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Gandhi and Buber on Individual and Collective Transformation

Department of Jewish Philosophy, Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan 5290002, Israel
Religions 2022, 13(7), 600;
Submission received: 27 May 2022 / Revised: 22 June 2022 / Accepted: 22 June 2022 / Published: 28 June 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue War and Peace in Religious Culture)


A virtual encounter between Buber and Gandhi articulates where they differ and where they touch common ground. They developed a transformative thinking that opened up the individual and collective ego to others. Only recently have scholars paid full attention to Buber’s theo-political thinking. Gandhi’s article “The Jews” made his way of thinking irrelevant for many Zionists over the decades. The relative neglect of Buber’s political thought and of Gandhi’s contribution to conflict resolution in Israel/Palestine explains why studies systematically comparing Buber’s politico-religious thinking with that of Gandhi are rare. The present article wants to fill this gap. Gandhi and Buber’s religiosity impacted upon spiritual, social, and political life. Their transformational perspectives could shed new light on how to deal with violent conflict situations.

Gandhi and Buber developed a transformational thinking that has relevance for individuals and for society as such. As inclusive and dialogical thinkers, they strove to create a peaceful society that promoted diversity in unity. They were profoundly religious thinkers who perceived divine sparks/Brahman in everybody.1 Their religious-political mindset clashed with nationalistic tendencies in their respective countries. Zionism and swaraj were an infinite task: their success depended upon the recognition of cultural and religious others. Cohabitation, cooperation, and equality were at the heart of their socio-political thoughts. Power alone did not determine the course of history.2 For Buber, the success of Zionism depended upon the creation of a real community and upon Jewish rapprochement with the Arabs. For Gandhi, swaraj from British raj was a spiritual renewal. In their ethical-religious orientation, they believed that human beings could be transformed by the spirit. Buber’s dialogical philosophy, in which the individual or collective I is relational, comes close to Gandhi’s satyagraha, which strives to convert people through critical, constructive communication. They believed in the interdependency of all. Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to the forces of evil was a self-transforming religious act, intending to bring about a less violent society. Buber’s dialogical thinking was steeped in a humanistic interpretation of early Hasidism.3
The research on Buber’s theo-political thinking is a rather neglected field. Only in recent publications do these thoughts receive due attention as being against a political theology, à la Carl Schmitt.4 Buber’s relative absence from contemporary political conversations has been explained by the fact that his politics were perceived as an application of his dialogical philosophy and theology. It is argued that Buber was better understood from his Biblical exegesis, his Path of Utopia, and his occasional writings on Zionism (Brody 2018, p. 86). Gandhi’s thought is admired, but considered irrelevant for life in the Near East. His problematic 1938 article “The Jews” made his way of thinking irrelevant for many Zionists over the decades.5 The relative neglect of Buber’s political thought and of Gandhi’s contribution to conflict resolution in Israel/Palestine explain why studies systematically comparing Buber’s politico-religious thinking with that of Gandhi are rare (Murti 1968). The present article wants to fill this gap. Buber and Gandhi did not meet physically, but a virtual encounter between these two giants of the spirit could articulate where they differ and where they touch common ground. They developed a transformative thinking that opened up the individual and collective ego to others, in order to get engaged in dialogue as a dimension of depth in human life.
After pointing out some differences and commonalities (Section 1), I describe how they aimed at transforming the individual as well as society. Their religiosity impacted upon spiritual, social, and political life (Section 2). I deal with Buber’s critique of Gandhi’s satyagraha, paying attention to their differences on the use of violence and the adoption of nonviolence in given situations (Section 3).6 Only after this discussion do I return to the question of their practice-oriented dialogical religious views and their dialogical hermeneutics of sacred Scriptures (Section 4). Finally, I offer some Gandhian and Buberian transformational perspectives on the conflict in Israel/Palestine (Section 5).

1. Differences and Common Ground

The lifestyles of Buber and Gandhi differed greatly. The one was married, and the other vowed celibacy in 1906 after being married at a too young age.7 The first was a well-to-do man, living in beautiful houses in Heppenheim and in the rich Rehavia borough in Jerusalem. He enjoyed a comfortable life. The other lived in modest dwellings in South-Africa and the Indian sub-continent, conducting an austere lifestyle. Buber did not share Gandhi’s excessive asceticism and religious penance nor his rather negative view of sexual life that is not for procreation. On death, they developed opposite ideas.8 In fact, Gandhi was ready to become a public sacrifice for the sake of a more peaceful India. Buber did not share Gandhi’s self-sacrificial actions, albeit he knew that the Suffering Servant mentioned in Deutero-Isaiah had to take upon himself the heavy burden of others. Suffering Servants created a meaningful, hidden history.
Like Henry Polak, Gandhi’s close friend, Buber pled for Jewish self-defense during the Hitler period. Gandhi principally cleaved to ahimsa and did not advise people to take up weapons against Nazism and fascism, at least not initially. Moreover, for Gandhi, Zionism was a colonialist movement. Buber developed a spiritual Zionism that aimed at the unification of humankind. Gandhi thought that nonviolence was a panacea, applicable in almost every situation, although with time he underwent an evolution. The efficacy of action was not his primary consideration. Buber was more inclined to justify proportionate violence against brute aggression. Gandhi rejected violence as a means, although in certain situations he asserted that violence was allowed as the best nonviolent option. Responding to a madman or to menacing monkeys, for instance, violence was the most nonviolent option: it was considered as ahimsa (Allen 2019, p. 33).
Beyond substantial differences, there are remarkable affinities between Buber and Gandhi. Murti rightly remarked: “[…] the differences between Buber and Gandhi are not as important as the philosophic unity in their dialogue” (Murti 1968, p. 607). Gandhi’s satyagraha is, indeed, similar to Buber’s dialogue. His method of satyagraha, including nonviolent non-cooperation, penance, and voluntary suffering, was the way dialogue was realized. With satyagraha as universal love, Gandhi tried to transform the conflict between India and England into a dialogue. Similarly, Buber’s religious thinking had relevance for the reconciliation between Jews and Arabs (Murti 1968, pp. 607–13). Murti concludes: “There is an unmistakable unity of spirit between Buber’s dialogue and Gandhi’s satyagraha. Both of them supremely recognized the divine mission of human existence” (Murti 1968, p. 611).
In their desire to hallow everyday life, Buber and Gandhi were practice-oriented. Nothing was exempt from sanctification. Buber frequently used the term Bewährung, “putting to proof in action” (Green and Mayse 2019, p. 61; Shonkoff 2018, p. 276). In Mendes-Flohr’s words: he had a “non-noetic conception of faith” (Mendes-Flohr 2001, p. 686). For Buber and Gandhi, spirituality had to be verified in daily life, including in the political realm. They showed the relevance of religion for politics. At the end of his autobiography, Gandhi writes: “To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means” (Gandhi n.d., p. 555).
As men of peace, Buber and Gandhi profoundly believed in the unity of humankind.9 They confirmed the existence of religious and political others in their country. Against Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who endeavored to create a separate state, Gandhi—being the Mahatma—wanted to be in humble service of all the inhabitants of the land, irrespective of race or religion. Similarly, Buber desired coexistence between Arabs and Jews: both had to “serve” the land. Diverse people belonged to the land: they did not own the land, the land owned them. Gandhi and Buber opposed two separate states in their country and strived to preserve unity in multiplicity. In Brit Shalom (1925–1933), Buber and his friends pled for the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Palestine. In 1942, his Ichud party advocated the union between Jews and Arabs. Gandhi did everything in his power to avoid the rift between Hindus and Muslims. Both thinkers were obsessed with the idea of unity: Palestine was not only for Jews and India not only for Hindus. Gandhi and the Muslim Congressman Maulana Abul Kalam Azad opposed the separation of the Muslim League, headed by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. In addition, he did not favor the separation of the Dalits (the oppressed), headed by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, from the Congress. Buber pleaded together with Magnes for a binational state, a co-dominion over Palestine.10 They favored unity with Muslims.11 History turned out differently: partition brought self-determination, but also ethnic conflict and violence, as foreseen by Buber and Magnes as well as by Gandhi and Azad. Jonathan Greenberg calls this history of partition “tragic” (Greenberg 2004, pp. 12–13, 24).

