Netanyahu in India and it wasn’t like you read

Prime Minister Netanyahu is in India so let me tell you about a great book that a colleague Professor Hussein Solomon who I greatly admire told me was amazing and reviewed. (PR Kumaraswamy: Squaring the Circle: Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish National Home)

After reading it, I agree that it changes all previous views so let me share but without prejudice to any commercial considerations or any attempts to turn this into advertising.

“What was Mahatma Gandhi’s understanding of, and attitude toward, the Jews, Jewish nationalism and the project to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine? Mainstream history books tell us that though sympathetic towards the Jews, Gandhi opposed the Zionist idea of establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine. This he found to be morally unacceptable. Indeed, one of the most widely quoted statements of Gandhi on Palestine emanating from 1938 was that, “…. Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French…”.

In this well-researched and erudite book, however, Kumaraswamy, takes on this conventional wisdom. He points out that Gandhi’s positions regarding the Jews, Jewish nationalism and Israel have been more complex than commonly understood. There were shifts and changes, subtle differences, dualities, and above all, inconsistencies in Gandhi’s position with regards to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. For instance, after his 1938 statement he also admitted that Jews have “a good case”, “a prior claim” to, and was prepared to admit “the natural desire of the Jews to find a home in Palestine”.

What explains these divergent positions of Gandhi on a Jewish homeland in Palestine? According to the author two reasons account for it. First, Gandhi lacked sufficient understanding of Judaism and Jewish history. Disregarding their nationalist consciousness since the eighteenth century, Gandhi looked at the Jews merely as a religious community and not as a national group. Second, the Jewish/Palestinian question was secondary to both Gandhi and the Indian Congress Party. Their primary objective was Hindu-Muslim unity in India as they agitated for an independent state. As such, the Gandhian/Congress position on a state for Jews in Palestine was seen through a domestic lens.

The rejection of a Jewish homeland in Palestine played well amongst Muslim Indians and if this was the price to pay for Hindu-Muslim unity, it was a price that both Gandhi and Congress were willing to pay. In addition, as Indian struggled to overthrow the yoke of British colonialism, they viewed Jews as collaborating with British imperialism in Palestine. Concomitantly, the Jewish cause for a homeland was viewed with antipathy. This antipathy on the part of Gandhi and Congress was to cast a long shadow over Indian foreign policy. Post-independence India was to consistently adopt a pro-Palestinian position in international affairs and formal diplomatic relations between India and Israel was only established in 1992.

Interesting as this is, the real genius of the book is exposed when the author turns to historiography. Why is it that scholars of this period of history are aware of Gandhi’s 1938 statement that Palestine belongs to the Arabs and not to his subsequent statements, alluded to above, which would suggest that he had changed his mind? Here is where the painstaking and meticulous scholarship underpinning this remarkable book becomes self-evident. Much of what historians know about Gandhi emanate from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, a 100-volume study published by the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India in 1958.

When writing this book, however, Kumaraswamy also made use of the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. In the process he noted many omissions in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi which was supposed to be comprehensive. These omissions included a meeting between Gandhi and Nahaum Sokolov, President of the World Zionist Organization, on 15 October 1931, as well as a meeting between Selig Brodetsky, a member of the Zionist Executive, and Gandhi in London. The Jewish Agency for Palestine sent Immanuel Olsvanger, a Sanskrit scholar, to India in September 1936 where he met with Gandhi and other Indian independence leaders. Moreover, there was correspondence in 1937 between Gandhi and Chaim Weizmann, the former President of the World Zionist Organization, who went on to become the first President of Israel. None of this appeared in the Collected Works.

These omissions were deliberate. One of Gandhi’s disciples of 27 years was Pyarelal. He was given the task of compiling the Collected Works by the India Government. Towards the end of his life, he however admitted to suppressing certain materials including Gandhi’s later views on Israel. Gandhi’s apparent change of stance on a Jewish homeland did not fit well with the political project of Congress and those materials consequently had to be excluded from the Collected Works. In bringing this omitted history to light this book shows a more nuanced perspective of Gandhi’s view on a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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