Resisting the Zionist Revisionism of Gandhi

An effort to rewrite the record on Gandhi’s attitude towards Palestine and the Jewish question has been underway since long. Recent events in Gaza have given this effort a new impetus.

Writing in the Indian Express, P.R. Kumaraswamy says that Gandhi’s famous dissent against Zionism was neither consistent nor well-informed. He saw Judaism through the lens of Christian theological prejudice, and despite his many friends from the Jewish faith, never showed any empathy with the Jewish “longing for a homeland”. He may indeed, have been guilty of a double-standard since he “accepted and endorsed Prophet Mohammed’s injunctions on the holy land (but) refused to grant the same courtesy to the pre-Islamic Jewish claims”.

These are locutions straight out of the Zionist playbook: that an older scripture can assign rights denied to people in actual occupation of a land for centuries. That claim is on its face, as ludicrous as the foundational slogan of Zionism, that Palestine is a “land without a people, for a people without a land”.

If Kumaraswamy fails in the broader line of attack, his more specific points need attention, despite their evident spuriousness. He wonders for instance, if some of what Gandhi had to say on Israel went missing because of an effort at sanitising his prolific output. Pyarelal, his long-time personal secretary, is recorded telling the writer Ved Mehta rather “portentously”, that in the vastness of material he was holding in trust, there was “some” he decided to “suppress”, such as “Gandhi’s views on Israel”. There is no reason to believe that Pyarelal has been inaccurately recorded in Mehta’s 1976 book. It was followed by the rather cocky claim by Pyarelal, who died in 1982, that he held a unique power to decide how the public sees Gandhi, since “by God’s grace”, he was “the only one who knows”.

Kumaraswamy concludes that we are left “only with a sanitised and politically correct version”, which means we will never “completely understand how Mahatma Gandhi viewed and gradually shifted his position vis-à-vis Palestine”.

He has more to say: Gandhi is known to have met two Zionist leaders when he went to London for the Second Round Table Conference on India. But the record of these meetings is missing from his Collected Works. There is in fact, a complete absence of any record of Gandhi’s numerous meetings with Jewish leaders. Absence of evidence, he concludes, is not evidence of absence.

In the midst of these scattershot insinuations, Kumaraswamy does draw attention to a specific absence. In July 1937, “Gandhi passed on an unsigned statement to the Jewish Agency in Palestine through Hermann Kallenbach, his comrade-in-arms during his South African days”. This has gone “conspicuously missing in volume 96 of the Collected Works, devoted exclusively to the Kallenbach Papers”.

Gandhi and Kallenbach

For the conspiratorially minded, the point may seem significant, though ultimately it is of little consequence. Kallenbach’s visit to India in 1937 and his very fond reunion with Gandhi after 23 years, is dealt with in Joseph Lelyveld’s 2008 book, Great Soul. It was by all accounts a joyous moment for both men, but Kallenbach also came with a political mandate from the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the principal global body promoting the Zionist cause.

Gandhi was aware of Kallenbach’s Zionist affinity from their days together at Tolstoy Farm in South Africa. On February 13, 1913, well before Gandhi’s epochal return to India, he wrote to Kallenbach, addressing some obvious dilemmas. “I see that you are very unhappy,” he says, but the remedy lay neither in “Palestine, nor in studies in London”. It was to be sought, rather, in one of two things: “either in applying yourself entirely to your office and studying whilst in practice or in your living with me and coming to India”. And then came a stricture to not be led astray by shallow materiality, since you “cannot serve God and Mammon” [Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, hereafter CWMG, Volume 96: 289].

Sonja Schlesin, M.K. Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach. Photo: Unknown author, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This deeply personal communication was from a time before Zionism gained the backing of the world’s biggest colonial power. The Balfour Declaration, that testament to European Anti-Semitism, was still a few years in the future, and Zionism seemed an attractive option for youth fighting a sense of alienation as the world plunged towards the catastrophe of 1914. 

