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Gandhi, the Jews & Zionism: Letter from Judah L. Magnes to Gandhi

(February 26, 1939)

Dear Mr. Gandhi,

What you have said recently about the Jews is the one statement I have yet seen which needs to be grappled with fundamentally. Your statement is a challenge, particularly to those of us who have imagined ourselves your disciples.

I am sure you must be right in asserting that the Jews of Germany can offer Satyagraha to the “godless fury of their dehumanised oppressors”.

But how and when? You do not give the answer. You may say that you are not sufficiently acquainted with the German persecution to outline the practical technique of Satyagraha for use by the German Jews. But one of the great things about you and your doctrine has been that you have always emphasised the chance of practical success if Satyagraha be offered. Yet to the German Jews you have not given the practical advice which only your unique experience could offer, and I wonder if it is helpful merely in general terms to call upon the Jews of Germany to offer Satyagraha. I have heard that many a Jew of Germany has asked himself how and when Satyagraha must be offered, without finding the answer. Conditions in Germany are radically different from those that have prevailed in South Africa and in India. Those of us who are outside Germany must, I submit, think through most carefully the advice we proffer the unfortunates who are caught in the claws of the Hitler beast.

If you take the sentences of your statement as to what you would do were you a German Jew, you will find, I believe, that not only one German Jew, as you require, has had “courage and vision”, but many whose names are known and many more who have borne witness to their faith without their names being known.

“I would claim Germany as my home”. There has never been a community more passionately attached to its home than the German Jews to Germany. The thousands of exiles now to be found everywhere are so thoroughly German mentally, psychologically, in their speech, manners, prejudices, their outlook, that we wonder how many generations it may take before this is uprooted. The history of the Jews in Germany goes back to at least Roman times and though the Jews throughout their history there have been massacred and driven out on diverse occasions, one thing or the other has always brought them back there.

“I would challenge him to shoot me or to cast me into the dungeon”. Many Jews - hundreds, thousands - have been shot. Hundreds, thousands have been cast into the dungeon. What more can Satyagraha give them? I ask this question in humility, for I am sure that you can give a constructive answer.

“I would not wait for fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance, but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example”. But the question is how can Jews in Germany offer civil resistance? The slightest sign of resistance means killing or concentration camps or being done away with otherwise. It is usually in the dead of night that they are spirited away. No one, except their terrified families, is the wiser. It makes not even a ripple on the surface of German life. The streets are the same, business goes on as usual, the casual visitor sees nothing. Contrast this with a single hunger strike in an American or English prison, and the public commotion that this arouses. Contrast this with one of your fasts, or with your salt march to the sea, or a visit to the Viceroy, when the whole world is permitted to hang upon your words and be witness to your acts. Has not this been possible largely because, despite all the excesses of its imperialism, England is after all a democracy with a Parliament and a considerable measure of free speech? I wonder if even you would find the way to public opinion in totalitarian Germany, where life is snuffed out like a candle, and no one sees or knows that the light is out.

“If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescriptions here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now”. Surely you do not mean that those Jews who are able to get out of Germany are as badly off as those who must remain? You call attention to the unbelievable ferocity visited upon all the Jews because of the crime of “one obviously mad but intrepid youth”. But the attempt at civil resistance on the part of even one Jew in Germany, let alone the community, would be regarded as an infinitely greater crime and would probably be followed by a repetition of this unbelievable ferocity, or worse.

“And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy”. I wonder that no one has drawn your attention to the fact that those German Jews who are faithful to Judaism - and they are the majority - have in large measure the inner strength and joy that comes from suffering for their ideals. It is those unfortunate “non-Aryans”, who have a trace of Jewish blood but who have been brought up as German Christians, who are most to be pitied. They are made to suffer, and they do not know why. Many of them have been raised to despise Jews and Judaism, and now this despised people, this scorned religion is, in their eyes, the cause of their suffering. What a tragedy for them.

But as to the Jews - I do not know if there is a deeper and more widespread history of martyrdom. You can read the story of it in any Jewish history book, or, if you wish a convenient account, in the Jewish Encyclopedia published in New York a generation ago. To take Germany alone, you may be interested in one document that has come down to us from the middle ages. It is called the Memorbuch of Nuernberg - Nuernberg of the Nuernberg laws, whose synagogue has just been torn down and a 15th century covering of a Scroll of the Law stolen and presented recently to the city's arch-fiend.

