Gandhi, his Grandson, Israel, and the Jews

When Arun Gandhi, the grandson of one of history’s greatest political actors and thinkers writes publicly that  Israel and the Jews are the greatest promoters of a culture of violence, he speaks with an inherited authority—not to mention the implied comparison between this violent culture and the pacifism of his family legacy. But what did Mahatma Gandhi actually think of the idea of Israel, and of the fate of the Jews of his time?

As it turns out, M.K. Gandhi engaged in sustained conversation with Jewish intellectuals of his day—many of whom were dismayed by the great mans insistence, for example, that Jews in Germany should have willingly offered themselves to the butchers knife.

In this essay, Shalom Goldman sketches out the little-known background to a contemporary controversy. Click here for a preformatted PDF booklet of this article, and here for Letters to the Editor in response to it.


In early January, Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, posted a short essay on Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith.” The response to his posting was so passionate and violent that Gandhi was forced to resign his position as director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester.

The topic of discussion on the blog that day was “the future of Jewish identity.” The moderators, Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, had posed a question that week that was linked to the airing of the PBS television series “The Jewish Americans.”

The question was: We know what ‘Jewish identity’ has meant in the past. What will it mean in the future? How does a minority religion retain its roots and embrace change?

From a scholarly standpoint Meacham and Quinn’s question was not sufficiently nuanced. (Students of Jewish history would be quite surprised by their assertion that “we know what ‘Jewish identity’ meant in the past”—in fact, what constitutes modern Jewishness has been the subject of vigorous debate since the French Revolution!) But if the question lacked nuance, Arun Gandhi’s answer, posted (perhaps too hastily) on the same day that the question was posed by the moderators, lacked all proportion or sense of civility.

As the essay was brief, and its effect powerful and still reverberating months later, it is worth reproducing in full:


Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience—a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed. It is a very good example of how a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. The holocaust was the result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful. But, it seems to me the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews. The world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on the regret turns into anger.

The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak. Any nation that remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead and, especially a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs. In Tel Aviv in 2004 I had the opportunity to speak to some Members of Parliament and Peace activists all of whom argued that the wall and the military build-up was necessary to protect the nation and the people. In other words, I asked, you believe that you can create a snake pit—with many deadly snakes in it—and expect to live in the pit secure and alive? What do you mean? they countered. Well, with your superior weapons and armaments and your attitude towards your neighbors would it not be right to say that you are creating a snake pit? How can anyone live peacefully in such an atmosphere? Would it not be better to befriend those who hate you? Can you not reach out and share your technological advancement with your neighbors and build a relationship?

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.

The University of Rochester, which had only recently become the Institute’s host, was deeply embarrassed by the essay and the many angry responses to it. The president of the university, Joel Seligman, said that Gandhi’s statements about Israel and Jewish identity were “fundamentally inconsistent with the core values” of the university and requested his resignation. For many readers the posting’s parenthetical remark about a culture of violence in which “Israel and the Jews are the biggest players” was the most offensive line in the essay. Also troubling to many readers was Gandhi’s assertion that Nazi murder of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews “was the result of the warped mind of an individual.” To reduce a profound historical question—what enables genocide in the context of war?—to a psychological formula seems facile at best.

Deborah Howell, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, wrote that she regretted that her newspaper had published Gandhi’s article. But she rejected requests that the article be deleted from the newspaper’s website and that Arun Gandhi be removed from the panel of commentators. Howell noted that “it is the policy of editors not to remove articles; they equate that with trying to change history.”

Arun Gandhi resigned three weeks after posting his essay. He told the Rochester City Newspaper that he resigned in order to protect the institute, which he feared would have been closed down if he remained at the helm. Responses in the English-language international press to this American media event were quite predictable. The Jerusalem Post titled its article “Gandhi Resigns after Blasting Jews,” while the Tehran Times offered the headline “Gandhi Grandson Falls Victim to Zionist Lobby.”

The press response in India, where each of the five Gandhi grandsons is a public figure, was more varied and complex. The Telegraph of Calcutta was fiercely protective of the Mahatma’s youngest grandson; using the familiar term of endearment for Gandhi (Bapu, little father), the newspaper titled its article “Jews Fell Bapu Grandson—Arun Forced to Quit U.S. Institute Over Online Views.” I was in India at the time the story broke, and in Bombay when Arun Gandhi and his supporters staged a protest. Thus a news story that did not get wide coverage in the American print media (the New York Times chose not to cover the story) made headlines in India—in today’s media world, it seems, there are no more “backpage stories.”

Exactly a month after his resignation from the institute, Arun Gandhi and his son Tushar Gandhi attempted to organize a protest in Bombay. Unlike the Calcutta Telegraph, Bombay newspapers reported the story but didn’t editorialize about it. Accompanied by twenty followers, the protesters planned a demonstration at the Mahatma Gandhi statue near the Maharashtra State Secretariat building. The police intervened, held the demonstrators for a few hours and then released them. Interviewed by the press after his release Arun Gandhi said, “I was prohibited from touching the feet of my grandfather” (The Hindu, Feb. 27, 2008). (The reference here is to the Hindu custom of bowing to touch the feet of one’s parents and grandparents as an act of respect.)

