InsightMarch April 2007

God’s Chosen Peoples

Brendan Mackey & Song Li

The popular Norwegian writer, Jostein Gaader, in his article of August 5th in the Aftenposten, “God’s Chosen People” asserts that Israel is history, meaning that it has no future. Such a statement can be accepted by a Muslim as true only if one first defines what one means by “Israel.”

Obviously no Muslim could ever accept the current Israeli regime as worthy of moral recognition, nor do any Muslims see how any Jew could do so either. President Ahmadinejad of Iran called for the elimination of Israel, but he carefully did not call for eliminating the Jews in Israel. He called for regime change in both Israel and the United States. Zionist demagogues perverted both his words and their meaning to suit their own agenda, which provided further grounds for any objective person to reject the moral legitimacy of the current government of Israel. One could go further, which Ahmadinejad did not, and say that both the government and the State of Israel are hopelessly illegitimate. The overwhelming majority of the six billion people in the world would agree.

Now we come to the not so obvious. Recognition of a state in international law does not in any way imply approval either of the government or of the sovereign state itself. The reason is that in Western international law any power that controls more than 50% of a given territory can legitimately claim sovereignty over it. This may be a stupid principle, but this is the law taught in every one of the world’s law schools. The trend in jurisprudence is toward the development of customary international law to modify this principle, but this process has yet a way to go.

The conclusion could be supported that the Palestinian government, which Israel does not recognize, could quite legitimately recognize the State of Israel without compromising its unalterable opposition to the continuation of Israeli oppression.

Why would Hamas advocate such a revolutionary approach? The answer is simply that this would be compatible with the initial foreign policy framework advanced in Prime Minister Isma’il Haniya’s first foreign policy statement. He called this framework hudna. This was presented and its potential implications developed in several articles of commentary in

The purpose of hudna very simply is to turn enemies into friends This is recommended in the divine revelation of the Qur’an as the basis for both conflict management and conflict resolution. The greater the animosity, the greater the need for hudna. This is why now is the time to recognize Israel. This act of shock and awe could lead Jews and Muslims over a period of time, years and decades, to transform their very identity, so that they can recognize themselves as two peoples who over the centuries have been each other’s most reliable friend.

As far as the Jews being a chosen people is concerned, of course they have been chosen. They have been chosen for thousands of years to be models of loving submission to God, just as every other people has been chosen simply because every person has been so chosen. Historically, neither the Christians nor the Muslims can claim superiority in fulfilling their divine missions.

The orthodox Muslims now have a great opportunity to lead the way, and they would be joined by many of the leading Orthodox Jews. A cooperative movement of such understanding and action to undo the grievous mistakes of the past is waiting to be born, but the morally superior side must make the first move.

One may legitimately ask which is the morally superior side. This would depend on which representatives of each side one has in mind. The Qur’an urges everyone to compete in doing good “as in a race.”

Muslim extremists increasingly appear to have picked up the arrogant Christian concept that the covenant with the Jewish nation has passed to themselves. This would imply that no other nation and no other religious group has a covenant with God? If one denies that Judaism as a religion is a legitimate and continuing path to God one is denying that Jews as members of a religion, regardless of their race, have a continued responsibility before God to practice universal justice. Such religious prejudice would be worse than racial prejudice as an expression of the primordial arrogance committed by Al Shaitan.

Even the term Zionist can be unnecessarily derogatory. Muslims can be spiritual Zionists precisely because they are Muslims. A spiritual Zionist calls for the return to God, not for the return to any physical place regardless of the circumstances. Who are we to say that God did not provide the Holy Land as a home for the Jews, and for the Christians, and for Muslims? Only when the followers of any religion become exclusivist and deny the dignity and legitimacy of other paths are they either ignorant or evil. Christian Zionists in the sense of Christians who want to bring about an exclusivist empire by exploiting either secular or millenarian Jews as a temporary tactic are hypocrites and besmirch the good sense of Zionism that lies at the spiritual, not the political, level.

The greatest spiritual leader of the twentieth century, Rebbe Abraham Izaac Kook, spelled out this whole concept of spiritual Zionism better than anyone else ever has. As the Chief Rabbi of Palestinian from 1919 to 1935, he condemned in the harshest words the diabolical trend toward politicizing Jewish Zionism. By indirection, of course, he was condemning also Muslims who distort the spiritual nature of Islam as a guide to transcendent justice and to its expression in individual and community respect for human responsibilities and rights.

