Open Letter to Jostein Gaarder: Fisking Crypto-Supersessionism
Jostein Gaarder, the Norwegian science writer, novelist and children’s writer has written a thunderous prophetic denunciation of Israel that articulates well the moral posture of Europe when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s reach and vehemence prompted many complaints and accusations of anti-semitism. Gaarder apologized for perhaps having spoken in a moment of haste and outrage.
He admits he could have phrased himself with more precision, but that it would be too much work to do anything about it now. He also states that what he wrote, was motivated by “disgust for the war, and the wrongdoing of the Israeli army”.
The prophetic cry was published on August 5, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of the Qana bombing and the international outrage based on what we now know was systematically distorted numbers and staged photos, all designed to arouse precisely the kind of moral outrage so eloquently expressed by Gaarder. Thus his response represents a good gauge of the power of the media’s narrative on people’s thoughts and emotions.
The following is an open-letter fisking, asking Jostein Gaarder to take the time and effort to reconsider his hasty vehemence, explore the underlying assumptions and emotions that drove his prophetic language, and finally, examine the possibility that he might have been the dupe of demopaths… a phenomenon that Europe can ill afford these days.
God’s chosen people
Jostein Gaarder, Aftenposten 05.08.06
From the Norwegian by Sirocco
There is no turning back. It is time to learn a new lesson: We do no longer recognize the state of Israel. We could not recognize the South African apartheid regime, nor did we recognize the Afghan Taliban regime. Then there were many who did not recognize Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing. We must now get used to the idea: The state of Israel in its current form is history.
I am aware that you later argued that – in true prophetic style – this was meant as a warning, a call to the Israelis to repent, and not an end to Israel which, you believe, will happen if they continue along their (self-)destructive path. But surely you can understand that the formulation seems somewhat ineluctable… as if you had not the slightest hope or expectation that they might listen. This really is a form of “writing off” Israel.
In any case, I think there’s still a Serbian country and as far as I know you were not in favor of invading Iraq, so your two other cases — far worse and more deliberate than anything Israel did in Lebanon — have not led to disappearance nor, I presume, to calls for their disappearance from you. You need to ask yourself why you have a particular vehemence about Israel. On the scale of offenders out there in the world today (Sudan, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia), Israel is really low down, even if we accept every claim that came out of Lebanon.
We do not believe in the notion of God’s chosen people. We laugh at this people’s fancies and weep over its misdeeds. To act as God’s chosen people is not only stupid and arrogant, but a crime against humanity. We call it racism.
This language may surprise some American audiences, unfamiliar with the humiliating and mocking dimension with which European anti-Judaism so commonly expresses itself — the honor-shame language of public mocking. But after a relative hiatus in public after the Holocaust, since 2000 this spirit is common in the lands. In any case, derision aside, this particular comment leads us to a discussion of the nature of chosenness that can be very difficult and touchy… a discussion that Jews normally do not challenge Christians and Muslims about because these later monotheistic religions do not come out well in the comparison. But since this matter of chosenness seems to lie at the core of your complaint, Mr. Gaarder, let us grab the nettles.
Let’s begin by agreeing in principle, if not in tone of contempt, that certain forms of “chosenness” can be extremely arrogant and offensive – and, from the perspective of a just and tolerant civil society, highly destructive. (That they are “stupid” as you claim, only really makes sense from a fairly elevated perspective (i.e., “might makes right is immature and counterproductive”). Unfortunately many actors in the Arab-Israeli conflict, like Yasser freedom-from-the-barrel-of-a-gun” Arafat and his Jihadi successors would find neither stupid nor morally objectionable. Rather than use a silly term like stupid for so weighty and frightful an impulse I would suggest arrogant and oppressive notions of chosenness.
In any case, the form of (specifically monotheist) chosenness that is here denounced as arrogant and stupid, and certainly objectionable, is the imperialist form: “We, the chosen people have the one true faith; God has chosen us to bring it to the world, and if others do not respond appropriately to our true message, we have the right to subject them to our rule and humiliate them as a tangible sign of our God’s glory.” This kind of monotheistic sense of election is best described by its political formula: “one God, one king/emperor/rule, one faith.”
This imperialist formula of political monotheism lies at the ideological heart of most of the most violent religious wars — Jihad, Crusades, Holy War — and some of the most powerful empires of the last 2000 years: Roman, medieval German, Umayyad, Abbasid, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British. Perhaps the single most violent and destructive of all chosenness episodes – the Nazis – although not monotheist, nonetheless expressed the most violent version of a racist, hate-filled notion of national (racial) election on record.
