Woody Allen, not Abie Cohen (Kevin Winter/Getty)

February 6, 2024   5 mins

We Jews have an old joke about the Holocaust: Abie Cohen, after being gassed and burnt in Auschwitz, goes to heaven. After a few weeks of waiting patiently, he eventually gets to see God and demands to know if the Jews are still the chosen people. God, taken aback, forcibly replies: “Of course, the Jews are still the chosen people! How can you ask such a question?” Abie replies: “Couldn’t you choose someone else for a change?”

On October 7, the world and Jews were once again reminded that the Jews remain the chosen people. As Saul Bellow wrote in To Jerusalem and Back, we are the only people in the world still unable “to take the right to live as a natural right”. The perpetrators may be different, but the script remains the same: once again, Jews were killed simply for being Jews.

The existential reality of not having the right to live has inevitably shaped Jewish identity, making it very easy for Jews to demand recognition as the world’s perennial victims. After all, we are just that.

But this would be a fatal embrace. Most obviously, the rise of identity politics has sacralised victimhood, where Jews who allegedly benefit from “white privilege” are now at the wrong end of the intersectional hierarchy, and thus deserve no special treatment or recognition. Indeed, it is this sense of victimhood that fuels much of today’s antisemitism: in our new moral universe, Jews, not Hamas, are blamed for the October 7 pogrom while the perpetrators are excused as victims of Israeli oppression. We are no longer victims, but the perpetrators of victimhood.

Yet there is an even more insidious dimension to the fantasy of Jewish victim identity, one that cedes to the antisemite control over Jewish destiny. Being defined by antisemitism, as Hannah Arendt argued in The Jew as Pariah, is a fatal deception because it can only exist through the continued existence of antisemitism. This is why external and internal threats have always dogged the struggle for Jewish emancipation. The notion of the existential Jew — the Jew defined by others — is irredeemably self-defeating because it cannot escape being complicit in preserving and perpetuating hostility.

For Arendt, the only escape from the “disgrace” of being a Jew was “to fight for the honour of the Jewish people as a whole”. And for her, such a fight meant a political battle for the right of Jews to live as Jews, not a Jewish existence defined by antisemitism. The failure to do so results, as we’re seeing today, in the deadly fatalism of despair, condemning Jews to know only what to be against rather than what to be for — to act as objects rather than the subjects of history.

This dilemma of being objects lies at the heart of the Jewish condition. Jews have not only been at war with antisemitism. They have also been in a perpetual internal war — between those who have embraced fatalism and those who aspire to be the subjects of history.

When Jews refused to be victims, and instead looked up from the Talmud and engaged the outside world, they helped to move humanity towards an age of reason, contributing so much to our collective culture. With just 0.2% of the world’s population, we have produced 32% of the world’s Nobel laureates. That’s got to count for something.

Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably, many Jews are loath to embrace this history. The existential fatalism of being defined by antisemitism is undoubtedly an obstacle, opening up Jews to the seduction of normality when they aren’t being slaughtered. But this self-delusion of assimilation has led only to disaster. Sometimes, the chosen people choose poorly and become part of the problem rather than its solution.

After the Holocaust, many Jews outside of Israel were quite happy to be alive, to merely exist and get on with life. This was my experience, growing up in apartheid South Africa in a non-religious family of Lithuanian and Latvian descent. I never experienced antisemitism directly, though that antisemitism existed in South Africa was beyond doubt. The alignment of the Afrikaner Nationalists with Nazi Germany against Britain during the Second World War was proof enough. Indeed, the fact that my father felt it necessary to change our surname from Chakelowitz attested to the fact that being easily identified as Jews was not good for business.

But for the most part, life was remarkably carefree and prosperous. The only cruel thing about being Jewish was that I had to suffer the “oppression” of having a bar mitzvah (because my grandmother was still alive), which meant attending Hebrew lessons, which I hated, and, horror of all horrors, going to Shul every Saturday, which meant missing football.

As I grew older, however, disturbing questions arose, especially as I learned about the Holocaust and read the banned books in our house about apartheid oppression. How was it possible that Jews, after the Holocaust, could go along with, let alone thrive from, apartheid — the worst system of racial oppression in the post-war world?

This moral dilemma was one faced by every Jew in South Africa. Many, to their credit, could not reconcile their existence as Jews with apartheid and left the country, settling abroad in Israel and other countries like Australia or the United States. A few, like me, who took the “never again” slogan to heart, entered the political struggle for freedom and equality, and some were imprisoned for their beliefs. But we were the exceptions. Shamefully, many Jews silenced their moral alarms and took advantage of their white privilege, enriching themselves off the backs of the brutally oppressed black majority. Many sent money to Israel; we joked at the time that a Zionist was a wealthy white South African Jew who gave money to Israel so they could enjoy the right to life as a natural right under apartheid.

Behind the joke, however, was a serious point about Jews thinking that they could escape the Jewish condition. Not surprisingly, antisemitism never died in South Africa. It is being mobilised today to keep an embattled ANC government in power. The spectacle of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spearheading the global charade of accusations of Israeli genocide in Gaza is nothing more or less than the resurrection of scapegoating for narrow self-interest. He is consciously banking on — indeed, mobilising — antisemitism in the land that apparently banished apartheid as a crime against humanity.

Will he succeed? It’s not guaranteed: after all, October 7 and its aftermath should be a wake-up call not just in South Africa, but for Jews globally. Once again, the right to exist as Jews in Israel, or even in the liberal West, can no longer be taken for granted. Once again, Jews have been revealed as the perpetual guests of Hotel California: we can check out when we like, but we can never leave.

Thus, for the chosen people, there is little choice but to learn to live with the burden of the Jewish condition. Those who seek safety and decry the fear they now feel living among antisemites need to stop wallowing in self-pity. After all, the founding of the State of Israel was not just an endeavour against antisemitism following the gravest genocide in human history. It was also a vehicle for creating a sovereign nation-state capable of making things that would make the world better: drip irrigation, seawater desalination, Intel processors, the world’s first USB flash drive, a cure for multiple sclerosis, and hundreds of other beautiful inventions.

This is what Arendt saw as Jews fighting to live like Jews, to live as universalists, and to embody civilisational impulses. Or as Mort Zuckerman put it, we need to behave like the 92-year-old Jew being sued in a paternity case: “He was so proud, he pleaded guilty.” In other words, being chosen not to have the natural right to life means having no choice but to be the lodestar of human perfectibility, of being morally ambitious like no others, of living up to or surpassing the double standards demanded of us by our detractors. As Jews like to tell each other on every religious national holiday: “We are here to remember the day they tried to kill us. But we won — so let’s eat!”

Dr Norman Lewis is a writer based in London. His Substack is What A Piece Of Work Is Man!