Where Tutu (and Gandhi) got it wrong

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the center.

Two great disciples of Mohandas Gandhi -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- absorbed the moral and strategic power of his nonviolence credo and courageously applied it to change history in South Africa and the United States. Today, in a world still challenged by violent conflict, wars and terrorism, many look to Gandhi’s vision as the prototype to solve these challenges. But Gandhi was not always right.

Tutu, a longtime critic of Israel, recently again unloaded on the Jewish state. The scene was Israel’s security fence in the Arab community of Bilin, in the West Bank. It is there that activists gather every week to protest a barrier that deeply inconveniences and disrupts Palestinian life. Tutu said the activists reminded him of Gandhi, who managed to overthrow British rule in India by nonviolent means, and King, who took up the struggle of a black woman too tired to go to the back of a segregated bus. No mention was made of the hundreds of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings that led to the erection of the barrier, or that this nonlethal defense has thwarted multiple attacks, saving Jewish and Arab lives.

Tutu then added this admonition: “The lesson that Israel must learn from the Holocaust is that it can never get security through fences, walls and guns.”


Because Tutu invoked the Holocaust, it would be instructive to learn what Gandhi, in his own words, thought about the Jews, Nazis and Palestine. In 1938, just after Kristallnacht, when the Nazis systematically destroyed Germany’s and Austria’s synagogues, Gandhi wrote these shameful words:

“The German persecution of the Jews seems to have no parallel in history. ... [Hitler] is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which any inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. ... If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is therefore outside my horizon or province.

“Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is. ... If I were a Jew and were born in Germany ... I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon. ... And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy. ... 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.”

So after urging Europe’s Jews to joyfully accept the Nazi onslaught, here was Gandhi’s advice to the 600,000 Jews living in the Holy Land:

“The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the Earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?

“Palestine belongs to the Arabs. ... Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home. ... The Palestine of the biblical conception is not geographical tract. It is in their hearts. ... They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart. The same God rules the Arab heart who rules the Jewish heart. They can offer ... themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them. They will find the world opinion in their favor in their religious aspiration. ... I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of nonviolence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”


Clearly, Gandhi’s words serve as his South African disciple’s bible for today’s Israel-Palestine dispute.

But it is hard to understand how Tutu can invoke King’s views as a rationale for his own on Israel. As Georgia Rep. John Lewis wrote in a 2002 column, King “consistently reiterated his stand on the Israel-Arab conflict, stating ‘Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is uncontestable.’ And ... less than two weeks before his tragic death, he spoke out with clarity and directness: ‘Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. ... Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.’ ”

King also had this to say in 1968 about anti-Zionism at Harvard University: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism.”

Today, Gandhi’s influence is still keenly felt globally. Yet it is interesting to note that India today rejects its spiritual founder’s worldview. A nuclear power, it has adopted Israel’s approach to threats from suicide bombers and other terrorists.

So with all due respect to Tutu, Israel and the Jewish people are clear about the lesson of the Holocaust: that never again will the destiny of our people be placed in the hands of others. For 2,000 years, Jews depended on pity; they had no land and no army, and what they got in return were inquisitions, pogroms and the Nazi genocide. The Holocaust also taught us that freedom and justice come to those who are prepared to fight for them.