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Gandhi, the Jews & Zionism: An Answer to Gandhi, by Hayim Greenberg


In his article concerning the Jewish question, a statement for which certain elements in Jewry have long waited with impatience, the spiritual leader of Young India directs against us two important accusations. He blames us for not exhibiting the heroism of militant pacifism in those lands where Jews are persecuted, and especially in Germany. On the other hand, he accuses us of following an aggressively nationalist - almost imperialist - policy in Palestine and of a desire to deprive the Arabs of their fatherland.

Gandhi’s first accusation is quite natural and is in complete harmony with his entire world outlook. His temperament does not tolerate passivity and his ethical-religious convictions dictate to him the duty of heroic and active resistance according to the principle of Satyagraha.

The motivating idea of Satyagraha is not, as some claim, a practical strategy which Gandhi “made to order” to meet the concrete demands of the Indian situation. Long ago he advocated it as a universal ideal which could be applied by all the oppressed and injured everywhere and independently of the specific historical situation. Personally, I feel that the individual and group struggles according to the plan of Satyagraha - aside from its moral-religious implications - have proved to be practical and effective. The truth of the Satyagraha teaching - which in another form has been expressed by Jesus and other Jewish teachers many generations ago - is in my eyes as self-evident as a mathematical axiom. But I must admit to myself in order to apply Gandhi’s method of struggle, it is necessary to accept it not only on a purely intellectual plane; it is also imperative that it be assimilated emotionally, that it should be believed in with all the force of one’s being. Such faith the Jews of Germany do not possess. Faith in the principle of Satyagraha is a matter of special predisposition which, for numerous reasons, the German Jews have not developed. The civilisation in which German Jews have lived for so many generations, and to the creation of which they have so energetically and ably contributed, has not prepared them for the “pathos” of Satyagraha. As a result, they are now defenceless, The accepted defence methods of the European-American world cannot be applied by the German Jews. They cannot resort to passive resistance because they lack the heroism, the faith and the specific imaginative powers which alone can stimulate such heroism. When Gandhi accuses German Jews of lacking that mentality which, in his estimation, is the only truly heroic mentality, I am ready to concur with him, but with one reservation which he also must accept - that this accusation should also be levelled against the millions of non-Jewish Germans who wear the yoke of the Hitler regime with impotent hatred and show no more affinity for Satyagraha methods than do the Jews; against the millions of Italians who for years have breathed the contaminated air of their own tyranny; against the tens of millions of Russians who have exhausted their strength in civil war and do not find their way to the Gandhi method of resisting the Red despotism; against hundreds of millions of Chinese who by their military resistance aid the Japanese aggressors to ravage their country instead of following the path of non-cooperation.

It is true that one may demand - as Gandhi does - that Jews, and particularly the Jews of Germany, should be the “pioneers” of new forms of social struggle in the Western world and should be the first to embrace the practice of Satyagraha. Gandhi wishes that we should set an example to the non-Jewish Germans, that we should point the way to a spiritual crusade against their wicked government. He may have a sound reason for believing that the incomparable suffering and degradation to which German Jews are subjected “compels” them to act more heroically and to be more “adventurous” spiritually than their neighbours. I do not question the idea implicit in Gandhi’s demand, that there is a mutual relationship between the intensity of suffering and the intensity of the moral reaction to suffering. But there is no reason to assume that when suffering and insults transgress certain bounds it is quite natural that the reaction should be a feeling of futility and despair instead of that heroism which Gandhi suggests. This is especially true when the group concerned is historically and psychologically not prepared for such a catastrophe and therefore looks upon it as a sudden and unexpected occurrence. The prophet of Young India has in this instance exhibited an unusual lack of psychological understanding.

Gandhi should also have understood that it is far less simple to preach Satyagraha to German Jews than it is to Indian masses, even to the lowest caste of “untouchables”. We all know the evils of English rule and administration in India. But one should be wary of drawing comparisons between the situation of the Indian masses today, or even twenty years ago, and the position of the German Jews today. Throughout the years that the Indian National Congress conducted its struggle for emancipation, there existed in India scores of legal newspapers and journals which voiced the needs and the political demands of the people. The British government never questioned the right of the oppressed population to live, to work and to earn their bread; it did not even question their right to hold responsible government positions. The most brutal British administration bore in mind that it had to deal with 350 million people living compactly in one area. Together with Gandhi it understood that, to use his (Gandhi’s) own words, “If we Indians could only spit in unison, we would form a puddle big enough to drown 300,000 Englishmen” - the entire number of Englishmen who live in India and govern it. When Satyagraha is practised by an organised group that is backed by such an immense population it becomes a force that the scattered half million German Jews cannot even dream of. Let me cite the words of one of Gandhi’s disciples and colleagues who, just before he was sent to prison, declared: “We can thank our lucky stars that we are fighting the British and not someone else, for the British have something in them to which we can appeal.” The same British judge who sentenced Gandhi to prison found it possible and unpunishable to declare, after pronouncing sentence, that it was the law which sends Gandhi to prison but that he personally looks upon him as “a great patriot and a great leader”; that “even those who differed from Gandhi look upon him as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life.” At the same time one of the most prominent British missionaries compared Gandhi’s trial to the trials of Jesus and Socrates, and the English Bishop of Madras declared to the entire world: “Frankly I confess, although it deeply grieves me to say it, that I see in Mr. Gandhi the patient sufferer for the cause of righteousness and mercy, a truer representative of the crucified Saviour than the men who have thrown him into prison and yet call themselves by the name of Christ.”

