Tevye the Milkman in The Fiddler on the Roof, in a moment of frustration, cries out to God, “I know, I know, we are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
Enemies of Israel and other anti-Semites are often quick to scoff at the notion that Jews—and especially Israelis—are God’s “Chosen People.” To them, the notion that Jews are special in God’s eyes is a sign of divisiveness or even Jewish arrogance.
Ironically, I’ve never heard a Jewish person speak proudly of being “chosen,” nor have I ever seen “chosenness” used by Jews as a justification for the State of Israel. Often as not, this idea of enjoying the Lord’s special favor is to Jews either embarrassing or quietly humbling.
Most importantly, Jews are more likely to view the concept of chosenness as a responsibility—as well as the source of millennia of persecution—rather than a privilege.
While in the Bible God tells the Hebrews that they shall make their home in what is now Israel, this is only a tiny part of the claim Jews have to the Promised Land.
The principle of Jews as God’s chosen people appears several times in the book of Deuteronomy: “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God: The Lord your God has chosen you to be his special people, out of all peoples who are on the face of the earth.” This idea is repeated many times in other places in the Torah.
We should be clear that God’s “choosing” of the Jews to be “special” does not mean racially superior, but rather that they have a unique relationship to God.
While this relationship may bring the Jews spiritual comfort, it’s also a call to responsibility—just as when you are given a promotion to a new job. Being chosen sets higher standards and requires harder work.
At the time of God’s biblical choosing of the Jews, Abraham represented us. We understand Abraham’s new obligations regarding hospitality and justice. But let’s remember that Abraham was a flawed character who made mistakes, whom God tested with tribulations, and who had to struggle to maintain his special relationship to God.
Certainly, modern Jewish people, for all their blessings, have struggled to rectify their human flaws, have suffered through adversity—and to this day strive to be worthy of God’s favor.
Without a doubt, the Jewish people have accomplished greatness. Members of this tiny group, representing only 0.02 percent of the world’s population, have won 23 percent of all Nobel Prizes, comprise 21 percent of all Ivy League students, have won 51 percent of Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction and account for 31 percent of all Academy Award directors.
Clearly, God was not on the committees that chose such Jewish stars. Each of these super-achievers did it themselves. Jews may have been blessed by God—chosen by God—but Jewish accomplishment and Jewish survival come from a spiritual well-spring within Jews as individuals and as a people.
As for the land of Israel, in the Bible’s first book, Genesis, God appeared to Abraham in Shechem—then in the land of Canaan, today a city in Judea-Samaria—and said, “to your seed I will give this land.”
Famously, also in Genesis, God said, “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great and you will be a blessing. And I will bless them who bless you, and he who curses you I will curse, and in you will all the families of the earth be blessed.”
This biblical message certainly confirms the idea that God “chose” the land of Israel for the Jews. But in Abraham’s time, this divine utterance gave only notional credence to Jewish claims to the Promised Land.
Then came 4,000 years of history—in which the Jews conquered the land from the now-extinct Canaanites, formed kingdoms, starting with the Kingdom of Saul in 1,025 BCE, and continued living on these lands for 3,000 more years until the present day, despite being conquered and exiled and returning over and over again.
Just as important, in all the thousands of years in which Jews were dispersed throughout African, Arab, European and American lands, they never forgot their heritage in the Holy Land—and they never gave up the hope and determination to return to it.
For thousands of years, exiled Jews have yearned to return to their homeland—no wonder millions of Jews in the Diaspora conclude every Passover Seder with the prayer: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
So God encouraged Abraham to make a home in the Promised Land, which the Jews then did—creating a nation-state 3,000 years ago. Tens of thousands of Jews remained in this land, despite many efforts to drive them out. Then, in the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Jews began returning to this land, to reclaim it.
Finally, in 1948, the Jews again achieved critical impetus in the Holy Land, mustering the political, economic and military strength to recreate their nation-state—the State of Israel.
While Israel is a postage-stamp-sized country—about the same area as New Jersey, its accomplishments in just 72 years are legion. Since its founding 1948, when Israel was at best a second-world country, it has become one of the world’s strongest military forces and, judged by economics, politics, technology, culture and armaments, the eighth most powerful country on earth.
While God’s blessing may have assisted the Jewish people in their determination to survive persecution and return to their homeland after thousands of years of exile, we can easily argue that it was Jews themselves that made this happen.
One final word on Jewish chosenness: Many reject Jewish chosenness because it seems exclusive or divisive. But this should not be the case. While Jews are a people—with distinct religious and cultural attributes—they are not a race.
Anyone who wants can become a Jew—anyone can convert to Judaism. If you want God’s blessing—if you want to be among the “chosen people”—you can simply choose to join us. No one says it’s easy, but welcome aboard. (Talk to your local rabbi for instructions.)
It clearly annoys some anti-Zionists and Jew-haters that God “chose” the Jews and “gave” them Holy Land. But note that while God’s blessing has no doubt strengthened Israel and the Jewish people, their accomplishments have been won through determination and hard work.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.