Little else of any pertinence transpired between the two friends till Kallenbach called on Gandhi in 1937. As Lelyveld (2008: 279) tells it, Kallenbach had earlier been contacted by Moshe Shertok, head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Palestine (who in 1954 became Israel’s prime minister for a brief term). Shertok’s purpose was to seek a connection to “the greatest of living Hindus”. Gaining Gandhi’s endorsement, Shertok wrote, would be “service of an extraordinary character” that Kallenbach alone would be able to render because of his “unique position”.

Two months before Kallenbach landed in India in May 1937, he travelled to London to meet with Shertok and Chaim Weizmann, a future president of Israel. He went on to Palestine and spent time in a kibbutz, seemingly finding a close affinity between its culture and the principles Gandhi had fostered in Tolstoy farm.

Once docked in Bombay, Kallenbach hurried off his ship to the village in Gujarat where Gandhi was at the time. The two friends spent much of the next few weeks, in Lelyveld’s account, in conversations on the strife in Palestine. There was for Gandhi, who “eagerly entered into the conversations”, a religious principle involved. Hindus in India, he believed, were obliged to support the Muslim cause. Kallenbach urged “sympathetic attention to the Zionist side”, but their dialogue was inconclusive. It resumed in an exchange of correspondence after they parted.

On July 20, Gandhi wrote from his Wardha ashram, telling Kallenbach how much he is missed. He then refers to a “Palestine Report” which makes “sad reading”, though “the Commission” perhaps could do nothing more. The context makes clear that he is referring to the report of the Royal Commission on Palestine under Robert Peel, appointed to enquire into months of civil unrest against Jewish colonisation. Gandhi’s main conclusion from his reading of the report was that it was clear admission of the “initial blunder” of making one “promise to the Arabs and a contrary one to the Jews”.

The Peel Commission Report was effective admission that the League of Nations mandate for Palestine that Britain had secured was unworkable. It was perhaps the first inkling of Britain’s intent to scuttle and run from an unmanageable situation of its own creation. In the circumstances, Gandhi wrote, the “only proper and dignified solution” was for the Jews to “rely wholly on the Arab goodwill” and “once and for all renounce British protection”. [CWMG, Volume 96: 289]

That fond hope was detached from reality since the Jewish settlers in Palestine were working with British colonial authorities to brutally crush the uprising. Kallenbach however, was not abandoning his mission of persuasion. Soon afterwards he obtained from the Jewish Agency a “twenty-five page essay on the historic, spiritual and political underpinnings of Zionism”, specially written for Gandhi (Lelyveld, 2008: 278). Though a little puzzled by the absence of a sender’s name, Gandhi found the essay “very impressive, deeply interesting”. He also thought that if the points made were true, “a settlement between the Jews and the Arabs ought not to be difficult” [CWMG, 96: 290].

Gandhi: ‘a prisoner of hope’

This is where Gandhi perhaps lives up to his image as a “prisoner of hope”, as the British scholar, Judith Brown, described him many years later. In the twisted context of geopolitics playing out in Palestine, he actually thought of a mediatory role, with Kallenbach’s intercession being essential. “I quite clearly see that if you are to play any part in bringing about an honourable settlement, your place is in India”, he wrote: “You might have to go frequently to Palestine but much of the work lies in India as I visualize the development of the settlement talks.” [CWMG, 96: 290] 

The next time the issue comes up between the two friends is in Gandhi’s letter of October 11, when he writes: “The Palestine question does now engage my attention. It is becoming more and more intricate for want of a firm declaration such as I have suggested. But that will never come unless there is an urge from within”. Perhaps, Gandhi writes, when Kallenbach arrives on his planned visit to India at the end of the year, they could “explore possibilities” [CWMG, 96: 291].

