“Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English, or France to the French,” Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Harijan on November 26, 1938.
Gandhi’s article — ‘The Jews’ — has been the subject of intense debate over the years. It has been cited as evidence of his naivete by some, while others have seen it as further proof of his deep commitment to non-violence, regardless of consequences.
Amidst the latest bloody chapter in the history of Israel and Palestine, we look back at what Gandhi had to say on this, in Gandhi’s own words, “very difficult question”.
Gandhi was deeply sympathetic to the Jewish people.
The Mahatma always made it clear that he had deep sympathies for the Jewish people who had historically been unjustly persecuted for their religion.
“My sympathies are all with the Jews … They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them,” Gandhi wrote in ‘The Jews’.
He also wrote that “the German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history”, and expressed his concern with Britain’s policy of placating Adolf Hitler at the time (before World War II broke out). The Mahatma declared that for the cause of humanity and to prevent the persecution of the Jewish people, even a war with Germany would be “completely justified”.
“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,” Gandhi wrote.
Yet, he did not support a Zionist state in Palestine.
“It is wrong and inhumane to impose the Jews on the Arabs … 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,” Gandhi wrote.
His opposition to the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine was based on two principal beliefs. First, that Palestine was already home to Arab Palestinians, and the settlement of Jews, which Britain actively enabled, was fundamentally violent.
“A religious act [the act of Jews returning to Palestine] cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb,” he wrote. Gandhi felt that the Jews can settle in Palestine only “with the goodwill of Arabs”, and for that they had to “forgo the British bayonet”.
Second, Gandhi felt (and he was not unique in sharing this position at the time) that the idea of a Jewish homeland was fundamentally antithetical towards their fight for greater rights elsewhere in the world.
“If the Jews have no home but Palestine, will they relish the idea of being forced to leave the other parts of the world in which they are settled?” Gandhi wrote, adding that the Jewish claim for a national home afforded “a colourable justification for the German expulsion of the Jews”.
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Gandhi’s position on Israel influenced India’s foreign policy.
The Mahatma’s position was in no way was unique. Leaders across the Arab world and anti-imperialists beyond were appalled by Britain’s administration of Palestine, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised Jews a homeland in the British Mandate. As the late British author Arthur Koestler, a Jew himself, wrote about the Declaration: “One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”
Gandhi’s opinions, and his own anti-imperialism had a profound impact on Jawaharlal NehruIndia’s first Prime Minister, and was responsible for shaping the nascent country’s foreign policy for decades. “In many ways, Nehru inherited this perspective from Mahatma Gandhi,” former Indian diplomat Chinmaya Gharekhan told The Indian Express.
India voted against UN Resolution 181 which partitioned Palestine between Jews and Arabs. While it did recognise the state of Israel in 1950, official diplomatic relations were not established till 1992, under Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao.