Letters to the Editors: On Gandhian Nonviolence

Letters to the Editors

Two letters in response to “Gandhi, His Grandson, Israel, and the Jews” by Shalom Goldman, the first by Michael Nagler, founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at UC Berkeley, the second by Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder:


To the Editors:

Professor Shalom Goldman has posted an excellent, thoughtful, well-researched and sensitive booklet on Religion Dispatches that does justice to the seriousness of the issue raised by my friend Arun Gandhi’s unfortunate statements in January—not just the issue of Jewish identity but the overarching issue of the practicability of satyagraha. (Indeed, as we will see at the end of this commentary, the even larger question, Who are we?). Very well taken is the contrast he draws between the Gandhi exchanges of the ’20s and ’30s—and Professor Goldman’s own writing, for that matter—with the immature kneejerk discourse of the blog roused by Arun Gandhi’s remarks.

I want to point out, however, that as I see it there are subtleties in nonviolence that are important to take into account but have escaped Prof. Goldman—understandably. Nonviolence, or satyagraha, is so poorly understood in today’s culture that even thinkers of depth, like Professor Goldman, can miss some of its important nuances.

The important issues in Mahatma Gandhi’s exchanges with Buber and other Jewish thinkers is whether satyagraha could have prevailed against an opponent as brutal and dehumanized as the Nazis and why Gandhi recommended that the Jews trapped by the Holocaust offer up their lives—or more accurately, take their own lives preemptively—rather than submit to their extermination. Otherwise put, is nonviolence (or satyagraha, as we call it in its active form) a universal law, as Gandhi claimed. Prof. Goldman believes that the Mahatma based his claim on the following argument:

“…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.”

Actually, I don’t think Gandhi based his faith in nonviolence on any mere argument of logic, but let’s let that objection pass for the moment. Professor Goldman’s first two propositions are correct. The third is incorrect: Gandhi often enough stated that in Satyagraha there were ways to open the eyes or, as he sometimes put it, ‘melt the stoniest heart’ of such a dehumanizing adversary. Since Gandhi’s time there has been at least one systematic study of the issue: “Nonviolence and the Case of the Extremely Ruthless Opponent,” by Ralph Summy, and it concluded that (as advocates of principled nonviolence have always insisted) Satyagraha, if carried out correctly, has a kind of ‘jiu-jitsu’ quality that actually thrives on the ruthlessness of the opponent. But let us take this question down to its most frequently articulated form: “It never would have worked against the Nazis.” It can now, thanks to the careful research of Nathan Stolzfuss, be answered in a single word: Rosenstraße. I refer not to the absurd and trivializing film made on this crucial episode but the event itself, in which a few thousand Berlin housewives brought the Gestapo to a standstill. Briefly put, not only could Satyagraha have worked against the Nazis, it did.

Secondly, in the real world there are often occasions when Satyagraha can and must be offered to force needed change without converting the heart of the opponent—or at least not to where you’d notice it: more on that in a moment. Take the ouster of General Pinochet by constitutional means in Chile in 1989 (a year in which, as studies have shown, close to two billion people were affected by more or less nonviolent uprisings). Was the General’s heart moved? For simplicity’s sake, let’s say no. Was he nonetheless removed from power (and made vunlerable to international justice)? Thankfully, yes. Persuasion, in other words, is the ideal in nonviolence; in the real world sometimes you have to rely on its power of coercion, which is also considerable.

But Professor Goldman’s third, and crucial assertion also misses a subtle point which Gandhi himself did not often articulate: What exactly do we mean by “work” in a nonviolent struggle? I have adopted this punctuation to mean “do what you want, now” in contrast with the question that arises, as it should with all human actions, does it nonetheless do some work (no quotation marks) to change the overall situation for the better? Nonviolence differs from other forms of action for change precisely in this: that it is interested in subtle ‘field’ alterations whose results may only show up later and perhaps in an unpredicted form. This kind of work always results from Satyagraha, which is therefore indeed, as Gandhi, insisted, a universal law. To suggest, as Prof. Goldman does, that Gandhi was out of line for a European conflict would be like proposing that gravity only works at the Equator.