The Memorbuch gives a list of the places where massacres took place in Germany during the Crusades from 1096 to 1298. There are some fifty of these massacres entered chronologically. There is a further entry of some 65 large pages containing dates and places with the names of those martyred from 1096 to 1349. Take what happened in this very Nuernberg on Friday the 22nd of Ab 5058 of the Jewish calendar, the 1st August 1298 of the Christian calendar. We find the names of 628 men, women and children, whole families, old and young, strong and sick, rabbis and scholars, rich and poor, slaughtered on that day - burned, drowned, put to the sword, strangled, broken on the wheel and on the rack. In some places the elders killed the young, and then put an end to their own lives.

In Spain and Portugal where Jews were given the chance of conversion to Christianity, what usually happened in a stricken town was, that about a third converted, and a third succeeded in escaping, and always at least a third accepted their agony with the praise of God and his Unity on their lips. Our Hebrew literature is in many ways a literature of martyrdom. Our Talmud, which covers a period of about 1000 years, is a literature that grew up in large measure under oppression, exile and martyrdom, and it contains discussions, traditions and rules bearing upon our duty to accept martyrdom rather than yield to “idolatry, immorality, or the spilling of blood”. The Hebrew liturgy throbs with elegies in which poets and teachers commemorate the martyrs of one generation after another.

If ever a people was a people of non-violence through century after century, it was the Jews. I think they need learn but little from anyone in faithfulness to their God and in their readiness to suffer while they sanctify His Name.

What is new and great about you has seemed to me this, that you have exalted non-violence into the dominant principle of all of life, both religious, social and political, and that you have made it into a practical technique both of communing with the Divine and of battling for a newer world of justice and mercy and of respect for the human personality of even the most insignificant outcast. What you could give to help the Jew add to his precious contribution to mankind, “the surpassing contribution of non-violent action”, is not as much the exhortation to suffer voluntarily, as the practical technique of Satyagraha.

You would have the right to say that some Jew should do this. But we have no one comparable to you as religious and political leader.

There are, as I am aware, other elements besides non-violence in Satyagraha. There is non-cooperation, and the renunciation of property, and the disdain of death.

The Jews are a people who exalt life, and they can hardly be said to disdain death. Lev. 18, 5 says: “my judgements which if a man do he shall live in them”, and the interpretation adds as a principle of Jewish life “and not die through them”. For this reason I have often wondered if we are fit subjects for Satyagraha. And as to property, it is but natural that Jews should want to take along with them a minimum of their property from Germany or elsewhere so as not to fall a burden upon others. It would, I am sure, give you satisfaction to see how large numbers of refugees, who in Germany were used to wealth, comfort, culture, have without too much complaint and very often cheerfully buckled down to a new life in Palestine and elsewhere, many of them in the fields or in menial employment in the cities.

It is in the matter of non-cooperation that I have a question of importance to put to you.

A plan is being worked out between the Evian Refugee Committee and the German Government which appears to be nothing short of devilish. The details are not yet known. But it seems to amount to this: The German Government is to confiscate all German Jewish property and in exchange for increased foreign trade and foreign currency they will permit a limited number of Jews to leave Germany annually for the next several years. The scheme involves the sale of millions of pounds of debentures to be issued by a Refugee or Emigration Bank that is to be created. Whether Governments are to subscribe to these debentures, I do not know. But certainly the whole Jewish world will be called upon to do so.

Here is the dilemma: If one does not subscribe, no Jews will be able to escape from this prison of torture called Germany. If one does subscribe one will be cooperating with that Government, and be dealing in Jewish flesh and blood in a most modern and up-to-date slave market. I see before me here in Jerusalem a child who is happy now that he is away from the torment there, and his brother, or parent, or grandparent. One of the oldest of Jewish sayings is: “Who saves a single soul in Israel is as if he had saved a whole world”. Not to save a living soul? And yet to cooperate with the powers of evil and darkness? Have you an answer?

You touch upon a vital phase of the whole subject when you say that “if there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is therefore outside my horizon and province.”

But it is on “the pros and cons of such a war” that I would ask your guidance. The question gives me no rest, and I am sure there are many like myself. Like you I do not believe in any war. I have pledged myself never to take part in a war. I spoke up for pacifism in America during the world war alongside of many whose names are known to you. That war brought the “peace” of Versailles and the Hitlerism of today. But my pacifism, as I imagine the pacifism of many others, is passing through a pitiless crisis. I ask myself: Suppose America, England, France are dragged into a war with the Hitler bestiality, what am I to do and what am I to teach? This war may destroy a large part of the life of the youth of the world and force those who remain alive to lead the lives of savages. Yet I know I would pray with all my heart for the defeat of the Hitler inhumanity; and am I then to stand aside and let others do the fighting? During the last war I prayed for a peace without defeat or victory.

