November 23, 2009
by Hillel Fradkin
Avi Beker, a diplomatic historian and former Israeli diplomat, has written about an important subject and an abiding concern: the biblical designation of the Jews as the "chosen" people and the longstanding Jewish experience of persecution. He is especially concerned with the current revival of anti-Semitism. Of course, the most direct object of current hatred is the state of Israel. But as Beker observes, contemporary anti-Semitism is not only directed at Israel or Zionism; in a well-worn tradition, it charges Jews, as such, with all manner of conspiratorial evil, including a uniquely malevolent character and behavior.
The Chosen The History of an Idea and the Anatomy of an Obsession by Avi Beker
Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp., $38
The contemporary revival of anti-Semitism, which is particularly powerful among Muslims but also within the secular left, has been a great shock, coming as it does so soon after the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. Beker believes that a most powerful root of this unreasonable, unjust, and dangerous hatred is the concept of the Chosen. Jews say they are different, and the world agrees--unfortunately, with malevolent intent.
In part, this is due to the fact that others have claimed an equal, or more precisely superior, distinction. This is true of both Christianity and Islam, each of which acknowledges the original chosenness of Jews but claims that such status was superseded by their new teachings. It was even true of Adolf Hitler, as Beker brings out, who adopted the notion of chosenness to define his mission and explain the necessity of destroying the Jews.
Although other factors have historically contributed to the hatred of Jews--especially the desire for a scapegoat in unhappy circumstances--the dialectic of chosenness and supersession is the most abiding and specific plane of the problem. For this reason Beker sees no other alternative but to address the issue directly, an approach he believes has been neglected even by Jews themselves since, at least, the Middle Ages when it was last taken up by its two greatest thinkers, Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi.
Beker offers this study in that tradition. But his goal is more ambitious than theirs, since Maimonides and Halevi addressed themselves only to fellow Jews. Beker certainly has a concern for his fellow Jews; but he is also addressing non-Jews, and in so doing hopes to put the issue (and perhaps anti-Semitism) to rest once and for all. It might be said that what justifies Beker's larger ambition is a change in historical circumstances: Jews have, through modern conditions, a greater opportunity to address non-Jews; they also have greater need now that we have seen, in the example of the Holocaust, the danger to which Jews are exposed by modern conditions.
The first order of business is to describe and explicate the notion of the Chosen in its original biblical sense. Beker stresses that the notion of chosenness has nothing to do with any presumed genetic or racial superiority. Neither Judaism nor Zionism is racism; the core and basis of chosenness is the covenant God made with the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The task of Jews ever since has been to adhere to God's law and preserve it by teaching it to their children.
But this obligation does not exhaust the duties entailed in chosenness. For contrary to any parochial understanding of the role of Israel or the Jews, it involves a duty to all people. Beker makes special reference to the preaching of the Hebrew prophets--in particular to Isaiah's famous formulation that Israel should be a light unto other nations--but it would be equally important to stress that this obligation is first enunciated and given specific content in the Pentateuch. In Deuteronomy, Moses declares in his farewell instructions to the Israelites that they should
Observe these statutes and judgments; for these are your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations which will hear them and say: What a wise and understanding nation this great people is. .??.??. What great nation is there that has such just statutes and judgments as in all this teaching.
To be the Chosen people is to embrace a task: to provide universal instruction in justice and wisdom. This justice and wisdom is embodied not in the Jews as such but in the principles with which they have been entrusted--principles intelligible to all men. To be the bearers of justice and wisdom may be a privilege, but it is far more certainly a very heavy responsibility and burden, one which, as the Bible details, the Israelites were not always up to.
In the context of the theme of chosenness and the misunderstandings to which it may give rise, it is important to stress that the Bible is unusual not in the praise it bestows on the Israelites but the censure that is mixed with it. And the Israelites, or more precisely their descendants, the Jews, have been notable in embracing a book which includes such a heavy admixture of censure. In the highest cases this testifies to the embrace of the burden and responsibility more than the privilege, and justifies chosenness itself. It is for this reason that the Bible can hold out the promise that, despite Israelite failures, their and their descendants' relationship with God will never reach a total and final rupture. This consolation was surely necessary to sustain Jewish faith through the long experience of hatred and persecution.
However necessary and useful it is to have a proper and suitably elevated notion of Jewish chosenness, how can that address the problem of contemporary anti-Semitism? It should, of course, absolve the Bible and the Jews of any intrinsically parochial or racist character. Beker seems to hope that his exposition will provide Christians and Muslims with a better and more respectful understanding, and The Chosen includes a kind of dialogue with them. What is less clear is whether he has an adequate assessment of the current state of play, and what kinds of dialogue are appropriate.
As far as Christians and Christian anti-Semitism are concerned, Beker observes that there has been a sea change in Christian thinking since World War II and the Holocaust. He seeks to encourage this trend, and his explication of chosenness might help, especially as Christians accept the authority of the Hebrew Bible as Muslims do not. Indeed, a rethinking and reaffirmation of God's covenant with the Jews has been a significant element in postwar Christian theology. But his discussion of the history of anti-Semitism tends to weight its Christian form more heavily than its Muslim form, and with dubious effects. This is a common error: Muslim persecution of Jews was equal if not greater than Christian persecution, as Maimonides and Halevi both testified. What appears to lead Beker in this direction is the fact of the Holocaust--the greatest material disaster Jews have experienced since classical antiquity--and his assimilation of the Holocaust to the history of Christianity. This, too, is a fairly common view, but also a common error.
