Support Arun Gandhi, a true man of peace - but don't withhold criticism of his words
Readers probably have been following the flap about remarks made on a Washington Post blog (q.v.) by Arun Gandhi, head of the M.K. Gandhi Institute, now hosted by the University of Rochester. Amid widespread calls for Gandhi to resign because of his remarks, I've sent the following paragraph to the Institute:
"Despite my misgivings about some points A. Gandhi made on the WashPost blog, I offer him and the Institute my strong support in the current controversy. Gandhi is an authentic man of peace; he certainly is no bigot, and he certainly should not be condemned because of his criticism of Israeli government actions. The vilification of Gandhi reminds me of what has happened recently to Jimmy Carter, who also has been wrongly labeled an anti-Semite."
Also, below are excerpts from two recent messages I sent to friends and comrades; I tried to explain my misgivings about Gandhi’s statements while making it clear that I did not agree with those who attacked him so mercilessly. The excerpts, lacking their original context, may be a bit hard to follow, but I hope they communicate something helpful:
"We all need to respond… to the D&C's recent anti-Gandhi editorial. I'll be doing this myself. Otherwise, I will continue my work, mostly through writing and networking, on behalf of justice and peace. Meanwhile I'll try to brush off unfair commentary from any and all sources, just as I have many times in the past.
"I've read Gandhi’s posts [i.e. on the WashPost religion blog] carefully, including the follow-up post in which he seized (but, I think, botched) an opportunity to clarify what he admitted had been ill-conceived remarks, and I've concluded that he made some serious mistakes in his interpretation of history and the current situation.
"Item: It simply is not true that the Nazi Holocaust was the result of 'the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful' - I mean, the statement is true only in the most excruciatingly narrow sense, since the Nazi genocide, like all genocides, was the result of complex social and historical factors, not something that emanated from a single pathological individual. (Of course, the Goldhagen thesis and the like, which would have us believe the genocide was committed by a universally and inherently evil German nation, is equally wrong-headed.)
"Gandhi also has erred by attributing various things to 'the Jews'; that is, he rhetorically treats an entire group, which of course is just as internally various and complex as any other group, as a monolith; this is reminiscent of the ancient anti-Semitic discourse which we all should condemn and avoid.
"Another point: Gandhi certainly is right in foreseeing that 'a culture of violence is eventually going to destroy humanity,' but what inspired him to charge that 'Israel and the Jews are the biggest players'? It would have been quite different if he'd criticized the Israeli government and its enablers for their destructive militarism, or objectively ranked Israel as a leading military power, but he didn't do any of that - he just made another rhetorical misstep that mischaracterizes Jews as supremely and uniquely violent.
"All this is so regrettable. [I fear that] because of Gandhi's ill-chosen words, both he and the Institute are likely to be discredited, and the cause of progressive peacemaking as regards Israel-Palestine is set back a long way.
"There also have been very local, though comparatively trivial effects: for example, the affair has given [local apologists for Israeli government policies] a chance to hurl the word "reprehensible" at another target. Thus [those who have] done a good deal of damage to the cause of peace locally get a shot in the arm while trashing a person who had a good shot at making a real contribution to the local scene…"
[Below is my follow-up post, written a couple of days after the above.]
"It seemed to me… there was an overwhelming silence on the topic - except for superficial news reports, as in the D&C. Then there were [further] negative comments from [critics including] Joel Seligman. (Isn’t it strange that a UR president would post a premature, preemptive comment in a case like this, which involves academic freedom, among other things?) And did you see the pathetic little note on the situation in the last City Newspaper? It’s amazing how small yet lopsided that note is; it speaks volumes about the decline of the local 'alternative' press.
"Meanwhile, there are things we can do. I’d love to see Gandhi go on Bob Smith’s show, as a couple of people have suggested. Though Smith sometimes drives me nuts… he’d at least give Gandhi plenty of time to answer questions and, probably, parry attacks from listeners. I think it’s important to continue public dialogue on the matter.
"Yes [as one of my correspondents reminded me by email], Gandhi did correct the point about the Jews and responsibility for Israel's crimes, and I should have given him credit for that in my previous message. But I’m concerned how readers, especially those who look for ammunition to use against critics of Israeli policy, may misuse even Gandhi’s correction: it’s all too easy to read the correction as maintaining the charge that Israel is the 'biggest player' in terms of state violence, even as it (properly) exonerates Jews as a group. Objectively, it’s not true that Israel is 'the biggest player' in this regard. True, Israel is a real global competitor regarding military power, mainly because of its armaments industry, air power, and nuclear arsenal. But in terms of committing mayhem, it’s not competitive with governments like those in parts of Africa and, of course, a certain large portion of North America. Here I’m not underestimating the horrors of what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinians, Lebanese, et al. – I’m just trying objectively to quantify and compare.
"It’s important, I think, for moral spokespersons like Gandhi (and yes, I do see him in this role, regardless of my current critique) to be informed, informative, nuanced, and supremely clear in their public statements. Here’s something like what I wish he had said: 'The nations of the world, most of all the US, have created and maintained an "order" based on war, violence, and outlandish military production; and Israel has been a part of this system far out of proportion to its size. Moreover, some Jewish organizations and individuals have abetted this system; and these organizations and individuals have sometimes abused the memory of the Holocaust by using the latter as justification for crimes against innocent Palestinians, as seen today in the IDF’s ruthless attacks on the people of Gaza.'
"Gandhi’s heart was surely in the right place when he posted his apology (and indeed, when he wrote his original post). But I think the apology falls a little bit short of adequate – simply because Gandhi did not say enough, did not explain and illustrate, did not sound enough like a Shlaim or Zinn or Chomsky, or if that’s an unfair standard, did not sound even like a Jimmy Carter. Had he spoken like any of these - that is, been analytical and factual rather than sententious - he might have thwarted the criticism. And there’s so much for someone like Gandhi to say, especially given the privilege of having a megaphone like a WashPost blog. He could talk about Combatants for Peace and other peace initiatives in Palestine/Israel, for example, or convey information from the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron, etc., etc. – all to show in detail the pacifist/nonviolent work going on in the Gandhian mode.
"I agree with Gandhi that 'when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness,' etc., and that 'it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it.' Indeed, these are truisms. But we need to speak with extreme sensitivity about the Jewish experience of the Holocaust (even as we point out that others, like the Roma, were also victims, and that the Holocaust, though it was 'historic in its proportions,' was not historically unique). The fact is, the Holocaust occurred such a short time ago in historical terms that the wounds are obviously still open; many victims are still alive and living right in our community; many others who escaped ended up losing family members, sometimes their entire family. And the fascist tendencies that led to this horror are unfortunately still alive among some holdouts in Europe and elsewhere. In my opinion, it’s too early to suggest in any way that Jews need to move on. They have a right to their bitterness, anger, etc. (So do the Palestinians and others who have been slaughtered, oppressed, victimized. And we need to hear more of their stories of suffering and survival, along with those of other survivors.) The point is this: We should be urging Jews and other Holocaust victims to channel their very real and understandable feelings into the creation of a just peace, starting with opposition to the anti-Palestinian policies and actions that the Israeli government pursues in their name. That, and only that, will make 'Never Again' a universal reality."
[Update: As I edit this post, the crisis in Gaza, which is approaching the level of a human catastrophe, has been alleviated a little bit by the breaching of Israeli-built barriers along the Gaza-Egypt border, and thousands of virtually-imprisoned Palestinians have crossed the border to acquire vital supplies. The situation remains critical, though.]
Posted by jackbradiganspula
at 21:56 EST
Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008 23:22 EST