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Chosenness and Israeli Exceptionalism

No idea has played a more seminal role in the recent history of Jewish and Christian Zionism than the Jewish doctrine of divine election or chosenness.[1] Since this doctrine is the cornerstone of Zionism, divine sanction for Jewish uniqueness has been inseparable from Israeli exceptionalism and Israeli history.[2]

At first, political Zionism had little to recommend itself aside from the mythic allure of the Promised Land. Most Jews greeted the project alternatively with consternation and derision. They could instantly sense that the creation of a Jewish state would give an impetus to anti-Semitism in Europe; the project also struck most of them as a fantastic utopia with little chance of success. The success of the Zionist plan required three steps: persuading Jews to abandon their homes in Europe for the hazards of colonizing a backward land, wresting Palestine from its Ottoman sovereign, and somehow making the Palestinians disappear. Some very real hurdles blocked each of these steps.

In addition, there was another hitch. The political Zionists did not have the religious sanction to work for Jewish restoration to Palestine. Jews had long believed that this would be the work of the Jewish Messiah as part of God’s plan for the culmination of history; and some had come to invest the return to Zion with symbolic meaning that could be pursued even in exile. Overcoming these theological objections would not be easy.

The Zionists, some of whom were secular, regarded these objections as minor inconveniences. The vision of reconstituting Jewish power was heady. It revived Jewish memories of Davidic splendor. It inspired hopes of establishing Jewish power in the Middle East on a scale that their ancestors could not attain in ancient times. In as much as it appeared utopian, even quixotic when it was first proposed, Zionism offered a Nietzschean challenge to create a new world, to change a destiny of ‘exile’ into which Jews had been trapped for close to two millennia.

Once the moral implications of their plan became clearer, the Zionists would again find the doctrine of Jewish chosenness handy. “One need only imagine what would happen in the world,” Nahum Goldmann was to write, “if all the peoples who lost their states centuries or millennia ago were to reclaim their land.”[3] In other words, how were the Zionists going to justify the ‘theft’ of Palestinian land? One argument claimed that since the Palestinians were not a ‘people’-presumably, because they were not rulers over Palestine ­ they had no juridical rights over their lands. Another, more cleverly argued that most of the Arabs living in Palestine at the end of the British mandate were not natives; they were recent immigrants from neighboring Arab countries, attracted by the growing demand for labor induced by Jewish colonization.[4] A third argument was simpler. It contended that Palestine was ’empty,’ that the Palestinians simply did not exist.

However, it was the theological doctrine of chosenness that would most convincingly settle the morality of Zionist claims to Palestine.[5] The Zionists would have little difficulty convincing their Jewish and Christian audiences, the only ones that mattered at that time, that this was no ‘theft.’ It was widely believed by populations raised on Biblical myths that God had promised Palestine to the Jews as their eternal inheritance. Since Jewish ownership rights were divinely ordained, they could not be annulled by absence of the owners. In other words, Zionism was not a colonial movement to expropriate the natives: it was a ‘messianic’ movement to restore Palestine to its divinely appointed Jewish owners. The European Jews who arrived in Palestine could not be accused of stealing their lands; as the Jewish National Fund claims, they were only “redeeming” lands which had had always been theirs.

The sacred history of the Jews supported Zionist plans on another important matter. The Zionist plans for a Jewish state required a Jewish majority in Palestine, and preferably a territory cleansed of its native inhabitants. At first, the Zionist thinkers gave little thought to the Palestinian presence. They assumed that the Palestinians were Bedouins, temporary sojourners, without any love for their land or homes, and could be easily persuaded to move on.[6] When the Palestinian resistance dashed these hopes, the Zionists quickly made plans to evict them from their lands by force of arms. Indeed, in 1948 the Zionists nearly implemented their totalitarian vision when they expelled some 800,000 Palestinians, leveled their towns and villages, and made sure that they would never return to their homes in the Jewish state of Israel. This may have been troubling to some, but Zionists steeped in Jewish sacred history knew that their Lord had urged even more radical measures when their ancestors were taking possession of Canaan.[7]

The theology of chosenness offered another advantage; it did not limit Zionist ambitions to Palestine alone. The Lord’s promise was not restricted to Canaan; in a few more generous verses, He had expanded the Jewish inheritance to include all the lands between the Nile and Euphrates (Genesis: 15.18).”[8] With present-day borders, this expansive Israeli empire would include Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and perhaps more. If the Zionists could successfully use the Bible to claim Palestine, they could invoke the same divine authority to claim the rest of the Arab Middle East as well. In the middle of the Suez War in 1956, Ben-Gurion told the Knesset “that the real reason for it [the Suez War] is ‘the restoration of the kingdom of David and Solomon’ to its Biblical borders. At this point in his speech, almost every Knesset member spontaneously rose and sang the Israeli national anthem.”[9]

The doctrine of election did not merely set the Jews apart from other nations; it also set them above other nations.[10] Over time, this has encouraged racist tendencies. Since the Jews were the chosen instruments of God’s intervention on earth, this was interpreted by some Jewish thinkers to mean that Jews were not subject to the laws of nature and society.[11] In other words, as long as the Jews believed that they were acting as instruments of God’s will, they did not have to follow the laws of gentile nations. As Israelis have moved to the religious right, a shift propelled by the rationale and experience of Zionism itself, Zionist advocates have shown an increasing willingness to justify their human rights abuses as a Jewish prerogative. As Zionist plans continue to be challenged by their victims, the ‘chosen people’ slowly but surely take on the hues of a ‘master race:’ they begin to imagine that they have the power to legitimize their actions by merely willing them into existence.

