Was Gandhi Anti-Semitic? (revisited)

I suppose if you’re going to post about Gandhi, the Jews, Nazi’s, and especially GOP Presidential candidates, you’d better expect some pretty passionate responses. After scanning the comments from the post (and yes, together with SM Intern, deleting some of the more inflammatory and personally insulting), I thought it would be interesting to spend more time on a central question — Was Gandhi Anti-Semitic when he recommended that “The Jews” “offer themselves to the butcher’s knife?”

Guiding Light or “Useful Idiot”?

The short answer is “no” but the question presents a particularly clear example of a classic political / moral divide — do we judge Gandhi’s position based on Intentions or Consequences?

Yesterday’s NYT details research which provides a bit more scientific basis to a divide philosophers have grappled with for centuries –

“…there are at least two systems working when we make moral judgments… There’s an emotional system that depends on this specific part of the brain, and another system that performs more utilitarian cost-benefit analyses…”

Gandhi’s intentions were absolutely NOT anti-Semitic. As the original post noted, “Jews were his friends”… he consistently prescribed the same strategy for Europeans as well as Indians & Jews… etc. In his heart of hearts, it’s clear from reading any of the linked material that Gandhi really did believe he was helping the Jews in the best way he knew how….. Heck, *he* probably believed he was pro-semitic. And for many, that’s the final litmus test.

The problem however, is whether good intentions let him off the hook when the consequences of his prescription are practically the perfect opposite. The glaring holes and leaps-of-faith in his policy would have undoubtedly led to an even easier extermination job for Hitler and his anti-Semitic ilk. Although it was the Soviets who took the technique to evil-brilliant heights (and to a much smaller extent, modern Jihadi’s), one can envision a hypothetical Nazi agent provocateur hired to spread Gandhi’s diatribes to the Jews (or any other Untermensch) just to speed things along. (how’s that for Machiavellian? )

So by which measure do we judge him? And how can this case be so spectacularly conflicted? Well, in part it goes back to that old Mind vs. Body debate….

As noted earlier, Gandhi was an extreme case of being “of-the-mind.” Death of the body was literally inconsequential to him as long as the mental façade of passive resistance was maintained. He’d save their souls (and ours) by letting (their) bodies die from passivity.The dirty, grimy physical world was the rounding error to the pristine, beautiful mental and one day, if we all sat around and thought the right thoughts first, the malleable physical world would ultimately catch up.

Thus by mentally shoring up Jews for the holocaust with soothing talk of a “joyful sleep“, he really thought he was helping them out and leading the world to a higher, non-violent plane. He’d save their souls (and ours) by letting (their) bodies die from passivity. By making the Jews intentions pure and reducing ‘em to nothing but intentions, he’d eventually make the Nazi’s pure too and together we’d escape the Hobbesian trap.

If your analytical toolkit focuses on intentions, it’s pretty clear that not only was Gandhi far from anti-Semite, he was trying to save the whole of humanity. In fact for many, it’s so abhorrent to use His Name and anti-Semitism in a sentence that the classic response is to turn the same toolkit towards divining the intentions of the “accuser” – real or otherwise (in this case, uh, me – e.g. Ayn Rand Brigade, hit job, neocons/right-wing hawks ideas, character assassination, Machiavellian, a desire to score points, etc. — alas in some cases, divining intentions was the entire content of the comment).

Plato: “His higher Forms make it impossible to be anti-Semitic!”…. Aristotle: “but what if down here, he ends up helping the anti-Semites?”

For folks “of-the-body” however, Gandhi’s advocacy of “collective suicide” is far from “heroic” and were it not so tragic, would just be plain stupid. He thought the passive surrender of a few (or 6 million) was a small proximate price to pay for a higher, ultimate goal his belief system promised would come….

But those who value physical existence a tad more have a different calculus. And particularly those at the head of the sacrificial queue for Gandhi’s experiment in alternative reality. Reality ain’t as malleable as Gandhi would like and particularly the human nature component of it.

