Gandhi and Palestine: A saint, who had compassion for Palestinian people

For Gandhi, the Palestine issue was question of justice, compassion, and one which can’t be subject to destruction under rubric of ‘Biblical conception of a Promised Land more than geographical tract’

Representative Image
Representative Image

Prem Anand Mishra

In the last century, since the age of the post-colonial movement, Mahatma Gandhi has been the most formidable voice to every protest anywhere in the world. His ethical glimmer can be felt wherever there is a resistance movement. His moral position on freedom and struggle, for truth and justice, are still as relevant as has ever been. Gandhi has always been in public consciousness across the world as a saintly man, whose moral virtues still haunt those in power.

His non-violence was not a manifestation of cowardice rather a moral compass on which one fights for the annihilation of coerciveness and injustice. Gandhi has been perhaps the most popular voice for resistance but ironically, he is seldom read. Although his writings and other works form over a hundred volumes his ideas still yearn for public reading. One of his remarkable influences has been on the Palestinian issue or rather Palestinian tragedy. Although, his position has been quite known but still ordinarily discussed. His views on Political Zionism, the meaning of religion in a public place, his criticism of the idea of the ‘promised land, and his support for the cause of Palestinian freedom is what the world needs to hear in loud voice.

Gandhi’s most formidable position on Palestine is reflected in his opinion, “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”. For Gandhi, the question of Palestine was the question of justice, virtue, compassion, and one which can’t be subject to destruction under the rubric of ‘Biblical conception of a Promised Land more than a geographical tract’. Although, Gandhi was thoughtful and sensitive to Jewish persecution throughout centuries and rabid dehumanization during Nazi Germany but he had affirmatively questioned the logic of faith and the propaganda of political Zionism.

Gandhi’s tenets of Satyagraha and philosophy of non-violence struck a a moral chord with the Palestinian movement during his time. “Gandhi rejected the ideological tenets of the Zionist colonization of Palestine and counselled Jews to go to Palestine, only with the consent of the indigenous population. To Gandhi failing to which they are becoming a partner to the British colonialism. Although, Gandhi was inconsistent in responding to Jewish question but always stood firm in his critical view on violent Jewish aspiration in annexing Palestine with the aid of America and Britain. During his height of popularity, Gandhi was pressurised by Zionist quarters to make a statement in their favour. Even his shared pain and sympathy with Jews for their history didn’t deter him to overlook the Zionist agenda of robbing off the Palestinians. He made a big statement on this issue as reported by an editorial in the newspaper called Harijan on 11 November 1938. He said, “My sympathies are all with 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 in the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after their 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?".

Gandhi was an international figure, a moral voice against any kind of imperialism. He was critical of political Zionism and had always rejected the idea of a Jewish state based on faith. Perhaps there was this formidable position that went against the making of Pakistan solely based on religion. Although, Gandhi was a devoutly religious man in his private space he never used his religious identity to his political ends. But when it comes to Zionist expectation for getting his support based on the inseparability of religion and politics, he was termed inconsistent for not submitting to the notion of political Zionism who were using religion as a political tool in their religious agenda.

For Gandhi religion was an ethical question and not one tool serving the political agenda and thus the accusation of inconsistencies when it comes to the Jewish cause in Palestine doesn’t attach much value than hollow propaganda. As a leader of the national struggle in India, he was equally if not consistently involved in the Palestinian struggle.

In 1937 he was voicing emphatically and protesting against the reign of terror that had been perpetrated on Palestinians by the British empire. Also, in the Delhi AICC of September 1938 he said in the passing resolution that “Britain should leave the Jews and the Arabs to amicably settle the issues between the two parties, and it urged the Jews ‘not to take shelter behind British Imperialism’. Gandhi wanted Jews in Palestine to seek the goodwill of the Arabs by discarding ‘the help of the British bayonet’. But Gandhi’s position on Palestine and against political Zionism disappointed his Jewish supporters who were seeking his moral support based on historical injustice towards Jews.

In a letter to Gandhi, Martin Buber wrote to him, “You are only concerned, Mahatma, with the ‘right of possession’ on the one side; you do not consider the right to a piece of free land on the other side - for those who are hungering for it.” But Gandhi's perception of the 'Palestinian question' was deeply ingrained with India’s anti-colonial movement and his opposition to the Zionist doctrine of religious national was an ethical response to any kind of imperialism. Therefore, despite heavy criticism of his position on Palestine, he never surrendered his own moral and ethical standpoint in fighting imperialism.

But his support to the Palestinian struggle and his careful reference to Zionist ideology as an un-ethical and a part of the imperialist agenda brought severe criticism from his close Jewish friends as well as his adversaries. He was accused of supporting Palestine to garner support from Indian Muslims for his agenda ( his support to Khilafat movement) in the Indian national movement. Hermann Kallenbach, American pacifist John Haynes Holmes, British MP from the Labour Party, Sydney Silverman, and even Louis Fischer, Gandhi's famous biographer, to whom Gandhi reported having said that “the Jews have a good case” were involved in persuading Gandhi over that period to seek his support for the Zionist cause.

He was even accused of practising anti-Semitism. This was a reflection on Gandhi’s moral footing on Palestine to an extent that the sanest moral voice was even accused of anti-Semitism. One of the accusations against Gandhi for opposing Zionism was Gandhi’s lack of sympathy for Zionism. But such accusation doesn’t testify to the grandeur of Gandhi’s moral lens as he was also a practitioner of his thoughts. As his writings reflect his emotions for Jewish suffering and therefore it’s imprudent to call him anti- Semite or supporting Palestine just to seek Muslim support within the Indian independence struggle.

In 1946, Gandhi said that “I do believe that the Jews have been cruelly wronged by the world.” but for Gandhi, the real problem with the Jewish case was their association with Britain. As Gandhi writes “But in my opinion, they [the Jews] have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism... Why should they depend on American money or British arms for forcing themselves on an unwelcome land? Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine?”

For Gandhi, the Palestinian problem becomes insoluble as Zionists with the help of America and Britain now has resorted to terrorism. Gandhi said in an interview with Doon Campbell of Reuters “It has become a problem which seems almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: 'Do not be so silly as to resort to terrorism... They should meet the Arabs, make friends with them and not depend on British aid or American aid, save what descends from Jehovah.”

Gandhi’s method, his moral position in achieving peace is equally significant today against any violent means. In the struggle for Palestinian nationalism, he would have been equally critical of Hamas and Hezbollah or any method of killing innocent Jews or any kind of racism. Gandhi’s Satyagrah: ‘the truth-force' was the message against all sufferings. That truth force is the only weapon for Palestinians to overcome that wretchedness they have been suffering for years.

(Prem Anand Mishra is a doctoral candidate at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal)

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