While it’s true that the Bible speaks repeatedly of a special relationship between God and the Jews, anti-Semitic agitators have always misunderstood or distorted the essential nature of that connection. According to Scripture, the Jews have been chosen for distinct responsibilities, not for unique privileges: we accept special obligations, rather than claiming special power. In Jewish tradition, non-Jews are expected to follow just seven commandments—the Noahide laws of basic morality. According to mainstream Torah teaching, gentiles who follow these rules (don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit gross sexual immorality, and so forth) should be judged as righteous and assumed to earn their share in the World to Come (the afterlife). God, however, expects his covenantal people to apply far more numerous and stringent commandments to their behavior – 613 commandments, to be exact – regarding everything from food, to business ethics, marital relations, and Sabbath observance.
The concept of chosen-ness, in other words, involves a significant burden rather than privileged status —a burden reflected in the common phrase, “Ohl Malchus Shamayim” or “The Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” to describe the commitment of every Jew who accepts the covenant of Abraham. Moreover, Jews remain more a “choosing people” than a “chosen people” because so many non-Jews over the centuries (and particularly in recent years) have selected Jewish identity and converted to our faith. In the US, nearly 10% of today’s Jewish population of 5.2 million counts as converts to Judaism. Though we don’t emphasize proselytizing efforts in the style of Evangelical Christians, many of the leaders of the Jewish people (including hugely significant rabbis in nearly every era for the last 2000 years) have been “Jews by Choice” --- those who weren’t born Jewish, but chose to join our people through an ancient, well-established process of conversion.
Finally, the whole idea of the “Chosen People” has never brought the assumption that God selected us for unusual political, military or even economic authority. The Bible suggests that the Jews will be “a nation of priests and a holy nation” --- not some sort of all-conquering superpower within the Middle East or the world at large. Our tradition has always defined Jewish power as spiritual, rather than practical and worldly. No Jewish leader, going all the way back to Moses and Abraham, has ever suggested that our people should dominate the world and control other nations. The Bible specifies relatively modest borders for the Holy Land, and repeatedly mentions the much larger, far more formidable empires to the south (Egypt) and to the East (Babylonia, Assyria, Persia). Even during the glory days of ancient Israel under David and Solomon the Jewish state never achieved full control of that promised territory—let alone a world-girdling empire. At that time, as with Israel today, the Jewish people sought only to live unmolested within the confines of their own cherished land, each man “beneath his own vine and own fig tree.”
II. JEWISH PROMINENCE AND SUCCESS IN THE LANDS OF THE DIASPORA
No one can deny that Jews in the United States and in many other nations recently have achieved surprising levels of prosperity and influence but any talk of Jewish “dominance” or “control” in those societies remains the province of neo-Nazi propagandists. There is no significant industry or arena of endeavor – no, not one--in any nation in the world (outside of Israel) in which Jews outnumber or rule over non-Jews. Even the famous Jewish command of Hollywood is an ignorant myth concerning an increasingly international industry in which the prominence of influential Jews has actually decreased in the last seventy years. Most of the pioneering movie studios founded and owned by immigrant Jewish families have either gone out of the movie production business altogether (M-G-M) or else sold out to strikingly non-Jewish corporations (Columbia to the Japanese Sony Corporation, and 20th Century Fox to an Australian descendant of Presbyterian clergy, Rupert Murdoch). The two largest entertainment conglomerates in the world boast board chairmen who are African-American (Richard Parsons at Time Warner) and Arab American (George Mitchell at Disney) neither of whom are remotely Jewish. The yearly lists of Hollywood’s most influential power players, as identified by Premiere Magazine and other sources, regularly show that close to one-fourth of the movers-and-shakers are Jews—a disproportionate showing, to be sure, but hardly an indication of Jewish dominance. Similarly, the Fortune 500 list of the nation’s largest corporations features a top ten ranking that includes three oil companies with strong Arab ties and no affection whatever for Israel, as well as a car company (Ford) founded by one of history’s most outspoken anti-Semites, and a retailer run by conservative Christians from Arkansas (Wal-Mart)—but not a single corporation that was founded, run, or owned by Jews. Among the top 100, at most six (including Home Depot, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers) could classify in any way as “Jewish companies.” With these incontrovertible facts easy to verify for anyone with access to the internet or a library, it becomes even more difficult to explain the persistent, pernicious and utterly false belief that Jews “own” or “control” most of the world’s banks, newspapers, media companies and other important instiutions. Part of the confusion involves appalling lies and misinformation: many callers to my radio show somehow believe that the Rockefellers are Jewish (they were actually German Christians who arrived in Philadelphia in 1723) or that the Rothschild family—a favorite target of anti-Semites for more than 200 years-- still dominates world banking (the family’s power actually peaked in the Napoleonic era and their influence on the global economy today is either invisible or non-existent).