Permit me, if you will, Mr. Gaarder, a few quick comments about the history of this idea. It begins in Christianity, and finds its full measure with Eusebius’ remarks about Constantine: God’s image on earth, the ruler of the world as God rules in the heavens. It so pervades most Christian thought until the Protestants, that books have been written assuming that this is the only form of political monotheism (Peterson, Fowden). And it particularly characterizes a form of Christian self-awareness known as supersessionism: “We have replaced the Jews as the chosen people; we understand the true message of the Bible; we “sit on top of” (literal translation of the verb supersedeo) the Jews.”
This form of chosenness is everything that a liberal and progressive opposes. It is hard zero-sum: “We are right because you are wrong; we are good because you are bad; we have the true message because you Jews, in your stiffnecked literalism misunderstand your texts; God chose us because he rejected you.”
Such a hegemonic reading meant that for most of Christian history, the faithful had to read the Jews not as they were – a living and evolving religion and people with exceptionally interesting things to say – but as props on the Christian stage, as relics of a period before the torch had passed. German scholars thus refer to the Judaism of Jesus’ time as “Spätjudentums” — late Judaism — when it was really fairly early in Judaism’s lifespan (about 1500 years into what is now a 3500 year existence).
The reason I go into some detail here is that as you will see below, I think you are caught in precisely this kind of supersessionism, and one of the clearest signs of it is your profound lack of knowledge about Judaism, a natural consequence of needing the Jews to play a specific and negative role in your self-perception. A friend of mine called this “invidious identity formation”: “My self-esteem comes from your worthlessness,” a characteristic emotion of the kind of honor-shame calculus in which my honor comes from your shame. Given the commitment to very high moral standards that I detect in your prophetic cry, I assume you would consider such invidious and small-minded emotions profoundly unworthy. We don’t make ourselves look bigger by making others look smaller.
Now one more point before we get back to the Jews. There’s an even more noxious form of chosenness that sometimes appears for relatively brief moments that represents a danger to everyone including the believers themselves. In this form of “apocalyptic chosenness,” members passionately believe that they have been chosen by God to bring about a world-wide conquest that demands vast destruction and even genocide in order to bring about the messianic kingdom of imperial dominion that their “God” has promised them.
For example, there is an apocalyptic hadith in Islam which has become extremely popular these days:
The Day of Judgment will not come about until the Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them), until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: Oh Muslim! Oh Abdullah! there is a Jew behind me, come on and kill him.
Messiahs and their followers who believe that they are their God’s agents in this destruction and conquest, that they must “destroy the world in order to save it,” you get mass murderers who, uncontrolled, can leave dozens of millions dead in their wake, men like Hong Xiuquan, the Mahdi of Khartoum, Hitler, Mao, etc. This is precisely the kind of religious passion that every religion that wants to claim participation in a world culture of religious tolerance has to renounce. Especially in an age of nuclear weapons, we cannot afford such base and violent notions of chosenness.
So let’s return to the historical record which may surprise you. As far as noxious forms of chosenness (arrogant, imperialist, racist), the Jews actually have the best historical record (i.e., fewest examples) and the Christians and Muslims the worst (with the Muslims way out in front at this turn of the 3rd millennium). For every case of Jewish religious zealotry resorting to violence to impose its notion of chosenness (initial conquest, Jewish war of Independence to which you make reference below, Bar Kochba rebellion), we have literally myriads of examples among Christians and Muslims. Both religions, for most if not all of their almost 2000 and more than 1400 years of their respective existences, predominantly interpreted their notion of chosenness in consistently, one might even say dogmatically, aggressive, arrogant, domineering fashion over those who did not share their view of chosenness. In Christianity it’s called “the humiliated remant” (the Jews humiliated as proof of their crime of deicide), and in Islam it’s called the Dhimma (Jews and Christians humiliated to illustrate the superiority of Islam).
So we may agree completely that there are noxious notions of chosenness, just as there are noxious forms of monotheism. But to confuse all monotheism and all chosenness with this kind of attitude is to make a serious, one might even say, potentially fatal category error because it means one cannot distinguish constructive from destructive forms of both chosenness and, more broadly, monotheism. And in order to understand why the simplistic approach to “chosenness” can be problematic, we need to be aware of a very different definition of chosenness, one that is positive-sum and beneficial to both the “chosen people” and to their neighbors.