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University, and author of Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on America’s ‘War Against Islam’ (IPI Publications: 2007). He may be reached at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

© M. SHAHID ALAM

Notes:

[1] All quotes from the Jewish Bible are from: Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish study Bible (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): 111, 383

[2] The doctrine of Jewish chosenness incorporates three interlocking divine choices made by the God of the Jewish scriptures. First, God chose Abraham’s lineage through Isaac to be His “treasured people (Deuteronomy: 7.6), a people “consecrated” to the Lord and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus: 19.5).” He also chose a land where His people would come together; although its borders vary, this land always included the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea as its core. Like God’s chosen people, this land too was unique: it was a pure land, “flowing with milk and honey (Exodus: 33.3),” devoid of impurities, the best of all lands on the earth; it was also a holy land, set apart from other lands, because it was His earthly dwelling place. Finally, this God makes a Covenant with His chosen people. He promises to given them owners and rulers over the holy land, and to guide, bless and favor them as long as they observe His laws. Conversely, He threatens them with dire punishments, including exile from the Promised Land, if they break their Covenant (Exodus: 19.5). It appears that the cumulative deficit in Jewish conduct finally led to their expulsion from the Promised Land in the first century CE. In their centuries of exile, the overwhelming majority of the Jews lived in Europe and the Middle East outside of Palestine.

[3] Nahum Goldmann, “Zionist ideology and the reality of Israel,” Foreign Affairs 57, 1 (Fall 1978): 72.

[4] This argument was revived in 1985 by Joan Peters, From time immemorial: The origins of Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). Joan Peters attributes the natural increase since the 1850s, brought about by improvements in health care and sanitation, to immigration. This natural increase can also be observed in Israel’s Palestinian population: that is, among the 150,000 who survived the ethnic cleansing of 1948-49. In 2004, that population had grown to some 1.3 million. Although Peter’s book was widely acclaimed by the leading Zionists in United States, including Saul Bellow and Barbara Tuchman, the book, according to Norman Finkelstein, is a “monumental hoax.” See Norman Finkelstein, Image and reality of the Israeli-Palestine conflict (London: Verso, 1995).

[5] This was starting point, the chief inspiration for nearly all the early Zionists. Anita Shapir writes: “One of the covert assumptions present among all the poet and the majority of Zionist thinkers and leaders was that Jews had a special right to the Land of Israel, that is, Palestine.” Ahad Ha-Am also commented that this was “a land to which our historical right is beyond doubt and has no need for farfetched proofs.” Anita Shapira, Land and power: The Zionist resort to force, 1881-1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992): 40-41.

[6] In an essay he wrote in 1891, after a short trip to Palestine, Ahad Ha-Am wrote that Jews in Europe believe that “all Arabs are savages of the desert, a people similar to a donkey.” Quoted in Anita Shapira, Land and power: 42.

[7] As the Israelites prepared to take possession of the Promised Land, the Lord’s instructions were unequivocal: “When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you and the Lord your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter Deuteronomy (7.1-3).”

[8] Similar promises were also made in Deuteronomy: 11. 24 and Joshua: 1.4.

[9] Israel Shahak, Jewish history, Jewish religion: The weight of three thousand years (London: Pluto Press, 1994): 8-9.

[10] In 1904, Rabbi Kook, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine, wrote: “So on the collective level of Israel, God ordained these two faculties: a faculty corresponding to the physical entity, that aspires to material improvement of the nation , and a second facet devoted to the cultivation of spirituality. By virtue of the first aspect, Israel is comparable to all the nations of the world. It is by dint of the second aspect that Israel is unique, as it says: “The Lord leads it [Israel] alone”; “Among the nations it [Israel] shall not be reckoned.” It is the Torah and unique sanctity of Israel that distinguish it from the nations.” Rabbi Isaac Hakohen Kook, When God become history: Historical essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, translated by Bazalel Naor (Spring Valley, NY: Orot Inc., 2003). http://www.orot.com/history2.html

[11] In the fifteenth century, Isaac Abravanel, a Jewish statesman and bible commentator, offered a clear statement of the doctrine that Jewish election ­ in the words of his modern biographer ­ offered them “exemption from the laws of nature and society that govern gentiles.” See: Seymour Feldman, Philosophy in a time of crisis: Don Isaac Abravanel, defender of the faith (London: Routledge/Curzon, 2003): 137-38.

 

 

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M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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