The Zionist project

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach (middle row, centre) at the Tolstoy Farm, South Africa, 1910. The author gives a detailed account of Zionist leaders’ efforts to convince Gandhi of the justness of their cause. Photo: AFP

David Ben-Gurion proclaiming Israel’s independence beneath a portrait of Theodor Herzl.

The book makes a significant contribution to the understanding of India-Israel relations and Gandhi’s opposition to a nation based on religion.

PROFESSOR P.R. Kumaraswamy of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, is an eminent scholar who has studied for years with singular passion and diligence Israel and its relations with its neighbours. The title of the book is rather puzzling, but the author gave an explanation for this when the book was released recently at JNU: He starts writing at 3:30 a.m. when ideas and words, floating in the supersensible Platonic world, come to him on their own.

The central theme of the book is Gandhi’s views on the Zionist project to have a nation exclusively for Jews in Palestine. The author’s thesis is that Gandhi should have extended support to the Zionist project. Gandhi was wrong in advising Zionists to resort to non-violence as he failed to condemn the violence from Palestinians. He is scandalised that Gandhi should have advised the Jews in Nazi Germany to use non-violence as a weapon against the Nazi state. He raises the question: How can Gandhi’s attitude to the Zionist project, held consistently over decades, be squared with India’s decision in 1992 to establish diplomatic relations and to get closer and closer with Israel since then?

Kumaraswamy reveals that Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary, who edited the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, decided deliberately to exclude certain speeches, letters and even meetings of Gandhi if they had anything to do with Zionists. Pyarelal confessed to Ved Mehta in the 1970s that the intention was to “suppress them from history”, a rather un-Gandhian act indeed as the author correctly points out.

The author gives us a detailed account of Gandhi’s friendship with Jews, starting from his days in South Africa. When Gandhi founded the Tolstoy Farm in Transvaal, South Africa, in 1910, he was helped in a big way by Hermann Kallenbach and Henry Solomon Leon Polak. They tried hard to entice “Gandhi toward Zionism”, but to no avail. Gandhi’s “incomplete, stereotypical and even simplistic understanding of the Jewish faith proved harmful when the Jewish faith homeland project was unfolding in the early 20th century” (emphasis added).

Zionist project

We are given a detailed account of the efforts on the part of Zionist leaders to convince Gandhi of the justness of their cause. The first contact was in London in 1931 when Gandhi was attending the Second Round Table Conference. The last contact was in April 1947 at the time of the First Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. A 10-member delegation led by Professor Hugo Bergman (of Hebrew University, Jerusalem), met Gandhi during the conference.

The author believes that it was Gandhi’s article in the November 26, 1938, issue of Harijan that determined independent India’s policy towards Israel. The text of the article is given. The author finds fault with Gandhi’s assertion that Palestine belongs to Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. Gandhi argued that the mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. “The nobler course,” Gandhi averred, “would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred.”

In the final chapter, the author sums up his thesis. “Mahatma Gandhi’s greatness lay not in his righteousness or nobility but in his willingness to recognise his human frailties, accept them unreservedly, and work toward improving himself through various forms of self-correcting mechanisms and atonement. There was a singular failure on this account as far as the Zionist project is concerned.”

The big picture

Let us evaluate the author’s thesis. To understand Gandhi’s and India’s approach to the Zionist project of evicting Palestinians from the land where they have been living since the seventh century and establishing a state exclusively for Jews, we need to look at the big picture. The book and its thesis have to be seen along with this big picture. It is a pity that many books on Zionism by pro-Zionists fail to take note of the big picture. What were the forces that brought Israel into being? Above all, there was the tenacity of purpose of Zionists; the horrendous Holocaust certainly helped in convincing the West of the need and justification for a state exclusively for Jews; and last, but not the least, the effective use of violence amounting to terrorism.

