Around The WorldEditor's Choice

What was Tagore’s Palestine Dream?

eNewsroom Exclusive: Rabindranath Tagore had a dream of bridging the Gulf between Arabs and Jews. Had the world paid heed to the Nobel laureate's advice, we may not have witnessed the genocide today in Palestine. Read an important reportage by senior journalist Biswajit Roy, who is living in Shantiniketan these days. He writes about Tagore's views on Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine and Zionism in the backdrop of the ongoing Gaza genocide

The ongoing genocide in Gaza– aerial bombardment and ground invasion in the 17 sq. miles small strip of besieged land at the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and a smaller part of residual Palestine, long occupied by the Zionist Israeli State led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu– has already surpassed the horrors of Guernica, epitomized by Pablo Pissco in his 1937 oil painting. The pulverizing of the small Basque town by Fascist bombers in Republican Spain and the carpet bombing in the German city of Dresden by the Allied forces during the prelude and crescendo of the Second World War, respectively, have long been considered the ultimate symbols of the aerial pounding of urban civilian populations and destructions of their life-supporting infrastructure. In contrast, hourly rising tolls in Gaza today, both in terms of human lives including that of children and women as well as wanton destruction and devastation in one of the most densely populated urban settlements in the world for more than three months are unprecedented in the post-war history. With almost half of Gaza’s estimated 2.3 million population being under 18, children and women comprise a large share of the casualties. Even hospitals, schools, food and relief shelters run by the UN and other international agencies have not been spared.

On top of it, with the continued blockades by the Zionist war machine from the sea, land and air and no route to escape the bombardment, Gaza civilians are dying in hundreds like trapped rats. Contagious diseases are spreading fast and the spectre of famine is looming larger. For that matter, Gaza has been known as the largest and most overcrowded open-air jail in the world since the blockade from air, sea and land had begun 17 years back. Even in peacetime, its 2.3 million population survives mostly on international aid that comes through the Egyptian border under total Israeli control. The Jewish state controls supplies of water, electricity and other essentials to Gaza and turned off them many times to impose collective punishment on the civilians for the terrorist attacks by Hamas and other Islamic militant groups who have been fighting against the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and denial of basic rights to Arabs under occupation. Every time, the collective punishment of the civilians has been harsher to extract the price of their defiance in blood and tears.

The retaliation after the Hamas attack inside Israel on October 7, 2023, claimed around 1200 casualties including a good number of civilians and 33 children as the UN secretary general put it while condemning Hamas brutality. At this point, we too condemn the Hamas killing of civilians, particularly Jewish children and women, both on moral and military-political grounds as it has only facilitated the genocidal revenge by Netanyahu’s far-right government and helped him to turn around the growing public opposition to his rule and whip up an existential angst and war hysteria. The Jewish state and an overwhelming part of its civil society now consider the Hamas rampage on October 7 to be the most deadly attack on the ethno-religious group turned nation after Hitler’s Holocaust but also it bludgeoned the pride of invincibility of its military might in the Middle East and impenetrability of the country’s defense system. The gravely injured collective male ego in a heavily militarized society has unleashed its century-old accumulated hatred, fears and wraths on Arabs as well as self-righteous historical victimhood on a besieged and unarmed Palestinian masses conflating them with the armed Islamic resistance groups, which the Israeli State itself had promoted to undermine secular and left-oriented Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) headed by late Yasser Arafat. The war, supposed to be restricted to finish off Hamas military wing, has been turned into a deliberate and uninhibited war of extinction of the enemy population.

So, this time, the ‘genocidal intent of Israel’, as the lawyers of South Africa and the Irish Republic at the International Court in Hague have put it in early January, is clearly manifested in the Zionist ‘state policy’, expressed in words and deeds of Israeli state leaders or politicians– the president, prime minister and defence minister, parliamentarians onwards as well as its armed forces chiefs. Their public pronouncements and religio-political extortions to all active soldiers and reservists either to ‘obliterate Gaza from the map’ or to wipe out the ‘human animals’ living there, drive them in the sea and desert – all are not just ‘wartime rhetorics’ to whip up retaliatory passions at home but meant for completion of the long-drawn ethnic cleansing project to incorporate the strip into Israel. Their repeated calls not to make any distinction between armed militants and ‘uninvolved civilians’, not even spare women and children since they represent the ‘seeds of Amalekites’ have amply demonstrated the Jewish state’s ‘genocidal intent’ and ‘irreparable prejudices’ to the Palestinians, the lawyers pointed out.

