On Gandhi and the Jews

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]

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6 thoughts on “On Gandhi and the Jews”

  1. Yeah but practically the Warsaw Ghetto uprising gave the Nazis
    far more stomach cramps than any wilful submission might have.

  2. There is a thing about the Stock Markets. Based on some tip or just a Guess, you buy a stock. But then, people dont stop at that, they want to see information which would point out to the fact as to how good their decision is. So, they start searching, neglecting the negatives and trying to search only for the positives. If the stock really has more bad news than good, it would be normal for the stock to decline. Instead of accepting the mistake, the Investor tries to buy more while at the same time trumpetting the positive factors. This in itself becomes a vicious cycle in itself.

    What I am trying to say is that every human being has shades of Black and White. It would be prudent to accept a person as he is / was instead of trying to make everything look rosy.

  3. Although this interpretation is interesting, I still don’t think this is necessarily what Gandhi meant. But if he did, he should have made it clear the way Tripathi did. Simply to proclaim that the Jews should have committed mass suicide did not reflect favourably on him. After all, even avowed pacifists like Bertrand Russell changed their stances when Hitler came on the scene and urged the Jews to fight.

  4. Anurag

    What difference does it make if u give them ten additional reasons?
    Without doing anything wrong, they were still going to exterminate you, so you shouldnt fight
    back in fear of providing additional reasons?
    That sounds like a lot of bunkum.

  5. I think people are going a little overboard about interpreting Gandhi’s advise vis-a-vis the Jewish holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

    For all the greatness of Gandhigiri, it is no panacea – it has some obvious failings and the Holocaust only shows it all too well. The idea of a human being not losing his/her sense of moral superiority no matter what happens is a fantastic idea. But an impractical one. Thats exactly why there have been very very few people like Gandhi – MLK and Mandela are the two figures who come to mind readily, but even they cannot come close to claiming his mantle.

    Besides at the end of the day, the whole idea of Ahimsa depended heavily on your opponent seeing your moral superiority and the evil of his own actions. This can work with people whom we can reasonably expect to have some shade of conscience or morality. The Brits, the South Africans, the white establishment in the USA while being brutal were not at the same level as the Nazis. Non violent resistance against Hitler was futile – For Gods sakes, he wanted to exterminate the entire Jewish race and was in favor of gas chambers so that it could kill the maximum number of Jews in the most “efficient way”. Does any one in their sane mind that this evil person had any thing close to a “conscience” ? If he had something like that in the first place, would he have done the kind of things that he did and bring the level of agony that he wrought not just on the Jews but the entire civilized world ?

    Gandhigiri with the Nazis would have resulted in men and women losing their lives at the hands of barbarians with NO CHANCE of any moral awakening in them. These Nazi zealots had no conscience to beign with and nothing would change that – not even Gandhigiri. Thats the fact and it is better that we realize and learn from it. There is Evil that you have to stand up to and cannot reason with. GandhiGiri has its limitations and its better to honestly face these limitations rather than trying to put a positive spin on it.

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