Gandhi and the Middle East

BIOGRAPHIES, 10 Feb 2014

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Simone Panter-Brick, Gandhi and the Middle East, London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, 193 pp.

In the light of continuing tensions in the Middle East, it is useful to recall the efforts to have Mahatma Gandhi play a bridge-building role in the Jewish-Arab conflict of 1937 in Palestine. Mahatma Gandhi was a man of dialogue and compromise. A British-trained lawyer, he always knew the limits of the law and knew when not to push too far even in his satyagraha – non-violent campaigns.

On Gandhi’s return to India in 1915 from his years as a lawyer and civil rights advocate in South Africa (1906-1914) he tried to improve Hindu-Muslim relations as a necessary first step toward a united policy vis à vis the British.  His first effort was to become involved in an effort to preserve the Caliph after the break up of the Ottoman Empire.  The new, largely secular, Turkish government was glad to get rid of the institution of the Caliph (spelt Khilafat in India), but the movement for the preservation of the institution had taken hold among Muslims in India who had never been under the functioning of the Caliph.  The agitation in India, however, was a time to show Hindu support of the Indian Muslims. As Gandhi wrote “We, both Hindus and Muslims, have now an opportunity of a lifetime.  The Khilafat question will not recur for another 100 years.”

However, the Khilafat movement embraced a cause which was already lost, but the Khilafat movement reached out for the first time to the Muslim clergy in India — a group of people who had been largely absent from the political scene.  The mullahs brought into the movement a large number of people that saw issues in the crudest religious terms.  Once in politics, it was impossible to get them out.

Thus Gandhi began meetings with Muslim leaders, in particular Mohammed Ali Jinnah, later considered the father of Pakistan. Gandhi believed that the major political movement of India — the Indian National Congress — should be a movement for all Indians, especially Hindus and Muslims.  He feared that a separate Muslim organization would increase communal tensions and weaken the Indian position in its struggle with England.  Thus he worked to have Muslims in highly visible positions in the Congress leadership and avoided taking positions that would offend Muslims.  This policy of sensitivity to Muslim demands did not prevent the creation of the Muslim League under the leadership of Jinnah, but it presented difficulties of trying to be seen as even-handed between Jews and Arabs when a possibility of mediation arose.

The Zionist movement which had been working for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine encouraged the migration of Jews from Europe, especially after the First World War when Palestine, which had been a part of the Ottoman Empire, was placed under a League of Nations mandate with British rule.  Immigration was low during the 1920s when most European Jews were re-establishing their lives after the First World War.  However with the start of the 1929 Depression, immigration started to increase, some 9,500 people in 1931, to 30,000 in 1933, and 62,000 in 1935.

The Jewish Agency with the Jewish National Fund helped the new settlers to start farms and businesses.  By 1936, the Palestinian Arabs became aware of the trend.  They put aside their clanic disputes and created the Higher Arab Committee which demanded a stop to Jewish immigration, the prohibition of land purchase by Jews and speedy political independence before the Jews had a chance to become a majority.  When none of these demands were put into practice, in October of 1936, the Higher Arab Committee called for a strike which turned violent.  The loss of life was high for the period: 80 Jews, 140 Arabs, and 33 British.  Armed groups were forming, the Irgun among the Jews and different militias among the Arabs.  British control was slipping away, and attention in England focused on the economic depression and the growing power of dictators in Germany and Italy.  Colonial territories were of ever less interest.

Some people felt that perhaps Gandhi who symbolized a spiritual conscience might be able to be a bridge-builder in Palestine. The approach to Gandhi was made by the Zionist movement without consultation with the Arabs to see if Gandhi were a valid mediator for them.  Probably, the Zionist leaders were looking for a sign of support, a public endorsement of the Jewish case, rather than a mediator or bridge-builder. However, the Zionist leaders, with separate headquarters in London and Palestine, underestimated Gandhi’s need to keep Muslim support for his efforts in India.

The Jewish link to Gandhi was through Hermann Kallenbach, a German architect, who had emigrated to South Africa and became a close supporter of Gandhi’s work in South Africa.  It was Kallenbach who bought Tolstoy Farm which was Gandhi’s ashram in South Africa.  It was also Kallenbach, a man with organizational talent, who played a large role in organizing Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns, especially the 1913 illegal crossing from Natal to the Transval by over two thousand Indian ‘coolies’ as they were then known in South Africa. Both Gandhi and Kallenbach were sentenced to several months’ imprisonment and jailed.

