The furor in recent days over a viciously anti-Semitic article in a left-wing Belgian newspaper centered on the writer’s use of a mangled quote, attributed to the French-Jewish songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, about the impossibility of a God who could give his “chosen people,” so-called, such “ugly noses.”
This boilerplate anti-Semitism, in keeping with the rest of the article by columnist Dimitri Verhulst, is the reason why the Flemish-language paper that published it, De Morgen, is now the subject of an investigation by the Belgian police, following an impassioned complaint from the local Jewish community. However, its editors remain adamant that Verhulst’s ravings were not “anti-Semitic” (of course not!), but merely impassioned criticism of Israel’s systemic oppression of the Palestinians.
The sneering disgust with which Verhulst regards Jews—hence, the old barb about their noses—rather gives the lie to that defense. But to my mind, what was truly significant about the piece wasn’t the invocation of an ugly stereotype about “Jewish noses,” but its deeper premises about the “chosen” status of the Jews.
The deliberate distortion of the Judaic concept of a “chosen people,” which properly means that the Israelite covenant with God requires the Jews to follow specific laws and commandments, is one of the most transparent examples of anti-Zionism in its anti-Semitic form. Filtered through this lens, Zionism and its product—the State of Israel—are transformed from a political movement in favor of Jewish self-determination into an almost mystical evil, with the arrogant idea of “chosenness” driving every decision and every act of its adherents and servants.
This interpretation of chosenness has, as I will shortly explain, a long pedigree. (Indeed, nearly all the anti-Semitic fantasies encountered today have a long pedigree; anti-Semitic ideology survives by adapting to new circumstances, which means that if we look hard enough, we can see the “old” fixations hiding among the apparently “new” ones.) Of course, reading Verhulst, you would never know this (that’s another well-known characteristic of anti-Semitism and its messengers; with Messianic zeal, they present their worn-out conspiracy theories as truths that are being spoken for the very first time.) So he tells us, inter alia, that “the Palestinians were driven out of their homes in 1948 in favor of God’s little ones,” that “talking to the chosen” about the Palestinians is “difficult” because the Jews automatically assume you want to inflict another Holocaust on them, and that the Jews employ a “crooked reasoning” that enables them to apply the label “racist” upon anyone who espouses the Palestinian cause.
A deeply similar screed was published in the pages of another European newspaper back in 2006, at the height of Israel’s war in Lebanon against Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. The paper was Norway’s Aftenposten, and the author was someone far better known than Dimitri Verhulst—in this case, Jostein Gaarder, the award-winning author of young adult bestsellers like Sophie’s World.
In an op-ed titled “God’s Chosen People,” Gaarder railed against the Jews and Israel for their Divinely endowed hubris.
“We laugh at this people’s whims, and cry over its misdeeds,” he wrote. “To act as God’s chosen people is not only foolish and arrogant, it is a crime against humanity. “We laugh with embarrassment at those who still believe that the god of the flora, fauna and galaxies has chosen one particular people as his favorite, and given them amusing stone tablets, burning bushes and a license to kill.” Alongside these sentiments were the more conventional arguments of Israel’s enemies: that the Jewish state is a so-called apartheid state, and as such, has no right to exist as a sovereign entity.
The late German writer Güunter Grass trod along similar territory in his 2012 poem, melodramatically titled “What Must Be Said.” In these verses, Grass reflected on Israel’s supposed domination of the narrative around the Middle East. The arrogant Jews, who are finally being confronted with “What Must Be Said,” are imposing on the rest of the world,
“ … a troubling, enforced lie,
leading to a likely punishment
the moment it’s broken:
the verdict ‘anti-Semitism’ falls easily.”
In other words, according to Grass, when the “chosen people” face political opposition, their standard response is to wheel out the charge of anti-Semitism, with the aim of silencing any further criticism by making critics feel guilty about the history of Jewish persecution.
Grass, of course, is far from alone in advancing this particular conspiracy theory.
Accusing the Jews of falling on anti-Semitism as a last resort in their defense of the “indefensible”—i.e., Israel’s right to exist—is a popular tactic in Europe, and easily adapted. In the United Kingdom and France respectively, the far-left opposition Labour Party and the “yellow-vests” protest movement have reacted to evidence of anti-Semitism in their ranks by presenting it, at best, as a marginal issue, and, at worst, as a fabrication of the ruling class and its “Zionist” allies. In Poland, elements of the right-wing nationalist government have accused the Jews of essentially inventing both native Polish anti-Semitism and instances of Polish collaboration with the Nazis, as a crafty scheme to win as-yet unpaid reparations for Jewish property seized during World War II. When the Jews object to this interpretation, the argument continues, they shift the focus to “anti-Semitism” which conveniently distracts from what’s really at stake here: the “anti-Polonism” that Poles are subjected to in discussions about the Holocaust.
Since the time of the Roman Empire, anti-Jewish writings have depicted Jews as the quintessential deceivers of humanity, motivated by hunger for power and desire for wealth, and licensed to act in this way by a God that has chosen them (so they say) as superior to other peoples and nations. But their notion of chosenness is the ultimate deceit of all. “God hates them, and indeed has always hated them,” wrote the fourth-century Church father, John Chrystosom, of the Jews. A millennium-and-a-half later, Europe’s media continues to give space to this same insidious message.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.