This is a guest post by Eve Garrard.
Deborah Orr recently wrote a piece about the exchange of one Israeli prisoner for 1,000 Palestinian ones, from which exchange she infers that Israelis regard one Israeli life as being worth 1,000 Palestinian lives, and she also infers what she claims to believe is the corollary: a Zionist belief in the importance of the ‘chosen’ over other members of the human race. Many people have rightly commented on the grotesque illogic of Orr’s calculation about equivalences, and her appalling assumption, in the teeth of the evidence, that it was Israel rather than Hamas that set the numbers so high. However what I want to concentrate on here is another aspect of her piece: her reference to the ‘chosen’.
The ‘chosen’ ones are meant to be Jews, of course, notwithstanding Orr’s fig-leaf reference to Zionists; the phrase long predates the State of Israel. The ‘Chosen People’: that’s how Jews are supposed to think of themselves. Now it so happens that during my childhood, I never once heard Jews refer to themselves as the Chosen People. I was aware in some imprecise way that there was a theological view about chosen-ness, but this was primarily a matter of the burden of observation and practice which orthodox Jews were required to carry by a covenant with God. It was nothing to do with the lives of Jews being worth more than those of other people, and in any case the view in question didn’t resonate at all with those Jews who weren’t religious, and was never held by them. Indeed, it was never very likely that European Jews, in the shuddering aftermath of the mid-century genocide, would regard themselves as being extraordinarily important or strong or powerful – any use by them of the ‘Chosen People’ trope would have been bitterly and painfully ironic. But although I can’t of course speak for others, I myself never heard it used by Jews; the only contexts in which I came across this phrase were ones in which it was deployed by those who disliked Jews, who wanted to sneer at or denigrate them. And even in that usage I didn’t come across it too often – in the first two or three decades after the Second World War people who didn’t like Jews were often ashamed to reveal their hostile feelings in public.
Things are different now, and this trope has been resurrected for the same old use: to denigrate Jews and stir up dislike, or worse, against them. In fact it’s very effective for that purpose: most people (very understandably) dislike anyone who claims to be inherently superior to everyone else; and so to attribute such a claim to Jews is a very economical way of making people dislike and distrust them. By referring to the Chosen People you can, without saying another word, tell your listener that Jews are an arrogant supercilious bunch who despise the rest of the human race, and that you yourself don’t much like that kind of thing; and indeed your listener (or reader, as the case may be) probably doesn’t much like that kind of thing either, being a decent honest person; and so you and she together can enjoyably agree that there’s something pretty obnoxious about Jews, or they wouldn’t be claiming to be ‘chosen’, would they, or insisting that one Jew is worth 1,000 other people, which of course they must believe, since Gilad Shalit was exchanged for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, and there’s no other possible explanation of that ratio, is there, eh?
All that hostile implication from just two well-chosen (so to speak) words, or even in Orr’s case one word alone – she writes with casual familiarity about ‘the chosen’, apparently assuming that her Guardian readers use the term so readily that no misunderstanding can arise from the informal contraction. This is indeed real economy of effort in the business of producing Jew-hatred. Orr herself may not, of course, have intended to stir up dislike of Jews; but the language which she chose to use did all the work that was needed for that unlovely task.
What’s worrying about this use of the Chosen People trope is not so much its appearance in a little piece by Deborah Orr: a minor journalist making derogatory insinuations about Jews isn’t anything so very special. But with Orr as with Mearsheimer it’s the silence of the others, of those in the wider context – the colleagues, the editors, the readers at large – that’s the really chilling thing.
For further excellent discussion of this, see Alan Johnson’s recent piece.