What does it mean to describe the Jews as the chosen people? Other people describe themselves that way too. Christians believe that the church supplanted, or at least became grafted onto, the chosen people. The Quran claims that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but “a monotheist, a Muslim, not an idolater.” And thus, Islam claims, in one way or another, to supplant the chosen nations that came before it. China was traditionally referred to as the “Middle Kingdom,” because they believed their land to lie at the centre of the world. The Americans too have a tendency to view themselves as exceptional.
Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits went so far as to say,
“I believe that every people — and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual — is “chosen” or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of providence.”
And yet, only the Jews get picked upon for having the temerity to view themselves, as almost all people have, and as all people maybe should, as special, or as chosen.
The Hebrew word for “Hebrew” is ivri. It shares its root with the word for a riverbank. When all of humanity stood on one side of the river, Abraham stood on the other. He was the original iconoclast. And thus, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, part of what it means to be a Hebrew is to be “a counter-voice in the conversation of mankind: God’s question mark against the conventional certainties of an age.” And that is what we are today.
In countries all over the globe, tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest the State of Israel’s war on Hamas. Those same people didn’t take to the streets to protest the pogrom with which Hamas began this war. They didn’t take to the streets to protest the Saudi blockade of Yemen that (according to the World Food Organisation) could have led to the death of 400,000 children under the age of 5. We Jews can’t fail, therefore, to notice that the outrage of these masses is very selective. Moreover, we can’t help but notice the extent to which sympathy for the innocent Palestinians collapses into sympathy for Hamas.
There is a post on the social-media site formally known as twitter, which reads, “did some people just think Palestine had to like file paperwork or something to be freed [?] this is what oppressed fighting the oppressor looks like.” These words were liked by close to 10,000 people, including a number of academics in prestigious universities. Professor Judith Butler, of UC Berkeley, has long professed that we should relate to “Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive … [and] part of a global Left.”
Entire academic fields have come under the sway of conceptual schemes that systematically marginalize the experience of the Jew. When Jews experience privilege, given their history, they wear it with a certain justified vulnerability. They know it could be ripped from them at any time. This vulnerability is ignored by current theories of racial injustice, according to which white Jews enjoy white privilege, and cannot be victims of racism. Not only does this ignore the lived experience of white Jews, it overlooks the experience of Jews of Arabic origin, and other Jews of color.
Similar things could be said about post-colonialism. Palestinian Arabs have certainly experienced the sorts of hardships characteristic of indigenous peoples, at the hands of white settler colonialists. Moreover, many of the European founders of Political Zionism were influenced by colonialist thinking. But to view their Zionism as a mere extension of European colonialism, is historically short-sighted. It was, instead, a local manifestation of the global yearning of the Jewish people to be rid of the yoke of subjugation; to return to their homeland. Zionism is, in fact, the national liberation movement of an exiled people. This dimension of Jewish history is utterly lost through the lens of post-colonialism, which casts the Palestinians as indigenous and the Jews (of all colors and backgrounds) as the white settler colonizer. On this way of thinking, the crimes of October the 7th become the progressive face of liberation – the uncomfortable but necessary price of “decolonization.”
These are lazy and destructive ways of thinking. We can see this when it leads to a partnership between so-called progressives and the most radical forms of fascist Islamism. But a conceptual scheme that seems to offer easy diagnoses of otherwise intractable conflicts has a magnetic attraction. When privileged young westerners can cope with the otherwise crippling guilt that they feel for all of the historical evils upon which their privilege is built, by projecting it all upon the evils of Israel, as a symbol for “American imperialism,” we shouldn’t wonder at the popularity of these intellectual trends.
It is precisely these trends that force the majority of Jews today, from the left to the right, from the religious to the secular, to stand up, once again, as “a counter-voice in the conversation of mankind;” as “God’s question mark against the conventional certainties of an age.”
However hard it may be, however alienated we may feel, we should hold our heads up high. A society that cannot make space for hearing the experience of the Jewish people quickly collapses into a society that turns a blind eye toward (and sometimes actively support) the massacre of innocents. There can be no equivalence drawn between an army that seeks to limit collateral damage in an urban theatre of war, and the barbarous butchers of Hamas. And yet, in an age of oversimplification, we must speak for the complexity of the moral life. We must never lose our sympathy for the innocent civilians of Gaza. We must recognize that the State of Israel has done much wrong in its short history. And we can do all of this, whilst insisting on our right to defend ourselves tenaciously against Hamas. If we feel alienated from the masses, at a time like this, we can wear it as a badge of honor, for we have been chosen to stand on the other side of this toxic river.