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Deborah Orr on Jewish “Chosenness”

One of the doctrines at the centre of Judaism is the notion that Jews, collectively, chose to enter into an extensive covenant to keep 613 commandments with God. This covenant goes beyond the Seven Noahide Laws which represent the covenant, said to have been made between God and Noah, binding the whole of humanity. Observance of the covenant is, of course, onerous: but religious Jews regard the burden as something of a privilege.

As an atheist, I’m unconcerned by members of a religion declaring that God has a special love his followers. Most religions make this claim.

Mocking Jews as the “Chosen People has a very long antisemitic heritage. There are 11 references to the “Chosen People” in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A google of Stormfront (link here) produces as impressive 24,200 results. In this context, Jews are depicted as regarding themselves as divinely licenced to ride roughshod over the “Goyim”.

To antisemites,  ”Chosen People” mockery is deployed to portray Jews as supremacists, exploiters and abusers: who far from being “chosen” are, and should be, despised. However, that crude racist approach itself draws on an older theological tradition. Jews are condemned for insisting on a  relationship with God which is intrinsically blasphemous, and contrary to scripture. Although the issue is a matter of debate within Christianity – because the New Testament is not wholly clear on the point – many Christians have believed that the covenant between God and Jews has been transferred to Christians, to the exclusion of Jews. Within the Islamic tradition, the position is also that Jews are covenant-breakers.

The “Chosen People As Insult” meme is very well established, now: not simply on the far Right, but also on the Left. It is a common feature of the discourse of those who regard their hatred of Jews as progressive in nature. It is likely that those on the Left think that, by railing against the “Chosen People”, they’re opposing religious supremacism. The irony is that they’re actually battling with a far Right and antisemitic caricature of Jews and what they believe.

But I doubt they care.

So, in recent years, we’ve had Chosen-Peopleing from prize winning novelist Jostein Gaarder:

We do not believe in the notion of God’s chosen people. We laugh at this people’s fancies and weep over its misdeeds. To act as God’s chosen people is not only stupid and arrogant, but a crime against humanity.

and Chosen-Peopleing from prize winning dramatist, Caryl Churchill:

tell her we wont stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldnt care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I dont care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.

So, now it is the turn of Deborah Orr, a woman of at least partial Jewish descent, and Guardian columnist:

It’s quite something, the prisoner swap between Hamas and the Israeli government that returns Gilad Shalit to his family, and more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to theirs. The deal is widely viewed as a victory for Hamas, the radical Islamist group that gained power in Gaza after years of frustration at the intractability of the “peace process”. Conversely, it is being seen by some as a sign of weakness in Israel’s rightwing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

All this, I fear, is simply an indication of how inured the world has become to the obscene idea that Israeli lives are more important than Palestinian lives. Netanyahu argues that he acted because he values Shalit’s life so greatly.

Yet who is surprised really, to learn that Netanyahu sees one Israeli’s freedom as a fair exchange for the freedom of so many Palestinians? Likewise, Hamas wished to use their human bargaining chip to gain release for as many Palestinians as they could. They don’t have much to bargain with.

At the same time, however, there is something abject in their eagerness to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours

That is not only the invocation of a very standard racist smear against Jews: it is a mad argument. After all, Israel would have much preferred not to have released a large number of convicted terrorists, some of whom are already promising to murder more Israeli civilians.

But as Deborah Orr put it back in 2001:

But actually, I’m getting fed up with being called an anti-Semite. And the more fed up I get, the more anti-Semitic I sound.

Of course. And the Guardian happily gives her a platform to spout this sort of stuff.

UPDATE: Also see Norm

Philo in the comments below adds:

Late Portuguese Nobel Prize in literature José Saramago wrote:

“Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted ‘certitude’ that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner. Israel seizes hold of the terrible words of God in Deuteronomy: ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will be repaid.’ Israel wants all of us to feel guilty, directly or indirectly, for the horrors of the Holocaust; Israel wants us to renounce the most elemental critical judgment and for us to transform ourselves into a docile echo of its will.”

Dieudonné also likes to joke about the “elected people”.