Thursday, January 10, 2008

(Mahatma) Gandhi and the Jews

Harry's Place has dredged up two of Gandhi's more notorious quotes about the Jews, nonviolence, and the Holocaust (Gandhi's article can be found here: Gandhi). In 1938 he recommended nonviolent resistance against Nazi persecution in Germany, and seemed convinced that if Jews willingly offered their lives, this would result in a moral reformation of the German people.

He was also opposed to Zionism, partially on the grounds that the Jews should prefer to be citizens of the countries where they lived (England, France, Germany) and should fight for their rights in those places. (Obviously at the time this would not have worked in Germany!) He also thought that Zionism was unjust to the Arabs of Palestine. One curious part of his position was that although he opposed the Jewish use of violence in Palestine against Arabs, he did not object to the Arab use of violence against Jews. He says: "I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds." It is very curious, in my opinion, that he would so fiercely condemn Jewish use of violence without at the same condemning Arab use of violence. He does not recommend that the Arabs use satyagraha against the British or Jews in Palestine. (The context for this article was the 1936-39 Arab Revolt against British rule and Jewish settlement in Palestine).

In 1939, Martin Buber wrote an open letter to Gandhi offering a rejoinder to his views on Zionism and the situation of the German Jews. (Partial text found at the Jewish Virtual Library - Buber to Gandhi). I found a precis of his letter on the National Review online site:
In a thoughtful personal response dated February 24, 1939, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber — who had himself emigrated to Israel from Germany a short time earlier and combined his Zionism with earnest efforts to peacefully reconcile Jewish and Arab claims in the Holy Land — chided Gandhi for offering advice to the Jews without any recognition of their real situation. The individual acts of persecution that Indians had suffered in South Africa in the 1890’s hardly compared, Buber noted, to the synagogue burnings and concentration camps instituted by Hitler’s regime. Nor was there any evidence that the many instances in which German Jews peacefully displayed strength of spirit in response to their persecutors had exercised any influence on the latter. While Gandhi exhorted them to bear “testimony” to the world by their conduct, the fate of the Jews in Germany was to experience only an “unobserved martyrdom” without effect.

Turning to Gandhi’s allegation that to claim a homeland in Palestine was inconsistent with the Jews’ claims to equal citizenship in the other countries of their birth, Buber recalled to him that the Indians of South Africa whose cause Gandhi had championed themselves drew sustenance from the existence of India as their “living center.” It was only the existence of such a home that made Diaspora tolerable, respectively (Buber added) for both Jews and Indians.

As for Gandhi’s denial that the Jews had any place in Palestine, since it “belonged” to the resident Arab population, Buber reminded him that the Arabs themselves had previously acquired the land by virtue of a “conquest of settlement” — in contrast to the peaceful methods of the Jews in purchasing land there. Why, indeed, in view of the “primitive” state of Arab agriculture, should Palestinian land be held to belong exclusively to the Arabs, when Jewish settlers had done far more to develop that land’s fertility in the past 50 years than the Arabs in the preceding 1,300? With proper development, there was no reason that the land of Palestine might not support millions of Jewish refugees along with resident Arabs at a far higher standard of living than the latter had heretofore enjoyed. Finally, Buber reminded Gandhi that when the subject was the rights of Indians, as opposed to those of the Jews, Gandhi himself had remarked (in 1922) that he had “repeatedly said that I would have India become free even by violence rather than that she should remain in bondage.”
Arun Gandhi seems to have taken his grandfather's position on Palestine and added to it his own frisson of anti-semitism. I thoroughly disagree with Mahatma Gandhi's pacifism, in the wake of the Holocaust, but at least he did not insult the victims of mass death. However, both Gandhis fall into the same pitfall of excusing the violence of the Palestinians while condemning the Jews or Israelis for using violence to gain their ends. It seems to me that for nonviolence really to have the moral force that is claimed for it, the same demand should be made to both sides - as, for example, Martin Luther King did in the United States.

Note (12-03-12): I will publish further comments on this post, but only if they refrain from excusing Nazism and the Holocaust, or from repeating the witless statement that most Jews in the world today are descendants of the Khazars. This blog does not give a platform to Nazis and antisemites.


  1. good post, this commentary article gives a solid overview on the real ghandi

    an important thing to remember is that ghandi was still hoping for a united india that encompassed the muslims and was busy pandering to them by attacking the jewish presence in israel, much the way european politicians curry favor with muslims by attacking israel

  2. Thanks! That is an interesting point.

  3. What did you see as "anti-Semitic" in Arun Gandhi's statements? While his position on pacifism is extremely idealistic, ad arguably unrealistic, does he display any anti-Semitism? I might be missing something between the lines, but Arun Gandhi's criticism appears to be the logical outworking of a pacifist position. His criticism of the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians seems to me to be a result of his pacifism, not any "anti-Semitism". But maybe you saw something I didn't ... ?

  4. See my detailed critique of Arun Gandhi in the posting (Arun) Gandhi and the Jews. The most obviously anti-semitic line is when he blames "Israel and the Jews are the prime instigators" of violence in the world. Criticisms of Israel and its actions aren't anti-semitic, nor are support of Palestinians, but blaming Israel and "the Jews" as the prime instigators of violence is anti-semitic (as well as being quite demonstrably untrue).

