by Alan Rutkowski
THE IDEA that Jews are the chosen people is a problematic concept, especially for contemporary non-Orthodox Jews living outside of Israel. More about Israel in a minute.
Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, dropped the doctrine of chosenness altogether because he didn’t believe it could be interpreted in any way that doesn’t imply a claim to Jewish superiority. Jews as the chosen people doesn’t appear in Reconstructionist prayer books, and the liturgical phrase in blessings “who has chosen us from all peoples” (asher bakhar banu mikol ha’amim) is replaced with “who has drawn us to His service” (asher kervanu la‑avodato). (Although classical Reconstructionist Judaism rejects a personal God who could either “choose” the Jews or “draw” them, the Reconstructionist movement has not entirely abandoned the use of metaphorical God-language.)
Both Conservative and Reform liturgies still keep the traditional “chosen” formula, but Conservative and Reform rabbis are at pains, mostly unsuccessfully, to interpret chosenness in a way that doesn’t imply Jewish superiority. A measure of their failure is the practice of some Conservative and Reform Jews to rephrase “who has chosen us from all peoples” to “who has chosen us with all peoples.” The change is barely noticeable in Hebrew (from mi/“from” to im/“with”), nor does it make much sense, but those who adopt this practice obviously feel uncomfortable with the original. I know a Conservative rabbi who has confessed that when he prays, he leaves out all wordings in the liturgy — there are many — that imply Jewish superiority. He considers such sentiments, even when recited by rote, to be dangerous.
CONTRAST THIS squeamishness among liberal Jews in the diaspora about any notion of Jewish superiority with the situation in Israel. A survey of the “Beliefs, Observance and Values among Israeli Jews” conducted in 2009 found that 70 percent of Israeli Jews believe that Jews are the chosen people. Since 46 percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as secular according to the survey, the numbers indicate that even within the secular minority, at least one-third maintains a belief in Jewish chosenness, and that the concept has taken on shades of simple ethnic chauvinism beyond any original theological significance. This is reminiscent of the quip about secular Zionists who don’t believe in God but do believe that God gave them the land.
There have long been simmering tensions between Israel and liberal Jews in the diaspora over the occupation and the ever-more openly reported oppression and mistreatment of the Palestinians. Especially among young American Jews support for Israel is in serious decline.
Now that the election of Donald Trump has given new life to white supremacy movements in America, the gap between Israel and liberal American Jews is likely to widen for the simple reason that Zionism, as an ideology, seems far too compatible with white nationalism.
In her book Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole, right-wing political commentator Ann Coulter wrote the following:
Palestinians demand a right to return to their pre-1967 homes, but Israel says, quite correctly, that changing Israel’s ethnicity would change the idea of Israel. Well, changing America’s ethnicity changes the idea of America, too. Show me in a straight line why we can’t do what Israel does. Is Israel special? For some of us, America is special, too.”
When the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer was publicly challenged by Texas A&M University’s Hillel Rabbi, Matt Rosenberg, to study with him Judaism’s “radical inclusion” and love, Spencer replied: “Do you really want radical inclusion in the state of Israel? Maybe all of the Middle East can go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?” Spencer went on to express his admiration for Israel’s exclusionary nature, which, he claimed, had kept the Jews strong and cohesive. He wants no less for America. Spencer has called his white nationalism “white Zionism.”
Rabbi Rosenberg was speechless. His inability to come up with a reasonable response to Spencer underscores the difficulty of squaring the norms of a Jewish state that privileges Jews over non-Jews with the liberal democratic values of most Jews living in the diaspora and the liberal Jewish aversion to anything that smacks of ethnic chauvinism. There has always been a tension between the particular and the universal in Judaism, but it is precisely the tolerant, inclusive values of liberal democracy that have allowed the Jewish diaspora to maintain and express its particular identity. Jews in the diaspora, in other words, have a vested interest in liberal policies.
HALF OF American Jews identify as politically liberal and liberal American Jewish organizations have long stood in solidarity with African Americans and other disadvantaged groups. The Anti-Defamation League has forthrightly condemned anti-Muslim bigotry and called the supposed threat of Sharia law, a favorite bogeyman of the American rightwing, “one of the more pernicious conspiracy theories to gain traction in our country in recent years.” Speaking in opposition to then-Candidate Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt stated that, “In the Jewish community, we know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating. . . [T]his country must not give into fear by turning its back on its fundamental values. . .”
The trend in Israel is exactly the opposite. Only 8 percent of Israeli Jews consider themselves on the left of the political spectrum. Half of Israeli Jews (48 percent) believe Arabs should be transferred or expelled from Israel. In both countries, rightwing views correlate closely with Orthodox religious observance, and in Israel Orthodox religious observance is on the rise.
If serious belief in the doctrine of chosenness were confined to Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Brooklyn and other centers of American Orthodox Jewish life, it would matter little to liberal American Jews. After all, many religions have fundamentalist wings that espouse all sorts of beliefs that offend liberal sensibilities. But the prominence that the belief in chosenness plays in Israel, even among secular Israeli nationalists, does pose a problem. That a newly re-emergent American white supremacist movement can point with some justification to Israel’s exclusionary policies as a model for their vision for America cannot be a matter of indifference for liberal Jewish Americans: After all, defending an embattled Israel surrounded by enemies who seek its destruction is one thing; defending an ethno-religious state where a belief in Jewish supremacy is used to justify the persecution and possible expulsion of an ethnic minority is quite another.
Whether a religious doctrine can do harm depends very much on the amount of power it wields. Jews suffered for centuries from charges of deicide when the Church held political power. The doctrine of chosenness, even if it meant Jewish superiority, was innocuous as long as Jews were powerless. Israel’s creation has changed the balance of power.
Alan Rutkowski lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is a founding member of the Canadian Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? His views do not represent an official position of that group.