As the post pointed out, Gandhi’s “policy” is predicated on rather shaky premises

These issues create a likely consequence (for the Jews) pretty diametrically opposite his intentions. The unfortunate result is to make people like Gandhi – to use Lenin’s memorable phrase – “useful idiots” for the opposition. The Nazi’s would never agree with Gandhi’s intentions nor vice-versa but the consequences would sadly be quite synergistic.

And for consequentialists, the primary measure of an idea is it’s physical, “of-the-body” result. Interestingly, in the Harvard study quoted by the NYT, localized brain damage in the Intentional side of the brain gave the Consequential free reign with results that would likely horrify Gandhi –

Damage to an area of the brain behind the forehead, inches behind the eyes, transforms the way people make moral judgments in life-or-death situations, scientists are reporting today….Those with ventromedial injuries were about twice as likely as the other participants to say they would push someone in front of the train (if that was the only option), or to poison someone with AIDS who was bent on infecting others, or suffocate a baby whose crying would reveal to enemy soldiers where the subject and family and friends were hiding.

Of course, this is far from saying that today’s Consequentialists must be brain damaged. On the contrary, the researchers believe the Consequential brain evolved after the Intentional.

So how do we sort all of this out? When do we use empirical Consequences to judge good vs. bad and when do we look at Intentions? At a prima facie level, the intentions side of the debate has one huge advantage — it’s pretty easy to stack rank values and it sure ain’t hard to rate “peace” above “war”. On the consequences side, we have to wade through the murky world of cost-benefit ratios and inherent twists & turns of Game Theory to rate likely consequences – that sort of talk just doesn’t get the heart going the same way.

Peace or Game Theory – Which would you rather have on your T-Shirt?

Empirically however, many ginormously huge and successful social systems manage to work pretty well based on Consequences and despite radically different – or at the very least unknown – Intentions of the parties involved. If Gandhi’s position is the extreme case of “intentions first, consequences – don’t worry”, one opposite system which puts “consequences first, intentions second” was perhaps most famously articulated by Adam Smith

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Just to point out one of the reasons why so many seemingly unrelated issues cluster together, anyone hazard a guess how Gandhi’s modern sign toting adherents feel about the role of Wal-Mart in feeding the country?

By contrast large scale, successful, durable systems predicated on aligned intentions are pretty hard to find & bank on – Communism? the Soviet Man? Political parties? Organized Religion? The UN? Culture? License Raj India? I dunno – I’m sure some Mutineers have their favorite examples…. While some may stand up in inherently cooperative situations, it’s tough to find big ones that can accommodate rather than wish away conflict – particularly at scale.

So to conclude, it’s probably no surprise from my first Gandhi post or, for that matter, any of my other posts that my decision rule leans heavily towards systemic, physical consequences (but not exclusively! strict utilitarianism has it’s limits!) and thus I’m literally aghast by Gandhi’s advice to the Jews…. The man might not have been anti-semitic in the true, intentional sense, but the consequential difference would have been, uh, academic.

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70 thoughts on “Was Gandhi Anti-Semitic? (revisited)

  1. Actually i think this is at the heart of the matter, since it is really an arab/israeli conflict.

    Obviously, I disagree. Self-determination for the Palestinians cannot be contingent on the actions of third parties. Other substantial issues, I mentioned earlier, prevent me from believeing that the Palestinians will obtain a viable sovereign independent state through non-violent resistance. I wish this explanation of a lack of Palestinian democracy were adequate to explain all Israeli behavior. The evidence is against it, particularly when we consider the behavior of the military government that Israel had in the occupied territories in the seventies and the eighties. A significant issue, I think, is Israeli hubris, now much diminished, that a solution could be imposed on the Palestinian people.

  2. TROLL ALERT

    vinod – The glaring holes and leaps-of-faith in his policy would have undoubtedly led to an even easier extermination job for Hitler and his anti-Semitic ilk.

    assuming all opponents have at least a Brit “moral code” – killer is a killer is a killer that’s it. what morality are you talking???

  3. the concentration camps were integral to the Nazis’ plan to exterminate all Jews, just like our factory farms and sausage factories are kept out of view of decent consumers, who wouldn’t tolerate animal abuse on their own doorsteps.