Amaleks were one of the Biblical enemy communities of the ancient Israelites in Cannan, a part of Palestine in antiquity– whose total extermination and destruction of homes and domestic animals before complete colonization by the conquerors– was depicted in detail as part of the fulfilment of Divine commandment in the Hebrew Bible. The relentless air and ground attacks on civilians along with systemic denial of water, food, medicines and other basics have already exhibited, that the Israelis might do ‘irreparable harm’ to the Palestinian people. The Irish representative has demanded immediate and provisional intervention of the IC to stop the Israeli juggernaut pending the full hearing and its verdict before it is too late.

Denying the charge of genocidal intent and provocations, Israeli lawyers defended its right to retaliate against Hamas and its allied terrorists while calling the death of civilians tragic but incidental. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings a ‘distraction’ from Israel’s efforts to finish off Hamas. But at the same time, admitted that 90% of the Gaza population is now facing starvation.

rabindranath tagore and palestine gaza israel arabs jews
Palestinians conduct a search and rescue operation after the second bombardment by the Israeli army at Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City, Gaza | Courtesy: GettyImages

Netanyahu: Hitler’s apprentice

The irony of the history is unmistakable as the perpetrators’ method of madness reminds us of Hitler’s Holocaust– the deliberate campaigns of genocides and other violence aimed at the planned ethnic cleansing of European Jews by Nazi Germany. Following the hellish ‘final solution’ executed by Hitler, the victorious allied powers found a solution to the vexed ‘Jewish Question’ that had tormented Christian-dominated Europe for over a millennium and triggered periodic murderous pogroms against the Jews in between everyday bouts of anti-semitisms. They forced the people of the East to pay for the sins of the West and dumped the European Jews in Palestine by creating the modern state of Israel in 1948.

Thereafter, the largest community of victims of Hitler’s frenzy, by a queer turn of history have been turned into the grossest victimisers of Palestinian Arabs, both Muslims, Christians and others of mixed faiths, by a self-righteous extension of their historical victimhood in the last 75 years. The national unity government of Israel today is now enacting the latest imitation of the demonic dance of death by the mad Fuhrer. Their word and deeds echo that apostle of racial self-superiority, his hatred and fear of ‘sub-human’ communities, ultra chauvinist ethno-religious nationalism as well as the ruthless championing of military might, technological power and propaganda machine in complete disregard to the UN and other forums of world opinion.

The dual support of the United States and Great Britain– the two global powers that had created the Zionist state to continue their ‘divide and rule’ policy in the Middle East, a la the partitioned Indian subcontinent even after the formal end of colonial- imperial era— are the primary enablers of Israel’s role as a regional bully. They are still the main protectors of Israel’s apartheid regime which has continued illegal occupation of residual Palestinian land– the two ever-shrinking enclaves on the West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza by the sea despite repeated censures from the UN and other world bodies. Even after Israel controls 78 percent of historic Palestine today as against the 56 per cent of the land allocated to it by the allied-controlled UN in 1948, they still tout the ‘two-state solution’ – the creation of independent Palestinians alongside the Jewish state. Nevertheless, they hardly moved substantially to restrain the bully to ensure an equitable and durable sovereignty for the Palestinian Arabs. Instead, they have been trying to impose one or two political ‘Bantustan’, a la separate, large ghettos for blacks surrounded by white settlements in South Africa during its white supremacist rule.

