Antisemitism in Bangladesh
By Richard L. Benkin
It would be a mistake to confuse anti-Jewish sentiments in Bangladesh with historical Christian or Muslim antisemitism. That is not to excuse it or explain it away as less virulent than the other forms. It can be. Antisemitism in Bangladesh is rooted in non-theological elements with less penetration in a cultural narrative.
Somewhere in the Bangladeshi legal system are papers filed by the government that identify me as an agent of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency and one of the best in the world. There is no truth to it, not even any objective evidence to support it; and I believe that if they ever thought about the accusation, Mossad agents would find the idea rather humorous. The government, however, made the charge in all seriousness, and did so formally even though I am an American and always have been an American. In fact, one of the first things I did after learning of the government’s accusation was to call former US Senator Mark Kirk, who was then my Congressman, and assure him that I do not work for any foreign intelligence agency, not even a friendly one. The claim of my being Mossad has been made several times subsequently in Bangladesh, most recently, to explain my article about a unified Bengal (Benkin 2017). Even some Bangladeshi friends believe it.
In Bangladesh, however, there is a knee-jerk tendency to conflate being an Israeli with being a Jew; and I am Jewish so, ipso facto, that makes me a potential Mossad agent in many Bangladeshi minds. I like being associated with Israel, love Israel and admire the nation and its people; it’s just that I am not an Israeli. I am Jewish, which for many Bangladeshis in and out of the government, equates to being Israeli; and the accusation is not meant as a compliment. In fact, one long time Bangladeshi colleague explained that “you can be sure to have a lot of supporters in Bangladesh, no matter what it is for, if you condemn Israel.” He also said that calling something “a Zionist plot” is an accepted way to deflect criticism or cover failures – and it is believed by many.[ii]
People worldwide often associate Bangladesh with natural disasters and poverty; and the nation does face some unique problems. It is the only country among the world’s ten most populous and ten most densely populated. Its 165 million citizens are packed in an area a little larger than Greece; however, the Greek population is only two-thirds of one percent of Bangladesh’s. That is 86 Greeks per square kilometer compared to 1,118 Bangladeshis. Greece’s land mass is stable, moreover, and its population shrinking; while Bangladesh’s land mass is shrinking, and its population is growing. Bangladesh is predicted to exceed 200 million people by mid-century despite the shrinking land mass (UNICEF 2014). There is less association with increased Islamist influence in the country, which is a primary factor in Bangladeshi antisemitism, and why it is limited.
Of all of those people, none are Jewish.[iii] Bangladeshis have been quick to point out to me, however, that both the architect who designed their parliament building and the Indian general who forced Pakistan to accept defeat in Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence were both Jewish (BDnews24 2016; Levy 2017). Some also point out that Bangladeshis remain grateful to Israel for being the fourth country to recognize its independence. Yet, the lack of contact with Jews breeds ignorance about them, even at the highest level. In 2006, I brokered a clandestine meeting between a high level Bangladeshi minister and two Israeli officials. During the conversation, one of the Israelis remarked on the small size of the Jewish community worldwide, but the Bangladeshi minister insisted that Jews represent a significant part of the world’s population. The Israeli then suggested that the community is small enough that he and I – who had never met before – would find some family village in common going back not more than a couple generations. And in fact, two of our grandfathers came from the same village in the Russian Pale of Settlement.[iv] When I told him there were only about 13 million Jews in the world – a mere one fifth of one percent of the population and less than the combined population of just the Bangladeshi cities of Dhaka and Chittagong – the minister insisted that there had to be many, many more.
Dr. Shadman Zaman, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi who moved to Israel, told the Jerusalem Post that he grew up surrounded by classic antisemitism. “Even in our school books [said] ‘Jews are the mirror of Satan’ and ‘Zionists control the world (Zieve 2017).’” As a Jew who has spent a good deal of time in Bangladesh and with Bangladeshis, however, I have not encountered antisemitism directly, unless it came from open Islamists or foreigners (e.g., Iranians who once picketed my presence). Similarly, even though the Bangladeshi government shares the anti-Israeli position mentioned above, I have not experienced government antisemitism or witnessed the use of anti-Semitic canards in government statements of its position.[v] The one exception came from H.T. Imam, then a close confidant of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who still holds a cabinet-level post. On March 10, 2015, human rights activist Rabindra Ghosh met with H. T. Imam about the persecution of Hindus. Imam dismissed the notion out of hand. When Ghosh raised my long standing activism on the issue, Imam replied, “Dr. Benkin is working for the interests of the Jews,” and warned him not to meet with me in Kolkata as he planned (Benkin 2015). Mr. Ghosh, however, is a longtime colleague, met with me, and handed over a thick dossier with evidence of government-tolerated persecution.