As Professor Goldman points out, Buber raised the objection that although the Jews had offered nonviolence against the Nazis, “such actions, however, exerted apparently not the slightest influence on their opponents.” Italics added; because there is a deep issue of human identity involved here, the resolution of which must rest with each person’s faith position and vision of what it means to be human. Using again the “work” vs. work formulation proposed above, we are at liberty to assume, and I for one cannot but assume, that it is literally true that “Mussolini and Hitler were susceptible to political and moral persuasion;” but it is not by any means true that this persuasion can be effected visibly in any and all situations—nor is that assumption necessary for the validity of Satyagraha as a practical tool for protection of life and establishment of justice, as we have seen.

On the other hand, let me turn to one of Gandhi’s harsh statements (and one that invites remote comparison with the one his grandson was to make many years later) in the debate with Buber and others:

The Jews, so far as I know, have never practiced non-violence as an article of faith or even a deliberate policy. Indeed it is a stigma against them that their ancestors crucified Jesus.

Italics added again. Because we now know something that Gandhi did not, thanks to recent work by Jewish scholars like David Daube and others in the “Jesus of History” movement, primarily John Dominic Crossan. We know, namely, that in ancient Palestine the Jews did practice nonviolence in a way that they could not have done if it were not an article of faith. Crossan finds no less than seven popular uprisings of this type between 4 c.e. and 65 c.e., and reports that “all… were nonviolent, all had very specific objectives, and four out of the seven achieved those objectives without loss of life.”

So this first error in Gandhi’s statement rested on a lack of historical knowledge. It was similar to the error of judgment that lead him to defend the Caliphate in the early 1920s, not realizing that the Arabs themselves were sick of the excesses of the present ruler and the whole system. The second error, far more harmful in its consequences, comes from his uncritical acceptance of one of history’s most egregious lies. Let’s put it simply: “the Jews” did not kill Jesus. The Roman occupiers killed him, no doubt in collusion with Jewish authorities who had their own reasons for fearing him.

Maybe it’s because I am Jewish myself, but I find the enormity of this crime overwhelming: to deprive the Jewish people of their greatest teacher and then blame them for killing him. That, however, is a different subject.

Professor Goldman is unfortunately exactly correct at his conclusion, where he points out that neither the Christians, nor the Hindus for that matter, nor the Jews have followed the nonviolent example of Jesus, Gandhi, or anyone else. There were startling episodes, as Crossan points out, in ancient Palestine. That was then—this, unfortunately, is now. Hayim Greenberg is wrong when he says that “for two thousand years Jews have practiced ahimsa;” Gandhi is unfortunately right that, for the most part, it was not real ahimsa, or principled nonviolence, but “the non-violence of the weak.” What else could one expect? Nonviolence is still in its infancy, despite examples ancient and modern—or perhaps it is more accurate to say, we still are. And Professor Goldman would I’m sure agree that we have reached a time in human history when we have to grow up fast.

Michael Nagler

Berkeley, California


To the Editors:

Earlier this year Arun Gandhi, grandson of the famous Mahatma Gandhi, wrote a column in the Washington Post that included some truly stupid statements about Jews. Perhaps Arun Gandhi can take some solace in his grandfather’s lifelong belief that we are all imperfect servants of truth, constantly experimenting to come closer to truth, constantly bound to make mistakes. Still, one wonders how the grandson could have strayed so far from his grandfather’s goal of truth.

Yet one also wonders why so many writers, commenting on this flap, have felt driven to exhume the words the grandfather addressed to Jews suffering under Nazi oppression in the 1930s and 1940s. Professor Shalom Goldman, in an article full of illuminating research, claims that the grandfather’s words “provide a crucial backdrop to the controversy surrounding his grandson.” But how and why they are crucial remains somewhat unclear. Prof. Goldman’s aim, it seems, is to lament the difference between the high intellectual level of the debate decades ago and the sadly impoverished “noisy and ugly clash” of 2008. To which one can only say Amen. I am sure, however, that many readers found something else in his article: another in the endless series of efforts to put the elder Gandhi’s path of principled nonviolence on trial. It seems an almost irresistible temptation to put the Mahatma on trial. And it’s not hard to see why.

He taught that being strictly nonviolent, creating justice, making a better world for all, promoting freedom, and advancing personal spiritual growth were all merely different ways to describe the very same process. Could it really be true? so many people wonder—and worry. Because if it is true, it should be the path everyone would want to follow. Yet so few of us do.

If it were true, we would have to ask ourselves why we don’t follow it. We would have to put ourselves on trial. And the answers might be quite disturbing. How relieved we would feel if we could know, for sure, that Gandhi’s teaching was only a fond dream, one that cannot be followed in the real world. Then we would have no need to ask why we do not follow it.

