Americans and Israelis have often thought that their nations were chosen, in perpetuity, to do God’s work. This belief in divine election is a potent, living force, one that has guided and shaped both peoples and nations throughout their history and continues to do so to this day. Through great adversity and despite serious challenges, Americans and Jews, leaders and follo Americans and Israelis have often thought that their nations were chosen, in perpetuity, to do God’s work. This belief in divine election is a potent, living force, one that has guided and shaped both peoples and nations throughout their history and continues to do so to this day. Through great adversity and despite serious challenges, Americans and Jews, leaders and followers, have repeatedly faced the world fortified by a sense that their nation has a providential destiny. As Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz argue in this original and provocative book, what unites the two allies in a “special friendship” is less common strategic interests than this deep-seated and lasting theological belief that they were chosen by God. The United States and Israel each has understood itself as a nation placed on earth to deliver a singular message of enlightenment to a benighted world. Each has stumbled through history wrestling with this strange concept of chosenness, trying both to grasp the meaning of divine election and to bear the burden it placed them under. It was this idea that provided an indispensable justification when the Americans made a revolution against Britain, went to war with and expelled the Indians, expanded westward, built an overseas empire, and most recently waged war in Iraq. The equivalent idea gave rise to the Jewish people in the first place, sustained them in exodus and exile, and later animated the Zionist movement, inspiring the Israelis to vanquish their enemies and conquer the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Everywhere you look in American and Israeli history, the idea of chosenness is there. The Chosen Peoples delivers a bold new take on both nations’ histories. It shows how deeply the idea of chosenness has affected not only their enthusiasts but also their antagonists. It digs deeply beneath the superficialities of headlines, the details of negotiations, the excuses and justifications that keep cropping up for both nations’ successes and failures. It shows how deeply ingrained is the idea of a chosen people in both nations’ histories—and yet how complicated that idea really is. And it offers interpretations of chosenness that both nations dearly need in confronting their present-day quandaries. Weaving together history, theology, and politics, The Chosen Peoples vividly retells the dramatic story of two nations bound together by a wild and sacred idea, takes unorthodox perspectives on some of our time’s most searing conflicts, and offers an unexpected conclusion: only by taking the idea of chosenness seriously, wrestling with its meaning, and assuming its responsibilities can both nations thrive. ...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
September 14th 2010
by Simon & Schuster
(first published September 10th 2010)
The thesis point of this book isn’t completely developed until the closing chapter. Then, the authors clearly state, “At the heart of the special friendship between Israel and America lies an extraordinary spiritual cum-ideological bond; their unshakable attachment to the wild idea of divine election, which, however dampened, however sublimated, continues to ripple beneath the surface of everyday events.” (p. 190) Personally, I found the book both insightful and problematical. You can take thatThe thesis point of this book isn’t completely developed until the closing chapter. Then, the authors clearly state, “At the heart of the special friendship between Israel and America lies an extraordinary spiritual cum-ideological bond; their unshakable attachment to the wild idea of divine election, which, however dampened, however sublimated, continues to ripple beneath the surface of everyday events.” (p. 190) Personally, I found the book both insightful and problematical. You can take that as a hint of my bias because I frankly don’t consider either the current state of Israel or the United States of American to be God’s “Chosen People.” Indeed, I don’t even think the Hebrew Bible’s understanding (as you’ll see later in this discussion) of the “Chosen People” is about imperialism (in spite of the conquest motif because you will notice that the expectations of conquest were significantly limited compared to the empires of the day) but about a safe refuge to work from in blessing the world.
In fact, that’s probably a great place to start. The authors admit from the outset that they are not theologians, but the book is informed by numerous scriptural citations from the Hebrew Bible (and, at times, rabbinical texts). Yet, even when they quote the entire passage, they sometimes ignore vital aspects of the passage. For example, on p. 3, the authors assert that the Genesis covenant with Noah was “universal” in nature while the covenant with Abram/Abraham was “exclusive.” This is a major misunderstanding. They ignore the promise on p. 5 that is so vital, but they ignore the portion that says that through Abram’s/Abraham’s offspring all nations on earth will be blessed (in fact, the Hebrew verb tense may be reflexive in the sense of a voluntary decision to bless themselves). The point is that being “chosen” is not for purposes of excluding others from a relationship with God but to assist all who will.