Only recently I met an Englishman, an ex-army officer in India (now a member of Parliament), who had been brave enough to refuse to carry out the command to arrest Gandhi, with the full knowledge of the punishment prescribed for such insubordination. That punishment was not meted out. Even during the days of General Dyer’s brutal administration in India there did not reign that bestiality and “moral anesthesia” which characterise the Germany of today. A Jewish Gandhi in Germany, should one arise could ‘function’ for about five minutes - until the first Gestapo agent would lead him, not to a concentration camp, but directly to the gallows.

Gandhi demands heroism from the Indians; he demands of the German Jews a measure of super-heroism unexampled in history. Gandhi’s comparison of the situation of the Indians to that of the German Jews contains an element of unfairness which crept in against his will and against his intentions.

But if Gandhi demands that we practise super-heroism in Germany, he requests that in Palestine we should renounce the most elementary rights which every people may and should claim. When he asks why we do not “like the other peoples of the earth” make our home in the land where we are born and where we earn our livelihood he indicates that he has not pondered the unusual drama of the paradoxical Jewish history. Jews have been dispersed for many generations, and it could not be an accident that after sojourning in so many lands and with so many peoples they have not become so rooted in those countries that these should cease being “stepmother lands”. Gandhi should have known of the numerous attempts the Jews have made throughout the ages to transform lands of refuge into true homes, beginning with Babylonia and the Hellenic city of Alexandria in Egypt. The contribution of the Jews to the economic growth and the cultural blossoming of those countries is sufficient proof of this attempt to become rooted which has so frequently ended in failure. Gandhi’s question rings like a veiled accusation; it sounds as if we have purposely refused to become rooted in any country but Palestine. If it should be true that we have condemned ourselves to remain eternal strangers, then such an unusual phenomenon in human history should have evoked Gandhi`s wonder and he should have asked whether the Jews do not bear within themselves unrealised forces which can only manifest themselves in a Jewish territorial environment where these may come to fruition.

But Gandhi refuses to recognise our right to a distinct territorial settlement, a right which is enjoyed, almost without exception, by all the peoples of the world. Were it not so, he would see the Palestine problem in an altogether different political and moral light. For when he says that “it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs, so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their National Homeland” he forgets that if national honour is at stake (this is the burden of his statement, and he knows full well that one may not repeat the discredited allegations of economic or cultural harm that Jews supposedly caused to Arabs) he should also have thought of Jewish honour. Either it is dishonourable to be a minority in a country or it is merely a question of fictitious prestige for which he can have no sympathy. If only pseudo-honour is involved, why should he be concerned lest the “proud Arabs” be deprived of the enjoyment of an inflated pride? But if real national honour is at stake, why should the Arabs enjoy it throughout the length and breadth of the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, and Egypt (an area almost as large as the European continent) while the Jews should be deprived of this honour even in an area which occupies about one percent of the above-mentioned lands, an area to which they have historical claims and the natural right they acquired during two generations of diligent work, initiative, heroism and suffering?

I do not claim that so-called historical rights possess absolute validity. It if is true, for instance, that Gypsies came to Europe from a certain section of India and that section is now completely settled, no intelligent being would claim that the Gypsies have a right to build their national home in that area. They could do so only through the expulsion of the present population. Jewish historical rights to Palestine are of an altogether different nature. The country is underpopulated and inadequately cultivated; it contains room for several times the number of people that now reside in it. For Jews Palestine is the cradle and the “laboratory” of their civilisation and their spiritual bond with the country was not broken at any time during their history. For the Arabs Palestine is, in a certain sense, an “accidental” geographical unit for which they do not even have a name. To this day Palestine is only “South Syria” to the Arabs.

