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India, Israel and the Jewish People

The pre-independence years: World Jewry’s outreach and failed attempts to obtain Indian support for Zionism

From the early 20th century on a small number of Jewish leaders and intellectuals established contacts with India’s most prominent thinkers and leaders and also with the Jewish community there. Idealism played an important role in Jewish outreach, especially to Mahatma Gandhi and the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Many Jews were drawn to these two and others, their struggle for freedom, and their philosophy of non-violence. But pragmatic considerations were also a reason for Jewish outreach. Some Jews, particularly the Zionists, assumed that India’s support could one day become crucial for Jewish political aspirations in Palestine. At that time, few Indians thought much of their country’s prospective future global power role, but, evidently, some Jewish leaders did.

First connections of Zionist leaders with India

Zionist outreach initially took the form of contacts established with India’s Jewish community, not with India’s nationalist leaders.

In addition to Paul Tolkowssky’s just mentioned letter, in 1920 a Zionist emissary, Israel Cohen, went to Asia for the first time. He visited Asian cities with substantial Jewish communities, including Kolkatta (Calcutta) and Mumbay (Bombay). The primary purpose of his visit was to raise funds and forge links with local Zionist circles. Although no effort was made to reach out to India’s leaders, Cohen’s trip marked a turning point because it put India and other Asian countries on the “Zionist map.”

It was only in 1930 that another Zionist envoy, Gershon Agron, attempted for the first time to contact Indians outside the Jewish community. Agron arrived in Mumbay just a few days before the All-India Conference on Palestine Affairs and seized the opportunity to meet several Indian Muslim leaders. Although he came to the conclusion that a large majority of Indian Muslims was either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the events unfolding in Palestine, he warned that the Palestine question could still be exploited by a minority as a powerful rallying point for Indian Muslims. Agron’s visit marked a second important turning point in the Zionist outreach to India, but he made no effort to engage with the Hindu leaders of the Congress Party, Gandhi and Nehru. Unfortunately for the Zionist cause, the radical anti-Jewish Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and later friend and supporter of Hitler, had understood the importance of India even before the Zionists did and acted quickly to preempt them. As soon as he was appointed by the British (1921), he sent three representatives to India to collect funds for the al-Aqsa mosque and seek Muslim contacts. During his hajj pilgrimages to Mecca in 1924 and 1926, he established close personal links with two of India’s most important Muslim leaders and invited them to Jerusalem. P.R. Kumaraswamy writes that early Zionist efforts towards India were more extensive and far-reaching than generally believed, but, in the end, the parts of the world where most Jews lived were more important for Zionism. “India was not paramount. This indifference came up against a more powerful force that worked against the Zionist interests: India’s Muslim population and its involvement in the Palestinian question.”7

Initial Zionist outreach to Gandhi: the role of Gandhi’s South African Jewish friends

In October 2015, India’s President Pranap Mukherjee visited Jordan one day before his first state visit to Israel when he extended India’s friendship to the Jewish state. In Amman, he quoted verbatim what Gandhi had written in 1938, namely that Palestine belonged to the Arabs like England belonged to the English, France to the French etc.8 Later, in Israel, he recalled Narendra Modi’s first visit to Israel years before he became India’s prime minister. He revealed that Modi was touched when he discovered a photo of Gandhi in the bedroom of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, in Sde Boker, the Negev kibbutz where Ben-Gurion spent the last years of his life.

Gandhi, India’s founding father, remains deeply respected in India even if his country has not taken the road he had wanted. His words are still remembered. Israel’s enemies, in and outside India, routinely deploy some of Gandhi’s statements to justify their hostility to Zionism and Israel, often quoting him out of context and without explaining his motives. This is why it is still important to study and understand his position on the Palestinian issue. Quite a few Western Jews admired Gandhi and sought his friendship and advice. It was not Palestine that interested most of them. Gandhi knew the spiritual attraction that India and his own beliefs exerted on some Western Jews. While he was deeply involved with one, Hermann Kallenbach, he kept others at bay. When a Jewish woman from England pressured him to convert her to Hinduism, he scolded her gently and told her with deep psychological insight: “You do not need to be a Hindu to be a true Jewess. If Judaism does not satisfy you, no other faith will give you satisfaction for any length of time. I would advise you to remain a Jewess and appropriate the good of the other faiths.”9

