Gandhi, Palestine and Israel: Irfan Ahmad

Guest post by IRFAN AHMAD

Amidst Israel’s recent deadly attacks on Gaza and what Venezuela’s President called ‘its policy of genocide’, many have invoked Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948) on two counts. First, he opposed settler colonialism. One analyst in The Economic Times gave a quote, also shared on Facebook: ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French’. Second, implicit in invoking Gandhi is the idea that he stood for non-violence and thus the indicting advice to the terrorised Palestinians to ‘choose peace’.

Both these positions linked to Gandhi, when analysed historically, are misleading, even incorrect and wrong. In 1921, Gandhi did oppose the imposition of Jews over the Arab land. However, later he subtly endorsed settler colonialism. As for Gandhi’s official preaching of non-violence and civil disobedience (satyagraha), they were at best tactical, contextual and temporary. Contrary to his deified mythology as apostle of non-violence, Gandhi indeed justified killing, even felt proud of violence, and opposed civil disobedience when both suited his political and national interests.

Zionist Colonialism through Arab ‘Goodwill’ and ‘Generosity’

Gandhi’s politics in India largely coincided with the tenure of the British Mandate in Palestine. One of Gandhi’s earliest statements on Palestine is of 16 March 1921.  To London’s Daily Herald, he said: ‘No canon…of ethics or war can possibly justify the gift by the Allies of Palestine to Jews. It would be a breach of implied faith with Indian Mussulmans in particular and the whole of India in general’.

Gandhi made that statement when Khilafat movement in India, which he supported, was in action. Launched in 1919, the Khilafat movement contested the WW I victors’ design to dismember Ottoman Empire and distribute its territory, including the Arab holy places, to local puppet rulers obedient to Europe. In an interview to The Jewish Chronicle, in 1931, Gandhi said: ‘Zionism meaning reoccupation of Palestine has no attraction for me… The real Jerusalem is the spiritual Jerusalem. Thus he [a Jew] can realise this Zionism in any part of the world’. Gandhi’s interview drew sharp reaction. The Jewish Chronicle described it as ‘nonsense’. Dr Stephen Wise, an American Zionist, found it ‘strange’ that Gandhi said ‘reoccupation’ of Palestine. For Wise it was ‘re-entry’ of Jews.

From 1937 on, Gandhi began to deploy the Zionist meaning, however. That year the British proposed the Partition plan and the Jewish Agency, created by the Mandate to ‘assist the British…in the integration of Jewish immigrants’ and mobilize ‘international support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland’, approached Gandhi for a ‘secret offer to mediate’. To this end, the Jewish Agency deputed Kallenbach, an intimate friend of Gandhi in South Africa.  Kallenbach, an architect, was a Gandhian and Zionist at once.

In June 1937, Kallenbach travelled to India and stayed with Gandhi for three weeks. He enlightened Gandhi with the Zionist cause. He also sent Zionist literature to Gandhi, who found it ‘impressive, deeply interesting’. On 4 July Kallenbach left India for Jerusalem. Stressing the non-involvement of British, Gandhi’s mediating statement, kept secret for 50 years, to Kallenbach read:

…Jews should disclaim any intention of realizing their aspirations under the protection of arms and should rely wholly on the goodwill of Arabs. No exception can possibly be taken to the natural desire of the Jews to find a home in Palestine. But they must wait for its fulfilment, till Arab opinion is ripe for it.

Gandhi predicted that if ‘physical force is disclaimed and the Jewish colony begins to depend upon the goodwill of the Arab population, their position would be safe’ (Simone Panter-Brick, Gandhi and the Middle East, 2008, p. 63).

In 1938, Gandhi published The Jews, which unlike his 1921 statement, left ample space for the realization of Zionist colony. While saying ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English…’ he also said: ‘They [Zionists] can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs’. Experts like Simone Panter-Brick attribute this shift in Gandhi to his friendship with Kallenbach. That might well be. However, already in 1921, soon after his first statement cited above he gave another one: ‘All I contend is that they can’t possess Palestine through a trick or moral breach’.