They are supporting Israel’s continued genocidal killing of thousands of Arab civilians in Gaza in the pretext of its right to self-defence in retaliation to the deadly terrorist attack by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants inside the occupied areas that had killed around 1200 Israelis including some children and women. Washington and London have ignored the repeated urging for a durable ceasefire to stop the three months-long ‘spiralling humanitarian nightmare’ by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The former socialist prime minister of Portugal repeatedly condemned the Hamas terror attack and demanded the immediate release of the hostages. But he incurred the wrath of Netanyahu and his mentors in the West when he reminded that the terror attack ‘did not happen in a vacuum’ and should be put in the perspective of the misdeeds of Israel in the occupied areas and people there in deliberate disregard to the UN cautions and censures. The UN chief and his principal aides among hosts of UN agencies have become the prime target of Israeli slander campaigns and cyber-attacks since then.

History seems to have come to a full circle after South Africa, the former apartheid state, went to the IC at the Hague accusing Israel of perpetuating a genocidal war on Gaza. The Republic of Ireland is the only European country with it history of anti-colonial struggle against British rule that has sided with post-colonial South Africa while France, a former imperial power has apparently chosen to be the fence-sitter among the permanent members of the UN security council after calling for a ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ in Gaza against the American veto and British abstention.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as well as the head of its Human Rights Commission, hinted at the applicability of charges of War Crimes as well as Crimes against Humanity; all legal concepts according to the international covenants including genocide conventions and Geneva Conventions and other humanitarian laws which try to minimize the sufferings of the civilian population in war zones and occupied territories. Earlier this decade, the Gambia, a West African small country, took the military Junta of Myanmar to the international court on the same charge after the genocide of Rohingyas in Myanmar. America and its Nato allies were instrumental in putting up the Serbian militia leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the dock at Hague for their genocidal crimes aimed at ethnic cleansing of unarmed Muslims and Croat civilians during the Yugoslav civil war in the late nineties. But they also took the initiative to punish Russia for civilian casualties in its war on Georgia and Ukraine. But they hindered every effort to punish Netanyahu and his colleagues for the same crimes in Gaza and other parts of occupied Palestine. This time it would not be different. Such is the universality of Western notions of Human Rights and Rule of Law under the self-proclaimed Guardians of the International community!

rabindranath tagore and palestine gaza israel jews
Wounded Palestinian child arrive at the al-Aqsa Hospital after an Israeli strike on a house in Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on January 11, 2024 | Courtesy: Twitter/@EyeonPalestine

Tagore’s Palestine Dream

Against this backdrop, we are discussing the relevance of the views and ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and philosopher of universal brotherhood and exponent of the Religion of humanity, on Jewish- Arab relationship in Palestine. He articulated and expressed it way back in the late 1920s and 30s when the Zionist movement or the organized migration of European Jews to Palestine was gradually becoming a flow from a trickle in the early period of the 20th Century. In a nutshell, Tagore’s understanding of human history and worldview was always focused on an intrinsic harmony between the part and the whole, local and global, immediate and ultimate, spiritual and material, past and present, and short and long-term interests of different human groups. He was in favour of the right to self -determination of all oppressed people, and all communities in social-cultural as well as economic-political spheres. But he was against prevailing religio-cultural hatred and fear, chauvinistic pride in communities, ideologies and politics of Narcissistic hyper-nationalism, self-aggrandizement and coercive hegemony both at home and the world. For him, no culture, no religion, no community, no race, no nation is superior to others. As long as they tolerate, honour, understand and are ready to coexist with each other, even assimilate and develop a kind of syncretic living, he stood for them.

He decried not only Western imperialism and militarism even before the First World War of 1914-17 but also its Asian varieties like the Japanese invasions and its brutal rule in China and Korea. Never being politically correct, he blasted the imperial Japanese government and military leaders during his visit to Japan without bothering their coldness to him in its aftermath decades before its eastern Blitzkrieg and eventual devastation by American nuclear bombs. He reminded them of the teachings of Buddha which led to a cultural confluence across the Himalayas binding the undivided Indian subcontinent to Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and Mongolia.

