14 January 2008

Arun Gandhi and "the Jews"

I work at the University of Rochester. Last October I posted on the deeply troubling decision on the part of the University to award an honorary degree to Colin Powell - the man who as Secretary of State lied to the world in order to rationalize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is, in my view, an embarrassment to the University that Powell was granted a degree. In large part my criticism of that decision reflects my view that a University ought to be an instrument for pursuing truth. And Powell will go down in history as a liar, a liar who has now been honored by the University of Rochester. At the time scarcely any objection arose from members of the University community - students, faculty, alums, staff, administrators.

Having missed one opportunity this academic year to take a principled stand, the University community now has another opportunity. You may have noticed recent reports at NationalReviewOnline, InsideHigherEd.com, The Jerusalem Post, Commentary and even our local Democrat and Chronicle [1] [2] concerning Mr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, and director of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence located at the University of Rochester. Gandhi is being (mostly) assailed for this comment that he published last week (7 January 08) at WashingtonPost.com. There he not only bemoans the "culture of violence" that seems to characterize much of the "modern world," but insists that "Israel and the Jews are the biggest players" in creating and sustaining that culture. Gandhi subsequently offered this apology but has, even more recently, been quoted as saying “I stand by what I have written, although I concede that it might not have been couched in diplomatic language.” Given the chance to reflect and reconsider, to think again, it seems he has refused.

Mr. Gandhi clearly has a right to think and say whatever he chooses. But, especially when his views are as outrageous as those he expressed last week, he has got to expect that others who think differently will talk back and forcefully challenge him. Joel Seligman, President of the University, has issued a statement expressing dismay at Gandhi's views. I think he is right to do so. Reasonable people may differ regarding the policies of the Israeli government or even of the actions of particular Jews, acting alone or in concert, under whatever self-description, whether in the U.S., Israel or elsewhere. That is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is the outrageous suggestion that Mr. Gandhi makes and continues to embrace that "the Jews" are primarily or uniquely responsible for the perverse violence in the contemporary world.

The difficulty with Mr. Gandhi's views arises not simply because it flies in the face of the banal empirical observation that violence of all sorts takes place in all sorts of places and is perpetrated by all sorts of people. Nor is the problem that he ignores the fact - if less general empirically, observable nonetheless - that there are Jewish peace activists in Israel who embrace precisely the sort of non-violent response to Israeli government policies in the Palestinian territories that Mr. Gandhi presumably would endorse. I have posted here on just that matter before. And it points to the real difficulty.

The difficulty is that when Mr. Gandhi speaks of "the Jews" as a homogeneous group with which he then identifies with the government of Israel and its policies, and to which he then attributes special responsibility for out modern "culture of violence," he is himself doing violence to the people he claims to address. By Mr. Gandhi's own ethical and political lights this is simply indefensible. As an advocate of non-violence Mr. Gandhi surely understands that our words, our speech acts, have consequences. Indeed, any non-violent stance must rely on the effectiveness of language. Yet his own way of speaking, his way of expressing his thoughts, does violence to Jews as individuals and, yes, as members not just of a religion with diverse manifestations, but as members of various ethnicities, as citizens different polities, and so forth.

In other instances, of course, such a mode of speaking would do violence to the reality of those belonging to whatever group the speaker might single out. In this instance, Mr. Gandhi's rhetoric homogenizes and thereby caricatures the lives, experiences, actions, motivations, beliefs, commitments, attachments and achievements, to say nothing of the shortcomings and faults, of Jews, seen not as cutouts but as actual persons replete with all their religious, political, social and cultural differences. It shows him as prejudiced, as bigoted. It raises questions in my mind about whether he grasps the purpose of a University as an instrument for pursuing truth. I hope other members of the University Community will speak up and ask him.

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Blogger Neetai said...

This is an interesting commentary that I would like to respond to. While I agree that Mr. Gandhi's speech act definitely violated ahimsa, the doctrine of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi followed which simplistically outlines that one must not harms others via physical actions, through ill thoughts, or malicious speech, I find problematic certain essentialist claims you make as well. Though Gandhi's choice of rhetoric is questionable, and he himself apologizes for that, I find his fidelity to his statements admirable.
Firstly you identify the University as the vehicle towards truth, yet that characteristic in itself seems exclusionary as we see in you criticism of Gandhi. Gandhi's perspective is instantly silenced without being examined throughly because it breaches a definite taboo that exists in Western society, an associated guilt over the Holocaust that entrenches an entire group of people in a net of victimization. While the issue of Zionism and U.S. support of Israeli lobbyist is another discussion, I find problematic your characterization of Truth as a singular static identity. While Truth isn't defined, it acts as the locus point off which we can define what is not Truth and marginalize that perspective. In this case Gandhi is vilified because his opinions run contrary to mainstream thought and while I understand your argument that his mode of speech is discursively violent, the very exclusion of his speech as something that is Untrue seems just as violent as well.

To return to early assertion I made about Gandhi's fidelity to his comments, within the past two years with various controversies like Don Imus, political correctness and adherence mainstream ideologies seems just like the terrorism that we fear so much. The terror of the harsh consequences misspeaking or violating political correctness is just as violent as the prior institutions of bigotry and prejudice themselves. To identify what is and isn't Truth, good, or right in plain binary constructions not only silences us but allows for tyrannical institutions to take place under the guise of "Truth". Thus, as a student and activist, I find that despite Gandhi's political issues, his fidelity to his statements is admirable in a time where terrorism reigns not abroad but in mainstream ideologies that seek to subvert any dissenting voice under the guise political correctness, truth, or good. These terms as abstract and personal, attempts to define them globally allow for binary constructions which will always marginalize those who dissent, and in the end is this not the logic of genocide?