The answer given by Romain Rolland in his little book Par la revolution la paix (1935), seems to be, that while he himself as an individual continues to refuse to bear arms, he will do everything he can to help his side (in this case, Russia) to win the war. That is hardly a satisfying answer.

I ask myself how I might feel if I were not a Jew. Is the Hitler iniquity really as profound as I imagine? I recall that during the last war the arguments against Germany were much the same as these of today. I took no stock in those arguments then. Perhaps it is the torture of my own people that enrages me unduly? Yet it is my conviction that, being a Jew, my sense of outrage at injustice may, perhaps, be a bit more alive than the average and therefore more aware of the evils that the Hitler frenzy is bringing upon all mankind. The Jew, scattered as he is, is an outpost, bearing the brunt earlier of an action against mankind, and bearing it longest. For a dozen reasons he is a convenient scapegoat. I say this in order to make the point that if the Jew is thoroughly aroused about an evil such as the Hitler madness, his excitement and indignation are apt to be based not only on personal hurt but on a more or less authentic appraisal of the evil that must be met.

If you will take the trouble of looking at the little pamphlet I am sending, Fellowship in War (1936), you will see that I have an ineradicable belief that no war whatsoever can be a righteous war. The war tomorrow for the "democracies" or for some other noble slogan will be just as unrighteous or as fatuous as was the “war to save democracy” yesterday. Moreover, to carry on the war the democracies will perforce become totalitarian. Not even a war against the ghastly Hitler savagery can be called righteous, for we all of us have sinned, conquerors and conquered alike, and it is because of our sins, because of our lack of generosity and the spirit of conciliation and renunciation, that the Hitler beast has been enabled to raise its head. Even on the pages of the Nuernberg Memorbuch we find the words “Because of our many sins” this and that massacre took place. There can be no war for something good. That is a contradiction in terms. The good is to be achieved through totally different means.

But a war against something evil? If the Hitler cruelty launches a war against you, what would you do, what will you do? Can you refrain from making a choice? It is a choice of evils - a choice between the capitalisms, the imperialisms, the militarisms of the western democracies and between the Hitler religion. Can one hesitate as to which is the lesser of these two evils? Is not a choice therefore imperative? I am all too painfully conscious that I am beginning to admit that if Hitler hurls his war upon us we must resist. For us it would thus become, not a righteous war, nor, to use your term, a justifiable war, but a necessary war, not for something good, but, because no other choice is left us, against the greater evil. Or do you know of some other choice?

I have already written you an inordinately long letter, but I must abuse your patience further and refer to Palestine, I hope in not too lengthy a way.

I am burdening you with a further pamphlet of mine called Like all the Nations?. May I refer you to pages 14 and 15, and then to pages 29-32. You will see that on page 31, I say that we must overcome all obstacles in Palestine “through all the weapons of civilisation except bayonets .. brotherly, friendly weapons”, and on page 32 the Jew “should not either will or believe in or want a Jewish Home that can be maintained in the long run only against the violent opposition of the Arab and Moslem peoples.” There are other Jews who hold the same views and who regard the Mandate as suspect because, as you say, “the Mandate has no sanction but that of the last war”. In an address in New York in May 1919, I said: “Palestine is, so they say, to be given to the Jewish people. To my mind, no peace conference has the right to give any land to any people even though it be the land of Israel to the People of Israel. If self-determination be a true principle for other peoples, it is just as true for the Jewish people... If we are to be true democrats we must be true democrats in Jewish life as well. Our new beginnings in Palestine are burdened by this gift.” (page 60 of the above pamphlet).

But the attachment of Israel to Palestine is as old as the Bible, and there has been no period of history in which this attachment has not expressed itself, and, as we know more and more clearly from archaeological excavations and the recovery of lost documents, there has never been a time when Jewish settlements were utterly absent from the Holy Land.

Jewish life will always be lacking in an essential constituent, if Judaism and the Jewish people have no spiritual and intellectual Centre in Palestine. It is true they can exist without it, as history shows, but they have never ceased experiencing the deep need for such a Centre and of trying to establish it in Palestine on innumerable occasions. Such a spiritual and religious Centre must, for the Jewish people, take on the qualities of a National Home. The Jewish people are not like the Catholic Church for whom the ecclesia is the supreme authority. Judaism is peculiar in this, that it derives its final authority out of the life, the sufferings, the aspirations, the accumulated traditions, the God-consciousness of a people composed of ordinary everyday, hard-working human beings. It is for this reason that the Jewish Centre cannot be composed only of priests and scholars. The Jewish Centre to fulfill its true functions should be endowed with all the problems and possibilities that life itself imposes, and, as no one knows better than yourself, life expresses itself in many forms, political and social, as well as religious and spiritual.

