Arun Gandhi spoke his nonviolent mind a bit too freely—now he has to look elsewhere for an academic home. The University of Rochester, where he had headed the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, has given him the boot (though he had the good grace to make it, technically, a resignation), because he had the temerity to speak some hard truths in public, and then got a bit carried away with his own rhetoric.
The flap started in early January when Gandhi, a regular blogger at the Washington Post’s On Faith page, wrote that “Jewish identity” has been “locked into the Holocaust experience,” leading the Jewish state to rely on violence rather than “befriend those who hate you.” But this is typical in the modern world, Gandhi lamented, where “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.”
The parenthetical comment about “the biggest players” was obviously stupid. Gandhi quickly backpedaled as fast as he could and apologized, not only for that egregious error but for generalizing about Jews, when he was really talking about the policies of the government of Israel (or so he said). But that wasn’t good enough for the University of Rochester, whose president publicly chided Gandhi on the WaPo’s On Faith site. Now Gandhi is gone from Rochester for good.
The big question that Gandhi’s original post raises is whether we should ever talk about the “identity” of a group of people, for example an ethnic group or a religious community. Is there such a thing? Maybe not. But many academics talk and write as if there is—maybe they should get fired simply for doing so, but that never happens. So Gandhi’s “crime” was not that he wrote about “Jewish identity.”
Nor do academic writers about group identity usually get called on to make it clear that they are not attributing the characteristics of the group to every member. No one complains, for example, if a scholar writes about relatively quiet and even shy mannerisms as typical of Indonesian identity. No one thinks that the scholar is attributing this quality to every single Indonesian. So it should have been obvious that Gandhi was not attributing to every Jew the fixation on the Holocaust as justification for excessive violence.
As long as it is considered acceptable to write about group identities, I’d say Gandhi’s summary of Jewish identity in recent decades is, while of course arguable, well within the realm of reasonable analysis. Plenty of Jewish writers and observers would say he was quite on target, or perhaps even treated the worldwide Jewish community too gently. So, apart from his one egregious parenthetical remark, Gandhi was ousted for openly voicing a position that many thoughtful Jews and non-Jews are willing to admit into the current debate, though some are politically tactful enough to do so only in closed private debate.
The onus now falls on the authorities at Rochester to tell us whether Gandhi was ousted because: a. One egregious parenthetical remark, quickly apologized for, is grounds for cutting loose a prestigious (though in this case non-tenured) academic from an academic institution; or b. Saying in public what many people say only in private is grounds for cutting loose a prestigious academic from an institution. Of course Rochester will never answer that question. Since public opinion is so strongly on its side, it doesn’t have to.
PS: Lest you think this is another case of the right-wing Zionists controlling discourse on a university campus, read the riposte by Rabbi David Saperstein on the WaPo site. Saperstein has impeccable liberal credentials. Unfortunately he took the occasion to swipe not only at Gandhi’s grandson but also, clumsily, at Gandhi himself. In the process he showed a sizeable misunderstanding of the latter’s views on nonviolence. But perhaps the emotion generated by grandson Gandhi’s cutting too close to the moral bone pushed the rabbi off his analytical track.