Professor Kumaraswamy is an old friend from the days when I was a Visiting Professor in the JNU and his request to do the ritual today of unveiling his latest contribution to academic literature could not be side-stepped. My own interest in West Asian studies, somewhat faded, was an added incentive.


The purpose of undertaking this study is spelt out by the author on the first page: Is it possible to square Gandhi’s consistent opposition to Jewish nationalism in Palestine with India’s newly found bonhomie with Israel?


Some in this audience will know that Prof. Kumaraswamy had published in 2010 a diligently researched volume on India’s Israel Policy. The second chapter of that book was on ‘Mahatma Gandhi and the Jewish National Home.’ In a sense, therefore, the book before us is perhaps an amplification of the line of reasoning in the earlier study.


I am not a Gandhian scholar and cannot pretend to sit in judgment on the author’s observation about inconsistency in Gandhi ji’s views on this subject. I am, nevertheless, impressed by the vast canvass on which the author paints and by his effort to touch upon, perhaps conflate, several themes:


  • Judaism as a faith and the Jews as a community of the Jewish faith in different parts of the world at different times in human history.


  • The persecution over centuries of Jews in European lands and the demand in the last decade of the 19th century of the European Jews for a National Home.


  • The support given by the British government to the demand for a Jewish National Home in Palestine as a conscious effort to obtain sympathy and support of the Anglo-American Jewry to the war effort against Germany. It took the shape of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917 and was implemented through the subsequent British policy on Jewish migration to Palestine during the Mandate. The historian Arnold Toynbee described the Declaration as ‘the winning card in a sordid contest between two sets of belligerents.’ Alongside and in November 1918, evidently conflicting Anglo-French promises were made to the Arabs.


  • India’s advocacy in 1947 of a bi-national state of Palestine as against the creation of a Jewish state of Israel.


It is worth recalling that in a “Special Note’ appended to the minority report    of UNSCOP, India had drawn attention to a deft linguistic change when the Balfour Declaration was being drafted and through which the phrase ‘a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine’ in an earlier draft was replaced by ‘a national home for the Jewish people.’ I also do not need to remind this audience about    the 1967 discussion on UNSC Resolution 242 about its English and French versions relating to the definite and indefinite articles.


  • India’s recognition of Israel and subsequent establishment of diplomatic relations and the present bonhomie in the bilateral relationship and its strategic benefits to both countries.


Two aspects of Gandhi ji’s views are touched upon: (a) the persecution of Jews principally in Germany and (b) Zionism as a political creed. Gandhi ji viewed Jews as a religious community and not as a national group (p 144); his sympathies for the Jews did not blind him to the requirement of justice, and the cry for a national home for the Jews did not appeal to him (p 168). It is noted on page 146 that the first formal contact of the Zionist group with him was in October 1931. The book asserts on page 175 that Gandhi showed an ‘inability to comprehend Zionism’. The reference on pp 60-61 to Gandhi ji’s meeing with the Jewish delegation that attended the April 1947 Asian Relations Conference speaks for itself.


Gandhi ji was not alone in upholding this view. It is known that not all persons of Jewish faith, in Israel and in other lands, are Zionists and that there is a vibrant debate in Israeli society about identity politics. A case in point is the Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand in his book The Invention of the Jewish People.


A point that is often overlooked is that while Judaism is a faith of ancient vintage, Zionism is political ideology that took shape in the early decades of the 20th century. The term ‘Zionism’ itself was coined in 1890 by Nathan Birbaum and a political organization to promote it was established by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Its successful effort to empower itself by linkage to an ancient faith is today being emulated by others in different lands who also justify resort to violence in the name of religion.


In the case of Zionism, the most emphatic statement on record is that of Vladimir Jabotinsky who asserted in 1923 that ‘Zionism is a colonizing venture and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force.’ He predicted that the Palestinian Arab will not leave his land unless confronted by, as he put it, ‘a wall of Jewish bayonets.’ Some of his successors like Avraham Stern and Menachem Begin, to use the words of Paul Johnson, ‘invented terrorism in its modern, highly organized and scientific form.’


The historical debate about Gandhi ji’s views on Zionism stands on its own merits. Prof. Kumaraswamy’s diligently researched book makes a contribution to it. I am, however, less clear about its relevance to the conduct of foreign policy in New Delhi and Tel Aviv. Practitioners of the craft – and there are a good many of them in today’s audience – know that neither principles nor recollections matter in the conduct of inter-state relations where the actors, in Bismarck’s words, travel on the stream of Time which they can neither create nor direct but upon which they can steer with more or less skill and experience. This is well reflected in the conduct of contemporary Indo-Israeli relations.


Jai Hind.