  5. I had a read of your critique, thanks, Rebecca. The part where he accuses Israel and "the Jews" of being "the prime instigators of violence in the world is certainly untrue. In the immediate context of his piece, the "violence" he refers to is metonymic of the military power possessed by the State of Israel. But, even if Israel's military power is considerable, it is still secondary to and drivative of US military power, which is clearly "the prime instigator" of military arms-building in the world today.

    Still, the target of this exaggerated falsity is Israel and implicitly those Jews involved in or with Israeli government. I don't see anti-Semitism clearly at work, and would probably have to read much more of Arun Gandhi's writing that his very short piece to come to such a conclusion. All I am able to conclude here is that Arun Gandhi's pacifism has led him to make a rhetorically exaggerated comment against Israeli military strength and its effects on Palestinian life. Given the extent of military action and possession of military might throughout the world, his comments are biased against the State of Israel. But are they biased against Jews generally? I don't know. Arun Gandhi is not his grandfather, we must remember.

  6. If Arun Gandhi wants to criticize those Jews who are part of the Israeli government or who are right-wing Americans, why doesn't he say so? He speaks of "the Jews," condemning all Jews now living. Such a use of the term "the Jews" is part of classical anti-semitic rhetoric. This failure to distinguish among Jews (or similar language used of any group, like "the Palestinians") is a signal of prejudice in the sense of "prejudgement" - prejudging every individual Jew as belong to the malicious group of "the Jews." I think that your reading is overly generous.

    And no, I'm not confusing Arun Gandhi with his grandfather. As I said above, I don't agree with Mahatma Gandhi on Palestine and Zionism, but I don't see anything in the language of his that I quoted that is redolent of anti-semitism - especially in the sense of prejudging all the Jews. I think his advice to German Jews before the Holocaust was nonsensical, but it makes sense in terms of his own philosophy of nonviolence. Were I a pacifist I would have to take his position very seriously.

    It's clear that Gandhi disagrees with Zionism as a political philosophy in part because he agrees with the Enlightenment perspective that Jews should consider themselves citizens of the countries in which they live, rather than seeing themselves as a transnational group (as was common among pre-modern Jews). This view was held by many Jews at the time Gandhi was writing, including many of the German Jews he was advising.

  7. I recognise I am giving the benefit of the doubt on the expression "the Jews", which I agree is a suspicious phrase that does often indicate a more general bias against Jews (and thus, anti-Semitism). The thing is, it often doesn't. The accusation of anti-Semitism has such serious connotations that I consider such a reserve to be quite appropriate in the current case.

  8. One reason I'm not inclined to give Arun Gandhi a pass on this is that I myself am Jewish, and I don't like being lumped together with the category of "the Jews" and then have most of the violence in the world blamed on me. Try putting yourself in my shoes and imagining how it would feel.

  9. I don't think it is merely that he talks of "the Jews," but that he attributes violence to a Jewish identity. His post is entirely about that identity and so cannot be amended with a slight change in wording.

    In that frame, whenever a Jew acts violently or discusses the use of violence (regardless of the reasons, which dismissed out of hand) it is because they are Jewish. And whenever a Jew isn't violent, it is because they're not so Jewish. I'd like the freedom to define my own Jewish identity, and not to be presumed to be violent when I make it known.

    I have found that (even though I was initially opposed to both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) I am taken to be a right-wing hawk when I write online - even from people who already know better but talk of my "neo-con friends."

    Tying violence to a Jewish identity doesn't merely demonize Jews, but sets up an interpretive schema filled with double standards and excuses to argue against straw men. I'd rather have hatred towards me than these sorts of distortions.

  10. Matt said
    [Arun Gandhi] attributes violence to a Jewish identity. His post is entirely about that identity and so cannot be amended with a slight change in wording.

    Hi Matt,

    I don't consider that Gandhi made any such statement about violence and Jewish identity. Gandhi ties a certain type of violence (against Palestinians) to the national identity of Israeli Jews.

    Gandhi uses the general phrase "the Jews" to refer to
    Israeli Jews, and I think this is clear from the context (his criticism of the State of Israel) that he is referring to Israelis. For the reasons I gave when I discussed his use of the phrase "the Jews" with Rachel, above, this provides no solid grounds for suspecting anti-semitism. Gandhi also blames Israeli Jews as the "biggest players" in creating a culture of violence, which is certainly incorrect, a gross exaggeration, and an accusation that can rightly be laid at the feet of the larger military powers. But his sin here is one of rhetoric, that is all.

    These two aspects of Gandhi's article, while technically incorrect, do not signify anti-Semitism.

    But does his discussion of "identity" itself do so? I would contend that there is nothing objectionable in the (admittedly rhetorically loaded) statement by Gandhi that (Israeli) Jews have formed their national identity on the basis of violence. And I don't see that you have identified anything objectionable.