The question is complicated: The Holocaust did occur in Europe, and Europe's Christian tradition often disposed people to be unfavorable to Jews. But it did not, as such, dispose Christians to be favorable to Nazism and its view of Jews as fit solely for annihilation. During the worst periods of Christian persecution it was always possible for Jews to spare themselves by conversion to Christianity. No such salvation was possible under the Nazis; indeed quite the contrary, because Nazism was not Christian but anti-Christian. More precisely, it was modern. Nazism must be laid at the door of modernity--a modernity which promised at its outset that it was the answer to premodern fanaticism--and any proper Jewish assessment of the dangers to which Jews have been exposed must take the mixed record of modernity into account.
Moreover, as Beker notes, a new Christian appreciation of Jews did not have to wait until the Holocaust, and he spends no little effort in describing a change which occurred within certain Protestant churches, especially among Anglo-American churches, which began some 350 years ago with the Puritan revolution in England and which ultimately gave birth to so-called Christian Zionism. As Beker also notes, the faith and loyalty of Jews have earned them respect among certain distinguished European and American authors. To take only one example, Beker cites Mark Twain:
[The Jew] has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages, and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. .??.??. Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew.
Whether this is too generous or not, you would search in vain for analogs to this or other expressions of Christian respect in Muslim attitudes towards Jews--past or present. Beker should be appreciative of the present possibilities of Jewish/Christian comity, and in some fashion he is; but he remains dissatisfied--sometimes unreasonably so. For example, he complains that the Vatican, despite many changes in its views, still stresses that it is "the instrument for the salvation of all humanity." But how can it not and remain what it is? A different and somewhat more practical problem is the Vatican's stance towards Israel. This was, for a long time, unjust, heartless, and scandalous, refusing to recognize Israel's existence. And it is still not great: Beker notes that the Vatican's present recognition is extended on the basis of "the common principles of international law" rather than any specifically Christian teaching. Well--this is not nothing, and is the principal way Israel defends its legitimacy!
All this points to the fact that the most serious form of contemporary anti-Semitism is not that of Christians but of Muslims, and their sometime allies on the secular left. Some of the reasons are captured in a quotation from the late Samuel Huntington, cited by Beker, who observed that the present problem of the Muslim world is that it is "convinced of the superiority of its culture and obsessed with the inferiority of its power." This is a part of the problem. Another equally important part is the unwillingness of many Muslims to examine their own responsibility for that inferiority and what they might, themselves, do to address it. They have sought, like many others in history, to avoid this painful necessity and find an answer in the actions of others, to find a scapegoat.
Nevertheless, the deepest issue raised here is the post-biblical status of chosenness, and the question of supersession to which it gave rise, especially through the historical appearance of Christianity and Islam. This difficulty, as Beker sometimes understands, arose from the original conception of chosenness, which pointed towards a universal mission. This is first enunciated in God's blessing of Abraham, which described it as a blessing not only for him, his family, and his prospective nation but as a blessing for all families and all nations. This blessing has played a large historical role in the claims of Christianity and Islam. But Moses' farewell instructions to the Israelites point in the same direction.
Nor did post-biblical, or Rabbinic, Judaism ignore this view, as Beker seems to claim. There are many examples of this, especially in the Jewish prayer book; but the most telling is a prayer recited several times a day every day of the year. It is called the Aleinu. It is telling because it contains the most direct statement of Jewish chosenness: "It is upon us to praise God for not having made us like the other nations and the other families of the earth; for having made our portion different than theirs." But this is preceded by a prior obligation: "to praise the Lord of everything," the Creator of everything, and is followed by the expectation that God will repair the world through His kingly rule, through which all will call on His name.
No less authorities than the two Beker cites--Halevi and Maimonides--claimed, in defense of the veracity of the Bible, that the promise made to Abraham should be partially seen, but only partially seen, as fulfilled in the emergence of both Christianity and Islam. They, like Beker, reaffirmed the chosenness of the Jewish people, but the question is on what grounds. Today it is a question posed not only by Christianity and Islam but by modern universalism, and particularly by the contemporary critique of the nation and nation-state. It is this which especially affects the defense of Israel, and has facilitated the reemergence of anti- Semitism on the secular left. Addressing that question would be an urgent necessity, but it is unclear how Beker means to meet it.
A good starting point would be further reflection on the Hebrew Bible's preference for nationhood--not only Jewish nationhood, but nationhood as such. Properly explicated, it derives from the Bible's analysis of the human condition, its characteristic injustices and what remedies are available and reasonable. As Moses said to the Israelites, the wisdom, understanding, and justice to which they were given access at Mt. Sinai is meant to be intelligible to people who had not stood there. Whether this would put an end to anti-Semitism or not, it would be a contribution to a most important contemporary debate, consistent with the notion and responsibility of chosenness.
Hillel Fradkin is a Senior Fellow and Director for the Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World at Hudson Institute.
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