According to the B’nai Brit Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Bangladeshis harbor fewer anti-Semitic attitudes than does Imam. In its 2014 poll of global antisemitism, the ADL (2014) sampled 102 countries. Bangladesh was tied for 50th in overall antisemitism[vi], squarely in the middle of the pack. Its score bested France by five points and Greece by 37 points. This distinction is not merely academic. The lack of anti-Semitic public expressions and easy interaction Bangladeshis have with Jews means that antisemitism is not embedded in the Bengali cultural narrative; and that alters how one would combat it. That helps us understand the complexity of antisemitism in Bangladesh: it exists; the arguments used to demonize Israel contain anti-Semitic canards and often generalize Jews’ relative influence (that includes singling out the world’s single Jewish state for vitriol); and there is a significant Islamist element that actively promotes Jew hatred. Yet, the government while not taking action to combat or actively condemn it; does not adopt or express those anti-Jewish attitudes even when criticizing Israel.
Antisemitism in Bangladesh and in fact much of Asia, must not be confused with traditional (and still vibrant) European/Christian or historical Muslim Antisemitism. The latter two have at their essence a theological basis, hardened by centuries of practice and exploitation by religious and secular elites (Prager and Telushkin 1983; Bostom and Warraq 2008). The etiology of historical Christian and Islamic Antisemitism begins with understanding that the core beliefs of both of those Abrahamic faiths are rooted in supersessionism: the theological view that their “revealed” religions supersede and supplant the authority of those Abrahamic faiths that preceded them. For Christianity, that meant Judaism. For Islam, it meant both Judaism and Christianity, and while Islam’s relationship with Christianity often has been one of conflict, its expression has been muted by the realities of power relationships; especially after the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The 1967 Israel-Arab War could have been a similar watershed for Islam and Judaism; but only changed tactics for the latter (Byman 2017).
Conclusion and a Warning
Although antisemitism is not embedded in the Bengali collective consciousness, and with the absence of Jews in the country, Bangladesh does not see overtly anti-Semitic actions; the country’s increased radicalization threatens to change those things. As Dr. Navras Aafreedi concludes, South Asian Muslims with little or no contact with Jews have a greater potential to “easily develop prejudices and biases against them based on the many anti-Semitic stereotypes propagated by the ulema” (Benkin 2017a, 193). Thus far, that has not happened in Bangladesh. Not a single anti-Semitic attitude on the aforementioned ADL (2014) study was held by a majority of Bangladeshi Muslims. The one that came the closest (47 percent) holds that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries where they live. This fits the theory that Bangladeshi antisemitism rests on political grounds and is tied to the Israel-Arab conflict, perceived by many as one between supranational Jewish and Muslim communities.
“Nobody seriously suggests that the government is in league with the terrorists. But it has been slow to deal with the threat, long denying that al-Qaeda and Islamic State were active in Bangladesh, even as followers of both groups claimed credit for murders. Instead, the government has blamed the opposition party” (Economist 2016). That is, as Islamists have taken progressively greater hold on Bangladeshi society, neither major political party has taken a stance to stop them. Both the Awami League (currently in power) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have gone so far in their political calculations to offer Islamists power sharing in their governments.[vii]
I have posited three dimensions along which we can gauge a country’s level of moderation: Islamic supremacy in law and public belief systems; life for non-Muslims and non-Orthodox Muslims; and proliferation of trans-national Islamist groups. Bangladesh comes up wanting on all three dimensions (Benkin 2017a, 203-219). In 2015, my Bangladeshi contacts gave me the address of a house in Dhaka that was serving as an ersatz ISIS headquarters. Since then, ISIS’s presence in Bangladesh (along with several other Islamist groups) has been well established (Benkin 2015a; Ireland 2016).
Antisemitism does not have a serious presence in the Bengali collective conscience. Elements of the former are driven in large part by Islamist radicalization; and in the case of Bangladesh, the growing strength of Islamism in most major social institutions. Whether due to fear, political calculations, or other factors; Bangladeshi governments and major political parties have enabled their nation’s radicalization. As long as radicalization’s growing influence in Bangladesh continues, it will drive increased separation between Muslims and other religious groups, in this case, increased antisemitism.
Stopping the spread of Islamists might also be the best course for Bangladeshi Muslims.