Many people therefore put the Mahatma on trial instead. Like any good prosecutor, they look for all the evidence they can find to convict the defendant, who claimed that the way of nonviolence was like a law of nature, applicable in all times and places.

When they come to the Nazi Holocaust, many cry out, “Gotcha, Gandhi!” Here is their supposed smoking-gun proof that Gandhi’s way, as well intentioned as it was, fails the test of “realism.” And if it is unrealistic, why should we trouble ourselves treating it as anything other than an appealing dream and a historical curiosity? So it must be Gandhi, not the victims of the Nazis, who are placed on trial in the dock of history.

I have learned all this from teaching Gandhi and nonviolence to students for many years. In each of those years I’ve read truly anguished essays saying, in effect, “I would love to believe that Gandhi is right. But in the real world…” And each year, sooner or later, one of these conflicted students cries out, “Yes, but what about the Holocaust?”

Well, what about the Holocaust? In fact, no one can say for sure what would have happened if the Jews of Europe, and all of the Nazis’ other victims, and all the nations allied against Nazi Germany, had bent their efforts to create a vast Gandhian nonviolent army. As the great American theorist of nonviolence Barbara Deming has pointed out, no one can assess the real potential of a full-scale militant Gandhian resistance because it has never been tried. We do know that the few documented cases of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis had varied and unpredictable results.

But suppose we knew for sure that mass Gandhian nonviolence would have failed in that one case. Does that invalidate it for all cases? That would be like saying that if the fire department fails to extinguish even one blaze, we should abolish the fire department; or a doctor who fails to save even one patient should be banned from practicing medicine.

But the logical flaw in the argument goes much deeper. It rests on the assumption that the test of Gandhi’s teaching is whether it would indeed get the oppressor to change his evil ways. That view, in turn, rests on the assumption that Gandhi wanted us to undertake campaigns of nonviolent resistance in order to do just that, to effect an immediate change in someone else’s behavior. Since neither of these assumptions is true, anti-Gandhian arguments based on them miss the force of the Mahatma’s teaching almost entirely. Yes, he did say that nonviolence would surely melt the stoniest heart—though no one could predict how long the process would take. Indeed, he said that nonviolence is the slowest method of creating change. Its countervailing virtue is that the change it produced toward peace and justice was sure to last. But even if this claim were proven false, it would not touch the heart of Gandhi’s teaching. Because, while he described the outcome of nonviolence in these terms, he never made the prospect of success his motive for nonviolent resistance.

On the contrary, over and over again, he very explicitly ruled out the hope for success as a valid motive, quoting his beloved scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: “You have the right to the actions only, not to their fruits.” Gandhi’s definition of himsa, often translated as “violence,” was actually “intention to coerce”’ that is, anything undertaken with the explicit goal of changing someone else’s behavior, no matter how oppressive. Any such undertaking would in itself be the very opposite of his way of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

The only motives that Gandhi allowed as truly nonviolent had nothing to do with how the oppressor might or might not respond. His motives were all about changing not the other but oneself: bringing one’s own life and actions closer to the absolute moral Truth by serving others in a moral way.

Prof. Goldman, however, asserts that Gandhi’s claim to the universality of satyagraha rests on a single assumption: “Conflict can be resolved through a process in which each side can see the kernel of truth in the other side’s position.” In Goldman’s view, Gandhi believed both sides can always reach this broad-minded point, because “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… If an exception was found, the principle would no longer be valid.”

But Gandhi did not say this. He never said that the validity of his method depended on creating dialogue, nor in tapping the potential for good in all. He knew that in some conflicts the effort to create dialogue might very well fail. He never said that such failures would undermine his principle. In fact, he claimed that success or failure in producing dialogue—or in changing the oppressors behavior by any means—had nothing to do with judging the validity of his spiritual path. Again, the logical flaw here is confusing outcome with motive. If my son finds a lost wallet, I may tell him that he’ll feel very good about himself if he returns it to its rightful owner. But I will not tell him that he should return it in order to feel good about himself, as if that were the appropriate motive. I’ll tell him it’s the honest, fair, and right thing to do. The gratification he gets will be the by-product, not the motive, of his moral conduct.

