Asaf Romirowsky on The Chosen: The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession

, May 20, 2009

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:1-2 (Spring 2009)

Many legends are told about how God chose the children of Israel to be His followers. One is that he approached many nations, all of whom asked about the stipulations and requirements. Only one, the Jews, was not concerned about the prerequisites, answering that they would “act and listen” (na’aseh ve-nishma), in that order. As a rule, normal transactions involve first listening and then acting. The uniqueness of Jewish devotion and trust is thus exemplified in this story; they believed that whatever God would ask and put them through, he would have their best interests in mind.

Thus began the “chosenness” of the Jewish people as the children of God. When the Bible refers to the Jewish people as “chosen,” it is not in any way asserting that Jews are “racially superior.” Americans, Russians, Europeans, Asians, and Ethiopians are all part of the Jewish people. It is impossible to define chosenness as anything related to race, since Jews are “racially” diverse.

But the term “Chosen People” (am nivhar) does imply exceptionalism. Moreover, there is the far-reaching global approach that calls on the Jews to be dispersed in an attempt to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, to be a “Light unto the Nations.” Over the centuries, this uniqueness and sense of mission furnished a pretext for those who would hate Jews. Avi Beker, currently serving as a Goldman Visiting Israeli Professor at Georgetown University, has, in his latest book, The Chosen: The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession, come to grips with this concept and explores its significance throughout Jewish history.

What is sometimes glossed over is the opposite of being chosen, what Beker defines as “Chosenness in Reverse.” Our uniqueness is emphasized and is therefore a reason for hatred of Jews, however illogical. According to Beker, “anti-Semitism is an antithetical negative way to prove the uniqueness of the Jews. Singling out the Jews as the root of all evil and the primary source of the world’s ills is a clear example of the doctrine of the chosenness in reverse” (95). Thus chosenness cuts both ways.

This goes to the crux of Beker’s methodology in approaching the topic. He examines the multiple cultural and theological divides between Judaism, Christendom, and Islam. He shows how the Jews have come to embody both the quintessence of the good and the loathsome. The very concept of chosenness has become the foundation in many interfaith circles for dialogue based on their “Abrahamic” faiths. By focusing on the figure of Abraham, these dialogues seek to emphasize the allegedly common characteristics found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. By looking at the first individual to institute a covenantal relationship with God as the supreme authority, Abraham is accepted as a prophet by all three monotheistic faiths. Commonality and unity are presumed to flow from this. If only this were true!

Countless cycles of anti-Semitism have repeatedly run their course, along with radicalization through religion, genocide, or a combination of both. The identification of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a primary source for contemporary anti-Semitism is especially significant. In this Czarist forgery, the “true” nature of Jewish chosenness is demonstrated as conspiratorial and demonic, the perpetual and hidden effort to dominate the world. Khomeini, Hitler, the pre-eminent Islamist intellectual Sayyid Qutb, and Arafat are all graduates of the school of modern anti-Semitism that recycled many variations of the Protocols. An example of this very notion may be found in the Palestinian weekly Al-Sha’ab: “The Jews are the decision makers and the owners of the media in most of the world’s capitals. Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Athens and finally Russia, where the Jews worked for a long time to crush it underfoot….[1]”

From an Arab-Muslim perspective, the fact that the State of Israel was established right after the Holocaust illustrates the link between Nazism and the continuation of Jewish domination. And indeed, during the Arafat years, and even more so today under Hamas, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have attained the status of a primary document in Palestinian textbooks. Moreover, the Protocols have attained the status of academic scholarship in the Arab-Muslim world, not just a folk myth. This academic legitimacy based on counterfeit documents nurtures modern anti-Semitism, thereby raising a new Arab-Muslim generation that religiously believes in such “facts.” The negative aspect of Jewish chosenness is thus massively reinforced. Moreover, Islamic insistence that Jews deliberately falsified their Scripture makes the concept of chosenness doubly negative: Jewish chosenness according to this view is based on lies.

