Someone named "Roar" has repeatedly challenged me to provide a thorough critique of Jostein Gaarder's piece, and since I'm so annoyed by this character's self-righteousness, I'll pick up the gauntlet.
This analysis and critique is based on what Gaarder wrote in the article, not what others thought he meant, or for that matter what he subsequently said he meant. Gaarder is a professional writer, and said he'd put considerable effort into the article. In addition, one should expect that Aftenposten's opinion editor exercised some quality control. The article should stand on its own, and that's how I'm going to treat it.
1. Line by line analysis
- Gaarder introduces his op-ed by writing: "No way back" (Ingen vei tilbake), making the point that things have gotten so bad that they're irreversible. The reader is left to wonder precisely what has gotten to this point, and Gaarder follows up by writing:
- "It is time to rehearse (øve inn) a new lesson (lekse, which could also loosely mean refrain) - we no longer recognize the state of Israel." He then brings in South Africa of the apartheid era, Afghanistan under the Taliban, the ethnical cleansing of the Serbs, even Iraq. This sentence is pretty clear - he may have recognized Israel of the past, but there is no longer any way back - Israel has reached the same point as these other regimes, and is heading for the same fate.
- "Now we must get used to the thought: the State of Israel in its current form is history." This is, of course, a contradiction in terms and somewhat banal (all states change over time). But Gaarder has already made it clear that Israel can no longer redeem itself in his eyes, and what's more he invokes a prediction that his judgment is also a prophecy - what the mysterious "we" predicts, is also what will happen.
- Even at this juncture, Gaarder has made it clear that this is a condemnation, not merely a criticism. It is not merely a warning, since there is no way back. He fails to make it clear what Israel's failings are here (and in the rest of the article), because he seems to assume that it should be obvious to anyone, and certainly to the "we" from whose point of view he writes.
- In the next paragraph he attacks Judaism: "We do not believe in the illusion of God's chosen people." This is, indeed, the title of the entire article, and we'll have to assume he at least accepted it. It is therefore entirely reasonable to assume that Gaarder directs his ire against not just Zionism, but against the religious idea of a chosen people, and specifically that piece of Judaism. In doing so, he not only reveals his rank ignorance of Jewish theology, but that he has a problem with the Jewish idea of chosenness - or rather, his projection of it.
- And if there should be any doubt about his sentiments, he writes in his next paragraph: "We laugh at this people's conceits ["griller"] and cry over its misdeeds." At this point, his religious contention gets directed at the Jewish collective ("this people") making us all responsible for his notion of conceit and his judgment of what his right and wrong.
- At this point, we have all the elements we need for a classical antisemitic rant. Gaarder stakes out the position that Israel can never again redeem itself; that it's Judaism's false religion that's to blame, and that the Jews - as a people - that must answer for all this. This rhetoric is, of course, built on a deck of cards; but it doesn't matter - it's intended to inflame passion and anger.
- He then writes that "to behave like God's chosen people is not only dumb and arrogant, but a crime against humanity. We call it racism." By invoking "crime against humanity," Gaarder is equating the alleged misdeeds perpetrated by Israel with the crimes of the Third Reich, tried in the Nuremberg trials, a cheap comparison he never substantiates. This "people" - as he refers to us in the preceding sentence - is deluded into stupidity, arrogance, and bigotry; because Gaarder has decreed it. But why is he making this point?
- Because there are limits for his - or the mysterious their's - tolerance, and patience, as he writes in the next paragraph. We are told that "we" don't believe in "divine promises as justification for occupation and apartheid" - and that "we have put the Middle Ages behind us." He's repeating his point about religious delusions but now adds a bit more of an insult by making Judaism a remnant of the dark ages - the very dark ages, of course, that saw such horrific persecution of Jews in Europe. By now, the Jewish people have been told that their religion is similar to Nazism in that it promotes "crimes against humanity" and no better than the religious fundamentalism that burned thousands of Jews and others in the auto-da-fes.
- "We laugh in embarrassment [beklemt] of those who still believe that the God of fauna, flora, and galaxies has chosen out a particular people as the favored and given them funny stone tablets, burning bushes, and license to kill." The embarrassment, we have to assume, is because Judaism can be associated with Christianity, because Jews and Christians can be found in the same room, wearing the same clothes, looking fairly similar to teach other. Gaarder makes it clear that the Jewish God is far inferior, really laughable to his (or "our") God. What's more, he juxtaposes two religious symbols - stone tablets and the burning bush - with something that is morally reprehensible, taken from popular culture - a "license to kill." His point, it seems, is that a belief in the divinity of stone tablets (never mind what's written on them) or the wonders of a miracle/sign can not justify his projection of what Jews allow themselves.