Arun Gandhi, now seventy-four years old, is the youngest of the Mahatma’s five grandsons. Born in South Africa, where he spent his first twenty-three years, he is the son of Manilal, M.K. Gandhi’s second son. Of the Mahatma’s sons, Manilal had the least troubled relationship with his father and the closest link to his campaigns for social justice. He joined his father’s movement for racial justice in South Africa and spent over a decade in South African prisons. As Arun Gandhi noted in Kasturba: A Life, a biography of his grandmother, “my father was the only one of the four Gandhi sons to adopt voluntary poverty and devote his life to nonviolence…” Arun left South Africa in 1956 and moved to India, where he spent the next thirty years working as a journalist, activist, and social worker. Arun Gandhi and his wife Susanda moved to the United States in 1987 and within a few years founded the Gandhi Institute in Memphis.

To say that Arun Gandhi pushed a few sensitive buttons in his statement on Jewish identity would be an understatement. While there has been considerable internal Jewish criticism on the centrality of ‘Holocaust Consciousness’ in contemporary American Jewish life, non-Jews, aware of the sensitivity of the issue, have been reluctant to join that criticism. Gandhi, who has been living in the United States for twenty years, was surely aware of that sensitivity, and one wonders why he didn’t couch his criticism in less inflammatory terms. After Holocaust consciousness, the second pillar of American Jewish life is the community’s identification with the State of Israel. Arun Gandhi’s question to Israelis “would it not be better to befriend those who hate you?” struck many readers as both naïve and hostile. And then there was that final clincher—that “Israel and the Jews are the biggest players” in today’s culture of violence. Critics of Israel, both Jewish and non-Jewish, might have misgivings about Israeli policies, but singling out “Israel and the Jews” as the world’s worst offenders sounds to anyone’s ears like anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

On the surface this episode seems like yet another in a series of recent controversies in which public figures run afoul of strongly pro-Israel American public opinion (think of the controversy surrounding Jimmy Carters’ book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, for instance). While the initial outcry about any public criticism of Israeli policies most often comes from Jewish organizations, (like the Anti-Defamation League, and AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) there is a very wide, though surely not universal, American Christian support for Israeli governmental actions—approval of Israeli policies is particularly strong among conservative evangelicals.

Abraham Foxman, the director of the ADL, reacted to Arun Gandhi’s statement saying “I think it’s shameful that a peace institute would be headed up by a bigot. One would hope that the grandson of such an illustrious human being would be more sensitive to Jewish history.” Foxman’s allusion to the elder Gandhi raises a fascinating question—was Mahatma Gandhi himself considered ‘sensitive’ to Jewish history? Illustrious he might have been, but the ADL might not be so uncritical of Gandhi’s legacy if they knew the story of the Mahatma’s opposition to Zionist ideals. The history of Gandhi’s opinions about Israel and the Jews is one that is not widely known today, but provides a crucial backdrop to the controversy surrounding his grandson.

M. Gandhi and Zionism

For more than two decades, until his death in 1948, Gandhi was engaged in dialogue about Zionism with some of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals. Passions were aroused in these conversations that extended over the most tumultuous periods of modern Indian and Jewish history, but, strong feeling notwithstanding, a core of civility and intellectual honesty was maintained across the decades and the continents.

One thing that sharply distinguishes the 2008 “Gandhi Jewish controversy” from the interactions between Mahatma Gandhi and his Jewish interlocutors in the first half of the twentieth century is the scholarly and intellectual level of the participants, and the serious content of their exchanges. Among the elder Gandhi’s Jewish correspondents and conversation partners were philosophers, social activists, rabbis and professors. And Gandhi’s own erudition—a combination of his legal training, wide reading and religious sensibility—is reflected in his voluminous correspondence. (Gandhi’s collected writings run to one hundred volumes in the standard Indian edition.)

When read closely and carefully the letters of M.K. Gandhi and his Jewish interlocutors are subtle and complex; they constitute a true exchange of ideas. Nothing of the sort is happening in the current Arun Gandhi controversy—a quick scan of the blogosphere will reveal that the current electronic chatter about Arun Gandhi’s Washington Post article is being conducted on the level of sound bites, accusations, and name-calling. Some of this is certainly due to the nature of electronic communication—the swiftness of email does not encourage careful deliberation. Arun Gandhi has admitted that his Washington Post article was written in a hurry while he was leading an American group on a tour of “Gandhi’s India.” He wished, he said, that his article had been “more careful, more dispassionate, diplomatic, and not so harsh.”

It is worth quoting Arun Gandhi’s apology in full:


I am writing to correct some regrettable mis-impressions I have given in my comments on my blog this week. While I stand behind my criticisms of the use of violence by recent Israeli governments—and I have criticized the governments of the U.S., India and China in much the same way—I want to correct statements that I made with insufficient care, and that have inflicted unnecessary hurt and caused anger.

