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The Abraham Complex


On a theological level, both Christianity and Islam have had to reconcile their belief that Abraham is a true prophet, but that his religion--Judaism--is not the true religion. This inherent need to invalidate Jews as the “chosen people” has had concrete manifestations throughout history--and is at the root of much of medieval and contemporary anti-Semitism. Resolving this seeming paradox has been the first step in healing Christian-Jewish relations, and is a necessary process for Muslim leaders as well before any serious interfaith work can be successful.

Jews themselves have historically recognized the difficult situation imposed on them by their “chosen” status. Sigmund Freud, using his theory of the subconscious, blamed this special categorization (in his words, “the first-born, the favorite child of God”) for the world’s obsession with and hatred of Jews. In turn, Jews throughout history have looked upon the “chosen” concept as controversial and arrogant, and many have tried to reject or deny it. In 1885, the Jewish Reform movement in America adopted the Pittsburgh Platform, declaring that they didn't wish to be a nation at all and thus reinterpreting the concept of chosenness as part of a moral mission to help the world. About 50 years later, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, proposed a Judaism that rejected, in his words, the "anachronistic" and "arrogant" concept of the chosen people that perpetrated "race or national superiority." Early Zionists also tried to escape the fate of “the chosen” in order to be a "normal" nation. Yosef Haim Brenner, an influential writer for the socialist Zionism and the Kibbutz movement, wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century: "I would blot out from the prayer book of the Jews of our day the [words] ‘Thou hast chosen us’ in every shape and form."

Nevertheless, the concept of the Jews as “The Chosen People” had become a central tenet of both Christianity and Islam. Christianity’s relationship with Judaism has long been governed by the "supersessionist theory," established by Paul at the end of the first century, which claims that the followers of Jesus replaced the Jews as the “true Israel.” It’s a theme that is found in Christian literature as early as the second century, with Christians envisioning themselves as "Israel after the flesh" in order to justify why Jews had fallen out of favor with God. One of the earliest Christian saints, Justin Martyr, refers in 160 A.D. to the Christian Church as "the true spiritual Israel." This urge to discredit the merit of Judaism also explains the Christian obsession with Jews as the killers of Christ--an element in the religion’s early attempt to vilify Jews. As characterized by scholar David Flusser, "Christian anti-Judaism was not a coincidental lapse" but a tool serving as "godfather to the formation of Christianity.”

Christian vilification of “the Chosen Jews” inspired several waves of violence, such as the attacks on the Jewish communities in Europe that followed Pope Urban II declaration’s in 1095 of a "Holy War" led by the "race beloved and chosen by God." During the Second Crusade half a century later, Peter the Venerable incited his troops to liberate the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem as a way to confirm the rejection of the Jews and the election of the believers in Christ. The supersessionist theory also motivated the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Spain, as the Jewish refusal to convert clashed with the Spanish claim to be replacing the Hebrews as the new "Chosen People" who would transform Spain into "God's Land," and the royal family into the new "House of David." Even Hitler used Christian theology to justify his slaughter of Jews, writing in Mein Kampf, “By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." For him, the choice was unequivocal: "There cannot be two Chosen People," he once said. "We are God's People."

It took Christianity 2,000 years of policies that persecuted and demoralized Jews to arrive at Vatican II, the hugely significant gathering in 1965 that confronted the charge against the Jews as the killers of Christ. By removing the collective blood guilt from "the Jews of today" and in ancient times, the gathering’s pronouncement allowed the recognition by the Catholic Church of the Jews as "Thy Chosen People" and led later to Pope John Paul II’s declaration, during his historic 1986 visit to the Synagogue of Rome, that the Jews are "our elder brother." Some elements of the supersessionist theory still sporadically appear in Christian theology--such as in the Dominus Iesus document, written in 2000 by the current Pope, Benedict XVI, who has stressed a desire “for the instant in which Israel will say yes to Christ.” But the 1965 modifications in the doctrine and the reconfirmation of the strong Jewish roots of Christianity have contributed mightily to a more harmonious relationship between the two religions.

Islam faces a similar theological need to explain away Jewish “chosenness.” But unlike Christianity, the Muslim displacement theory does not base itself on being the "New Israel;" instead, it recasts the Jewish prophets as Muslims by creating a direct link with Ishmael, the son of Abraham, the "first Muslim" according to the Koran. As philosopher Abraham Geiger (later the founder of Reform Judaism) wrote in his 1833 doctoral thesis, Did Muhammad Borrow from Judaism?, the need to distance Islam from its Jewish roots explains much of the anti-Jewish sentiment in its theology. Sheikh Abd Al Rahman Al Sudayyis, the imam of the most important mosque in Mecca, said as much in February 2004: he described the existence of Jews as a major challenge to "our religious principles, historical rights, and past glories"--a conflict "of creed, identity, and existence." The denial of the role Judaism played in the foundation of Islam is a significant part of Islamic theology.

Vilifying or killing Jews is a recurring motif in Muslim holy texts. An oral tradition from the Prophet Mohammed, for example, contends that the rivalry with the Jews will continue until the end of the days: "The Last Hour will not come until the Muslims fight against the Jews,” it reads, “and the Muslims will kill them until the Jews will hide themselves behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say: 'O Muslim, the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me. Come and kill him.’" The Koran accuses the Jews, repeatedly, of falsehood, distortion, and of being “corrupters of the scriptures.” It argues that the Jews did not deserve to be the chosen people, and because of their sins they are condemned to “degradation in this world.” Islam’s obsession with Judaism is no less serious than the Catholic Church’s before Vatican II--and, unfortunately, it has become even more severe in the past few decades.

So, much of the Muslim world’s current hatred of Israel has theological roots. The return of the Jews to their homeland, and even worse, their victories over Arab armies, is seen as a contradiction of the fact that Jews are supposed to be relegated to a life of dispersal and humiliation. In 1968, for example, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University referred to the Arab defeat by Israel in 1967 as an "unexpected event [that] occurred before a roguish Zionism whose adherents had been destined to dispersion by the Deity," and quoted the Koran (2:61): "And humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon [the Jews] and they were visited with wrath from God."

Many contemporary Muslim adversaries of Israel draw from the most derogatory and bellicose anti-Jewish expressions in the Koran to justify current attitudes. In a recent sermon, Al Sudayyis called Allah to annihilate the Jews, "the scum of the human race, rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs [quoting from the Koran]." The Saudi government has put their own theological spin on the Russian-produced anti-Jewish tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, adding references to the “Jewish sense of superiority in the world” and blaming the Jews for deceiving the world into thinking that “they are the chosen people and that God wants them to once more take possession of Palestine, the promised land.”

There's an irony, then, in King Abdullah’s call for a dialogue of “Abrahamic religions.” Saudi Wahhabism is responsible more than any other segment in Islam for the most extreme interpretation of their religion’s superiority--and the resulting pathologies that have come from the need to deny Islam’s historical entwinement with Judaism. As religious leaders from around the world gather in Madrid next week under the auspices of the Saudi government, history teaches us that only by finding a way to reconcile the existence of Judaism with the existence of Islam--a difficult but fruitful process undertaken by Christians in recent decades--can a productive dialogue actually begin.

Avi Beker is the Goldman Visiting Professor at Georgetown University at the Department of Government and the former Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of The Chosen: The History of an Idea and the Anatomy of an Obsession.

By Avi Beker