For author Avi Beker, “the Abrahamic complex” is at the heart of the conflict in the Middle East.
Photo by Marilyn Silverstein
June 5, 2009
At the very heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, said Avi Beker, is a kind of theological sibling rivalry among the descendants of the prophet Abraham — Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”
“At the crossroads of Jewish history, this fight over chosenness is something very central,” said the Israeli-born Beker, author of The Chosen: The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession.
“I regard this really as a driving force in the relations between Jews and others,” he said. “At the very roots of anti-Semitism there is this envy toward the firstborn. Who is closer to Abraham? This is the conflict really unfolding today in the Middle East.”
Author, academic, and player on the international scene, Beker was at Princeton University on May 12 to discuss what he describes as “the Abrahamic complex” and its impact on the quest for Middle East peace. He was to address the Princeton chapter of the American Committee on Foreign Relations that evening.
Beker brought to both occasions his more than 30 years of experience as an expert in international politics, Israeli foreign policy, and Jewish affairs. From 1977 to 1982, he was a member of the Israeli mission to the United Nations and, for 20 years, he served with the World Jewish Congress — as executive director in Israel, as international director, and as secretary general.
A lecturer at the Harold Hartog School of Government and Policy at Tel Aviv University, Beker now heads the Jewish Public Policy Project and the UN-Israel Institute there.
He is just nearing the end of a two-year stint as the Goldman Visiting Professor at the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, Beker told New Jersey Jewish News before his talk at Princeton, and he was looking forward to returning to Israel.
“I’m missing the action,” he said with a smile.
Diplomats have long resisted introducing the subject of religion into Middle East politics, regarding it as a “theological minefield,” Beker told the two dozen people who had gathered around a conference table for his lecture at Princeton’s Jones Hall.
“There is a reluctance by diplomats to go into theology because you bring in something irrational, a set of beliefs not related to the way diplomacy is functioning,” he said.
“People are saying, ‘This is something you can’t do. The problems are so complicated; don’t bring also God into this process of diplomacy.’
“But I think there is no escape but to go into the subject,” he said. “We are seeing today in the Middle East a conflict in which theology and religion are playing a major part. I think it’s critical at least to put the issue on the table.”
‘Another stumbling block’
For many years, Jews themselves have tried to run away from the concept of chosenness, Beker observed. For example, in the 19th century, the Reform movement hotly debated whether to keep references to “the Chosen People” in its liturgy.
“Even the Reform movement decided to maintain those references,” he said, “although they’re really trying to emphasize the aspect of chosenness of Israel as a light unto the people.”
The only members of the Jewish community who have deleted all references to chosenness are the Reconstructionists under founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, according to Beker. “Kaplan said this is something that does not fit modern society — this kind of arrogance about being chosen,” he said. “But Kaplan was also very much a Zionist. He was, I think, expressing his own chosenness by attaching it to the Holy Land of Israel and to the restoration of a Jewish home in Palestine.”
The larger Jewish community regards chosenness as a matter not of arrogance, but of responsibility, Beker added. “Suffering is viewed in Jewish tradition as really a part of the gift of being chosen,” he said.
But among the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — there is a struggle to claim the title of chosenness, Beker said, citing as an example early Christian doctrine that embraced the idea of supercession — Christians replacing Jews as the chosen people. And the same idea has played out in Islam.
“Islam, as the Koran says, is the perfect religion — the religion replacing the previous ones,” Beker said. In the Koran, and in koranic commentary, he added, Jews and Christians are referred to as “apes and pigs.”
“Radical Islamists are using this reference when they speak about other Abrahamic religions,” he said. “They are also putting very much emphasis that this is the chosen religion by God.
“This brings me to a problem at the very heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict — Arab anti-Semitism,” Beker said. “This is another stumbling block on the way to peace in the Middle East — the reluctance of Arabs to accept a Jewish state in this region.
“This is not an issue on the table, but I think this is something very central in talking about the Arab-Israel conflict,” he said. “Again, we can dismiss this as part of the hatred in the Middle East. But this is not something that can be dismissed in the political process. This is something, I think, we can’t avoid when it comes to discussing peace in the Middle East.”
Questioned by NJJN about the implications of this theological rivalry on prospects for peace in the Middle East, Beker replied, “First and foremost, we have to realize that there is a very strong link between religion and diplomacy in the Middle East…and before you can have a real diplomatic process, you have to address it. You really cannot push it under the rug.”