I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people. Indeed, many are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes, by Israel and many other governments.

I do believe that when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends. But as I have noted in previous writings, the suffering of the Jewish people, particularly in the Holocaust, was historic in its proportions. While we must strive for a future of peace that rejects violence, it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it. Having learned from it, we can then find the path to peace and rejection of violence through forgiveness.

Gandhi’s Jewish Interlocutors, 1921-38

Of course much of the incivility of the current Gandhi flap can be understood in terms of the polarized nature of any conversation about Israel and the Palestinians. It is hard to imagine, in this overheated climate, how it is that the elder Gandhi and his Jewish conversation partners were able to conduct an actual dialogue about nationalism and religion over the course of so many years.

Let us look back then to the first half of the twentieth century, when both the form and content of debate was still important. Among Gandhi’s interlocutors were Martin Buber, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Rabbi Judah Magnes, and Hayim Greenberg, prominent New York Zionist intellectual.

As early as 1921 Gandhi, as an opponent of British imperialism, spoke out against the French and British Middle Eastern Mandates proposed in the Treaty of Sevres. He stated that “Palestine must be under Mussulman control. […] No canon, however, of ethics or war can possibly justify the gift by the Allies of Palestine to the Jews. It would be a breach of implied faith with Indian Mussulman’s in particular and the whole of India in general.” In Gandhi’s view no European power has the right to give or take away territory from its inhabitants. (We should also note here Gandhi’s concern for the rights of India’s Muslim minority, a concern which would later trouble Hindu nationalists; some extremists among them would ridicule this concern for the rights of Indian Muslims by referring to him as “Mohammed Gandhi.”)

Moreover, if India was to be not exclusively Hindu, Gandhi implied, why should a proposed state in Palestine be exclusively Jewish? Gandhi was consistent in his assessment: countries emerging from colonial domination were to be pluralistic, not particularistic. And they were to achieve independence by peaceful means, not by violence.

Gandhi’s opposition to Zionism in the 1920s and ’30s did not preclude support for the rights of Jews in Europe, however. In 1931, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of America’s most prominent Reform Rabbis and a leader of the Zionist Organization of America, was invited to address the Friends of Gandhi Dinner in New York City on the occasion of the Mahatma’s Sixty-second birthday. Rabbi Wise, who had long admired Gandhi, took issue with his assertion that Jews were entitled to settle in Palestine “provided it is done without the help of bayonets belonging either to Britain or the Jews.” Rabbi Wise’s retort, though couched in respectful terms, is quite forceful: “Gandhi is so hospitable to truth that he ought to know, and if he does not know he will wish to know.” The ‘bayonets’ of the Jews in Palestine, Wise asserted, were used in self-defense. “There were virtually no British bayonets in Palestine until Arab bayonets perpetrated the massacre of August-September 1929.” Aware that this claim would not be convincing in light of Gandhi’s views on cycles of violence, Wise focused on the biblical basis of Zionist claims: “(The Jews) title is immemorial, and they have returned not to hurt and to wound, but to serve to enrich and to bless the land and all its people.”

Some of the same themes were taken up by other Jewish intellectuals. Hayim Greenberg, in a 1937 open letter to Gandhi that was published in New York City’s Jewish Frontier Magazine, spoke both of American Blacks and European Jews as “untouchables.” “You know that though many years have passed since slavery was abolished, the practical emancipation of Negroes in the United States is far from complete.” Aware that Gandhi had spoken out on the denial of Negro rights in the United States, Greenberg asked Gandhi to protest against the dire condition of the Jews of Europe. Greenberg concedes that “India is remote from Jewish wretchedness. She is taken up with her own great cares and unsolved problems…but I am sure that you have heard of what has happened to millions of my fellow-Jews in Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia.”

Aware that Gandhi is engaged in a struggle which has no connection to the fate of the Jews, Greenberg makes the case for Zionism as the “cure for Jewish rootlessness—and for the need to educate Indian’s Muslims as to what the aims of the Zionist are.” He implies that if Gandhi is really concerned about India’s Muslims, he should counter anti-Zionist propaganda:

We Jews strive to redeem ourselves from our state of ‘untouchability.’ We seek bread, work, freedom and human dignity […] We need a country for the millions of persecuted Jews, and this country must be the land which cradled the civilization we once created there.” In relation to India, Greenberg reminds Gandhi that “a harmful and thoroughly false propaganda against Jews and Zionism is now being conducted in your Mohammedan communities […] An intense hatred of Jews is being fanned among the millions of Mohammedans in India […] Jew-hatred is a dangerous poison not only for the hated but for the haters.

In later articles on Jews and Zionism Gandhi adopted Greenberg’s description of Europe’s Jews as “untouchables.” And we can see how his idea of Judaism changed through reading suggested to him by his Jewish associates. In his letters to Jewish supporters Gandhi singled out Cecil Roth’s History of the Jews as a book from which he learned a considerable amount about Judaism and Jewish national aspirations.