The opposite of this arrogant, zero-sum notion of chosenness as warrant for conquest and rule, for privilege, is a positive-sum notion of chosenness as responsibility. Here one is “chosen” to observe certain ethical standards, regardless of whether one’s neighbors respond favorably or not. This form of chosenness constitutes an obligation to meet certain moral standards; chosenness as responsibility rather than privilege.
Being chosen in this sense is considerably less attractive for many people since it’s far more demanding with far fewer advantages. Here political success is rare, hence control of one’s environment minimal, dependence on others for whom dominion is a sign of superiority, and humiliation at the hands of others a common phenomenon. And the Jews have learned to live creatively with this oppressed status for millennia without developing the kind of enraged fury that one finds so commonly among certain subaltern people now raging against every perceived conspiracy to humiliate and destroy them.
Whereas in the noxious form of chosenness, one’s political success (at any cost in life and destruction on all sides of the conflict) assures the chosen of dominion (or heaven for “martyrs”), in this form, success with “others” can only come voluntarily, only in the success of others: “through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Here God’s honor is manifested not by the military victory and political dominion of his “faithful” but by the manifestation of God’s ethical demands in the behavior of believers, regardless of their reward.
This notion of chosenness is positive-sum: the “other” benefits from one’s own ethical behavior; and the chosen benefit from that ethical interchange. This form of chosenness is actually highly beneficial and welcome from everyone who believes he or she is chosen, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew. In this sense, more than one people can be “God’s chosen” because more than one people “take on” God’s heavenly yoke of self-control and moral restraint, of concern for other human beings.
The political formula for this kind of monotheism is “No king but God”: God is radically different from man, and just as he cannot be “imaged” by earthly images, so his rule over man cannot be represented in the rule of man over man. So instead of a political order imposed from above by intimidation, societies in which people develop God’s kingship can become increasingly free because responsible. The voluntary acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven makes people responsible as self-regulating autonomous moral agents, and therefore they can grant each other the freedoms that an earthly monarchy cannot. Indeed, I’d argue that modern democracies (and, more generally, civil society) is based on this attitude.
And while this form of monotheism is not unique to Judaism – there are powerful Islamic and Christian variants – it is a key notion in Judaism. Indeed even as Eusebius formulated iconic imperial monotheism for Christians in the early 3rd century, the rabbis were embedding the phrase “no king but God” into their daily and yearly liturgy, meant for recitation by all Jews. Thus even as Christians were pursuing just the kind of chosenness you reject, Jews were pursuing something very different. And because of Christian supersessionism, they could not see the Jews as they were.
Limits to tolerance
There are limits to our patience, and there are limits to our tolerance. We do not believe in divine promises as justification for occupation and apartheid. We have left the Middle Ages behind. We laugh uneasily at those who still believe that the God of flora, fauna, and galaxies has selected one people in particular as his favorite and given it funny stone tablets, burning bushes, and a license to kill.
Again, let us agree in principle. There should indeed by limits to tolerance, especially for a notion of chosenness which is a license to kill, which is a justification for occupation and apartheid policies, which is a throwback to the Middle Ages. My only quibble on that point is that, as a historian of the Middle Ages, I would recommend caution in assuming how much we “moderns” have left those ages and their passions behind. Part of our problem is that we assume we’ve completely overcome the medieval legacy and can act accordingly, when it may be that a) we Westerners (especially you Europeans) have not really left the Middle Ages behind, b) by pretending you have you do not even recognize when medieval attitudes drive your emotions, and c) by so acting as if all that medieval stuff were gone (except of course among those stiff-necked Jews) we actually increase the power of some of the worst medieval passions.
What I find most disturbing about the above statement, though, is the targeting of the Jews as the culprits – the obvious referent of “funny stone tablets.” (They certainly inspired the French revolutionaries who promulgated the “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” the foundation – I presume – of your own moral commitments to human rights and dignity.)
But why the Jews? I understand from your text that you think they have done terrible things, some of which may be the product of mistaken reports, a point we can return to. But even if we grant that all you think the Jews have done, is not the worrisome actor here from the perspective of noxious forms of chosenness and violent contempt for the rights of others… the Muslims?
