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Opinion | What Bibi Netanyahu Might be Thinking When he Walks Into Sabarmati Ashram
By Professor  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Sabarmati Ashram on Wednesday from where much of Mahatma Gandhi’s political life evolved. 

Many of Gandhi’s experiments with politics took place there or at least were contemplated over. He is rightly revered as Sabarmati ke sant (a saint from Sabarmati) in the very moving devotional song from the 1954 movie Jagriti


How would the Prime Minister of Israel approach Gandhi? Unlike many other heads of states who visit Gandhi’s ashram or Rajghat in the regular official protocols, or out of sheer respect to a saint, it is a much distinct moment for an Israeli Prime Minister due to the way Gandhi understood and responded to Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people for a nation-state. 

Zionism is one of the critical political stories of the 20th century. Theodor Herzl, the father figure of Zionism, while writing a simple pamphlet (The Jewish State, 1896) made an intellectual as well as political case for a nation for Jews. 

According to Herzl then, the creation of a Jewish state would normalise the abnormal situation of European Jewry insofar as it would give them, like Christian Europeans, a state of their own. In less than 50 years, it became a reality in the form of the State of Israel in 1948. 

Gandhi was complex and controversial when it came to the question of Jewish homeland in Palestine. Gandhi’s famous article The Jews in Harijan written in November 1938 was unkind toward the Zionist movement and much in the favour of the Arabs because of a proposition such as ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French’. 

Gandhi was defined as ‘anti-Zionist’ after this article and many resorted to this over-quoted sentence to explicate India’s non-relationship with Israel post-Independence. Yet, this wasn’t the case. 

Gandhi had nuanced favourable shift towards Zionism and considered the legitimacy of a state for the Jews after his 1938 article as it ensued long conversations with some of his Jewish friends like Herman Kellenbach. 

A few years later, he said to Louis Fisher, the Jewish-American Journalist, that “…the Jews have a good case in Palestine… if the Arabs have a claim in Palestine, the Jews have a prior claim because they were there first”. 

However, Gandhi wrote another critical note, again in Harijan in 1946, that the Jews have “erred grievously” by taking the support of the British Empire and resorting to violence. 

In short, Gandhi did not support Zionism and extended more to the Arabs from the point of view of the key Zionist leaders of the time. There were plenty of domestic factors behind Gandhi’s understanding and approach to Zionism. 

The way Gandhi thought of Zionism or whether it mattered later while India offered recognition to Israel devoid of diplomatic ties in 1950 is an important episode to look into. 

Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, leading scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote an account — Squaring the Circle: Gandhi and the Jewish National Home — recently on this matter. 

I wonder how much of what Gandhi thought about Zionism will matter to Bibi (as Mr. Netanyahu known in Israel) or to the rapidly growing friendship between India and Israel. 

India has corrected the so-called ‘historical mistake’ of not having ties with Israel. India and Israel have accomplished a lot in the first 25 years of their bilateral ties. Gandhi’s way of thinking about Zionism is only relevant to the people interested in history in general or certainly those who read or write about the relations between India and Israel. Unfortunately, Gandhi does not matter because the transactional ties between India and Israel matter more than the ideational disagreements. 

The commercially driven diplomacy does not concern much with Gandhian values such as just peace and non-violence. Moreover, why would states bother for non-violence. 

It is the war that they think more about. Much of the ongoing business between India and Israel is more and more about this defence deal of missile or that deal of arms. Gandhi is good though for rhetoric and pretences. Two perpetual needs for diplomacy. Yet, one wonders what might cross the mind of Bibi while walking in the Sabarmati ashram.