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April 1947

Remarks by Professor Hugo Bergman of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and Leader of the Jewish Delegation from Palestine at the Asian Relations Conference

The first Asian Relations Conference took place in New Delhi, India, from March 23 to April 2, 1947, just prior to that country’s independence in August that year. It was hosted by the head of India’s provisional government, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). Its goal was to study common concerns, rekindling Asian connectedness and fostering unity after centuries during which, as Nehru stated, European imperialism had separated Asia’s countries. Its anti-colonial solidarity evinced important continuities with interwar relationships, as Carolien Stolte argues in “‘The Asiatic Hour’: New Perspectives on the Asian Relations Conference” (2014).

The conference was boycotted by late British India’s Muslim leadership, however, and evinced differences in nature and outlook between the delegations. Thirty separate delegations came to New Delhi. Eight were from Caucasian and Central Asian Soviet republics. The other 22 were from Asian countries, most not yet independent. They included Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey (an observer delegation), and one Arab country, Egypt, which, though located in Africa, had for some time been in contact with Asian independence movements. Moreover, the United Nations, Australia, the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR sent observer missions; so did the Arab League.

Most Arab countries, however, declined an invitation, because India’s Muslim leadership did not attend and/or because another invitee was the Zionist Yishuv in Palestine, which gladly accepted. To be precise, the Indian hosts had sent their invitation not to the Yishuvi leadership, the Jewish Agency’s Executive Committee headed by David Ben Gurion (1886-1973), but to a leading Yishuvi institution, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This was because Indian nationalists had been critical of the Yishuv from the interwar years; on a separate note, in 1938 Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) stated that satyagraha, civil disobedience, was German Jews’ best answer to National Socialism. This outraged many, including the Austrian Jewish philosopher and Zionist Martin Buber (1878-1965), who among other things translated the Old Testament into German and republished Jewish and Asian mystical tales. Even so, he and some other European, especially German-speaking, Zionist and non-Zionist Jews in Europe and the Yishuv continued to locate the Jewish people’s past and present and its postcolonial cultural and political future in Asia. They did so imagining that continent as not anti-Semitic, and/or as more spiritual than “the West,” and/or as a rising political force in a decolonizing world. Some scholars, including Rephael Stern and Arie Dubnov in a chapter in the edited volume Unacknowledged Kinships: Postcolonial Studies and the Historiography of Zionism, have called this approach Zionist Asianism. To be sure, Zionist and Jewish Asianism assumed different forms, and a good number of Jews, for instance the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), and the leader of revisionist Zionism, Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), disagreed, emphasizing Europeanness. Still, Zionist Asianism was a real force. Hence, the Hebrew University happily organized a delegation to India, some of whose male and female members were from outside the university. It was headed by a German-speaking philosopher and Zionist activist who had migrated to Palestine in 1919, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann (1883-1975), who was the university library director—and whose English address to the conference forms the text printed here.

We thank Carolien Stolte for providing essential information about the Asian Relations Conference.