2. Transformation of the Self and of Society

2.1. Relational Thinkers

Gandhi and Buber considered the self not as an atomistic, isolated I, but as relational. They reflected on interrelatedness, on how people affect each other. Each human being was called to become part of a community. For Buber, this meant that everyone had to turn, to become “I-thou” and to get involved in the creation of a dialogical society. For Gandhi, it implied developing self-restraint, becoming nonviolent, and contributing to a predominantly nonviolent society.12 The illusionary and violent ego had to be replaced by a truthful deeper self, the Self or Truth. Unlike Marxists with their class struggle, they put the accent upon nonviolence and upon the personal in a non-revolutionary process. Gandhi mastered the art of compromise, and in many, even painful, situations, continued to communicate with others. In a parallel manner, in Buber’s “return”, all depended upon the relationship between human beings.
In his Hasidic stories, Buber formulated an anthropology that showed the way to individuals (Buber 1963). All are called. In one’s answer to the call, one has to start with oneself. However, one is summoned to go beyond oneself and become involved in the world. Personal self-transformation and transformation of society went together; interpersonal relations and inter-communal relations were hand in glove (Werner 2018).
Buber emphasized that there is only one way: one’s own way. Therefore, he did not recommend a uniform way for living. One had to evolve without any fixed code. Similarly, Gandhi proclaimed that each way was unique, a particular perception of the Truth. He wrote about his “experiences” of Truth.13 One only could have “glimpses” of the Truth. The Gandhian philosopher and peace and justice activist Douglas Allen specifies that, for Gandhi, relative truths were a limited understanding of the Absolute Truth that functioned as the “regulative ideal” (Allen 2019, p. 51). It would be a misunderstanding to think that Gandhi was “inflexible, coercive and abusive in relating to his family, striking workers, satyagrahis, and others” (Allen 2019, p. 50). Although not always, Gandhi was generally flexible in his views, and he recognized a plurality of visions. Although the relative truth was the partial access to the Absolute Truth, diversity was not forgotten (Allen 2019, pp. 47, 54). Gandhi went from one relative truth to a greater relative truth. His adoption of the Jain anekantavada or many-sidedness prevented him from developing a dogmatic view, although he did not always succeed (Allen 2019, chp. 8). Both Buber and Gandhi had no fixed doctrines but judged each situation at a given time according to their understanding of it. Buber said that he does not have a teaching but carries on a conversation. He showed the way with “I–Thou”: he does not demonstrate (in apodeixis), but points (in deixis) (Mendes-Flohr 2011).14 Gandhi, too, engaged in conversation, rather than developing stringent philosophical thoughts. He paid special attention to the downtrodden, who had to be freed by actively changing their destiny. By depersonalizing evil, he also desired to be in contact with the oppressors, who had to be freed from their violence, exploitation, and greed. All were involved in the nonviolent revolution.
To Buber’s mind, recognition preceded cognition. Acknowledgment and trust were more important than knowledge or experience in time and space. Buber and Gandhi trusted that the human being is capable of entering in dialogue, which made the Divine manifest. Encounter (Buber: Begegnung) and service were more elevated than self-affirmation. In the words of Gabriel Marcel: not having but being was decisive. Buber explicitly opposed a philosophy of existence that refers to “a self-contained or self-sufficient principle of existence” (Mendes-Flohr 2011, p. 253). Buber and Gandhi enjoined people to become partners in a continuous dialogue with others. For Gandhi, the nobility of the I consists in its relatedness to the other as a manifestation of Brahman. He had no foes and could even address Hitler as “dear friend”, distinguishing between the man and his monstrous deeds. He put the accent upon service to the other. In non-cooperating with oppressors and in nonviolent resistance against unjust laws, Gandhi sometimes left this dialogical attitude. Yet, ultimately, the dialogue with all and the liberation of all remained his declared aim. In Buber’s dialogical thought, the human spirit was not in the isolated individual, but always “between” (zwischen) human beings.
In his I and Thou, Buber urged the human being to become dialogical. This transformation had to be personal: the I could become “I–Thou” and insert meaning into existence that was not reducible to the “I-It” sphere. The “I–Thou” was the humanizing element in humanity. A human being cannot exist without an instrumental, utilizing, categorizing, functional approach. Yet, what made the human humane was his or her ability to relate. Everyone had to return to their fellow human being. Buber celebrated the marvel of relatedness. In this, he followed Hermann Cohen, who perceived the correlation of God and the human being as actualized in the correlation of human beings. The “next man” (Nebenmensch) had to become a “fellowman” (Mitmensch). If this does not take place, the “next man” (Nebenmensch) unavoidably becomes the “opposing man” (Gegenmensch) (Cohen 1972, pp. 86, 113–14; 1919, pp. 100–1, 132–33). For Cohen, “the isolated self exclusively engaged in thinking cannot be an ethical self. For this [ethical] self, there exists no I without a Thou” (Cohen 2013, p. 218; 1924, p. 275)15. For Buber, “The extended lines of relations meet in the eternal Thou. Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou; by means of every particular Thou the primary word addresses the eternal Thou… The inborn Thou is realized in each relation and consummated in none. It is consummated only in the direct relation with the Thou that by its nature cannot become It” (Buber 1938, p. 91; Buber 1958a, p. 75; 1970, p. 123). Gandhi, too, considered the I as relational. His concern was the connection to a deeper nonviolent Self or Reality that could be discovered behind the constructed violent self.

2.2. Religiosity, Sociality, and Politics

Buber was not interested in daily prayers and rites. Gandhi, in contrast, had regular prayer services and religious chants. However, what united them in their religiosity was their common desire to conceive politics as a field that had to be influenced by a religious spirit. One’s entire life had to be hallowed, including the political dimension. In a time when religions became largely privatized in the West, Gandhi and Buber brought religion into contact with politics: no compartment of life was disconnected from religion that interpenetrated all spheres of life. Buber strived for a radical change, without becoming a revolutionary.16 In his novel Gog and Magog, he opposed an apocalyptic politics and refused to interpret Napoleon as preceding the messianic times (Buber 1944; 1958b). His adagio was “turning”, not overturning, slow change, not revolution. Redemption would not come from apocalyptic visions and false Messiahs, who want to hasten the end of times, but rather from patient work in history. With their extraordinary religiosity, Buber and Gandhi became involved in politics and pleaded for a change from power to service. Buber was a Jew and a humanist, and Gandhi thought that he was “as much a Christian, a Sikh and a Jain” as he was a Hindu, and that “[r]eligion does not teach one to kill one’s brother however different his belief” (CWMG 1999, vol. 85, pp. 276–77). Buber would agree with this ethical interpretation of religion.
In their inclusive religiosity, they emphasized the underlying unity of religions. Buber’s thoughts on religiosity as distinguished from concrete religions run parallel with what Gandhi called “religion beyond religions” or “true religion” (CWMG 1999, vol. 52, pp. 219, 269, 311–12). Moreover, Gandhi’s utterance “Truth is God” and Buber’s dialogical philosophy allowed atheists to join the liberation struggle.
For Gandhi, unity is more important than what divides: it is the deeper reality. For Buber, dialogue or the inter-human is the highest reality. Both were acutely aware of the stains in their own religion. In a way parallel to Buber, who did not believe that God demanded from king Saul to kill, Gandhi interpreted the Gita not as an outward war, but as a struggle in oneself. It was further adharma to believe in the distinctions of high and low in the varnas (CWMG 1999, vol. 80, pp. 222–24). Although he supported the varna system in general, Gandhi did not understand how one could consider it dharma to treat the depressed classes as untouchables. For Hindu orthodoxy, he went too far in his proximity to the Dalits, whereas others wanted to go further. Gandhi and Buber criticized institutional religion but were profoundly religious men. Buber did not visit synagogues; Gandhi was not a temple goer. Yet, with their all-encompassing, universal religiosity, they challenged people to rethink traditional institutional religion.
Both were enthusiastic about experimental cooperative village communities, kibbutzim and ashrams (Buber 1956).17 Buber highly appreciated the interrelatedness and equality of all in the kibbutz, preferring this social organization above the arrangements of the state. These communitarian forms of life, inspired by a dialogical non-halakhic Hasidism, could lead to a renaissance of Jewish life (Shonkoff 2018).18 Buber and Gandhi developed a trustful attitude towards human beings; they deeply believed in unity and propagated a communitarian view of life.
With their religious vision, Buber and Gandhi criticized a narrow nationalism that was at the expense of others outside their own nation. They were self-critical and worked on reconciliation. In their thinking and acting, they wanted to transform people, in whom they recognized the divine image. They worked not with might, but with a trust that was the basis for cooperation and coexistence. They believed in the changeability and perfectibility of human beings.
Gandhi’s satyagraha was a special kind of nonviolence. It was “love-force” or “truth-force” that aimed at reducing political, economic, social, and structural violence. Interconnectedness reduced divisiveness and produced a more harmonious society. Buber too opposed violence and did not accept any violence described in the Bible that could motivate Jews in his days to perform violent acts. He followed the proverb “Its ways [of the Torah] are ways of pleasantness and its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). To his mind, the return of the Jews could not be realized at the expense of the Arabs living in the land. Just as the kibbutzim could be confederated, Jews and Arabs in the land could live together in a binational state. Gandhi wanted the nation to be built from the bottom, from the villages, in ever widening circles. Avoiding economic and political oppression and creating a decentralized, self-contained economy of swadeshi could bring about a less violent society. In his utopic socialism that combined the social and the personal, Buber too saw the kibbutzim in Palestine as basic forms of the inter-human (das Zwischenmenschliche), where a vital, nonviolent, and spiritual Judaism, inspired by the prophets, was reborn (Corset 1988).19 Gandhi and Buber taught people how to build bridges in the midst of troubled waters. They never referred to violent passages in their religious sources in order to back violence on the ground. On the contrary, with their peaceful hermeneutics, they countered violence. They wanted the freedom of all, not only of their own group. Confronted with violence and vengeance, they held high the hope of coexistence and interrelatedness.
For Gandhi, the force of love was greater than the force of arms. History was the interruption in the course of nature: “Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history” (CWMG 1999, vol. 10, p. 90). The force of love was the hidden force in the world. In front of oppressors and unjust rulers, one had to overcome the fear that lends power to the powerful. Buber did not share this teleological view, but he too believed that the power of relatedness and the dialogical lifestyle, hidden in an undercurrent Judaism, could change the world.
They loved their country, in which plurality was essential, but belonged to the world as such. They avoided egocentric patriotism that did not care for the wider world. Buber proposed a binational state: the land was a land for two people. In his Hebrew humanism, dialogue and meeting were essential. Similarly, Gandhi favored unity that does not neglect diversity.
Gandhi and Buber echo each other on the subject of the state. The former followed Henry David Thoreau, who started his “Civil Disobedience” (Thoreau 2013) by wholeheartedly agreeing with the motto: “That government is best which governs least”. Following Thoreau, Gandhi did not disrespect the state with its laws and courts but adopted a higher point of view. As a lawyer, he knew about the importance of laws, but he followed a higher Law and a higher Truth, anticipating what today we call the universal rights of human beings. Not unlike Gandhi, Buber followed the law of love and trust. They believed not in a centralized controlling government, but rather in communities that could become interrelated. The state was a necessary structure, but communities and the alliance between them were more important. They did not think about the state in a territorial way, but rather as a conglomeration of communities.
Gandhi’s actions paralleled Buber’s concern for human rights. His constant care for making compromises to come to better situations does not imply that he was a relativist nor that he dogmatically imposed his view on others. Many of his compromises served to continue his dialogue. Buber and Gandhi were men of the spirit, suspicious of centralized state power. They believed in the quiet revolution of dialogue that would reduce state power to its minimum. In an interview with Nirmal Kumar Bose, Gandhi said that the state “represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The Individual has a soul, but as the state is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence” (CWMG 1999, vol. 65, p. 318).20 Political life had to be transformed. In their anarchism, Buber and Gandhi criticized state structures and their violence. Yet, since states were unavoidable, their centralized power had to be reduced to a minimum.