    Are you conflating the Holocaust with factory farming? I think most people do know about factory farms and don’t really care, but theoretically would be upset about people being tortured.

  4. Are you conflating the Holocaust with factory farming? I think most people do know about factory farms and don’t really care, but theoretically would be upset about people being tortured.

    Well, theoretically many Germans didn’t care that Jews were being tortured and murdered – they thought of them as Jews, not People. But there were only able to think that way because it didn’t happen right in front of them. If it did, they’d have to ask themselves if even Jews deserved such horrors. If Jews just vanished, out of sight, ordinary citizens may have had a few pangs of counsciousness but hey look at that Lebensraum! Likewise most ordinary Americans would have more resistance to animal slaughter if they had to see it all in front of them.

    I’m not trying to say animals=people, I’m trying to say keeping violent abusive slaughterhouses out of the average citizen’s* sight is essential to keeping them operating smoothly, else “decent” people might stop tolerating them.

    *Average citizen = backbone of society. Hitler depended on their cooperation.

  5. Kunal said, in #28:

    Does that make [Gandhi] anti-human?

    Nailed it in one, albeit unintentionally. Gandhi was indeed anti-human. Orwell pointed that out a long time ago. As a symbol of the independence movement, as a moral force, as a conciliator, Gandhi was peerless, unmatched by any figure in blood-soaked history of the 20th century. But to actually apply his philosophy to the modern world outside the specific context of the Independence Movement was and is madness.

    Speedy

  6. Manju: I completely disagree with your analogy of unequal results being de-facto evidence of racism. You are right to the extent that it has been widely used in the cases of racial discrimination (for example in police entrance tests which most blacks would fail at etc.)

    I will get back to you on here tomorrow about where I disagree as I am really busy today :)

  7. I said: ” Passive resistance only applies where the oppressor needs the active, living, operative cooperation of the oppressed for the oppressor to succeed. This was true of Britain’s economic occupation of India. This was not the case with the Nazi Holocaust, and for different reasons is not the case in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It didn’t apply to Saddam’s persecution of the Kurds, nor does it apply to the Taliban with respect to their objectives.”

    Manju replied:

    interesting take. though obvioulsy gandhi would disagree with you. i guess, to put it more bluntly, if your oppressor is willing to exterminate you completely, forget non-violent resistence. (i think it would work in the israeli-palestinian conflict b/c israel needs the labor and b/c of their moral compass. the israelis are guilt-ridden about there policies as it is, but they have no choice. but ultimately, a democratic arab world would spell the end of a jewish state. so until jews are allowed in mecca, aparthied it is.) Manju– Not clear what you mean about Gandhi “obviously” disagreeing with me– how can you presume on this? Throwing oneself off a cliff is suicide, not passive resistance. Passive resistance is more akin to going on strike. But yes, I do say that if your oppressor is looking to exterminate you then on its face passive resistance is pretty useless. My point is that lawyers are pretty naughty people, even great lawyers. Many prominent and intellectually gifted Israelis have indeed been eloquently vocal against Sharon and Likud’s past and ongoing Netanyahu-led policies, but I don’t know that this amounts to being “guilt ridden” or if there are other people who might actually be guilt ridden, Still, why posit a moral compass in the context of expanding territorial borders? Israel is a pretty small place to function as a homeland for all Jews– afaik, it seems to be functioning mostly as a homeland for some European and American, i.e., Ashkenazi, Jews, with Sephardim by and large still taking a back seat at best. In any case, I’m sure the fresh water, sunny real estate development opportunities and salty coastline for commercial and naval development are more attractive prospects than securing the entire Palestinian population as a captive labor force. OTOH, it’s not clear why Palestinians would or should settle for becoming a racially defined underclass within their present remaining homeland. That’s what I call a conundrum. I said: “Gandhi’s advice to colonized Indians might be marginally relevant to the Iraqi response to American occupation, but that is highly unlikely to obtain, given the nature and purpose of the occupation and the flavors of the indigenous culture.” Manju replied:
    not to mention, what do you do when your oppressor is just dying to get out? plus the connundrum of trying to resist your own democratically elected govenment b/c they are in cahoots with your oppressor. if your oppressor wants self-determination for you, do you resist self-determination?

