Politics & Policy

What Did Gandhi Do?

One-sided pacifist.

In the weeks leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, American college campuses were plastered with posters asking “What Would Gandhi Do?” The implication, of course, was that the U.S. should emulate the tactics of the celebrated Hindu pacifist who successfully led the movement for Indian independence from Britain.

The analogy, it should go without saying, overlooks major differences between the two cases. Whereas the 20th-century British were far too benign an imperial power to choose to slaughter peaceful resisters to their rule, there’s no evidence that Saddam Hussein, already responsible for the massacre and torture of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen (to say nothing of the many more who died in his aggressive wars against Iran and Kuwait) would likewise have succumbed to friendly persuasion — Jacques Chirac to the contrary notwithstanding. (It’s not that we didn’t try!)

It is interesting, in this regard, to recall how Gandhi himself responded to the evil perpetrated by one of Saddam’s role models, Adolf Hitler. In November, 1938, responding to Jewish pleas that he endorse the Zionist cause so as to persuade the British government to open Palestine to immigrants fleeing Hitler’s persecution, Gandhi published an open letter flatly rejecting the request. While expressing the utmost “sympathy” with the Jews and lamenting “their age-old persecution,” Gandhi explained that “the cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me,” since “Palestine belongs to the Arabs.” Instead, he urged the Jews to “make that country their home where they are born.” To demand just treatment in the lands of their current residence while also demanding that Palestine be made their home, he argued, smacked of hypocrisy. Gandhi even went so far as to remark that “this cry for the national home affords a colorable justification for the German expulsion of the Jews.”

Of course, Gandhi added, “the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history,” and “if there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified.” Hitler’s regime was showing the world “how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism.” Nonetheless, the Hindu leader rejected that notion, since “I do not believe in any war.” And for Britain, France, and America to declare war on Hitler’s regime would bring them “no inner joy, no inner strength.”

Having rejected both the plea that Palestine should be offered as a place of refuge for the Jews and the idea that the Western democracies should launch a war to overthrow Hitler, Gandhi offered only one avenue for the Jews to resist their persecution while preserving their “self-respect.” Were he a German Jew, Gandhi pronounced, he would challenge the Germans to shoot or imprison him rather than “submit to discriminating treatment.” Such “voluntary” suffering, practiced by all the Jews of Germany, would bring them, he promised, immeasurable “inner strength and joy.” Indeed, “if the Jewish mind could be prepared” for such suffering, even a massacre of all German Jews “could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy,” since “to the God-fearing, death has no terror.”

According to Gandhi, it would (for unexplained reasons) be “easier for the Jews than for the Czechs” (then facing German occupation) to follow his prescription. As inspiration, he offered “an exact parallel” in the campaign for Indian civil rights in South Africa that he had led decades earlier. Through their strength of suffering, he promised, “the German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German Gentiles in the sense that they will have converted [them] to an appreciation of human dignity.” And the same policy ought to be followed by Jews already in Palestine enduring Arab pogroms launched against them: if only they would “discard the help of the British bayonet” for their defense, and instead “offer themselves [to the Arabs] to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger,” the Jews would win a favorable “world opinion” regarding their “religious aspiration.”

In a thoughtful personal response dated February 24, 1939, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber — who had himself emigrated to Israel from Germany a short time earlier and combined his Zionism with earnest efforts to peacefully reconcile Jewish and Arab claims in the Holy Land — chided Gandhi for offering advice to the Jews without any recognition of their real situation. The individual acts of persecution that Indians had suffered in South Africa in the 1890’s hardly compared, Buber noted, to the synagogue burnings and concentration camps instituted by Hitler’s regime. Nor was there any evidence that the many instances in which German Jews peacefully displayed strength of spirit in response to their persecutors had exercised any influence on the latter. While Gandhi exhorted them to bear “testimony” to the world by their conduct, the fate of the Jews in Germany was to experience only an “unobserved martyrdom” without effect.

Turning to Gandhi’s allegation that to claim a homeland in Palestine was inconsistent with the Jews’ claims to equal citizenship in the other countries of their birth, Buber recalled to him that the Indians of South Africa whose cause Gandhi had championed themselves drew sustenance from the existence of India as their “living center.” It was only the existence of such a home that made Diaspora tolerable, respectively (Buber added) for both Jews and Indians.

As for Gandhi’s denial that the Jews had any place in Palestine, since it “belonged” to the resident Arab population, Buber reminded him that the Arabs themselves had previously acquired the land by virtue of a “conquest of settlement” — in contrast to the peaceful methods of the Jews in purchasing land there. Why, indeed, in view of the “primitive” state of Arab agriculture, should Palestinian land be held to belong exclusively to the Arabs, when Jewish settlers had done far more to develop that land’s fertility in the past 50 years than the Arabs in the preceding 1,300? With proper development, there was no reason that the land of Palestine might not support millions of Jewish refugees along with resident Arabs at a far higher standard of living than the latter had heretofore enjoyed. Finally, Buber reminded Gandhi that when the subject was the rights of Indians, as opposed to those of the Jews, Gandhi himself had remarked (in 1922) that he had “repeatedly said that I would have India become free even by violence rather than that she should remain in bondage.”

Those who profess to concern themselves with the advancement of justice in the world have far less to learn from Gandhi’s inconsistent and one-sided pacifism than from Buber’s observation that while war is in principle abhorrent, it is better to resist evil by force than to allow it to triumph over the good.

David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.


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