Silence, Secrecy, Trick

Yet, there was a trick at work evident from Gandhi’s shifting positions, contradictory statements, maintenance of secrecy coupled with an eerie silence. In 1939 Kallenbach revisited Gandhi. No statement was issued. Total silence! Shohet, of Bombay Zionist Association, observed: ‘…he [Gandhi] will not say anything about it, even in the minutes of a private interview. He is receptive. He is also shrewd’ (Panter-Brick, p. 134). Throughout WWII, Gandhi maintained silence.

In 1946 Honick, President of the World Jewish Congress and Sidney Silverman, an Anglo-Jewish Member of Parliament, held a meeting with Gandhi who directed his secretary, Pyarelal, not to publish its report. To Silverman, Gandhi made a statement. Transmitted to his American biographer, Louis Fischer, the statement, confirmed by Gandhi, read: ‘I told Sidney Silverman that the Jews have a good case in Palestine. If the Arabs have a claim in Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim’ (Panter-Brick, p. 147). The tiny word ‘prior’ was a superb linguistic trick deployed by a clever lawyer that Gandhi was. It was not about ethics or truth he claimed to represent; it was raw politics.

After Gandhi was killed in 1948, Pyarelal destroyed all papers on Palestine. ‘[T]here are materials I have decided to suppress’, he said. When asked which ones, Pyarelal answered: ‘Gandhi’s views on Israel, for a start. I am able to suppress them from history, since by God’s grace, I am the only one who knows about them’.

With the archive destroyed we cannot know more about Gandhi’s views on Palestine. However, the existing evidence suggests that his position was inconsistent and contradictory – some might even say deceitful. He didn’t oppose the goal of Zionist colonialism; he opposed the British involvement in its pursuit. However, even this apparent opposition to the British was less than genuine because nothing unfolding under the Mandate was outside colonialism’s arms. The Jewish Agency he made secret offer to was itself a wing of colonialism. To alter demography to realize a long-term goal by bringing ‘immigrants’ –‘newcomers’ in Gandhi’s words –was equally colonial.  Likewise to appeal to Arabs under colonial subjugation to display ‘goodwill’ and ‘generosity’ was to pay homage to colonialism. It is striking that the word ‘home’ occurs simultaneously in the Balfour Declaration and secret offer Gandhi made to the Jewish Agency.

How does one explain what Gandhi expert Simone Panter-Brick calls his ‘conversion’. She seemed to suggest that the Holocaust made Gandhi sympathetic to Zionism. To sympathise with Jews after Holocaust is human –no humane person would do otherwise; to say that Jews have a prior claim over Palestine is quite another. Importantly, Gandhi’s second statement of 1921 already contained seeds of pro-Zionism.

Apostle of Violence and Opponent of Civil Disobedience 

Clearly, Gandhi’s disagreement was not over Zionism’s goal but the means to secure it. When asked about solution to the Palestine problem, in June 1947 he replied: ‘The abandonment wholly by the Jews of terrorism and other forms of violence’. Was Gandhi himself genuinely and eternally committed to non-violence? Evidence shows he was not.

Before outlining non-violence, let’s recall that Gandhi had participated in three wars to help the British: the two Boer Wars, Zulu War and WW 1 (Gandhi himself acknowledged his participation in these three wars in a statement made to the colonial court in Ahmedabad in relation to the British charges of spreading ‘disaffection towards the Government’ by publishing articles in Young India). Soon after India’s independence and Pakistan’s creation, at a prayer meeting on 20 December 1947, Gandhi proclaimed (pp.160–161):

Do I imagine that the several crores of Muslims in India will be loyal to India and fight against Pakistan? …we must not assume anyone to be bad till he has been proven to be bad… If later they [Muslims] betray you, you can shoot them. You may shoot one or two or a certain number. Everyone will not be disloyal… We must be brave and trust the Muslims. If later they violate the trust you can cut off their heads.

In the winter of 1947 the Indian army operation began against the tribal raid in Kashmir from Pakistan’s side. Gandhi said (p.85): ‘I consider it barbarous for the tribal raiders to have attacked Kashmir; we had to send an army to fight them’. Not only did he permit violence Gandhi (p. 88), as his disciple Sardar Patel recalled, felt proud of it: ‘I feel so proud when I hear the noise of those aeroplanes… when this Kashmir operation began, I began to feel proud of them and every aeroplane that goes with materials and arms and ammunition and requirements of the Army, I feel proud’. To state the obvious, those warplanes didn’t carry flower bouquets.