Gandhi made just the same point about nonviolence. Its effect will surely be to change the behavior of others (though that may take a very long time). But to use that as a motive for action would be, by his definition, violence. So the distinction between motive and effect is absolutely crucial. By faulting Gandhi on grounds that Gandhi himself never accepted, Prof. Goldman adds grist, however unintentionally, to the mill of those who would grind Gandhian teaching under the crushing counter-example of the Holocaust.

It is true, as Prof. Goldman writes, that Gandhi “persisted in his opinion that European Jews should have gone to their deaths willingly”—but not as passive sheep to the slaughter. He wanted the Jews to embrace death, if it came, only as part of a disciplined strategic program of massive, active, and strenuous resistance to evil, aimed not at removing the Nazi yoke but at bringing Jewish people closer to the absolute moral Truth of the universe. To miss this crucial distinction, I feel, is to miss the heart of Gandhian nonviolence.

The only valid way to criticize Gandhi is to say that his premise is wrong, because the true moral aim of action should be to stop others from acting immorally, and the true test of any action is whether it successfully does stop others from acting immorally. Reinhold Niebuhr articulated this argument in its classical form in Moral Man and Immoral Society. I don’t know of any Jewish critics who made this argument explicitly against Gandhi. Perhaps they simply took the argument for granted and saw no reason to spell it out.

More likely, they never understood what the underlying ground of their disagreement with Gandhi was, or why they failed to grasp his point as much as he failed to grasp theirs. The Jewish notables discussed by prof. Goldman generally came from the Reform tradition. They assumed that ethical progress (what many Jews today call tikkun olam—the repairing of the world) was the sole motive for, and test of, genuine spirituality. They assumed that serving others meant identifying injustice in the world, setting out to remove it, and succeeding.

This Reform worldview was merely one modern way of implementing the broader Jewish worldview, developed by the prophets and the Deuteronomists in the biblical age and assumed by most (though surely not all) Jews who followed in their path. In that worldview history is a conflict between good and evil, and the Jewish nation is moving through history toward the glorious culmination promised by their God—if they consistently choose to do good and reject evil: “I have set before you this day the blessing and the curse, life and death. Choose life.” By that standard, the Jewish nation has full power to shape its own destiny, as long as it is free to choose between good and evil.

The question raised by the Holocaust is a stark one: What happens to this worldview when the Jews are stripped of the power to choose; when they, and the world, are faced with an evil that is so overpowering it simply cannot be rejected or resisted? It’s a question that Jewish thinkers have struggled with ever since, with nothing even close to consensus in sight. But most Jews agree on two points: The Jews were indeed powerless against the Nazi juggernaut, and because they were trapped in a plight of utter victimization, Gandhi’s words could offer no meaningful way out.

In fact, Gandhi’s words probably seemed irrelevant to most Jews, not because of their external circumstances, but because they did not grasp his perspective: the Gandhian goal is to change oneself, not anyone else.

At a more fundamental level Gandhi, speaking out of his own interpretation of Hinduism, could not see nations—or individual people—as isolated entities, one of which might be chosen by God among all others to play a special role in history. Indeed, Gandhi rarely spoke in terms of linear world history leading to any final consummation. How could he, if he were to be true to the teaching of the Gita (as he understood it) that action should never be goal-oriented?

His goal for every nation (including his own) was the same as his goal for every individual: To find absolute Truth by reducing oneself to “a cipher” by dissolving in the infinite ocean of Brahman, the one true reality. And that could be achieved by choosing death at the oppressor’s hands rather than compliance. “Then they will have my body,” Gandhi said, “but not my obedience.” And, he would have added, not my soul.

In terms of the Jewish worldview, Gandhi’s advice and the premises it rested on were more or less incomprehensible. He might as well have been speaking an exotic foreign language. Thus his words addressed to Jews under the Nazi boot could all too easily appear not merely irrelevant, but insulting and offensive.

No doubt the exchanges between Gandhi and the Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s were on a much higher intellectual level than the exchanges between his grandson and Jews in 2008. But sadly it is not true that “the elder Gandhi and his Jewish conversation partners were able to conduct an actual dialogue about nationalism and religion,” as Prof. Goldman claims. In fact, they suffered a profound, perhaps unavoidable, failure to communicate.

The failure was most tragic in the case of Gandhi’s most famous Jewish interlocutor, Martin Buber. The great German-Jewish philosopher developed his own quite distinctive Jewish worldview, so he might have been able to share more with Gandhi than some of his fellows. Yet he, too, was bound to resist the central points in Gandhian nonviolence. Buber could never accept Gandhi’s fundamental premise: the ultimate goal of spiritual life is to serve others so completely that one’s own sense of individual self, which is illusory to begin with, totally disappears. In fact Buber spent pages of his classic work, Ich und Du, arguing against that view.

