A deeper understanding of ahimsa at the time of genocide
Over at Prospect magazine, Salil Tripathi has a brilliant explanation of Mahatma Gandhi’s views on the Jews and the Third Reich.
This position has been characterised as passivity bordering on cowardice. But it is subtler than that. Gandhi expressed great sympathy for the historical persecution of the Jews. He called antisemitism “a remnant of barbarism.” He supported German Jews’ right to be treated as equal citizens, and admired their centuries of refusal to turn violent. He wanted the Jews to assert themselves wherever they happened to be, as citizens of that country first (which is why he argued that the Jews should not attempt to form a homeland in historic Palestine).
Jews must insist upon non-discrimination and equality wherever they lived, he said: they should fight the Nazis by insisting on practising their faith freely, as equal citizens: “If I were a Jew and were born in Germany,” he said, “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.” A Jewish cry for a national home, Gandhi argued, would in fact provide justification to the Nazis to expel them.
What about Jews willingly submitting to their fate in concentration camps? Was Gandhi suggesting a Karmic, fatalistic response to inevitability? Perhaps. But there is another way of looking at that call. Gandhi wanted the victims to remain courageous, and to adopt positive non-violence—the strength not to use force—in dealing with the Nazis. “If the Jews can summon to their aid the soul power that comes only from non-violence,” he said, “Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he has never yet experienced in any large measure in his dealings with men.”
To the suicides, then. Committing suicide was forbidden in concentration camps, because the inmates were to be humiliated and objectified; they were supposed to possess no free will and no individuality. By suggesting they choose to end their lives on their own terms, it seems, Gandhi was calling upon the inmates to deny the Nazis a sense of superiority over their victims. This was not fatalism, but an assertion of will so strong that it could not be tamed. Even as the flesh was destroyed, the individual will retained its moral superiority. [Prospect]