Superficial Jew-baiters, like their counterparts among Muslim-baiters, confuse the polar opposites, the Zionism of Rebbe Kook and the opposite force that has erupted in the person of his own son and his Gush Emunim settler movement. The distinction was explained in the words of Rebbe Kook published in November, 2003, in my article “From Clashing Civilizations to a Common Vision,”, which was based on an article that I wrote but never published more than twenty years ago.

The past century of spiritual perversion by the exclusivist ideology of secular and apocalyptic Zionism is appalling. It has become a parody of everything that is truly Jewish. No other religious people have ever perverted their own religion as have the Jews, and the current madness is not the first time they have done so.

The traditionalist Jewish mission is best expressed by Rabbi Michael Lerner in the title of his magazine, Tikkun, which in Hebrew means to heal, repair, and transform the world. He says that all the rest is commentary. His mission is fourfold: to help overcome American selfishness and materialism; to help heal the inner wounds of the Jewish people, so that they no longer assume that danger lurks everywhere and no longer see the world only through the prism of the Holocaust; to help support peace between Israel and the Palestinian people in a context of security, social justice, and the full rights of both peoples to self-determination; and to help build a new bottom line of love and caring, ethical, spiritual, and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.

The only alternative to dark visions of a twenty-first century holocaust is dialogue between Jews and Muslims designed specifically to transform the self-identity of each, as suggested in Dr. Laura Drake’s article, “Reconstructing Identities: The Arab-Israeli Conflict in Theoretical Perspective,” in the scholarly publication of which I was the Managing Editor at the time, the Middle East Affairs Journal, Winter/Spring 1998, pp. 39-92. The goal of the Jews must be to return to the spiritual core of their religion, best exemplified by Rebbe Abraham Isaac Kook, in which Zionism is the return to God, and Israel is the song of God bringing sparks of wisdom, mercy, and love to all peoples.

The political expression of this mission is perhaps best found in the concept of the Abraham Federation. This has been articulated now for decades by the global justice movement advocated by the Center for Economic and Social Justice, which was founded and headed by the Jewish elder statesman, Norman Kurland, at

The goal of both Muslims and Christians must be to return to the spiritual core of their religions. The spiritual core of Islam includes the centrality of justice and the articulation and implementation of its inner essence of love, which demands respect for all Jews and for the Jewish nation, so that all the peoples of the Holy Land can enjoy justice.

American Muslims must struggle to support the enlightened Jews who understand their own religion, because Zionism has corrupted both the Jewish people and the political process in America. It has thereby imposed a heavy guilt on Americans for bringing the Jewish people in the Holy Land perhaps eventually to the brink of extinction and exposing tens of millions of Muslims and Christians in the Middle East and America to a fiery death.

In order to understand the true dynamics of conflict in the world, we must be aware that the suffering in the Holy Land is the result of a conflict between two civilizational paradigms, one the spiritual, which automatically serves as a bridge among cultures, and the other, the secular, which sees material power as the only variable in the world and automatically breeds war.

This conflict has been the governing theme throughout the five-thousand-year history of Palestine. In the first half of a masterly work of 700 pages by Roger Garaudy, which I spent three months editing from the French into English in 1994 but could never publish, he explores five millennia of Palestinian history and demonstrates that the historical role of the many peoples that enriched the population of Palestine was to serve as a catalyst for religious and cultural enrichment. Their location at the intersection of three of the world’s five continents, and their Semitic languages, which are best suited of all languages to express the subtleties of divine revelation, may explain why the common message of the revealed religions was given through prophets in this pivotal part of the world.

Unfortunately, however, the millennia-long history of Palestine reveals that for relatively short and limited periods, Palestine served not as a civilizational conduit but as a block against civilizational interchange and as a source of rivalry and warfare between hostile empires. The destiny of Palestine has been to accelerate both cooperation and clash among civilizations. Today it serves both roles simultaneously, and its future will determine the future of humanity.

The great spiritual leaders of the world have long perceived that justice in the Holy Land, and especially in the ecumenical capital of the world, Jerusalem, is the pivotal issue for all of humankind. Their warnings speak universally to all religious communities in all times and places, though their words might be directed in the first instance at their own peoples.

Perhaps the greatest such leader was Abraham Isaac Kook, who led the Jewish community in Palestine for twenty years until his death at the beginning of the first great Palestinian national-liberation movement in 1935. He taught that every religion contains the seed of its own perversion, because humans are free to divert their worship from God to themselves. The greatest evil is always the perversion of the good, and the surest salvation from evil is always the return to prophetic origins. Rebbe Kook’s wisdom has been collected in Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems, translation and introduction by Ben Zion Bokser (Paulist Press: N.Y., Ramsey, Toronto, 1978), published in The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters under the supervision of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Fazlur Rahman, Huston Smith, and others.