It is, I think, in recognition of all of this that 52 nations accepted the doctrine that the Jews are in Palestine as of “right” and not just on sufferance. Do you not think that all of this, added to the barbarous treatment meted out to the Jews in all too many places, constitutes a kind of “right” at least as valid as the other varieties of “rights”?

But essential as this Centre, or National Home, seems to be, in the opinion of many, for Judaism and the Jews, I think you would find great numbers of Jews agreeing with you that “it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs”.

The question is, what is meant by reduce, and are the Arabs being reduced?

You say that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English”.

“Mine is the land” (Lev. 25, 23) saith the Lord.

May I point out at least two ways in which Palestine does not “belong” to the Arabs as England does to the English?

Usually a land “belongs” to that people which has conquered it. That is an ugly fact. The Jews conquered the land long ago. They lost it to conquerors, who themselves lost it, and eventually the Arabs conquered it. But the Arabs lost it to the Crusaders, and they again to the Arabs, and they to the Mongols and to the Mameluks, and they to the Turks, from whom it was conquered by the Allied Powers, primarily by England. The Arabs do not therefore possess political sovereignty from conquest, and the land does not “belong” to them in this sense.

Palestine does “belong” to the Arabs in the sense that they have been in the land in large numbers since the Moslem conquest, that most (by no means all) of those working the land are Arabs, and most (by no means all) of those owning the land are Arab landholders (a comparatively small number), and Arabic is the chief spoken language.

But Palestine is different from England also in this, that it is a sacred land for three monotheistic religions, and in this, that a people, the Jews, who became a people in Palestine and whose great classic, the basis of whose life, the Bible, was produced there, have never throughout all the centuries forgotten the land and ceased to yearn for it.

That is a unique fact of no mean importance.

The basic problem is, as you put it, the need for the Jews of settling in Palestine “with the goodwill of the Arabs”, and not “under the shadow of the British gun”.

I would not be honest if I conveyed the impression to you that in my opinion my people have always gone at this in the right way. They have done wonderful things in building up the land. They have planned intelligently and with high social ideals. They have borne sufferings and hardships willingly. They love the land and they have rescued it from further decay. They have revived the Hebrew tongue. In this sense the land also “belongs” to them. But I am sure that it has been the tragic pressure of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe that has made my people impatient and often intolerant. The tragedy of the Jewish wanderer and refugee did not begin with Germany. We have had this problem with us always, and it was one of the chief reasons for the rise of modern Zionism. And now with the German barbarities, and what is impending in Poland and elsewhere, the pressure for space and a Home has grown to be almost unbearable.

During the past three years when the Jewish community here has been under continual attack, it is a fact that the Jewish community has been non-violent. Our young men and women are hot-blooded as are others. But there are very few recorded cases of attack on their part and there have been no ascertained reprisals. This self-restraint, this Havlaga, as it is called, can be ascribed to many factors. But, as the never ceasing discussion of Havlaga shows, a deep ethical passion has been the predominant factor in this non-violence.

I wonder therefore if the question of the Jews offering “Satyagraha in front of the Arabs” arises in Palestine. The Jewish youth has had organised self-defence units which are now, for the most part, merged with the constituted forces of the country. As far as I am aware, you do not advocate the abolition of police or military forces anywhere. The record shows that in no single instance have the legalised Jewish forces in Palestine committed an act of aggression. I should like to know if you think that the Jewish settlements should have remained, or should now be, unarmed, and that when bands come into a town like Tiberias and murder and mutilate babes in their mothers’ arms, they should offer “themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them”. As I have understood Satyagraha, it must, in order to be effective, be offered in front of Constituted Authority, and not in front of roving bandits.

Will you not speak to the Arabs in terms of Satyagraha? That would also have a profound influence upon the Jews.

Great as is the need for finding a refuge in Palestine for persecuted Jews, and great as are the possibilities of spiritual and intellectual, social and political achievements in the Jewish National Home, there are very many who agree with you that we must not “reduce” the Arabs. If I understand what you mean by the word “reduce” I would give it as my opinion, after many years of residence in Palestine, that the Arabs have not been reduced. But that does not at all absolve the Jews from the primary duty and the vital necessity of “seeking to convert the Arab heart”. Perhaps you could help us in this through suggestions?

Sincerely Yours,


Jerusalem, February 26, 1939

P.S. You may be interested in a third pamphlet containing a recent address at the Hebrew University on the Jews of Bologna, Italy, particularly from page 8 onwards.

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