On November 26, 1938, M.K. Gandhi published a statement in his weekly newspaper Harijan in response to inquiries about the deteriorating political situation in Palestine. Though he doesn’t name Hayim Greenberg directly, Gandhi is clearly responding to Greenberg’s questions and to those of other Jewish interlocutors. Gandhi had been approached by several Jewish associates who implored him to lend his commanding moral voice to support of the persecuted Jews of Germany and to the cause of Zionism, especially in the light of its efforts to provide a refuge in Palestine for Jews fleeing Nazism. First and foremost among those supporters and associates was Herman Kallenbach, Gandhi’s closest ally in the South African struggle. In 1910, Kallenbach donated the land for “Tolstoy Farm,” the settlement that Gandhi established for the striking Indian coal miners in South Africa. When Gandhi issued a statement on the question of Palestine, it was, to the profound disappointment of his Jewish friends, decidedly unsympathetic to Zionism. Palestine, he categorically declared, “belongs to the Arabs.” In the same issue of Harijan, Gandhi addressed the situation of the Jews of Germany, who since 1933 had been deprived of their citizenship and civil rights. “My sympathies,” Gandhi wrote “are all with the Jews. They have been the untouchables of Christianity… The German persecution of a whole race seems to have no parallel in history.”

What then, according to Gandhi, were the Jews of Germany to do?

If someone with courage and vision can arise among them to lead them in nonviolent action, the winter of their despair can in the twinkling of an eye be turned into the summer of hope. And what has today become a degrading manhunt can be turned into a calm and determined stand by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah […] The German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in the sense that they will have converted the latter to an appreciation of human dignity.

Here Gandhi was applying his principle of satyagraha, (‘the force of truth’) to a European situation. Gandhi’s civil resistance campaigns in South Africa and India were based on this nonviolent principle. In his view this principle was universally applicable; Germany’s Jews too could apply satyagraha. Gandhi’s claim that “the force of truth” is a universally applicable technique rests on this analysis: there is an element of truth in each side of a dispute. Conflict can be resolved through a process in which each side can see the kernel of truth in the other side’s position. Missing from Gandhi’s analysis: a scenario in which one side denies the possibility of dialogue and rests its claim on total force and the denial of the other.

In Gandhi’s view there were no exceptions to the power of satyagraha; if an exception was found, the principle would no longer be valid. His advice to the Jews of Germany was consistent with his views about the European Fascist regimes and their dictators. In his opinion, Mussolini and Hitler were susceptible to political and moral persuasion; all human beings, including the most violent and corrupt, can be healed and reformed. Gandhi also offered advice to those Jews living in Palestine:

They should seek to convert the Arab heart. The same God rules the Arab heart who rules the Jewish heart. They can offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them… There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help of the British bayonet […] I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of nonviolence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country.

Later in December 1938, a month after Gandhi published his views on the Jews in Germany and the question of Palestine, he was questioned by visiting American Protestant clergymen about the German takeover of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Gandhi counseled that the Czechs adopt a nonviolent strategy. One clergyman said “you do not know Hitler and Mussolini. They are incapable of any moral response. They have no conscience, and they have made themselves impervious to world opinion. Would it not be playing into the hands of these dictators if, for instance, the Czechs, following your advice, confronted them with non-violence?” “Your argument”, Gandhi objected, presupposes that the dictators like Mussolini and Hitler are beyond redemption.” In Gandhi’s worldview all people have the potential for good. Any exceptions to this rule would, in Gandhi’s view undermine the concept and what he saw as its universal application.

A month later, in December of 1938, Gandhi answered critics of his Harijan article on Jews and satyagraha. Rejecting the claim that the Jewish tradition has always promoted a form of passive resistance in the face of oppression, Gandhi stated:

The Jews, so far as I know, have never practiced nonviolence as an article of faith or even a deliberate policy. Indeed it is a stigma against them that their ancestors crucified Jesus. Are they not supposed to believe in ‘eye for an eye and tooth for tooth?’ Have they no violence in their hearts from their oppressors […] Their nonviolence, if it may be so-called, is of the helpless and the weak.

In response to these statements in Harijan, Martin Buber wrote an open letter to Gandhi, a letter in which the German Jewish philosopher attempts to correct Gandhi’s misunderstandings of the Jewish tradition. For in those few sentences Gandhi had aligned himself with some of the Christian theological tradition’s most problematic assertions about Jews and their religion. In these phrases Gandhi had invoked two ancient and contentious Christian claims: that Jews were guilty of deicide—the murder of Jesus—and that the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, espoused a more primitive ethical order, calling for a system of law based on vengeance.

This letter was written in February, 1939 and sent to Gandhi’s ashram a month later. Buber wrote from Palestine where he had recently arrived as a refugee from Nazi Germany. When Gandhi did not reply, the letter was made public. At the end of 1939, Buber and his colleague Judah Magnes, American-born Reform Rabbi and first president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, published their letters to Gandhi in pamphlet form, and distributed them in England and the United States.