Although the fundamentalist Gush Emunim invoke Rebbe Kook as their mentor, they make the sacrilegious error of turning his spiritual teaching into a call for secular nationalism of the most extreme kind. Abraham Isaac Kook’s entire life spoke his message that only in the Holy Land of Israel can the genius of Hebraic prophecy be revived and the Jewish people bring the creative power of God’s love in the form of justice and unity to every person and to all mankind. “For the disposition of the Israelite nation,” he asserted, “is the aspiration that the highest measure of justice, the justice of God, shall prevail in the world.” Universally recognized as the leading spokesman of spiritual Zionism, Rebbe Kook went to Jaffa from Poland in 1904 to perfect the people and land of Israel by bringing out the “holy sparks” in every person, group, and ideology in order to make way for the advent of the Messiah.

This was the exact opposite of “secular Zionism,” which resulted from the assimilationist movement of 19th century Europe, compounded by the devastating blow of the holocaust to traditionalist Jewish faith. Thus alienated from their own culture, and vulnerable to modern nationalist demagoguery, a growing portion of the Jewish nation came to elevate control over physical land to an ultimate value and goal, and therefore to transform the land of Israel into a golden calf.

As a Lurianic Cabbalist, committed to the social renewal that both confirms and transcends halakha or Jewish law, Rebbe Kook emphasized, first of all, that religious experience is certain knowledge of God, from which all other knowledge can be at best merely a reflection, and that this common experience of “total being” or “unity” of all religious people is the only adequate medium for God’s message through the Jewish people, who are the “microcosm of humanity.”

“If individuals cannot summon the world to God,” proclaimed Rebbe Kook, “then a people must issue the call. The people must call out of its inner being, as an individual of great spiritual stature issues the call from his inner being. This is found only among the Jewish people, whose commitment to the Oneness of God is a commitment to the vision of universality in all its far-reaching implications and whose vocation is to help make the world more receptive to the divine light by bearing witness to the Torah in the world.” This, he taught, is the whole purpose of Israel, which stands for shir el, the “song of God.” It is schlomo, which means peace or wholeness, Solomon’s Song of Songs.

But, he warned, again “prophetically,” that, “when an idea needs to acquire a physical base, it tends to descend from its height. In such an instance it is thrust toward the earthly, and brazen ones come and desecrate its holiness. Together with this, however, its followers increase, and the physical vitality becomes strikingly visible. Each person then suffers: The stubbornness of seeking spiritual satisfaction in the outer aspect of things enfeebles one’s powers, fragments the human spirit, and leads the stormy quest in a direction where it will find emptiness and disappointment. In disillusionment, the quest will continue in another direction. When degeneration leads one to embrace an outlook on life that negates one’s higher vision, then one becomes prey to the dark side within. The spiritual dimension becomes enslaved and darkened in the darkness of life.”

Rebbe Kook warns that “the irruption of spiritual light from its divine source on uncultivated ground yields the perverse aspect of idolatry. It is for this reason that we note to our astonishment the decline of religious Judaism in a period of national renaissance.” “Love of the nation,” he taught, “or more broadly, for humanity, is adorned at its source with the purest ideals, which reflect humanity and nationhood in their noblest light, but if a person should wish to embrace the nation in its decadent condition, its coarser aspects, without inner illumination from its ancient, higher light, he will soon take into himself filth and lowliness and elements of evil that will turn to bitterness in a short span of history of but a few generations. This is the narrow state to which the community of Israel will descend prior to an awakening to the true revival.”

“By transgressing the limits,” Rebbe Kook prophesied, the leaders of Israel may bring on a holocaust. But this will merely precede a revival. “As smoke fades away, so will fade away all the destructive winds that have filled the land, the language, the history, and the literature.” Always following his warning was the reminder of God’s covenant. “In all of this is hiding the presence of the living God. It is a fundamental error for us to retreat from our distinctive excellence, to cease recognizing ourselves as chosen for a divine vocation. We are a great people and we have blundered greatly, and, therefore, we suffered great tribulation; but great also is our consolation. Our people will be rebuilt and established through the divine dimension of its life. Then they will call out with a mighty voice to themselves and to their people: “Let is go and return to the Lord! And this return will be a true return”.

At the same time, professed who always sharply defended the validity of both Christianity and Islam as religions in the plan of God, “the brotherly love of Esau and Jacob [Christians and Jews], and Isaac and Ishmael [Jews and Muslims], will assert itself above all the confusion [and turn] the darkness to light.”

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