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The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, by Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.  250 pp.  $26.00.


In their book, The Chosen Peoples, Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz have provided an insightful and interesting account of chosenness by their analyses of the ways in which belief in divine election has impacted both Israel and America. The authors argue that throughout history, only these “two nations stand out for the fundamental, continuous, and enduring quality of their convictions and the intense seriousness” (p. xiv) of their belief in their divine election. Their interesting book begins with the question of the meaning and development of chosenness among the ancient Jews which, according to the authors, “is a story of covenants with God that made them simultaneously a people, a nation, and a religion” (p. 2). The result of this complication has been that Jews have ever since had to deal with the meaning of “chosenness” and which, or all, of the foci on peoplehood, nationhood, or religion to emphasize. Throughout Jewish history, each of these alternatives has, at one time or another, been propounded. Moreover, Zionism, as a significant element in modern Judaism, added the dimension of the importance of return to the land which, for many, eventuated in a messianic commitment.

              The Gitlin/Leibowitz analysis of Israel’s ancient covenants is thoughtful and interesting, as the reader is shown how the development of the idea of chosenness grew and evolved. The ultimate result “is not a magical moment of redemption but a process dependent on the people’s ability to live up to their potential” (p. 23). In Judaism, the Messiah does not redeem the people, for only when the people are fulfilling “their potential” will the Messiah come. “The emphasis is on human responsibility and obedience to the laws of the Torah” (p. 23). Only a society based on decency and justice would bring the Messiah, and so Jews are obliged to wait, obey, and serve. Theirs was a commitment to a just society, and the obligation to create a just society transcended physical location. Neither the Diaspora nor persecution set aside their obligation to create a just society. Throughout their many years of longing for the return to Jerusalem, Jews were required to undergo a process of perfectibility, for the hope of “next year in Jerusalem” was the hope for the completion of a spiritual process.

              In the modern world, Jews were confronted with a new orientation: Zionism. A Jewish homeland would offer security from antisemitism, but it would also bring with it Jewish nationhood, along with the opportunity for a commitment to social justice (p. 33). The secularism of many Zionists generated much hostility during the early history of the movement. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and other religious leaders had great difficulty in reconciling the nationhood of Zionism with the idea of holiness that lay at the heart of the traditional view of chosenness. With the founding of Israel, Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, added belief in the sanctity of the land to the idea of Zionism. For the younger Kook, Zionism involved “the holy trinity of land, people, and faith,” and the unification of these ideas became the basis, following the 1967 War, of Orthodox insistence on settlement of the West Bank (p. 39).

              For Gitlin and Leibovitz there have emerged two contrasting and conflicting Jewish views of chosenness: (1) belief in human holiness and the effort to establish a society based on social justice and (2) the belief in the sacredness of the land as the environment in which holiness may be practiced. Both views reflect ideas of election or chosenness and messianism that inheres in Judaism. Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora remain divided on these differing views of election and on efforts at settlement of the conflict with Palestinian Arabs over the West Bank. In the words of the authors, “These are the afflictions of chosenness; we bear them still” (p. 64).

              While the Gitlin/Leibovitz treatment of chosenness among Jews is clearly presented, their treatment of the subject as a part of American history is less satisfactory. Recognizing the indebtedness of the American colonists to the Jewish Bible, early in their description of colonial election the authors focus their analysis on the view that “faith in Providence would be rewarded in a worldly, indeed territorial fashion” (p. 79). Missing here is an emphasis on John Winthrop’s belief that they were constructing a “City on a Hill,” a Christian society that would serve as an example for humankind. As was shown in the fine book by Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates (2008), there is an evolution of this idea into chosenness and ultimately into the territorial interest that would eventuate in Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century. Here is the possibility of considering the dual nature of election in America, as in Israel, by focusing both on creation of a Godly society and support of territorial acquisition. Thus creation of a good society may be seen in the ideas of Winthrop, Tom Paine’s argument that Americans had an obligation to spread the idea of human rights to the rest of the world, and the arguments of the Abolitionists. The territorial argument developed in the mid-nineteenth century.

              Gitlin and Leibovitz emphasize American election from the nineteenth century onward and include in their discussion Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. “In Andrew Jackson, awakened Americans saw the secular, national incarnation of the same promise they heard in the passion of tent meetings” (p. 95). In this spirit and in the American belief that they were God’s chosen people, the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of Oregon, the Mexican War and its territorial settlement, Lincoln’s view of the United States, that of Horace Bushnell and others, the Spanish American War, and seizure of Cuba and the Philippines were all justified. In the twentieth century, the language of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt reflected millennial chosenness. “Neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson offered new twists on the notion that America was chosen, nor did they veer in the direction of millennial expectations” (p. 127). Moreover, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also used millennial language “identifying African Americans with the Israelites” (p. 129). In recent history, Gitlin and Leibovitz illustrate American chosenness with the language of Presidents Carter, Reagan, and G. W. Bush, the latter of whom employed the language of chosenness to justify the United States’ invasion of Iraq. President Obama’s language of chosenness, although not as blatant as that of some of his predecessors, is part of the consistent pattern.

              Finally, Gitlin and Leibovitz address the subject of the unchosen. The unchosen regard those who see themselves as chosen with cynicism, sarcasm, and hostility. They resent, if not hate, those who glorify themselves with the idea of chosenness and who view all the rest of humanity as unworthy. In the conflicts between the chosen and “the unworthy” much anger, hostility, persecution, and violence has taken place and continues to take place. The conflicts have expanded in viciousness between Israel and much of the Muslim world, between al Qaeda and the United States ( or “The Far Enemy,” as the U.S. is often described) and other contenders around the world for chosenness who have deemed their neighbors “unworthy” and have sought to support their chosenness with one hundred million or more Kalashnikov AK’s and other weapons for their and God’s greater glory. It may well be that election involves many more peoples than the two identified by Gitlin and Leibovitz. The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election effectively documents the special relationship between Israel and the United States, based on the idea of election. A thoughtful, interesting, insightful analysis, it is well worth reading.

Saul Lerner

Purdue University Calumet