Buber’s ten-page letter raises a question about satyagraha that leaders of other oppressed groups had raised earlier. Can satyagraha be effective against all oppressors? Are there some systems of government that would render non-violent resistance ineffective? What then, are the limits of satyagraha? In 1938, in the fifth year of the Nazi regime, Buber raised these questions in relation to the Jews in Germany. Their fate, of course, was not then clear. Yes, the Jews of Germany were persecuted—but where would their persecution lead? To exile? Or to extermination? Buber’s letter shows both his respect for Gandhi’s thought and his concern for making distinctions between the Jewish situation and that of Indians in South Africa and India.

Buber addresses the Mahatma respectfully:

I have been very slow in writing this letter to you, Mahatma. I made repeated pauses—sometimes days elapsed between short paragraphs—in order to test my knowledge and my way of thinking. Day and night I took myself to task, searching whether I had not in any one point overstepped the measure of self-preservation allotted and even prescribed by God to a human community, and whether I had not fallen into the grievous error of collective egotism. Friends and my own conscience have helped to keep me straight whenever danger threatened.

After these qualifying remarks Buber gets to his main point quickly:

Jews are being persecuted, robbed, maltreated, tortured, murdered. And you, Mahatma Gandhi, say that their position in the country where they suffer all this is an exact parallel to the position of Indians in South Africa at the time you inaugurated your famous “Force of Truth” or “Strength of the Soul” (satyagraha) campaign. There the Indians occupied precisely the same place, and the persecution there also had a religious tinge. There also the constitution denied equality of rights to the white and the black race including the Asiatics; there also the Indians were assigned to ghettos, and the other disqualifications were, at all events, almost of the same type as those of the Jews in Germany. I read and reread these sentences in your article without being able to understand. Although I know them well, I reread your South African speeches and writings, and called to mind, with all the attention and imagination at my command, every complaint you made therein; and I did likewise with the accounts of your friends and pupils at that time. But all this did not help me to understand what you say about us. In the first of your speeches with which I am acquainted, that of 1896, you quoted two particular incidents to the accompaniment of hisses from your audience: first, that a band of Europeans had set fire to an Indian village shop, causing some damage; and, second, that another band had thrown burning rockets into an urban shop. If I oppose to this the thousands on thousands of Jewish shops, destroyed and burned out, you will perhaps answer that the differences in only one of quantity and that the proceedings were of almost the same type. But, Mahatma, are you not aware of the burning of synagogues and scrolls of the Law? Do you know nothing of all the sacred property of the community—some of it great antiquity—that has been destroyed in the flames? I am not aware that Boers and Englishmen in South Africa ever injured anything sacred to the Indians. I find only one other concrete complaint quoted in that speech, namely, that three Indian schoolteachers, who were found walking in the streets after 9:00 p.m. contrary to orders, were arrested and only acquitted later on. That is the only incident of the kind you bring forward. Now, do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter? I cannot assume that you know of this; for then this tragicomic utterance “of almost the same type” could scarcely have crossed your lips. Indians were despised and despicably treated in South Africa. But they were not deprived of rights, they were not outlawed, they were not hostages to a hoped for change in the behavior of foreign powers. And do you think perhaps that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down? Of what significance is it to point to a certain something in common when such differences are overlooked?

To make his points about the differences between the two situations Buber drew on his own personal experience living under Nazi rule. Central to Buber’s argument is that the situation of the Indian minority in South Africa, where Gandhi developed and implemented satyagraha, was not comparable to the situation of the Jews in Germany. What was happening in Germany was much more severe and on a much larger scale. Most importantly, the Jews in Germany had no power over the reactions of their enemies. The Nazis, Buber argued, were radically different from the rulers of South Africa and India. They had explicitly rejected conventional morality and preached a gospel of violence. Indians, in both South Africa and India, were able to appeal to the consciences of some white colonists, administrators, and officers, and they had support among sympathizers throughout the world. Jews in Germany had no one in power to appeal to, and no one who would intervene on their behalf.


It does not seem to me convincing when you base your advice to us to observe satyagraha in Germany on these similarities of circumstance. In the five years I myself spent under the present regime, I observed many instances of genuine satyagraha among the Jews, instances showing a strength of spirit in which there was no question of bartering their rights or of being bowed down, and where neither force nor cunning was used to escape the consequences of their behavior. Such actions, however, exerted apparently not the slightest influence on their opponents. All honor indeed to those who displayed such strength of soul! But I cannot recognize herein a watchword for the general behavior of German Jews that might seem suited to exert an influence on the oppressed or on the world. An effective stand in the form of nonviolence may be taken against unfeeling human beings in the hope of gradually bringing them to their senses; but a diabolic universal steamroller cannot thus be withstood.

