mohandasgandhi asked: I would never imply that there is no place for the Jews in the world. That would be completely hypocritical of me, particularly as I come from a long line of Jews and my family shared the common Jewish struggle of displacement. I agree with you. I just thought Gandhi had an interesting perspective and that that quote would get some of my followers to read his entire letter.
The quote says, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” My sense was that a lot of people would read this quote and conclude that Gandhi would today be a proponent of a single-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict … or even of the eviction of Jews from the Middle East (where, it might be concluded, they do not belong). I wrote as much to Anna and received the above reply.
Now, I think it’s a good idea for people to read Gandhi’s letter rather than simply looking at a single line from it … but I also suspect that very few did so. Most people on Tumblr just reblogged it or liked it … in no small part because they think that Israel is illegitimate (either entirely or at least in the majority of its policies) and they read Gandhi as saying as much.
But there’s more to say. As you might suspect, I did read Gandhi’s letter. And I think, in looking at it carefully, Gandhi is arguing precisely that Jews should not have their own country (among other things). He writes:
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.
A few points, then.
- It’s interesting that Gandhi uses the word “restore” to discuss the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Paletine. The use of the idea of restoration implies Gandhi’s recognition that there was a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine; he concludes, however, that this homeland ought not to be restored to them … if it would “reduce the proud Arab.” But would it necessarily have done so? The UN Partition Plan of 1947 proposed two states, one Jewish and one Arab in Palestine. This would have both restored the Jews to their homeland and, I would think, allowed for the non-reduction of the Arabs. It’s unfortunate that Gandhi did not comment — so far as I can find anywhere — on the Partition plan before his assassination in 1948.
- I would argue, in reading these words, that Gandhi does not actually believe that the Jews ought to have their own state and, thus, that people who are directed to read his letter will find additional support for the argument that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state. Indeed, Gandhi says directly that the Jews should instead be proud and equal citizens of any state in which they are born (like France or Germany or Palestine). It’s not clear why other people groups might have a legitimate claim to their own place in the world while the Jews must content themselves with the (often unhappy) status of a small minority group in a state that defines itself (either overtly or not) as something other than Jewish. What is it about the Jews in particular that precludes them from having their own homeland restored to them (to use Gandhi’s own words)? Gandhi does not answer.
- Finally, I think it’s particularly noteworthy that Gandhi wrote this letter on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry, when the writing on the wall could fairly clearly be seen in Germany. Indeed, in the same letter, Gandhi offered the following advice to Jews in Germany (who would soon be entirely stripped of their rights and sent to extermination camps all over Europe): “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.” As noted here, the philosopher Martin Buber — who fled Germany for Palestine — responded to Gandhi: “’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.’”
Quite clearly — and very unfortunately — Buber’s vision did not pan out. The Jews were not all peaceful immigrants like Buber and the Arabs were not happy to share the land on which they lived.
If we look carefully, it seems that the main thrust of Gandhi’s letter is to claim that the Jews ought not to take by force — or with the assistance of force employed by the British or, I presume, the international community — territory that the Arabs would not freely share with them. This is a fine point, one that is in keeping with Gandhi’s position on non-violence and his opposition to the British. It’s also one with which Buber — himself an admirer of Gandhi — would have almost certainly agreed.
But what, in the end, does it tell us about present-day relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East? Not very much, sadly (but perhaps unsurprisingly). While we would do well to oppose the use of force by Jews against Arabs (and, to be honest with Gandhi’s vision, vice versa too) around the time that Israel was established and certainly by the Israeli state today, it also seems pointless and quite dangerous to claim that Israel is an illegitimate state or one that ought not to exist. And we certainly ought not to look to Gandhi for a bullwark for such a claim, in no small part because his letter provides no clear argument for why we ought to adopt this position against the existence of a Jewish homeland.