    Matt said
    In that frame, whenever a Jew acts violently or discusses the use of violence (regardless of the reasons, which dismissed out of hand) it is because they are Jewish. And whenever a Jew isn't violent, it is because they're not so Jewish.

    This implication is without logic. Gandhi is merely claiming that Israeli Jews are supporting a dangerous culture of violence. In fact, Gandhi is arguing from the use of violence to national and nationalist identity. To take his argument as an argument from (Jewish) identity to violence is back-to-front. It is an (illogical) fallacy of distribution.

    I don't think it is irrelevant to observe that the general misuse of the charge "anti-Semitism" derives from a similar fallacy of distribution. While anti-Semitism involves criticism of Jews, as part of the definition, it is an (all too common) fallacy of distribution to conclude that any criticism of Jews is anti-Semitic.

    Here, where Gandhi is criticising Israeli Jews--inasmuch as they support military violence against Palestinians--the charge of anti-Semitism is quite incorrect and misguided.

  11. Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience -- a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed. If you don't think that's a comment about Jewish identity, then I don't know what to say. The Holocaust is a major event in the history of all Jews, not just Israeli Jews, and anything that he says derives from such an identity cannot be restricted merely to some subset of Jews.

  12. Gandhi does think that the Holocaust is an event that impacts on the identity of all Jews. But Gandhi uses this identity-shaping event to discuss the nationalistic responses of Israelis to the Holocaust. And when Gandhi later talks of military strength and action as impacting 'identity', it is solely Israeli identity that is in mind.

    In any case, Gandhi's article lacks any comment whatsoever on the intrinsicality of the ethos of violence for Jews. Without this, there can be no racism, and therefore no anti-Semitism. These lines should be clearly drawn, to avoid any criticism of the State of Israel (whether correct or exaggerated) being labelled "anti-Semitism". The culture of violence Gandhi refers to is clearly considered by him as culturally contingent as the Holocaust; it is a product of specific policies; it is not in any way represented as due to inherent 'racial Jewishness' (a nonsensical category, in any case).

    No, the accusation of anti-Semitism is--with regard to this one article by Gandhi--quite incorrect.

  13. Deane, I think that you are definitely giving Arun Gandhi far too much benefit of the doubt. If he had wanted only to denounce Israeli Jews, he could have said so - but he said that "Israel and the Jews are the prime instigators" of the culture of violence - not just in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in the entire world.

    What would you consider to be an unequivocally anti-semitic statement?

  14. Rebecca,

    I can understand why it may seem that I am giving Arun Gandhi too much benefit of the doubt. But, in the absence of anything in his article that I would label as anti-Semitic, that's the side of the line I would come down on. I think for people of my own generation, who are in the mainstream and not in any far right political or religious group, I would tend to presume that their intended meaning concerns mere politics and not any intrinsic racism. If, on the other hand, they belonged to an earlier generation, or right-wing political or (non-Jewish) religious groups, I would say their words should be treated with more suspicion.

    I think you've mentioned that you've lived in the US at times, Rebecca. Given the political climate there, and the fundamentalist Christian hegemony, perhaps my assumptions don't apply to the mainstream there. I don't know. The US is an unusual place.

    To become 'unequivocal' anti-Semitism, I think there has to be a link between the stereotypical criticism and so-called intrinsic racial features. For example, "Jews are naturally cunning when it comes to money" is a common stereotype which I would consider unequivocally anti-Semitic. "Jews have a predisposition to violence because that's just the way they are" would be another example. And obviously, being opposed to a person in society merely because they are Jewish is anti-Semitic. Any of these traditional stereotypes which wrongly assume some intrinsic wrong with Jewish people unequivocally involve anti-Semitism.

    How would you define anti-Semitism?

  15. I was going to point out Gandhi's commitment to a non-partitioned India, and to Hindu coexistence with Muslims, as a reason for his position against Zionism. But I see the first commenter beat me to it, quite some time ago.

  16. To Deane who sees nothing anti-semitic in Arun Gandhi's remarks, I suggest she reread this:

    "Apparently, in the modern world, so determined to live by the bomb, this is an alien concept. You don't befriend anyone, you dominate them. We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity."

    Israel and the Jews are the biggers players in the culture of violence? This strikes you as neutral? What if I wrote: "India and the Hindus are the biggest players." What you see that as neutral as well?

    Peter Schogol

  17. This is a great post. I just read this quote by Ghandi and was rather appalled. I began looking for more information on the topic and stumbled upon your blog. Very enlightening indeed.

  18. "that most Jews in the world today are descendants of the Khazars"

    Wait, that sounds like complete bullshit, but even if it was true, how is that a bad thing???... I know this is the first time I've ever seen such a notion, but even so, I... I don't follow. Even if they are descendants of the Khazars, that doesn't make them worse, so... I... I just don't get. I don't follow at all. Somebody, please explain what was happening here in the comment section before this notice was added.

    And yes, the Gandhi quotes are appalling. I didn't know about them previously. I didn't know he could be so hypocritical.

  19. How anyone in this day and age could accuse the Jews of being the prime instigators of violence is beyond me. Sadly, my admiration of Gandhi has been tarnished.