Arun Gandhi: A Saffron Finklestein?

It seems rather obtuse for someone to resign from a foundation which bears their name, but in some circumstances it seems entirely justified. This is the tack taken by University of Rochester president Joel Seligman in a terse statement, describing his reaction to the recent resignation of Arun Gandhi from the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence (which is now situated at the University of Rochester):

I was surprised and deeply disappointed by Arun Gandhi’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post blog, “On Faith.” I believe that his subsequent apology inadequately explains his stated views, which seem fundamentally inconsistent with the core values of the University of Rochester. In particular I vehemently disagree with his singling out of Israel and the Jewish people as to blame for the “Culture of Violence” that he believes is eventually going to destroy humanity. This kind of stereotyping is inconsistent with our core values and would be inappropriate when applied to any race, any religion, any nationality, or either gender.

University presidents are a curious breed, in large part tasked with finding big donors and implementing ‘big picture’ programs across entire educational institutions. As a result, they are sometimes easy targets for backlash–I remember the former President of my own alma mater, declaring at a commencement speech that all previous graduating classes amounted to “mush in, mush out” and was hounded from that post (directly into a cushy job in the Business School). It seems unlikely, however, that Mr. Seligman will face any sort of flak for his official statement on Arun Gandhi’s resignation.Examination of the original post does not seem to reveal a deep-seated hatred for world Jewry, as many of his critics in the comments section seems to suggest but a kind of benevolent academic buffoonery. Mr. Gandhi could have, however, made his comments a bit more nonspecific and less pointed–one doesn’t have to assume much to read the post and think Arun was simplistically blaming terrorism on the world’s Jewish population and accusing the same population of overplaying concerns which, in his opinion, have long exhausted their instructive content:

Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience — a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed. It is a very good example of a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. The holocaust was the result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful. But, it seems to me the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews. The world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on the regret turns into anger.

Taking the Norman Finklestein position certainly doesn’t help matters, as Finklestein found himself without a job due to the backlash generated by his strident condemnations of groups like the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress and individuals like Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz for this alleged pimping of Holocaust suffering for material gain. It’s not a line that will start many conversations but rather many one-sided flames–even as a ‘thought experiment’ it seems too offensive to too many people to be a viable origin of constructive and instructive dialog. There are, however, some very obvious errors.

Gandhi’s statement is rife with analytical sinkholes: conflating Jewish identity with agreement with Israeli policy and actions, comparing the people of the occupied territories and Israel with fratricidal snakes, and creating a concept which he does not care to expand but quickly assigns to, “Israel and the Jews.”

The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak. Any nation that remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead and, especially a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs. In Tel Aviv in 2004 I had the opportunity to speak to some Members of Parliament and Peace activists all of whom argued that the wall and the military build-up was necessary to protect the nation and the people. In other words, I asked, you believe that you can create a snake pit — with many deadly snakes in it — and expect to live in the pit secure and alive? What do you mean? they countered. Well, with your superior weapons and armaments and your attitude towards your neighbors would it not be right to say that you are creating a snake pit? How can anyone live peacefully in such an atmosphere? Would it not be better to befriend those who hate you? Can you not reach out and share your technological advancement with your neighbors and build a relationship? Apparently, in the modern world, so determined to live by the bomb, this is an alien concept. You don’t befriend anyone, you dominate them. We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.

It was here that my casual regard for Mr. Gandhi began to waver. What could he possibly think could be achieved by assigning blame to “the Jews” for a “culture of violence” that he doesn’t care to define? Especially if this “culture of violence” will bring an end to our world?

I had thought that proponents of non-violence would mostly speak in vague terms, extolling the virtues of non-violence over violence, invoking some sort of deity/divinity/saint to buttress their claims of the primacy of non-violent methods and leave it at that. How did Arun find his way into the very contentious topic of Israel? Again, I found a set of questions floating to the top of my mind:

  1. Is non-violence really the best solution in all situations/contexts? If it is not, is there any point to stumping for the cause?

  2. Is Arun Gandhi finished in the world of academic discourse? (if he ever inhabited it to begin with?)

  3. Does the doctrine of non-violence, as espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, really represent the death of a Jewish state?

Arun Gandhi issued an apology after the initial uproar which addressed many of the points I raise above–however, I don’t believe for a second that it’s entirely sincere. He’s not apologizing for the sloppy analysis which pervades his original post, but correcting what he sees as misreadings of the same. Whatever the case, what he wrote initially will always be available to the net-going public and skeptics who do not buy his apology will forever abound.

