Chosenness and Israeli exceptionalism
M. Shahid Alam explains how the doctrine of chosenness was central to the morality of Zionist claims
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. Since this doctrine is the cornerstone of Zionism, divine sanction for Jewish uniqueness has been inseparable from Israeli exceptionalism and Israeli history.
At first glance, political Zionism has little to recommend itself, apart from the mythic allure of the Promised Land. Most Jews greeted the project with consternation and derision, alternatively. 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 fantastically Utopian, 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 colonising 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 have 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 splendour. It inspired hopes of establishment of 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, and to change the 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 lands."
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 neighbouring Arab countries, attracted by the growth in labour demand induced by Jewish colonisation. 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. 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 land: 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 the land; they were only repossessing what 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, 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. 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.
The theology of chosenness offered another advantage; it did 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). 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: "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.
The doctrine of election did not merely set the Jews apart from other nations; they were set above other nations. 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. 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," with the power to legitimise their actions by merely willing them into existence.
M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI: 2007).