In a similar fashion, the authors express mystification at the rationale for God choosing Abraham, even though they cite Genesis 18:19 where God is quoted as saying of Abraham: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” (p. 8) This verse clearly demonstrates that God chose Abraham because Abraham would respond positively. Then, why where others excluded? It seems like it would be because God knew that they would not respond positively. Unlike a rigorous Calvinism, God isn’t forcing anyone to respond positively, but with a rigorous omniscience, God knows what the “free will” response will actually be. Strangely, the authors answer their own questions, but don’t realize it—both why Israel is chosen and others were rejected. Actually, they do hint at it on p. 12 when they write, “Perhaps, then, the chosen people are those who embrace faith.”
At this point, I was ready to stop reading this book, but p. 13 captured my attention. The authors quoted Susan Nieman’s (a U.S. ethics professor) as calling Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah as “resolute universalism.” She wrote, “The Abraham who risked God’s wrath to argue for the lives of unknown innocents is the kind of man who would face down injustice anywhere.” At this point, I realized that the authors weren’t simply going to take the short-cut from the Hebrew Bible to advocating that the “chosen people” idea was morally bankrupt. If they came to that conclusion, it would have some nuance to it.
I read on and was delighted to read a quotation from Michael Walzer who wrote about the “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation” as being a goal where Israel would bless the entire world but that because of the nature of humanity, that “…holiness lies ahead in time as Canaan does in space.” (p. 20) If a people is to consider themselves chosen, they need both holiness (a right relationship with God) and space (the land where they can stage their holiness in order to “influence” not conquer the entire world). Once the authors got away from their limited theological perspective, things began to pick up. I enjoyed their discussion of Jews living in Medieval Iberia under Muslim dhimmitude (p. 28) and was horrified to read where Moses Mendelssohn perceived a messianic age in the Germany of the late 18th century (p. 30). In our hindsight concerning the mid-20th century’s horrors, it was ironic to read: “The messiah, for whom we prayed these thousands of years, has appeared and our fatherland has been given to us. The messiah is freedom, our fatherland is Germany.” (quoted on p. 30) I loved the turn of phrase when they discussed how early Zionists settling on the West Bank transformed Abraham’s “Hineni!” (literally, “Behold me!” and usually translated, “Here I am!) “…away from Abraham’s experience of wrestling with doubt and converted it into the zealot’s unquestioning action.” (p. 54) I’ve seen such disingenuous transformations in modern religion and politics, as well.
In the pre-nascent U.S., Puritan preachers grabbed a page from the playbook of the Covenanters in England who opposed the monarchy during the English Civil War and leading up to the Protectorate under Cromwell. Even as Puritans made their way to the eventual U.S. on the Arbella, John Winthrop compared coming to the New World with the land of promise (p. 66). The Puritans from Winthrop through Mather and Edwards described the new colonies as “chosen people.” (p. 69) Edwards even asserted that when God was ready to get to work in building a Paradise, “…he does not begin his work where there is some good growth already, but in the wilderness, where nothing grows and nothing is to be seen by dry sand and barren rocks; that the light may shine out of darkness, …” (p. 72) The authors did a great job of demonstrating the appeal of the “chosen” idea and the “End Times” millennialism as part of the expansionist movement in the United States throughout the 19th century.
