Anatomy of an obsession

A new book by Avi Beker sees the idea of 'chosenness' as the unspoken tension behind anti-Semitism.

lit menorah 88 (photo credit: )
lit menorah 88
(photo credit: )
Being special is never easy. According to Dr. Avi Beker, an expert on international relations and former secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, the idea that the Jews are special, are "chosen," has been the source of the greatest troubles they have faced across history. Yet, at the same time, it is "the key defining concept of Judaism," and an important factor in the development of the other major monotheistic religions. It is also one of the Jewish people's most controversial ideas both within and without the Jewish fold. In his new book, The Chosen: The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession, Beker attempts to explain the strange life and complex repercussions of this stubborn idea throughout Jewish history. Perhaps the key claim of the book is that the idea of chosenness has brought the Jewish people its greatest enemies and its most faithful friends. "The concept of chosenness has been and still is the driving force behind Jewish-Gentile relations," Beker writes. He follows in the footsteps of historian Arnold Toynbee and Sigmund Freud in asserting that a kind of theological jealousy lies at the heart of anti-Semitism, but he takes the idea a step further in trying to flesh out the depth and complexity of the Christian and Muslim relationship with Jewish chosenness, a psychological tension underlying the unparalleled nature of anti-Semitism. "I don't accept classic theories of anti-Semitism that state that it's a hatred of the other, of the rich, of the different," Beker told The Jerusalem Post in an interview last week. "There's something deeper here, an obsession. You can't describe anti-Semitism as hatred of the type directed at Roma [Gypsies]." While the expressions of hatred can be similar - "there are other genocides" - anti-Semitism remains "the deepest, the oldest, and it doesn't change its characteristics across time and place. The Roma may be denigrated and dehumanized, but this isn't combined with conspiracies of world domination. If Henry Ford could write The International Jew, an irrational and counterfactual American version of the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion], then there's something obsessive going on here." In the book he asks starkly, "How have the Jews, of all people, come to represent at once the epitome of both the good and the odious? The priestly and the pariah? A source of envy and of enmity?" The question is not theoretical, he believes, because this tension "still informs new expressions of anti-Semitism and has a major impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict." In pinning Christian anti-Semitism on the doctrine of supersession, the ancient idea that Christianity is the "New Israel," Beker does not break new ground. But he offers a new perspective on even the Christian context when he places it alongside the Muslim doctrine of supersessionism that continues to this day. This widespread Islamic idea, a denial of Jewish legitimacy from koranic days to the present, is "one of the deep, serious stumbling blocks on the way to peace" between Muslims and Jews, Beker believes. It is rife throughout Islamic discourse, from the koranic view that Jews should remain in a state of humility to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's war against a "Zionist-dominated" world. Indeed, following a discussion of Muslim religious figures and the public discourse in Islamic countries, Beker concludes that the Muslim problem with Zionism is more theology than politics. "The Jews are supposed to be humbled, scattered. Theologically, they're not supposed to win wars in the place that is part of their narrative of chosenness." Yet the idea of Jewish chosenness is also the intellectual wellspring for some of the most ardent supporters of Jews and Israel, groups such as Christian Zionists in America and elsewhere. Beker never explicitly offers his own view of "chosenness," instead focusing on the religious, social and political influences of the idea. In this, he cannot escape dealing with the often-tortured Jewish reflections on this idea. The Jews themselves, he believes, do not understand the root of the obsession with them. He quotes author A.B. Yehoshua's grave misgivings about the Jews' "ambiguous identity": "I have a fear because of the partial identity of the Jews. With their ability to penetrate the life of others. To live without borders, without taking responsibility... It is about time we should understand that our ambiguous identity is causing individuals and groups who suffer a chaos of identity to cast on us awesome implications." Yehoshua is "perplexed," Beker writes, because he is unready to recognize that it is "the religious dependency of millions of people" on the idea of chosenness that leads to obsessive anti-Semitism. "Many Jews tried to flee it, because they saw it as something problematic, archaic, racist or anachronistic," explains Beker. "But only the Reconstructionists took it out of the liturgy. The Reform left it in, and even the Reconstructionists have been making moves to put it back." It is an idea that lies at the core of Jewish identity, he believes. Even Richard Dreyfuss, an intermarried celebrity actor from an assimilated Los Angeles Jewish family, once said in a public speech, "I am a passionately secular Jewish agnostic who sincerely believes that Jews are the Chosen People, so go figure!... I believe we are chosen to illuminate the Jewish condition. Our ethics are mankind's greatest victories." "It's part of us, our history, and will always be a prism through which the world will look at us," Beker says, but he offers some consolation to any guilt-ridden Jewish consciences by noting that the traditional understanding of chosenness has often been an unhappy one. "It's a gift, but also a burden. Someone who reads well into the Jewish sources knows that it is part of all the blessings and all the curses of Jewish history. It's part of the Jewish calling in the world, the energy that puts Jews at the forefront of reform."