- This is terrible hypocricy. For starters, Christians place great emphasis on the Ten Commandments, believing that they were literally written by God; and the burning bush is the first part of a string of revelations that Christians bring into their own pantheon of prophets, messiah, apostles, and saints. To ridicule the Ten Commandments is to ridicule the principle of rule by law; and to ridicule the burning bush is to ridicule the basis for not just Judaism but also Islam and Christianity. Since that couldn't have been Gaarder's intention, we are left to infer that the problem is with Judaism, his premise that Jews take these symbols as a license to be immoral, to kill at a whim.
- Because in the next sentence, Gaarder takes it all back. He writes: "But the State of Israel has with its unscrupulous warcraft and repulsive weapons massacred its own legitimacy." In other words, Europe is willing to accept moral responsibility for its own horrific actions (which exceed by far even the worst accusations leveled against Israel), but it is Israel that risks losing its legitimacy through its own misdeeds. This monolithic "we" in Gaarder's discourse apparently has the right to give and retract what rights Jews may have to form their own state.
- More specifically, Gaarder writes that "it [Israel] has systematically violated international law, international conventions and innumerable UN resolutions and can no longer expect protection from these quarters." Let's assume that Gaarder is right (which he isn't) about Israel's violations, by what moral or legal standard does a country lose its sovereignty because it's been bad? And if that's a standard, why doesn't Gaarder present us with a list of other countries he'd like to see disenfranchised?
- "It has carpet-bombed the world's recognition. But do not fear! The hard times are almost over. The State of Israel has seen its Soweto." This sounds pretty ominous - supposed to mean that Israel finally stepped over a line and was exposed for the regime it is. And that it's headed for an inevitable demise.
- As if to hammer this point down, he then writes: "We are at the watershed now. There is no way back. The State of Israel has raped the world's recognition and will not get peace before it lays down its weapons." Again, this no way back thing, the idea that Israel can not redeem itself except through a complete surrender, by giving up its sovereign right to a military capability.
- "May word and spirit blow Israel's apartheid walls down. The State of Israel doesn't exist now. It is without defense now, without skin. May the world be merciful toward the civilian population. For it is not toward individuals we direct our prophecies of doom." It's hard to make sene of this - word and spirit shouldn't be too hard on "civilian population" and "individuals" under any circumstances. That is, unless the absence of the "apartheid walls" may create danger for these people. But then it isn't clear why "the world" should be merciful - is there a chance that "the world" might actually invade Israel?
- "We wish the people of Israel everything well, but reserve the right to not eat Jaffa oranges as long as they taste bad and are poisonous. It was managable to live without the blue apartheid grapes for a few years." This makes no sense at all; not sure what it means. So, just to be clear, you have every right to eat whatever oranges or grapes you prefer. Of course, if Gaarder really wants to boycott Israel, he's going to have to give up a lot more than oranges.
- "We don't believe Israel mourns more over forty killed Lebanese children than they have over forty years in the desert for three thousand years. We take note that many Israelis celebrate such triumphs the same way they rejoiced the Ten Plagues as 'suitable punishment' for the Egyptians. (In this story the Lord, the God of Israel as an insatiable sadist.)" Gaarder may write "Israel," but his point applies to Judaism, and it's this: Jews, or Israelis if you will, care less about the real suffering of others than they do their own religious history. In addition, he takes care to characterize, once again, Jewish theology. (Which he knows nothing about - I can find no depiction of "celebration" over the Ten Plagues, and in fact each Passover seder does the opposite, symbolically diminishing the Passover celebration on account of the suffering of the Egyptians).
- "We ask whether most Israelis mean that one Israeli life is worth more than forty Palestinians or Lebanese." This appears to be derived from an old antisemitic canard perpetuated by nutcases like Israel Shahak, the idea that Jews value Jewish life more than the lives of non-Jews.