To counter Gandhi’s categorical pronouncement that Palestine belongs to the Arabs, Buber appeals to Gandhi’s position as a religious figure and peacemaker. In this appeal Buber presents his views on the Jewish link to the Land of Israel, a link both historical and religious. But to this traditional view Buber adds his own unique perspective: that the Jewish claim to Palestine was not exclusive. For Buber was an advocate of a binational state in Palestine, one in which Jews and Arabs could coexist in equality. Recognizing the difficulty of reconciling Jewish and Arab claims, Buber is hopeful that an agreement can be reached. “Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic contradiction.” This Gandhian sentiment serves to remind us of the great irony of the situation: Buber revered Gandhi and sought to implement some of his ideas in Palestine. As Maurice Friedman, Buber’s biographer and friend reminds us, “This reverence remained so great in Buber that even Gandhi’s injustice to the Jews of Palestine could not undo it.”

Buber continued:


You Mahatma Gandhi, who know of the connection between tradition and the future, should not associate yourself with those who pass over our cause without understanding or sympathy. But you say—and I consider it to be the most significant of all the things you tell us—that Palestine belongs to the Arabs and that it is therefore “wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.” Here I must add a personal note in order to make clear to you on what premises I desire to consider this matter. I belong to a group of people who, from the time when Britain conquered Palestine, have not ceased to strive for the achievement of genuine peace between Jew and Arab.

[…] In order to carry out a task of such extreme difficulty—and recognizing that we have to overcome an internal resistance on the Jewish side, as foolish as it is natural—we are in need of the support of well-meaning persons of all nations, and we had hope of it. But now you come and settle the whole existential dilemma with the simple formula: ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs.’

That neither Buber’s arguments nor the events of the war changed Gandhi’s thinking on the Jewish situation in Europe is quite clear. In the aftermath of World War II, Gandhi reiterated his analysis of the Jewish situation: in a 1946 interview he told biographer Louis Fischer: “Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”

To contrast this with the Zionist understanding of “the war against the Jews” and its consequences: some Jews did actively resist the Nazis by rebelling and fighting against them. Though their efforts were doomed, they died in dignity, defending themselves. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April 1943 was the most famous of these rebellions, but far from the only one. Now that the Nazis were defeated, the Jews who survived, and their co-religionists in Palestine, had to make self-defense their first priority. In their minds it was only that self-defense that could ensure the creation of Israel. As Israeli historian Idith Zertal has noted “thus before it was created, the Jewish State in Palestine claimed custody over continued Jewish existence and preservation of Jewish history and memory, nationalizing the Holocaust and its survivors.”

This was an analysis that M.K. Gandhi and his followers could not accept. For we see that when the extent of the German genocide of the Jews was revealed to the world, Gandhi’s opinion on the fate of the Jews remained unchanged. He called their murder the century’s greatest crime, but he persisted in his opinion that European Jews should have gone to their deaths willingly. Gandhi lived for five years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but there is no indication that he was persuaded that actively resisting the Nazis was an act of heroism.

In 1946 the fate of the Jews was not uppermost in Gandhi’s mind, the fate of India was. There too, in the face of evidence that the Hindu-Muslim divide could not be healed by satyagraha, he persisted in his beliefs. In his own country the violence of Partition so dismayed Gandhi that he refused to take part in India’s Independence celebrations. He told the leadership of India’s Congress Party: “What is there to rejoice when thousands of my countrymen are slaughtering each other?”

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. His killer was a Hindu nationalist extremist. His vision of a united India was not to be fulfilled; Pakistan was separated from India and established as an Islamic state. The Indian Republic was established in 1950, and quickly entered into a series of conflicts with Pakistan and in the nationalistic fervor of the time Gandhi’s ideas were jettisoned. The Gandhians went into the political wilderness.

In February, 1948, the day after Gandhi’s ashes were spread on the Ganges, Hayim Greenberg addressed a New York City memorial meeting in his honor. Greenberg spoke of Gandhi’s life and ideas as an attempt to destroy “the thick wall which we ourselves have erected between the transcendental world and the process of history, between ends and means.” Greenberg develops this idea—comparing Gandhi to the Buddhist ruler Asoka—and avoids any mention of Zionism. Rather, he sees Jewish religious parallels to Gandhi’s attempt to tie the spiritual to the political:


Despite the long chronicle of suffering and humiliation in Jewish history, we have until now triumphed through our martyrdom. For two thousand years Jews have practiced ahimsa […] The Jewish conception of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the Ineffable Name) signifies not merely readiness for sacrifice, for triumphant death. It is also an urge to keep life holy […] what in Hindu religious feeling and in Gandhi’s religiosity is signified by Dharma corresponds to the Code of Law, in the Jewish way of life.

Eight years after Gandhi’s assassination, the Gandhians political exile was evident to Martin Luther King. When King visited India in 1956, he split his time and attention between representatives of the Indian government and the students of Gandhi and quickly became aware of the tension between the two groups. India was then in the grips of a patriotic fever often expressed through Hindu nationalism. The Gandhians, like their teacher, were wary of religiously-infused politics. Gandhi, says Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India “recoiled from the vision of nationalist Hindus… He rejected the idea that past history was the source for defining future possibilities or orienting present action… ‘I believe,’ he wrote, ‘that a nation is happy that has no history.’” Gandhi’s Hindu nationalist assassin and his supporters were not going to “forget history.” They would kill him for betraying their “Hindu ideal.”