Seventeen years earlier, in 1930, he had justified violence by reprimanding soldiers who refused to kill. The Royal Garhwal Rifles soldiers, largely Hindus, disobeyed the order to shoot at Peshawar’s anti-colonial protesters, mostly Muslims. Gandhi rebuked the soldiers. When asked how he reconciled this with his ‘doctrine of non-violence since these men were punished for having refused to be party to an act of violence’, Gandhi said:

A soldier who disobeys an order to fire…renders himself guilty of criminal disobedience. I cannot ask… soldiers to disobey, for when I am in power I shall…make use of… those same soldiers.

What about civil disobedience? Conventional wisdom has it that it was truth to Gandhi. He himself stated: ‘If I had the power I should never use it…for suppressing civil disobedience, no matter how or where it arose, for I hold civil disobedience to be a permanent law of our being’. In 1933, he wrote a letter urging the Viceroy to recognize civil disobedience as a ‘constitutional right’. His secretary asked if ‘tomorrow, when India is free, would you say that satyagraha is a constitutional right’ for it would mean anybody ‘could break the law…and nothing could be done?’ ‘I have decided not to send that letter’, replied Gandhi.

Israel’s barbaric violence against Palestinians and all other forms of violence across the globe should prepare justice-desiring people to collectively craft a new philosophy of active peace and a fair world so as to move beyond Gandhi’s tactic of mere non-violence – contradictory, inconsistent, limiting, and exclusively nationalist as it was.

Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia. Earlier he has taught at the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University, The Netherlands and Monash University, Australia.  

22 thoughts on “Gandhi, Palestine and Israel: Irfan Ahmad”

  1. Thank for this thoughtful article. Earlier, I thought that Ghandi’s ahimsa (non-violent action) was free from violence. After I read this article, I just realise that in fact Ghandi encourages violence in opposing colonialism.


  2. The entire narrative actually a good handle against the Indian right wing that often accuses Gandhi to be a foolish idealist. Especially the point on soldiers refusing to obey orders. Civil disobedience – mark the term, “civil”. The Indian national movement was always looking to preserve the best of the colonial legacy while overturning colonial rule – an apolitical disciplined army is one of the finest legacies of the Raj. At no point did any Indian leader, barring Subhash Bose ask the Indian military to mutiny. It only shows Gandhi’s foresight in terms of (at least some elements) of statecraft.

    On his shifting positions on Palestine/Israel, well to start with the Khilafat was a dangerous anachronism in itself. To use a hindi phrase, “begaani shaadi mein abdulla diwana”. The Turks themselves were in the process of getting rid of the effete Caliphate, but Gandhi tried to resurrect an unwanted rule in a foreign land by invoking pan islamism (all in a “secular” country!). As MJ Akbar puts it, Islam is a brotherhood, not a nationhood.

    If Gandhi changed his views therefore on account of fresh political realities, thats good. It means he was less dogmatic and doctrinnaire than what the Right would have people believe.

    Its important to note a simple fact – historically, the side that has buttered India’s bread has always been Israel. Even pre-1992, when we didnt have formal diplomatic relations, Israeeli help has been crucial in moments of crisis – the 1965 war for example. Palestinians, on the other hand have been little more than photo ops for us. They have been either uwilling or unable to deliver even political brownie points like OIC resolutions (where they routinely parrot the Pakistani line).

    Therefore choices in front of us are clear. If nation states started taking moral positions while deciding state policy, we would run out of friends and partners quite quickly!


