On being chosen – Eve Garrard

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.

23 Responses to “On being chosen – Eve Garrard”

  1. Bialik Says:

    There are several people I would like to ask ‘why do you still read the Guardian?’ but it’s tantamount to accusing them of collaboration so I don’t. One silence begets another…

    • Thomas Venner Says:

      Some people do find the Guardian a fascinating study in ideological fact-warping, in defence of reading it (though I only look at the website, and ration it heavily). Some of their articles are effectively a left-wing version of the Daily Mail or the Express showing a photograph of what is very obviously a building site and giving it the headline “This was a field…until the Gypsies came”.

      The Guardian’s obsession with Israel does occasionally throw up some hilarious articles, as well, like the one they published a while ago about the Cannabis shortage in Israel, and how this was driving prices up and making Israelis smoke less weed. Really interesting, relevant stuff. I mean, I’m sure most of us think to ourselves every day “I wonder what Cannabis prices are like in Tel Aviv right now”. I’ve suspected for a while that they have some kind of editorial policy stating that they must publish at least one Israel-related article every day, regardless of quality, relevance or factuality.

  2. The Guardian’s Soft Racism and Deborah Orr « Soupy One Says:

    […] Garrard, over at Engage, pulls it apart with commendable logic: “Things are different now, and this trope has been resurrected for the same old use: to […]

  3. Thomas Venner Says:

    This was inevitable, really. The dogmatic “truth” for some people is that Israel can only do wrong, by definition. If Israel appears to do something right, then it must be in fact something wrong, perhaps even more so than if they simply did something wrong, because the appearance of doing something right means that they must be deliberately concealing their reprehensible motivations for the act. This must be the case, because Israel is unmitigated evil. Israelis get up out of their evil beds every morning, have an evil breakfast of evil cornflakes with evil milk and a glass of evil orange juice, then go out to catch the evil bus to get to their evil place of work for a hard day’s evil.

    Having understood this truth, the only possible conclusion that can be made from seeing Israel exchanging over a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli hostage is that Israel must have some kind of secret, nefarious motivation for this. Israel, being only capable of acts that are at their core morally reprehensible in every way, could not be doing what it looks like they’re doing. So, with this truth kept in mind, logic brings the conclusion that the only explanation for this is that Israel is exchanging over a thousand Palestinians for one Israeli as a flamboyant statement of racial supremacism, a statement that they and they alone are the Master Race, and that a Palestinian is worth less than one thousandth of an Israeli. It can only be a statement of their belief in absolute J…sorry, Zionist racial supremacy, which then comes back round to prove the original truth that Israel is fundamentally rotten to the core, the same truth which also leads inevitably to the conclusion that Israeli rescue workers were only “helping” after the earthquake in Haiti to cover up their organ-harvesting racket (as we know, the better what Israel is doing looks, the worse it must really be). This can apply to anything else, as well. Pulling settlers out of Gaza? Just makes it easier to bomb it without risking any of that precious J…sorry, Zionist blood. Some of the most liberal attitudes towards LGBT people in the world? They’re just “pinkwashing” to cover their crimes. Developing treatments for Cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease? How can that be bad? Hmm. Well, perhaps they’re just doing it for the money. You know what those J…sorry, Zionists are like. They are incapable of goodness in any way, we just have to ignore the Hasbara and theorise the layers away until we can get to a more plausible story that fits with the known truth of Israel’s intrinsic venality and malevolence.

    Let’s face it. Israel could cure Cancer, cure Alzheimer’s Disease, cure everything else into the bargain, solve world hunger, save the environment, give the world a source of clean, inexhaustible energy and bring peace and reconciliation to the nations of the world, then build a big spaceship, pack up its entire population and depart the Earth for Mars, after leaving each and every Palestinian with a free house and a Rolls Royce with a rose and a little note on the bonnet saying “bye now, sorry for all the bother”, and after this the “anti-Zionists” would still come up with a long list of very good reasons why Israel is still the root of all evil and why they have no right to their illegal extra-terrestrial state and should get the hell off Mars and go back where they came from.

  4. Lynne T Says:


    Over at Harry’s Place, it’s noted that Alan Johnson’s piece was rejected for Comments is Free, so, presumably the Guardian no longer finds the second part of its motto (facts are sacred) to be valid.

  5. Lynne T Says:

    Thomas Venner:

    As to the idiocy of the “1 for 1029” formulation, in a recent blog entry, Norm Geras posed the question (rehtorically) back to Orr et al as to what the response from Hamas would likely have been had the Israelis offered one Palestinian who hadn’t been convicted for acts of terror in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s release. Norm deferred however, from insulting the intelligence of his readers by suggesting what the response might have been.