- "For we have seen photos of Israeli school children writing hateful messages on bombs that are to be dropped over the civilian population in Lebanon and Palestine. Israeli girls are not cute when they take pleasure in death and torture on the other side of the fronts." In all likelihood, he is referring to these pictures. The "bombs" are artillery shells, which doesn't make much of a difference for the point, but as it turns out the kids were from Kiryat Shemona and had just gotten out of a bomb shelter. All the messages that can be deciphered are directed at Nasrallah, the man behind the rockets fired at Kiryat Shemona. Perhaps it was in bad taste to have kids write on artillery shells, but it's hardly "hateful" messages directed at "civilians." What is more interesting, though, is that Gaarder - without any real knowledge of the situation - leapt to the worst possible conclusion. A case of naive cynicism if there ever is one. Would Gaarder ever have believed the worst about any other group of people?
- "We do not recognize the State of Israel's rhetoric. We do not recognize the bloody spiral of the vendetta with 'an eye for an eye.'" Again, Gaarder invokes an uncharitable (and false) interpretation of Judaism often perpetuated by antisemites, that of a vengeful religion, which he solidifies in the next statement: "We do not recognize the principle of ten or a thousand Arab eyes for one Israeli eye." I suppose Gaarder might say this is an empirical fact - there are more Arab casualties than Israeli in the conflict. But Gaarder's interpretation represents yet another case of naive cynicism: it assumes that Israel is deliberately inflicting casualties to retaliate for - or I suppose pre-empt - Israeli casualties. What basis does Gaarder have for such a supposition?
- "We do not recognize collective punishment or population diets as political weapons." I suppose the closure of West Bank borders, and demolitions of terrorists' houses might count as collective punishment, though other interpretations will probably fit reality better. But again, Gaarder's interpretation assumes the worst. As for "population diets" it flies in the face of the Arab "population bomb" talk that so dominates the debate in and around Israel. So Gaarder is taking that idea out of thin air, only useful to the extent that it demonizes Israel.
- "Two thousand years ago a Jewish rabbi criticized the ancient doctrine of 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'" I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that Gaarder is unfamiliar with Pirkei Avot and Hillel, and guess that he's referring to Jesus of Nazareth. Gaarder derives his novel interpretation of the Gospel from Matthew 5:38-39, but he is at odds with most Christian scholars in his view; as he is in his interpretation of the original "eye for an eye" precept. But rather than work with mainstream views on this, Gaarder invents his own that just happens to put Judaism in a bad light, one that perpetuates the narrative he's trying to construct.
- "He said: 'all that you would have others do onto you, you should do onto them.' We do not recognize a state that is founded on anti-humanistic principles and the ruins of an archaic national religion or war religion." This is where Gaarder was headed, this characterization of Judaism - an archaic national religion, a religion of war. One thing is clear - he has it wrong, but the question really is why he insists on replacing a true account with this one.
- "Or as Albert Schweitzer put it: 'humanity is to never sacrifice a human life for a cause.'" Now, I could produce lots of quotes from rabbis and even Golda Meir that adds a lot more nuance to this idealistic proposition.
- "We do not recognize the kingdom of David as a norm for the 21st century map of the Middle East." Gaarder suggests that in Israel, we are dealing with religious imperialism with the goal of "expanding" Israel to the borders of David's kingdom. (That would mean giving up the Negev, large parts of coastal Northern Israel, but taking over Amman and Damascus, but never mind). In any event, Gaarder here introduces a historical narrative, tying in the "archaic national religion" with a superior alternative - Christianity.
- "The Jewish rabbi proclaimed two thousand years ago that God's kingdom is not a warrrior resurrection of David's kingdom, but that God's kingdom is within us and among us.God's kingdom is mercy and forgiveness." This is an essential part of the Christian mission toward Jews - that the covenant given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ("old testament") has been supplanted by the "new testament," except of course neither Jesus nor Paul accused their religious heritage of being based on war. In any event, Gaarder's purpose is to contrast vindictive, violent Judaism with forgiving, merciful Christianity to not just condemn Israel but to lay its alleged faults at the feet of the Jewish religion.
- "Two thousand years have passed since the Jewish rabbi disarmed and thoroughly humanized old war rhetoric. Already in his time Zionist terrorists operated." Gaarder is describing a time period when the Romans crucified tens of thousands of people on the hills around Jerusalem to make a point, when "Zionism" was a meaningless term, because Jews were native to their country, but he's trying to project today's situation to what existed two thousand years ago. Again, the contrast - the Judaism of the second temple, he wants his readers to believe, incited terrorist violence the way Judaism does now. But that Jesus pointed out a new way; a way, we can only conclude, he thinks Jews should have taken then and should take now.