    1. Dear Mr. Somnath,

      Thanks for your comment the entirety of which is unclear to me. I shall, therefore, respond to certian elements only. I agree with you that changing one’s view is not undesirable; likewise one should not be dogmatic. But do change in one’s view and being non-dogmatic necessarily mean killing principles and values considered eternal? The difference between Gandhi and many others (past and contemporary) was that for the former politics was not a zero-sum game or pursuit of bare material interests. In his own words, he sought to “spiritualize our politics” (Ajay Skaria, 2002. South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol 101, No 4. P. 955). To Sociologist MN Srinivas, for Gandhi politics was “applied religion” (EPW, June 24, 1995. p. 1489). It is from this premise and perhaps expectation that I raised certain questions in my article. Let me clarify that I don’t mean that people don’t change their views about religion or spirituality. They do, in almost all religious traditions. So the question is: from a given spiritual/religious viewpoint, is someone’s stand ethical or not?

      I am unsure if what you attribute to the Indian Right vis-a-vis Gandhi is the (or the prime) case. One gets the impression that you position yourself as non-Right, if not anti-Right; however, rest of your comment precisely proves the opposite (such terms don’t necessarily mean much unless we spell out their specifics). In the self-perception of Gandhi, since morality/ethics was central to politics, your comment that if the nation-states took “moral positions, we would run out of friends” is puzzling. Interestingly, you put “we” and “nation-state” as homologous and think of politics of nation-state in terms of “friends” and foes –a point that resembles Carl Schmitt’s view of politics.

      Is it not the case that much of violence and war in the 20th and 21st century stem, directly or otherwise, from the institutions, logic, discourses and ambitions of the nation-state? Is it not the case that spokespersons of such nation-states wage war in the name of peace as evident in the quote by a key leader of the “free” world: “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we are really talking about peace”.

      Hope my response also addresses points raised by other comments-posters who I am thankful to.


      1. Dear Irfan,

        Statecraft isn’t an exercise in spiritualism, or belabouring over moral certitudes. Gandhi understood it, we find that repeatedly in his actions – the Gandhi-Irwin pact, the Poona accord with dr ambdkar, the sidelining of subhash Bose,we can go on. Gandhi wasn’t Robinson Crusoe there – Nelson Mandela, aung San Su kyi and Dalai Lama can be “accused” of similar political nuances at various times.

        For me, the issue is fundamental. Whether nation states have wrought more violence is moot – there is rather less violence in the 21st century than there was, pro rata, in the last. The issue therefore is about whether Gandhi, or later the Indian state, found merits in completely supporting the the Palestinian cause.

        The answer to that question is almost tautological – there is nearly nothing that accrues to us from the Palestinians, while Israelis are a force of positive variables. Whether one is Right, Left or indeed simply “non aligned”, the facts are what they are. and you can’t argue with facts. Even if the facts disturb your moral conscience.


  3. Great. I love this . Another one bites the dust. lets kill Gandhi from this side too, he was anti dalit, zionist, anti muslim anti national, anti liberal, probably anti gay too, add that to the list also. Yes, Let’s kill him again, and maybe then we will feel truly liberated from the shackles of colonialism.


  4. Prof Irfan missed out a very important process of Gandhi’s mind …that of continuous evolution and learning ,without being dogmatic.. His views on Zionism were never endorsing coercion or violence. and his nonviolence was a conscious act emerging out of the possibility of violence. He was ‘shrewd’ enough as a politician or a ‘visionary’ enough as statesman to see the future of country vis a vis the world’s present state. Practical idealist that Gandhi was he could differentiate between theory and action.


  5. “…Jews should disclaim any intention of realizing their aspirations under the protection of arms and should rely wholly on the goodwill of Arabs. No exception can possibly be taken to the natural desire of the Jews to find a home in Palestine. But they must wait for its fulfilment, till Arab opinion is ripe for it…..”

    The position is very consistent of Gandhi’s philosophy of non violence. It is fashionable to take Gandhi’s long life, voluminous literature on him and by him spread over many decades, weave a story and interpretation that fits your biases and prejudices. More so when the events have occurred seven decades after his death, it is easier to distort.

    It is hard to live a life of sacrifice and fearlessness for even one day that he lived for decades.


    1. Dear SS,

      Many thanks for your comment.

      Regarding Gandhi’s consistency vis-a-vis non-violence, your comment does not prove this at all. It will be convincing only if you tell the reader how his endorsement of violence on three occassions that the second part of the article records was justifiable in a moral and ethical sense. You don’t say a word about any of the three episodes of endorsing violence by Gandhi.