Buber too was against religious nationalism. But the paradox here is that he was at the same time an ardent Zionist—which he wanted to redefine as “Hebrew Humanism.” His vision of a Holy Land shared by its inhabitants was not to be fulfilled. Buber’s vision was based on the possibility of dialogue; as the body counts rose this became well-nigh impossible.

In June of 1967, the Israeli government, perceiving the sabre-rattling of the neighboring states as a threat to its existence, launched a preemptive strike that began what Israelis dubbed “the Six Day War.” The territories taken by Israel in that war greatly expanded both its territory and the population under its control.

Soon afterwards the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza offered various forms of resistance to Israeli rule. Some forms were military, some were political. Though there were Israeli Jewish critics and opponents of the occupation, some of whom espoused Gandhian ideals, they were not able to influence their government. The Labor Party, for a variety of reasons both political and sentimental, enabled the rise of the Settler Movement. The ascent of the Israeli Right in the later 1970s ensured the expansion of Settlements and the worsening of the condition of the Palestinians. In 1987, the twentieth year of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a revolt against Israeli rule broke out. During this first Intifada (1987-1993) there was talk of Gandhian resistance to the Israeli occupation. For satyagraha had been suggested as an approach Palestinians might use in resistance to the Israeli occupation. But violence reigned.

Palestinian-Israeli clashes became more and more bloody. Over four thousand Palestinians and Israelis died in the First Intifada. As journalist Jonathan Cook noted in the International Herald Tribune in 2004, “Apart from a handful of radical groups, Israelis have rejected the legitimacy of all forms of Palestinian resistance, whether peaceful or not.”

Israeli rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza raised ethical and moral questions for both Israelis and Palestinians. For those Israeli Jewish intellectuals who saw the occupation as a threat to Israeli democracy and Jewish ethical values, the question arose as to how to oppose the occupation without placing themselves outside of the Israeli political consensus. The late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz of Hebrew University said that for him the question was not how to free the territories from Israel, but rather, “how to free Israel from the territories.”

A Palestinian Gandhi?

Among Palestinian intellectuals, both violent and nonviolent opposition to Israeli rule were among the possibilities discussed in the first two decades after the 1967 War. Among those who have advocated nonviolent resistance and have therefore been dubbed a “Palestinian Gandhi” is Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian Christian, born in Jerusalem in 1943. A scholarship student at St. George’s, Jerusalem’s elite Anglican school, Awad won fellowships to American Christian colleges and graduate schools where he was influenced by Quaker and Mennonite ideals. In 1985 he founded The Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in Jerusalem. In an interview with activist Catherine Ingram Awad said that his first aim was “to cull from Arabic literature and Islamic texts anything to do with reconciliation, peace, justice, and nonviolence in order for Palestinians to understand these ides from their own cultural heritage.”

Active in the First Intifada, Awad was expelled and deported by the Israeli government in June of 1988. Awad challenged the deportation order in the Israeli Supreme Court. The Israeli government claimed that Awad was one of the organizers of the rebellion, and that though born in Jerusalem he had lost the right to reside there. Awad’s claim to resident status in Jerusalem was denied, as he had accepted United States citizenship thirteen years earlier. The Israeli Supreme Court upheld this decision. The American government protested this decision, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir signed the order for Awad’s deportation to the United States.

In the United States Awad persisted in espousing a non-violent approach to the conflict: “I am one of those people who reminds the Palestinians that the Israeli is a human being. And we must see them, as well as ourselves, as human beings. The more you destroy another human being the more you destroy yourself.”

During the Second Intifada, which began in October, 2000, outsiders attempted to revive the Gandhian idea among Palestinians. One notable example, the so-called Gandhi Project. Here is the description from the BBC Web site:


Only last week, the Gandhi Project was launched in the West Bank and Gaza. With the backing of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (and with the presence of actor Ben Kingsley) an American foundation is screening a newly dubbed into Arabic version of Gandhi for screening throughout the occupied territory. The award-winning 1982 film Gandhi is being released across the West Bank and Gaza to try to persuade Palestinians to embrace nonviolent resistance. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and actor Ben Kingsley, who starred as the pacifist Indian leader in the film, attended the premiere in Ramallah. The project is being co-sponsored by Jeff Skoll, the founder of the internet auction site Ebay. Reports say some Palestinians who saw the film were largely skeptical. Our dream is a year from now, we will have 5,000, no, 20,000 Gandhis. Young Gandhis. Palestinian Gandhis. The epic film about nonviolent resistance to British rulers in India will be shown in free screenings in the Palestinian territories, including refugee camps that are strongholds for militants and armed groups. The film will also be shown to Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and be distributed on DVD to youth groups. Mr. Skoll said the initiative had the backing of the Palestinian leadership. “We met with President Abbas, who was nice to us and supported the project,” he told the audience in Ramallah.

