Arun Gandhi and "the Jews"
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   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.