Indian Hindu finds kindred spirits among Republican Jews

“How can a Hindu from India be writing about Jewish Republicans?”

That’s a question Trithesh Nandan has heard a lot this semester. A Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Nandan is on leave at his job as a broadcast journalist to attend San Francisco State University.

The Fulbright scholar is here for one semester, working on his doctoral thesis about Jews in the Republican Party. To be more specific, he’s writing about the United States’ policies on Israel formulated by Republican presidents and the emergence of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Nandan traces his interest in Judaism to his childhood, even though it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he actually met a Jew. His grandfather used to tell him stories about the two or three Jews that he knew, and how they left India for Israel in 1948.

“The Jews were in my mind, lingering for a long time,” he said. “So when I entered university, I started learning more about them, and about Israel.”

For his master’s thesis, Nandan wrote about American Jews and the welfare state.

Nandan spent the 2001-2002 school year in Israel on a scholarship from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the height of the second intifada, when bombs were frequently going off in buses and cafes.

“I started loving Israel,” he said. “Israeli society takes care of people. The Israelis I met were very warm and wanted to know more about me because most of their youngsters go to India after the army.”

While Nandan was interested in the topic of India-Israel relations, so were many of his colleagues. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had visited India around that time, and the subject became a popular one to study. Nandan, who was in the American studies department, turned his sights to America. And being a conservative himself, he was most interested in Jews in the Republican Party. The fact that their numbers remain low, but they are highly influential within the party, was of interest to him.

One might wonder why someone studying Jewish Republicans might end up in San Francisco — where it’s difficult to find Republicans of any religion. Nandan was wondering that too, at first, as San Francisco’s reputation as a liberal bastion had not reached him in India. He has met only three or four Jewish Republicans since his arrival.

Once the Fulbright program accepted him, Nandan had to find a professor that would work with him, and Marc Dollinger, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies, was happy to oblige.

Dollinger taught a course for the first time this year on American Jewish history, and Dollinger’s topic of interest is American Jewish liberalism. Having Nandan there as a counterpoint led to some very interesting discussions, Dollinger said.

“All of the students have deep respect for him,” said Dollinger. “To have a Fulbright scholar with an expertise in American Jewish politics is great.”

Some of the topics Nandan is researching include American-Israeli relations under Republican presidents from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush.

Nandan said that President Ronald Reagan was an especially good president for the Jews since he pressured the Soviet Union to open its doors and allow Jews to emigrate. “Also, most of the neo-conservatives in his administration were Jewish and they were shaping the policy to make America victorious in the Cold War,” he said.

In 1992, George Bush got 11 percent of the Jewish vote, and in the 2000 election, George W. Bush got 24 percent, Nandan said. “This signals that there is improvement in terms of Jewish voting to the Republican Party, but it is still not big,” he said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."