Early on, Gandhi expressed his strong opposition to Jewish political aspirations in Palestine. In his first comments on the issue in 1921, he explicitly denounced the Balfour Declaration, explaining that “Palestine must be under Mussulman control,” and that giving it to the Jews would constitute “a breach of implied faith with Indian Mussulmans in particular and the whole of India in general.”10 In another statement on Palestine written in Young India, he said, “[t]he [Indian] Muslim soldiers did not shed their blood in the late War for the purpose of surrendering Palestine out of Muslim control.”11 Few remember today what Gandhi knew in 1921. There is a British Commonwealth War Cemetery in Jerusalem’s Talpiot district where Muslim soldiers from British India are buried in a mass grave. They fought with the British army in Palestine against the Ottoman Turks and fell in battle in 1917. An inscription in Urdu commemorates their sacrifice. Based partly on his memory of this and similar sacrifices, Gandhi was the first non-Muslim leader to dispute Jewish claims on the basis of Muslim sovereignty over Palestine. Gandhi’s motives were clear from the beginning and they did not change, at least until after the Second World War (more on this later in the chapter). Gandhi’s most fervent wish was to keep India whole, in its century-old borders, and to prevent the country’s partition into a Hindu and Muslim state. This required that the Muslims felt at home in India, and this meant, in turn, that India had to defend the causes nearest their hearts. Unfortunately for Zionism, Palestine was high on their list of grievances.

Although Gandhi strongly opposed Zionist aspirations in Palestine, he was no stranger to Jews and to their long history of persecution and discrimination. While in South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he became closely acquainted with several Jews, including, first and foremost, Hermann Kallenbach, and also Henry Polak. Arguably, Hermann Kallenbach was the historically most important Jew attracted by Indian spirituality. Through his close friendship and work with Mahatma Gandhi, Kallenbach had an indirect influence on India’s history no other single Jew could match.12 Kallenbach, a Lithuanian Jew who immigrated in 1896 to South Africa, had a successful career as architect and businessman. His encounter with Mahatma Gandhi changed his life. He turned from a hedonist to an ascetic and joined Gandhi’s Satyagraha (nonviolent) struggle against the racism and discrimination suffered by South Africa’s Indian community. He played a leading role in this struggle and put his fortune and considerable organizational talent at Gandhi’s disposal. For many years the two lived together, bound by an enduring friendship, “soulmates” as Kallenbach’s biographer and Gandhi’s researcher Shimon Lev calls them. Gandhi showed his immense gratitude and deep affection for Kallenbach not only in the many letters that have been preserved, but also in public statements.

When, in the early 1930s, Zionist leaders sought to establish direct contact with Mahatma Gandhi, his South African Jewish friends provided help. Through their introduction, Gandhi met with two Zionist leaders in London during his visit to a round table conference on India organized by the British government. It was the first formal contact between Gandhi and the Zionist leadership. The objectives of the meeting were limited, aimed at convincing Gandhi to help keep the Palestine issue out of Indian politics, rather than shaping Gandhi’s view on the matter.

Only in 1936, in reaction to major Arab riots against the Jews of Palestine, did the Zionist leadership step up its efforts to reach out to Gandhi and secure his endorsement of Jewish political aspirations in Palestine. Eliahu Elath (Epstein), a senior Jewish Agency official, stressed in a secret memorandum that antagonism to Zionism had now spread in India largely beyond Muslim circles: “We face great danger from the same ignorance and distortion regarding Zionism and its activities in Israel striking roots in the circles of the national intelligentsia and the Indian Workers’ Movement…. The great political future awaiting India in the East … necessitates our comprehensive action in order to begin wide propaganda immediately and strengthen the connections between Jewish Israel and India.”13

Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department wrote to Kallenbach: “The fact remains that by virtue of your signal service to the Indian cause in South Africa and your close personal connection with the greatest of living Hindus – a connection which I know has its ramifications – you are in a unique position to help Zionism in a field where the resources of the Jewish people are so meager as to be practically non-existent …. It is clear that our political future as a nation returning to its home in Asia must ultimately depend in a large measure on the amount of goodwill and solidarity which we shall succeed in evoking on the part of the great Asiatic civilizations.”14 Kallenbach agreed to help and recommended the Jewish and Zionist Sanskrit scholar Immanuel Olsvanger to Gandhi. Olsvanger went to India where he had a brief discussion with Gandhi and met with Nehru several times. These meetings were politically disappointing but they allowed Olsvanger to raise money for the Zionist cause and to forge cordial links with the poet and politician Sarojini Naidu, and with the remarkable Bengali poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore, the two most prominent of the few committed friends of Judaism and Zionism in India.

Kallenbach visited India twice in the following years, in 1937 and 1939, and spent a lot of time with the Mahatma, whom he had not seen for over twenty years. He devoted much energy to convincing Gandhi to support Zionist goals in Palestine, with little success. Even though it remained essentially a private declaration, the final statement on Zionism he obtained from Gandhi was very timorous and clearly a disappointment to the Zionist leadership. Gandhi asserted “The Jews should disclaim any intention of realising their aspiration under the protection of arms and should rely wholly on the goodwill of Arabs.”15 Gandhi also entrusted Kallenbach with an offer to the Jewish Agency to help mediate the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, together with Jawaharlal Nehru and Congress party President Abul Kalam Azad, but nothing came of this proposal.16

Until recently, few Jews and even fewer Indians were aware of Kallenbach’s importance in Gandhi’s life and struggle. The literature on Gandhi mentions him but underestimates his impact. Kallenbach’s support was critical for the success of Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa, which, in turn, was the model Gandhi later applied in his passive resistance movement in India. Through this movement Gandhi unified India and gained its independence. Besides, there is little doubt that Gandhi learned a lot about the history and traditions of the Jewish people and Judaism through his companionship with Kallenbach (as well as other South African Jewish friends). But the latter exerted little initial influence on the Mahatma’s view on Zionism. Maybe Gandhi did not see the link between the Jews’ history of humiliation and persecution and their quest for political sovereignty, in addition to his concern for India’s Muslims. He considered Judaism as a religion only, not as a nation. He expressed in the most explicit fashion his hostility to Zionism in an article written for the Harijan newspaper in late 1938.17

Gandhi’s 1938 Harijan article and reactions of Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Hayim Greenberg

Apart from an interview given in 1931 to the London Jewish Chronicle where he restated his traditional position on the Palestine question – his “great sympathy” for Jews but hostility toward political Zionism, Gandhi was reluctant to discuss the Palestine issue.18 For good reason: his sympathy with Jewish suffering and his obligation not to hurt Muslim sensitivities in India could not be reconciled. At the pressing request of Jewish friends he finally accepted to break his silence in the November 26, 1938 issue of Harijan. Although Gandhi did not argue this time that Muslim sovereignty was to prevail over Palestine, and while continuing to express deep sympathy for the Jews and empathy for their suffering, he also continued to reject Zionist claims on Palestine: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” He was adamant that Jews had to settle in Palestine “only by the goodwill of the Arabs” and through “the way of non-violence.” Gandhi and the Indian national movement’s double standard emerged now more starkly than ever before: Arabs were forgiven for using force against Jews, but Jews were not allowed to use force. Gandhi’s 1938 Harijan article – triggered, let it be said again, by relentless Jewish pressure – raised a storm of criticism and led to widespread disappointment in the Jewish world. Several of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals of the time wrote to Gandhi in response. Letters by Martin Buber, arguably the most famous German Jewish intellectual who had fled to Palestine in 1938, and by Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were published in 1939 and widely read in the Jewish world.19 Gandhi however never received and read these two letters.20 Hayim Greenberg, an American Jewish and Zionist leader, also responded to the Harijan article in an open letter to Gandhi published in his journal The Jewish Frontier.21 All three acted spontaneously and not on behalf of any Zionist organization.