125 thoughts on “Arun Gandhi: A Saffron Finklestein?

  1. 97 · usadesi_x said

    If that is the case where is the freedom of expression in the U.S.? Everytime you express your opinion you pay a price?

    Paying a price for expressing your opinion is a consequence of others exercising their freedom of expression.

  2. If that is the case where is the freedom of expression in the U.S.? Everytime you express your opinion you pay a price?

    Yes, but that price is not inflicted by the government as the first amendment restricts the government from taking action against people for speech (with a few exceptions)

    The US like any place else has effective freedom of expression for mostly popular opinion. Unpopular opinion leads to disastrous consequences in a lot of cases though the disaster in the US does not come from the government.

    Also what JJ said in 100.

  3. I liked the sound bite, it was pithier. I will be appropriating it. I’ll handle the grunt work and you can get the glory. ;)

  4. If I openly advocate for NAMBLA/BIN LADEN I will surely lose my job, nobody who has access to google will hire me, lose all my friends me and except for ACLU no one will defend me if I was targeted by state actors.

  5. Re: Posts 94, 97, 100, 101

    Was Arun Gandhi fired? Or did he resign because he was criticized in public? If the latter, isn’t he being too thin-skinned? He is an activist with several years of experience. By this time, he must have acquired a strong stomach for a heated debated.

  6. To take PAFD and Manju’s comments one step further, it takes courage or stupidity (depending on your point of view) to speak out based on your convictions, even if those convictions may be reprehensible to some. The only way, however, to change what others or the majority may think is to openly expose your ideas to the marketplace of opinion to effect any kind of change, especially if one is in the minority.

    Wodehouse,

    I’m not sure if it matters, do we know if he left of his own accord or was asked to resign?

  7. JJ@#108:

    It probably does not matter for Arun Gandhi’s livelihood. But it does throw a light on whether the university is allowing a marketplace of opinion to exist.

    Demonstrating that the majority opinion is not willing to let a marketplace of opinion to exist would certainly be an important victory for the minority point of view.

  8. Is non-violence really the best solution in all situations/contexts?

    Question for a question: have you seen the film The Mission? The story presents this issue. You, the viewer, are left to decide. (It’s a fine exercise as the film is stunning and the music sublime.)

  9. It probably does not matter for Arun Gandhi’s livelihood. But it does throw a light on whether the university is allowing a marketplace of opinion to exist.

    Wodehouse,

    Well said. The question then is does a private university (I think it’s private, if I’m wrong please correct me) have a responsibility in allowing a marketplace of all opinion to exist, to the extent that it might disrupt their ability to continue their own activities and operations? I’m asking this in general and not specifically with Mr. Gandhi’s situation.

    What if the university loses funding because of the speech? What if the speech incites violence or its very nature stifles debate do they still allow the speech? What if the speech being suppressed, if allowed to flourish, creates an unsafe environment where others no longer feel free to speak. In these situations, where its a private university, they have the right to determine what speech they find acceptable. If they are a public university, that’s a different equation as they are being funded by the state, and I think they do have a responsibility in allowing a marketplace of all opinion (except for violent speech) to exist.

  10. If they are a public university, that’s a different equation as they are being funded by the state, and I think they do have a responsibility in allowing a marketplace of all opinion (except for violent speech) to exist.

    Free speech is under assault in public universities with nonsense like speech codes (now renamed as the more euphimistic anti-intimidation code) and free speech zones.

  11. Dear Matt A Jain, I grew up in a Jewish family in L Island. India is the only country in the world where the Jews have been welcome and safe for 2000 years. Indian Jews are like other Indians, no better and no worse. They have never been discriminated against as ‘the other’.

    The first Jewish synagogue in India shares a wall, (until today), with a Hindu temple because the local Hindu Raja gave them the land next to the temple: the best available plot. This acceptance continued right through the Holocaust when Nehru personally insisted the Jews must be given refuge. Because of Nehru, many were allowed to enter India without papers, stay on permanently and work, buy property, etc. just like other citizens.

  12. JJ@#112:

    Could we at least ask that a private university be candid whenever it is unable to allow a marketplace of opinion to exist? Could we ask that a private university not present itself as a think-tank on the Israel-Palestine question if its donors are sensitive on that subject?

  13. 111 · bess said

    <

    blockquote>

    Is non-violence really the best solution in all situations/contexts?
    Question for a question: have you seen the film The Mission? The story presents this issue. You, the viewer, are left to decide. (It’s a fine exercise as the film is stunning and the music sublime.)

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll add it to my netflix queue.