    • Yehuda Erdman Says:

      I have read that early on after the kidnap of Gilad Shalit, Hamas offered to exchange him for a much smaller number of Palestinian prisoners but the offer was rejected by the Israelis presumably on the grounds that they thought they could release him by other means.
      Personally I am relieved that he was released and don’t think that over a 1000 Palestinians released is too big a price to pay. Moreover, it denies the argument that is it is impossible to negotiate with Hamas.

      • Lynne T Says:

        No, Yehuda, the deal denies the argument that you cannot negotiate with Israel, who are in this piece the victims of Hamas’s clear act of extortion.

        I have seen it argued over at Tablet (by Marc Tracy if memory serves) that Israel’s release of over a thousand Palestinian prisoners, many among them very dangerous, could be read as a sign of Israel’s belief in its ability to defend itself against the released terrorists along with newer crops of terrorists.

  6. Jonathan Hoffman Says:


    Another example of the ‘Chosen People’ trope, from a campus meeting last night

  7. Of Wet Dreams, & Chosen People ... - ScrollPost.com Says:

    […] antisemitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”).The Engage website has a timely piece by Eve Garrard about the “Chosen People” trope:“Things are different now, and […]

  8. Yuval Says:

    a translation issue… doesn’t “Am Sgula” means people of trait/quality?
    the point being the people chose god and god gave them traits? it’s a fundamental principle in Judaism – the liberty to choose, personally and nationally and it sets the basis for a just society (as Judaism sees it). its the first commandment and the other nine following it, set the other principles in descending order (some argue), nothing to do with other people and it strengthen the claim that Judaism has always intended on being social rather than global.
    http://www.hottentot.co.il/education/bible4bagrut/2-law-sorce.htm (Hebrew)

  9. innatysoe Says:

    Who is the more guilty: the one who writes racist trash, the one who publishes it, the one who reads it and says nothing, or the one who reads it, sees the (tacit) encouragement of this racism and goes out to kill the minority assaulted? I ask because in recent times we have had more racist trash written and printed, we have had more silence, and we have had deaths. Maybe it’s time to ask this question?

  10. Ignorance is Bliss Says:

    The irony of this “chosen people” slur is that it has appeared in anti-Zionist thought for some time now, at least in its secular versions.
    I read on Richard Millet’s blog that at the same RMT meeting Ilan Pappe commented, “How can someone who was the victim of Nazis stand in support of Israel today?” http://richardmillett.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/threatened-and-told-im-one-of-the-chosen-people-at-trade-union-event/#comment-10718
    This is a but secular version of the theological idea of Jews as “chosen”, but this time, not by God, but by the Nazis.
    It is then said that this “choseness” places Jews and only Jews under a special obligation to act more “morally” or “ethically” than any other people.
    So much for Fackenheim’s 614th commandment about not allowing Hitler a posthumous victory!

  11. Noga Says:

    “It was nothing to do with the lives of Jews being worth more than those of other people, ”

    It wouldn’t make sense that a people thinking this way would be instructed by their book, as by law, repeatedly, to treat the stranger among them with respect and decency and never forget how the Hebrews themselves had suffered when they were strangers in another land.

    Anyway, I’ve been thinking that the word “chosen people” is not something you can find in Hebrew. The term in Hebrew is “Am Segula”, which means, a people of a special and distinct quality. The word “segula” is derived from the same root as “seguli” which is part of the term for “specific density” in chemistry (“mishkal seguli”). What it means is, primarily, that Jews are as distinct from other peoples as one substance is distinct from another. It also carries underlying meanings like: remedy, talisman, talent.

    To show how seriously Israelis take this punishment, here is the late great Israeli performer Yossi Banai singing satirically “Sfirat Mlai (Taking stock)”:

    One state, two seas, one lake and malaria, too.
    One perfect circle of sun
    One wise nation of people full of specialness
    One big headache and three headache pills
    and six days and seven nights
    One God our own God who presides over the heavens and the earth

    • Yuval Says:

      Interesting, do you have a link that would explain the process that have brought the Hebrew term in Chemistry? Because “Am Sgula” is a biblical term, while the term in Chemistry had to be translated from other languages into Hebrew.

      • Noga Says:

        Many modern terms in Hebrew were created from biblical and talmudic sources. If you are interested in the etymology and diversity of meanings of the word סגולי
        you can try googling it in Hebrew or go to the dictionaries or try the Hebrew Language Academy. I forgot that סגול also means the colour violet (Ultra violet radiation in Hebrew is Krina ultra -segolit) as well as the configuration of three dots to create the vowel “eh”.

