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

Todd Gitlin and Liel Lei­bovitz

By – September 19, 2011

Todd Gitlin and Liel Lei­bovitz thought at first that the whole notion of cho­sen­ness was 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?