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Gandhi, the Jews & Zionism: Discussion with Mr. Silverman and Mr. Honick on Jews & Arabs

(March 1946)

From Louis Fischer papers

“The Jewish National Home” was the theme of a conversation that Messrs. [Sydney] Silverman, M.P., and Honick, the President of the World Jewish Congress and the head of its organisational side, had with Gandhi during the week. Their object in coming to India was to canvass support for the cause of the “Jewish National Home” in Palestine. They were perturbed over the Congress Working Committee’s resolution on the question and were anxious to gain Gandhi’s support. The theme was not altogether new to Gandhi as at the instance of the late Mr. Kallenbach he had made a fair study of it. He had gone through all the literature that the former had furnished him. With Mr. Kallenbach it had become a passion. He had identified himself with the Zionist cause and had dedicated to it a good bit of his fortune. Naturally Gandhi had tried to take as favourable a view of it as his friendship with Mr. Kallenbach demanded. In the end he had given what he considered to be his best advice to Mr. Kallenbach who had communicated it to Dr. Wise.

“Well, I am half a Jew myself,” said Gandhi laughing as he greeted his visitors. And when they looked puzzled he described to them his intimate friendship with Mr. Kallenbach who was his inseparable companion in almost all he did in South Africa and Messrs. Polak and Ritch, not to mention several others. “You have my sympathy,” he continued, “But you have come to the wrong person. I work within my limitations. I may not, therefore, be able to go far with you in view of your methods which I hold to be wrong.”

There were two sides to the question, they explained. There was a small section of terrorist hotheads. What they did was altogether wrong. But there was another thing, not formally legal either but which he could perhaps understand and even sympathise with. “If a crazy vessel bringing Jewish refugees comes to the Palestinian shore,” remarked Mr. Silverman with some warmth, “I for one would rather help in getting them ashore than help those who want to shoot them down.”

“I could sympathise and even appreciate that, being a civil resister myself,” replied Gandhi. “I sympathised with Poland when they offered resistance to the Germans against overwhelming odds. But that is not what you want from me. What I would say to you therefore is that unless you can gain the ear of the Indian Mussalmans and their active support, I am afraid there is nothing that can be done in India. I will not be of much use to you. I gave my advice to Mr. Kallenbach and he appreciated it too. But he could not utter the right word. It would have meant going into the wilderness. But you try along your lines. You will get the support of Beni Israel and the Jews in India. For instance there is David Sassoon.”

“Oh no. Money makers do not help us,” replied Mr. Silverman. “All the land in Palestine was purchased out of the Jewish National Fund which is made of small contributions of the poor out of their hard-earned savings. As a matter of fact one thing with which we are reproached is that there is a condition attached to the sale of the land purchased out of this Fund to the effect that no Arab labour can be employed on it. We want to create a Jewish peasantry attached to the soil. We do not want to exploit Arab labour. That should appeal to you. May we take it that you sympathise with our aspiration to establish a national home for the Jews. We are the only nation on earth without a country.”

Gandhi: “Is not even English opinion divided over that issue?”

Mr. Silverman: “No, there is a difference as to the method, none over the principle. Recently Mr. Bevin speaking in the House of Commons declared himself in favour of establishing a Jewish Home. The word ‘national’ was omitted. In reply to a letter which I addressed to him later he explained that ‘Jewish Home’ was only an abbreviation for ‘Jewish National Home.’ In his reply he quoted the preamble of the Balfour declaration and reiterated that the British Government continued to adhere to the policy laid down in that declaration.”

Gandhi: “Let me try to understand the question. Why do you want a national home in Palestine?”

Mr. Silverman: “Two reasons. Firstly, because six and a half lakhs of Jews are already settled there. We cannot throw them away and begin anew. Secondly because there is nowhere else we can go to.”

Gandhi: “Are there not waste spaces enough in the world to receive you?”

Mr. Silverman: “Palestine itself was a waste space when we went there. We are cynical enough to say ‘that is how we got it in 1917.’ No one else wanted it. Now that we have developed it they want to turn us out. What guarantee is there that it will not be the same elsewhere too? Canada, England, the South Americas, Australia - it is the same story everywhere. We are treated as unwelcome strangers.”

“Excuse my ignorance,” rejoined Gandhi, “May I ask what the attitude of Russia is towards the Jews?”

“They have devised a formula for the minorities which they have applied to us too. Yiddish language is recognised in Russia as the medium of education for the Jews. They enjoy full citizenship rights. Russia is perhaps the only country where preaching of race hatred is penalised.”

“Now suppose,” asked Gandhi, “Russia absorbed all the Jews, would it solve your problem?”

“No more than the existing freedom of the Jews to settle down in the United States,” replied the friends. “Whilst the Jews have made their contribution to humanity’s progress wherever they have gone, it is not distinctive of the Jewish race. Practically half the world today is more or less influenced by the thought which the Jews sent forth when they were a nation in Palestine. Moreover Russia would not countenance a mass immigration of the Jews. On that issue its attitude is just like that of any other country.”

“Then you mean to say you are not a nation but are trying to become one. What about the Arabs?”

“We are like an uprooted plant living a distorted existence. We want to regain what we have lost. The Arabs stand to lose nothing thereby. We can settle with the Arab population. There is no difference between the Arab labourer and the Jewish. The trouble is created by the Arab League and the seething politics of the Middle East.”

Gandhi: “Then you want to convert the Arab majority into a minority?”

Messrs. Silverman and Honick admitted that the status of the Arabs was affected to that extent and injustice done to them. But they maintained that even if they lost their status in Palestine there would still be five independent kingdoms left which they can call their own and with the addition of Syria and Lebanon at no distant date there will be seven. But if we lose Palestine, we have nothing left to us. That is our plea. It means 5% of injustice to the Arabs to avoid a denial of all justice to the Jews.”

“So the Arabs do stand to lose something?”

“Something which they never had.”

“Before the Jewish immigration into Palestine began in 1917?”

“Yes, but under Turkish rule.”

“So you want the Arabs to sacrifice something which you want for yourself?”

“We only want them to make a little sacrifice so that justice might be done to the general situation.”

“May I ask one thing,” finally said Gandhi. “Cannot you control the hotheads?”

“We can,” they replied, “and we did keep them under control. They would be again under control if we could tell them that the policy of establishing a national home for the Jews outlined in the Balfour declaration would be given effect to. You know how difficult it is to ask the youths to be calm and collected when five and three millions in Europe have been massacred.”

“I admit it is a very difficult and intricate situation,” replied Gandhi. “But as I have already said, I have my limitations. I can only hope that a just solution may be found which will give satisfaction to the Jews. But after all our talk I am unable to revise the opinion I gave you in the beginning. You should see the Congress President and Qaid-e-Azam Jinnah too and try to gain their sympathy. Unless you can get the active support of the Muslims nothing is possible in a substantial way in India.”

“It is well nigh impossible,” they remarked.

“I do not minimise the difficulty,” replied Gandhi, “but I won't say it is impossible.”

“Would Mr. Jinnah listen? He won’t.”

“He may.”

“Perhaps he may by the same token which he demands a Pakistan.”

“You can tell him that also,” said Gandhi, and they all had a hearty laugh.


Poona, March 8, 1946

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