This Gandhi Project—the screening of the film, followed by public discussions, also had the support of the then dwindling, but still active, Israeli peace movement.

Arun Gandhi visited the Palestinian Territories and Israel in August of 2004. His sympathies were clearly with the Palestinians, though he also visited Israel. This is consistent with the political position of the Indian Left. In his visit to Israel Gandhi met with peace activists and Knesset members on the Israeli Left and he recalled that visit in his Washington Post/Newsweek blog. Gandhi was not willing to accept the claims of his Israeli interlocutors. In his formulation, they argued that “the wall and the military buildup was necessary to protect the nation and the people.”

At a rally in Ramallah attended by five thousand Palestinians, Arun Gandhi spoke of the need for Jews and Arabs to live together, surely an unusual and conciliatory message for that time and place. He referred to his grandfather’s reaction to the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 in which British troops fired into a crown of protesters, killing over three hundred of them. General Dyer, the British commander who gave the orders to shoot, refused medical care to the wounded. Mahatma Gandhi, outraged by this inhuman treatment, yet wary of its effect on Indian public behavior, said “we cannot do to the British what they did to us. Let us liberate them from their colonialism.”

In East Jerusalem, Arun Gandhi and Palestinian Premier Ahmed Qurei led a march against the Israeli built Wall/Fence. A handful of Israeli leftists joined them. Reporting on the rally Arun Gandhi held in Jerusalem in August of 2004, Jonathan Cook noted that “neither the solidarity tents for the prisoners nor Gandhi’s rallies have been graced by members of Israel’s largest peace block, Peace Now. Cook is referring to Peace Now’s determination to stay within the confines of Israeli political consensus.

Buber and M.K. Gandhi: Their Legacies

In a July 1946 interview with his American biographer, Louis Fischer, Gandhi compared the conflicts in South Africa, India, and Palestine, “The trouble is that one side begins stabbing and killing and then the other does likewise. If one side did not avenge its deaths the thing would stop.” The inclusion of Palestine in this parallel occasioned the following reconsideration on Gandhi’s part of Jewish claims, claims he had previously belittled and rejected: “The Jews have a good case… If the Arabs have a claim to Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim because they were there first. Jesus was a Jew. He was the finest flower of Judaism.” Mention of Jesus generated another question from his biographer. When Gandhi placed the blame on St. Paul for the “disfigurement” of Christianity (“It became the religion of kings.”), Fischer asked Gandhi if he feared that his own teachings would be altered by his followers, as Jesus’ teachings were by Paul. “You are not the first to mention this possibility,” answered Gandhi. “Yes, I know that they may try to do just that. I know India is not with me. I have not convinced enough Indians of the wisdom of nonviolence.”

Like M.K. Gandhi, Buber too failed to convince enough of his own people of the wisdom of pacifism. In fact, Buber’s legacy is more influential in the Christian world than in Jewish circles; it was Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who dubbed Buber “the greatest living Jewish philosopher”—I am not aware of any Jewish thinker who has offered a similar evaluation. In Israel, where Buber was an embattled public figure until his death in 1965, his liberal, pacifistic ideas were outside of the Zionist consensus. His calls for shared Jewish-Arab rule were not deemed by more pragmatic Israelis as being within the realm of the possible. Buber protested Israeli participation in the 1956 Suez War, in which Israel joined with Britain and France to attack Egypt after Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. His 1961 request that the Israeli government refrain from executing Adolf Eichmann was misunderstood by many Israelis as a call for clemency for the war criminal rather than a an expression of concern that it might serve to expiate the guilt felt by many young people in Germany.

Since the 1980s, and the ascent of the Israeli Right and the coming to power of the Likud Party, Martin Buber has become the whipping boy of its intellectual class; his pacifist and humanist legacy has been mocked. Likewise, in India the Hindu Right and the BJP government of the late 1990s rejected M.K. Gandhi’s ideas. Gandhi remains an Indian national icon, but non-violence is not the Indian national idea. His own party, Congress, rejected his ideas. Salman Rushdie has famously remarked that: ”these days, that (Gandhi’s) message is better heeded outside India[…] Gandhi, who gave up cosmopolitanism to gain a country, has become, in his strange afterlife, a citizen of the world.”

Gandhi’s grandson, Arun, in his pronouncements about the role of Jews and Israel on the world stage, was taking up a thread in a long and complicated conversation. Unfortunately, his hasty and thoughtless manner of addressing the controversy made real dialogue impossible. And the responses to his article have been no better. In the current polarized American political atmosphere one wonders if there is any way—polite or impolite—to conduct a serious public conversation about the Middle East in general, and about Israel in particular The clash between Arun Gandhi and the American Jewish leadership, Israeli intellectuals, and American Christian supporters of Zionism may have been inevitable. Sadly, this was a noisy and ugly clash, not worthy of the tradition of exchange and dialogue that preceded it.