Irgun, responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel (July 22, 1946), was termed as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, the United States and the United Kingdom. However, that did not prevent Menachem Begin, Irgun’s chief from 1943 to 1948, from becoming Israel’s Prime Minister in 1977. What is even more remarkable is that he shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1978 after the two signed a peace treaty. Begin is not the only Israeli Prime Minister with a terrorist past.

Means and end

Gandhi believed that right means had to be employed for right ends. He did not believe that the end justified the means. Zionists believed that the end justified the means. For them the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, “promised” to them by Jehovah, is such a supreme good that any means, including terrorism, could be used to realise it. Gandhi held that any end brought about by bad means could not be good. Obviously, there was no question of Gandhi endorsing the Zionist project.

Gandhi believed that religion and politics could not be held in watertight compartments. His views on religion did influence his politics and he was far from apologetic about it. Man has many parts, economic, political, religious, aesthetic, and so on. One cannot deny the unity of the person by saying that religion and politics should not be mixed. But, Gandhi was firm in the belief that a new state could not be founded on the basis of religion. If he had supported the Zionist cause, he would have had to support the partition of India on the basis of religion. Equally, Gandhi opposed the project for a Hindu Rashtra.

The reader will recall that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leaders, including V.D. Savarkar, who wanted to have a Hindu Rashtra did support the Zionist project. In his famous book Hindutva (1923), Savarkar emphasised his support for the Zionist cause: “If the Zionists’ dreams were realised, if Palestine became a Jewish state, it would gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends” (emphasis added).

While Gandhi did influence India’s approach to the new state of Israel that came into being in May 1948, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who took the decisions. He made it clear that India had to take into account the interests not only of Jews but also of Arabs. While Nehru’s decision to avoid diplomatic relations with Israel was right when it was taken, that decision should have been reviewed from time to time. Nehru’s decision was reversed by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1992. By then Israel had emerged as an important supplier of military technology and weapons to India. There was a feeling that the Arabs had taken India for granted and that at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and elsewhere, they could have lent more support to India on the Kashmir issue. There was also the calculation that the U.S., the sole superpower, would be pleased with India’s decision.

The author’s argument about Gandhi’s lack of knowledge about Judaism as a reason for his unwillingness to endorse the Zionist project does not hold water. The author faults Gandhi for preferring the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, to the Old Testament. It is only natural that Gandhi was not fascinated by the tribal god Jehovah who took care only of his “chosen people”.

The author ridicules Gandhi’s advice that Jews should claim their right to live as normal citizens in the land in which they were born. As a matter of fact, according to the authoritative Virtual Jewish Library, of the 14,704,500 Jews in the world, only 6,336,400 (44 per cent) are in Israel. Was Gandhi wrong?

Coming to Gandhi’s advice to Jews in Hitler’s Germany, the author has argued that such advice did not make any sense. Many readers might agree with the author. But, it is necessary to bear in mind that Gandhi never approved of cowardice. He made a crucial distinction between the non-violence of the strong and that of the weak. The non-violence of the weak is cowardice and Gandhi condemned it unequivocally.

He said: “Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence... I prefer to use arms in defense of honour rather than remain the vile witness of dishonour....” As a matter of fact, there was some resistance, at times violent and at times non-violent, on the part of Jews as pointed out by the Virtual Jewish Library. We do not know whether these Jews were influenced by Gandhi or not. It is difficult to appreciate the author’s criticism of Gandhi for addressing Hitler as “Dear Friend” in a letter written in December 1940.

Kumaraswamy has made a significant contribution to our understanding of India-Israel relations and Gandhi’s approach to the Zionist project. His book will be of interest not only to scholars but also to the general public. Kumaraswamy’s style of writing is a study in lucidity and his Teutonic thoroughness compels our admiration. The book is thought-provoking and topical, considering the fact that there are renewed attempts to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra. Young Indian readers will come to realise that the Father of the Nation opposed a state based on religion, be it in Palestine or in India.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is author of Diplomacy: Indian Style.