      I have no hesitation admitting that I have not read all of more than 99 volumes of Gandhi’s collected works. But perhaps you have not read them either -please correct me if I am wrong.

      Finally, please point out the “biases and prejudices” that you accuse me of. Also, kindly demonstrate how your comments are pure and immune from any bias some readers may see therein.


  6. A balanced perspective in NYT….
    Writing from the West Bank town of Bilin, where there are weekly protests against the path of Israel’s separation barrier, my colleague Nicholas Kristof has sparked a discussion of “the possibility of Palestinians using nonviolent resistance on a massive scale to help change the political dynamic in the Middle East and achieve a two-state solution,” in a column and a blog post.

    As my colleague Ethan Bronner reported in April, some Palestinians have explicitly endorsed just that approach and Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, visited Bilin three months ago. Mr. Gandhi toured the West Bank with Mustafa Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian nonviolent movement who explained the approach in an interview on The Daily Show last year.

    Although Mahatma Gandhi died in 1948, Pankaj Mishra pointed out in an essay last year on “the eerie echoes between the formative and postcolonial experiences of India and Israel” that the Indian leader did speak out against the resort to violence by both Jews and Arabs in mandatory Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s.

    Gandhi told London’s Jewish Chronicle in an interview in 1931: “I can understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine, and he can do so if he can without the help of bayonets, whether his own or those of Britain… in perfect friendliness with the Arabs.”

    In 1937, after Arabs tried to stop Jewish immigration to British-administered Palestine by force, Gandhi repeated his view that a homeland for Jews in the Middle East would only be possible “when Arab opinion is ripe for it.”

    In his most extended treatment of the problem, an essay called “The Jews,” published in his newspaper Harijan in 1938, Gandhi began:

    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.

    That said, he counseled Jews in both Germany and Palestine to avoid violence, writing:

    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. […]

    And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a 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.

    Mr. Mishra explained that Gandhi’s “gratuitous advice about nonviolent resistance to Jews exposed to Nazi persecution” soon “provoked a sharp reply from, among others, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who had just fled to Palestine from Germany.”

    Buber was quick to expose the limitations of Gandhianism before a state ideology as brutal as Nazism: “Do you think perhaps,” he asked, “that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?”

    Buber went on to describe his vision of Jews living in amity with Arabs in Palestine. “We have no desire to dispossess them: we want to live with them. We do not want to dominate them: we want to serve with them.”

    Gandhi, who had much on his plate in 1938, did not reply to Buber, thereby missing a potentially fruitful conversation about a maddeningly complex moral and political dilemma.

    In May 1947, he addressed his last words on the subject to Jewish militants who had resorted to terrorism against their former British patrons as well as Arabs: “It has become a problem which is almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: ‘Don’t be so silly as to resort to terrorism, because you simply damage your own case which otherwise would be a proper case.’”

    In light of the continuing effort by negotiators to settle on a map that satisfies both Israelis and Palestinians, it is interesting that what Gandhi and Buber apparently did agree on was their opposition to the essential logic of what is now called the “two-state solution,” the concept that partitions drawn along ethnic or religious lines would eventually resolve conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia and Muslims and Jews in the Middle East. As Mr. Mishra pointed out, “This post-imperial imperative of the nation-state was anathema to Gandhi, who saw India as host to many communities whose overlapping cultural identities could not be regimented into a single religion or ethnicity.”

    From the perspective of 2010, it is easy to dismiss Gandhi and Buber — and contemporary activists who still advocate a one-state solution — as idealists, but, after six decades of violence following the partition of India that created Pakistan, and the still-to-be-completed partition of Palestine that created Israel, the idea that any amount of force will soon create two peaceful states in either part of the world is also looking less convincing by the day.


  7. In between quotations, the article has lots of innuendoes, not backed by citations.
    Unfortunately the Mahatma has become a favourite whipping boy for all kinds of partisans. The perceived anti-Gandhi sentiments of the BJP and the Sangh parivar has paradoxically enough encouraged Gandhi’s leftist critics to attack him from the other side e.g. Arundhati Roy’s convoluted and ahistorical introduction to Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Castes’ etc. If that us not enough, minority communalism has also made Gandhi, and Nehru their targets, a double whammy if one can say so.
    the leftists can never forgave Gandhi for forging a pan-India identity that exposed their “class antagonism” and historical determinism theories as being completely irrelevant. And exponents of minority communalism cast the blame on Gandhi for partition, Nehru for border problems with China, for being the villain on Hyderabad etc.