    This doesn’t seem to me so much of a conundrum. The people who sent in the troops categorically don’t want out– we have confirmation of that today, with Bush announcing hisintention to override the House vote to stop funding the “war” and to pull out troops by the fall of 2008. Meanwhile, the Iraqi nationalists (as they have yet to declare themselves) just tried twice in one day to assassinate the deputy PM of their puppet Govt, who was after all put in place through Occupation-monitored elections. Passive resistance would have worked, e.g., for those elections, if all or even most Iraqis refused to vote, but IIRC, they conducted their elections under threat of continued assault. The Bush Admin does not want actual self determination for Iraqis, just the appearance of self determination. The Bush Admin is still driven by elements from an older generation who think the Japanese Parliament is just wonderful, well adopted and adapted — for being so quick to pass legislation to support the Iraq war. In any case, it was all for oil and Halliburton– you hardly need Iraqi cooperation for that. Leaving means losing control of the oil and probably construction contracts.

    But enough, alls I’m saying is Gandhi was a great man but no saint. The saint part is the orientalist phantasie.

  8. @Amrita 58. Excellent and nuanced post. Suicide bombing cannot explain why the Israeli government has disregarded the property rights of Israeli Arab citizens. Very often entire towns have been confiscated for “national security” purposes and then handed over for Jewish settlement. If the Israeli public is “guilt-ridden” about this, they have concealed it well. The other issue that comes to mind is that of the “present absentees” law, that confiscated the lands of those Palestinians who were internally displaced by the 1948 war. In sum a much stronger case needs to be made to show that non-violent techniques will work tactically as opposed to morally.

    @Al_Mujahid_for_debauchery 57.

    I completely disagree with your analogy of unequal results being de-facto evidence of racism. You are right to the extent that it has been widely used in the cases of racial discrimination (for example in police entrance tests which most blacks would fail at etc.)

    Count one more person as interested in your argument.

  9. *Average citizen = backbone of society. Hitler depended on their cooperation.

    Absolutely. And that’s what Gandhi’s techniques targetted, the silent majority.

    Also, all this talk about whether intention matters, I’d say surely it does. Even the western judicial system acknowledges it (for those of you that require western reconciliation for all your morals) by having “manslaughter” and “murder” as distinct charges, where manslaughter carries a lesser legal penalty.

  10. Here’s a side question: What happened to desis living in Germany during WW2 and the holocaust? What happened to biethnic Desi/Germans? To dark-skinned Desis?

  11. The people who sent in the troops categorically don’t want out– we have confirmation of that today, with Bush announcing hisintention to override the House vote to stop funding the “war” and to pull out troops by the fall of 2008.

    this is a 1/2 truth. the house vote reveals where the political reality is. troops cannot stay there too much longer, unless the iraqi people request them, as they may if conditions improve. either way, they’re gone in a few years at most. so that’s part of the connundrum of using passive resistence against a occupier that doesn’t want to occupy for long.

    Meanwhile, the Iraqi nationalists (as they have yet to declare themselves) just tried twice in one day to assassinate the deputy PM of their puppet Govt, who was after all put in place through Occupation-monitored elections.

    these nationalists are killing iraqis mostly. and it can be seen as a civil war as much as a fight against the occupier. as far as a puppet govt goes, its not that simple. the puppet just sighed an oil agreement with syria, among other signs of independence. either way, they represent the iraqi people better that the terrorist/ insurgents. sometimes the puppet pulls the strings.

    Passive resistance would have worked, e.g., for those elections, if all or even most Iraqis refused to vote, but IIRC, they conducted their elections under threat of continued assault.

    i don’t think the iraqi people wanted to resist the elections, and there is no evidence that they felt coerced into voting. the terrorists tryed to coerce them out of voting. but they did it anyway. you have to be inhuman not to be touched by the bravery.