Today, the debate about anti-Semitism has become so intellectualized that individuals have a difficult time distinguishing racism from acceptable criticism. The “new” racial anti-Semitism is built on the “old” medieval one; cycles of hatred towards Jews reflected in Muslim and Christian writings still repeat many old anti-Semitic canards, but are now willing to embrace junk science and social Darwinian tropes whenever possible. Europe today is seeing a slow but steady growth in anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. Since 1945, there has not been such a level of concern, anxiety, and even depression among European Jewry. As Robert Wistrich, historian of anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University, explains, “Europe cannot fight anti-Semitism if it appeases terrorists or blackens Israel’s name. We need to insist that a linkage exists between blind ‘Palestinophilia,’ being soft on terror and jihad, defaming Israel, and the current wave of anti-Semitic violence.”[2]

There is no other place where all of the above comes together under one roof as it does in the United Nations. William F. Buckley discovered this when serving as an acting member of the American delegation to the UN General Assembly in 1973. Buckley stated that it is the “most concentrated gathering of anti-Semitism since the days of Hitler’s Germany.”

The UN Secretariat harbors a deep obsession with anti-Semitism and an ideological opposition to both Zionism and the State of Israel. Over the years, Arab foes of both have capitalized upon these neuroses, using the UN as a means to sway Western “hearts and minds” by depicting Zionism in the same manner as other fashionable enemies, such as Communism and Fascism. The institutionalization of this trend took place on 10 November 1975 when the UN General Assembly adopted by a wide margin a resolution declaring Zionism to be a form of racism. Jewish chosenness, again, in the sense of the aspiration to autonomy and sovereignty, is singled out as especially illegitimate and loathsome. And this is the key to the “new” anti-Semitism.

The fact is that the UN has capitalized on Jewish chosenness, enabling its members to condemn Israel for “human right violations” on an annual basis when Sudan, of all countries, is a member of the Human Rights Commission, and Syria, which openly sponsors terrorism, has served on the Security Council. It is Israel – the scapegoat of the world – that embodies all the faults of the global community because of its chosenness.

Beker presents a new way of understanding anti-Semitism. Jews are burdened with chosenness, which is without a doubt a blessing and curse. It highlights Jewish uniqueness and flaws, but also enables many to continue to view Jews not as a light onto the world but a pariah that needs be destroyed. Accordingly, it is surprising that most Israelis are not fully aware of or do not fully understand what American/European Jewry faces outside of Israel. On the one hand Israelis, wherever they may be on the political spectrum, agree that Israel has a right to exist de facto, which is not self-evident or understood outside of Israel. On the other hand, to be so isolated from what is happening outside of Israel is problematic, as this widens the gap between the Diaspora and Israel. It is not a given that Jewish identity today includes Israel.

Beker’s book is important because it underscores the challenges that the Jewish world faces in the twenty-first century, which are different yet similar to the challenges of Germany in the 1930s. Today, however, the debate is not necessarily one of a racial nature, as it was in the 1930s when Jews were demonized and depicted as the root of all evil. Today, the hatred towards Jews has shifted to their support of Zionism, thus enabling those who hate Jews to proclaim that “we don’t hate you because you are Jewish. My best friends are Jewish. We hate you because you are Zionist.” This, of course, exacerbates the hatred toward Israel and its policies with regard to the Palestinians. Furthermore, if any changes are to be made in the Arab world, they should address the anti-Semitic rhetoric that is so deeply rooted in the agenda of so many terrorist organizations that yearn to commit more and more acts of violence against Jews world-wide.

Beker’s analysis represents an important contribution because it offers an interpretation based on insights which will be useful in combating the challenges of contemporary anti-Semitism.

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Notes

[1]. MEMRI, “The Jews Control the World: Update on anti-Semitism in the Palestinian Media,” 5 October 1998, www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Area=antisemitism&ID=SP0798.

[2]. www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-25.htm.

 

Asaf Romirowsky

Asaf Romirowsky, PhD is the Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Professor [Affiliate] at the University of Haifa. Trained as a Middle East historian he holds a PhD in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King's College London, UK and has published widely on various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict and American foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as on Israeli and Zionist history. Romirowsky is co-author of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.