        Here is an article in Hebrew in which the author offers to translate the term “dignity” as Hebrew is “כבוד סגולי”, and takes her model from the chemistry.


  12. Absolute Observer Says:

    Let’s not change the subject, shall we?

    This thread is not about whether Israel could have secured Shalit’s release earlier; it is not about whether Israel and Hamas can and cannot negotiate with each other (fascinating questions though they may be).
    It is about antisemitism. It is about the prevalence of antisemitic distortions and antisemitic reductions of anissue involving complex political relations that was published in a leading British liberal newspaper.
    In the context of this thread, your comments are an irrelevance (although the attempt to divert discussions of antisemitism into questions of Israeli and Palestiian deeds and misdeeds is not unknown).

    Let us stop pretending that Orr’s use of an old libel has anything whatsoever to do with the actualities that she (and, seeomingly, you) wish to connect it to.
    Antisemitism and events in Israel and Palestine are not “two sides of the same coin”, no matter how some seek to justify their use of the former though the realities of the latter.

  13. Bill Says:

    I think we have to now start accepting “Chosen” as a red-flag word, just as “palestinians can’t be antisemetic because they’re semites.” The wielder of a the “C” word more often than not has something else under the bonnet besides a bee.

  14. Absolute Observer Says:


    “Last week, I upset a lot of people by suggesting Zionists saw themselves as “chosen”. My words were badly chosen and poorly used, and I’m sorry for it. But accusations of antisemitism have also been intemperate. One can accept the right of Israel to exist, while still believing that the manner in which the nation was created – against the wishes of many of the people already living there, hundreds of thousands of whom became refugees – was problematic and made a contribution to Israel’s subsequent and terrible troubles. (This, in turn, does not imply that the violence against Israel has been either justified or deserved. It has done the Palestinian cause much damage, and rightly so.)

    Nevertheless, it would be absurd to believe that Jewish people are any more or less capable of making geo-political miscalculations than anybody else, or any more or less likely to be called to account for them. Evidence from every corner of the world, throughout the ages, attests to the fact that such behaviour is all too typical of humans, as is reluctance to accept that such actions are bound to have their critics.”

    “Last week, I upset a lot of people by suggesting Zionists saw themselves as “chosen”. My words were badly chosen and poorly used, and I’m sorry for it. But accusations of antisemitism have also been intemperate. One can accept the right of Israel to exist, while still believing that the manner in which the nation was created………….”

    Apparently, all Orr was doing was “criticising” Israel, but unfortunately chose the wrong words for doing so. However, those who mentioned the fact that she resorted to antisemitic tropes are correspondingly castigated as “intemperate” (as if she would have apologised for her poorly chosen words without such “intemperate” reactions).

    1. (adj.) intemperate
    given to or characterized by excessive or immoderate indulgence in alcoholic beverages.

    2. intemperate
    immoderate in indulgence of appetite or passion.

    3. intemperate
    showing lack of moderation or due restraint, as in action or speech; unrestrained; unbridled.

    4. intemperate
    extreme in temperature, as climate.

    For Orr, then, Jews aren’t chosen after all; they’re just hysterical, lacking in moderation, indulgent, etc., etc..
    Well, that’s alright then!

    No doubt this comment of mine in the face of Orr’s “apology” will be interpreted by some as being itself “intemperate”; as putting up an umbrella against “the quality of mercy [that] droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”.

    I am not content.

  15. Isca Stieglitz Says:

    Whilst studying in Jerusalem a Rabbi tells us this: G-d is going around and asking people if they fancy taking on five commandments. Everyone says ‘No’!
    G-d alights on an early Abrahamic tribe and says “I’ve got some commandments here, do you fancy them?”
    Abraham: how may you got?
    G-d: 5
    Abraham: how much?
    G-d: they’re free.
    Abraham: in which case we’ll take 10!

    Of course it ended up being 613 mitzvot – ugh!

    I am not a religious person and I have never heard anyone mention being ‘chosen’ and ‘chosen’ was only ever discussed academically. ‘Chosen’ meant, for a specific job, (to be a monotheistic ‘light’ nation amongst the then called ‘idolator’ nations), and that other people had other specific jobs too. It also meant that this Abrahamic tribe ‘chose’ to take on the 613 mitzvot/ good deeds/ commandments. I don’t follow scripture anyway, so it’s all academic to me and makes for an interesting read.

    What Deborah Orr, and her ilk, do is make ‘nasty’ and ‘dirty’ an act by trying any which way to lessen it and dig and dig into a pit. Trouble is, it is she who ends up looking thus.

    This prisoner swap isn’t about valuing Jewish or Israeli life more than a Muslim’s or a Palestinian’s life, it’s about what one side was prepared to give up in order to preserve it.

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