A Letter to Gandhi, by Hayim Greenberg


I don’t know how to address you. Some years ago, I might have called you Mahatma (great soul) - the name with which millions of your people have crowned you. But I know that you have forbidden its use, that in a moment of spiritual protest you declared yourself to be no more than a “scavenger”. Nor do I dare call you “teacher”. I know of you since the days when Tolstoy addressed his famous “Letter to a Hindu” to you. I have followed your work since 1914; I carry sharply engraved in my memory each step of your martyr’s path - each arrest and trial, each vow, each fast, each triumph and each passing defeat which never shook your faith. I have read, in the languages familiar to me, all that you have written and there has been no social-religious thinker who has exerted so fruitful an influence on me. If, despite the fact that in various periods I have been stirred to the deeps of my soul by your teaching and your life, I am far from being your disciple or follower, the fault is not yours. You know how hard it is to follow you sincerely and completely in India itself, a land where both racial and cultural heritage have created conditions favourable to the growth of your teachings; still harder is it in the lands of the West, particularly for a man of my generation, who grew up in the heroic period of the Russian revolution - an epoch seething with moral conflicts. But it is easy for me to call you “brother”, if only because I belong to a people from whose prophets thousands of years ago there flashed the conception of God’s universal fatherhood, as well as of the brotherhood of all whom He created “in his image”. Therefore, permit me to use the name of “brother” together with the two names you heard in childhood - Mohandas Karamchand.

But before I take up the purpose of my letter, before I state the request which will perhaps sound like a challenge, allow me to congratulate you on the recent great victory in your struggle for human equality. I have in mind the proclamation of the young Maharajah of Travancore which ended the religious and political disabilities of the great number of untouchables in that region. Without questioning the noble intentions of the progressive ruler of Travancore, and believing that his revolutionary reform sprang from the vigour of his awakened conscience, we know that the Maharajah would have been unable to immortalise his name through that greatest reform in the history of new India, if you had not for years prepared the soil, if you had not, on the one hand, aroused the untouchables themselves to struggle for their human dignity, and on the other, stirred the conscience of thousands of members of the privileged castes. I remember well that throughout those years you were not the only champion of the millions of “unclean”. Possibly, Rabindranath Tagore gave more forceful literary expression to the moral revolt against the ancient wall standing in India between man and man. I know of a number of significant figures in your country - men and women - who have gone farther and more directly towards the goal of equality. But we may justly ascribe the great reform which sheds lustre on Travancore primarily to you. All the purely intellectual arguments for the equalisation of the untouchables, all the theological proofs and textual criticism which many progressive Hindus have proffered, pale before your brief words: “I should not like to be born again, but if I am fated to enter the world once more, let it be among the untouchables.” Even more influential was the courage you displayed through “direct action”, when you adopted a child from among the untouchables and made it a member of your family. This practical example in the breaking down of canonised historical walls proved contagious. Hundreds of others of the highest castes were stirred to a noble defiance which led them to engage publicly in the “base” work to which Pariahs were doomed, in order to expunge the stain of “baseness” through their participation. Your example gave the untouchables self-respect and moral courage; it made them braver and more capable of the bloodless uprisings with which they have several times distinguished themselves. If any concrete proofs were needed to show that not only exceptionally heroic spirits, but also masses of plain, uneducated people are capable, under certain circumstances, of being aggressive without resorting to violence, and that a system of passive resistance may be victorious, the passive fight of the untouchables must be reckoned as among the most persuasive. Of greater historic significance is also the fact that if the two million former untouchables of Travancore may now enter the temples and pray together with members of the higher castes, if they may use the public wells and highways, and send their children to the general schools, the outcome is due to an inner revolution, a spiritual renewal in India itself, rather than to the pressure of European “civilisers”. I remember that for years you were unwilling to use English dominion for reforming the inner life of India. You would not have been content with a reform that came from above or from outside. You waited for a welling up of fighting energy in the degraded masses themselves and for a growing sense of repentance among the higher castes. I rejoiced that you have lived to see the first green sprouting on the hard soil you ploughed and sowed. Without English intervention, without outside pressure, Travancore made its revolutionary beginning. I am sure that the example of Travancore will affect all of India, and that the natural rights of the sixty million untouchables will be restored within our generation.

