For those who believe in Jewish exceptionalism, last week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, includes what could be their mission statement: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples.” (Deut. 7:7) The verse suggests that from the beginning Jews have punched above their weight, destined for big things despite their small numbers.
Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, says the message of the verse is that “you do not need to be numerous to be great.” Rather, you need “a sense of the worth and dignity of the individual, of the power of human possibility to transform the world, of the importance of giving everyone the best education they can have, of making each of us feel part of a collective responsibility to ameliorate the human condition, and a willingness to take high ideals and enact them in the real world, unswayed by disappointments and defeats.”
Nowhere, writes Sacks, is this more evident than in Israel, which despite its size, adversaries, and obstacles produces “human miracles in medicine, agriculture, technology, the arts, as if the word ‘impossible’ did not exist in the Hebrew language.”
There’s nothing unusual about the idea that Jewish culture nurtures Jewish achievement — rabbis give versions of this sermon all the time.
Except Mitt Romney is not a rabbi. So when he came to Israel and said essentially the same thing — that Israeli “culture” helps explain the “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” between it and its neighbors — he got into all sorts of trouble. The Palestinians cried foul, some pundits charged “Islamophobia,” and a Jewish Democrat, Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, called his comments “daft.”
After backtracking slightly on his quoted remarks, Romney decided to double down, explaining what he meant in an essay in National Review Online. “Like the United States, the state of Israel has a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law,” wrote Romney. “It is a democracy that has embraced liberty, both political and economic. This embrace has created conditions that have enabled innovators and entrepreneurs to make the desert bloom. In the face of improbable odds, Israel today is a world leader in fields ranging from medicine to information technology.”
(Oddly, by acknowledging that democracies create political and economic “conditions” that have “enabled innovators and entrepreneurs,” Romney’s remarks would seem to undercut much of his criticism of Obama’s “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that” quote.)
If Romney pays a political price for his remarks or essay, it won’t be among the Jews. Let’s face it: Jews may not be more chauvinistic than any other ethnic group, but we’re certainly not any less. And deep down, most of us believe in Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism. What started in the Bible with the notion of the “chosen people” (however you interpret that concept) continues today with pride in our own outsize accomplishments.
Sacks writes how Jews have become — “out of all proportion to their numbers” — artists, musicians, filmmakers, academics, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and “technological innovators.” Hebrew school teachers like to quote Mark Twain on the Jew: “His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.”
And this is not a tic of the Right or the parochial. Any left-wing Zionist who has ever said that Israel’s record on gay rights, feminism, and human rights shouldn’t be judged against the standards of its neighbors is basically accepting the notion of Israeli exceptionalism.
We credit Jewish success to Jewish “culture” because the alternative explanations are distasteful. If not culture, then what — breeding? Jews and genetics do not have a happy history. Is it Divine Providence? Romney hinted as much, although most non-Orthodox Jews — liberal in their religion and rational to their core — are unlikely to agree.
That leaves us with culture — a series of choices about education, governance, gender, opportunity, capital, and the social fabric.
And yet, and yet… Being right and being smart aren’t always the same thing. Romney’s essay might make a good sermon, but it is imperfect diplomacy. If he should become president he will have to deal credibly with the Palestinians, and whether or not peace negotiations are alive he’ll need to confront the obstacles facing the Palestinian economy, including Israeli security measures.
But it’s partly our fault that politicians think that the way to our hearts is through our swelled heads. We pat ourselves on the back for our successes and then act shocked when others find us immodest or worse.
For centuries rabbis have warned us to go easy on the “chosenness” stuff — or put it in the proper perspective. According to Emet v’Emunah, Conservative Judaism’s statement of principles, chosenness is not a “license for special privilege.” Instead, it entails “additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings…. It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel….”
In other words, for all we’ve accomplished, we still have work to do.