Book Review – Gandhi And The Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests

Gandhi And The Middle East: Jews, Arabs and Imperial Interests
Simone Panter-Brick
I B Tauris 2008 pp193
IBSN 978 1 84511 584 5 HB
£47.50

This study deals with Gandhi’s involvement with the politics of the Middle East and in particular Palestine. There were two periods when Gandhi became involved in Middle Eastern politics. The first was following the Great War when the victorious nations wished to abolish the Caliphate, i.e. the leadership of the Muslim world which was in recent times held by the Ottoman Sultan. Gandhi took up the cause as it was one that Indian Muslims were very concerned about and it would help to maintain good Hindu/Muslim relations. However, it was a rather outdated cause and the Turks led by the secular leader Ataturk themselves eventually abolished the Caliphate and Gandhi’s involvement in the Middle East then ceased.

The second, which is the focus of this book, was around 1937. During WWI various promises were made to both Jews and Arabs about the post-war settlement. One of the most important was the statement by Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, concerning the establishment of a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. The leading Zionist, Chaim Weitzmann, hoped that immigration would lead to 4-5 million Jews settling there and therefore a Jewish state would become viable. In 1922 the British fixed immigration quotas and the numbers settling rose until the late 1920s when numbers dropped off with the world recession. A Jewish Agency was set up to operate as a non-official government which even developed a military wing.

In 1929 trouble began when there was rioting in Jerusalem as it looked as if the Jews would rebuild the Temple in place of the Dome of the Rock. In the 1930s immigration greatly increased so that by WWII Jews constituted about 30% of the population. In 1936 a Higher Arab Committee was established to include all Arab parties and it was chaired by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hadj Amin. They opposed the Jewish settlement and a violent revolt erupted in April 1936 which lasted about 6 months. In response the Jews expanded their defence force, the Haganah, and developed a more extreme off-shoot, the Irgun.

In 1936 Gandhi began to involve himself again. Hermann Kallenbach had been Gandhi’s closest colleague in South Africa and he was Jewish, and he knew the representative of the Jewish Agency, Immanuel Olsvanger, who was also from South Africa. Dr Olsvanger went to see Gandhi in October 1936 and was supposed to be accompanied by Kallenbach, who was pro-Zionist, but he could not manage. Olsvanger was not favourably impressed by Gandhi’s views and considered him to be naive. Kallenbach came to London in April 1937 to meet Olsvanger and also Weizmann and Maurice Shertok, head of the Political Department, then went on to Palestine before going on to see Gandhi. Gandhi promised Kallenbach he would study Zionist literature which he would be sent.

Gandhi’s position was that Palestine was Arab territory and if Jews settled there they should not expect the protection of a colonial power (Britain). But Jews and Christians who were already there should have equal rights to the Arabs. The dependence of Jewish settlers on the colonial power became clear when 30,000 troops were sent during the 1936-39 rebellion. Gandhi’s position was even more strongly held by Nehru who saw the Arab struggle and the Indian anti-colonial struggle as essentially the same.

In July 1937 Kallenbach left India taking a proposal from Gandhi to Shertok in Jerusalem and by letter to Weizmann in London. The letter by Kallenbach to Weizmann offered mediation between Jews and Arabs by Nehru, Azad (President of Congress) and Gandhi. In July also the British Government’s Peel Report was published recommending partition, something which the Arabs did not like, and the Jews were disappointed about too because of the small size of territory proposed. Nevertheless the Zionists accepted it, as did the League of Nations, but the Arabs totally rejected it.

In September the British Commissioner of Galilee was assassinated and for 18 months there was virtual civil war. 3,ooo Jews were recruited to the police, the Irgun resorted to terrorism against Arab and British, 200 Arab leaders were arrested. In the 26 November, 1938 edition of Harijan Gandhi published an article called ‘The Jews’. In it he wrote: “My sympathies are all with the Jews” calling them the untouchables of Christianity. However, he continued: “The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me.” He wrote that “The Palestine of the Biblical concept is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts”. However if they do feel that they should settle in the geographical Palestine it should only be done with the approval of the Arabs there and done nonviolently and without the support of British arms. This met with much criticism and it was clear that Gandhi’s advice would be ignored. Gandhi’s attempts to influence the politics of the Middle East in the 1930s were a complete failure. However the history of Palestine has been a sorry one indeed, with intermittent war for 80 years, but one that could have been predicted given the inflexibilty of the protagonists.

Simone Panter-Brick’s book tells us about a relatively obscure part of Gandhi’s life but the reader will learn much about the Middle East and she does not neglect contemporaneous events in India. It is a complex story she tells which helps us to understand the events in Israel/Palestine today and the problem that the Jews, the Arabs and the world community still have to solve.

George Paxton

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Categories: Middle East, Reviews & Arts

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