The Soul Behind ‘Great Soul’

Joseph Lelyveld, says he is aiming for a less mythologized picture of the historical

Many of the main points Joseph Lelyveld was trying to make in his new biography of Mohandas Gandhi were lost last month amid the outcry over the book’s most salacious suggestion: that the Indian leader may have been gay. But in an interview with the Jewish Week, Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former editor of The New York Times, tried to set the record straight.

“I dwelled on it first of all because it was damned interesting,” said Lelyveld, 74, in reference to the few paragraphs that say the notion of Gandhi having a homosexual relationship is, at the very least, plausible.

“It’s the opportunist in me,” he added, noting that very few scholars have exploited the recent trove of letters found between Gandhi and his acolyte — and possible romantic partner — Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish architect who briefly lived with Gandhi in South Africa.

“If you read the letters, and just the ones I quote, I think you can call them love letters,” he continued. “But I suggest the relationship was celibate — that they weren’t hypocrites,” since Gandhi and Kallenbach both took vows of celibacy.

Lelyveld noted that Kallenbach’s relationship is important for reasons that are central to his book’s underlying theme: that Gandhi was not a demigod, but a flawed human being who often struggled with his own impassioned beliefs.

Despite becoming an ardent critic of India’s caste system, it took him years to doff his own ingrained biases toward low-born “untouchables.” And though he fought mightily for Hindu-Muslim unity, Gandhi sometimes did not go far enough in recognizing Muslims’ own political aspirations.

But Gandhi took more dubious positions too — and ones of keen interest to Jews. Perhaps most important was his outspoken pacifism during the Second World War.

In Lelyveld’s book, titled “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India,” he quotes jarring examples of Gandhi’s nonviolent advocacy. In the late 1930s, for instance, Gandhi told reporters that “a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees” might be enough to “melt Hitler’s heart.”

In what Lelyveld describes as “a distressing trail of futile, well-intentioned missives,” he quotes another letter Gandhi sent directly to Hitler in 1939. “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?”

Underscoring Lelyveld’s skepticism, he then quotes Hitler’s response to a British minister, who had once brought up Gandhian nonviolence: “All you have to do is to shoot Gandhi,” Hitler told the minister.

Lelyveld also highlights Gandhi’s stance on Zionism. He begins by writing that Gandhi had a much better grasp of the Muslim point of view, since he had spent the early 1920s supporting Muslim causes — hoping Muslims would, in turn, support a single Muslim-Hindu Indian state. Gandhi understood why Muslims might reject Jewish statehood, Lelyveld suggests, but notes that he also gave the Zionist idea earnest attention.

The key to understanding his vague support of Zionism, Lelyveld stressed in an interview, was Kallenbach. When Gandhi left South Africa for India, Kallenbach — feeling in part betrayed by Gandhi’s deepening fealty for another Jewish acolyte, his secretary Sonja Schlesin — had decided to immigrate to Palestine instead.

Kallenbach remained a Zionist, even though he made his way back to South Africa, where he became a wealthy developer. But after 23 years away from Gandhi, he planned a reunion in India, in 1937. Lelyveld suggests, however, that Kallenbach’s reasons were not only platonic, but political: “The impetus came from the head of the Police Department of the Jewish Agency in Palestine,” Lelyveld writes.

Zionist leaders wanted their cause to have the moral support of the great nonviolent sage — Gandhi — and surreptitiously sent Kallenbach to do their bidding for them. Kallenbach arrived in India with a 25-page treatise on why Jews deserved a state in Palestine, which Gandhi said he found “very impressive, deeply interesting.”

Shortly after, Gandhi wrote a letter, never published, to Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel’s first president, stating his views in full. “In my opinion the Jews should disclaim any intention of realizing their aspiration under the protection of arms and should rely wholly on the goodwill of Arabs,” Gandhi wrote. “No exception can possibly be taken to the natural desire of the Jews to found a home in Palestine. But they must wait for its fulfillment till Arab opinion is ripe for it.”

When asked what he made of Gandhi’s views, Lelyveld replied: “It’s a nice answer, but totally uninformed.” He noted that Gandhi even proposed to Kallenbach that he wanted to mediate between Arabs and Jews over the future Jewish state — “which is absurd,” Lelyveld said.

