Gandhi on Jews & Middle-East: A Non-Violent Look at Conflict & Violence

This article is quite interesting. The strengths and weaknesses of Gandhi's political and moral thought are much in evidence. Orwell had his own view of Gandhi, especially on the topic of Jewish non-violent resistance to the Nazis, with which I quite agree. Nonviolence doesn't work too well against those who have no problem with genocide.

However, on the issue of Palestine, there is much wisdom in this article. I'm sure many will reject it as "anti-semitic" and move on. (Others have a more balanced view; others...well, I note that Fred Thompson has weighed in on this; doesn't look very serious to me.) Here's a list of Gandhi's statements on Jews, Palestine, etc. I don't know whether it's complete, but it's a start.

I am not too sure that Gandhian resistance would work too well against the IDF in Palestine, though, as is often suggested. (What the result was you can read in the just-linked article, and see for yourself once more -- you no doubt saw this footage on every major news show, right?) As the previous example has just shown, when Gandhian acts have happened -- another apt example being the recent action in Gaza in which dozens of unarmed women used their bodies to retrieve men hiding inside a mosque from the IDF -- even Human Rights Watch condemned the act as "the use of human shields." I'm not sure what the difference between Gandhian nonviolence and "the use of human shields" actually is. (See the first comment to this post for my e-mail exchange with HRW looking for clarification; what's posted there is all there was, and it is also on the webpage linked above.)

I'm not at all sure that the Israeli army, as well as much of the Israeli populace, would mind much if Palestinians walked into gunfire as one. (And I'm not alone.) Outside of Israel, it's not clear to me that the United States would suddenly abandon Israel, or whether there'd be any Palestinians left to protect (Gandhi did have a few hundred million people behind him, and the British didn't live in India), even if there were an ethical and political sea change brought about by Palestinian Gandhism. And of course for such a sea change to occur, it'd have to: first, get on the TV news accurately; second, make a dent in enough Americans' moral sensibility to cause outrage; and third, that outrage would actually have to be translated into political action. How likely is that series of events, especially in the face of the huge opposition to anything remotely pro-Palestinian among elites and the fully conventionalized, fully sanctioned prejudice against all Muslims (many Palestinians are Christian, of course) and Arabs, post-9/11?

In other words, Israel/Palestine aside, the wisdom and efficacy of nonviolence seems to rely, as most things do, on the context within which that option is suggested. In the context of Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1940s, it's pretty clear that nonviolence would have equaled suicide. In the context of today's situation in the occupied territories? Unclear, to me at least, though at least one Palestinian sees merit in it.

But the last thing Palestinians need are speeches by self-important, rich, flatheaded pundits -- such as the nearly invariably off-the-mark Tom Friedman, much loved by the simple-minded on many a topic -- about how they should walk into fire. Friedman ought to put his fat ass (try to read that well-meant profile without retching) on the line in Palestine; I'd like to see that. We'll see the second coming first.

In any event, what is the difference between your likely repulsion at Gandhi's suggestion that the Jews of Germany walk into a massacre knowingly and Friedman's suggestion to the Palestinians? I mean, aside from the astronomical difference in stature between the two suggestors. If you accept that widespread Palestinian Ghandhism would likely lead to their more efficient slaughter and ghettoization, then upon what do you rest your difference in reaction, then? Not a pleasant question to answer; most will cover up by insisting, against the evidence of the past 40 years, that the Israeli government forces will not crush such a resistance movement to dust, with full Amercian diplomatic cover.

Article Written on November 20, 1938
Published in Harijan on November 26, 1938
This Web Page Last Updated: March 19,2007

It is of utmost importance to remember the time of this writing. It is 1938, Hitler is ruling Germany, and the clouds of a terrible conflict have begun to form. Gandhi's article shows his incredible sense of right and wrong, his blind faith in his methodology, and his profound vision of things to come. -Ed.

by Mohandas K. Gandhi

Several letters have been received by me asking me to declare my views about the Arab-Jew question in Palestine and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is not without hesitation that I venture to offer my views on this very difficult question.

My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions. Through these friends I came to learn much of their age-long persecution. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them. Apart from the friendships, therefore, there is the more common universal reason for my sympathy for the Jews.

