The idea that we are members of the chosen people is deeply ingrained, not only in the Jewish tradition, but also among modern and ostensibly secular Israelis.
On Saturday, the prayer was once again read in the synagogues. “You have chosen us from among all the nations” was once again heard all over the land. The idea that we are a special nation was once again specifically expressed, as is often the case in prayers and in the Torah, and not only on Yom Kippur.
But the idea that we are members of the chosen people is planted far deeper, and not only in Jewish tradition and among those who observe it – modern and ostensibly secular Israel believes in it with all its heart. There are not many other ancient Jewish ideas as deeply implanted in the contemporary Israeli experience as the idea that the “Jewish people,” however it is interpreted, is better than any other nation. If you scratch beneath the skin of almost any Israeli, you’ll discover that he really is convinced of that: We’re the best; the “Jewish genius” is the most successful; the Israel Defense Forces is the most moral. Nobody will tell them different, we’re simply the best in the world.
This is not only unnecessary and groundless arrogance, it’s also an extremely dangerous idea that enables Israel to behave as it does, with blatant disregard of the world’s feelings. Nor does it lack benighted ultra-nationalist and racist foundations. It’s good and well that a nation considers itself successful. The Jewish people have many reasons for that, of course, and many accomplishments of which to boast, as does the State of Israel, which is a kind of wonder, almost a miracle. But among all these, prominent in its absence is an equally important national trait: modesty. It is hard to accuse the Israelis of having it.
At the basis of Israeli arrogance lies the idea that this really is a special nation with special traits that are shared by no other nation. You can see that among Israeli travelers abroad; you can hear it from anyone who comes into contact with foreigners; you can sense it in the deeper currents of Israeli policy. The Americans are “foolish,” the Indians are “primitive,” the Germans are “square,” the Chinese are “strange,” the Scandinavians are “naive,” the Italians are “clowns” and the Arabs are … Arabs. Only we know what’s good for us, and not only for us but for the entire world. There is nothing like Israeli ingenuity, there is nothing similar to Jewish intelligence, the Jewish brain invents new ideas for us like no other brain, because we’re the best, bro.
There are many opportunities to see this idea in action. The latest example not only erupted from the synagogues on Yom Kippur, but was observed on the eve of the holiday, when we heard the very happy news that another Israeli scientist had won the Nobel Prize. And it really was heartwarming: Prof. Dan Shechtman certainly deserves the prize, but Israel does not deserve the sentimental national celebration that immediately erupted. In a society where blunders and failures are always the responsibility of the individual, achievements are nationalized and belong to us, all of us. We were all together on April 8, 1982, in Shechtman’s laboratory in Maryland when he first observed his quasicrystal; we’re all with him now, on the way to Stockholm.
The achievement of the individual immediately becomes a communal achievement, the communal achievement immediately becomes more irrefutable proof of Israel’s superiority. “The crystal is ours;” “The secret of our existence;” “National pride;” and the “Israeli brain” screamed the headlines in a tasteless and unfounded display at the news of the individual prize.
In order to confirm the baseless notion that we are all partners to Shechtman’s impressive achievement, they immediately come with the calculations: how many Nobel Prizes “we” have won, and where that places us relative to the size of the population. The list of Jewish Nobel laureates throughout the generations is immediately put on display, as though saying that they won because they were Jewish. Every prize that is added to the collection immediately reinforces the idea that it’s a matter of clear genetic superiority. That is the other side of racism – on the one hand, trampling the other; on the other, we praise and exalt the “chosen people” above everyone else. Two sides of the same coin: unconscionable racism.
We should, of course, continue to read the prayer “You have chosen us.” It is part of the Jewish heritage. But Israel should long since have freed itself from its contemporary and practical meaning. No, we are not a special nation – we haven’t been for a long time. Nor are we chosen, certainly not above other nations. Therefore, the day after this Yom Kippur, with another Nobel Prize for an Israeli, let’s try to be at least a nation like all other nations