3. Buber’s Critique of Gandhi

3.1. “Gandhi, Die Politik und Wir”

In his article “Gandhi, die Politik und Wir” (Buber 1962, pp. 1081–87),21 Buber is appreciative but also critical of Gandhi. He calls Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March a “pilgrimage” that codetermines how the human being in independent India will be.22 “What will be swaraj”, he writes, “if it will only bring a change (Umwandlung) of institutions, and not of the human being” (Buber 1962, p. 1087).
In the article, Buber explicitly deals with Gandhi’s nonviolence. He refers to Thoreau’s treatise on the duty of civilian disobedience, written in 1849 (Thoreau 2013). He admires Gandhi, but not blindly. Gandhi is for him first of all a religious man, who makes experiments with himself and his friends, in an attempt to insert religion in politics. With Gandhi, he writes, there is hope for change and return (Umkehr). He quotes the Mahatma, who was convinced that if India wants to be independent, this is only due to divine assistance. Gandhi loved those who act in truth and nonviolence. He believed in nonviolence, not out of weakness, but of strength. His attitude was really religious (“eine religiöse [Haltung] im echtesten Sinn […]”) (Buber 1962, p. 1083). He struggled with the snake of politics outside, but also with this snake amidst his own followers. Buber appreciates how Gandhi self-critically takes upon himself rigorous purifications when the snake inside triumphs. Yet, he distances himself from extreme mortifications. He even writes on the “tragic character” (his italics) of the contradiction between Gandhi’s unconditional mindset and the conditionality of the masses. This tragic situation, he continues, is overcome in the slow and not “successful” path of the Divine through history (Buber 1962, pp. 1084–85). In slow transformations, one progresses towards the always unattainable goal. Was he thinking about proceeding slowly in order to bring the Kingdom of Heaven instead of following the revolutionary, tragic way of his anarchist friend Landauer, who was murdered in his attempt to establish the Munich Republic?
Buber approvingly mentions that Gandhi did not want an insertion of politics into religion, but of religion into politics. With the term “religion”, Buber of course did not mean a cult, but rather the steady change, the return, in which one experiences how much belongs to Caesar (Buber 1962, p. 1087).23 “The word”, Buber writes, does not triumph in purity or in political success. He distinguishes between political successes and “the word” that struggles with concrete situations (Buber 1962, p. 1083). A passage in I and Thou may shed light on this statement about “the word” as born in “return” (Umkehr): “It is in return that the word is born on earth. In spreading out it enters the chrysalis of religion; in a new return it is reborn with new wings” (“In der Umkehr wird das Wort auf Erden geboren, in der Ausbreitung verpuppt es sich zu Religion, in neuer Umkehr gebiert es sich neu beflügelt wieder”) (Buber 1938, p. 101; Buber 1970, p. 165). Transformational religious acts are, therefore, not to be confused with political successes.
Moreover, one way cannot be universally prescribed. Buber highlights that one may learn from Gandhi, but that “[w]e can only work on the kingdom of God through working on all spheres of man that are allotted to us. There is no universally valid choice to serve the purpose”. One could not simply follow in Gandhi’s footsteps. There was no universal validity of one way.
Buber much appreciated Gandhi’s combination of ethics and politics. Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance was for him “an act of worship, […] an act of self-transformation” (Buber 1957a, p. 132). Gandhi’s swaraj implied not only the transformation of institutions, but foremost the transformation of people (Buber 1957a, p. 132). Buber’s article of 1930 was appreciative but also critical of Gandhi, whose rather universalized nonviolent technique returns and receives even more weight after his letter to the Jews in Harijan of 26 November 1938, to which Buber sharply reacted.24 Apparently, Gandhi had no clue about the specific, cruel conditions in which the Jews lived in Germany in the thirties, when he advised the Jews to adopt satyagraha in Germany as well as in Palestine.25