It is Islam which, today claims that the God of flora, fauna and galaxies has selected Muslims as His exclusive favorite, and given it a license to conquer, to massacre unto genocide, and to install apartheid laws that discriminate against non-Muslims. Any brief moments attending to what Jihadis like Hizbullah and Hamas do and say in their native tongues, reveals a terrifying world of open, raw, ferocious genocidal hatreds. Nothing in current Christian or Jewish circles – except the worst of Christian Aryanism – can compare for morally base notions of chosenness.
But somehow, you do not think that worthy of mention. Can you explain why? (I ask, because one of the problems here is how highly sensitive Christians get to Jewish moral trespass, and how they fall silent in the face of ghastly behavior from others, especially their Muslim neighbors.)
So let me ask you to try a thought experiment. I presume from your tone that this will be difficult, but let me appeal to the scientific and philosophic spirit in the man who wrote Sophie’s World: try understanding what’s going on in the Middle East with a different working hypothesis. Certainly there are enough anomalies here to warrant such a mental exercise, and certainly the stakes are high enough to make all possibilities worthy of consideration.
What if the Israelis’ behavior – from the “occupation” in 1967 to the wall of the first decade of 2000 – does not derive from imperialist Jewish notions of their chosenness, but defensive measures against a highly aggressive and imperialist Arab-Muslim sense of chosenness? I know this sounds unlikely and apologetic, but I would argue as much about the information you unquestionably accept from your Arab and Muslim sources. So, if you can, humor me, please.
If your analysis is right – the Jews’ notion of chosenness is the problem — then your anti-Zionist solution might make some sense. But if you are wrong – that is, that it’s the Muslims’ notion of chosenness that has made this problem insoluble – then your solution promises to be a disaster. Having misread the source of the violence and shutting down the Israelis, you will give wings to the very forces of hatred and arrogance that you find intolerable (at least when they show up among Jews). This will bring down terrible crimes not just on the heads of those poor Jewish refugees of a dismantled Jewish state for whom you beg mercy, but all those Muslims now in the grip of’ vicious men who think that Islam is a religion of war, and hatred, and death.
And not far behind the unfortunate victims of your misjudgment, lies the fate of your own moral value system. How long do you think the values of mercy, respect, moral courage, freedom and justice that your prophecy invokes will survive the victory of the Jihadis who harass Israel on every side and even now set their sites on Europe, the West as well. Indeed, horribile dictu, around the world, Islamic societies have bloody borders with all its neighbors.
Do you really think Europe is immune to these aggressive currents? If we look at the notion of chosenness embedded in Global Jihad, Europe constitutes at least as much the target of their chosen mission – the whole world under Shariah – as the Israelis. And now that we live in an age of astonishing telecommunications, these sentiments resonate the world over. Muslims demands for a Sharia state in the midst of nation states of Europe shares this same sense of chosenness even as it cheers and sometimes copies the violence of apocalyptic groups like Hizbullah and Hamas.
You can listen to the voices that dismiss this argument as a Zionist plot, ignore these powerful and publicly dominant Islamic strains of chosenness and the immediate and instrumental violence they engender. Instead you can focus almost exclusively on Israeli violence, which you see not as a response to this external aggression, but intentionally driven by a noxious Jewish sense of chosenness. But you do so at your own peril. Misreading this situation is not cost free, as pleasing as it may be for you to morally excoriate the Israelis. Indeed, in so doing, you may be missing important elements of the larger picture, a picture that includes the fate of Europe as well as the Middle East. Believe me, I don’t think you’d like to live in a Sharia-ruled Europe.
Now the (over-)attention to the Jews may have its reasons. It makes a certain unhappy sense to want to dump on the Jews morally. There is a certain moral Schadenfreude in being able to say, “You Jews, 2000 years you were oppressed, and no sooner do you get power than you do it to someone else.” The extreme logic of this thinking, heavily promoted by the Palestinians, is that they are the new Jews, and the Israelis the new Nazis. One can well imagine the appeal of such a ferocious irony to many people who find the Jews a particularly frustrating people, and even more to those who might feel bad about their role, however passive, in the Holocaust.
But at some point those who can’t distinguish invidious comparisons (“Aha! We knew it all along. We Europeans are more moral than the Jews!”), and therapeutic rhetoric (“Let’s not criticize the Muslims, they need encouragement.”) from reality assessment (“What are the real sources of hatred and violence?”), will go down in history as a fools. Such foolish elites populated Western Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries, men who spoke and wrote precious words as their civil society fell apart around them, and a brutal culture of honor and shame and blood vengeance took over.