Need anything more be added to explain Jewish rights to Palestine? In eastern Europe an anecdote is current (an anecdote the implications of which are altogether too frequently overlooked) concerning a thief whom the judge chided in the following words: “Don’t you know that it is forbidden to take anything that belongs to others”? But the thief posed an intellectual dilemma before the judge. “What shall I do,” he asked the judge, “since at the time of my birth everything already belonged to other people?” Absolute poverty, in a world filled with riches, confers a natural right upon those whom fate mistreated to demand their share, first of all at the expense of those who possess too much, more than they need or can use. One may not say to Jews: “The world is already divided up; some received more and others less but there is nothing left for you and no one is obliged to share with you, even though he possesses fields which he cannot or does not wish to cultivate, or factories where the machines are left to rust in inaction, simply because at one time he succeeded in obtaining these possessions by force or through trickery.” Gandhi does not realise that he has erred in sanctioning the “absolute” nature of private property and its inviolability. Group ownership of territories is also a form of private ownership which should be subjected to control and regulation by a broader human or international principle. Although he is not a Socialist in the accepted meaning of the term, Gandhi is aware that the property relationships between individual members of society will have to be modified in some way in order to attain a minimum of justice. Earnest and logical consideration should have led him to the conclusion that the same criterion of justice - the assurance of the necessary minimum to every creature that is stamped with “the image of God” - must also be applied to entire nations, races and tribes. Another non-Socialist and non-internationalist (in the modern sense of the terms), Benjamin Franklin, several generations ago admirably expressed this simple idea in a letter to Robert Morris. He said: “All property except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me the creature of public convention. Hence, the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and the uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual and the propagation of the species, is his natural right which none may justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may therefore, by other laws, dispose of it, when ever the welfare of the public shall demand such disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire and live among savages. He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club toward the support of it.”

Had Gandhi taken the trouble to consider this elementary truth in relation to present-day reality, he would also not have written in such a tone of near-disdain about the Mandate. From a purely legalistic point of view, it may be possible to agree with him that “the mandates have no sanction but that of the last war”. This does not mean, however, that the basic idea of the mandates, and even the mandatory system as it has been practised during the past twenty years, was born from the war. The idea underlying the mandates which, according to the constitution of the League of Nations, should be applied in territories where the population is not ready for self-government or where local interests must be subordinated to more important considerations of an international character, is potentially of great humanitarian significance. It is a prelude to that “civil society” of which Franklin wrote in the eighteenth century; it is a way to a more rational and just collective-international control of the world’s wealth. I am not unaware of the shortcomings with which the League of Nations is weighed down nor of its sad fate during recent years which also brought misfortune to all humanity. But whoever observed closely the activities of the League in the administration of mandated territories - naturally excluding those areas mandated to Japan, a country which cynically mocked League control even when its representatives were still sitting at Geneva - must admit that the mandatory system is a step forward when compared with the uncontrolled colonial regimes of the past and the present. The fact that a mandatory government is responsible to the Permanent Mandates Commission, in which the majority of the members represent governments possessing neither mandates or colonial possessions, is in itself an advance in the direction of internationalism and the humanisation of the world.

It is regrettable that Gandhi approached our problem without that fundamental earnestness and passionate search for truth which are so characteristic of his usual treatment of problems. He therefore missed the deeper implications of the Mandates system. He therefore also failed to grasp the unequalled tragedy of Jewish existence. This is the reason why he can justify the phenomenon of five Arab States demanding in London the establishment of a sixth one on the eve of the founding of two other sovereign Arab governments in Syria and Lebanon, while at the same time sanctioning the denial of refuge to Jews in their old home. This also explains his stand that Arabs must nowhere be reduced to the status of a minority while tens of millions of Russians, Poles, Czechs, Germans, Irish and Italians live in dozens of countries as ethnic minorities and while Jews live as a persecuted minority on the entire globe.

With all my respect for the Mahatma (I doubt if there is another man living who evokes within me such a moral awareness of his loftiness), I cannot help feeling that in the present instance he has betrayed his inner nature. I cannot avoid the suspicion that so far as the Palestine problem is concerned, Gandhi allowed himself to be influenced by the anti-Zionist propaganda being conducted among fanatic pan-Islamists. His understandable and praiseworthy desire for a united front with the Mohammedans, apparently misguided and blinded him to significant realities and deprived him of that analytical clarity which is a part of his moral being. Years ago he was, for the same reason, misguided into supporting the agitation for the re-establishment of the Khalifate, an institution that is at such variance with his general views. Gandhi was wrong then; he is also mistaken in the present instance, and the source of these mistakes seems to be the same.

I know that this is a serious accusation - at any rate a serious suspicion. But when it comes from a Jew, such an accusation does not indicate a lack of veneration. Hero worship among Jews is traditionally circumscribed. We venerate Moses, our first prophet and liberator. But we do not forget that also he was sinful - so sinful that God denied him entry into the Promised Land and his earthly remains were interred on the solitary height of Mount Nebo.

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