Sunday, November 18, 2007

Exchange of Opinions on Jerusalem

From Commentary -

To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz argues that the Jews are a “chosen people,” adducing the fact that they have survived throughout history and excelled in manifold ways. He further maintains that Jewish chosenness—the “scandal of particularity,” in the formulation he cites of Christian theologians—is regarded by many Jews themselves as a burden, not a gift. Finally, because of the Jews’ particularity, Jerusalem must forever remain in their possession [“Jerusalem: The Scandal of Particularity,” July-August].

I might remind Mr. Podhoretz that the idea of chosenness has historically been the source of much trouble in the world. Today, suicide bombers and fundamentalists of all kinds no doubt consider themselves chosen. And our own local version of chosenness, what some call “American exceptionalism,” has led to hubristic blunders like the war in Iraq. As for chosenness being a burden, that notion, too has a dubious legacy in the “white man’s burden” that was invoked to rationalize colonialism in Africa and Asia.

Jerusalem, which is regarded by Jews, Muslims, and Christians as a holy city, might one day be properly considered for international status. Demographics, in any case, will play a large role in determining the city’s future, especially as its Arab population continues to grow. For Jerusalem to remain the undivided capital of the Jewish state, as Mr. Podhoretz insists it must, will necessarily involve undemocratic practices, ethnic cleansing, or a Berlin Wall-like blight cutting through the city.

Garr Cutler
Eugene, Oregon


To the Editor:
I read Norman Podhoretz’s article on Jerusalem with great interest. His argument that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel is characteristically trenchant, and his courage in challenging the arguments of lifelong friends like Hillel Halkin and Walter Laqueur is admirable. But I differ with him about the grounds on which his own position should be justified. It is not just that the “hopes of peace” between Israel and the Palestinians “are illusory” at present. Nor need the Jews’ “scandalous particularity,” as symbolized by Jerusalem, be invoked. Universal values alone justify Israel’s holding on to the city.

The capital of a nation represents its sovereignty. To ask of Israel to permit two capitals—West Jerusalem for the Jewish people and East Jerusalem for the Palestinian people—is to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Jewish state, as well as to intensify the prospect for armed struggle between the two peoples. The bifurcation of Jerusalem along ethnic and religious lines would be no more reasonable than the separation of Washington, D.C. along the geographic curve of a white Northwest and an African-American Southeast.

Irving Louis Horowitz
New Brunswick, New Jersey


To the Editor:
In arguing that Jerusalem should remain unified under Israeli sovereignty, Norman Podhoretz rests his case on the idea of Jewish “chosenness.” This is a strange tack for him to take, given how troubling that idea is to many people. The argument for an undivided Jerusalem that is more likely to be acceptable to non-Jews is that there can be no better, more responsible caretaker for the holy city than Israel.

In Gaza, the Palestinians have shown a total inability to govern themselves, much less to show basic consideration for the needs of others. The United Nations has time and time again revealed itself to be an ineffective peacekeeping force. Israel is the one party that can truly govern Jerusalem in a way that, while not perfect, is nonetheless beneficial to all its residents. The past 40 years of Israel’s stewardship have been years of unprecedented development not only for the city as a whole but for the Jewish and Arab communities in it alike. This, combined with the city’s rich Jewish heritage, should be justification enough to any objective outsider for Jerusalem to remain united under Israeli rule.

Shalom Freedman
Jerusalem, Israel


Norman Podhoretz writes:

Garr Cutler simply repeats what I wrote about the discomfort with, or outright hostility to, the idea of chosenness felt by many liberal Jews—and most, if not all, of their non-Jewish counterparts. Moreover, his brief for their attitude rests on blithely blaming the doctrine of chosenness for a number of phenomena he considers evil, none of which bears any relation to the biblical concept or how it has been interpreted by Jews throughout the centuries.

The idea of “American exceptionalism,” for example, had nothing to do one way or the other with chosenness. According to the late Seymour Martin Lipset, perhaps the leading authority on the subject, “the major question subsumed in the concept became why the United States was the only industrialized country which did not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.” Thus, “American exceptionalism” had even less to do with the invasion of Iraq—which, incidentally, some of us regard not as a “hubristic blunder” but as a noble and strategically sound undertaking.

Does this mean that we think we are shouldering what Kipling, in the poem he wrote in 1899 about the American takeover of the Philippines, called the “White Man’s Burden”? If so, we are making a great mistake, since it is not we but the opponents of what the United States is trying to do in Iraq who will find their views supported by Kipling’s poem. For the message of “The White Man’s Burden” was that the American effort to bring freedom and prosperity to the Philippines was doomed to fail:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

In any case, the burden that chosenness imposed on the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible and their descendants was their own need to obey the Law, not—as in Islam—to spread their faith to others by the sword. Which brings me to Mr. Cutler’s inclusion of suicide bombers on his list of the evils that he imagines have flowed from the doctrine of chosenness. If, as he says, the Islamofascist suicide bombers “consider themselves chosen,” then what they are chosen for, obviously, is death.

Here, by contrast, is what the Israelites are told by God in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death . . . : therefore choose life.” God goes on to identify life with obedience to the Law whose observance was entailed by His choice of this people as the mysterious instrumentality through which it would at the end of days be accepted by all mankind —again, voluntarily, and not by the sword. In the meantime, as the Israelites were further instructed in the meaning of chosenness by the prophet Amos speaking in the name of God: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.”

Both Irving Louis Horowitz and Shalom Freedman seem to be under the impression that I was offering the idea of chosenness as a rationale for keeping Jerusalem united. But what I was actually doing was using it to back up my prediction that Israel would survive the determination of its enemies to wipe it off the map, and that a united Jerusalem would remain its capital. The arguments Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Freedman offer in the service of helping that prediction to come true are certainly sound, and they also demonstrate why Mr. Cutler’s proposal to internationalize Jerusalem lies moldering in the mass grave in which the many “peace plans” incorporating it have ignominiously been buried.

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