Buber, Magnes, and Greenberg were known pacifists and fervent advocates of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. They expressed outright criticism of Gandhi’s assertion that Palestine belonged to the Arabs. Buber stressed the uniqueness of the Jewish bond with the Land of Israel, a bond both religious and historical. He expressed surprise that Gandhi seemed to attach more value to conquest by force – Muslim force – as a right to land ownership, than to “settlement such as the Jewish one – whose methods [were] far removed from those of conquest.” Magnes and Buber concurred with Gandhi that Jews had to settle in Palestine “with the goodwill of the Arabs,” rather than through the use of force and “under the shadow of the British gun.” Still, both men blamed Gandhi’s double standard as to the use of violence by Jews and Arabs in Palestine. “Will you not speak to the Arabs in terms of Satyagraha [non-violent resistance]? That would also have a profound influence upon the Jews,” pled Magnes. “[Y]ou cast a lenient eye on those who carry murder into our ranks every day without even noticing who is hit,” accused Buber. Moreover, all three Jewish intellectuals tried to convince Gandhi that Jewish settlement in Palestine was not detrimental to the interests of the local Arab population, quite the contrary. “[O]ur movement has in no way injured the Arab people, that, on the contrary, the mass of the Arab population has profited socially, economically and culturally from Jewish immigration … the Arab standard of living has risen significantly due to the peaceful, progressive methods of Jewish reconstruction,” said Greenberg. However, in emphasizing to Gandhi the beneficial Jewish contribution to the Arab standard of living, all three missed the point completely. They were Westerners and did not appreciate that Gandhi’s personal life and his philosophy were ascetic. He despised the achievements of Western materialism and technology. Gandhi had scolded his friend Kallenbach for buying a car. He told him that the car was an “invention of the devil” and forced him to sell it.22 Gandhi understood that the conflict in Palestine went deeper than material gain.

In his open letter to Gandhi, Hayim Greenberg wrote that Gandhi’s view of the Palestine issue was far from being guided only by moral and ethical considerations. He claimed that it was in fact deeply influenced by the propaganda directed against Jews and Zionists “among fanatic [Indian] pan-Islamists” and by his utmost concern for maintaining “a united front with the Mohammedans.” And although he judged this concern “understandable and praiseworthy,” he could not but urge Gandhi to break his silence and raise his voice against this “false propaganda” widespread amid Indian Muslim leadership and communities. In fact, it was not the first time that Greenberg called upon Gandhi in these terms. In an earlier open letter published in 1937 in The Jewish Frontier, he had already urged the Mahatma to “end the venomous anti-Jewish propaganda amid the millions of Mohammedans in India.”23 Many of the emotions, events and arguments of the 1930s survived in India, in Indian public opinion, and Indian policies through the 20th century.