    The Bush Admin does not want actual self determination for Iraqis, just the appearance of self determination.

    its hard to debate politics based on motive. but if we must, inside accounts help. bob woodwords book makes clear wolfowitz wanted self determination. rummy wanted to get out quickly. and casey thought wmds was a “slam dunk”.

    The Bush Admin is still driven by elements from an older generation who think the Japanese Parliament is just wonderful, well adopted and adapted — for being so quick to pass legislation to support the Iraq war.

    i think the iraqis would take a japanese solution. a healthy powerful rich independent state that used to be occupied by the usa. this is the connundrum i’m talking about. who want to resist an occupier who want this for you?

    In any case, it was all for oil and Halliburton– you hardly need Iraqi cooperation for that. Leaving means losing control of the oil and probably construction contracts.

    actually iraqi oil production has been stuck b/c of the security situation. much of it vulnerable to sabatoge. this partially acounts for high oil prices and why iraq has been unable to fund its own reconstruction.

    so the connundrum facing the iraqis is that their occupier wants them to have freedom and wealth more than their resistence movements.

  12. casey thought wmds was a “slam dunk”.

    You wish Casey were at Langley don’t you? That son of a bitch is as dead as dead can be. Good riddance.

  13. You wish Casey were at Langley don’t you? That son of a bitch is as dead as dead can be. Good riddance.

    oh yes. thanks no von, i meant tenet. i guess i was feeling nostalgic for a real freedom fighter. RIP.

  14. i think the iraqis would take a japanese solution. a healthy powerful rich independent state that used to be occupied by the usa. this is the connundrum i’m talking about. who want to resist an occupier who want this for you?

    The Iraqis, obviously.

  15. 60 (HMF), intentions may matter less and less as we find out more about the human mind. If all our decisions are just changes in the levels of chemicals, then how does it matter whether someone chose to kill a man or did so without intending to? I recall this article in the Economist a few months back, which mentioned a child molester whose actions were caused by a certain neural abnormality. Does this absolve him from his crime?

  16. assuming all opponents have at least a Brit “moral code” – killer is a killer is a killer that’s it. what morality are you talking???

    If I had been the one to write that phrase, I would have meant that the British believed themselves to be moral, and therefore could be shamed by the exposure of the immorality of their policies (and of the immorality in the behavior required to enforce those policies).

    Vinod, Great Post!

  17. I recall this article in the Economist a few months back, which mentioned a child molester whose actions were caused by a certain neural abnormality. Does this absolve him from his crime?

    No of course not, but you’re working with aposteriori knowledge of the event. Such a comparison doesn’t hold here. Gandhi’s advice is there as is, as nothing more than advice, you are talking about nuaces within the human brain, and entering into phsyiology. But even in such cases, intent is identified and used when passing judgement. Intent cannot be written off completely, especially in the case of someone like Gandhi – unless you claim his advice was morbid and deplorable to the Indians as well

    At no point did he state the British were uniquely susceptible to non-violent tactics, that their history as a civilization would permit them to “see the light” through such a human display of suffering. This is a western grafting and exrapolation, to rationalize their own violent tactics.

    What I don’t understand is how Gandhi and King’s advice is applauded when given to their own people, yet is discarded as “impractical” and “ludicrous” when it’s suggested for others. That, is complete hypocrasy. If you plan to engage in debate, stick to the topic rather than bring in erroneous comparisons.

  18. Dear Vinodji, Please READ your books first before even claiming to pretend as an author and a critic of Gandhi. Afer all no wonder there are so many self-professed intellectuals in our nation and this is the root of all problems. So, my advice: Please do not bite more than you can chew.

  19. Vinod’s attention to the fallacy of intention in Ghandi’s prescription to the Jews is unusually thoughtful and rigorous. It is entirely possible that Ghandi exhausted his moral imagination in his work among Indians and that he harbored a profound indifference to human beings outside the Indian situation that led to reckless indifference to the consequences of his advice. His letter following the war in which he he argues that it is a pity that the Jews did not follow his advice so their death would mean something indicates that the problem ran deep indeed.