Those of us in Europe and America who were deeply affected by the intolerable plight of the untouchables, have long been troubled by the peculiar theological aspects of the problem. We know that the orthodox Hindus, among them many individuals not motivated by selfish caste considerations, opposed emancipation because of a dogma of the Hindu religion. According to this dogma, the members of the lower castes are being penalised for past sins, “judged by God”. If I am not mistaken, orthodox Hindus have attempted through this specific interpretation of the caste system, to solve the problem of theodicy - the same problem of vindicating the ways of God to man which agitated the unknown author of Job. According to this interpretation, the oppressed castes suffer for sins committed in past incarnations. They have returned to the world to expiate a former sin, to purify themselves and perform their period of Karma. In a later incarnation they may be reborn into a higher caste if their virtues warrant this promotion. To emancipate an untouchable therefore interferes with the full cycle of expiation and meddles with the plans of divine Providence. I am in no position to judge to what extent this dogma or traditional concept is an organic part of Hinduism. I cannot tell in what measure those untouchables, who some years ago began turning to Christianity or Islam in order to be free of a religion which discriminated not only socially but metaphysically against a large number of its adherents, were justified in their purpose. I am, therefore, not quite clear as to how orthodox Hindus will reconcile their religious integrity with the emancipation of the untouchables. However, I was happy to chance on a publication of the Central Hindu College of Benares (An Advanced Textbook of Hindu Religion and Ethics) which contained a significant new interpretation of the doctrine of Karma. According to this viewpoint it is a serious error to explain suffering in terms of Karma, and to abstain from aiding a sufferer so as not to interfere with the process of his Karma. Our moral ability to help a man is in itself evidence that the Karma under which he suffers is fulfilled. Furthermore, by refusing to help a fellow-being we commit a sin, and so prepare an evil future Karma for ourselves. It is not the task of the stranger to solve the problems of an ancient, complex religious system belonging to another people, but I think there are trends in modern India which indicate that the complete emancipation of the untouchables will be achieved without a destruction of the Hindu religious system and without artificial reforms of Hindu doctrine. Jews once believed literally in the Biblical “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. The later Talmudical interpretation of the formula to mean material compensation for an eye or a tooth, in no wise weakened religious Judaism; on the contrary, it strengthened it. I imagine that similar organic developments will also take place in the religious life of India.

And now to turn to the practical purpose of my letter. May I remind you that untouchables exist not only in India? Not everywhere in the same numbers, nor of precisely the same status, but nevertheless “untouchables,” human beings who are persecuted, insulted, starved and frequently slain only because they belong to a different ethnic group, or serve God in their own fashion. There are still millions of such untouchables in the country from which I write you. 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. And there are still other millions of “untouchables” scattered over all parts of the globe, in dozens of countries: these are the millions of my tormented fellow-Jews. To uncover one’s wounds and seek sympathy is neither pleasant, nor perhaps even dignified. But no doubt word has reached you of the torment of my people in countries where they have lived hundreds of years, where the first Jews settled long before their present oppressors, and which they enriched with their toil and sweat. After a thousand years of existence in Germany, the remaining 400,000 German Jews find themselves outcast and tormented; their state is made more tragic by the knowledge of the great contribution, both material and spiritual, which they and their ancestors have made to the progress of Germany. Approximately the same thing is happening in Poland and Rumania, and (for the time being) to a less catastrophic degree, in a large number of other countries. Disfranchisement, defencelessness, numerus clausus and numerus nullus in the universities, separate benches and an inferior status for Jewish children in the public schools, economic and social boycott, murders which are not only tolerated but often encouraged, lynchings which anti-Semitic governments do not even trouble to combat, closed doors facing Jews who wish to immigrate into new countries - this is our lot in many parts of the world at the present time. India is remote from Jewish wretchedness. She is taken up with her own great cares and unsolved problems - the destiny of a fifth of the human race - 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.

