Adath Israel to Host Event on Antisemitism, Hinduphobia

Peggy Shapiro is a white woman with short, brown hair. Next to her is Suhag Shukla, a brown woman with long, black hair. Both are smiling.
Peggy Shapiro and Suhag Shukla | Courtesy of StandWithUs

Many Jews may be familiar with an antisemitic image that gained notoriety during the Holocaust: an old bearded man with a long, hooked nose wearing a kippah.

But less familiar to Jewish people is a similar image which, instead of the greedy merchant donning a kippah, is wearing a turban. The image, which has circulated across social media, is meant to disparage Hindus.

Discrimination against Jews and Hindus extends far beyond the shared drawing but has seldom been talked about by the two communities. Over the past decade, Jewish and Hindu leaders have sought to change that.

Adath Israel on the Main Line will host Jewish and Israel advocacy nonprofit StandWithUs and the Hindu American Foundation for “Shine a Light on Antisemitism and Hinduphobia: What Jews and Hindus Can Learn from Each Other” on March 23 at 7 p.m. StandWithUs National Director of Special Projects Peggy Shapiro and HAF Executive Director Suhag Shukla will speak at the event.

“It’s an opportunity for two minority groups that experience marginalization to come together and talk about how we can counteract it,” Adath Israel Rabbi Andrew Markowitz said. “We’re definitely stronger together when we share narratives and have the opportunity to share experiences and reach out beyond the boundaries of our established communities.”

“Shine a Light on Antisemitism and Hinduphobia” will teach the similarities between the two religious traditions, as well as the similar challenges Jews and Hindus face.

“We’re the two ancient civilizations left, and we’re going to have to stand together to make sure that we don’t become a footnote in history like many other civilizations did,” HAF co-founder Mihir Meghani said.

Hindus make up about 1% of the population in Philadelphia, according to the Pew Research Center. Jews make up about 3%.

Like American Jews, Hindus in America — who number about 3.2 million — have also seen an increase in discrimination and hate crimes, Meghani said. In August, a man in Fremont, California, was charged with a hate crime for shouting anti-Hindu abuse at restaurant patron Krishnan Jayaraman, including a jibe about bathing in cow urine, according to an ABC7 News report. 

Anti-Hindu hate often stems from reducing the culture and religion to three components: “cows, caste and karma,” Shukla said.

“Cows kind of [represent] the exotification, or exoticization of practices and just kind of simplifying them, where there’s a Hindu tradition of venerating all life,” Shukla said.

Another common stereotype about Hinduism relates to karma and caste, and the misunderstanding of Hindu beliefs of reincarnation.

“Everything gets rooted in this idea that Hinduism teaches that we come back, but people don’t have an equal inherent worth,” Shukla explained. “One of the foundational teachings of Hinduism is that all of existence — all beings, all animals, all people, all trees, everything that we have — is inherently divine and that, therefore, we have a responsibility to treat everyone with mutual respect and dignity.”

Misunderstandings about Hinduism originate in how it has been taught to non-Hindu audiences, Shukla said.

British forces colonized and occupied India from 1757 to 1947, and the narratives of Hindu people as having regressive or hierarchical beliefs and traditions stem from colonial biases.

“Those colonial narratives were also deeply informed by Christian — mostly Protestant and Catholic — discomfort with the Hindu tradition, and also their own motivations of conversion,” Shukla said.

Early colonial beliefs about Hindus were also a driving force in antisemitic rhetoric during Nazi rule in Europe, a further tie between Judaism and Hinduism.

In the late 1800s, Europeans created the Aryan Invasion Theory. Upon first interacting with Hindu society, Europeans witnessed advancements in science and math and assumed that this sophisticated society resulted from earlier European colonization. They believed that European settlers had given Hindus knowledge and technology to create a thriving society, rather than Hindus simply creating it themselves.

As proof of their beliefs, Shukla explained, they looked to Hindu texts and came across the word “Arya,” which means “noble.” Europeans interpreted “Arya” as a separate, superior race of people who guided Hindus, rather than interpret it the way Hindus did, as simply a title or honorific.

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler used similar rhetoric to ascribe superiority to the “Aryan race” of Germans.

Jews and Hindus can also find similar touchstones in their respective cultures: Both have holidays celebrating light (Chanukah and Diwali), with themes of light over darkness prevailing, as well as diasporic communities supporting their respective countries of Israel and India, both of which are struggling young democracies.

Shapiro has spent the last decade learning about these similarities and more and formed a partnership with HAF nine years ago to travel around the country and educate Jewish and Hindu audiences about their similarities. The March 23 event will be the first in-person presentation of “Shine a Light on Antisemitism and Hinduphobia.”

“We thought we should educate people,” Shapiro said. “They should see that we have a lot in common.”

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