For me, Gandhi was no saint

It was a rare admission from one of the most prestigious newspapers in America.

“In hindsight, everyone sees the error,” Deborah Howell, ombudsman of the Washington Post, wrote this week. “The piece should not have been published. The apologies should have come sooner.”

It was the culmination of a month of recriminations, public apologies and even a job loss, all provoked by a short treatise on the future of Jewish identity published on the Washington Post’s On Faith website.

According the author, “Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the Holocaust experience. It is a very good example of how a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends… The world did feel sorry for the episode, but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on, the regret turns into anger.”

On the political situation in Israel, he added, “The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak… We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.”

It was bile by any measure, but what seemed to stoke the furore was that the author was Arun Gandhi, grandson of the pacifist Indian leader, and president of the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester. His piece generated 400 comments, as well as furious replies from Daniel Pearl’s father Judea, Jewish organisations, and even the president of his own university.

A half-hearted apology from Gandhi, in which he regretted suggesting that Israeli policies reflected “the views of all Jewish people”, only drew more fire, and last week he resigned from his institute.

But would the original piece, objectionable as it is, have generated the same response had the author not been a Gandhi? Many of the comments implied that Arun was betraying his grandfather’s legacy.

The truth is, however, that there is a direct connection between Mahatma Gandhi’s views on Jews and those of his grandson. In November 1938, responding to Jewish requests that he endorse the Zionist cause, Gandhi set out in writing his thoughts on contemporary Jewry (generating a scathing response from Martin Buber).

The “German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history”, Gandhi admitted, and if ever there could be a justifiable war, it would be against the Nazis. “But I do not believe in any war.”

So, what does he suggest the Jews do in face of Nazi persecution? “If I were a Jew… I would challenge [the German gentile] to shoot me… The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews… But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy… The German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in that they will have converted that latter to an appreciation of human dignity.”

Restoring the Jews to Palestine was a “crime against humanity”, and the Jews there should follow a similar course in face of Arab aggression, and “offer themselves to be shot or thrown in to the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them”.

But what does the pacifist Gandhi say about that Arab aggression?

“I am not defending the Arab excesses,” he wrote. “I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”

That, to me, is hypocrisy.

Arun Gandhi, as (now former) president of an institute promoting non-violence, lays claim to his grandfather’s intellectual mantle. And it is not hard to see from where his contempt for the centrality of the Holocaust to contemporary Jewish life might have evolved; after all, his grandfather believed Jewish deaths in the Holocaust were noble, even desirable.

It is also clear how he may have come to believe that “Israel and the Jews” are responsible for a “culture of violence”; this is only an extension of his grandfather’s belief that the Jews should commit collective and national suicide rather than defend themselves against the Arabs and the Nazis.

The lesson to be drawn is that, political correctness aside, there is nothing sacred or superior about “non-violence”. It may have worked against the British, who would not massacre millions of Indians, but applied to a people facing a truly ruthless enemy — such as the Nazis — it is utterly immoral.

Moreover, despite our idealised view of him, Mahatma Gandhi was not completely holy either. He may have played a pivotal and brave role in India’s independence, but he held deeply disturbing views about Jews and Jewish nationalism. And that is a fatal flaw.

Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s comment editor

    Last updated: 10:00am, May 15 2008