    Coming back to this piece, human thought evolves, and in view of new facts, a better understanding of the situation and so on, one changes opinions. Hence to hold Gandhi to inconsistency is illogical. When accused of inconsistency, Keynes famously said – “when facts change, I change my opinion, what do you do sir?”


  8. It is sad to see the carnage in Palestine becoming a peg for yet another attack on Gandhi from an apparently left-wing perspective. Now he is accused of Zionism too. Judging from this review of his book, the author is more generous to the Jamaat-i-Islami Hind than to Gandhi.

    In fact the wide range of issues raised in this article shows the author to be more interested in denouncing Gandhi than in discussing Palestine. Here’s an interesting article by Javed Anand on the Jamaat’s alleged change of heart

    I appreciate the comments made by sarmad, alok bajpai, ss and swapan. Swapan’s citation of Kristof’s 2010 article
    is apt and indeed, as Mustafa Barghouthi said, a nonviolent mass movement is what Israel fears most. Swapan rightly points out that while it is easy to dismiss contemporary activists who advocate non-violent agitation for a one-state solution; the violent aftermath of the partition of 1947 and the unfinished one of 1948 should have convinced us by now that forceful separation of populations along ethnic or religious lines cannot lead to peace. Gandhi’s opposition to communalism and to communally inspired transfers of population was consistent and principled and as ss says, it is unfair to take his long life and the voluminous literature on and by Gandhi spread over decades, “to weave a story and interpretation that fits your biases and prejudices.”

    Gandhi was aware of the complex political and moral issues thrown up by the shattering events in his time, and attempted to answer his critics: see for example, his response to a French critic on his attitude towards war, and on his own past conduct. See volume 37, p 271 of his collected works on the Gandhi Heritage Portal.

    He also spoke and wrote extensively on the atom bomb, partition, population transfers, ahimsa and satyagraha. There is a great deal to be learned from him provided we forget about doctrinal agreement and focus on the visible distinction between the force of human goodness and that of vengeance and hatred. As he said in 1946, “The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs even as violence cannot be by counter-violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love. Counter-hatred only increases the surface as well as the depth of hatred.” Love may be a distasteful word for many of us, but it remained a powerful force in Gandhi’s politics. His last fast, undertaken in January 1948 for the restoration to Muslims of the shrine of Bakhtiyar Chisti at Mehrauli, is the most poignant example of this fact, precisely because it took place in the midst of so much hatred and violence, and that it ended, successfully, 12 days before he was murdered. This fast and the declaration of January 18 that followed it, exemplified love at work in political life. Yet we prefer to sneer at such a man.

    Many other matters have been raised in this article. As regards Jewish settlement in Palestine, no less a person than the Sherif of Mecca welcomed it as long as it remained under Arab sovereignty. On 23 March 1918 his journal Al-Qibla called upon Palestinian Arabs to welcome and co-operate with settler Jews as brethren (F. J. Khouri, The Arab Israeli Dilemma, 1968). To suggest that Gandhi supported the Zionist project is a travesty. (As opposed to his empathy with the plight of Europe’s Jews). Here is a more detailed extract dated 26-11-1938, available on pages 137-141 of volume 68 on the Heritage Portal:

    “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?..”

    Gandhi’s observations deserve to be read fully, keeping in mind that this was a year before war broke out, and a decade prior to the establishment of Israel. There are many more noteworthy comments by Gandhi on Palestine from the 1920’s until the late 1940’s. Some will appeal to us, others not. Yet others will sound confused. But none of them convey the impression of opportunism and trickery. And the central issue for him was certainly the question of violence, because for him it made all the difference to the nature of any political demand and doctrine.