18 January, 2008 00:12  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

First, Thanks for your reply. You will not be surprised to find that I disagree with you.

Second, as to the matter of truth. I actually have a reasonably specific understanding of truth. It means holding one's views up to challenge in light of the consequences of asserting them. In this particular instance, I think Mr. Gandhi propounds a stereotype of "the Jews" that cannot be sustained on examination (I offered a couple of contrary observations in the post) and that the consequences of his caricatured views are exceedingly dangerous.
That is true when one speaks of any group in gross generalizations.
Moreover, I am not asking anyone to 'silence' Mr. Gandhi, I am arguing back, disagreeing with him and inviting others to join in. As I noted in hte post, free speecah invites disagreement. Mr. Gandhi would be naive not to expect that those who disagree with him would not answer back.

Third, turth is not the same thing as conviction or fidelity. Mr. Gandhi may have very deep convictions. And his willingness to stick to his views suggests that that is the case. However, simply holding on tight to one's views regardless of the reasons or evidence offered for changing one's mind hardly is a virtue. It often is a sign of fanaticism - an unwarrented self-certainty, a lack of imagination and of charity. I do not want to characterize Mr. Gandhi in that way. I simply want say that a fanatic will speak with great certainty and conviciton and hold to his views regardless of reasons/evidence to the contrary. Why is that a virtue?

Fourth, this is not about 'political correctness'; I would complain in sumilar ways if he had spoken of "the arabs" or "the muslims" or "the hindus" or "the blacks" as a homogeneous entity and then blamed them for some thing like pervasive violence in the modern world. (I have in fact spoken out in just that way here in the papst.) My complaint is about a dangerous rhetorical strategy - dangerous regardless of target - that he adaopts.

FInally, I do not see how Mr. Gandhi's views comport very well with his purported commitment to non-violence. I stated that in the post and am still unsure how he can speak as he does.

18 January, 2008 11:28  
Blogger Neetai said...

Thanks for the response, there are some real interesting issues that have been elaborated upon in your reply, which I would like to rebutt, respectfully of course.

Firstly I agree with your final point, as I stated earlier, Arun Gandhi's speech act is definitely a violent act which violates the spirit of ahimsa, as it displays malicious thoughts towards another which is just as violent as a physical action.

Moving onto your second point on the conception of truth, I apologize, as I was thinking of a different conception of truth, i.e. one that is more abstract and universal, under which certain moral implications are tied to, like Bush's proclamation that the US's ideals of democracy and freedom as espoused in a Western framework are good and the Truth, and all Islamic fanatics are evil neo Nazis trying to destroy humanity. This universalization of truth is something that I am wary of, as it becomes a tool to be manipulated around political agendas, of which those who lie on the outside can be marginalized and even sacrifice in an effort to maintain some utopian conception of Truth.

Moving onto your third argument on which you argue Gandhi has deep conviction as opposed to fidelity due to his unwillingness to accept his incorrectness due to various strong arguments and reasons offered, I find that there is slight disconnect between Gandhi’s arguments and his apology.
Firstly the majority of attacks on Gandhi revolve around his homogenization of Jewish identity, yet in Gandhi’s original post, I believe there are three separate arguments being made which are glossed over. The first deals with use of the Holocaust as guilt mechanism for sympathy politics, the second with the perpetuation of violence in the Middle East via Zionist policies, though Gandhi here uses the term Jewish identity in the collective, and the lastly the argument that Jews and Israel are the “biggest players in the Culture of Violence” today. What has offended most as you stated earlier is the homogenization of the Jewish identity and collapsing with Zionist agendas. However his second argument, which though can be debated endlessly, is what I believe Gandhi is asserting as his main argument and is quite evident in his apology in which he states “I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people. Indeed, many are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes, by Israel and many other governments”.
Thus under your framework of truth, Gandhi would have accepted his original arguments which offensive were incorrect and subsequently his apology remains consistent with his political views while acknowledging his language and language in arguments 1 and 3 were flawed. While your original argument “What is at issue is … that Mr. Gandhi makes and continues to embrace that "the Jews" are primarily … responsible for the perverse violence ….” may be derived off the Gandhi’s following statement “I do believe that when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends” which would suggest Gandhi has not truly apologized for anything, Gandhi’s statement here seems consistent with his political stance. Moving onto the actual argument of fidelity versus conviction, firstly I don’t assert fidelity is a virtue but just something admirable, as his apology isn’t manufactured and remains honest to his beliefs. Gandhi hasn’t had some miraculous transformation of character and repented all he previously said. Rather he displays courage and integrity in acknowledging his rhetoric was flawed but still asserts his fidelity to his original claim that Israeli policies significantly contribute to violence. What is at issue here for me is firstly the ability to stand up to what was said and accept consequences that follow as opposed to creating some superficial apology to appease the mainstream crowd. Secondly what worries me, is the silencing of thoughts and criticisms that run against the popular grain, and we can see that fear actualized to some degree, as Gandhi has announced his resignation. Though in this situation I admire that at least the Board wishes to have a “face-to-face meeting … to review the facts and history”.
Finally, though I missed this initially when I was reading your post, I agree we should maintain open channels of communication and interrogate not only his arguments but our own assumptions in order to have a more clear view of what the issues being risen are.
Thanks for reading and responding to my comments.

18 January, 2008 21:55  

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