Mahatma Gandhi (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
  • An extract from Squaring The Circle, a new book which analyses Gandhi’s views on the Israel-Palestine conflict and Jewish nationalism.

No major discussion on India’s position toward Israel, Palestine or the wider Middle East is complete without an obligatory reference to Gandhi and his November 1938 statement, namely, Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French. On 11 October 2015, for example, President Pranab Mukherjee cited this statement in his speech in Amman but less than 72 hours later, he was making glowing statements about Indo-Israeli relations and their shared ‘fight’ against the British. How does one square the circle?

Gandhi’s positions and pronouncements on various issues pertaining to the Jewish nationalist aspirations have to be compared with, and judged through, the core Gandhian values, namely, truth and honesty. Any other way of understanding him and conveying his words would be an unGandhian spin. The picture that emerges in the process, however, is anything but flattering and demystifies some of the traditional narratives of Gandhi, his understanding of Jewish nationalism and his ‘consistent’ demand for Jewish non-violence in Palestine.

Unlike his ‘Jewish friends’, Gandhi’s ‘Muslim friends’ rarely received public attention. In his My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi refers to his prejudices toward Islam during his adolescence. Gradually, he evolved a better or at least unbiased view of Islam, and, at one point, sought to serialize the Gujarati rendition of the life of the Prophet (CWMG, 7:202n). On a few occasions, he made flattering references to Prophet Mohammed and his kindness.

This, however, was not the case with Gandhi’s knowledge of Judaism which he viewed through the prevailing Christian prism of Jews being responsible for the death of Christ. He never studied the Torah and found the synagogues to be ceremonious and without ‘spirit’. His Jewish friends in South Africa, especially Kallenbach and Polak, were not practising Jews and were incapable of bridging Gandhi’s knowledge gap on Judaism. His prejudiced view of Judaism and sympathetic appreciation of Islam proved to be a deadly combination when he began understanding Zionism, and as a result, his appreciation of Jewish nationalist aspirations was inadequate and unsympathetic.

Gandhi’s most important contribution to the debate came in his political construct of the conflict in Palestine. Adopting the Islamic motifs regarding the political geography of the Middle East, he included Palestine in the Jazirat-ul-Arab. Traditionally, this expression meaning ‘Land of Arabia’ denotes only the Arabian Peninsula but Gandhi chose to include Palestine in it as well. By embracing the Islamic claims during the Khilafat phase, he categorically ruled out non-Islamic control or sovereignty over Palestine, and based his arguments on the injunctions of Prophet Mohammed. Though in later years, he was prepared to accept pre-Islamic claims over the territory, he was less categorical than he was over the Islamic claims expressed during the early 1920s.

One can notice a similar differentiation in his approach toward Jewish and Muslim violence in Palestine and elsewhere. While urging the Jews to practise active non-violence even against Hitler, he was accommodative of the Arab violence in Palestine thereby raising doubts over his lifelong commitment to ahimsa.

A brief timeline would be useful in contextualizing the evolution, consolidation and eventual self-doubts in Gandhi’s position toward Jewish nationalism and political aspirations in Palestine. He arrived in South Africa in 1893 as the attorney of Dada Abdullah and Sons, a firm owned by a Gujarati-Muslim family, and soon he befriended Kallenbach and Polak. Both these Jewish personalities were his comrades-in-arms in his struggle for the rights of the indentured Indian workers. If he established Tolstoy Farm in the land belonging to Kallenbach, Polak was instrumental in introducing Gandhi and the accomplishments of his non-violent struggle to the Indian nationalists. Gandhi’s Jewish friends were only faintly acquainted with their faith, and Zionism was yet to become a potent force even among the Jews.

Gandhi’s return to India in January 1915 saw him plunging into the nationalist struggle, followed by the onset of Muslim anger toward the British war against the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph. This spurred the Khilafat movement. Gandhi saw this religious upsurge among the Indian Muslims as an opportunity to forge the urgent but absent communal unity between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority. Going against the wishes of the skeptics and critics of communalism, Gandhi forged a common cause over the Caliphate and plunged the Congress Party into supporting the Khilafat struggle. Amidst the popular protest across the country, Gandhi Islamized the Palestinian issue by expanding the territorial limits of the Jazirat-ul-Arab.

The abolition of the office of the Caliphate in 1924 by the Turkish Republic under Ataturk ended the Khilafat movement but Gandhi continued to face the problem of communal unity within India, especially with the emergence of the Muslim League as a distinct and powerful voice of the Indian Muslims. Palestine became the focal point of the Congress-League tussle, which brought Gandhi’s political instincts to the forefront. The Palestine issue once again offered an opportunity for a position that would have strong resonance in the domestic Congress-League contest. Simplifying the context of Zionism and its aspirations, Gandhi came out with his 1938 Palestine belongs to the Arabs statement. While this settled the matter domestically, it angered some of his former supporters and admirers, and led to criticism, and alienation, of Gandhi.

Partly as a response, in later years, Gandhi became less unequivocal than before and began advocating a negotiated political settlement between the Jews and Arabs. His demand for Jewish-Arab cooperation was no different from his demand for Congress-League cooperation to avert the partition of the Indian subcontinent. On both occasions, his counsel fell on deaf ears. Gandhi became less attractive not only for the Jews of Palestine but also for the Indian National Congress. His domestic approach to the Palestine issue also explains his unusual position on the Holocaust; if he advocated Jewish non-violence during the run-up to the Second World War, he was silent and indifferent even after the magnitude of the human suffering became public knowledge in 1945.

A closer scrutiny of the numerous statements, positions, actions and understanding of Mahatma Gandhi regarding Zionism and the Jewish political aspirations in Palestine underscore the vulnerability. The moral high ground, the most common explanation for his positions, appears to be a rationalization rather than the basis for his views. In later years, he came to admit the complexity of the problem and recognized his limited role in bridging the gap not only between Jews and Arabs in Palestine but also between the Congress and Muslim League in India.

In October 1930, a couple of emissaries from the World Zionist Organization met Gandhi in London and requested his help in isolating the Palestine issue from the Indian domestic politics. Gandhi agreed to their request but as the following pages will unravel, he viewed Palestine primarily through the domestic Indian context: first, within the Khilafat paradigm and, later, through the need to forge communal unity amidst the ascendance of the Muslim League; and in so doing, Gandhi the politician prevailed over Gandhi, the Mahatma.

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