    The only reference Irfan makes to Gandhi’s death is the phrase ‘after he was killed’. However, who killed him and why is significant. The facts of the assassination relate both to the epithets he uses to describe Gandhi, as well as to the politics of communalism as it unfolded in India as well as Palestine. The proponents of Godse’s world-view – are today in positions of executive power. That alone should serve to remind us of Gandhi’s significance. But perhaps that is too much to ask.


  9. Dear Dilip, Swapan (and others),
    Thanks to both of you for your comment! My response is combined aiming to address points raised also by others.

    I think you as well as others miss the larger point of the article. Based on new evidence, mainly Gandhi’s letters at the archive of Central Zionist Agency, Jerusalem, which appeared in 1990s, Simone Panter-Brick’s book Gandhi and the Middle East and her journal article (both cited in my write-up) show how a secret deal was made between Gandhi and The Jewish Agency’s representative, Kallenbach, also a friend of Gandhi. The deal was kept secret. Why a man fighting for truth would keep it utterly secret when we know that on many other issues he had (admirable) courage to question the consensus and go against the wind? Why did Pyarelal, Gandhi’s trusted secretary, opt for the destruction of papers concerning Gandhi’s view on this issue whereas utmost care was taken to preserve Gandhi’s views on nearly every other issue (as over 99 volumes of his collected works testify)? Did Pyarelal destroy Gandhi’s paper on his own or was he instructed to do so by Gandhi himself (or a synthesis of both)? Why did Gandhi not like to publish the report of his meeting with Honick, President of the World Jewish Congress and Sidney Silverman?

    I humbly urge you and other readers to read Panter-Brick’s article (2009. “Gandhi’s Views on the Resolution of the Conflict in Palestine: A Note”. Middle Eastern Studies. Vol. 45. No.1; it is short), if not her book. Gandhi’s view in the secret deal is not the same as are his public statements. Why? To clarify, this secret statement (kept secret for half a century; Panter-Brick, p. 129) of Gandhi does not appear in Gandhi’s documents about Palestine/Zionism available at Swapan, as you will notice, your long excerpt from NYT article, does not refer to the evidence I cited. In no ways does it, therefore, undermine my contention (please also see below).

    I have argued that Gandhi’s problem was not with the goal of Zionism but the means to acquire it. I presented evidence to show that. I did not say that Gandhi always held this view. What I said was that after 1936, he came to uphold such a view. You neither refute my evidence nor present a counter evidence of your own, yet you vacuously declare: “To suggest that Gandhi supported the Zionist project is a travesty”. Why? How is it a travesty?
    Many scholars, contra mediatized propaganda, maintain that in what came to be called Palestine, between 1920 and 1948, there was dual colonialism: British colonialism and Zionist settler colonialism (Utafiti: Journal of the Arts and Social
    Sciences 1976; p. 53).

    These two colonialisms were intimate enough to be almost indistinguishable. Clearly, Gandhi disapproved the former but backed the latter; hence his concerns not to use violence and win the “goodwill” of the Arabs. Was not Zionism a colonial ideology implanted with full support by another colonial power”? If you too agree, as many scholars do (see, then it logically follows that an endorsement of that Zionist goal, irrespective of the means deployed to attain it, is to support that settler colonial project.
    It needs to be stressed that “Zionism was globally legitimized long before terrible events [Holocaust] in Europe occurred” (Ilan Pappe,; p. 45).

    Importantly, it was more than evident that the Zionist ideology itself was violent. In his manifesto, Theodor Herzl (d. 1904), the father of Zionism, wrote: “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct” (cited in Patrick Wolfe; 2006; p. 388). The Arabs needed to be, Herzl went on, “worked across the frontier surreptitiously” ( 2011; p.2). During second Aliyah (Jewish migration; see, Zeev Sternhell.1999, The Founding Myths of Israel, p. 391), (, Natan Hofshi aged 15, (b.1889 in Poland) went to Palestine. In that environment he was “flabbergasted”. Seeing the Arabs, he felt “disgusted” and wondered if it was a mistake to leave Poland to go to Palestine. Later, he began to feel comfortable because once “the Arabs were not allowed to pass [through] it became home” (Pappe, p. 52).