3.2. Gandhi’s Article “The Jew”

In answer to Gandhi’s counsel to the Jews in offering satyagraha to Hitler, Buber reacted that this was not the way Nazism could be withstood. He accused Gandhi of not being able to imagine that what was helpful and right in the Indian situation was ineffective and destructive in the situation of Nazi Germany. The martyrdom would go unobserved. At the same time, he wrote that Zionism was not only in the heart; it was connected to a concrete land. Yet, Jews and Arabs had “two vital claims” to the land and “a union in the common service of the land” is needed. Jews and Arabs had to develop the land together: they loved the land, and so “a union in the common service of the land must be within the range of the possible”.
Guha, Gandhi’s biographer, deems that in his reflections on the Jews, Gandhi was naïve. He had referred to the Jews as the “untouchables” of Christianity, but was “hopelessly out of touch with the rapidly developing situation in Europe” (Guha 2018, p. 559). The situation of the Jews in Germany was not akin to the situation of Indians in South Africa. He observes: “The Buber-Magnes pamphlet was posted to Gandhi in India. Yet there is no sign that he ever received it. Did it get mislaid on its way across the seas? Did it get mislaid in India, while being redirected from Segaon to wherever he was? Did one of his secretaries (surely not Mahadev) not show the pamphlet to Gandhi because the criticisms were so direct? We shall never know. Had Gandhi seen the letters, he would almost certainly have replied to them” (Guha 2018, p. 558).
Buber disagreed with Gandhi, who wanted the Jews to be satyagrahis in Germany. Justice was important for both, but in a quite different manner. Whereas for Gandhi satyagraha came first, Buber thought that satyagraha would not work against the Nazi threat. Contesting the efficacy of Gandhi’s advice to the Jews in Nazi Germany, he wrote: “We should be able even to fight for justice—but to fight lovingly” (Buber 1957b, p. 146). Gandhi himself upheld a position of nonattachment to results, which does not mean that he was not at all concerned with results. He insisted that nonviolence was the right attitude to adopt. Opposing armed resistance, he proposed satyagraha to the French, the Czechs, the Poles, and the Norwegians. The British had to not go to war. With time, however, he supported the British war effort. He was conscious that not everyone had faith in nonviolence (Guha 2018, p. 659). In the long run, however, nonviolence would triumph. Guha writes that suffering opens up a channel of communication with adversaries: “To be sure, satyagraha could not be used against Hitler in Germany. But in normal times, normal places and against normal rulers, as a means of protest it was always more moral, and often more effective, than violence” (Guha 2018, p. 569). When Gandhi suggested that Herbert Fischer return to Germany and start a satyagraha campaign against the Nazis, the latter answered that Hitler was not Judge Broomfield, who called Gandhi a saint when he sentenced him to jail. In 1940, Gandhi did not believe that “Herr Hitler” was as bad as portrayed. He urged the British and the Jews not to rely on the force of arms, but to be nonviolent and to be ready to be slaughtered, if necessary. Gandhi advocated a nonviolent policy, not shared by Nehru, the British, and the Jews (Guha 2018, pp. 613, 622–24).
Gandhi did not favor the massive Jewish ascendance to Zion. However, meeting Hermann Kallenbach in May 1937, after 23 years of separation, he appreciated the Jewish desire to establish a homeland and offered to mediate between Jews and Arabs. Later he abandoned the idea. Shimon Lev remarks that Gandhi was positive on Sion in an interview with the son of Eliezer ben Yehuda, Itamar Ben-Avi, in 1931. He contends that most of the Jewish pioneers in Palestine repeated what R. Z. Klitzel wrote after a 10 min meeting with Gandhi: “Great, yet foreign to us—that is Mahatma”. According to Lev, Gandhi’s 1938 article “can demonstrate clearly the turning point in the attitude to Gandhi and his irrelevancy to the Jewish national movement in Palestine” (Lev 2022). This is true, but a broader perspective opened by Gandhi could show the great relevance of his nonviolent thought and practice for the entire Zionist project, as I will show in the last part of this article.
In 1938, Buber disagreed with Gandhi on the use of violence: “An effective stand may be taken in the form of nonviolence against unfeeling human beings in the hope of gradually bringing them thereby to their senses; but a diabolic universal steam-roller cannot thus be withstood… If there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands”. As time went by, it became more and more urgent to defeat Nazism. To this end, dirtying one’s hands was necessary. In order to deal with Nazi violence, self-defense was indispensable. In this case, the end justified the means. In order to save lives, one had to destroy lives. Lives were commensurable.
Following Tolstoy, Gandhi in his letter rejected violence as a means. His nonviolent experiments intended to weaken the eternal vicious cycle of violence. In certain cases, however, he allowed violence to be the lesser evil and said this could be a form of ahimsa. Gandhi was not an absolute pacifist. He abhorred cowardice and knew that, from a psychological viewpoint, helplessness and a lack of courage provoke violence. When it came to the threat of a Japanese invasion, he supported the idea that the British army remained in India. In 1922 he even declared: “Have I not repeatedly said that I would have India become free even by violence than that she should remain in bondage?” (quoted by Buber 1957b, p. 146). At the same time, he was aware that violence, including deceit and corruption, frequently provoked greater violence. He believed in “love force”, in challenging the enemy by one’s nonviolence. For Buber, it was impossible to convince Hitler. Given the extreme suffering of the Jews under the Nazi regime, violent resistance was the better means. Violence against Hitler’s violence was justified since it prevented greater evil. Indeed, violence is not absolutely bad, and all depends upon the context (Runkle 1976). Never to be glorified, violence has to be evaluated on the basis of the expected results in order to save lives.
In Gandhi’s article “The Jews”, results were secondary: what counted was the purity of ahimsa as the eminent means for the end of love and truth. His opinion was “purely based on ethical considerations and is independent of results”.26 Efficacy was not his main concern. Gandhi thought that Jews in Germany had to adopt nonviolence as a form of strength and not of weakness. The efficacy of this action was secondary.
In 1938, both Buber and Gandhi combined justice and peace, but in a different manner. In his dissent with Gandhi, Buber put his finger on Gandhi’s lack of understanding of the specific situation of Jews in Germany. Not fully bearing in mind Gandhi’s evolution concerning the use of violence, Braj Sinha writes about “the violence in the Gandhian nonviolence” (Sinha 2020). Gandhi held on to his view, even after the Shoa.27 He deemed that satyagrahis did not have to be attached to the result of one’s action. Sinha asks the question if his silence was a strategic silence or the silence of a tormented soul, one who had to deal with Buber’s objections (Sinha 2020, p. 17). However, it is highly improbable that Gandhi received Buber’s letter without answering. Further on, in a broader perspective, Gandhi frequently assessed his experiments with truth as complete failures because they were not effective.
In his 1938 article, Gandhi also thought that Palestine belongs to the Arabs and did not prescribe satyagraha for the Arabs in Palestine. Only the Jews did he ask to act with nonviolence. Sinha writes that Gandhi refused to limit his satyagraha principle. It remained valid without considering the specific context and situation of the Jews in Germany: “Gandhi was not willing to put any restrictions or conditions on his principle of Non-violence and Truth Force” (Sinha 2020, p. 20). Buber, on the other hand, “proposed to temper the law of Non-violence with the principle of Justice. Herein lies Martin Buber’s significant contribution to the conceptual framework within which the questions of principle and practice of Gandhian Non-violence in the contemporary global context need to be explored” (Sinha 2020, p. 21).
With the principle of justice and his thoughts on self-protection, Buber put a limit on an absolute nonviolence principle (Sinha 2020, p. 14). Justice understood as legitimate, proportional self-defense was the way to attain peace (Buber 1957b, p. 145). He cleverly referred to Krishna’s reproach to Arjuna, who was not willing to fight against injustice (Sinha 2020, p. 14). One had to resist evil in the world, just as one had to resist the evil in oneself (Buber 1957b, p. 146). It was impossible to follow Gandhi’s advice in cruel Nazi Germany.
For Gandhi, the term ahimsa did not only denote the refusal to harm; it was active love that promoted life (Parekh 1989, p. 113). He did not oppose all violence in order to protect others. However, in the case of the Jews in Nazi Germany, he disregarded the concrete situation of the Jews and held on to his principle of nonviolence without compromise. Agreeing with Buber’s position, Sinha labels Gandhi’s nonviolence as violence. An ideologically construed truth had to take into account “the context and circumstances within which it is applicable. […] I suggest that violence of Gandhian Non-violence lies in its black of sensitivity to and non-acceptance of the concreteness of the context of human existence” (Sinha 2020, pp. 14–15). Sinha’s critique of Gandhi’s position in 1938 is right but cannot be generalized since Gandhi’s view evolved with time.
Recently, Butler has famously problematized the term self-defense (Butler 2020). She criticizes the use of the word in the mouth of war mongering or discriminating politicians. She makes the readership conscious that behind the word “self-defense”, violence and aggression frequently hide. Yet, this makes self-defense not a void word. Buber thought that self-defense was a duty for Jews against Nazi brutality. Gandhi and Buber were acutely conscious of the necessity of justice. Yet, in 1938, they differed on how to achieve it. Gandhi persisted with ahimsa: peaceful goals asked for peaceful means. For Buber, Gandhi’s advice was counter effective. It was not enough for the struggle against the anti-democratic powers. For Gandhi and Buber, nonviolence was intertwined with justice, which in this specific context was understood in different ways. Gandhi was alarmed by the thought that legitimate violence would too easily turn into its general justification (Parekh 1989, p. 128). Not a complete pacifist, he allowed for violence in some cases. Ahimsa permitted some himsa, but he did not advise proportionate violence in the situation of Jews in Germany (Parekh 1989, p. 112). He anticipates Butler’s criticism of a state that too quickly becomes violent and undertakes violent actions, although all lives are grievable.
Gandhi knew that life was impossible without violence. One harmed life by simply inhaling germs, for instance. Jains, who opposed agriculture because it involved violence and who therefore depended upon others for their survival, were for Gandhi hypocritical (Parekh 1989, p. 118). He was conscious that if one did not allow harm, one finally had to kill oneself. Social order had to be preserved against invaders by means of war (Parekh 1989, p. 109). Out of compassion, one could kill a calf that was badly maimed and in acute, incurable agony (Parekh 1989, pp. 120–21). It was better to be violent against oppressors than to be a coward, whose fear only fed the aggression of the oppressor.
Unlike Gandhi, Buber did not believe that in the context of Nazi Germany, love would vanquish everything. It had to be balanced by justice understood as the protection of life, eventually by using violence. Justice implied the use of violence in the face of the enormity of Nazi state terror. He disagreed with the Mahatma in his perception of satyagraha as an unshakable principle. Sinha notes that Gandhi persisted in his opinion, even after WWII.28 Gandhi cleaved to an idealistic, utopic thinking that was not embedded enough in the concrete situation of Jews under the Nazi regime. Different from Gandhi, Buber combined idealism with a realistic view that took into account circumstances, time, and places.29
There is a testimony that Gandhi replied in a postcard, in which he told Buber he regretted that he did not have time to write a reply (Sinha 2020, p. 11, note 18). We do not have this postcard and one wonders if it does not stem from one of his aids. Sinha notes that Buber felt betrayed by Gandhi: the prescription of satyagraha to the Jews was not an appropriate way of dealing with the extreme violence of the Nazis (Sinha 2020, p. 12). With the Nazi state violence, transformation of the Germans through Jewish satyagraha was fruitless. Buber wrote: “We have not proclaimed, as did Jesus, the son of our people, and as you do, the teaching of non-violence, because we believe that a man must sometimes use force to save himself or even more his children. But from time immemorial we have proclaimed the teaching of justice and peace; we have taught and we have learned that peace is the aim of all the world and that justice is the way to attain it” (Buber 1957b, p. 145). For Buber, self-protection and justice were interconnected. He wrote that “if there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands” (Buber 1957b, p. 146).
The foregoing historical analysis of the Buber–Gandhi controversy in 1938 cannot be complete without reference to the broader framework of Gandhi’s later positions on himsa and ahimsa. In order to do justice to Gandhi’s overall approach, we have to take into account the evolution of Gandhi, who gradually recognized in certain circumstances the necessity of violence which could be counted as nonviolence.
On the question of Zionism, Sinha refuses to explain Gandhi’s opposition to the Zionist enterprise as stemming from his partiality towards the Muslim cause in India and from his support of the Khilafat movement (Sinha 2020, pp. 16–17). Yet, Gandhi was much preoccupied with the internal unity of India and with Jinnah’s plans to found a separate state. In my view, this also explains, at least partly, his stubborn position on Zionism after the Shoa. Gandhi already opposed Zionism at the time of the Khilafat movement. He disagreed with Zionists who made common cause with the British imperialists.
In his reaction to Gandhi, Buber emphasized that communication with the Nazis was out of the question. The Nazis could not be persuaded to change their attitude, their hearts could not be melted, so that Gandhi’s power equalization or reduction in the inequalities of power and his expectation of the conversion of opponents was an impossibility. The Nazis would act only more cruelly when confronted with Jewish nonviolent protesters. Buber, therefore, thought that Gandhi was unjust towards the Jews. I already quoted Buber’s words: “There is nothing better for a man than to deal justly –unless it be to love. We should be able even to fight for justice- but fight lovingly” (Buber 1957b, p. 146). Refusing to become a satyagrahi, Buber deemed that it was unrealistic to appeal to the conscience of Nazis. Their brutality could not be compared by that of the British imperium.
Wolfgang Palaver notes that after Hitler started the war, Gandhi gradually and self-critically admitted that absolute or unconditional pacifism was not always possible. With time, he argues, Gandhi developed a more balanced view of nonviolence. So, for instance, he backed Poland’s defense against the Nazis, defining this defense as almost nonviolent. Palaver sides with René Girard, who demonstrated the contagious, fire-like nature of violence. Against the mimetic dynamic of violence, one could progressively substitute force with nonviolence (Palaver 2021).
Douglas Allen, too, insists that, for Gandhi, one had to be “as nonviolent as possible” in permanently striving to the Absolute Truth of nonviolence (Allen 2019, p. 33). Gandhi was a human being, who made mistakes and misjudgements. However, with all his blunders, he remains, in Allen’s words: “a complex, sometimes contradictory, remarkable human being […]” (Allen 2019, p. 16). In his sympathetic reading of Gandhi, Allen does not forget how Gandhi misjudged situations and even supported situations that led to violence. Yet, he emphasizes Gandhi’s changing positions towards violence and his gradually deeper and more radical understanding of this complex phenomenon.
With his Gandhi-inspired perspective, Allen allows us to criticize Gandhi’s standpoints in concrete historical contexts and, concomitantly, to reformulate new contextualized Gandhian visions. In a broader perspective, Gandhi was indeed aware of the limitedness of his views. In many cases, he regretted his failures and learned from them. He experimented with the Truth and did not think that he was in possession of the Truth, which was only partially perceived by humans. The Truth could be approached experimentally and open-endedly in life-confirming love, in interconnectedness, and in self-transformation and the transformation of others. Gandhi frequently revised and rejected earlier positions and improved them. Only when we take into account his evolution, his permanent self-criticism, and his overall vision may we develop an interpretation of Gandhi that offers an alternative for violent situations today. From this perspective, his active nonviolent resistance and courageous attempt to escape permanent violence is relevant for those who live in Israel and Palestine, as I will show in the last section of this article.

