God's chosen people (Jostein Gaarder op-ed)
In August 2006, author Jostein Gaarder created a controversy in Norway after publishing an op-ed "God's chosen people" in the Aftenposten, one of the country's major newspapers, in which he compared Israel to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and declared that Israel has lost its right to exist. The text is perceived by some[who?] as attacking not only Israel and Israeli policy, but also Jews and Judaism in general, and as an example of New antisemitism. Subsequently Gaarder clarified his views on Israel. Specifically, he said that he does not question the Israeli right to exist, "but not as an apartheid state". Gaarder repeatedly dismissed suggestions that his article was anti-Semitic. In 2011, he wrote a new piece in Aftenposten where he regretted that he had used some thoughtless phrases that could be misinterpreted as anti-Judaistic.
The piece, titled "God's Chosen People" and written in part as a response to the Israel-Lebanon conflict, claims that Israel's policies are founded on a religion that is "archaic" and "warriorlike". The op-ed, which Gaarder, in a 7 August 2006 NRK Channel 2 radio debate said was read by "countless people" and "Middle East experts" prior to publishing, is written in the literary form of a biblical prophecy, believed by some to be inspired by the Book of Amos. Gaarder maintains that the predictions in the piece do not reflect a course of events he would desire, but rather how it might turn out unless the state of Israel changes its political course.
Among other things, Gaarder wrote:
We laugh at this people's whims, and cry over its misdeeds. To act as God's chosen people is not only foolish and arrogant, it is a crime against humanity. We call it racism. […] There are limits to our patience and there are limits to our tolerance. We do not believe in divine promises as a rationale for occupation and apartheid. We have left the Middle Ages behind. We laugh with embarrassment at those who still believe that the god of the flora, fauna and galaxies has chosen one particular people as his favorite, and given them amusing stone tablets, burning bushes and a license to kill.
In the article, Gaarder contrasts the use of religious legitimization of war and occupation with humanistic values, quoting Albert Schweitzer: "Humanitarianism consists of never sacrificing a human being for a cause." The article described Judaism as "an archaic national and warlike religion", contrasting it with the Christian idea that "[T]he Kingdom of God is compassion and forgiveness." Furthermore, he claims that many Israelis celebrate the death of Lebanese children, comparing this behavior to the Biblical story where the Israelites celebrate God's plagues against Egypt. He states: "We recognize the State of Israel of 1948 but not that of 1967. It is the state of Israel that fails to recognize, respect, or defer to the internationally lawful Israeli state of 1948. Israel wants more; more water and more villages", adding that Israel already has ceased to exist. He maintains he is a friend of Jews, and finishes his article by envisioning another exodus of Jews from Israel but hoping that: "[...] not one Israeli child lose its life. Far too many civilians and children have been murdered already."
The op-ed was published together with an interview of Gaarder where he explained the thoughts behind the op-ed. When asked about what he wanted to achieve, he answered that he actually wrote it as a wake-up call to Israel. The state of Israel, he says, is the one state not respecting Israel as it was originally "created by the United Nations."
When Aftenposten asked him if he went too far by not recognizing Israel, he answered:
The op-ed is a judgement prophecy. Of course I don't mean that Israel has no right to defend herself. What I say is no different from what the world community has been saying through the UN resolutions. Again and again we see Israel overreacting, says Gaarder, and stresses that he is not against Israel as such, but that he distinguishes between the Israel of 1948 and the one of 1967.
Reactions to the article were mixed. Some in the Norwegian Jewish community, several Jewish organizations, and many Norwegian intellectuals criticized it as being too harsh or lopsided. Many saw it as having been written in a literary style inappropriate for a mass medium discussion of such a controversial topic. But many also expressed their support for his op-ed piece, or at least what they saw as the gist of it.
Some members of the Norwegian Jewish community as well as several historians in Jewish history, and other Norwegian pundits expressed deep concern and outrage over imagery and themes reminiscent of religious anti-Semitism, in which Christianity was promoted as the humanistic, peaceful successor to Judaism. The official position of the Church of Norway has long been to condemn the use of Christian themes to put Judaism in a bad light. Some spoke up against Gaarder for his views on Israel as well as the perceived antisemitic connotations of his article. Others expressed understanding of the sentiments behind the article, but felt the form and wording were open to different interpretations.
In numerous interviews after the publication of the op-ed, Gaarder maintained that he is not an anti-Semite and that the piece was never intended as an attack on the Jewish people or on Judaism. Several members of the Norwegian Jewish community, however, said that regardless of Gaarder's intent, the article served to legitimize deep-rooted antisemitic attitudes by tying them in with a public opinion already hostile to Israel. Odd-Bjørn Fure, a well-known Norwegian historian and director of the Norwegian Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities wrote: "[...] Gaarder uses a language which contributes to lowering barriers in the description of Israel and Jewish culture. [...] Gaarder has crossed a line, but I don't think he realizes it"
Three days after publishing the op-ed, Jostein Gaarder announced his intention to "withdraw from the debate." While admitting that the style of his op-ed was "challenging" and open to different interpretations, he felt little would be served by his continued contribution. He maintained that the original piece was motivated by "disgust for the war, and the wrongdoing of the Israeli army". Gaarder also said:
"We have a very good word in Norwegian for what Israel is doing in Lebanon: Hærverk [vandalism, or literally "the work of an army"]. And I also condemn the rockets of Hezbollah against Israel, just to make that clear. I have said it numerous times, and will repeat it: I'm a humanist, not an antisemite. Both the Jewish and Greek ideas are part of the foundation of what I believe in" .
Jostein Gaarder's Israeli publisher, Schocken Publishing House, announced 9 August 2006, that it would stop cooperating with Gaarder and no longer publish his books. In addition, Racheli Edelman, the owner-publisher of Schocken Publishing House, is looking into whether the op-ed could form the basis of a lawsuit against Gaarder. Schocken changed its decision after Gaarder's Norwegian publisher Aschehoug contacted Schocken and expressed the view that it would be "a scandal if a publisher dropped an author because of a debate". William Nygaard, director of Aschehoug, Gaarder's publisher in Norway, who himself was a victim of an assassination attempt presumed to be a result of the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses, expressed support for Gaarder:
"I think it is very important that Jostein Gaarder, as an active person in the Norwegian public sphere and as an internationally renowned author, is willing, in the name of free speech, to take on the burden of critically commenting on a sensitive subject such as the conflict between Israel and Lebanon."
The strong attacks and accusations about anti-Semitism against Gaarder have prompted commentators to voice criticism against what they perceive as a misuse of the label "antisemite" against critics of Israel. Associate professor in Middle Eastern history Hilde Henriksen Waage at the University of Oslo commented that: "Any debate about the politics of the state of Israel drowns in accusations of antisemitism and racism" and intimated that Gaarder would not be safe in Norway after this op-ed. The former prime minister of Norway Kåre Willoch criticised the attacks on Gaarder, stating that "whenever Israel's politics are criticised, there are attempts to divert the attention from what this is really about."
Second op-ed in 2006 and afterthought in 2011
On 12 August 2006, Gaarder published a new op-ed piece in the Aftenposten. This had the title Forsøk på klargjøring [An attempt to clarify]. It has since been translated into English.
In 2011, he wrote a piece called "Afterthought" in Aftenposten where he regretted that he had used some thoughtless phrases that could be misinterpreted as anti-Judaistic.
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- Jostein Gaarder (20 April 2011): Ettertanke Aftenposten, retrieved 6 July 2013