The Chosen

Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism.
by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin.
Simon & Schuster. 238 pp. $14.95.

Much that is important about this audaciously subtitled book (the one and only reason for anti-Semitism?) is foreshadowed in the dedication: “To Raoul Wallenberg,” the Swedish diplomat who rescued Hungarian Jews during World War II and was subsequently bundled off to the Gulag by Soviet authorities, never to be seen again. A book about anti-Semitism inscribed for a “righteous Gentile” reassures the wary reader that the authors are not the sort of insular xenophobes often drawn to this subject. Moreover, in light of Wallenberg’s fate, which achingly parallels the tragedies of Jewry in this century, the dedication signals the nonpartisanship of the inquiry to follow; anti-Semites of the Right and the Left get equal time.

The book is the second collaboration by these authors. The first, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, was a feisty and full-throated ovation to a Judaism without tears. In this book, inevitably, there is some weeping—no treatment of the subject could avoid it—and also some crude formulations and awkward writing. But there is very little self-pity. The reason is that the authors find the root of anti-Semitism not in racism, xenophobia, the need for scapegoats, economic depressions, or any other universalizing factor. The occasion for the hatred of Jews they find in Judaism itself—hence the simplicity of the subtitle.

It is important to recognize from the outset, they argue, that Judaism is unique. Unlike other religions, it is also a nation. Unlike other nations, Jews maintained a sense of peoplehood even when they were without a state. The traditional Jewish formulation of this uniqueness is expressed as God (morality), Torah (law), and Israel (peoplehood). All anti-Semitism, announces this book, is a reaction to one or more of these three pillars of Judaism.

It is an alluring thesis, in part because of its air of sonorous profundity (“. . . the Jew carries the burden of God in history and for this has never been forgiven”), but also, perhaps, because it is ego-gratifying. Seen through the Prager/ Telushkin prism, anti-Semitism becomes a sinister form of flattery.

The idea that anti-Semitism is a manifestation of a primitive revolt against morality, civilization, and God Himself must be particularly appealing to the modern Jewish mind grown weary of the scapegoat theory and other de-Judaizing explanations for the persecution of Jews. How much more satisfying to find that Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the 19th-century English expatriate who became one of the philosophers of Nazism, believed that the Jew (and through the Jew the Christian) “came into our gay world and spoiled everything with his ominous concept of sin, his law, and his cross.” Hitler swore to destroy the “tyrannical God of the Jews” and His “life-denying Ten Commandments.” Among the ditties of the Hitler Youth was:

Pope and rabbi shall be no more.
We want to be pagans again.

“A basic element of anti-Semitism,” the authors thus conclude, “is a rebellion against the ‘thou shalts’ and the ‘thou shalt nots’ introduced by the Jews in the name of a supreme moral authority.” (George Steiner has advanced a similiar argument.) Pre-modern Jews understood this, accepting as axiomatic that the persecution they suffered was chargeable to their challenging religion. A Jew who sacrificed his life rather than give up his faith was said to have died al kiddush hashem, in sanctification of the name of God.

Satisfying as such speculation may be, its usefulness as an explanation is limited. As the authors themselves stress more than once, Nazism was a unique form of anti-Semitism. The naked neo-paganism of a Hitler Youth slogan may be fascinating in its own terms, but is uninstructive on the causes of the more universal forms of anti-Semitism.

A second flaw with the theory of the Jews as God’s standard-bearers is the Procrustean difficulty of fitting Christian anti-Semitism within its bounds. It is historically and theologically reductive, to say the least, to reason that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was perceived by Christians as fealty to monotheism in the face of an invitation to some other kind of faith. Christianity adopted monotheism: its quarrel with Judaism is a family one—with, to be sure, all of the bitterness and hatreds such quarrels engender.



If the authors’ religious analysis is less than comprehensive, their account of the role of Jewish nationhood in the etiology of anti-Semitism is masterful. Whereas, they write, anti-Semites in pre-modern times were primarily aroused by the offensiveness of Jewish beliefs—pagans resenting the refusal of Jews to acknowledge the legitimacy of their gods, Christians chafing at the rejection of Jesus’ divinity—the modern anti-Semite was enraged by another pillar of Judaism: the tenacious transnational identification among Jews. This feature became even more inflammatory with the rise of nationalism in Europe.

In Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, the lengthiest entry is the article entitled “Jew.” “Our masters and our enemies whom we detest . . . the most abominable people in the world.” Enlightenment thinkers may have been indiscriminate in their hostility to religion, but the Jews were their special target. In December 1789, Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre rose in the French National Assembly during a discussion of the Jewish question and articulated what was to become the universal price of “enlightened” emancipation:

The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals. . . . There cannot be one nation within another nation.

This (as Jacob Katz has recently argued in these pages, “Misreadings of Anti-Semitism,” July) was nothing less than the hoary demand, familiar from pagan and Christian times, that Jews abandon their Judaism. The focus had merely shifted from the God component of Judaism to the Israel component. But the two are not severable. How can Jews give up their nationhood and yet remain Jews? On Yom Kippur, they ask God’s forgiveness not as individuals but as a people. This communal religion touches every aspect of life, and adherence to even a few of its dictates marks the Jew off from the larger society.