3.3. Nonviolence as Communication

Gandhi and Buber put communication central in their thoughts. They wanted a dialogue with opponents and reform in society. Both looked at the world through dialogical lenses. In 1938, Buber’s way differed from Gandhi’s deed-oriented Karma Yoga, without attachment to the results. Martin and Varney have called Gandhi’s satyagraha a “principled nonviolence”, in which the effectiveness of nonviolent action is secondary (Martin and Varney 2003, p. 214).30 They distinguish between “principled nonviolence”, as exemplarily lived by Gandhi, and “pragmatic nonviolence”, epitomized by Gene Sharp, in which nonviolent action is viewed as more effective than other means of action (Sharp 1973). I do not share Martin and Varney’s viewpoint that Gandhi’s nonviolence was “principled”, but the point I want to make here is that their study creatively approaches nonviolence as communication. They express their surprise that nonviolence researchers have rarely used communication perspectives (Martin and Varney 2003, p. 213).
Similar to Gene Sharp, Chenoweth and Stephan conclude their book on civil resistance by writing that “historically, nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more effective in achieving their goals than violent resistance campaigns” (Chenoweth and Stephan 2013, p. 220).31 In the long run, nonviolent civil resistance campaigns would be more successful. du Toit and Vosloo share this standpoint and explain that in Gandhi’s religiously inspired ontology, soul-force or love-force is the underlying power in everything (Du Toit and Vosloo 2021, pp. 5–6). Gandhi was indeed convinced that in the end, the love force would vanquish.32 This Gandhian reading of history is, however, not necessary. As mentioned, Buber did not share Gandhi’s teleological thought. Yet, similarly to Gandhi, he believed that dialogue or holistic, loving interaction with others could change the world.
Gandhi’s satyagraha was not always effective. During the Salt March of 1930, the police did not alter their violent behavior. The reactions of Britain and the United States brought the Indian cause to the world’s conscience. Not through communication, but through the mobilization of third parties, through international support, was the campaign successful.33
Notwithstanding the shocking lack of Gandhi’s understanding of the Jewish situation in Nazi Germany, his nonviolent perspective remains a challenge for today. His actions and views in favor of the transformation of the individual and society, and more particularly his thoughts on swaraj or self-rule as related to a nonviolent way of life beyond mere independence, are most actual. In Allen’s words: it is a “radical paradigm shift” (Allen 2019, pp. 14, 34).

3.4. Faltering Dialogue?

Crane has written on Buber and Gandhi’s religious rhetoric. Gandhi and Buber had political views that were inspired by religion. Yet, whereas Buber’s religious thinking worked with commandments, Gandhi talked about conversion. Crane deems that Buber’s reference to commandments did not echo in Gandhi’s mind, whereas Gandhi’s talk on conversion did not resonate in Buber’s heart.34 Buber worked with the command to be in the land where a just civilization had to be built. Gandhi wanted Jews to stay in their countries, where they only recently were accepted as citizens, and convert to satyagraha.
Crane analyzes why Gandhi’s 1938 article shocked Buber. Gandhi had called for mass martyrdom and voluntary suffering under political oppression, —something which was almost nonexistent in Jewish life for the last two thousand years. With his faith in satyagraha, he did not see military action as a justified option. The Jews could “convert German hearts, and perhaps redeem the reputation of ‘the German name’”. Yet, Jews did not seek such a conversion. In addition, in Palestine, Jews were advised to become satyagrahis. Gandhi did not endorse Palestine as a Jewish homeland. It belonged “to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French”. Crane notes that Gandhi, who pleaded for diversity in India, did not see that diversity was a possibility in Palestine. For Gandhi, the Jewish call for a homeland would give Germans a justification of treating the Jews badly. The Jewish aspiration for a homeland clashed with the Arab right to Palestine. For Gandhi, “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds”. He judged the Arabs “according to the accepted canons of right and wrong”, but applied universal standards to the Jews. He interpreted their divine election as the ability to practice satyagraha: Jews could gain the respect from the world “by being man, the chosen creation of God, instead of being man who is fast sinking to the brute and forsaken by God”. Gandhi envisioned a slaughter of Jews that would convert the Arab hearts.
Buber accused Gandhi of not fathoming the cruelty of the Nazi regime. Whereas Gandhi had his “motherland”, he denied the Jews such a land, praising the Jewish dispersion. Crane incisively writes: “For one, a body politic need not exist in space but only in time; for the other, a body politic cannot exist except in the confluence of time and space” (Crane 2007, p. 45). Buber’s concern was the self-preservation of the Jewish people. Crane concludes that Buber and Gandhi’s religious tropes were “patently distinct and perhaps potentially incommensurable” (Crane 2007, p. 49).
From what Crane calls a “faltering dialogue”, one may learn that the language one uses should be understandable to the partner. Indeed, from the standpoint of a developing dialogical theology, one should be attentive to the different mental framework and the specific vocabulary of one’s partner.35 From an inter-worldview perspective, it is a sign of peace when one understands and uses the terminology of the other in order to shape a common world. Yet, is Buber’s “turn” so far removed from “conversion”? Are they not rather synonymous? Moreover, is Gandhi’s practice of taking vows and formulating them in a command-like language not parallel with Buber’s sense of obeying commandments? In many passages—Allen reminds me—Gandhi emphasizes that vows should not be taken lightly and that they should be obeyed and never broken.
In their peaceful thinking, Buber and Gandhi developed a liberation theology that aimed at the liberation of all and that started with what the first called “return” and the latter “conversion”. Starting with the individual’s transformation, they did not stop there: they envisioned a connection with many others in society. Dialogue was at the center of their religiosity.