Later during the First World War, as a German alien, Kallenbach was jailed for three years and grew closer to the Zionist movement though he continued living in South Africa and prospered as a leading architect and builder. Kallenbach presented Gandhi with information on the situation in Palestine and on the need for bridge-builders. In 1937, Kallenbach spent a month in the ashram of Gandhi, joined there by Nehru. Thus not only was Gandhi by now fully briefed on the Zionist cause, he also saw himself as a mediator.  It was a role he had already assumed in the politics of his own country: he had so informed The Times on the 14th of April 1937: ‘My function is that of a mediator between Congress and the Government.’ He was ready to act likewise in Palestine.

However, Gandhi had no organization to which to turn, and mediation cannot be carried out alone.  In 1937, the Indian leadership of Congress was busy preparing to exercise power at the provincial level having won the February 1937 elections for provincial assemblies under the Government of India Act of 1935.  The Act was short of total independence desired by Congress, but it gave full responsibility for government at the provincial level to elected provincial assemblies. Thus Gandhi had to turn to his non-Indian supporters.  He asked Lanza del Vasto who had been staying at the ashram and who planned to go to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage “You will give me a first hand account of the conflict between Jews and Muslims.  That conflict is breaking my heart.  You will tell me what you think.”  Unfortunately, Lanza del Vasto only arrived in Palestine at the end of 1938, by which time a Gandhian mediation effort was no longer possible.

Gandhi hoped to start a mediation process from India with Kallenbach as direct mediator.  Kallenbach was supposed to be assisted by the Anglican priest Charles Freer Andrews whose intended visit to Palestine was financially supported by Kallenbach.  Andrews and Kallenbach, who knew each other from having met in South Africa, were thus chosen to act as mediators.  Andrews was an ideal choice, neither Muslim nor Jew, extremely well connected and in possession of all the necessary diplomatic skills.  The only other person to whom Gandhi could turn for help was Mirabehn — Madeleine Slade — with her devotion to non-violence. Finally, none was able to act.

However, in all the planning efforts, there was no input from the Arab side. The Jewish Agency would speak for the Jews.  The Arab spokesmen had still to be named.  The participation of the extremists from the Higher Arab Committee, who had led the 1936 strike and who had the wind in their sails, was being left in abeyance.  It was left to non-violence to find a way around all the obstacles, the necessary preliminary to any final settlement.

Gandhi had hoped that he would be able to draw on Muslim India to have influence with the Palestinian Arabs. Andrews and Gandhi shared the same vision of the settlement talks: the problem was to be solved from India — and could best be solved from India, on account of its pro-Arab stance, its many million Muslims and its impeccable record in the defence of the Caliphate when Palestinian Muslims laid low.

However, by 1937, the rift between Congress and the Muslim League was too great for any common Indian influence on Palestine.  It is also not clear to what extent Palestinian Arabs identified themselves with Indian Muslims.  While Pan-Arab influences have been strong in the Middle East, there has been much less Pan-Islamic sentiment.

There are three lessons for mediators which can be drawn from this effort:

1)    There needs to be a team of people ready to undertake an effort.  Although Gandhi was an outstanding personality, he always had a wide range of Indian social and political issues on which he was working.  He had few back up people for this work.  Only the Europeans among his co-workers could work in a non-Indian setting.  People like Jawaharlal Nehru who played mediation roles post-Independence were taken with Indian issues in the late 1930s.

2)    There is a need to be able to act when a situation is ripe — months later can be too late, and opportunity rarely knocks twice.

3)    All parties must be involved early, their views taken into consideration.  The possible Middle East mediation effort neglected two key parties: the Arabs and the British.  Gandhi thought that the British had no legitimate claim to be a party to Jewish-Arab negotiations and that they should leave Palestine as they should leave India.  However, Britain was legally in Palestine as part of a League of Nations mandate — even if the division of the Ottoman holdings in the Middle East between France and England had been decided by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, prior to the creation of the League.  The British had no intent of leaving in 1937 and in fact, the Royal, Peel Commission proposed in July 1937 a partition plan dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state with a neutral corridor from the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem.  The British proposal, accepted by Zionist authorities and rejected by the Arabs, would have been the start of any real negotiations.  After 1937, the Second World War, its aftermath, the Independence of India and the creation of the state of Israel made mediation by Indians an impossibility.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Feb 2014.

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