Why is everyone so preoccupied with us? Even amid a global pandemic Jewish matters have broken into the headlines. In the controversy over Rebecca Long-Bailey’s retweet and subsequent sacking by Sir Keir Starmer, the casual association of Israeli state violence with George Floyd’s murder in Maxine Peake’s initial tweet was widely seen as a reminder of the persistent susceptibility of the British left to Jewish conspiracy theories. Others argued that the degree of attention given to the incident reflected a disproportionate focus on antisemitism relative to other forms of prejudice. Whatever one’s view on the issue, Jews seemed in one way or another to be singled out for special attention.
International condemnations of Bibi Netanyahu’s push to annex parts of the West Bank, meanwhile, appear to some as yet another example of Israel being placed under uniquely intense scrutiny. American backing for the plan, though, is above all based on Donald Trump’s political need to appeal to the theological fascination of evangelical Christians with the Holy Land and the Jews who live there. Once again, from both ends of the political spectrum it seems that it is outside interest in this issue that makes it a very special case. For over 200 years many Jews have yearned simply to be considered and treated in the same way as everyone else – but this hope of normality remains as elusive as ever.
The complexities of ‘singling out’ lie at the heart of Judaism. In the biblical covenant God singles out the Jews as a ‘chosen people’, and much of the Jewish tradition is devoted to grappling with what that means. Talmudic sages and medieval rabbis interpreted the covenant as a divine promise of a future messianic age, when Jews would in some way lead the world into a transformed state of harmony and peace. This messianic destiny marked the Jews apart as special, and invested them with a unique purpose in the world.
In Christianity, belief in a future messianic era has been equally important. Christians have traditionally anticipated the eventual conversion of all Jews to Christianity as the future transformation that will herald the advent of utopian unity on earth. This sharply double-edged doctrine is heavily implicated in the history of anti-Jewish hostility and hatred. It has also, though, extended beyond Judaism the idea that Jews been singled out to play a very special role in human history. It is this belief that energises Trump’s evangelical electoral base.
Secular thinkers have repeatedly sought to topple this messianic faith in the future. The betterment of the world, innumerable philosophers since the Enlightenment have argued, cannot be based on trust in God: it must be achieved through the determined marshalling of our own human capabilities. Even while challenging and ridiculing religious faith, though, these thinkers often recreated their own surprisingly similar dogmas of future transformation, through science, civilisation or socialism. They also often ascribed a special role in the realisation of these better futures to Jews.
The extension of political rights to European Jews in the wake of the French Revolution inspired uniquely intense controversies and passions. In the nineteenth century most Jews, Christians and secularists agreed that Jews played a very special role in human affairs. Many 19-century rabbis, particularly in the early Reform movement in Germany and the US, assertively proclaimed a unique Jewish mission to others as beacons of ethics and spiritual wisdom.
Jews have been both effusively praised and venomously castigated for their supposed prominence in the history of capitalism, and also in the left-wing political movements opposed to capitalism. And no nation state has been freighted with special hopes so disproportionate to its size as Israel. Both Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists have often imagined the Jewish state, in the words of the prophet Isaiah on the biblical covenant, as ‘a light unto the nations’.
The horror of the Holocaust cast a profound chill over the idea of Jewish special purpose and exceptionality, which seemed to have culminated in exceptional slaughter. In response, many Jews in the second half of the twentieth century insisted on the normalisation of the place of Jews in the world. The Holocaust itself, though, has over the past few decades increasingly been seen as a uniquely crucial moral lesson of history. In this form the memory of the Nazi genocide has become a new strand of Jewish educational mission to the world.
In September 2018, when the newspaper Haaretz polled Israeli Jews on the question ‘Do you believe the Jewish people is a chosen people?’, 56 per cent answered ‘yes’, while 32 per cent said ‘no’. These answers correlated very strongly with the political and religious outlooks of the respondents. 79 per cent of those who identified with the right answered yes to this question, but only 13 per cent of those who aligned with the left. These statistics reflect apparent trends across the Jewish world. The chosen people idea remains a core belief for traditionally observant Jews, who are more likely to position themselves on the right, but it has been overwhelmingly rejected by secular Jews, who more commonly consider themselves on the left.
The idea of Jewish purpose continues nonetheless to figure prominently on the Jewish left. In America in particular, progressive movements such as Jewish Renewal and neo-Hasidism have reinvigorated universalistic ideals of Jewish mission, conceived in terms similar to those of the early Reform movement as a special ethical and pedagogical responsibility to humanity as a whole. These ideals are today often associated with the use of the kabbalistic phrase tikkun olam – ‘repair of the world’ – to describe a distinctive Jewish role in the betterment of the world.
Similar arguments were passionately advocated by some very prominent 20th-century Orthodox Jews and Zionists. Rabbi Abraham Kook, the spiritual leader of the Yishuv in the interwar period, believed that the ingathering of Jews in Palestine would herald universal redemption and tikkun olam. Today, though, the phrase has become politically partisan. According to Jonathan Neumann, for example, tikkun olam is now the slogan of inauthentically Jewish leftists who have no loyalty to other Jews or to Israel, and instead believe that the sole purpose of the Jewish people is to preach liberal politics to others.
Something close to a Jewish civil war over our collective chosenness and purpose has broken out. Many religiously traditional Jews today conceive chosenness in inward-looking terms, and link this to a political focus on the collective security and well-being of Jews. A contrastingly universalistic conception of Jewish purpose, which can be traced from Isaiah through Maimonides and Marx to Hannah Arendt, has waned over the past century, but is far from extinct, and among some younger left-wing Jews is perhaps resurging.
This battle of ideas reflects in intense microcosm the wider political divisions of the contemporary world. In Trump’s America, Brexit Britain, and many varieties of populist nationalism elsewhere, we see renewed assertions of collective specialness and assertive self-interest. (Trump’s slogans – ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘America First’ express these twin ideas very clearly.) In seeking to assume their own ‘chosen people’ mantle, nationalist movements across the world model themselves in various ways on Jewish exceptionalism, and often look with admiring fascination to the example of Israel. Contemporary opponents of nationalism today, meanwhile, invoke values of justice and cosmopolitanism that draw heavily on visions of the future that have been closely associated with the universalist tradition of Jewish purpose.
What are Jews for? This question has puzzled Jews for millennia, and throughout modern history it has been at the centre of a shared conversation among both Jews and non-Jews about how any human group should contribute to the betterment of our shared world. It is no wonder that fascination with Jews remains so widespread: the question of Jewish purpose is still today a matter of concern for everybody.
Adam Sutcliffe is Professor of European History at King’s College London. His latest book, ‘What Are Jews For? History, Peoplehood and Purpose’, has just been published by Princeton University Press.