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“Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution?”: Gandhi’s Response to the Holocaust

By Shimon Lev


In November, 1938, Gandhi published an article which dealt with the two questions that most preoccupied the Jewish world: Nazi Germany and the conflict between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine.[1] Gandhi presented his demanding suggestion to the European Jews to adopt his Satyagraha strategy in order to resist the Nazi type of racist violence. This harsh demand raised a variety of responses. The most known critics were the philosopher, Martin Buber, and the American Jewish leader, Judea Magnes. Both argued that the conditions and circumstances in Nazi Germany were so extreme that there was no possibility of implementing Satyagraha against Hitler’s regime. Gandhi’s proclamations on the eve of World War II seemed to reveal his lack of understanding of the Nazi evil, as well as his lack of political realism, both of which were revealed during the war and in light of the huge scope of the Holocaust. In future years, and even after the war, when the dimensions of the Holocaust became known, Gandhi abstained almost completely from dealing with the holocaust and never renounced his position.



Gandhi’s Proclamation about ‘The Jews’

Gandhi formulated his proclamation on November 11, unintentionally the day after Krystalnacht. According to Gandhi himself, he did so because he had received letters, demanding his reference to the issue.

Polak (left), Gandhi (centre), Schlesin (right)

Polak (left), Gandhi (centre), Schlesin (right)

Gandhi opened his article with a mention of his special ties with his Jewish friends from his days in South Africa, and compared the world’s attitude toward the Jews with the Indians’ attitude toward the Pariah castes. Gandhi reiterated his traditional position on the political use of non-violence. While recognizing the presence of Arab violence, he advised Jews in Palestine to use methods of Satyagraha: “The cry for national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me…Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same way that England belongs to the English or France to the French.”[2]

Relating to the situation in Germany, Gandhi advises the Jews to employ Satyagraha as a way of coping with Hitler and his deeds, which he calls “the actions of a crazy but brave young man.” Gandhi agrees that “[t]he tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal…” but as a pacifist he does not believe in any war.[3]

In contrast to Gandhi’s previous war experiences during the Boer war and the ‘Zulu Rebellion’ in 1906, in which Gandhi played an active role, he advises absolute pacifism against Hitler. Surprisingly, he foresees the concrete possibility of the massacre of the European Jews, but emphasizes the internal value of his principle for the victims themselves:

Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect…? I submit there is… I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.[4]

Gandhi uses his experiences during the Sataygraha Struggle in South Africa and claims that the Jews in Germany are placed in a better position to use Satyagraha. He ignores the fundamental differences between the Jews’ situation in Germany and that of the Indians in South Africa, and writes:

The Jews are a compact, homogeneous community in Germany. They are far more gifted than the Indians of South Africa. And they have organized world opinion behind them. I am convinced that if someone with courage and vision can arise among them to lead them in non-violent action, the winter of their despair can in the twinkling of an eye be turned into the summer of hope. And what has today become a degrading man-hunt can be turned into a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women possessing the strength of suffering given to them by Jehovah…[5]

Gandhi, Sonia Schlesin, and Hermann Kallenbach

Gandhi, Sonia Schlesin, and Hermann Kallenbach

Romain Rolland

Romain Rolland

One of the questions arising from this context is whether Gandhi could have understood what was happening in Europe? There is no doubt that Gandhi was aware of the situation of European Jews, since he had much information, which he got from a variety of sources.[6] First, Herman Kallenbach visited Gandhi’s ashram a few months earlier. Kallenbach had relatives in Europe and was anxious about their fate, based on his personal knowledge. Second, there were others such as the Nobel Prize winner, the writer Romain Rolland, Henry Polak, another important Jewish supporter as well as Margaret Spiegel, also a Jew, who visited India in 1932 and joined Gandhi’s ashram, escaping Berlin. There were many other guests, politicians, religious figures, and journalists from all over the world, who thronged to Gandhi’s ashram in order to meet him and, among others things, discuss current affairs with him. It is clear that the connection between the question of the Jewish-Arab on-going conflict in Palestine and the situation of European Jewry caused the attitude toward Hitler and Nazism to become a central topic in Gandhi’s conversations with Kallenbach. On the other hand, Gandhi’s inopportune comparison between the circumstances of the Indians in South Africa to that of the Jews under Hitler attests to the fact that Gandhi could not have understood the scope of the Nazi evil. It should be noted that, in contrast to many leaders in the world, Gandhi and Nehru wholeheartedly supported giving Jewish experts of German origin entrance visas to India, provided they had professions that were in demand there. Eventually this suggestion failed because of British Policy, and only about 2,000 Germans and Austrian Jews found refuge in India.

