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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

(1869 - 1948)


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Mohandas Gandhi was an Indian political leader who led India to independence from the British using non-violent civil disobedience.

Gandhi (born October 2, 1869; died January 30, 1948) in Porbandar, a coastal town on the Kathiawar Peninsula in the British Indian Empire. In May 1883, 13-year-old Mohandas married 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji in an arranged marriage, according to the custom of the region. In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple's first child was born, but survived only a few days. Mohandas and Kasturba would have four more children, all sons: Harilal, born in 1888; Manilal, born in 1892; Ramdas, born in 1897; and Devdas, born in 1900.

In 1888, Gandhi travelled to London, England, to study law at University College London, where he studied Indian law and jurisprudence and trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple. Though not interested in religion, Gandhi became very interested in religious thought during this period.

In June 1891, after passing the bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law firm, but failed on numerous occasions. In 1893, he accepted a year-long contract from Dada Abdulla & Co., an Indian firm, to a post in South Africa. His eventual 21-year stay in South Africa, from 1893 to 1914, was a period of formative influence in which he formulated and first put into practice his conception of satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) and crystallized most of the elements of his ethos and lifestyle.

Gandhi also befriended several Jews in South Africa and the most intimate of his non-Indian colleagues and confidants in South Africa were Jews, notably H.S.L. (Henry) Polak and Hermann Kallenbach. However, while evincing sympathy for the Jews as the historic underdog of Western society, Gandhi was less sympathetic to the Jewish religion. Neither Polak nor Kallenbach could authentically interpret Judaism for him since they were both alienated from the Jewish religion and community. Gandhi's formative perception of Judaism derived less from his Hinduism than from the particular circumstances of his exposure, as a Hindu, to Christian influence. While he had reservations about Christianity, he at least understood it on its own terms, whereas Judaism was perceived by him through Christian-tinted glasses. Thus he regarded Jesus as "the finest flower of Judaism" and identified Judaism wholly with the Old Testament which he did not like much. This attitude was reinforced by his contact with the Calvinist Boers of South Africa in whom he saw the products of Old Testament influence.

Gandhi's distorted view of Judaism also prejudiced his perception of Zionism. Thus he insisted that Zion was not geographical but "lies in the heart." It therefore could be realized by Jews anywhere and ought not to mean "the reoccupation of Palestine." Moreover, his overriding striving for Muslim-Hindu amity in an undivided India influenced him to support the Muslim-Arab case against that of Zionism. In March 1921, he made a statement supporting the demand of the Indian Muslim Khilafat (Caliphate) movement that Muslim control be retained over Palestine. He argued on moral grounds but the partiality of his stand is evident in his dismissal of Jewish religious sentiment regarding Palestine, in contrast to his uncritical affirmation of Muslim religious sentiment.

Concerned by the increasing hostility to Zionism in India, Moshe Shertok urged Kallenbach, who had meanwhile become a Zionist in South Africa, to visit India with a view to gaining Gandhi's sympathy for the Zionist cause. Kallenbach visited him in May 1937 and succeeded in making the Mahatma more sympathetic to Zionism. Gandhi permitted him to deliver a private statement to the Zionist leadership accepting, in principle, the validity of the Jewish aspiration to found a home in Palestine, but rejecting any reliance on British power, and insisting that fulfillment of Zionist goals be dependent on Arab approval. However, constrained by his solidarity with Muslim feelings in India, Gandhi never gave public expression to such private sentiments. At the same time, not wishing to harm either Jews or Arabs, Gandhi was reluctant to make public statements on the Arab-Jewish conflict. Yet, urged by Kallenbach and others to make his voice heard in the light of Nazi persecution of the Jews, he finally did so in November 1938. But in this statement he again averred that Palestine belonged to the Arabs and advised the Jews to cultivate a spiritual rather than a geographical Zion. He unreservedly condemned Hitler's wanton persecution of the Jews but recommended that the Jews of Germany observe organized satyagraha in response to Nazi atrocities and not leave Germany.

Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, both admirers of Gandhi, wrote open letters (Buber letter; Magnes letter) to him in response to this statement. But they remained unanswered. It is not clear whether Gandhi actually received them. However, he did publicly answer another open letter from Ḥayyim Greenberg, in which he reiterated his views and denied that they were motivated by the desire to win Muslim friendship. It would appear that the nature of Nazi treatment of the Jews lay utterly beyond his comprehension. He remained convinced that "the stoniest German heart will melt" if only the Jews would adopt "active non-violence."

After World War II, Gandhi again expressed some sympathy for the Zionist case in private conversations with the Anglo-Jewish M.P. Sidney Silverman and with his American Jewish biographer, Louis Fischer. But when publicity was given to these sentiments, he reiterated his reservations and condemned violence. His public statements thus remained consistently unsympathetic to Zionism.

As far as the Jews of India are concerned, it appears that they have had a positive view of Gandhi. According to their oral accounts, in 1931 Gandhi met with a number of Bene Israel to discuss the possible participation of Indian Jews in the nationalist movement and suggested that they join hands with Indian nationalists in the event of their victory but not get involved in wider politics before that time, as they represented such a small minority that they should be concerned chiefly with their own safety.

On January 30, 1948, less than six months after the Indian Independence Act was invoked, Gandhi was assassinated while on his way to address a prayer meeting. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist with links to extremist parties, fired three bullets into Gandhi's chest at point-blank range. Over two million people joined the five-mile long funeral procession.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved; Wikipedia

M. Buber, The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue (1991); M. Chatterjee, Gandhi and His Jewish Friends (1992); E.N. Musleah, On the Banks of the Ganga: The Sojourn of Jews in Calcutta (1975); J.G. Roland, The Jewish Communities of India (1999).

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