- "For two thousand years, we have reiterated the curriculum of humanism, but Israel doesn't listen." For all this time, the Jews have willfully ignored what has been right in front of them and clung to their "archaic" and "warrior" ways, caught up in the "bloody vendetta cycle." In other words, this isn't just a matter of not knowing better, it's a matter of deliberately and stubbornly resisting the better way.
- "It wasn't the Pharisee that helped the man in the ditch who had been robbed. It was a Samaritan, today we'd say a Palestinian." This is a well-known parable of the humble doing better than the self-righteous, personified by stereotypes. Gaarder wants to make Israel the self-righteous and the Palestinians the humble in his narrative. Gaarder is wrong on both his historicity of the Samaritans and the Pharisees, and on the accuracy of the parallel, but what he is trying to do is to bring the condemnation the Pharisee deserves toward Israel and the sympathy and admiration we give the Samaritan toward the Palestinians. In other words, little has changed in the two thousand years Gaarder has in mind: the Jews are as "arrogant" (see above) as ever, and now they are also self-righteous hypocrites.
- "Because first we are human - Christian, Moslem, or also Jewish." This blindingly self-evident point apparently needs to be made when it comes to Israel, tied up as it is in its archaic, self-righteous, warrior-like, vindictive, imperalist religion.
- "Or as the Jewish rabbi said: 'And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so.'" Gaarder here repeats - in a somewhat milder form - the point he made earlier, that Israelis care more about the lives of their own than of others.
- "We do not accept the abduction of soldiers. But we do not recognize the deportation of entire groups of people and the abduction of lawfully elected parliamentarians or members of a cabinet, either." Another alibi from Gaarder. It's not like he approves of the abduction of Israeli soldiers as a provocation, but he's also against Israel's actions. He wants to be even-handed.
- "We recognize the State of Israel of 1948, but not of 1967. That is the State of Israel that doesn't recognize, respect, and yield to the legal 1948 state." In other words, Gaarder says, the Israel of today has betrayed the Israel of the past. Whereas it was "morally and historically necessary" for Israel of 1948 to be formed, there is now "no way back" for the Israel of today. In Gaarder's mind, Israel was allowed legitimacy for 19 years, but for the last 39 years it's been existing on fumes and bullets. This is a somewhat novel point - he allows that the horrors of World War II gave the Jews a justifiable reason to establish the State of Israel, but not to defend it.
- "Israel wants more - more villages, and more water. To achieve this some are enlisting God's help to find a final solution to the Palestinian question. Some Israeli politicians claim that the Palestinians have so many countries, while we have only one." The same point as earlier - religiously inspired imperialism, indifference to the suffering and rights of others. In case anyone hasn't gotten it by now.
- "Or as Israel's highest protector puts it: 'May God continue to bless America.' A little child noted this and asked the mother: 'Why does the president always end his speeches with God bless America? Why doesn't he say God bless the world?'" Now we're into guilt by association - Bush and Israel putting aside the needs of the world for their own self-interest.
- "And then there was a Norwegian poet [Henrik Wergeland] who exclaimed the following childlike sigh: 'Why does humanity progress so slowly?' He was the one who wrote so beautifully about the Jew and the Jewess [two epic poems by Wergeland]. But he rejected the the illusion of a chosen people. He called himself a Muslim." Wergeland was an ordained Lutheran minister, and his work was to repeal the Norwegian constitutional ban against Jews. But he is known as the most prominent advocate for Jews in Norway, and the Norwegian Jewish community places a wreath on his grave every Constitution Day in gratitude for his work. (A poignant poem can be found here - scroll down for the English translation.) Gaarder suggests here that Israel has betrayed the Jews' best friend, and that his ghost likely is on Gaarder's side. In other words, Israel has no friends left.
- "We do not recognize the State of Israel. Not today, as we write this, in our hour of sorrow and rage." This is another alibi - Gaarder intimates that he is driven by a passing moment of anger and sadness. It contradicts what he says twice before, that there is "no way back" and that Israel has "seen its Soweto." Suggesting that there could be redemption here is new and a little confusing, but it has to be discounted if not dismissed by the condemnation earlier.