Jewish Intellectuals’ Responses to Gandhi’s Article

The first to respond was Avraham Sohet, a Zionist activist, and the editor of the Jewish Advocate newspaper in Mumbai. He mentioned poignantly that Gandhi finally “broke his strange silence.” According to Sohet, Gandhi either received false information or was ignorant of what has transpired in Europe and in Palestine and, hence, his view is at best naïve and, at worst, “tragically inconsistent”.[7] Gandhi ignores the fundamental point, which is that unlike the Indians, the Jews do not have a homeland.

Judah Leon Magnes

Judah Leon Magnes

Martin Buber, renowned Austrian Jewish theologian and philosopher.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Martin Buber, renowned Austrian Jewish theologian and philosopher. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Two admirers of Gandhi were Judah L. Magnes and Martin Buber. No one could have been more disappointed than they were, since Gandhi’s doctrine was very compatible with their adherence to the ways of peaceful coexistence as well as with their attempts to reach a political compromise with the Arabs in Palestine. They translated Gandhi’s article into Hebrew and wrote their response – very carefully.[8] It was uncharacteristic of Gandhi not to respond to this kind of letter, and, hence, it assumed that Gandhi had not read them at all.[9]

In their response to Gandhi, Buber and Magnes did not object to the Satyagraha principle itself, but argued that the extreme circumstances in Germany did not allow following this path and such a course of action would not yield positive results but, rather, mass killing. According to them, Gandhi did not understand the fundamental differences between German evil and the past situation in South Africa. Buber claims that it is not possible that any kind of Jewish leadership similar to Gandhi’s leadership in South Africa shall arise:

Jews are being persecuted, robbed, maltreated, tortured, and murdered. And you, Mahatma Gandhi, say that their position in the country where they suffer all this is an exact parallel to the position of Indians in South Africa…Now do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter?[10]

.Buber, who himself escaped Germany just a few months before, mentions his five-year personal experience under the Nazi regime and writes with pain:

And do you think perhaps that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?…In the five years I myself spent under the present regime, I observed many instances of genuine Satyagraha among the Jews, instances showing a strength of spirit wherein there was no question of bartering their rights or of being bowed down, and where neither force nor cunning was used to escape the consequences of their behaviour. Such actions, however, exerted apparently not the slightest influence on their opponents.[11]

Buber’s stand is clear: the crucial issue is the question of circumstances. Can Satyagraha function under any given circumstances? Buber demands that the particular circumstances of any matter shall be discussed and considered. Personally, he does not reject Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy, but he refuses to accept it blindly.[12]

According to Buber, the Jewish solution to eliminating violence is found in the Hebrew prophets’ doctrine of morality and justice, which serves as a barrier against violence:

We have not proclaimed, as did Jesus, the son of our people, and as you do, the teaching of non-violence, because we believe that a man must sometimes use force to save himself or even more his children. But from time immemorial we have proclaimed the teaching of justice and peace.[13]

Judah Magnes understood the fundamental difference between Gandhi’s approach, according to which “he fears not death”, which enables one a different sphere of action, and between Jewish law, which consecrates life. Still, he emphasized that the Jews have a very long history of martyrdom and no one should teach them about suffering: “If ever a people was a people of Non-violence through century after century, it was the Jews. I think that they need learn but little from anyone in faithfulness to their God and in the readiness to suffer while they Sanctify His name.”[14]

Magnes emphasizes rightly that Gandhi was a very practical leader and that all the Satyagraha campaigns were well planned ahead with careful consideration for public, media and, political attention. The situation in Germany was completely different and lacked the possibility of receiving any public attention. “The streets are the same. Business goes on as usual, the casual visitor sees nothing…life is snuffed out like a candle, and no one sees it or knows that the light is out,” Magnes wrote. [15]