One might object that the late, Christian Roman empire was hardly an egalitarian civil society, but even so, it was far more sophisticated and civic than the tribal warrior culture that took over. For these Germanic warriors, the Sermon on the mount recited as, “blessed is he who takes vengeance for he shall have peace,” and Jesus “would not have been crucified” if they had been there to protect him. In such a brutal culture, thoughtful and literate men fled to monasteries to escape these brutes. I don’t think that this is a fate Europe should wish on itself for the coming centuries.
We call child murderers ‘child murderers’ and will never accept that such have a divine or historic mandate excusing their outrages. We say but this: Shame on all apartheid, shame on ethnic cleansing, shame on every terrorist strike against civilians, be it carried out by Hamas, Hizballah, or the state of Israel!
Again, we agree. Murder is bad, the murder of innocent children, despicable, morally revolting. And anyone claiming divine or historic mandate for such murderous deeds deserves condemnation. But again, despite tossing in Hamas and Hizbullah at the end of the paragraph, your target seems to be Israel.
And yet of the three “culprits,” the Israelis least fit your profile. It is the Jihadi Muslims who openly embrace a rhetoric of divine sanction for the most odious child-murder, not only in justification of the random murder of innocent Israeli, American and European children, but in the spiritual and physical murder of their own children as suicide killers, child sacrifices on an altar of hatred. These folks not only openly espouse their chosenness as a “warrant for genocide”, they celebrate the murder of children publicly, and encourage their public to relish the very moment of revolting violence.
On the Israeli side, attitudes differ dramatically. You cannot find a trace of the open embrace of killing children intentionally, of celebrating the death of innocents, or teaching hatred and a cult of child sacrifice. Do Israeli soldiers sometimes kill innocents? Yes, what army has not? Do they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it? Yes. Do they apologize even when it’s not clear they’re responsible? Yes. Although it may anger you to hear it, no army in the military history has so risked its own soldiers’ lives to spare the lives of civilians among the enemy as the Israeli. These are measurable and verifiable assertions, not wild claims.
But let us pause a moment on this issue of murder, that is the intentional killing of people. Not all killing of innocents is murder; and only two approaches do not consider the distinction valid. At one extreme, the most primitive cultures of blood vengeance do not distinguish between intentional murder and accidental manslaughter: if you kill my relative, for whatever reason – even if he attacked first – I kill you or one of your relatives. At the other extreme, Christians have a tendency to ignore this distinction from an extremely high and pacifist morality that views all violence with overwhelming horror.
This moral attitude, which reflects the extraordinary moral demands of Christianity’s founder (e.g., Sermon on the Mount), appears in their mistranslation of those funny tablets’ command on the matter: What in Hebrew reads, “Thou shalt not murder,” in Latin and the thousand vernaculars that Christians have translated the Hebrew Bible into, it reads, “Thou shalt not kill.” (There are “heretics” in the Middle Ages who are burned for refusing to kill a chicken based on their reading of the mistranslation.) Given what you say in your prophetic cry, you clearly side with high pacifism and not blood vengeance.
But when you look at the situation in the Middle East, you seem to forget that few people share your high moral standards. Here we have people who, by your moral standards, represent the basest moral position imaginable, people who openly embrace murder of civilians – children! – and who look for every reason to stir up hatred. And as anyone knows, hatred comes far more easily when one imagines that the “other” has done damage “on purpose,” in the case of killing, murdered. As a little girl said when her aunt burned her arm cooking, “That’s okay auntie, you didn’t mean it.” When it’s by accident, it’s a lot easier to forgive; when it’s on purpose it calls out for vengeance if only to deter further violence.
If a five-year old can understand the difference, why do adults like you deliberately exclude the distinction and accuse Israel of murdering children. No documented case of Israelis deliberately murdering children exists (it is the heart of the unfounded libel around al Durah). Given the violent hatreds that teem among terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah, and how ready they are to accuse Israel of deliberately murdering their people even as they sacrifice their own, do you not think you should pause before jumping to conclusions that can only incite more hatreds?
After all, virtually every attack on Israeli civilians is intentional, the target of Muslim violence. And these attacks derive specifically from what you despise: the Muslim sense of chosenness, that they were chosen by Allah to kill every last Jew at the end of time. If you were wrong about Israel, falsely accusing them of murder in front of murderous enemies, would that not consist of incitement to murder, again, precisely what you deplore?
However, the state of Israel, with its unscrupulous art of war and its disgusting weapons, has massacred its own legitimacy…
Part II to follow