4. Dialogical Hermeneutics and Religious Thinking

4.1. Dialogical Hermeneutics

Gandhi succeeded in giving a charitable reading to a multitude of religious sources. He interpreted the Gita, his favorite sacred text, in a nonviolent way, making it relevant for today. Douglas Allen said about the Gita: “Those who wrote the epics were profound spiritual and moral teachers but they didn’t believe in non-violence. So, Gandhi, here, is trying to purify the texts to make it more spiritual and ethical for the 20th century”.36
In Gandhi’s nonviolent hermeneutics, the Pauline verse “the letter kills, the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6) played a role (CWMG 1999, vol. 64, p. 75)37. Hindu and other texts influenced Gandhi in reading Scriptures nonviolently. Paul’s verse was one of the elements that allowed him to give a nonviolent interpretation to sacred texts such as the Vedas, the Gita, the New Testament, the Quran, or the Christian hymn “Abide with me”. Significantly, Gandhi attributed this Pauline saying to Jesus himself. (CWMG 1999, vol. 40, p. 315).
Thanks to the freedom of his non-literal, figurative interpretation, he could avoid the use of Scriptures for violent aims.38 It was forbidden to use texts for violent purposes, for instance, in defending untouchability or denigrating and discriminating women. The yardstick for the right use of sacred texts was if they stand the test of Truth and ahimsa (CWMG 1999, vol. 33, p. 355). Ahimsa was active, life-promoting love. Truth and ahimsa were two sides of the same coin (CWMG 1999, vol. 72, p. 31). Texts were important in as far as they were instrumental in bringing about nonviolence. In Buber’s exegesis, too, killing could never be a divine command. He illustrated this with the example of the Binding of Isaac (Meir 2002). More generally, Buber and Gandhi shared a reading of Scriptures that promoted a nonviolent society. They refused to accept violence based on holy Scriptures, which received a nonviolent interpretation in light of the divine Raj/Kingdom.
One may critically ask if Gandhi himself stands up to his own criterion of reading specific texts with the eyes of those who live from these texts (CWMG 1999, vol. 64, p. 420). With his spiritual interpretation of Jerusalem as in the heart and not as physical reality, he rather misunderstood the place of Jerusalem in the Jewish tradition and the lived reality of Zionism. Buber was there to remind him that Jerusalem in the Jewish mind was not only in the heart, just as India was not merely spiritual for Hindus.
By using 2 Cor. 3:6 as a cipher for the right use of Scriptures, Gandhi could, of course, offer a figurative, nonviolent reading of the Gita. This is the advantage of putting the accent upon the freedom of the interpreter and on the functioning of texts in different contexts. However, by using this text as the basis for his exegesis, Gandhi also inherited the Christian reading of the verse. As is well known, the verse has a difficult Traditionsgeschichte in Christian history, which opposed a literal reading of the Old Testament and preferred a figurative, Christian one in a supersessionist move (Noort 2022, p. 8).
Gandhi’s interpretation of the verse in Paul’s letter to Corinthians returns in his explanation of a verse in the letter to the Galatians. He quotes the verse “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law and do them’” (Gal. 3:10) and concludes that “Mere bookish souls can never attain moksha” (CWMG 1999, vol. 12, pp. 405–7)39. With this conclusion, he also inherited a kind of Christian supremacy.40 In the letter to the Galatians, Paul freely quotes the verse of Deut. 27:26, writing, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Torah”. Paul contrasts this with the verse of Habakuk 2:4: “the one who is righteous will live by faith (tsaddiq be-emunato yihye”. Gandhi loved the idea that one must perform the Torah, but, concomitantly, he insisted on the problem of living according to a “Book”, although this term is a clear Pauline addition to Deut. 27:26. As in the case of his interpretation of 2 Cor. 3:6, Gandhi’s interpretation of Gal. 3:10 contrasted a Jewish, literal reading and a Christian, symbolic one, repeating an age-old Christian bias. Jewish tradition is replete with figurative readings, but Gandhi inherited a longstanding tragic Christian history of interpretation that intended to make a contrast between Jewish literalists and Christian spiritualists.
Gandhi’s prejudice did not stop him in permanently looking, with Buber, for justice in religious sources. They developed a broad perspective on religions. Buber had great interest in Asian religions and had restrictions towards Christianity. In his Two Types of Faith—which is, in my view, a regression compared with his I and Thou—Buber makes a sharp distinction between “believe that” and “believe in”. He even opposes both, as if “believe that” is unlinked to “believe in”. Gandhi, too, was critical of Christianity, which did not follow the example of Jesus. Both men differentiate between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of the Christian faith. Gandhi criticized a Christianity that perpetrated crimes, for instance, against the Zulus (CWMG 1999, vol. 68, pp. 272–74). Buber was critical of a Christianity that had forgotten the basic attitude of trust and did not link faith to every sphere of life.41 He was more attentive to the differences between Judaism and Christianity, whereas Gandhi differentiated less between religions. Gandhi accepted a multi-perspectivism that testified to the always unreachable Truth, without, however, neglecting differences. Beyond all theological differences, Buber and Gandhi searched for what religions may teach to mend the world and to strive for a less violent world, through justice, mercy, and love. They offered a transformative exegesis of the ancient Scriptures, and by doing so, invited the reader to participate in the creation of a more communicative society.

4.2. Dialogical Religious Thinking

Buber and Gandhi developed a dialogical and self-critical religiosity (Meir 2018; Meir 2021). For Buber, rabbinical-Halakhic, ritualistic, and rational Judaism concealed the authentic, dialogical religiosity.42 He wanted Jews to rediscover the dialogical element in their tradition. Gandhi wanted his fellow Hindus to see nonviolence as the way of uncovering Brahman in the world. Their dialogical religiosity asked for a political transformation that was immediately linked to personal transformation.
Buber and Gandhi also contributed to interfaith dialogue. In a time when religions had a sometimes-violent comeback, Guha’s words are actual: “With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism around the world, and in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, and with the political ascendancy of Hindu fundamentalist forces within the country, Gandhi’s commitment to interfaith harmony is more relevant than ever before” (Guha 2018, p. 905). For Gandhi, the various religions were like the many branches on a tree or like different paths to the top of the mountain.
Buber and Gandhi gave priority to the practice and were critical of immutable religious utterances and dogmatic references to Scriptures. With his karma-yoga, Gandhi was more interested in Truth than in theology: he wanted less theology and more Truth. He referred to Andrews, who gave up theology to live the gospel.
In Gandhi’s view, Jesus was a political figure, a satyagrahi, who knew about love-force. Although Buber did not follow Gandhi’s view on Jesus and was more critical of the New Testament, he considered Gandhi a prophet in the field of theo-politics.
Gandhi was more concrete than Buber in his attitude to Muslims. He was closer to Muslims in their everyday life. He called the Indian Muslims “blood-brothers”; he was not their enemy (CWMG 1999, vol. 72, p. 133). In his endeavor to reconcile Hindus and Muslims in India, he supported the Khilafat movement and took on its views, against his own pacific values. The Gita and the Qur’an belonged together. He defended interreligious harmony. Or better: he developed a humanist religiosity, binding all together. Hindus and Muslims forged bonds. Buber and Gandhi both favored unity of non-Muslims and Muslims. They did advocate one single state with several nations. With their vision of universal brother and sisterhood, they trusted that non-Muslims and Muslims could live peacefully together.

