Monday, April 04, 2011

Was Mohandas Gandhi a Zionist? Not quite.

A Saint for 'Palestine'

A new book about Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) by Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, has set off stormy protests in India because it implies that the country's iconic founding father was bisexual.

In “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India,” Lelyveld recalls Gandhi's relationship with a well-to-do German-Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach (1871–1945), though makes no explicit assertion of a sexual angle. That claim was made by British historian Andrew Roberts in his cutting review for the Wall Street Journal. Roberts said Lelyveld's account provides enough material to conclude that Gandhi was "a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist."

The book will likely find readers in Israel not only because of the titillating possibility that Gandhi's homoerotic interest was a Jew, the suicidal counsel he proffered Jews facing Hitler and his hardhearted opposition to Jewish national self-determination, but also because Indian elites relied on his teachings to frame their country's foreign policy toward Israel. Gandhi's ideas greatly influenced the country's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nowadays, Gandhi's memory is being repeatedly invoked by Palestinian Arabs and their cultish international supporters to reinvigorate the 60 year-old Arab boycott of Israel.

His "legacy of peace" has also become a family franchise for two grandsons, Arun and Rajmohan Gandhi, who make appearances in Bil'in the site of ferocious weekly demonstrations by Palestinian Arabs and foreign radicals against Israel's life-saving security barrier. Anna Baltzer, winner of the "Rachel Corrie Prize" is one of many Jewish "activists" who has invoked Gandhi legacy in her "reportage."

Another is filmmaker Julian Schnabel who paid tribute to the Gandhi myth in an interview about his recent Israel-exploitation film Miral. In awarding the perfidious ex-Israeli academic Ilan Pappe their Honorary Guide Title, even a group devoted to belief in extraterrestrials cited Pappe's attachment to Gandhi.

In this way, the mahatma, or great soul, has also become a fuzzy icon for the history-challenged.

Palestinian Arabs have drawn parallels between Gandhi's imaginary support for black Africans and their own cause. In truth, during the 21 years he lived in Africa, Gandhi was not particularly sympathetic toward black liberation. Instead, the Hindu solicitor became an indispensable go-between for the Muslim Indian business elite and the authorities. A proponent of race purity, he was known to complain that "the Indian [was] being dragged down to the position of the raw Kaffir."

It was, incidentally, during this period that Gandhi left his wife to live with Kallenbach.

Later, back in India, this saint of the underdog went on his first hunger strike in 1932 to oppose granting low-caste "untouchables" political representation in the Indian parliament. Though media-savvy Palestinian Muslims have adopted Gandhi as their a hero, his inept handling of relations with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who became Pakistan's first leader, helped set the stage for the break-up of the Indian subcontinent into warring Hindu and Muslim states.

Like Africans, Jews have little reason to place Gandhi on a pedestal. "My sympathies," he wrote in late November 1938 after Kristallnacht, "are with the Jews." No doubt, in a peculiar sense, this was true. He valued Jews like Sonja Schlesin, his loyal secretary in South Africa and Henry Polak his soul mate and right hand man.

Such sympathy notwithstanding, in 1937 and again in 1939, Kallenbach visited Gandhi in India endeavoring to elicit his support for the Zionist enterprise to no avail. Gandhi wrote about it in a 1939 letter: "I happen to have a Jewish friend living with me. He has an intellectual belief in non-violence…I do not quarrel with him over his anger [against the Nazis]. He wants to be non-violent, but the sufferings of his fellow-Jews are too much for him to bear." Gandhi acknowledged that the Nazi persecution of the Jews had no parallel in history. Nevertheless, Gandhi's resolute counsel to Jews facing the Nazis was non-violent civil disobedience – and forgiveness.

In contrast, to his own followers he taught that "war may have to be resorted to as a necessary evil." He even blessed a provincial Hindu nawab who had given orders to shoot ten Muslims for every Hindu killed in his state.

Whatever their mutual affections, Kallenbach, a utopian Zionist who served on the Executive of the South African Zionist Federation, was unable to convert Gandhi to the cause. "The cry for a national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me," he confessed. Why couldn't the Jews think of Palestine as a kind of biblical metaphor and let that suffice. He dismissed international commitments for a Jewish homeland as illegitimate. If they must settle in Palestine, Gandhi told the Jews, they should do so only with Arab goodwill.

If worse comes to worse, the Jews should allow themselves to be "thrown into the Dead Sea." Any other course to preserve their survival would make them the guilty party. Even after the destruction of European Jewry and a litany of Arab atrocities in Palestine, Gandhi held firm: the Jews must practice non-violence.

No doubt Gandhi was a complicated historical figure yet this much is straightforward. He was not the liberal humanist many in the American civil rights movement imagined him to be. He was no friend of Africa; certainly no lover of Zion. In the stark judgment of historian Paul Johnson, his teachings didn't even have much relevance to India's problems. Upon further reflection, perhaps it's fitting that a fraudulent Palestinian "narrative" has appropriated the Gandhi phenomenon to its century long and comprehensive war against the Jewish return to Israel.

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