Kallenbach’s visit does not materialise, which disappoints Gandhi. The next time the issue comes up between the friends, all optimism seems dissipated. “What a tragedy going on in Palestine!”, writes Gandhi on July 17, 1938: “It is heart-breaking. If there is peace, ultimately, it will be the peace of the grave. However, we must endure what we cannot cure” [CWMG, 96: 295].

Lelyveld fills in the missing details in this record of correspondence, revealing in itself. Following their conversations in 1937 and Kallenbach’s educational efforts, Gandhi sent a draft set of proposals to his friend. Unconvinced, Kallenbach sent these on to Chaim Weizmann. Conversations ended there, since the Jewish Agency chose to suppress Gandhi’s proposals [Lelyveld, 2008: 280].

This affords scope for a robust inference, far from the conspiracy theory Kumaraswamy hints at. The paper which he alleges was banished into a memory hole, was obviously not what the Zionist camp expected when they tasked Kallenbach with his mission. The “world’s greatest Hindu” was not about to sign on for the Jewish colonisation of Palestine.

Did the Holocaust impact Gandhi’s views?

Kumaraswamy has another revelation to make, this one virtually impossible to verify, but circumstantially suspect. The time is June 1946, and grisly and horrifying details of the Holocaust have come to light. That may have been the background condition, he posits, for Gandhi’s conversion. At a meeting with the American journalist Louis Fischer, later author of one of the first biographies of the Mahatma, Gandhi is reported to have said: “The Jews have a good cause. I told (British Zionist MP) Sidney Silverman that the Jews have a good case in Palestine. If the Arabs have a claim to Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim”. Louis Fischer’s 1947 book, Gandhi and Stalin: Two Signs at the World’s Crossroads records this supposed statement. 

Fischer’s book is inaccessible at this time, and the quote and context cannot be verified. Kumaraswamy concedes another interpretation of the meeting, but backs Fischer’s account since it was published during Gandhi’s lifetime. This alleged quote has also been put forward by Khinvraj Jangid in an article for the Indian Express.

Verification here is very easy. The Jewish Virtual Library presents a paraphrase of the discussion between Gandhi and Silverman in June 1946, which in turn, is sourced from the Louis Fischer papers. It shows Gandhi eagerly questioning his interlocutors on the Jewish claim for a homeland in Palestine, though he begins with the plea that he would not be able to do very much for them. Despite all the “sympathy” he may have for the cause, he found much that was wrong in the methods that Zionism had adopted.

Silverman blamed all the violence on “a small section of terrorist hotheads”, admitting much that was wrong about the Zionist campaign in Palestine. Beyond the legalities, Silverman urged that the moral question be addressed. If a “crazy (sic) vessel bringing Jewish refugees comes to the Palestinian shore”, he said with some warmth, it would seem the humane thing to “help in getting them ashore”, rather than “shoot them down”.

These are clear references to the ships bringing survivors of Nazi concentration camps to what would putatively, be their new home. Britain, still retaining its League of Nations mandate over Palestine and burdened by its duplicity, had prohibited Jewish immigration in 1939. Ships carrying European Jews to Palestine were turned away, triggering a savage assault on the British administration by terrorist gangs led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir (both future prime ministers). 

Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Photo: Government Press Office (Israel)/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Gandhi offers sympathy but nothing substantive. He asks about the Zionist insistence on a homeland in Palestine rather than elsewhere. Silverman claims the right of ownership from the presence of 650,000 Jews in Palestine, who had transformed a “waste space” that “no one else wanted”. Jews were only seeking to “regain what (they had) lost”, while the Arabs stood to lose nothing. Gandhi was unconvinced, asking if that meant the reduction of Arabs to a minority. 

Silverman admits that the “status of the Arabs (would be) affected to that extent and injustice done to them”. Yet even if Arabs were to lose their “status in Palestine there would still be five independent kingdoms left which they (could) call their own”. The Jews in contrast would be left with nothing if they were to lose Palestine. The Arabs could put up with a minor injustice in the larger cause of avoiding “a denial of all justice to the Jews”.

Gandhi: “Wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs”

Subsequent events show very vividly, how this assertion of a Zionist right to the land was barely concealed cover for a malign intent. Zionism was always about the expulsion of the people of Palestine in large numbers, destroying their centuries-long legacy, and creating a new state afresh. There was an expectation of ethnic purity in the new state which was impossible to realise, and with Palestinians perhaps in a majority in territory controlled by the Zionist state today, echoes of those times are now heard louder. Palestinians are not really a “people”, these voices proclaim, and their land was always a barren space that Jews alone had the mandate to occupy. 

Gandhi does not buy into any of these arguments even without foreknowledge of the malign shapes that Zionism later acquires. He seeks to be cordial and constructive, and suggests various options his visitors could possibly pursue. How Louis Fischer could have interpreted this conversation as an endorsement of the “prior claim” of the Jewish people is a mystery. Fortunately, it is one that Gandhi was quick to dispel, within his lifetime.

At a prayer meeting on July 14, 1946 (published in Harijan on July 21), he spoke of how “four lines of a newspaper column” which a friend had brought it to his attention, required clarification. It was true that he did say “some such thing” as imputed “in the course of a long conversation with Mr Louis Fischer on the subject”. He did believe that the Jews had “been cruelly wronged by the world”. The term “ghetto” applied to Jewish habitations in many parts of Europe, eloquently expressed the “heartless persecution” they had faced. That alone was the reason the “return to Palestine” slogan had arisen, though the world should have been the home of the Jewish people, if only for “their distinguished contribution to it”. For all that, the Jews had “erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism”.

To take Gandhi’s conversations with Silverman and Fischer out of their context and disregard the explicit clarification he issued, is strongly suggestive of an intent to mislead. The slim evidence advanced by Kumaraswamy, does not in any case, outweigh Gandhi’s long trail of public remarks on the topic, beginning with his famous statement of 1938, that Palestine belongs to Arabs the same way that France and England belong to the French and the English. In his brief 1938 essay titled “The Jews”, Gandhi had, in fact, said much more. It was “wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs”. The colonisation of Palestine by the Zionists could not be “justified by any moral code of conduct”. And the ostensible “mandate” under which it was carried out had “no sanction but that of the last war”. The programme of reducing the Arabs to an alien presence in their own land was in this respect, little less than “a crime against humanity”.

That leaves Pyarelal’s averments as the sole basis on which to conclude that not enough is known about Gandhi’s attitude towards Israel. Ved Mehta’s book records this among a whole series of eccentric locutions. Pyarelal was for instance, ambiguous about what he would do with the large cache of papers he held. Their ultimate destination he indicated, could be the National Archives, the Gandhi Memorial Trust, or a trust to be set up in his (Pyarelal’s) memory. He was also at the time, engaged in writing a biography of Gandhi and may have retained papers beyond the time warranted in a work described by Mehta as a “hagiography”.

Responding to an inquiry, Tridip Suhrud, an Ahmedabad-based scholar who worked to bring the Kallenbach papers back to India, told this writer that Pyarelal was not sole custodian of the Gandhi papers, and only briefly a member of the editorial board of the CWMG. Since his death in 1982, Pyarelal’s papers were transferred, though only after an unexplained gap of 25 years, to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi (now the Prime Ministers’ Memorial Museum and Library).

Any proposition that Gandhi actually approved of the Zionist project can, in short, be easily tested. 

These do not have to be advanced as speculative propositions that impute beliefs and intentions not expressed during his lifetime. That these efforts come at a time when the Zionist state is embarked on its most savage campaign of genocide yet, is little else than an attempt at making Gandhi an accomplice in the last great crime of colonialism. No greater slur can be imagined to legacy of the Mahatma.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in the Delhi region. He has worked in print media, as a journalism instructor and trainer, and press freedom campaigner.