- "If the nation of Israel should fall under its own acts, and parts of its population must flee the occupied areas and into another diaspora, we say: May those around them show them mercy and calm now. It is always a crime without any mitigating circumstances to lay a hand on refugees and the stateless." Into another diaspora. There we have it. Israel has lost its legitimacy, seen its Soweto, and will fall prey to its own ways, and all we can hope for is that the neighboring states will be merciful, as Israel can no longer expect any support from the UN or "the world," whose recognition Israel has "raped."
2. Rhetorical themes
The most perplexing rhetorical device in the piece is the use of "we" as the accusatory pronoun. This device does not appear in the prophetic writings. The following possibilities present themselves:
- The royal "we". In other words, he means "I." This is uncharacteristic both for common usage and Gaarder's own, rather informal style.
- An anonymous group Gaarder writes for. This is rather toothless if Gaarder doesn't tell us who they are - the various anti-Israel groups in Norway? (Duh.) All his literary friends? (More worrying).
- The moral and intellectual elite. Gaarder may or may not count himself among this group, and it certainly wouldn't be clear what mandate he has to write on their behalf.
- An aspirational group, i.e., one that will come to its senses and agree with Gaarder as a result of his writing.
- The Norwegian collective, something that should become part of the conventional wisdom. Certainly the first few sentences would suggest that.
In any of these cases, Gaarder is trying to convey a sense of moral superiority by making this about more than his opinion. He is trying to make his condemnation an imperative by being inclusive about it.
Then there is the use of juxtaposition and parallels. This recurs in several ways throughout the article:
- Israel as a parallel to hateful and deposed regimes. Most explicit is that of the South African apartheid regime, but also Taliban and Slobodan Milošević are invoked. Certain terminology, e.g., "crimes against humanity" also evoke a parallel with Nazi Germany.
- Judaism in contrast to Gaarder's civilized world. Judaism is relegated to the "middle ages," its conceits and misdeeds, warrior tendencies, and nationalism.
- The righteousness of Christianity versus Judaism, Jesus as the reformer of Judaism. In repeatedly emphasizing that Jesus of Nazareth was a "Jewish rabbi," Gaarder makes it clear what he thinks the main failing is of Judaism - that it didn't embrace his messiah.
Finally, there is the sense that Israel has run out of legitimacy, goodwill, even protection. "There is no way back," "Israel has raped the world's recognition... and can no longer expect protection, etc." This is a state Gaarder believes is beyond redemption, and the "fate" is clear - it will come to an end, and let us only hope the innocent don't suffer.
3. Purpose and effect
Gaarder's piece is so full of factual errors and logical fallacies it would take an article longer than this to go through it all. He utterly misrepresents Judaism, Israeli politics, and even core elements of Christianity. He makes accusations he fails to substantiate and completely ignores the fact that Israel is a democratic state with universal suffrage.
He's either an ignoramus, or else he's deliberately misleading his audience, or at least trying to.
Gaarder is a writer who has made his fame within the history of philosophy, so I'm inclined to assume that he's deliberately lying, distorting, and misleading. The question is: why?
Clearly, the op-ed is intended to arouse passion, to stoke the "righteous anger" that is already present in Norwegian public opinion. It is an attempt to focus this anger and outrage toward something more specific, to give more finality to it.
By bringing Judaism into the picture and contrasting it with Christianity, Gaarder is paining a picture of the Jew as someone unrepentant, angry, arrogant, and vindictive, suffering because he stubbornly refuses to accept the superior wisdom of the Christian. His punishment is that all his suffering is for nothing - he has become the Nazi.
There is no question the piece is antisemitic, not worthy of publication in any self-respecting periodical. That Aftenposten published it shows that it lacks the sophistication and moral compass to recognize and deal with antisemitism. We could speculate endlessly about Gaarder's state of mind, his prejudices (or lack thereof), and what he wanted and didn't want with his article. But there is no question what its content tells us, namely that Israel is an evil regime that has facilitated its own demise by stubbornly hanging on to a religion that has long since been superceded by Gaarder's enlightened worldview.
That so many of the intellectual elite chose to defend Gaarder's words, and to use the debate as an opportunity to launch another tirade against Israel - is frightening. SOS Rasisme and other supposedly anti-racist groups stayed out of the discussion altogether.
Some people will say that, well, it's not as if Gaarder's piece rose to the level of Nazi calls for extermination. As if antisemitism only takes one form and exists only in its most extreme positions.