A Chosen People?

“La Mariee”

Marc Chagall, 1950

A Chosen People?

These days I have been reading a splendid book in draft by a British analytic philosopher showing the fallacies that make up the new anti-semitism. He shares the broadly secular worldview of those he opposes, which is important if you want to convince people on their own terms.

Dreams are funny things. Last night I had a dream that was, once I began to decode it, not “funny” in the sense of strange. It was hilarious. As I tried to describe it to Jerry at breakfast, I was laughing so hard it was a while before I could talk.

The late Michael Wyschogrod appeared, with a speaking part in the dream. Wyschogrod had been a philosophic colleague and friend. He also happened to be an important theologian with an influence on Christian as well as Jewish thinkers. In my dream, a group approached Michael for political advice and received the following counsel:

“We should abolish Florida!”

As I started to tell Jerry the dream, the last meeting I’d had with Michael came back to me. I’d asked Michael whether he agreed with the rabbis who held that prophecy had died out of Israel — meaning I suppose that God no longer communicates with people in a direct and unfiltered way.

Michael answered me with a question: “Do you mean, ‘has God retired and gone to Florida?’” It was funny and Zen-like. He was showing me the improbability of God’s deciding no longer to be a Player on the real stage of the world.

Shaking with laughter, I now saw what my dream meant. It pertained to the book about anti-semitism that I’m now reading. “Florida” stands for God-in-retirement, or the secular standpoint. The dream was telling me to get rid of that standpoint. What’s missing in the book I’m reading is the God who’s still a Player.

With impeccable intelligence, the author of this book examines every secular explanation for anti-semitism. It’s commonly said, for example, that Jews are hated because they are “different,” “outsiders,” “scapegoats,” “successful,” “communists,” “capitalists,“ “cosmopolitans,“ ”nationalists,” and so on and on.

None of it accounts for anti-semitism: a weird, shape-changing, bitterly burning and explosive entity that takes every imaginable form and doesn’t go away. My explanation is simpler and covers all the cases.

They are hated because God chose them.

Don’t I mean, they are hated because they mistakenly believe God chose them?

Nope. If people thought God hadn’t chosen them, no one would give a damn what they believed. Who cares if so-and-so thinks he’s terrific when he’s not? We pity the guy who thinks he can fly and jumps out the window. We certainly don’t hate him with a deathless intensity. Jews are hated because people think God really did choose them.

One of the first Europeans to write a literary work in which a Jew appears as a character who is actually a good man was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He wrote “Nathan the Wise”(1779) and was much criticized for writing that play. (How could a Jew be a good man?) There is an opening scene where a handsome youth saves a pretty Jewish maiden from a fire. When he first meets Nathan, her grateful father, invective pours from him – chiefly the accusation that Nathan is a member of ‘the chosen people.’ Nathan hasn’t said a blessed thing about being chosen. So why is it the first thing the Christian youth thinks of in a context where it’s perfectly irrelevant?

In the time of my first marriage, my then husband had the visit of a collegial friend. He and his wife arrived as guests in the house in Maine that I had inherited. My husband’s colleague astonished me by entering my mother’s home with a volley of remarks nasty toward “Jews” (that is, to me, a real person, not a character in a book he had evidently been reading by Nietzsche). At that time, I had the belief, which I shared with other liberals, that all human discord arises out of some “misunderstanding.” So I kept trying patiently to get to the bottom of his incivility. What was driving him? Why couldn’t he get his mind off Jews? Finally, it burst out of him like steam out of a pressure cooker. “It’s the chosen people!” Just then, my maladroit former husband cut off the discussion. Otherwise I would have wanted to ask him what he meant by that.

I was in Sydney when the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon was widely reported in the Australian press. Although the murderers were not Israelis, the Israel military command had jurisdiction in the area and the commander was later found guilty of culpable negligence by an Israeli Commission of Inquiry. A quarter of the population of Israel was in the street protesting what had happened. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “for a week, no one smiled.” Meanwhile, in a leading Sydney paper, a cartoon was prominently featured showing a bearded God telling a character representing the generic “Jew” that, as of now, the chosen peoplehood (it was some kind of a crown) was being removed.

The Australia I knew was a highly secular society. In the 18th century, the first church to be built there was burned down by the convicts. The cartoonist likely did not believe in God, much less a God who had conferred a special relation to Himself on the Jewish people. None of those supporting beliefs were present when he drew his cartoon. Yet, even without them, “chosenness” still rankled.

To my mind, this is what lies at the bottom of the malicious, eliminationist fury that no argument can cure or even touch. The hatred of the Jew is a burning resentment of the God of Israel. It’s at bottom a spiritual condition of a weird and unique kind.

Is there a cure?


  • Be able to give a good account of your own life in its one-thing-after-another and one-choice-after-another specificity, as it unfolds in its real time and real places.
  • Make it a true story and as good a story as you can.

If you do that, you will naturally come to read the Bible with understanding and you won’t need to hate Jews.

(In case you wondered, Jews can hate Jews too. This hatred is an equal opportunity employer.)

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to A Chosen People?

  1. Johan Herrenberg says:

    The funny thing is – I thank God He chose a people in the first place!

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