We Jews strive to redeem ourselves from our state of “untouchability”. We seek bread, work, freedom and human dignity. These we wish to secure by emerging from that anomalous state to which history has doomed us - the state of homelessness and landlessness. For over fifty years, the best of our youth have been devoting the fullness of their energy toward the recreation of our former national centre in Palestine. We need a country for the millions of persecuted Jews, and this country must be the land which cradled the civilisation we once created there. This need is more than economic or political in its origin. Among those who are returning to their ancient fatherland are not only refugees driven by alien might but pilgrims inspired by historic forces - human beings who seek integrity and harmony in a new life of their own. Judaism is not only a religion, a system of abstract thought, or a series of tenets and commandments. It is also, perhaps primarily, a particular way of life, action and self-expression. Our particular genius, our capacity for self-expression is throttled in us because we live amid alien environments and cultures. We are always adapting ourselves to our stronger neighbours, existing in a state of perpetual mimicry dangerous to our spirit. Zionism is not only a movement for the hungry and persecuted. It draws to itself increasing numbers of courageous Jews even in those countries which are free from brutal anti-Semitism and where Jews are not stigmatised as “unclean”. These Jews know - as your great patriot Lajpat once put it - that chains are chains no matter how gilded. You yourself once lived in a strange land, in the small Indian Diaspora of South Africa, and you know how the spiritual energy of a national or racial group which lives as a minority in an alien environment becomes choked. May I, in this connection, quote the lines of the great modern Hebrew poet Hayim N. Bialik, lines which I believe you will not misinterpret as evidence of a materialistic attitude: “Each people has as much heaven over its head as it has land under its feet.”

Landless and heavenless, many thousands of my brothers have in recent years returned to the soil of their fathers, laid waste through the neglect of centuries. You in India understand how a land may degenerate and grow barren. One does not have to be an expert in Indian history to know that your country was once richer, more fertile and more civilised than it is today. The excavations in Mohandja Dara have clearly demonstrated that the highly developed civilisation with large cities, industries and comfortable homes existed in your country 3,500 years before Christ. According to the historian Megasthenes, when the armies of Alexander the Great invaded parts of India over 2,200 years ago, they found a people no less civilised and artistic than the Greeks of that time. In Palestine, too, there once existed a higher state of civilisation than we found when our generation began to return. The remnants of terraces on the mountains, the magnificent synagogues excavated in Capernaum and Beth Alpha, the signs of a former irrigation system, all bear witness to this. During the centuries of our absence, war and oppression raging for generations reduced our land to a state of barrenness and decay. This did not dishearten our pioneers. In every spot where they were given the chance, they built again prospering villages and towns. Where the earth was swampy they drained it; where it was barren and parched, they made water spring from hidden deeps. They drove out the curse of malaria. The mountains of Judea and Galilee had been denuded as far back as the Roman wars, but this desolation has been lifted by our youth. In many places which recently were but sand and rock, the green woods of ancient Palestine bloom resurrected. Within a comparatively short space of time we have developed Jewish agriculture and industry making possible a still larger mass immigration of Jews. At the start of our reconstruction work we had psychological as well as physical difficulties. We had the problems resulting from a false conception of manual labour. Once a people of shepherds and farmers and artisans, in the course of our wanderings we had been transformed into a people of tradesmen primarily. We lost contact with nature, lost the habit of healthful and cleansing physical labour, and began to look with unjustified, well-nigh sinful, contempt upon so-called “lower” social functions. Our religious cult of learning unfortunately changed into the cult of a pseudo-aristocracy. Many of us ceased to understand the moral and aesthetic worth of simple labour. You are familiar with the paradoxical ways by which a people arrives at so corrupt a scale of values. You in India will also have to wage a bitter struggle against the social implications of this pseudo-aristocratic scholasticism. We understand the challenge in the title “scavenger” which you assumed. In Palestine and through Palestine we are freeing ourselves from the moral hump which rose on our backs during centuries of unsound development. We have given back to physical labour its dignity and sanctity. We have returned to the truly Jewish, profoundly human concept of our Talmudists who taught that “he who does not teach his son a manual trade is like to one who teaches his son robbery”. Through our renewed understanding of the dignity of labour many of us came to understand that all kinds of labour are of equal social worth and are to be equally rewarded. In the same places where the pre-evangelical communities of the Essenes, dedicated to the principle of “mine is thine, and thine is mine”, once existed, large villages built on the basis of voluntary communism have arisen. I have been told on several occasions that some groups in India have gathered the impression that our communes are breeding-places of vulgar materialism and atheism. It would take me far beyond the confines of my letter were I to explain why I regard their irreligion as true religion. Let me say but one word. Remember the utterances of your great mystic Ramakrishna who declared that “religion is not for empty stomachs”, and of his flaming disciple, Vivekananda, who said that “as long as a single hungry man remains in my land, my sole religion will be to feed him”! Such is the motivation of the “materialism” of our communist experiment in Palestine.