A Jewish passion for Rabindranath Tagore24

Apart from Gandhi, no Indian of the 20th century attracted as much Jewish interest and passion as Rabindranath Tagore. This Bengali patriot was India’s most famous 20th century writer and poet, and the first Asian to, in 1913, receive a Nobel Prize. Tagore was like Gandhi, a symbol of India’s awakening and freedom struggle. Few remember today how passionate some Jews were about Tagore. They were among the very first to admire and translate him. When Tagore visited London in 1912 and 1913, he was hosted by a Jewish admirer, the artist William Rothenstein. Rothenstein gave Tagore’s poetry collection Gitanjali to William B. Yeats, and it is for Yeats’ English translation that Tagore received the Nobel Prize. In Russia, Tagore’s translators were Jews. Apparently, the poet struck a particular chord with Russia’s Jewish intellectuals. And last but not least, David Frishmann, who visited Ottoman Palestine in 1911 and 1912, began in 1915 to translate Tagore into Hebrew. The first Hebrew version of the Gitanjali was published in 1917 – this was one of the first translations of the poet – maybe the first – into any non-Western and non-Indian language. Tagore, in turn, expressed his sympathy for Judaism and the Jewish people openly. He maintained life-long or occasional friendships with famous and less famous Jews: Einstein, Martin Buber, the Zionist emissary Immanuel Olsvanger, French Jewish Sanskrit scholars, a Yiddish poet, and a Hebrew kindergarten teacher from Jerusalem. Tagore supported the Zionist aspirations – a lonely and courageous voice among the most prominent Indians in his time. He emphasized that the agricultural achievements of the Jewish pioneers could help India. He knew of the opposition of the Palestinian Arabs and invited the Jews to accommodate Arab rights and concerns. “What we poets have dreamt, the Jews can create in Palestine if they free themselves of the Western concept of nationalism.”25 His views at that time were virtually identical to those of Albert Einstein before the Holocaust. The two corresponded and met a few times.26 Tagore’s sympathy for Zionism remained isolated and had no visible effect on India in his time.

The Einstein-Nehru correspondence27

As British India was about to become independent, partitioned into two separate countries, the United Nations started to look into the possibility of partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Zionist leaders sought to secure support for a Jewish state from Jawaharlal Nehru, who would soon become India’s first prime minister. Albert Einstein, who had escaped Nazi Germany for the United States, played a singular role in these efforts. Before the war, Einstein was closer to the cultural stream of Zionism heralded by Ahad Ha’am than to Herzl’s political Zionism. Then, he would have preferred a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs living together and was not comfortable with the idea of a “Jewish state with borders, an army and a measure of temporal power.”28 The war and the annihilation of most of Europe’s Jews by the continent’s most advanced nation changed his mind. He never forgave the Germans and refused to ever set foot on German soil again. For him, as for others, the moral right of the surviving Jews to create a state of their own in their old homeland, where for the first time since centuries they could defend themselves, superseded any other right. “In the august scale of justice, which weighs need against need, there is no doubt as to whose is more heavy.”29 Further, in 1947, the argument that Palestinian Arabs should not have to pay for the crimes of the Nazis had little weight. The foremost Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had spent the war years as Hitler’s guest in Berlin where he was aware of, and apparently encouraged, the Nazi’s murderous actions. He was still alive and well, and his alliance with Hitler was widely known in 1947-48. Einstein’s extraordinary personality and eminent stature as the world’s greatest scientist made him an ideal choice to approach Nehru. It was known that the latter greatly admired Einstein.

Einstein’s letter to Nehru, sent in June 1947, primarily focused on moral and historical arguments. Einstein reminded Nehru of the history of persecution and discrimination suffered for centuries by the Jews and drew a parallel with the situation of the untouchables in India. He called upon him, as a “consistent champion of the forces of political and economic enlightenment,” to endorse the aspirations of the Jewish people in Palestine and pled for his sense of “justice and equity.”30 “Long before the emergence of Hitler I made the cause of Zionism mine because through it I saw a means of correcting a flagrant wrong,” he wrote, and added: “Through the return to the land to which they were bound by close historic ties … Jews sought to abolish their pariah status among peoples.”31 Like Martin Buber, and others before him, he also mentioned the positive effect of Jewish settlement in Palestine on the life of its Arab inhabitants. At the end of his letter, Einstein appealed to Nehru to brush aside “the rivalries of power politics and the egotism of petty nationalist appetites,”32 implying that he was well aware of the domestic constraints weighing on the Indian nationalist leader’s policy. In fact, Nehru’s letter of reply a few weeks later underlined right at the beginning the primacy of India’s national interests over all moral considerations. Nehru admitted that he was “unfortunately” restricted to a policy that was essentially “selfish.” “Each country thinks of its own interest first,” he recognized. If an international policy (such as the proposal to partition Palestine) fits in with national interests, then a nation will use “brave language about international betterment.”33 But, he continued, with disarming candor, if this “seems to run counter to national interests or selfishness, then a host of reasons are found not to follow that international policy.” Nehru admitted also that the Jews “have done a wonderful piece of work in Palestine.”34 While he did not clarify explicitly what national interests weighed on his attitude toward the Palestine issue, it is obvious that Nehru had the ongoing troubles in India with its large Muslim minority, which was hostile to Zionism, on his mind. Muslim hostility would require India to garner as much global support as possible, including from Muslim and Arab countries. In any event, Nehru’s letter is a rare document in the history of 20th century public diplomacy related to the Middle East. Its honesty and absence of hypocrisy sets it apart from the moralizing that bedevils other discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and covers up not always admitted interests and motives.

