Book review: Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, author Dr. Walter Brueggemann has written a book aimed at Christians (of which this reviewer is not) who may have issues dealing with the modern state of Israel, and reconciling it with certain biblical passages.

Since it weighs in at fewer than 100 pages, I didn’t expect Brueggemann to be able to solve the Israeli/Palestinian problem. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has vexed the world, and every US presidential administration over the last 50-odd years. But I was hoping at the very least that he would provide some pragmatic ideas, based on biblical texts, on how to better understand this conflict. Perhaps he would even provide novel solutions to this seemingly intractable problem. Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide anything of the sort.

The questions the book attempts to answer are:

  1. Are modern Israeli citizens the descendants of the ancient-Israel of the Bible whom God called “Chosen”?
  2. Was the promise of land to Moses permanent and irrevocable?
  3. What about others living in the Promised Land?
  4. How should we read the Bible in light of the contemporary situation?
  5. Who are the Zionists, and what are their beliefs?

chosen

Brueggemann should be commended on asking good, pointed questions. However, I didn’t find any of his answers satisfying.

As to the first question, aside from Israeli-Arabs and others from scores of foreign countries that have obtained Israeli citizenship, most Jews are indeed descendants of ancient Israel. By this I mean those that left Egypt, received the word of God at Mount Sinai, and 40 years later entered their homeland. I believe that this is clear based on an objective view of history. Only by ignoring the historical and biblical record can Brueggemann believe that there’s no link between ancient Israel and modern Israel. Thus, the book is an attempt to delegitimize the modern State of Israel.

Brueggemann thinks the most pressing issue of our time is the Israel/Palestinian conflict. It’s his book and he is able to structure the questions as he likes. While Brueggemann may want to create a linkage between Israel’s chosenness and the Palestinian situation, that idea is his alone.

Brueggemann asks what “Zionism” is, and goes on to provide a most narrow definition. His definition goes along with his thesis. It must be pointed out that there are many strands of Zionism, and it’s particularly troubling that the book doesn’t acknowledge this fact.

Brueggemann doesn’t admit, or isn’t aware, that there are many Zionists and leading Zionist rabbis that have long been in favor of land-for-peace swaps. These scholars include Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a major American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013), the most prominent Sephardic chief rabbi of the last half-century, and longtime spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party.

Brueggemann writes that Israel’s dealing with the Palestinians is now the issue of our time. He feels that Israel violates its chosenness if they don’t treat the Palestinians with more compassion. This is seemingly a random and arbitrary selection, as Brueggemann offers no biblical prooftext, theological basis or rationale as to how the issue of Palestine somehow affects Judaism’s claim of chosenness.

In addition, this is just one of a number of flaws in Brueggemann’s logic. One side, he denies any connection of contemporary Israel to ancient Israel, yet on the other side he expects Israel to act as a chosen people to the Palestinians.

Numerous times Brueggemann uses vague and often sweeping terms such as “Palestinian suffering,” as if Israel was responsible for all the sufferings of the Palestinian people. There are certainly many Palestinians suffering, but how much of that is Israel’s fault is highly debatable. Yet Brueggemann seems to think it is all Israel’s fault. Brueggemann doesn’t seem to realize there are many Palestinians living very normal lives in Israel, some very opulent. In addition, Brueggemann, like too many others, never mentions the forgotten Palestinian refugees of Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

The book does make some interesting points, but the author’s use of hyperbolic terms such as “Israel’s total violation of the civil rights and human rights of Palestinians,” “Israeli government having no interest in a peace agreement,” “no realistic hope for any two-state solution,” and “Israel never intends to allow a viable Palestinian state,” are all factually and historically incorrect, along with being intellectually dishonest.

The author feels that given the Palestinian issue, it’s time to reevaluate Israel as God’s chosen people. Why this is the case is something that he never articulates nor provides any basis for. While he offers no proof for this notion, he gets many facts wrong. Brueggemann writes how Israeli settlements are the obstacle to peace. Yet between 1948-1967, when there were no settlements, peace was far from close.

Brueggemann writes of Zionist recalcitrance in returning the West Bank. Yet days after the Six Day War, many Israeli leaders wanted to enter into negotiations and return the entire West Bank. The Arab League response was via the Khartoum Resolution of September 1967, with its famous three no’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.

Just last week, President Clinton said in this video that he had negotiated a deal where the Palestinians would have gotten all of Gaza, 96% of the West Bank, and compensating land in Israel for the other 4%. Israel was giving the Palestinians the land back, yet they turned this down. Rather than being uncooperative, Israel made a legitimate and equitable offer to the Palestinians. And this is above and beyond offers of Palestinian statehood to Palestinian National Authority Presidents Arafat in 2000 and Abbas in 2008.

Another factual error: while the Israel/Palestinian conflict is a problem; he feels that as long as it remains unaddressed, it will add to regional destabilization. Yet there is no evidence that unrest in the Middle East is due to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. The problems in Iraq, Syria, the rise of ISIS, Arab Spring, and more have nothing to do with conflict.

Brueggemann repeatedly takes Israel to task given its military power. He writes that there is a difference (without explaining in detail what that difference is) between a covenantal people and a state that relies on military power without reference to covenantal restraints. This is yet another significant factual mistake.

From a covenantal perspective, Maimonides, perhaps the greatest medieval Jewish scholar detailed the necessary legal requirements in his code of Jewish law. Moshe Halbertal (professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and visiting professor at Harvard Law School, University of Pennsylvania Law School and Yale Law School) is not only a Maimonidean scholar, but also the co-authors of the Israeli army’s code of ethics.

The truth is that not only is there no contradiction between being a covenantal people with adequate military power; Israel’s annihilation by its neighbors has only been prevented by having an adequate military presence. Perhaps a testament to Israel’s chosenness is that it is the only country being allowed to modify the US-made F-35 advanced stealth fighter.

Dr. Brueggemann certainly knows the importance of effective military might with the story in the book of Samuel where David killed Goliath. It’s certainly no coincidence that Israel-based Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is working with American defense contractor Raytheon to develop David’s Sling. This is a system designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets and cruise missiles.

Every book has mistakes; but I haven’t seen any scholar make so many errors in so few pages as Dr. Brueggemann has.

The five questions Brueggemann asks are legitimate, but the core part of the book ends at page 53, where they are never fully developed or answered.

Until seeing this book, I had never heard of Brueggemann. According to Wikipedia, he is known as one of the most influential Protestant Old Testament scholars of the last several decades. At age 83, this book certainly is a stain on his legacy.

But the real danger of the book is that many readers will assume that since Brueggemann is a biblical scholar of note, this book must be fairly accurate.

Brueggemann said he wrote this book with a very strong bias. To that, I’m in complete agreement with him.

Thank you to Ezra Brand for proofreading this review.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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