5. Gandhian and Buberian Perspectives in Israel and Palestine

Buber was greatly interested in Gandhi’s theo-political thoughts, but the latter’s article “The Jews” and his non-response to Buber pushed Gandhi to the background for many Zionists. However, Buber’s call for cohabitation between Jews and Arabs and for reconciliation is not dissimilar to Gandhi’s call for unity. Their calls are highly actual. Buber’s reflections on intersubjective and public dialogue as well as Gandhi’s nonviolent civil resistance remain inspirational. Leaving their comfort zones, they reached out to their own people and to others in order to transform them.
The heritage of a largely forgotten Buberian moral Zionism furthers an alternative, more covenantal Zionism that challenges the present one. Buber imagined a Zionism that does not stop with the right of living in the state of Israel but promotes an ethical life with equality for all and a transformation of political structures. Against Carl Schmitt, for whom politics was amoral, and working with the distinction between friends and foes, Buber did not separate politics and religion, which covered all spheres of life. Politics was not a secluded realm. Moreover, society had to be transformed through I–Thou relations. Buber contested the dichotomy of friend–foe and corrected conflictual situations through dialogue; the experiment of a dialogical community was at the antipode of Schmitt’s theory (Morgan and Guilherme 2010, pp. 10–12). A relation with the Divine was not possible “without a relation to the body politic” (Buber 1965, p. 76). Friedrich Gogarten, Schmitt’s theological ally, had a “theological version of the old police state idea” (Buber 1965, p. 77). In his theology, the ethical became the political, and redemption would come from grace alone. Contesting the concept of political theology with apocalyptic overtones (Schmitt 1922), Buber developed a theo-politics, in which the Kingdom of God was palpable in everyday life, including in the politic (Buber 1990); a slow, gradual working in history and in the concrete world would bring redemption, not a tragic apocalyptic and revolutionary messianic politics that wants to hasten redemption. The “Kingdom of God” was not a confusion between politics and religion, neither did it totally separate them. It was a permanent reminder that redemption is not yet here and that it involves hard, daily work in the always harsh reality. Israel’s faith was necessarily “religio-political” (Buber 1990, p. 117). Buber’s discussion of the “Kingdom of God” and its criticism of Realpolitik as well as of an apocalyptic messianic politics is of importance in the present-day state of Israel. For Buber, Gandhi’s satyagraha and Hasidic kavvana (inner intention) had in common a “philosophy of action that makes doing integral with being and rejects any ethic that is less than a claim on the whole person. This also means that we ought not to deny or neglect action for the sake of inwardness. We cannot achieve wholeness by going inward and leaving the outward secondary and inessential, anymore than we can achieve it by going outward and neglecting the inward”.43 Refusing the split between inner and outer, Buber wanted the transformation of the human being and of society as such. Aware of two opposite interpretations of the national rebirth, he plead not for a normalization, but for a return, a spiritual reawakening of Israel (Biemann 2002, pp. 220–21).
Brody has elucidated the reception of Buber’s political thought during his lifetime. He distinguishes between three moments, respectively linked to Theodor Herzl, Gustav Landauer, and Hans Kohn. In the first moment, Buber is perceived as enthusiastic, immature youth. In the second moment, he is considered a feminine thinker and is rebuked by Landauer for his German patriotism. He is on the same page as his friend in the Munich revolution and sees the problem of a state that usurps the direct divine Kingdom. He also develops a “theo-political commitment to an anarchist covenant theology that interprets divine kingship as prohibiting all permanently institutionalized coercive human authority” (Brody 2018, p. 96). Transposing Landauer’s anarchism to Palestine, Buber’s anarchist Zionism does not favor the creation of a nation-state. In the third moment, Hans Kohn leaves for the US. Whereas Buber is dismissed as a dreamer and idealist, he does not withdraw from messy ethical situations “for the sake of purity”(Brody 2018, p. 98).
Brody’s refined analysis can be complemented by describing the reception of Buber after his death. In my view, Buber’s dialogical transformational thinking provides us with a kind of Zionism that has interaction with the non-Jewish Arab world as its aim. Zionism was not another political nationalism, a “Judenstaat mit Kanonen, Flaggen, Orden”.44 In Zion, society as the mere conglomeration of people had to be transformed in organic communities of interrelated and caring human beings. These communities would form a genuine Gemeinschaft, a dialogical society for which political sovereignty was not enough. Gandhi too was never content with mere political independence. More was expected from India, whose inhabitants had to be transformed.
Notwithstanding Gandhi’s “Himalayan blunder” when he advised the Jews to resist Hitler nonviolently, he is highly inspirational in Israel/Palestine. Like Buber, he believed in a hidden reality that could bring change. History was not only driven by political success or by power. Truth was to be accomplished and trust was focal. Communication and dialogue made the Divine visible.
In a Gandhian-informed perspective, Allen confronts Gandhi’s writings with his own insights and selectively appropriates what is significant in Gandhi for our own lives. Following his non-essentialized, contextualized, and open-ended rereading of Gandhi, we may reapply what remains insightful in Gandhi’s writings as significant for today. To reformulate and reconstruct a Gandhian philosophy and practice in its relevance for Israel/Palestine is the task of the day.
From a Gandhian perspective, one becomes aware of the relativity of one’s standpoint. The situation in Israel is not black and white; to know one side is not enough. We may carefully listen to the narrative of the other and learn what are their needs and feelings, their frustrations and aspirations. We may go to the roots of violence and learn that our own views and the views of the others are relative and mutually conditioned. Not becoming active and merely accepting the situation as it is means continuing the present violence.
From a Buberian-Gandhian perspective, Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent resistance is a testimony to the divine Kingdom. In “Roots”, Ali Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger work together. Rabbis for Human Rights help Palestinians to plant trees and to pick olives. The “Bereaved Families Forum” brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost their children in the conflict. There are signs of alternative views on the conflict. Both parties in the conflict could march together, fast together, have sit-ins, and organize public meetings and peaceful demonstrations. One could become conscious that there are two legitimate claims to the land and that truth results from the deep listening to and the recognition of each other’s narrative. Fear and blame could be replaced by Gandhian and Buberian nearness and presence. A Buberian moral Zionism could lead to more equality and perhaps to federated states with open borders and residency. It could prepare a change in power structures.
A Gandhian perspective on the conflict in the Near East challenges dominance, violent actions and reactions, while stimulating self-criticism and self-control and producing more interrelatedness. Gandhi’s transformative approach to all kinds of violence implies active involvement in the improvement of economic, social, psychological, and political conditions. It implies facing the roots of violence in the present situation, recognizing one’s own complicity, and acting in sarvodaya, for the good of all. Instead of justifying terrorism and anti-terrorism, one could create the conditions for a less violent, more secure Israel and Palestine.
Gandhi is often appropriated for un-Gandhian purposes. It is not helpful, for instance, when Indians simply repeat Gandhi’s 1938 statement that Palestine belongs to the Arabs, also after the normalization of relations with Israel by India on 29 January 1992. On 17 September 1950, the Jewish state was recognized. I agree with P.R. Kumaraswamy, who writes that Gandhi’s understanding of Judaism and Jewish history was very limited and that one cannot continue to quote Gandhi’s statement without re-examining it in the post-normalization phase (Kumaraswamy 2020). To quote Gandhi “has now become helpful to rebuke suggestions that India had abandoned the Palestinians in favor of its newly–found friendship with Israel” (Kumaraswamy 2020, p. 778). The recognition of Israel is seen as un-Gandhian. Kumaraswamy criticizes this way of thinking. Zionism is not purely religious, as Gandhi thought. Neither is it purely political. Israel has to be recognized, but a Gandhian-inspired self-critical reflection on the Zionist project could lead to the betterment of Israeli society and the improvement of relationships between Jewish-Israelis and Arab-Israelis, as well as of relationships between Israel and Palestine. A collective ego-driven view and divisiveness could gradually make way for a dialogical practice and interconnectedness.
There are attempts to revive the binational spirit of men such as Buber, Magnes, and Weltsch and to make it relevant for today (Russell 1990). Any political arrangement, however, will fail if the inhabitants of the land do not transform themselves in recognition of the other and if they do not return from a national chauvinism. What is at stake is nothing less than the moral character of the Zionist enterprise.
We need Gandhi-informed deeds, a sympathetic interpretation of Gandhi’s nonviolence, a dialogical hermeneutics, and a way out of the present terrible situation, in which mimetic violence reigns. In view of a viable Zionism, Gandhi’s dialogic and communicative nonviolence provides us with a remedy against extremist and exclusivist nationalisms. We could learn from his opposition to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and to the nationalistic ideology of Hindutva. His ideas of swaraj or self-rule as including personal as well as sociological, economic, and political dimensions could lead away from a false ego-driven and isolated individual and from a solipsistic collective self to the creation of dialogical persons and of a dialogically conceived Zionism that gives up alienating domination and embraces coexistence.
Buber and Gandhi were two non-traditionalist thinkers. They were social activists, who developed a theo-politics in which religion and politics were not separated: communication, trust, and dialogue were at the core of their thoughts and acts. Power and mere self-interest did not have to dictate politics. Since the profane and the sacred were not separated, politics was the concrete reality in which the truth, linked to morality, had to be realized. The Kingdom of God had to penetrate all the spheres of life, in interpersonal relationships and in political life. It entailed personal and collective transformation.


This research received no external funding.