Was Gandhi beginning to change his mind?

The Jewish initiatives to reach out to India in the pre-independence years failed to change Gandhi’s and Nehru’s public opposition to Jewish nationalist aspirations in Palestine. It was too little, too late, particularly in comparison to the solid ties of friendship that had been forged long before between the Indian and Arab nationalist movements on the basis of shared hostility to Western, especially British, colonialism.

To an extent, the realization of the full extent and horrors of the Holocaust after World War II may have led Gandhi to soften his position on Zionism. A reference to the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis, “the greatest crime of our time,”35 appears in a biography written by American Jewish journalist Louis Fischer.36 Also, Fisher reported that Gandhi met in the first half of 1946 with Anglo-Jewish Member of Parliament Sydney Silverman and President of the World Jewish Congress Honick, and apparently told them that the Jews too had a good claim to Palestine. Fisher sought confirmation from Gandhi himself in June 1946. He reported Gandhi telling him: “The Jews have a good case. I told Sidney Silverman, the British M.P., that the Jews have a good case. If the Arabs have a claim to Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim because they were there first.”37 In spite of a lack of published corroborating evidence from Silverman himself, Gandhi researchers such as Panter-Brick,38 Kumaraswamy,39 and Shimon Lev,40 regard Fisher’s report as authentic. This does not mean that Gandhi agreed now wholeheartedly to the creation of a Jewish state against Arab opposition. But it does seem to contradict Gandhi’s pre-war statement that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs like England belongs to the English etc.” Why then were Gandhi’s words as reported by Fischer on such a sensitive and controversial issue not better known? First, Gandhi did not wish his conversation with Silverman to be public. Kumaraswamy also explains that the Congress Party suppressed references to Gandhi’s change of views because they could have “eroded” the main moral justification of the Party’s hostility to Israel. In turn, the Zionists, engaged in the beginning life-and-death struggle for a Jewish state, paid no longer any attention to Gandhi. Their mind was focused on the United States and the United Kingdom.

In any event, whatever Gandhi thought, neither he nor the Zionists could overcome the weight of the Muslim constraint. For the first time, during his meeting with Silverman, Gandhi hinted very explicitly at this “real-political” basis of his posture vis-à-vis Zionism: “Unless you can gain the ear of the Indian Mussalmans and their active support, I am afraid there is nothing that can be done in India.” Gandhi further suggested that they “try to gain the sympathy” of two prominent Indian Muslim leaders, Congress President Maulana Azad and the leader of the All-India Muslim League Mohammed Ali Jinnah (who was to become Pakistan’s first governor-general in 1947 after partition). The significance of the Muslim political constraint on Gandhi’s public attitude toward Zionism is particularly apparent in the fact that he did not show hostility to Zionism privately. Gandhi’s private correspondence with Kallenbach attests to this gap between his public antagonism to Zionism and his personal views.41 When Kallenbach wrote his last will and testament, he wanted to bequeath all his fortune to India. But Gandhi refused. He asked his friend to use his money to save his own people, the Jews of Palestine, soon to be Israel.42

The partition of India on August 15, 1947 left no doubt that Gandhi’s life-long struggle for a unified India had failed. Might the end of his dream have led him to reconsider his opposition to a partition of Palestine? We shall never know. The time left to him until his assassination in January 1948 was too short, and his most urgent concern during the last few months of his life was how to stop the widespread bloodshed that engulfed the country after partition.