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Chaim Potok uses historic events to help shape the plot of The Chosen and create conflicts and challenges for the characters to overcome. Specifically, the Holocaust and the Zionist movement create a feeling of aversion between the Malters and the Saunders by setting the Malters’ reform Jewish, Zionist beliefs against those of the Hasidic, anti-Zionist Saunders. In the end of The Chosen, after the strength of Reuven and Danny’s friendship has been thoroughly tested, their bond emerges just as healthy as it was prior to their estrangement. The characters’ reactions to these events shape the entire second half of The Chosen.
When the news of the intense Nazi persecution of the Jews reaches New York, the Malters and the Saunders are intensely disturbed. While David Malter is reading an account of the terror of the Holocaust, Reuven sees him “break down and weep like a child”(180). Reb Saunders shows his grief when he sighs, “How the world makes us suffer”(181). Danny and Reuven are also “tense and distraught”(181) after an original feeling of shock. Although both families’ initial reactions are identical, their solutions to the persecution of the Hebrews are radically different.
Differences in ideology between the two families of The Chosen cause conflict between the two patriarchs and their sons. The Hasidic viewpoint, which is shared by Danny and Reb Saunders, is that everything that happens on Earth is the result of God’s will. Therefore, the Holocaust is what God wanted. Reb Saunders believes that there is nothing they can do but “accept the will of God”(181) and that no human intervention is necessary or even tolerable. Conversely, David and Reuven Malter believe that the Jewish people “cannot wait for God”(182), and that they must “replace the treasures [the Jewish people] have lost”(182).
David Malter is not as sure that the future rests solely in God’s hands as Reb Saunders is and says, “If we do not rebuild Jewry in America, we will die as a people”(182). The Malters share a more widely accepted view that they live in a world that can be changed for better or for worse by people’s thoughts and actions. Therefore, the Malters believe that people must either speak and act against injustices or expect the worst for the world and its populace. The ideas of David, Reuven and other reform Jews sparked new interest in the notion of a Hebrew state in Palestine.
Zionism was an idea with a long history, but it starts to involve the characters of The Chosen and picks up intensity after the Holocaust. Zionists, such as the Malters, believe that a Hebrew state in their ancient promised land, now Palestine, should be reestablished as a haven for the world’s Jews to live without persecution. Reb Saunders and other anti-Zionists believe that reestablishing Israel before the Messiah is sent from God would be against His will. Reuven’s father becomes very active in the Zionist movement and works endlessly to help the Zionist cause.
David Malter becomes physically sick from working so hard and has “his third cold in five months”(201). After David gives a speech at the Madison Square Garden in favor of Zionism, Reb puts a ban on any interaction between the Saunders and Malters. Reuven and Danny’s friendship is seriously jeopardized when Reb Saunders orders Danny “not to see [Reuven], talk to [him], listen to [him], or be found within four feet of [him]”(217). Reuven understandably feels a “violent rage at Reb Saunders’ blindness” (218) and that his blindness on the issue of Zionism “had finally shattered [Reuven and Danny’s] friendship”(218).
Mr. Malter, who is more understanding of others’ views, tries to vindicate Reb Saunders on a small level by telling Reuven, “The fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders kept us alive for two thousand years of exile”(219). Reb Saunders’s fanaticism is demonstrated when even after the United Nations decides to make Israel a state, his anti-Zionist league “denounced the United Nations vote, ordered Jews to ignore it, called the state a desecration of the name of God, and announced that the league planned to fight its recognition by the government of the United States” (227).
Meanwhile, Danny and Reuven are still not allowed to speak to each other. When Reuven sees Danny in the hallway, Danny’s “eyes spoke the words that his lips couldn’t”(228). After an ex-student of a local yeshiva is killed in the bloodshed taking place in Israel, Reb Saunders and his anti-Zionist followers stop their protest. Later, at Danny’s sister’s wedding, Reb Saunders finally breaks down the barrier between the Saunders’ and the Malters he had so vigorously constructed by inviting Reuven over for Shabbat.
Eventually, Reuven and Danny’s friendship becomes just as strong as before their separation, exhibiting that their bond could outlast the reign of a harsh dictatorial father like Reb Saunders. Danny Saunders is visibly delighted by the reintroduction of Reuven and his friendship when he “smiled hesitantly, his blue eyes bright and shining” (244). Danny and Reuven’s triumph over Reb Saunders’s severe exile of the Malters can be interpreted as a metaphor for freedom prevailing.
The growth of characters and the events in the second half of The Chosen are determined by their reactions to the Holocaust and to the Zionist movement. After having been separated because of differences in opinion, Reuven and Danny realize that their friendship is stronger than any political or religious differences they may have. David Malter and Reb Saunders, although very different, end up accomplishing the same task in raising fine young men who grow to cherish their own independent system of beliefs.