 The charge was repeated glibly, as if a given, in an editorial online (in Bangla), rarenews24.com. See “There should be a majority of Hindus in two Bengals: Richard Benkin,” http://www.rarenews24.com/archives/6898. Terms like “Mossad agent” and “Zionist” are used as insults by many Bangladeshis, whether official or popular. I take them as compliments.
[ii] Some years back, when a Bangladeshi aspirant for the OIC Secretary General post, saw support move to his Turkish opponent, he attributed it to “Zionists.”
[iii] There have been periodic suggestions over the years of a Bangladeshi Jewish population, however, they appear to have no basis in fact (Weil 2012). The closest I ever came to a Bangladeshi Jewish community was meeting some Baha’i in Dhaka who had previously been Jewish but converted prior to immigrating to Bangladesh because they were afraid their Jewish identify would prevent their ability to live there.
[iv] The Pale of Settlement was that part of the Russian Empire in which Jews were allowed to reside. It included contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova; and parts of the Ukraine, Latvia, and western Russia. It also included the areas of Poland occupied by the Russians since that nation was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary in the eighteenth century.
[v] To be sure, I have encountered the sort of ignorance about Jews reflected in the above minister’s incredulity that such a small Jewish population would have so great an impact on world events; and that ignorance can lead to antisemitism.
[vi] Bangladesh was tied with Bosnia & Herzegovinia, Costa Rica, Georgia, and Khazakhstan.
[vii] While Islamists were part of the last coalition government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, they have not actually shared power with the Awami League. Just prior to the aborted 2007 elections, however, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League signed an agreement with the Islamist Khalefat Andolin Majlis, granting the latter a share of the coalition should the Awami League come to power. Had the 2007 elections not been stopped by international condemnation and a military coup, this likely would have been a very different conversation.
Anti-Defamation League. 2014. ADL GLOBAL100: An index of Anti-Semitism. http://global100.adl.org/
BDnews24 2016. “Bangladesh receives parliament building’s original design by Louis Kahn.” BDnews24.com. December 1. https://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2016/12/01/bangladesh-receives-parliament-building-s-original-design-by-louis-i-kahn
Benkin, Richard. 2015. “‘Moderate’ Bangladesh says human rights activist working for ‘interests of the Jews.’” Crime Flash. April 1. http://www.interfaithstrength.com/Imam.htm
Benkin, Richard. 2015a. “Is ISIS in South Asia?” American Thinker. November 1. http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2015/11/is_isis_in_south_asia.html
Benkin, Richard. 2017. “A Unified Bengal – A Benkin’s Dream.” The News. November 16. http://www.interfaithstrength.com/Bengal.html
Benkin, Richard, editor. 2017a. What is Moderate Islam. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).
Bostom, Andrew and Ibn Warraq. 2008. The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History. (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008).
Byman, Daniel L. 2017. “The 1967 War and the birth of international terrorism.” Brookings Institute. May 30. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/05/30/the-1967-war-and-the-birth-of-international-terrorism/
Economist. 2016. “Round up the usual suspects.” The Economist. June 18. https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21700669-spate-assassinations-provokes-heavy-handed-response-round-up-usual-suspects
Ireland, Nicole. 2016. “ISIS threat rising in Bangladesh, experts say.” CBC News. July 9. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/isis-bangladesh-possible-target-1.3669162
Levy, Bernard-Henri. 2017. “India’s Jewish general and the liberation of Bangladesh.” Dhaka Tribune. September 19. http://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/arts-letters/2017/09/10/indias-jewish-general-liberation-bangladesh/
Prager, Dennis and Joseph Telushkin. 1983. Why the Jews: The reason for Antisemitism. (New York: Touchstone, 1983).
UNICEF. 2014. “Migration Profiles: Bangladesh.” February 3. https://esa.un.org/miggmgprofiles/indicators/files/Bangladesh.pdf
Weil, Shalva. 2012. “The Unknown Jews of Bangladesh Fragments of an Elusive Community.” Asian Jewish Life. Volume 10. September. http://asianjewishlife.org/pages/articles/AJL_Issue_10_Sept2012/AJL_Feature_Unknown-Jews-Bangladesh.html
Zieve, Tamara. 2017. “BANGLADESHI, EXILED FOR VISITING ISRAEL, RETURNS TO JEWISH STATE.” Jerusalem Post. November 26. http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Bangladeshi-banned-from-home-country-for-visiting-Israel-returns-to-Jewish-State-515238
Dr Richard L. Benkin is a US based human rights activist. He received a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: The Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus (2012) and What is Moderate Islam? (2017).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.