Gandhi did not respond to Buber’s and Magnes’s reservations, but he did reply to Hayim Greenberg, the editor of the Jewish Frontier, the Zionist-socialist American journal. Greenberg, too, rejected Gandhi’s comparison between the circumstances of the German Jews to those of the Indians in South Africa. [16]

In his response, Gandhi explained that the publication of his views did not emanate from his desire to criticize the Jews, but, rather, because his Jewish friends pressured him to write. [17] Gandhi accepted the basic claim that a Jewish leader could not act in Nazi Germany for more than five minutes before being killed, but, in his opinion, this did not undermine the expediency of non-violence, and its effects should be examined in the long run. Gandhi adhered to his position, and none of the information about what was happening in Germany could dissuade him from his belief that non-violent resistance was right and just. According to Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the nature of any man is good. Another fundamental aspect was that there was a substantial difference between the evil and the doer of evil, therefore, eventually Hitler, or any evil doer, must respond to ‘proofs of love’. Gandhi wrote: “Even so I do not despair because Herr Hitler’s or the German heart has not yet melted. On the contrary I plead for more suffering and still more till the melting has become visible to the naked eye.”[18]

Moreover, Gandhi even accused the Jewish people of never having tried to act according to the Satyagraha principle. As evidence, he presented the world Jewry’s demand that the Western countries should unite against Germany and wage a general war against it, and wrote:

Are they not supposed to believe in eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth? Have they no violence in their hearts for their oppressors? Do they not want the so-called democratic powers to punish Germany for her persecution and to deliver them from oppression? [19]

A week later, during a discussion with Christian Missionaries, Gandhi wrote along the same line urging the Jews to pray for their prosecutors. “…they called down upon the Germans the curses of mankind, and they wanted America and England to fight Germany on their behalf…” [20]

Upon reading this accusation, Henry Polak was outraged and expressed his resentment emphatically. He demanded that Gandhi shall provide proof for his claim. Gandhi wrote in his article “no apology” that every newspaper he encountered contains descriptions of suffering Jews who asked the nations to fight on their behalf. [21] In order to strengthen his argument, Gandhi claimed that even Kallenbach, who had believed wholeheartedly in non-violence at the time, cannot love Hitler. He asks if Kallenbach can’t love the Nazis how will other Jews be able to:

I happen to have a Jewish friend living with me. He has an intellectual belief in non-violence. But he says he cannot pray for Hitler. He is so full of anger over the German atrocities that he cannot speak of them with restraint. I do not quarrel with him over his anger. He wants to be non-violent, but the sufferings of fellow Jews are too much for him to bear. What is true of him is true of thousands of Jews who have no thought even of “loving the enemy”. With them as with millions “revenge is sweet, to forgive is divine.” [22]

As one can only imagine Kallenbach, sitting in Gandhi’s Ashram at that time, while this dilemma was tearing him apart.

Polak repeated the demand that Gandhi will either provide a proof or apologize. [23] Gandhi sent Nayar and Mahadev Desai to find proof in the newspapers that the Jews demand opening a war against Germany, but they did not find any. To Gandhi’s credit it should be noted that he published a “withdrawal” and added: “I must withdraw it without any reservation. I only hope that my observation has not harmed any single Jew.” [24]

It is clear that this was not a case of malevolence or anti-Semitism. Gandhi was consistent in his approach, and viewed non-violence as a condition and the most important element of Satyagraha. This advice was not given to the Jews alone: he gave the same advice to Czechs, English and Indians and other European nations. [25]

Gandhi’s Silence after the Holocaust



One of the enigmas in this narrative is Gandhi’s silence during the following years and mainly after 1945, when the scope of the calamity of the Jewish people became known. As Gandhi predicted, even with his lack of political realism, the bloodiest war the world had ever known ended in a general massacre of the Jews. On few occasions in which he did speak he related mainly to the struggle which was going on in Palestine. Gandhi’s only reference to the extermination of the Jews appears in the biography written by Louise Fischer, and has vast importance:

I mentioned the subject to Gandhi in 1946 when Hitler was dead. ‘Hitler’, Gandhi said, ‘killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs…it would have aroused the world and the people of Germany…As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions. [26]

Gandhi’s belief in non-violence was unshakeable, but he did not repeat his argument that it was possible to melt “Hitler’s heart of stone” by Satyagraha. Did he comprehend that Satyagraha could not work against the Nazis? I believe it is certain that the answer is negative, and that nothing would have changed Gandhi’s moral stand. In my opinion, Gandhi had a different direction. He covertly accused the Jews with the same accusation many Jews in the “Yishuv” accused them of – the blame of inaction and of acting like “Lambs going to the slaughter house”. Albeit, retrospectively, it is easy to perfunctorily invalidate Gandhi’s enraging argument: was a Jewish non-violent movement and “cooperation” with the Nazi oppression at the mid-1930s possible? Can we imagine that the Jews would refuse to wear the “Yellow Star”? Can we imagine that they would refuse to obey the orders? Is it possible at all?

In respect to the Holocaust, there is a no doubt whether the method of non-violence could have been effective against such monstrous evil forces. After the Holocaust, many survivors and Jewish leaders spoke about the concept of “Kiddush Hahayim” (Sanctification of life) as the real value of Kiddush Hashem. The meaning is that the struggle and the ability to survive the Concatenation Camps and the Ghettos, under the oppression of the Nazi extreme evil regime, was an act of Kiddush Hahyim and the real victory over the Nazis. Another aspect is the ability to preserve the Human Dignity. This concept emphasizes the huge and unbridgeable gap in relation to the attitudes toward life and death in Gandhi’s world and in the Jewish world.

The holocaust can serve as a test case for Gandhism in general. The holocaust, being the most extreme event of man slaughter, emphasizes the dilemma and the question if Satyagraha can be an effective measure under such circumstances.


[1] Harijan, 26 November 1938.

[2] Harijan, 26 November 1938.

[3] Harijan, 26 November 1938.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi and his Jewish Friends, London:  Macmillan, 1982) 113-5.

[7] Jewish Advocate, 2.December 1938.

[8] Buber and Magnes, “Two Letters to Gandhi”, The bond (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1939) 21.

[9] Shimoni, “Gandhi, Satyagrah and the Jews”, Jerusalem papers on peace problems, 22 (Jerusalem: The Leonard Davis Institute for Intentional Relations, 1977) 47.

[10] Buber and Magnes, “Two Letters to Gandhi”, The bond (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1939) 2. One can argue that Gandhi actually knew about different types of ‘Concentration Camps’ from his experience during the Boer War. He was also was evident to horrible and cruel treatment of the Zulus during the Zulu rebellion in 1906.

[11] Ibid, 2-3.

[12] Avner Falk, Buber and Gandhi; in Quest for Gandhi, ed: G. Ramachanran, T.K. Maedevan (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace foundation, 1970) 145.

[13] Buber and Magnes, “Two Letters to Gandhi”, The bond (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1939) 19.

[14] Ibid, 28.

[15] Ibid, 25.

[16] Harijan, 22 May 1939. See also: Greenberg, Ein Roie (Heb.) (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialilk, 1958) 232 – 40.

[17] Harijan, 22 May 1939.

[18] Harijan, 2 January 1939.

[19] Harijan, 17 December 1938.

[20] Harijan, 24 December 1938.

[21] Harijan, 18 Februar.1939.

[22] Ibid.

[23]  Polak to Gandhi, 20.March.1939, cited in Shimoni, Gandhi, Satyagrah and the Jews (Jerusalem: The Leonard Davis Institute for Intentional Relations, 1977) 55.  The expression is according to Mathew 7:9. Lord Samuel and Sir Philip Hartog wrote Gandhi. Gandhi quotes parts of their letters, Harijan, 27 May 1939.

[24] Harijan, 27 May1939.

[25] Harijan, 20 June 1940.

[26] Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, (London: Granda, 1984) 435.

Dr. Shimon Lev
is a Lecturer at Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem, and the author of Soulmates: The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach (New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2012), among numerous publications.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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