A fellowship at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) allowed me to finish this article. Thanks to Douglas Allen and Wolfgang Palaver for their insightful remarks on a draft of this article. Allen’s book Gandhi After 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability provides me with a philosophical method how to read Gandhi’s texts in their historical context in view of a rereading of these texts in radically different contexts. Allen’s own selective, creative, perspectival and sympathetic rereading of Gandhi allows me to fully appreciate the great value of Gandhi’s nonviolence for today.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


Buber was more dualistic than Gandhi, although his early writings contain clear non-dualistic statements, for instance, on the “realization” of God. Friedman mentions a non-dualistic position in Buber’s Ecstatic Confessions and observes that Buber’s I and Thou is neither dualistic nor non-dualistic (Friedman 1976, pp. 413–14).
Buber talked about “the most pernicious of all false teachings, that according to which the way of history is determined by power alone…while faith in the spirit is retained only as mere phraseology”. See Buber’s speech in 1958, referred to by (Leon 1999a, p. 44).
For comparisons between Buber and Gandhi: (Murti 1968; Crane 2007).
(Mendes-Flohr 2008; Morgan and Guilherme 2010, pp. 3, 9–12; Brody 2015; Brody 2018; Lesch 2019). At an early stage, Robert Weltsch and Paul Mendes-Flohr were attentive to Buber’s prophetic politics (Weltsch 1967; Mendes-Flohr 1985).
Buber and Magnes’s responses to Gandhi were published in (Buber and Magnes 1939) 1939. Buber’s reference to self-defense clashed with Gandhi’s ill-informed, naïve, and problematic view of the situation of Jews in Germany, Europe, and the Near East (Meir 2021).
For scholarly attention to this theme, see (Runkle 1976; Brody 2015; Sinha 2020).
Gandhi not only became a brahmachari. He was obsessed with brahmacharya. He tested his abstinence of all sexual relations by sharing his bed with his grandniece Manu Gandhi and remaining passionless. Through this problematic experiment, much criticized by some of his oldest disciples, he wanted to overcome violence in himself. With this extreme self-purification, he linked the imperfections of the outside world to his own imperfections, which he wanted to overcome (Guha 2018, pp. 809–25). Although Gandhi called his celibacy declaration brahmacharya, it was actually vanaprastha, i.e., the third stage of life according to the Hindu Vedic system.
Buber disagreed with Gandhi’s radical penance and self-imposed fasts that could lead to death.
Buber and Gandhi’s worldviews underwent changes in the course of their life. Buber’s thought developed from a mystical viewpoint into a dialogical philosophy, from that of a German nationalist, called “Kriegsbuber” by Landauer, to that of a philosopher of dialogue, who favored Jewish-Arab coexistence in Palestine. Gandhi, too, underwent a metamorphosis, from a Hindu to an English gentleman and further to a satyagrahi and bapu of India. He convinced many people to make a personal turn to the other, to adopt a simple lifestyle and become a satyagrahi.
On binationalism, supported by a minority in the Zionist movement and rejected by the Arab national movement: (Leon 1999b; Butler 2018).
On the legacy of partition in the post-War period of Japanese and British decolonization: (Greenberg 2004).
Nicholas F. Gier deems that the term “communitarian liberalism” is the most appropriate label for Gandhi. He describes Gandhi as a communitarian, embracing all religions and cultures, with a strong emphasis on the individual and their moral obligations. Nonviolence was for Gandhi not only a personal, but also a civic virtue (Gier 2003).
Gandhi’s autobiography is entitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Mendes-Flohr follows N.N. Gatzer in using the word “co-existentialism”.
Cohen maintained that selfhood stemmed from the interaction between I and you. Pondering on the meaning of “thou shalt love thy neighbour as yourself” he referred to re’akha (your neighbour) as the one who is like you, the Thou of the I. Buber and Rosenzweig also translated the love commandment as “thou shalt love thy neighbour who is like you” (liebe deinen Genossen dir gleich; Lev. 19:18) (Cohen 2013, p. 218; Cohen 1924, p. 275).
P. Mendes-Flohr notes that Buber had a genuine sympathy for the revolutionaries of 1918–1919, but eschewed apocalyptic politics (Mendes-Flohr 2014).
Buber writes that the cooperative movement in Palestine is not the result of utopian fantasies, but rather is “topical” and “constructive”, leading to changes (pp. 133–34). He does not refer to merely consumers of producer cooperatives, but to “the full cooperative” (p. 133). The vital Jewish village commune, the kvutza is an experiment that did not fail. It wants the creation of “a new man and a new world” (p. 135). It is brought about by an elite of halutzim (pioneers), whose work in the village commune influenced the evolving society. In the everyday life of the commune, everything depended upon one’s openness to one’s fellow man. This relationship amounts to “a regular faith” (p. 138). Buber highlights the non-doctrinarian way of this life in cooperative settlements, which have a common cause and a common task. Much as Gandhi’s ashram, the kvutza is an “experimental station” (p. 139). As the kernel of the new society, the kvutzot tend to federation. Moreover, in the kibbutzim or collectivist movements, a community comes into being. Both kvutzot and kibbutzim strive for “communitas communitatum” (p. 140). In the article, Buber remains aware of flaws and the lack of neighbourly relationships, of setbacks and disappointments. However, he writes on a “signal non-failure”, not “a signal success” (id.), highlighting the permanent task in these forms of living together.
Shonkoff explains how Buber, in his retelling of Hasidic stories, interpreted the Hasidic lifestyle as an embodied, “sacramental” second-person relation, moving away from philosophical, abstract thinking. This sacramentality is not limited to particular halakhic acts, but to whatever one is engaged in at every moment.
Buber coined the term “das Zwischenmenschliche”: (Buber 1979).
The interview took place 9/10 November 1934.
The article was first published in Die Kreatur, 1930, Jg. 3, H. 4.
The same religious language was used by Martin Luther King, who, upon arriving in India in 1959 on Nehru’s invitation, told reporters that he did not come as a tourist, but as “a pilgrim”. He came to study with some of Gandhi’s disciples and paid tribute to the Mahatma (Colaiao 1984, p. 7).
This interpretation of religion as the path of God in history is clearly described in the third part of I and Thou: “The history of God as a thing, the way of the God-thing through religion and its marginal forms, through its illuminations and eclipses, the times when it heightened and when it destroyed life, the way from the living God and back to him again, the metamorphoses of the present, of embedment in forms, of objectification, of conceptualization, dissolution, and renewal are one way, are the way” (Buber 1938, p. 98; 1970, p. 161). In this passage, religion is called the way to God. However, Buber was also aware that religion may lead away from God. This potentiality of religion is the potentiality of human beings, who may create dialogical relationships with each other and realize a community in the center of which they find the eternal Thou (Buber 1938, p. 100; 1970, p. 163).
See note 5.
Simone Panter-Brick distinguishes four stages in Gandhi’s involvement in Palestine: defense of the Caliphate (1918–1936), offer to mediate (1937), the letter to “The Jews” (1938), and self-imposed silence (1939–1947) (Panter-Brick 2009).
Sic in a statement given to Kallenbach in July 1937, Central Zionist Archives, S. 25.3587.
Sic in an interview with Louis Fischer in June 1946 (Sinha 2020, p. 15, n. 28). He also repeated his position in his article “On the Jewish Question,’” Harijan 22 May 1939, in response to Hayim Greenberg, (CWMG 1999, vol. 75, pp. 415–16).
See his answer to Louis Fischer.
For a peace strategy that combines both: (Mollow et al. 2007).
Yet, according to Lev, Gandhi advocated “conditional pacifism” in the case of the Boer War and the Zulu Rebellion (Lev 2022). Gandhi participated in the British wars against the Boers and Zulus.
Gandhi’s satyagraha as “truth force” or “love force” comes close to the expression in Zachary 8:19 “Love truth and peace” (ve-ha-emet ve-ha-shalom ‘ehavu).
Crane notes that Gandhi used the word “conversion”, which for Buber had missionary overtones (Crane 2007, p. 49). Yet, Buber’s use of the German word “Umkehr” (turn/return) is not far from conversion or change.
Noteworthy in this context is the title of H. Gordon’s article “A Rejection of Spiritual Imperialism: Reflections on Buber’s letter to Gandhi” (Gordon 1999).
In an interview to on 25 April 2019. Gandhi irrelevant: Prof Douglas Allen (accessed on 2 June 2022)
For a discussion of Gandhi’s use of Paul: (Noort 2022, pp. 7–11).
For examples of a literal, violent reading of the Hebrew Bible: (Meir 2019, pp. 106–8).
in a letter of 4 December 1914.
According to Mt. 5:2 and 5:17–19, Jesus did not remove one iota of the Torah and he did not come to abolish the law, but to realize it.
Alan Brill has justly written that Jews and Christians are from the same family, just as there is the same fundamental dharma in Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism (Brill 2012).
Yemima Hadad forges the term “Dialogvergessenheit” (parallel to and different from Heidegger’s Seinsvergessenheit) to characterise Buber’s critique of a formalistic and rational Judaism that concealed true religiosity (Hadad 2017).
Sic in a letter to S. Zweig of 4 February 1918.


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