The globe-trotting bard of Bengal visited many countries closer home too and his sojourns from Egypt, Iran Indonesia and Malaysia brought him closer to the spiritual-cultural bonds among eastern civilizations from the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Sea from the days of Ramayana and Mahabharata. He always acknowledged the mutual impacts of Hindu and Hellenic, Zorathrustian and Islamic sciences and knowledge systems, faiths and cultures since the days of Alexander the Great to Akbar the Great, Rumi, Hafez and Iban Buttuta to Darah Shiko. He constantly reminded people of all these places about our historical ties and urged them to preserve our core humane values amid the vicissitudes of modern-day politics and economics.

Whatever may be the achievement of any civilization, he felt that we must not miss the wood while appreciating a tree. A tree may be gorgeous but its beauty cannot be appreciated properly without placing it in the context of a larger wood. For Tagore, the historical dynamics of all civilizations underlined the fact that they got nourishment and grew healthy only when they interacted and enriched each other. This understanding is integral to his idea of the religion of man or the universal human brotherhood which can’t be attained as long as the big and powerful nations or their power-hungry, megalomaniac leaders pursue their selfish, egoist and materialist goals at the cost of the neighbours and rest of the humanity.

Unlike the major leaders of the Indian Freedom Struggle, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, Tagore sympathized with the Zionist project for a Jewish political homeland in Palestine. But Tagore warned against unilateral imposition of the Zionist project which was supported by the colonial powers on the Arabs. Instead, he insisted on Arab-Jewish mutual understanding at the grassroots and long-term coexistence based on the shared history of the geographical neighbours and religio-cultural cousins in the region. He even called for a ‘Palestinian commonwealth’ between the Arabs and Jews while leaving the structures of the shared polity to the two stakeholders on the ground.

The champion of Hindu-Muslim unity in the Indian subcontinent and its syncretic cultures stood for the rights of self-determination by all oppressed nations and the preservation of all cultures. As an Indian under the foreign yoke, he valued political independence and religio-cultural diversities but strongly opposed narrow nationalism and stressed more on the civilizational confluences at the home and the world beyond. He cautioned the Zionists against the colonial game of ‘divide and rule’ in general and British-American plans in particular to divide Palestine arbitrarily. His deep understanding of history and the basic maladies of the contemporary world; torn by wars and civil wars under the Western hegemony prompted him to decry the Western notions of nationalism that promote artificially constructed national identity, exclusionary and majoritarian nation-states and arbitrary territorial boundaries to suit political and geo-strategic exigencies of colonial powers and native elites. He was against the imposition of a culture of forced homogeneity, chauvinist self-pride within and xenophobic hatred and fear of people outside that undermined or ignored civilisational plurality, and geographical and historical continuity of the lived lives of neighbours of many generations.

tagore on palestine gaza israel Arabs jews genocide
A child’s hand coming out of rabble in a building bombed on January 13 in Rafa | Courtesy: Twitter

Tagore’s Interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Tagore knew about the Palestine situation as he was in contact with both Zionist and Arab intellectuals who were keen to have his views in the wake of the gathering storm in Palestine following increased Jewish migration facilitated by the British and American governments. The holy land was put under the Raj mandate after the victorious allied powers divided the Ottoman Empire including the Arab peninsula among them either directly or as suzerines. Particularly, Jewish intellectuals including Martin Buber and settler chroniclers like Shalomit Flaum were in communication with him and wanted him to appreciate the Zionist colonization or Jewish migration to historic Palestine in the early years of early decades of the 20th century. In 1926, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency interviewed Tagore before his proposed visit to Palestine. According to its dispatch on June 20, 1926, the poet was supposed to visit Palestine on September 15 of the same year. However, it did not materialize as the poet had other preoccupations.

Nevertheless, he later sent his close aides from Shantiniketan and Kolkata to Palestine for an on-spot report.
He told the agency: “I have for a long time been following with great interest and anxiety the Jewish colonization development in Palestine. I recently received from my Zionist friends in Palestine literature which draws attention to the tremendous problem of the Jewish pioneers and, the difficulties which they must overcome for the welfare of humanity. In Palestine, I will lecture at the Hebrew University which has the great task of developing Eastern civilization.” Further, he said he appreciated the ‘distinct features of each culture’. For this reason, he valued the Zionist efforts because ‘they are awakening the Jewish distinctiveness even though some difficulties and failures will at first occur.’