Prior to Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, this idea of the United States as chosen by God was restricted to the idea of demonstrating God’s purpose (freedom, productivity, and morality) as an example to the world. Several ministers and politicians used the term “city on the hill.” But for Jefferson, “No longer was it sufficient to be a city visible upon a hill, inspiring others with its example, bound to God by covenant, subject to tribulation: the Louisiana Purchase signaled that it was time to go on the march.” (p. 89) The irony of this is well-stated when the authors complain, “President Jefferson learned the same lesson as Moses: a Promised Land would also require governance, even raw power. …. Like Moses, Jefferson erected a steely edifice of government while decrying its necessity.” (p. 90)
At this point, I particularly liked the authors’ discussion of manifest destiny. Why manifest destiny, then? … Manifest meant “… obvious, incontrovertible. The term distinguished between God’s ordination of Israel for unstated reasons of His own---reasons which the Jews spent millennia trying to parse—and on the other hand, a clear destiny that Americans could readily perceive—our geography, our system of government, our generosity, and natural bounty.” (p. 98)
The discussion on Lincoln’s approach to this idea probably brings the most fruit for my purposes. Lincoln’s emphasis wasn’t on the arrogant idea of being “chosen,” but on the humble idea of “choosing” to be God’s people (p. 104). Lincoln even expressed his own role as “hoping” to be a humble instrument in God’s hands (p. 104). After his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln put the problem into perspective: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” (p. 105)
As for phrases I particular liked in the book, there was Teddy Roosevelt’s idea of living strenuously. I was particularly enamored with the description of the President of the United States who followed Jimmy Carter and attempted to subvert the U.S. Constitution through his illegal wars and programs. The POTUS in question was described as being brilliant in that he was able “…to keep God and get rid of guilt.” (p. 135).
The final section of the book dealt with the Islamic version of “what goes around, comes around” when they cite the chart of Hamas: “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” (p. 152). Reading on in the Hamas charter is a far cry from the dhimmitude of Medieval Iberia. I also learned something I hadn’t heard before, “The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, vehemently defended Nazi views during Hitler’s entire reign, recruited Muslim S.S. units, and broadcast on Nazi radio, ‘Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history, and religion.” (pp. 152-3)
As the authors come to their conclusion, they go a bit astray (in my opinion) because they try to interpret a passage in Isaiah from a strictly literal perspective (p. 173). This is the famous passage about every valley being lifted up and mountain made low [It’s probably talking about preparing the highway for the chariot of an important king, the Messiah, but they take it as literally changing geography.]. It seems that the verse is clearly metaphorical and, if one knows how easily chariot wheels went out of round in that era, makes much more sense in terms of picturing a road being made ready for a royal processional. Taking it so literally is about as good as the teetotaler who wrote a book about how ancient wine wasn’t alcoholic because when Joseph interpreted the butler’s dream in Genesis, the butler squeezed the grapes directly into Pharaoh’s cup. Hello! It’s a dream! Dreams use SYMBOLS. In this case, I wanted to shake the authors and say, “Hello! It’s a prophecy! Prophecies are POETRY. POETRY uses SYMBOLS!” [Rant completed!]
All the ranting aside, the conclusion of the book is perfect. It concludes with a call to action that removes the “automatic” nature of the idea of being chosen. “The chosen people must choose.” (p. 192) I like that. As with Abraham who responded positively and as with Christians who respond positively to the gospel of Jesus Christ, both individuals and nations must “choose” what is important. The chosen must choose. I really like that. ...more
The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election does more than dispel any preexisting theories regarding Divine Election, and surprisingly, the authors do give credit to the power behind the forces that sustain the continuing notion.
Todd Gitlin and Liel Liebovitz wanted to discredit or to deflate the assumption of Divine Election or “choseness” with their brazenness. Yet, within the book, the reader gets the sense that they did a turnaround of sorts, through their own resThe Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election does more than dispel any preexisting theories regarding Divine Election, and surprisingly, the authors do give credit to the power behind the forces that sustain the continuing notion.
Todd Gitlin and Liel Liebovitz wanted to discredit or to deflate the assumption of Divine Election or “choseness” with their brazenness. Yet, within the book, the reader gets the sense that they did a turnaround of sorts, through their own research. Their perceptions and concepts changed from subjective to objective. Their presumptuousness did a back flip. Forces beyond their control reigned supreme in the outcome of their intelligent, incredible and masterful work, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election....more