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Mahatma Gandhi and the pro-Israeli lobby in the US

The recent forced resignation of Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, from the M K Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in New York brings to mind the Zionist lobby's bitter criticism of Mahatma Gandhi in the 1980s on account of his strong opposition to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

By Robi Chakravorti  

Economic & Political Weekly, February 9-15, 2008


A RECENT critical comment of Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, on Israel's use of violence and overplay of the Holocaust provoked the Jewish lobby's anger and forced him to resign from the M K Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in New York. The incident brings to mind a case of bitter criticism of Mahatma Gandhi in the 1980s from a Jewish fundamentalist perspective. This was based on Gandhi's political viewpoint on the formation of Israel.

Gandhi's viewpoint on the issue of the formation of Israel was bitterly criticised by the pro-Israeli lobby in the US. When Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi (1982) was released, a popular magazine Commentary published by the American Jewish Committee produced a long article entitled 'The Gandhi Nobody Knows' (written by Richard Grenier in the issue of March 1983) making sweeping criticism not only of Gandhi's personality and political attitude, but also of Hinduism and Indian nationalism.

Character assassination

Let me first present some comments on Gandhi from the article before suggesting the historic-political context of their origin. The article claimed: 'His democratic instincts were really quite weak ...He was a man of the most extreme autocratic temperament, tyrannical, unyielding, even regarding things he knew nothing about, totally intolerant of all opinions but his own ...He was, furthermore, in the highest degree reactionary, permitting in India no change in the relationship between the feudal lord and his peasants or servants, the rich and the poor.' One can describe this type of commentary as a character assassination of Gandhi.

The article also made defamatory comments on the Hindu concept of god and Gandhi's approach to god. To quote again: 'god for members of the great Western religions ...means a personal god, a godhead ... Gandhi, in fact, simply did not believe in a personal god and wrote in so many words, "god is not a person ...but a force, the undefined mysterious Power that pervades everything, a living Power that is Love."' One can trace this viewpoint on god to messages in the Vedanta. The article also alleged that 'the concepts of mercy and forgiveness are absent from Hinduism'. Referring to Gandhi's viewpoint of universal religion, the article wrote, 'When Gandhi said "I am a Hindu, and Muslim and a Christian and a Jew", it was [from a Western viewpoint] Hindu double-talk.'

The condemnatory review of Gandhi and Hindu culture selectively marshalled Gandhi's writings like a prosecution lawyer, but the writer did not refer to the record of Gandhi's opposition to the formation of Israel, which was the basic motivation for the reckless criticism of Gandhi. According to an article published in Harijan magazine (26 November 1938), Gandhi showed sympathy for Jews, describing them as 'The untouchables of Christianity... The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close... The German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history.' Gandhi, however, did not support the formation of Israel, which, in my opinion, was the basic undercurrent reason for the extraordinary anger expressed in the Commentary article on Gandhi. Gandhi wrote in a Harijan article, 'But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirement 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... The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts... A religious act cannot be performed with 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.'

This viewpoint of Gandhi covertly instigated the US-based pro-Israeli lobby's anger. If Gandhi's viewpoint is viewed as idealistic and impractical, I would like to refer to a recent viewpoint in support of Gandhi's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was expressed in a recently published book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse by Ali Abunimah. The author, comparing the ethnic conflicts in South Africa and Northern Ireland, argued how they were resolved with acceptance of harmonious coexistence of conflicting ethnic groups instead of territorial separation. One can question this type of historical parallelism, but it is worth including in any analysis of the complex issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The author made many penetrating comments on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involving South Africa-style 'apartheid' politics. He presented a startling comment on the potential future repercussions of the presence of one million Palestinians living as citizens of Israel with inferior rights alongside almost four million living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. In an article on the issue written by him in the Christian Science Monitor (14 May 2007), he made an interesting comment which reflects a future problem facing Israel that is neglected in general discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to him, the high birth rate of Palestinians in these two regions means 'that in a few years, Palestinians will once again become the majority as they were prior to 1948'. This demographic factor has political implications in future.

The establishment of Israel as a Jewish state involving lots of violence and conflict can be cited as a dramatic operation of religious fundamentalism and territorial imperative using realpolitik. The viewpoint of Gandhi, seen from this stance, can be seen as idealistic, offending Jews supportive of Israel. But, in terms of the commentary by Ali Abunimah, unless an idealistic form of coalition is established between native Palestinians and Jewish settlers, the political turmoil in the area will worsen and the conflict, taking different forms of violence, will continue in an uncertain, troublesome manner for a long time.

Jewish lobby in American politics

In this context, let me present some historical data on the powerful role of the Jewish lobby in American politics which played an important role in implementing crucial American support and financial-technical aid to Jewish settlements. Without this support, it is questionable whether Israel would have emerged and existed. Like Gandhi, President Truman was originally opposed to the formation of Israel. His private diary published in 1993 was critical of the Jews. He wrote in 1947: 'The Jews I find very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks got murdered or mistreated as displaced persons as long as the Jews get special treatment.' President Truman however decided to recognise the establishment of Israel under the domestic political influence of Jews.

A book entitled They Dare To Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby by Paul Findley (1985) presented well-documented cases of the influence of the Jewish lobby in American politics. Findley had served as a Republican Congressman for 22 years. He claimed that he lost his seat in Congress by a narrow margin to a candidate backed by the Jewish lobby.

In the book, Findley presented a dramatic illustration of pro-Israeli influence in American politics. President Truman initially wanted to delay the recognition of the state of Israel in Palestine before the election of 1948. On this point he had the support of Secretary of State George Marshall and ambassadors in the West Asian states. The American ambassador to Egypt, Tuck advised against immediate recognition of Israel so that consultation with Arab states on the issue could be carried out. According to the report in the book, Truman replied: 'Mr Tuck, you may be right, but the votes are against you'.

He took this position, according to the book, since he was concerned about the crucial electoral votes in three states where two-thirds of American Jews live. In partisan political terms, Truman's decision to recognise Israel paid off. He received 75% of the Jewish vote nationally, which helped him gain a razor-thin victory and a place of honour on the face of an Israeli postage stamp. From this perspective, the private notes that Truman wrote can be seen as a dramatic case of a rift between the practice of realpolitik in public deeds and the private feelings of its practitioner.

The role of the Jewish lobby in American politics is very strong. In any discussion of the issue of a Palestinian state, this factor should be taken into account. No other country in the world has received as much US support as Israel. Religious fundamentalism and territorial imperative are two factors influencing politics to a degree in West Asia which is clear-cut and dramatic. It will take a long time before a conflict of this type will be under control. In this context, one can cite the parallel case of the fight between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. According to a book, Northern Ireland: A Time of Choice (1976) by Richard Rose, the number of fatalities in Ulster relative to the population during 1969-75 was twice the number of losses suffered by the British forces in the Boer War.

The controversy about the establishment of Israel is an issue of the past. It was, in my opinion, the hidden reason for the long acrimonious article on Gandhi which I presented in a critical form to show how nation-forming issues can cause overwhelming emotions involving pride and prejudice.

Robi Chakravorti is with the department of sociology, California State University, Sacramento, California, USA. This article is reproduced from Economic & Political Weekly (February 9-15, 2008,



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