Lelyveld argues that Gandhi’s views must be understood in relationship to whom it was refracted through — Kallenbach. When Gandhi expressed his views on Israel, he had more or less abandoned the hard bargaining of real-world politics. Increasingly willing to take high-minded positions that defied political reality, Gandhi went even further when solicited by his long-absent Jewish friend. “I take it as a reflection on his loneliness and his continued strong feelings for Kallenbach,” Lelyveld said.

Lelyveld says that he is not trying to debase Gandhi in “Great Soul.” Instead he is aiming for a less mythologized and more accurate picture of the real historical figure. “I basically support the received narrative,” Lelyveld said, “and I’m a little surprised that people see my re-reading as an attempt to undermine that narrative. Also, as a journalist, I don’t think positive or negative … But in the end, I admire him. I wouldn’t have called [the book] ‘Great Soul’ if I didn’t think he was.”

Indeed, read in its entirety, “Great Soul” seems less concerned with critiquing Gandhi himself than offering a riposte to present-day politicians and gimlet-eyed peaceniks that try to claim Gandhi as their hero.

In contemporary India, for instance, Gandhi is called a founding father, though Lelyveld shows how Gandhi essentially disowned the nationalist movement when it became clear that most Indians had ignored a central tenet of his campaign: a single, unified India for Muslims and Hindus both. In reality, India became a balkanized Hindu-dominated state, with Muslim-controlled Pakistan forming in reaction, breaking away as India declared statehood, in 1947.

Lelyveld said his interest in India stems, in part, from his early days as a Fulbright scholar in Southeast Asia, where he lived for a year not long after graduating from Harvard. A few years later, he was sent to South Africa as a foreign correspondent for The Times.

He learned about Gandhi’s little-known South African career while there, but never got the chance to devote himself to a full-length book. Mainly, his success at The New York Times got in the way: after a second stint in South Africa during the 1980s, he wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on apartheid that is still widely read, “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White” (1986).

He held several editorial positions at the paper after that book, slowly working his way up to executive editor, the paper’s highest position. He served in that role from 1994 to 2001, then for another brief stint beginning in 2003.

But there is another influence on the Gandhi book that Lelyveld, somewhat warily, concedes: his father, the rabbi and civil rights activist, Arthur Lelyveld. He is most remembered for the brutal beating he got at the hands of an angry white mob in Mississippi, in 1964, while riding with activists on a freedom ride.
But the rabbi was an outspoken activist and prominent voice within the Reform movement his entire life. “My parents were very socially conscious,” Lelyveld said.

Still, the author was careful to note that his father was a remote presence in his life. Lelyveld described that difficult relationship in his previous book, a 2005 memoir, titled “Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop.” It conveyed Lelvyeld’s sincere admiration for his father’s moral rectitude, but a muted sense of bitterness at a man he felt was distant and rarely at home.

To write that book, Lelyveld relied as much on reporting as he did on memory, digging through boxes of papers in his father’s basement, which he recovered shortly after his death, in 1996. Reading through his father’s letters, Lelyveld found sermons given during the Second World War advocating his controversial pacifist stance, which cited Gandhi in detail.

“At the height of the war, [my father’s] views were not exactly embraced by his congregants,” Lelyveld said. “But his pacifism ended abruptly in 1947 or so, when the full horrors of the Holocaust became known and the struggles over Palestine became severe,” he added, noting that his father became an ardent Zionist at a time when many leaders within the Reform movement still were not.

As for his own views on Israel, Lelyveld said he’s fascinated by the country. “There is no prime minister since Begin that I haven’t talked to, and I do go there often,” he said. “I like the country very much,” adding that he’d even like to write a book about it someday. “What I’d like to do is get away from ‘the situation’” — what Israelis call their conflict with the Palestinians — “and just write about daily life there.”

But, he added, that might not be practical. For his book on Gandhi, he visited India three times on extended stays. Now, he said, he would like to start slowing down. Anyway, he is comfortable where he is on the Upper West Side. “If I wanted to write a book about Israel, I’d have to live there,” he said, “and my life doesn’t allow for that now.”