The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election

Simon and Schuster  2010


Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz thought at first that the whole notion of chosenness is a “scourge.” Then they took a close look at the dual histories of the Jews’ covenant with God and America’s sense of its own special destiny. With mingled regret and respect they came to the conclusion that the idea won’t go away, but they are still uneasy about it.

That ambivalence pervades their book. Starting with Abraham, they wonder why God picked him to be the progenitor of His Chosen People and what that means. Reluctant to accept that Abraham’s obedience or piety might explain it, unsatisfied that God’s ways may be mysterious, Leibovitz and Gitlin find an explanation they prefer: “to bring righteousness into the world.”

Universal values and personal decisions are their touchstone. When they cite a proof-text (Genesis 18:19) that says Abraham “will command his children and his household after him,” they see its significance not for Abraham’s descendants but for the world. And they elide the language of commandment into personal initiative and “righteousness,” as in Abraham’s challenge to God at Sodom. “He is the model of an Enlightenment hero,” they say admiringly, “in his willingness to stand up for people who are not his own flesh and blood.” To Gitlin and Leibovitz such Enlightenment values are the only way to justify chosenness, which “cannot come through a onetime command; it must be a two-sided process permitting dubious humans to take the initiative.”

They count America’s founders as Enlightenment men—deists who, in citing the Biblical Israelites as their model for America’s destiny, deliberately echoed the language of the religious movement known as the First Great Awakening without embracing it themselves. The Zionist leadership likewise was secular, and similarly used the religious language of chosen nationhood and redemption. The parallel breaks down, though, because the United States has always fundamentally subscribed to European Enlightenment values, albeit with an overlay of millenarian rhetoric, while Israel’s sense of being chosen has stayed stubbornly singular.

The return of the Temple Mount to Jewish hands for the first time in 1900 years made that even more apparent. For some Jews that event has transcendent and even messianic meaning— but only for Jews. While America’s sense of divine mission evolved into a global quest for values like peace and justice, Israel had a new reason to believe its destiny is separate and distinct.

Leibovitz and Gitlin lament that “revolutionary universalism contracted into Manifest Destiny” in the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War, through which America acquired vast new territory. In another apparent similarity between the chosen peoples they also deplore a “territorial mania” in today’s State of Israel as one of the “afflictions of chosenness.” Underscoring the comparison, they note that America’s newly acquired territory in the 19th century, like Palestine in the 20th, “was already inhabited, awkwardly enough, by exotic others.”

Again, there is a signal difference: Americans who moved west into new territories had no previous connection to them, but Jews had had a thousand-year history in what is now the West Bank. It is too late to change the history of American expansion, but Gitlin and Leibovitz appeal to Israel to “build a society that treats its sons, daughters, neighbors, and strangers with compassion and grace,” one that “renounces any claim of superiority.” Their universalist vision allows no room for particular Jewish claims.

Jews tried a universalist approach over a century ago, as Leibovitz and Gitlin acknowledge. “Many Jews joined left-wing movements that aspired to achieve universal redemption, as if all of humanity might yet be chosen. But the progress of these movements was halting and reversible. Meanwhile, European persecution did not disappear,” they recall.

Even today, they acknowledge, “Jews are all too often despised for being Jews; the Jewish state comes under harsh scrutiny far more than others.” And the authors concede that “it is no use to bludgeon the notion [of chosenness] into nonexistence.” Yet they can’t resist wondering, “Is it not time for the Jewish state to lay down the burden of chosenness and take up its legitimate place among ordinary nations, entitled to live and let live?” They end where they began: ambivalent about being chosen, yet certain in their faith that the Enlightenment is where salvation lies.

Discussion Questions

1. “God makes a deeply vague promise to the Israelites,” Gitlin and Leibovitz write on p. 19, “telling them they were selected to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. He fails to explain why they were chosen, nor does He remind them, at that solemn moment on the mountain, of His long-lasting relationship with their ancestors.” What is the purpose of this vagueness? What are its consequences? 

2. More than a mere national movement, the authors argue that Zionism channeled the same messianic hopes that had sustained Jews in exile for millennia. How does this interpretation challenge some of the existing notions of Zionism? 

3. On page 63, the authors suggest a future course for Israel that calls on the Jewish state to see chosenness “not as a mandate but as a burden to be gladly shouldered—a divine commandment to build a society that treats its sons, daughters, neighbors, and strangers with compassion and grace and at the same time renounces any claim of superiority.” What do you think of this statement? How does it challenge secular and observant Jews? 

4. Speaking shortly before taking office, Abraham Lincoln referred to Americans as God’s “almost chosen people” (p. 103). What did he mean by that? And how did this view inform his policies as president? 

5. Writing of the special relationship between America and Israel, the authors suggest that more than shared beliefs or mutual interests bind both nations together. What are some of these deeper commonalities?

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