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On January 7, 2008, Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the founder/director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, wrote two paragraphs on the Washington Post blog, On Faith, titled “Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence.” Within three weeks, Gandhi was forced to resign as Director after a storm of criticism that he was anti-Semitic by pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee, and by pressure from the President of the University of Rochester, Joel Seligman. Why did these two paragraphs cause the resignation of Gandhi, a respected and renowned public figure who has worked for years to promote non-violence and inter-faith understanding, study racism and prejudice, and who grew up with the daily abuses of the apartheid regime in South Africa?
The title of Gandhi’s post, in itself, seems like a reasonable statement to make, one which would be true of any group. No group’s identity can depend on violence. In the article, which was quickly painted as “shameful” by Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Gandhi recognized the horror of the Holocaust but observed that legitimate sympathy for this past tragedy cannot mean blindness or justification for violence inflicted on another group in the present. This too, seems like a logical point, and one that has been made innumerable times by Jewish Americans and Israelis alike, including the children of Holocaust survivors, such as Dr. Norman Finkelstein. However, Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, also paid the price for his critical scholarship and was recently denied tenure for challenging pro-Israel propaganda and campaigns headed by Foxman and the ADL. Furthermore, many have also noted that the Palestinians who were dispossessed and exiled with the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, after World War II, were paying the price for a European tragedy that was not of their own making, what Gandhi called “a German burden.”
In the article, Gandhi advised those concerned about Jewish identity and the future of Israel to make genuine efforts toward peace and non-violence, rather than acquiring “weapons and bombs.” Israel is the only state with nuclear weapons in the Middle East, a little known fact that causes no hysteria about WMDs in the US, let alone sanctions or invasions. Gandhi noted that when he visited Israel in 2004, he observed their “superior weapons and armaments” that make it the most powerful and advanced military power in the region. His advice was simply to point out that it would be better for Israel to “share its technological advancement” with its poorer neighbors and build friendships, rather than live in a heavily armed fortress surrounded by a wall that has imprisoned Palestinians and expropriated their land. On the same trip to Israel-Palestine, Gandhi had urged Palestinians to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. Another, little known fact is that Palestinians do countless acts of non-violent resistance, and have for a long time, but they face Israeli tanks, U.S.-supplied F-16s and Apache helicopters. Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer that drove over her while she was trying to protect a Palestinian house from being destroyed.
Gandhi actually posted an apology for what he called his “poorly worded” comments and wrote:
I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people. Indeed, many are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes, by Israel and many other governments. I do believe that when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends. But as I have noted in previous writings, the suffering of the Jewish people, particularly in the Holocaust, was historic in its proportions. While we must strive for a future of peace that rejects violence, it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it. Having learned from it, we can then find the path to peace and rejection of violence through forgiveness.
Yet President Seligman described the apology as “inadequate,” rather than supporting Gandhi’s freedom of speech. It was not enough for University of Rochester that he had been pressured to apologize. Gandhi’s resignation makes it clear that he was the latest casualty of the powerful and highly organized pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. that immediately deems any and all criticism of Israel’s policies as anti-Semitic. The irony is that in his post, Gandhi was actually noting the very phenomenon of a community overplaying its historic experience that was enacted in the vitriolic response of powerful and well-funded organizations created to silence and intimidate critics of Israel. Foxman is one of the staunchest apologists for Israel’s inhuman treatment of the Palestinians, about whom a Wall Street Journal editor once quipped: “he has become drunk with power…knowing he can label anyone who challenges him an anti-Semitic bigot.” One only needs to look at the hundreds of responses to Gandhi’s posting on the blog to realize that there were, in fact, countless letters supporting Gandhi and decrying the bullying tactics and censorship of the Israel lobby. Stephen Walt (Harvard) and John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), authors of the much-publicized book, The Israel Lobby, know a thing or two about this repression. So does Jimmy Carter who was slammed as an anti-Semite after he published Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid.
It is shameful that groups such as the Hindu American Foundation who claim to promote “tolerance and understanding” would support such blatant censorship of Gandhi’s grandson. Perhaps they choose to ignore Mahatma Gandhi’s statement in 1946 that Jewish settlers “have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism … Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine?” The HAF has chosen instead to ally itself with groups such as the ADL and to participate in the dishonest and cowardly silencing of any one who dares to criticize the racism and violence directed against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Hindu, Indian, South Asian groups that profess to support dialogue and mutual respect should respect the rights of individuals to freely express their views without fear of losing their jobs and being publicly defamed. Such actions are insulting to the memory of courageous leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi who risked their lives for national self-determination and an end to colonialism and racism. Like his grandfather, Arun Gandhi has paid a price for the larger principle of speaking out in support of justice and freedom.