There is also a tendency on the part of paranoid anti-Semites to search out a few Jewish names even in areas in which Jews play minor roles in order to triumphantly affirm the myth of “Jewish control.” Consider the case of the Bush administration and the frequent, laughably absurd charge that it’s somehow dominated by Jewish “neo-conservatives” who forced the President to make war on Iraq for the sake of Israel. In truth, Jews remained conspicuously absent from positions of authority during the first Bush term: for the first time in more than 65 years (since the Presidency of FDR!) the President’s Cabinet (15 department heads in all) included not a single Jew. The true believers in a Neo-Con cabal invariably cite just two names who held sub-cabinet posts (Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense and Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy) and a single civilian advisor to the Defense Department (Richard Perle, of the Defense Policy Board) who doesn’t even count as an administration employee. The anti-Semites focus on these names not because of their importance (anyone who believes that Wolfowitz and Feith secretly controlled their imperious, tough-as-nails boss, Don Rumsfeld, knows nothing about Rummy) but because they happen to be Jewish. Similarly, conspiracists like to blame Jews in the Senate for pushing us into war with Iraq, while ignoring the fact that a bare majority of the eleven Jewish Senators at the time (including such fierce anti-war advocates as Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer) actually voted against the resolution authorizing war –at a time when nearly 80% of their gentile colleagues lined up on the other side to support the President in deposing Saddam Hussein.
To me, one of the most mystifying aspects of the stubborn belief in Jewish influence and power is the notion that our fractious, deeply divided, largely disaffiliated people somehow manages to get together to exert that authority. I’m a Jewish radio talk show host, and so is the appalling (and unfunny) Al Franken of Air America. We agree on nothing, and we’ve both managed to survive several very angry, bitter, public confrontations. Do Jew-haters believe that behind the scenes we receive the same secret memos from Jewish Conspiracy Central, or else get together in dank, shadowy rooms to study the one-hundred-year-old hoax, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”? Less than half of the U.S. Jewish population (alas!) gives to any Jewish charity, or holds membership in any synagogue, Temple, pro-Israel lobbying group, B’nai B’rith lodge, or other Jewish organization.
In this context, the almost mystical, profoundly illogical belief in “Jewish power” based on our over-representation among accountants and dentists amounts to more than a delusion; it is, in fact, a sickness.
III: ISRAEL’S SUCCESS – AND ALLEGEDLY “EXPANSIONIST” AND “IMPERIALIST” NATURE
In order to credit Islamist denunciations of an “Israeli Empire,” or worry that the perennially embattled Jewish state might indeed count as uniquely aggressive and power hungry, one must remain incurably ignorant not only of contemporary history but of rudimentary geography. The merest glance at a map reveals the incontrovertible fact that Israel remains, in every sense, a tiny nation. Egypt alone – representing only one of Israel’s twenty hostile Arab neighbors—is more than 48 times the land area of Israel. Adding together only the various Arab nations (without including other vast Islamic homelands like Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan), the Arabs control well over 300 times the area of the New Jersey-sized Jewish state. In other words, even before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran succeeds (God forbid) in his plan to “wipe Israel from the map,” 99.7% of the Arab lands are already free of Jews.
