coalition of the Nerds

Israel and India, dominant at the World Chess Championship last week, share tourists, trade, and values

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