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India’s emotional connect with Israel– life of Sentinel Promod Saxena offers a glimpse

Late Promod Saxena who passed away in 2021 epitomised India-Israel people-to-people bonds

It is a known fact that Israel has supported India during its most turbulent times of India-Pakistani wars even though India shied away from having diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992 and Israel’s presence in India was limited to a Consulate office in Mumbai. While India shied for several geopolitical reasons but Indians didn’t; Indian Jews who had been living in India for centuries chose to do Aliyah (migration to Israel) as the new nation-state of Israel was born again and thousands of Indian Jews found a religious calling to settle in their biblical land for new opportunities. There were other Indians also who also got enthralled towards the holy land and this story is of one such boy.

It was the 1970s when a young boy in Delhi got fascinated by a picture in a newspaper; a girl in an army uniform was standing on top of a tank, which was strange for the boy growing up in India as women hadn’t yet joined the armed forces. He asked his father about the picture to which his father replied, “Israel”. That one picture changed his life and recalibrated relations between India and Israel on a human level. The young boy Promod Saxena was a mechanical engineer, instead of pursuing a job in engineering he was focused on travelling to Israel. Travelling in those days was an expensive affair so he self-funded the trip after doing odd jobs but the biggest hurdle was yet to come as India and Israel did not have diplomatic relations then. However, his determination paid off and a passport was issued just to visit Israel for 3 months as Israel was a pariah state then by most of her neighbours where Indians usually go for employment.

Promod entered Israel and was amazed by the country but had to leave due to visa constraints, little knowing that fate had something else stored for him and he would be back for a long haul. Back in India, one day he was filling in a spot for his friend, who used to run a travel company, a group of Bene Israelis (originally from Maharashtra) were looking for a tour guide who could show them Delhi. That day he met a girl, and they fell in love with each other and eventually got married. Destiny took the couple back to Israel for new beginnings.

With his mechanical engineering degree, Promod tried his luck in a factory but soon left as he didn’t like the job. Being smart and educated, he always felt he could do more and soon found an opportunity with a travel company. When the owner of the travel company inquired about his background, he replied, “You teach me, and I will work”. The owner decided to invest in him because of his energy and commitment and within two years he was in charge of the entire travel business, overseeing its two offices in Italy and three in Israel. He had developed into a super salesman and vacation expert. It was a time when both Israelis and Indians were unfamiliar with each other and he used to share anecdotes about India with Israelis who had no idea about India. For Israelis travelling to India was a nightmare as there was no consulate or high commission where one can apply for an Indian visa, so to visit India one has to go to a third country and sit there for a few days until you get a visa. It is here that Promod’s ingenuity got into handy; he used to travel to Egypt with Israeli passports to get Indian visas on his guarantees. He used to do this process twice or thrice a month, around 500 visas annually, which was a huge number then considering the red tape. His efforts even got recognition in the local newspapers as well. Promod was an extrovert and a social being, he promoted the Indian Culture in Israel and organized Indian shows thereby inviting and hosting Indian celebrities there.

But Israel is not like other regular countries; because of the security issues every citizen and permanent resident has to undergo military training and service which was not the case in India. One day Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) wrote him a letter requesting him to report to the army base for training but he didn’t go and disregarded several calls and letters as he didn’t think it was important being an Indian and foreigner. But one dreadful day he was stopped at the airport and was told that he could not leave the country without reporting to the army base. Out of frustration, he went to the army base and a senior army officer asked him why he was refusing to take the training, he stated, “How you can expect me to fight with Arabs when I am Indian and have no enmity with them, I support non-violence”, to which the senior army officer replied, “If a terrorist broke into your home, he would not check your identification before shooting you and your family, you should receive training to ensure their safety”. Another officer in the room exclaimed and said “And who is asking you to go to war; you can work in the kitchen when time strikes”. Promod reluctantly and his first of 3 months of training, which was required to be completed every year. During the first year, there were several instances when he ran away from his training before finally adapting to this new way of life. Because of his army training, not only did he learn to shoot at a target but even knew how to operate bombs and drive a tank. Trainings were so robust that he could navigate in the desert with a compass and a map.

On the last day of training, when all the soldiers were waiting for the bus to take them back to the city, Promod could not wait any longer to be with his family, he took a taxi and boarded it without realizing that the cab driver was a Palestinian working in Israel as a taxi driver. Promod was still in his uniform and had his gun with him; he got worried about his safety and loaded his rifle, the cab driver noticed Promod’s nervousness and advised him to keep the loaded gun turned upside down so that he wouldn’t hurt anybody. Soon they started talking which relaxed Promod and the rest of the journey they spent discussing Hindi films.

During his service at the IDF, he got along with other soldiers including his superiors and being a jovial person he entertained them with Hindi songs and treated them with Indian delicacies. The IDF officers were so impressed by his communication and social skills that they offered him to join the human resource department but he politely declined as he was still fascinated by the potential of the travel industry. His perception towards life and death changed after the IDF service and he became more appreciative of small things in life.

He continued to achieve success professionally in the travel business while dedicating his yearly 3-month service to the IDF for years to come. Promod’s friend and colleague in the travel company Daphne Tsionsky says: “Promod felt an immediate connection with the land and its people, he respected the religion, it was only because of his devotion that IDF promoted him to the rank of Sentinel where he was guarding borders and ammunitions.”

A article in the Israeli media praised late Promod Saxena for his role in forging close people-to-people bonds

Promod’s life took an unpleasant turn when one day he heard that his father had passed away because of a heart attack. This sudden shock led him to recalculate his dream choices and life in Israel versus responsibilities back home in India. He took the hard decision of taking care of his family back home and wanted his children to grow up in an Indian cultural environment, so he packed his bags and bid farewell to the land where he had spent 18 years of his youth and took the learnings back home. Back in India, he did what he loved the most, making people’s lives memorable; he started a travel company which is being successfully run even today by his son and daughter.

Though Promod had left Israel his connection with Israel and its people continued. Promod’s son says “he was a people-to-people ambassador between Israel and India not only did he conduct Bollywood nights in Israel and promoted tourism to India but he was also one of the Indian delegates when President Ezer Weizman became the first Israeli President to visit India”.

Mr Promod Saxena’s life and times show how one can show his devotion to his Karma Bhoomi (land where one works) by supporting the land when in need while continuing to promote relations and business with Matri Bhoomi (land or birth).