    Could we at least ask that a private university be candid whenever it is unable to allow a marketplace of opinion to exist? Could we ask that a private university not present itself as a think-tank on the Israel-Palestine question if its donors are sensitive on that subject?

    Although he may have resigned to avoid the shame of being forced out the fact remains that he did leave voluntarily. Also, Rochester is supposedly hosting a panel discussion of the topic at an unspecified date in the future. If they actually go through with it and it doesn’t turn out to be a situation where each sentence is tested for compliance with Rochester’s ‘values,’ then I could see them laying claim to having at least an acceptable approximation of a free marketplace of opinion.

  14. Could we ask that a private university not present itself as a think-tank on the Israel-Palestine question if its donors are sensitive on that subject?

    If that’s the University of Rochester’s representation, I’d agree with you.

  15. I agree with Auntyji #114.

    There seem to be a few (key word here is few) Jewish communities in India. I have not heard of any anti Jewish sentiment directed towards them from the Hindus/majority Indians but I could be wrong. Does anyone here know if those communities experienced prejudice or hate crimes in India? From what I read on wikipedia – which may not be telling the whole story, the Indian Jewish communities (like the Jewish people of Cochin and Mumbai) are decreasing. Why is that happening?

    Are there any similar Jewish communities in Pakistan, or Bangladesh? What is life like for a person of the Judaic faith in those countries? Are they allowed to practice religion freely? Just wondering.

  16. Indian Jewish communities (like the Jewish people of Cochin and Mumbai) are decreasing. Why is that happening?

    They are immigrating to Israel. Bombay has been home to the Bene Israel Jews for many years. They are completely assimilated in the local culture, speak Marathi flawlessly, one of my mom’s school friends was a Bene Israeli. Most of her siblings left for Israel but she didn’t, she was a school teacher and her husband was in the Indian Navy. As far as I know I think she still lives there. The only thing different about her was that she had green eyes and lighter skin.

  17. Do you think the University of Rochester did not give due credence to your career and lifetime devoted to nonviolence and justice? Was there pressure to step down? I was told that the university was under tremendous pressure. There was a possibility that some funding would be cut off. I thought that the institution is greater than the individual and so I was willing to sacrifice myself so that the university and the institute did not suffer.

    From: I Was Willing To Sacrifice Myself

  18. “Gandhi does not specify that he’s speaking of a few groups. But to target him rather than engage with him in dialogue is sad and cruel.” Angana Chatterji, California Institute of Integral Studies

    From: In Exile From Truth

  19. Just to point out that “serious intellectuals” in America can accuse the Muslim world of being steeped in a culture of violence, and get away with it. Or they can demonize an entire nation, e.g., Iran. Whatever one may think of Arun Gandhi, the scales are not balanced.

  20. Outside of Calcutta, Bombay, Pune and Kerala, the footprints of Indian Jews is not particularly prominent. I am older than most readers of this site. But growing up in post independence Delhi I had rarely heard of a Jewish presence in India in any conversation or in history books even though some prominent members on the Indian cultural, literary and media scene in those years were Jewish. The Jewish community in India was always small and disparate. The mostly working class Bene Israelis (who learnt of their Jewish roots only in the 1800s when Christian missionaries recognized it) of the Konkani coast had little religious or commercial connection with the more educated and prosperous Jews of Cochin and the Malabar coast. The much later arrivals from the middle east, the Baghdadi Jews (from Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran) were loyal to the British and did not assimilate like the earlier communities. After India’s independence and the establishment of Israel, most Jewish Indians left for Israel, Europe and the US. The community is now near vanishing although I have heard some anecdotal account of some Israelis of Indian origin returning to their earlier “home land” in the wake of the Indian economic boom.

    I wrote a review of Nathan Katz’s comprehensive book, “Who Are The Jews of India?” on my blog where I gave a brief account of this obscure and now mostly forgotten bit of Indian history.

  21. Regarding Jews in India, I would be surprised if there were a particular pattern of oppression akin to what Jews have faced in other places. However, I would also be surprised if they didn’t find themselves in the typical position of a minority group whose concerns go unrecognized by an unsympathetic dominant society. So, it’s probably too simplistic either way to talk about antisemitism Jews face in India. Moreover, it’s rather a non sequitor, as it doesn’t address any specific concerns anyone has.

    Anyway, Arun Gandhi has made things worse. He’s gone on to characterize the concern over his admittedly antisemitic remarks as the work of a powerful and duplicitious Jewish lobby. That’s just plain antisemitic. If you know anything about the history of antisemitism, that’s exactly what antisemitism looks like.