Perhaps anti-Semites never truly understood this. Prager and Telushkin have assembled quotation after quotation by Enlightenment, Socialist, and Communist theorists first confidently predicting the assimilation of the Jews and then, disappointed, renewing every anti-Semitic calumny they could unearth, the most vile being the current Soviet accusation that during World War II the Jews collaborated with the Nazis to murder Russian prisoners of war.

But while the nationalist component of Judaism sets it apart from other faiths, religion has itself molded the nationalism of the Jews, and nowhere more strikingly than in what is, perhaps, the most provocative doctrine in history: chosenness. A recent University of California study revealed that among eighteen “potentially negative” beliefs about Jews, the one which continues to be the most potent (60-percent agreement) is that “Jews continue to think of themselves as God’s chosen people.” Arguably, the doctrine of chosenness, and the sense of superiority it connotes, is what has made Jewish nationhood so odious to so many different cultures.

But the authors protest. Why, they ask, should one tiny group’s claim to divine election arouse such hostility? Should it not rather have been an occasion of derision where it was known at all? Their explanation offers some interesting insights.

They speculate that the traditionally higher standard of living which Jews always enjoyed relative to their neighbors gave the claim to chosenness a certain discomfiting plausibility. Jewish poverty, for example, was less visible than that of others because the law of Moses made charity justice (tzedakah)—and justice a religious obligation. Poor Jews, though ever with us, were less conspicuous than poor Gentiles, contributing to the belief that the Jews suffered no poverty. Adherence to the religious laws regarding family life meant that abandonment and wife-beating were exceedingly rare. Alcoholism was almost unknown. (The authors’ attribution of this datum to the ritualization and sanctification of wine-drinking in Judaism is somewhat lame; Christianity, after all, made wine-drinking a central element of its most sacred ceremony, the Eucharist.)

The doctrine of chosenness, Prager and Telushkin conclude, was resented as much for its circumstantial persuasiveness as for its intrinsic effrontery. As evidence that the claim was taken seriously, they point to the fact that Judaism’s two daughter religions, while discarding most of the beliefs and practices of their parent, were quick to arrogate the claim to themselves. Christianity called the Church the “New Israel,” and Islam made Muslims the inheritors of Abraham’s covenant.

The emphasis on chosenness is surely correct, and evidence for it crops up again and again throughout the broad historical sweep of the book. The precept was anathema to pagans, Christians, Muslims, Enlightenment liberals, Socialists, and no doubt to Zoroastrians (though the book is silent on this). But in their apology for the doctrine, the authors slide into defensive parochialism. Noting that Jews have always been aware of its offensiveness, and that two groups, 19th-century Reform Jews and 20th-century Reconstructionists, have moved to excise the idea from Judaism, they complain that it has been consistently misunderstood. Jews, they argue, saw themselves singled out not for privileges but rather for onerous responsibilities. (Recall Tevye’s plaint to God: “Next time, choose somebody else.”)

But this insistence that Jews were chosen only for obligation and suffering is disingenuous. If Jews found their status onerous, it was almost certainly because of the envy it excited among fellow mortals, not because they would have preferred some other relationship to God. A beautiful woman might feel her beauty a burden when surrounded by her lesser endowed sisters, but she would be unlikely to surrender her gifts if the opportunity were offered. A better response would be to point out that the claim to chosenness, while undeniably obnoxious, was never cruel—as it was when Christians transmogrified it. The “New Israel” proclaimed salvation only through the Church, and relegated the rest of humanity to eternal damnation.



One of the strengths of this book is the intellectual housecleaning it undertakes. The authors briskly dispose of several lingering myths about the causes of anti-Semitism. For example, the argument that wealth causes hatred of Jews is refuted by a simple comparison. In Eastern Europe, where Jews were poorest, they suffered the most. In North America, where they have been the most affluent, they have suffered the least. Again, although the authors devote considerable attention to Christian anti-Semitism, they take due notice of the important fact that today, moderate and conservative Christians are crucial allies and friends. The blood libel was ghastly and obscene, but its modern inheritors can be found in the souks and the Soviets, not in the churches.

The book’s strongest chapter is entitled “Non-Jewish Jews and Anti-Semitism.” Here, the authors unblinkingly acknowledge that “The association of Jews with revolutionary doctrines and ideological social upheaval has not, unfortunately, been the product of anti-Semites’ imaginations.” The Jewish revolutionary is usually a rootless creature, unassimilated into the larger society, and alienated from traditional Judaism in every respect save one: he has inherited a three-thousand-year practice of challenging the most sacred values of those around him:

Feeling no kinship, hence no responsibility, to any nation (only to “mankind”) they have not felt concerned with the consequences of such destructiveness. Neither the demoralization of the non-Jewish nation nor the resultant . . . antipathy to Jews concerns these people.

The authors reproduce an exchange between Leon Trotsky (né Lev Bronstein) and Moscow’s chief rabbi which speaks volumes about the whole phenomenon of the “non-Jewish Jew.” Trotsky, who had denied being a Russian or a Jew, calling himself simply a “social democrat,” was entreated by the chief rabbi in 1920 to intervene on behalf of the Russian Jews who were being slaughtered by both sides in pogroms during the civil war. Trotsky refused. The rabbi is said to have remarked, “The Trotskys make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the price.”

In the end, the book’s subtitle crumbles under the weight of the authors’ superb research. There is no single explanation for anti-Semitism; their title identifies only the victim. But their insights into the various outbreaks of anti-Semitism take us very far. The book is as valuable for the theories it explodes as for those it propounds.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link