So in this context, he was appreciating the Jewish pioneers in Palestine but also cautioned them not to imitate the European Christian colonists in their search for a homeland. This was a prophetic one in subsequent contexts, particularly in the context of ongoing genocide, and repeated ethnic cleansing of the Arab populations since 1948.

As he was following European history, he knew the Jews in their effort to become more European than their host nations in the continent, sometimes became hyper-patriotic, which didn’t do well for them. So he told the agency interviewer that you should not imitate your European neighbors. “Recently I had the uncomfortable experience of engaging such a type when one of the great French Indologists of Russian origin visited me at Calcutta. He displayed tremendous French chauvinism. Would Anatole France have found it necessary to declare his love for France? It is bad for a people [person] when he has to submerge his individuality.” In contrast, he reminded us that ‘the Jewish spirit is highly individuality. Its chief characteristic is universality.

Interview with The Jewish Standard: On The Palestinian Problem

Four years later, in 1930 the poet was again interviewed by a liberal news outlet named ‘Jewish Standard. “I respect the Zionist ideal and admire the selflessness of those who work for it.’ Tagore replied when I asked whether he was a pro-Zionist. “I have followed as closely as I can the steady and continuous progress of the transformation of your ideal into reality. You have made an extraordinary headway,” Tagore said.

Nevertheless, he again warned against following the colonial template. “But now your political orientation is leading you into a blind alley, a path without issue. Even if England wanted to bring about an Arab-Jewish partnership she could not do so. Arab-Jewish harmony must be achieved in Palestine.’ How can this harmony be achieved? The interviewer asked. “I am not a statesman, nor do I pretend to know the answer to your query,” wearily countered the poet. “I do know the Arabs, and I believe that I know the Jews. And that is why I feel that political and economic cooperation between them can be achieved. The Jews are an old people. They have withstood persecution, and torture, and have refused to lose their identity. Their strength lies in their culture and religion. Yours is a spiritual heritage that grows stronger with age and cannot be assimilated or absorbed.

Reflecting on the shared religio-cultural history of the Arabs and Jews, Tagore said: “Also Arabs are an endurable people. Their religion and culture come from the same mould as those of the Jews. Spiritually the Arabs have borrowed much from the Jews. Viewed fundamentally, you and they are one family—yes, one great family. Family quarrels are always virulent’—the philosopher smiled— “But they are adjustable. You have learned to live among people much further from you than the Arabs, people foreign to you in every respect. Even in America, the land of machine culture, you have managed to be both Jews and Americans. Can you not manage to be Jews and Palestinians at the same time?”.

The interviewer noted that ‘an almost supernatural calm came over Tagore’s face as he leaned back and listened to the echo which his own words had awakened.’ “Hesitantly I disturbed his peaceful repose: ‘But Zionism, Dr Tagore, is trying to find an escape from this dual life of the Jew. It is intended for those who cannot or do not want to assimilate with other nations. If Jews have to differentiate between Jewish nationalism and Palestinism, as you suggest, then Palestine will be merely another America, France or Germany as far as the Jews are concerned.” Pointing to the ‘rhythmic voice that gives a poetic flavour even to his conversation’, the Standard journalist here noted Tagore’s answer in which he referred to legendary physicist Albert Einstein. “I understand Zionism in the same sense as my great friend Einstein. I regard Jewish nationalism as an effort to preserve and enrich Jewish culture and tradition. In today’s world, this program requires a national home. It also implies appropriate physical surroundings as well as favourable political and economic conditions.”
tagore palestine gaza israel Arabs Jewish Standardrabindranath tagore palestine israel Arabs Jewish Standardrabindranath tagore palestine gaza genocide israel Arabs Jewish Standard

But again came his caveat loaded with the bard’s worries of colonial traps around the Zionist project and his dream based on the civilizational history and possibilities of the peoples in the most contested land under the Sun.

