Gandhi and the Jews

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A new book about Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) has set off stormy protests in India for implying that the country's founding father was bisexual. That's only the beginning of it.

In Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, recalls Gandhi's relationship with a well-to-do German-Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach. Though Lelyveld himself does not explicitly assert a sexual angle, the British historian Andrew Roberts, in a cutting review in the Wall Street Journal, concludes on the basis of the book's evidence that Gandhi was not only "a sexual weirdo," and in more ways than one, but also "a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist." 

Quite apart from the titillating subject of Gandhi's homoerotic interests, there are other and more solid reasons to examine his relation to persons and matters Jewish. They include the suicidal counsel he proffered to Jews facing Hitler, his hardhearted opposition to Jewish national self-determination, and the influence of his ideas on subsequent Indian foreign policy toward Israel.

Nowadays, Gandhi's memory is repeatedly invoked by Palestinian Arabs and their cultish international supporters to reinvigorate the 60-year-old Arab boycott of Israel. His "legacy of peace" has also become a family franchise for two grandsons, Arun and Rajmohan Gandhi, who make appearances in the West Bank town of Bil'in—the site of ferocious weekly demonstrations by Palestinian Arabs and foreign radicals against Israel's life-saving security barrier. The American Jewish "human-rights activist" Anna Baltzer, winner of the Rachel Corrie Prize, is one of many who regularly invoke Gandhi's legacy in their "reportage." Another is the filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who has paid tribute to the Gandhi myth in an interview about his recent Israel-bashing film Miral.

Even a group devoted to belief in extraterrestrials, in awarding an honorary title to the perfidious ex-Israeli academic Ilan Pappé, has cited approvingly Pappé's attachment to Gandhi. In this way, the mahatma, or great soul, has become a fuzzy icon for the history-challenged.

Palestinian Arabs have drawn parallels between their own cause and Gandhi's imaginary support for black Africans. In truth, during the 21 years he lived in Africa, Gandhi was far from sympathetic toward black liberation.  Instead, he became an indispensable intermediary between South Africa's Muslim Indian business elite and the segregationist authorities. A proponent of race purity, he complained that "the Indian [was] being dragged down to the position of the raw Kaffir [black African]." It was, incidentally, during this period that Gandhi left his wife to live with Kallenbach. 

Later, back in India, the saint of the underdog went on his first hunger strike to oppose granting political representation in the Indian parliament to low-caste "untouchables." Whatever heroic stature he may now hold in the eyes of Palestinian Muslims, his inept handling of relations with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who became Pakistan's first leader, helped set the stage for the break-up of the Indian subcontinent into warring Hindu and Muslim states.

When it came to Jews, Gandhi was, to put it delicately, selective. In South Africa, he valued Sonja Schlesin, his loyal secretary, and Henry Polak, his close friend and right-hand man. "My sympathies," he wrote in late November 1938 after Kristallnacht, "are with the Jews." No doubt this was true—in a peculiar sense. He was sympathetic with Jewish suffering, but highly unsympathetic with any efforts to alleviate it by means of positive action. In 1937 and again in 1939, Kallenbach visited Gandhi in India endeavoring to elicit his support for the Zionist enterprise—to no avail.

Gandhi acknowledged that the Nazi persecution of the Jews had no parallel in history. Nevertheless, his resolute counsel to Jews facing the Nazi onslaught was non-violent civil disobedience—and forgiveness. As for Zionism, he remained equally resolute in opposition: "The cry for a national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me." Why couldn't the Jews think of Palestine as a kind of biblical metaphor and let it go at that? If Jews must settle in Palestine, he advised, they should do so only at Arab sufferance, and if worse came to worst, they should allow themselves to be "thrown into the Dead Sea." Even after the destruction of European Jewry and a litany of Arab atrocities in Palestine, Gandhi held firm: the Jews must practice non-violence.

No doubt, Gandhi was a complicated historical figure. Yet if anything about him is straightforward, it is that he was not the liberal humanist whom many in the American civil-rights and "peace" movements have imagined him to be. He was no friend of Africa, and held no love whatsoever for the Jewish national movement. In the stark judgment of the historian Paul Johnson, his teachings did not even have much relevance to the problems of India.

Does this suggest that, after all, there is something grimly fitting about the appropriation of Gandhi's name and teachings to the comprehensive, century-long Palestinian war against the Jewish return to Israel? Upon reflection, perhaps indeed it does. 

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