But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?

Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.

The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred. The Jews born in France are French in precisely the same sense that Christians born in France are French. If the Jews have no home but Palestine, will they relish the idea of being forced to leave the other parts of the world in which they are settled? Or do they want a double home where they can remain at will? This cry for the national home affords a colorable justification for the German expulsion of the Jews.

But the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal. For he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which many inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. The crime of an obviously mad but intrepid youth is being visited upon his whole race with unbelievable ferocity. If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is therefore outside my horizon or province.

But if there can be no war against Germany, even for such a crime as is being committed against the Jews, surely there can be no alliance with Germany. How can there be alliance between a nation which claims to stand for justice and democracy and one which is the declared enemy of both? Or is England drifting towards armed dictatorship and all it means?

Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism. It is also showing how hideous, terrible and terrifying it looks in its nakedness.

Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is. No person who has faith in a living God need feel helpless or forlorn. Jehovah of the Jews is a God more personal than the God of the Christians, the Musalmans or the Hindus, though, as a matter of fact in essence, He is common to all the one without a second and beyond description. But as the Jews attribute personality to God and believe that He rules every action of theirs, they ought not to feel helpless. If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment . And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. 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 that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the god fearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

It is hardly necessary for me to point out that it is easier for the Jews than for the Czechs to follow my prescription. And they have in the Indian satyagraha campaign in South Africa an exact parallel. There the Indians occupied precisely the same place that the Jews occupy in Germany. The persecution had also a religious tinge. President Kruger used to say that the white Christians were the chosen of God and Indians were inferior beings created to serve the whites. A fundamental clause in the Transvaal constitution was that there should be no equality between the whites and colored races including Asiatics. There too the Indians were consigned to ghettos described as locations. The other disabilities were almost of the same type as those of the Jews in Germany. The Indians, a mere handful, resorted to satyagraha without any backing from the world outside or the Indian Government. Indeed the British officials tried to dissuade the satyagrahis (soldiers of non-violence) from their contemplated step. World opinion and the Indian Government came to their aid after eight years of fighting. And that too was by way of diplomatic pressure not of a threat of war.

But the Jews of Germany can offer satyagraha under infinitely better auspices than Indians of South Africa. The Jews are a compact, homogeneous community in Germany. they are far more gifted than the Indians of South Africa. And they have organized world opinion behind them. I am convinced that if someone with courage and vision can arise among them to lead them in nonviolent action, the winter of their despair can in the twinkling of an eye be turned into the summer of hope. And what has today become a degrading man-hunt can be turned in to a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah. It will be then a truly religious resistance offered against the godless fury of dehumanized man. The German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in the sense that they will have converted that latter to an appreciation of human dignity. They will have rendered service to fellow-Germans and proved their title to be the real Germans as against those who are today dragging, however unknowingly, the German name into the mire.

And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart. The same God rules the Arab heart, who rules the Jewish heart. They can offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown in to the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them. They will find the world opinion in the their favor in their religious aspiration. There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help of the British bayonet. As it is, they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them.

I am not defending the Arab excesses. 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.

Let the Jews who claim to be the chosen race prove their title by choosing the way of non-violence for vindicating their position on earth. Every country is their home including Palestine, not by aggression but by loving service. A Jewish friend has sent me a book called The Jewish Contribution to Civilization by Cecil Roth. It gives a record of what the Jews have done to enrich the word's literature, art, music, drama, science, medicine, agriculture, etc. Given the will, the Jews can refuse to be treated as the outcaste of the West, to be despised or patronized. He can command the attention and respect of the world by being man, the chosen creation of God, instead of being man who is fast sinking to the brute and forsaken by God. They can add to their many contributions the surpassing contribution of non-violent action.

© 1987 Navajivan Trust.


  1. From: tarnopol[at]
    Sent: Thursday, November 23, 2006 9:39 AM
    To: SarahLeah Whitson
    Cc: Norman Finkelstein
    Subject: Shields and shields

    Dear Sarah Lee Whitson:

    I had a feeling, long before the HRW announcement, that the use of the term "human shield" would cause confusion. Most people associate that phrase with the involuntary use of innocent people to deter attacks.