Arab enemies of my people, and, I am convinced, also of their own people, have lately mobilised ignorant and fanatical elements against this Jewish renascence. All impartial observers who have visited Palestine, all honest students of the question, have come to the conclusion that our movement has in no way injured the Arab people, that, on the contrary, the mass of the Arab population has profited socially, economically and culturally from Jewish immigration. If you would care to acquaint yourself with the available data, you would see for yourself that the Arab standard of living has risen significantly due to the peaceful, progressive methods of Jewish reconstruction. In recent history, Zionism is the first instance of colonisation free from imperialist ambition or the desire to rule any part of the population. The present Arab rulers know very well that no danger of Jewish dominion threatens the Arab people through Zionism. However, they fear that the influence of Zionism on the Arab masses will hasten the process of economic and social emancipation in Palestine, and will endanger their selfish caste interests. For this reason, they kindle the savage passions of national hate and religious fanaticism. They have sent poor ignorant wretches to destroy Jewish property, to uproot trees planted by Jews, to set fire to Jewish houses, to murder old and young - men, women and children - to throw bombs into schools and kindergartens, and to shoot down Jewish nurses who tended Arab patients in the hospitals. I am sure that you have heard of the anti-Jewish terror let loose in Palestine for over half a year, and no doubt information has reached you of the Arab leaders’ intention to renew this terror and increase its scope so as to attain their goal - the stoppage of further Jewish immigration and the liquidation of Zionism. Whey then, I dare ask you, have you been silent all this while? Why are you still silent?

I know how small a place the Jewish question must occupy in the consciousness of the Indian intellectual. I know how enormous are your own problems and cares. But the drama now being enacted in Palestine has its direct and indirect repercussions in India. A harmful and thoroughly false propaganda against Jews and Zionism is now being conducted in your Mohammedan communities. The none-too-fastidious agents of the present Arab leaders are spreading malicious lies to the effect that Jews are a menace to Mohammedanism, that they propose to destroy or tamper with Mohammedan mosques and holy places. An intense hated of Jews is being fanned among the millions of Mohammedans in India. Please believe me that I think not only of my own people, when I feel duty bound to warn you against the effects of this incendiary propaganda. Jew-hatred is a dangerous poison not only for the hated but for the haters. For the sake of your country and your people as well as my own, I would not wish the bacilli now undermining the moral foundations of so many European countries, to befoul the air of India. I do not understand why you have taken no note of this kindling of religious fanaticism and blind hate among your Mohammedan fellow-Indians, why you have ignored the effects of Arab incitement which became apparent even in the ranks of the Indian National Congress. You are silent. Your disciple, Nehru, is silent. And, unless I am mistaken, only your poet and noble champion of human rights, Madame Naidu, has raised her voice in behalf of my people.

Let your clear and courageous voice be heard - for our sake, for your sake, for the sake of the awakening East to which we return. Do that which is in your power to end the venomous anti-Jewish propaganda amid the millions of Mohammedans in India. When Hindus and Mohammedans make murderous attacks upon each other, you declare a fast in protest against fratricide and false piety. I remember the strict solemnity of your three weeks’ fast. I remember also the effect of this particular “dictatorial” measure: the two religious communities made peace under the pressure of your prayer and fast. I am not so naive and egocentric as to assume that you could protest with an equal passion the onslaught on Jewish work and a Jewish future in Palestine. It is not my right to suggest how you should influence Moslem public opinion and particularly the leaders of your National Congress. Do what you can to stop the anti-Jewish agitation for which Islam is being exploited cynically and destructively. I know how greatly you honour Islam and its followers. But all your life you have shown daring and ability to fight against hypocrisy in religious life. As the proven friend of the Moslems, you have a particular right to protest against the particular exploitation of Islam and its institutions for unworthy political ends.

May I remind you how a European observer characterised the reaction of a Hindu to the usual sermon of a Christian missionary? His first answer was, “Christianity is not true”; his second, “Christianity is now new,” and his third rejoinder was, “Christianity is not you”. He perceived the truth in Christianity, while realising the untruth in the Christian. The same may be said of Islam and of those who seek to transform a noble doctrine into an instrument for anti-social and anti-religious purposes. You are the man in India who can challenge the unscrupulous Arab agitators with the cry, “Islam is not you”.

Will we hear your voice, the voice of Young India?

Source: GandhiServe Foundation - Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service (reprinted with permission)