Book Review – The Chosen


According to Dr. Avi Beker, the roots of antisemitism is in the competition between the three major monotheistic religions; each one claims to be the “Chosen People” (special people in the eyes of the Almighty G-D). The Jews were the first to claim it and as long as they are claiming it, the two other religions have difficulties claiming it for themselves. The idea of the Chosen People occupies a central place in Jewish tradition and liturgy and should be viewed as the key defining concept of Judaism. It also remains, however, the central unspoken and explosive psychological, historical, and theological problem at the heart of Jewish-Gentile relations.

The three major monotheistic faiths recognize Abraham as the first person to establish a covenantal relationship with God based on his role as the sole deity and supreme authority. On a theological level, both Christianity and Islam have had to reconcile their belief that Abraham is a true prophet with the notion that his religion-Judaism-is not the true religion. This inherent need to invalidate Jews as the “Chosen People” has had concrete manifestations throughout history. It is at the root of much of medieval and contemporary antisemitism. Large parts of both Christianity and Islam are governed by the supersessionist theory, the claim that they have replaced the Jews as the Chosen People. The conflict is the driving force in the history of Jewish relations with the world and continues to be so today-in contemporary anti-Semitism, in the theological support of millions for the state of Israel, and in the current Middle East conflict over the Land of Israel and the “chosen city” of Jerusalem. Some Jews throughout history have looked upon the chosen concept as controversial and arrogant, and many have tried to reject or deny it. Some of those who have rejected the concept resorted to similar ideas that emphasized Jewish uniqueness or separateness.

It took Christianity two thousand years of policies that persecuted and demoralized Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, to arrive at Vatican II, the gathering in 1965 that confronted the charge against the Jews as the killers of Christ. By removing the collective blood guilt from “the Jews of today” and in ancient times, the gathering’s pronouncement allowed the recognition by the Catholic Church of the Jews as “Thy Chosen People” and led later to Pope John Paul II’s declaration, during his historic 1986 visit to the Synagogue of Rome, that the Jews are “our elder brother.” This doctrinal change would later allow the Vatican to cross the theological barrier that required the Jews to remain dispersed, humiliated, and without sovereignty, as was explained to Herzl in his 1904 meeting in Rome with Pope Pius X. The 1965 modifications of the Catholic doctrine have greatly contributed to a more harmonious relationship with the Jews. It seems, however, that the obsession with Jewish chosenness is still very strong. The basic assertion that Christianity has replaced Judaism as the chosen religion is still dominant in Catholic theology. The Dominus Iesus document, written in 2000 by the pope, Benedict XVI, stressed a desire “for the instant in which Israel will say yes to Christ.”

Early in 2008 the Vatican decided to revive the traditional Latin prayer for the conversion of the Jews (which was removed in 1969), which fostered centuries of Jewish humiliation and suffering at the hands of inflamed Christian faithful.22 In another act, in the summer of 2008, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decided to delete from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults the sentence saying that “the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”23 This decision, which awaits Vatican approval, again shows how difficult it is for the Catholic Church to accept the historic role of the Jews as the chosen “elder brother.”

Martin Luther, who broke away from Catholicism in the mid-sixteenth century to create the Protestant Church, sent cordial and welcoming messages to the Jews, expecting that they would convert to his purified form of Christianity. After their refusal he launched his vicious campaign of anti-Semitism, arguing that they were no longer the Chosen People and were instead “the Devil’s people,” adding that the Jews were “base, whoring…that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” It is widely agreed that Luther’s anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed significantly to the development of anti-Semitism in Germany, and in the 1930s and 1940s provided an ideal foundation for the National Socialists’ attacks on Jews.

Islam faces a similar theological need to explain away Jewish “chosenness.” But unlike Christianity, the Muslim displacement theory does not base itself on being the “New Israel;” instead, it recasts the Jewish prophets as Muslims by creating a direct link with Ishmael, the son of Abraham, the “first Muslim” according to the Qur’an. As the early Christians had done before him, Muhammad started his campaign with a conscious effort to bring the Jews within the fold of Islam. Muhammad accepted the Jewish God and prophets and many Jewish practices, including initially the orientation of prayers toward Jerusalem. After realizing that the Jews were not going to join his new version of Judaism, Muhammad proceeded to establish a separate religion. From that point on relations with his Jewish neighbors deteriorated quickly, and after declaring that Mecca, not Jerusalem, was the holy city, in 628 CE Muhammad attacked the Jewish tribes, dispossessing, enslaving, exiling, and massacring them.

In the Qur’an Muhammad refers to the Jews as the “Chosen People” and to the Land of Israel as their “Promised Land.” The Qur’an acknowledges the Jews’ covenant with God: “O Children of Israel! Remember my favor which I bestowed upon you and that I exalted you above all people.” In particular it exhorts the Children of Israel regarding the Land of Israel, telling them to “dwell securely in the Promised Land.” Needless to say, given the contemporary Arab campaign to deny any Jewish links to the Land of Israel, this and similar comments about the Jews and their land are nowhere to be found in the rhetoric of today’s Muslim or Arab leaders.

Sura 5 of the Qur’an presents the Muslim doctrine of supersession, and the commentators explain that Islam remedies “the backsliding of the Jews and Christians from their pure religions to which the coping stone was placed by Islam.” What follows is referred to by traditional Islamic commentary as “the memorable declaration” (5:3): “This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” The verse puts it bluntly: the favor of Allah, which went initially to the Jews, has moved in its perfected form to Islam.

Vilifying or killing Jews is a recurring motif in Muslim holy texts, and it is very much related to the Islamic version of supersessionism. The Qur’an repeatedly accuses the Jews of falsehood, distortion, and of being “corrupters of the scriptures.” It argues that the Jews did not deserve to be the Chosen People, and because of their sins are condemned to “degradation in this world.”

[Dr. Avi Beker is former secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress and has testified before the U.S. Congress on the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. He teaches international diplomacy to MA students and heads the Jewish Public Policy project at the School of Government in Tel Aviv University. More information can be found in Avi Beker’s book The Chosen: The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession] []


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