    From what I've read, not only was the Gaza action voluntary -- it took the government (what's left of it) completely by surprise. This seems to rise out of the vaunted "will of the people." That after the fact the government encouraged what was already occurring makes this not "human shields" in the involuntary sense, but rather extremely courageous, last-ditch use of the last weapon most Gazans have: their own bodies.

    Am I to understand that HRW can't tell the difference between what Gazans did of their own free will and this, quoted in the press release? "As recently as July 2006, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have documented the IDF's forcible use of Palestinians as human shields in a well publicized incident during military operations in Beit Hanoun. According to the groups, the IDF blindfolded six civilians, including two minors, and forced them to stand in front of soldiers who took over civilian homes during a raid in northern Gaza." Any clarification would be welcome. I know you've been pounded recently for being to "critical" of Israel, but c'mon.

    Thank you,

    Doug Tarnopol

    SarahLeah Whitson wrote:


    Thank you for your note. Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, the fact is that Baroud, a military commander, was quoted as having urged people to come to the scene of the pending attack to protect his home, in violation of international law that requires parties to a conflict (e.g. military folk) from seeking to use civilians to shield from an attack and also from putting civilians in harm's way, even if the attack is illegal. Compulsion in not a requisite element – encouragement, urging, etc., are all similarly unlawful. We have not criticized civilians for breaking the law – only the military commanders (and Baroud's exhortation was followed by the spokesman of the PRC urging other civilians to repeat the action).

    While this is different and as you correctly point out, less egregious, than the Israeli forcible use of civilians as human shields, it remains nonetheless a violation of international humanitarian law, the purpose of which is to avoid drawing civilians into military conflict, as much as possible.

    Please do continue to monitor our work and I do welcome your comments about the fairness and accuracy of our coverage. We're not perfect, but we do our best.

    Sarah Leah

    From: tarnopol[at]
    To: whitsos[at]
    CC: normangf[at]
    Subject: Re: Shields and shields
    Date: Thu, 23 Nov 2006 11:45:38 -0500

    Hi, Sarah Leah:

    Thank you for your prompt response, on Thanksgiving no less.

    Baroud was the guy who went to the local mosque to ask for help, I take it? I see your point (from your perspective), but who ordered the Palestinian women to take the "militants" out of the mosque a few days before? Begging for protection seems like a difference in kind, not in degree, from ordering protection. Free will separates the two, or whatever kind of choice we have.

    I do appreciate what HRW does, and realize it's a tough job.

    However, my question, which maybe you can answer, or point me toward some IHL (of which I only know second-hand): Under what conditions is organized (especially bottom-up) nonviolent resistance against violence is legal? Some must be. Was the Salt March illegal (retroactively), or civil rights marches in which violence was likely (in the US)? The Warsaw uprising, joining in which was a death sentence? French partisans in WWII? And so on.

    I have a feeling these distinctions are slippery. It seems that forcing against one's will is the key; if someone wants to risk his or her life, I see no reason to condemn that. The Palestinians have been abandoned by virtually everyone; what, exactly, are they supposed to do to resist, if this tactic is denied them? Hope that the IDF will be nice?

    I think the extreme power differential has to enter into the judgment. Doesn't IHL have some set of degrees -- like the difference between first-degree murder and involuntary homicide? You have a dead person at the end, but intention enters into it. I mean, to take the obvious extreme example, would it have been a war crime for the inmates of a concentration camp to have used "human shields" -- voluntary ones -- in order to get at a guard tower and kill the guards? The background of the violation, if such it is, ought to be highlighted: the Israeli government has turned Gaza into a huge prison or concentration camp (not (yet?) a death camp), starving and shelling the Gazans systematically with international backing. In that context, if a bunch of brave or desperate Palestinians answer the call and use their own bodies -- not Qassams -- to protect each other, I mean, what's the problem?

    Of course, the Palestinians are daring the IDF to kill them. I call that courage -- born out of desperation, as HRW and others have demonstrated.

    Please take your time in responding, as it is TG day (as ethically mixed as that may be).

    Best, Doug

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