Moreover, for nearly thirty years, Israel has been shrinking and retreating – not expanding – hardly the behavior of an aggressive empire bent on world domination. After capturing the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza and the West Bank in a defensive war in 1967, Israel returned the vast Sinai to Egypt in 1978, agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian State on most of the West Bank and Gaza in 1993, vacated its security zone in Lebanon in 2000, abandoned Gaza entirely in 2005 and, under the current Prime Minister, committed to moving out of nearly all territory in the West Bank in the near future. In retrospect, some of these moves look like horrible policy mistakes, but they unequivocally indicate that there is no basis at all to suggest that Israeli aggression accounts for contemporary anti-Semitism.
The establishment of the modern Jewish state wasn’t a cause of Jew hatred, but a response to Jew hatred—not only in Europe, but throughout the Islamic world where some 800,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jews were driven from their ancient communities and found new homes in Israel. None of Israel’s eight major wars has been about a Jewish lust for new territory. All of them have been about a beleaguered nation’s ceaseless attempts to make its citizens secure from murderous attack in the distinctly limited area of their ancestral homeland. Every Arab child in Lebanon, in Gaza, and in the West Bank could sleep sweet, undisturbed slumber as soon as tomorrow night if the adults once-and-for-all gave up their long-standing project of driving the Jews out of the Middle East.
Contrary to anti-Semitic presumptions, Israel has never demanded special privileges of any kind, but yearns (and bleeds) only for the same rights other nations enjoy: to live undisturbed beside its neighbors without unceasing attack by terrorists, militias and, occasionally, major armies. Montenegro, the newest member of the family of nations after a referendum this year, won independence and worldwide recognition despite the fact that more than 45% of the electorate opposed bringing the nation into existence, and only a bare majority claims Montenegran (as opposed to Serbian) nationality. More than 80% of the residents of Israel are Jewish, and they have fought tenaciously for their nationhood for nearly sixty years. The desire for peaceful borders and acceptance from fanatical neighbors hardly amounts to an Israeli demand of privileged status, but the refusal to grant that recognition reflects the classical attitude of the anti-Semite: that Jews indeed deserve different treatment from all other nations on earth but in a negative, hostile and, ultimately murderous sense.
In conclusion, none of the three obsessive fears of Jew haters—the “Chosen People” concept, Jewish prosperity in the Diaspora, and Israel’s success (so far) in nation-building and self-defense –demonstrates in any way a push for world conquest or superior standing for the children of Abraham. How, then, can we understand the imperishable belief that Jews function as an arrogant, imperious, overbearing people? In a few words, that resentment stems in truth from the age-old Jewish refusal to abandon our separate identity, our irreducible distinctiveness through the millennia. My friends Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin provide the most compelling exposition on this dynamic in their invaluable book, Why the Jews?, recently reissued.
In any event, the logic becomes most accessible when considered in personal, intimate terms. If a small group among your neighbors refuses invitations to worship in your churches and mosques, to eat the food you prepare in your homes, to marry your daughters, to embrace your nationalisms, or to share your enthusiasm for the ultimate, universally applicable perfection of your Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Catholic, Islamic, Nazi or Communist worldview, then it’s all but certain you will resent the members of that stubborn group – and assume that they exclude themselves from elements of your society due to an innate, obnoxious sense of superiority.
For Jews who try to remain faithful to the old covenant, there’s no choice about the unyielding refusal to assimilate and disappear—and no surprise at the angry reaction in much of the world. After all, the Bible repeatedly predicts that response. This realization doesn’t make it any easier to cope with anti-Semitism, but it does make the eternal hatred comprehensible. No matter how inconvenient or unpopular, we get our marching orders from the commandments--including the crucial and celebrated injunction to choose life, for ourselves and our people.