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Gandhi, the Jews & Zionism: Letter to Gandhi by a Jewish friend in Palestine on Judaism & Non-Violence

(January 28, 1939)

From Harijan

I have been realising more and more that there is, as matter of fact, no contradiction between your Satyagraha or non-violence and true Judaism. On the contrary, all the teachings, views and behaviour of the Jewish people’s ancestors, especially from about 2000 years ago, were just like yours, almost in all details.

The main error that most non-Jewish thinkers commit - among them I have even to count the great philosopher Schopenhauer - is when they imagine that the Old Testament and the Pentateuch constitute Judaism. They seem to forget that like all ancient races the Jews have passed through a long historical development of which the Old Testament was the early stage, and that during this development Judaism has reached as high a level as other great religions such as Christianity and Buddhism.

The Pentateuch, for example, says, “If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.” (Ex. 23-4); and later, to quote the Testament, “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink;” or, “Rejoice not when thine enemy faileth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.”

Then again there are later scriptures of Judaism, as wide as the ocean, of which non-Jews seem to be unaware e.g. the Mishna and its commentary and the Talmud. These are filled with passages expressing ideas which can compete with those in other religions. Hillel said to a Gentile who had come to learn God’s law. “Do not do to your next what you do not wish to be done to yourself. This is God’s law - all the remaining is only a commentary to it.” And Bruria, the noble wife of Rabbi Meir, advised her husband to pray for the conversion of his enemies and not for their extinction.

Love for animals also finds an important place in these scriptures. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi once said to a calf which escaped from a butcher and came to him, “Go back to the butcher because it is for this purpose that thou hast been created.” And for this sin God punished him with a terrible disease from which the Rabbi was not delivered until he showed his mercy on a small insect which the maid servant had thrown away.

In fact, Jesus Christ has added nothing new to Judaism. He has expressed more intensively the spirit and traditions out of which he himself had grown.

Concerning the very grave problem of Palestine. I must, to my great shame, admit that your dislike for the Zionist movement, so long as 99 percent of modern Jews care only for the material building up of this country and desire political and military power over it for this end is perfectly justified. Such entirely ignore the spiritual upbuilding of the Holy Land and the sublime religious ideals of social justice and righteousness with which the visions of our great prophets have always associated Zion and Jerusalem.

About 40 years ago a prominent Hebrew writer and philosopher, Ahad Haam, greatly blamed Jewish new-comers to Palestine for their imperious behaviour towards their Arab cousins, and prophesied that some day there was bound to come a day of revenge. Ahad Haam resisted all political Zionism and only viewed Palestine as the spiritual and cultural centre of the Jewish Race. Similarly Rabbi A.I. Cook emphasised that no return home of Israel to Zion was conceivable without a preceding revival of the true spirit of the people.

In spite, however, of the apparent victory of violence and cruelty, there is a movement among Jews as among all nations for a spiritual renaissance. There is such an organisation of which I am a member in Palestine, specially bound to the views of the two great men, Ahad Haam and Rabbi Cook, mentioned above, and I am sure the way shown by them will redeem us in course of time. You will see that our programme includes nothing contradictory to the principles of your holy Satyagraha.

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