    In light of the above I again quote Gandhi’s statement of secret deal for you to soberly and carefully reflect upon:

    …Jews should disclaim any intention of realizing their aspirations under the protection of arms and should rely wholly on the goodwill of Arabs. No exception can possibly be taken to the natural desire of the Jews to find a home in Palestine. But they must wait for its fulfilment, till Arab opinion is ripe for it.

    As you may easily see, is not the sentence in bold an endorsement of settler colonialism? Does not it legitimize the systemic/structural violence that building of home necessarily entailed? On what basis does Gandhi transform an explicitly settler political desire into a “natural” one? If not support for Zionism, then, how do we understand Gandhi’s following statement: “I told Sidney Silverman that the Jews have a good case in Palestine. If the Arabs have a claim in Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim”. Note that Gandhi believed that not only Jews had a case but also a good case. And how about the word “prior”? Is not the word “prior” an approval of an ethnicizing claim? Kindly allow me to also state that Gandhi’s choice of the word “home” –which also occurs in the colonial Balfour declaration –is far from innocent. It is not a home as we use in common parlance. It is a nationalized home to be erected by demolishing an existing one. Viewed in this wider historical context, Mishra’s juxtaposition of “postcolonial experiences of India and Israel” is simply misleading. On what basis can a colonial/neo-colonial entity be christened postcolonial?

    This brings me to your comment on Gandhi’s views on violence. Zizek’s (2008. Violence) distinction between “subjective” and “objective” violence is relevant here. While subjective violence is actual act of violence, the objective violence consists of systemic violence embedded in political formation and symbolic violence typified in language. Gandhi opposed the subjective violence but approved the systemic one embodied in the project of settler colonialism which, as we know, is the source of much bloodshed. In my view, a genuine and holistic philosophy of peace as opposed to mere non-violence should oppose both subjective and systemic violence. Rejecting subjective violence by accepting systemic violence is no rejection of violence at all. In the ultimate analysis, endorsement of objective/systemic violence is also the acceptance of subjective violence even as one might reject the latter.

    Even about the subjective violence, I argued that Gandhi’s position was not consistent as he also legitimized violence. To this end, I offered three examples/evidences and cited his statements. None of you dispute or question these evidence or his statements. So my question is: how do you explain Gandhi’s endorsement of violence on these three occasions? Let’s note that for Gandhi non-violence was “unadulterated love” ( At one place he said: “to be truly non-violent, I must love him [one’s adversary] and pray for him even when he hits me” (previous link). So on the three instances I cited, did Gandhi’s statement show his claim for “unadulterated love” and “love for adversary”? If not, should not one begin to re-examine his theory as well as praxis?

    That the Sherif of Mecca welcomed it does not make it ethical or just. His being Muslim, as you seem to suggest, does not make wrong right. Here one is not concerned with the religion of the person taking a given position but the position itself. Based on your implied message should Muslims (and people of other faiths) accept whatever Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Egypt’s Elsisi or Saudi rulers (whose laws and policies embody unadulterated patriarchy) say because all of them have Muslim names and reject what Chomsky, Cornel West, Wael Hallaq, Marwan Bishara, Tulsi Ram and many others say because the latter five names are not Muslim? If that is the yardstick you seem to suggest, then, I simply disavow it.
    I will not respond to the allegations of “of biases and prejudices”, what you say about my work and many other issues. To do that would be to divert from the key aim of the article.

    Finally, let me state that I did not write the article to show Gandhi in a poor light; it is the tension and inconsistencies in thought and practices, as I see them, which prompted me to write it. I hope a sober discussion may lead to a more nuanced, judicious understanding.

    Thanks for your attention!


  10. A malafide attack on Gandhi; or perhaps the author has no clue about what he’s writing.
    I am no Gandhian and welcome critiques of Gandhi but this belongs to the DN Batra school of historiography. I say thus not as idle abuse but to refer to the methodology deployed here: take a prejudice and find all the “facts” to fill it out in pseudo-academic respectability.

    Alternate voices is all very good but this, to me, is unacceptable. If this goes then why not publish articles claiming he was a paedophile, or rapist, or perhaps a secret Nazi since he “entertained” Nazi emissaries in Wardha well into the late 1930s. Kuch bhi…


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