An 80-year old Rosh HaShanah greeting from Mahatma Gandhi to a leader in the Indian Jewish community recently surfaced, showing the activist’s sympathy and support for the Jewish community on the eve of World War II.
The timing of the letter is chilling: It was sent on September 1, 1939, the exact day the Nazis invaded Poland and launched the Second World War.
The greeting has been sitting in the National Library of Israel‘s archives since the 1950s but was recently discovered during a major initiative, supported by the New York-based Leir Foundation, to review and catalog millions of items among the archival collections that offer a window into Israel’s early history, and the Jewish experience around the world during the early 20th Century.
The greeting was sent to a A.E. Shohet, the head of the Bombay Zionist Association at the time and the editor of a Zionist newspaper. It is now online for the public to view for the first time and reads short and simple:
You have my good wishes for your new year. How I wish the new year may mean an era of peace for your afflicted people.
“It is in essence a previously unknown blessing from Gandhi to the Jewish people on the eve of the Holocaust,” Zack Rothbart, head of communications for the National Library of Israel, said.
Though friends with many Jewish leaders, the “father of modern India” as Gandhi came to be known, had a somewhat tenuous relationship with the Jewish community at the time, mostly revolved around his unwavering commitment to nonviolent political and social activism. This belief extended to how he felt European Jews should react to Germany’s rising anti-Semitism, as well as the Arab resistance to Jewish settlement in Israel, according to research done by the National Library of Israel.
In an article that he wrote for his “Harijan” journal in 1938, titled simply “The Jews,” he articulated this clearly saying the Jews in Israel should “offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them,” (using the Hindi term for nonviolence).
To the Jews in Germany, he recommended a similar approach, writing: “My sympathies are all with the Jews… If there ever could be a justifiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war…”
This approach, no doubt, achieved its fair share of criticism among Jewish leaders and intellectuals at the time, including from Shohet who responded with a letter in “The Jewish Advocate,” the Zionist newspaper he edited in which he argued that a nonviolent approach hadn’t worked for two-millennia of persecution against Jews thus far.
Gandhi also had a series of correspondence with Hitler in 1939-40 that controversially included elements of admiration and respect, while simultaneously condemning his actions against Jews and other minorities. (Whether this was a strategy to appeal to his pride and maintain a strategic political relationship is unknown.)
But while Gandhi maintained this neutral response to Nazi Germany and the Jews’ Arab oppressors in the Middle East, he also had close friendships with Jews including one wealthy architect named Hermann Kallenbach, who reportedly designed Gandhi’s Ashram and lived with him there for a time.
Leading Zionist figures at the time, including Moshe Shertok (who would become Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister) and Eliahu Epstein (who would become Eliahu Eilat, Israel’s first ambassador to the USA) attempted to use these connections to get Gandhi to express his support for the Zionist cause in a public way. Ultimately, Gandhi was assassinated before they were successful but this letter leaves us questioning if maybe they might have been successful…