The HyperTexts

Mohandas Gandhi on Palestine, Israel and the Conflict between Jews and Arabs

by Michael R. Burch, an editor of Holocaust and Nakba poetry

These are excerpts from an article written by Mohandas Gandhi on November 20, 1938 and published in Harijan on November 26, 1938. Please keep in mind that at the time this article was written, Hitler was in power in Germany and war was about to break out all around the world. Because I'm an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry who has worked closely with Jewish Holocaust survivors, poets and translators, I find myself agreeing with Gandhi. All my sympathies are with the Jewish people for what they suffered during the Holocaust, but I cannot excuse this terrible new injustice, the Nakba ("Catastrophe") because of terrible injustices of the past. Why should millions of Palestinians live in walled ghettos and refugee camps today, because of what German Nazis did to Jews more than half a century ago? My Cherokee ancestors walked the Trail of Tears. My Scottish ancestors were abused by Romans, Vikings and Englishmen. Does that give me the right to take my neighbors' land and water, by force? Of course not! As Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud pointed out, the suffering of Jews should make them more empathetic to the suffering of Palestinians.—MRB

Here's what Mohandas Gandhi had to say on the subject:

Several letters have been received by me asking me to declare my views about the Arab-Jew question in Palestine and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is not without hesitation that I venture to offer my views on this very difficult question.

My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions. Through these friends I came to learn much of their age-long persecution. 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. Apart from the friendships, therefore, there is the more common universal reason for my sympathy for the Jews.

But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?

Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates [of Great Britain over Palestine] have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely 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.

The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred. The Jews born in France are French in precisely the same sense that Christians born in France are French. ... And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it the wrong way. The Palestine [i.e., the "Promised Land"] of the Biblical conception is not geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. ... There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help of the British bayonet. As it is, they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them.

I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.

Let the Jews who claim to be the chosen race prove their title by choosing the way of non-violence for vindicating their position on earth. Every country is their home including Palestine, not by aggression but by loving service. A Jewish friend has sent me a book called The Jewish Contribution to Civilization by Cecil Roth. It gives a record of what the Jews have done to enrich the word's Literature, art, music, drama, science, medicine, agriculture, etc. Given the will, the Jews can refuse to be treated as the outcaste of the West, to be despised or patronized. They can command the attention and respect of the world by being man, the chosen creation of God, instead of being man who is fast sinking to the brute and forsaken by God. They can add to their many contributions the surpassing contribution of non-violent action.

The HyperTexts