In the rest of the book, he explained what he saw as the true goal of spiritual life: to engage as much as possible in I-You dialogue, which preserves and enhances one’s (very real) individual self. For Buber, engaging in dialogue could never mean accepting a duty that is imposed by any force beyond the individual’s free choice in the immediate present. For Gandhi, such glorifying of free choice was the antithesis of true spirituality.

Yet why dwell on the differences between these two spiritual giants, whether in their ideology or their views of the Jewish plight under Nazi rule? Why not focus on the very important areas of agreement?

Buber and Gandhi agreed on the central value of truth. “Truth is God,” the Mahatma repeatedly proclaimed. For Buber, the I-You attitude meant “experiencing the other side”; opening the full truth of the person or reality encountered in a direct, immediate way.

For Gandhi, himsa—a selfish desire to control others’ behaviors—inevitably led us away from truth. For Buber, similarly, any desire to determine the outcome of events put us into the I-It attitude and prevented us from direct immediate awareness of truth. When Gandhi spoke against himsa, and Buber decried treating the other as an It, each was translating into his own language Kant’s injunction that we must never treat a person as a means, but always as an end. Both agreed that setting out to change the behavior of others was the major stumbling block to spiritual life and relationship with the divine.

And both agreed that, in times of conflict, this stumbling block all too often leads each side to point the finger of blame at the other. As early as 1920, Buber told the Zionist Congress that the outcome of the incipient Jewish-Arab conflict “depends entirely on us,” on the attitude chosen by the Jews. Even earlier, Gandhi told the Indian nationalist movement much the same thing: Their own choices had led them into suffering and only their own choices, not those of the colonizers, would lead them out of colonialism into independence.

At a more philosophical level, both agreed that any situation, no matter how evil, could be turned toward the good if those who suffered the evil responded in a spiritually true way. They defined that true way in different words and to some extent meant quite different things. But they agreed that no one is ever powerless to respond to evil in a constructive way.

If the two had time and common language enough, they could have made these profound areas of agreement the starting point for a fruitful dialogue. Gandhi might well have convinced Buber that the I-You attitude he described had to be, by definition, a strictly nonviolent attitude. How can we kill or maim another in battle yet still treat that other as a You, an end in him- or herself, rather than as a means to our own victory?

And Buber might well have convinced Gandhi that the best resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not for one side to win and the other side to lose. That was the kind of outcome Gandhi in principle always opposed. Rather, the best resolution was the binational state that Buber so courageously worked for, in which each group could faithfully serve the best interests of the other.

Unfortunately Gandhi and Buber never met—neither personally, nor in a confluence of thought that might have produced a kind of “nonviolence of I and Thou.” Who knows what effects such a globe-spanning new interfaith tradition might have had. Since I, like Prof. Goldman have a deep abiding concern about the ongoing suffering of Palestinians and Israelis, I too dare to speculate on how the Buber-Gandhi exchange might shed light on that conflict.

But I assess the situation somewhat differently from Prof. Goldman. “During this first Intifada (1987-1993,” he writes, “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.” In fact, some scholars have documented the overwhelmingly nonviolent nature of the first Intifada and classed it as an important case study in nonviolent resistance. So if violence reigned, it is worth asking whether the Israeli response was more to blame than the Palestinian-initiated action. Certainly the total violence at the disposal of, and inflicted by, the Israelis is far greater than that of the Palestinians. Rather than putting the Palestinians on trial and convicting them for failing to be Gandhians, perhaps it is the Israeli government that should be at the defendant’s table.

It is a sad irony that the predominating (one might even say hegemonic) discourse in the United States today puts Gandhi on trial for advocating nonviolence and the Palestinians on trial for failing to practice nonviolence. For those who want to find new spiritual paths emerging from the most creative minds of the twentieth century, a genuine dialogue between Buber and Gandhi could point the way to a very different view.

This is especially true for those of us who are deeply concerned about Israel and are Jewish: If we want to shed light in the darkness of human suffering and oppression, we must always start by putting ourselves, not the other, on trial. For it is only our own new attitudes, new choices, and new responses that can create new realities. And new, more honest, more spiritually faithful realities are always possible. No one is ever merely a powerless victim.

Ira Chernus

Boulder, Colorado