“I realize this. Palestine, however, can provide these only if the Jews will include the Arabs in their political and economic program. Your spiritual and cultural programs do not need to sacrifice anything to obtain this political cooperation. I visualize a Palestine Commonwealth in which the Arabs will live their own religious life and the Jews will revive their religion and culture, but both will be united as one political and economic unit.”

“Einstein’s religion—with which I agree fundamentally though we differ in some minor aspects—is opposed to petty chauvinism, to rigid political nationalism. His cosmic faith cannot be disturbed by White Papers or other instruments of European diplomacy. It is such faith which will lead you to that broad nationalism which you can establish in Palestine as an example to the whole of humanity. Don’t become enmeshed in paragraphs and clauses. The Jews of all nations know that political protection means nothing. Treaties have never saved you from persecution. They never will. ‘Come to your co-Palestinians in a free spirit and tell them; “You and we are both old races. We are both stubborn races. You cannot subdue us, and we will not try to change you. But we can both be ourselves, retain our identity and still be united in the political aims of Palestine, the Commonwealth of Jews and Arabs.”

Even in those times, Tagore was aware that his ideas would be considered a Utopian dream by a politically naive poet. It has found resonance in contemporary great minds like Albert Einstein to Roman Rolland as well as successive generations. “I see that there is scepticism in your eyes and you think these are the ramblings of a naive poet. You wonder how it can be done. I do not doubt the abilities and special gifts of the Jewish people. If you will set your heart upon convincing the Arabs that their political and economic interests are identical to yours if you will show them that by your work in Palestine, you are building for Arabs and Jews alike, without regard for your cultural differences, the Arabs will in time become your most loyal allies.”

The interviewer humbly submitted that this was what the Zionists had been doing in the past. “And yet, in August of last year… . ‘ [Arab attacks on Jews in Palestine, following disputes over Jewish use of the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. ] Rabindranath Tagore did not let me conclude the sentence. A shadow flitted over his beautiful countenance: ‘Don’t speak about those ugly incidents now. It is because of what happened that I speak as I do.”

Nevertheless, the poet patiently delved into Arab politics and mass mindset in the context of European colonial games. “Until recently Arab nationalism was primarily spiritual, though different in aspect from the Jewish. For centuries the Arabs have neglected their land because spiritually they were above political nationalism. Western civilization calls this state primitive and uncivilized. In any case, the Arabs are newcomers to the Western game of political nationalism and their minds can easily be confused—~as they have been confused. They got the idea that their spiritual or religious life was endangered by the Jewish homeland. The intensive integration of the Jewish people into Palestine was misinterpreted by them. Demagogic leadership helped this along.

“Zionism, which well-trained Western diplomatic minds sometimes find hard to understand, was altogether new and strange to Arab primitiveness. I am trying to explain that the Arabs’ psychological adjustment to a Jewish homeland must necessarily be a gradual process. Jews must have patience and resourcefulness in dealing with the Arabs. You who are a blending of Western and Eastern civilization must be indulgent teachers. Despite political obstacles, you must keep your spiritual heritage intact. Notwithstanding sacrifices, you must plod along on the road to an understanding with your co-nationalists of Palestine.”

The great friend of both Jews and Arabs continued: “I know that you will not be understood at your first approach. Forget the Western conception of prestige and pride and keep on working with this end in view: A Palestine Commonwealth in which Arabs and Jews will live their own distinct cultural and spiritual lives. Then you will, you must succeed,’ Tagore leaned back exhausted. Speaking almost to himself, he added, in a low whisper: ‘The Palestine problem cannot be solved in London by any negotiations between the British Government and the Zionist leaders, the success of Zionism depends entirely upon Arab-Jewish cooperation. This can be obtained in Palestine only by means of a direct understanding between the Arabs and the Jews. If the Zionist leadership will insist on separating Jewish political and economic interests in Palestine from those of the Arabs ugly eruptions will occur in the Holy Land.”

Closing his eyes, Rabindranath Tagore murmured softly: “What we poets have dreamt the Jews can create in Palestine if they free themselves of the Western concept of nationalism.”


Biswajit Roy

is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button