By Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz
Simon & Schuster, 272 pages
Chosenness has become an anachronism. Few Britons would consider their homeland to be a throne of kings or a blessed isle, and a considerable number of Jews might side with Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, who famously rejected the notion of a chosen people. The concept, both in its secular and explicitly religious varieties, draws contempt more than anything else: in the past two years alone, several books on the end of American exceptionalism have received significant publicity, and Jews ranging from post-Zionist Israeli leftists to the American novelist Michael Chabon have received substantial attention for their vocal opposition to the idea of chosenness.
The most recent critics of chosenness are Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz. Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, and Leibovitz, a graduate student at Columbia and a blogger for Tabletmagazine, have written The Chosen Peoples, a critique of Israeli and American religious-based exceptionalism. (Gitlin and Leibovitz are not experts in the field, and they admit as much in their introduction.) The authors establish chosenness as a choice—between the exclusionary, oppressive type of divine election they believe America and Israel have adopted and a more universalist, social-justice-oriented form that the authors prefer—and track the genesis and evolution of the idea of chosenness throughout Jewish and American history.
Gitlin and Leibovitz’s argument is three-pronged. First, they contend that Israelis and Americans, both intensely religious peoples historically and currently, believe that they have been divinely elected and that this belief manifests itself in each country’s policies. Next, Gitlin and Leibovitz argue that this divine election permits the persecution of native populations—namely the Palestinians and the Native Americans. Finally, the authors assert that Israel’s and America’s belief in their own chosenness serves as the foundation for the uniquely strong bond between the two countries.
What hath chosenness wrought? According to Gitlin and Leibovitz, the idea has been misconstrued by Americans and Israelis alike as “an invitation to superiority.” What it should be, they write, is a calling to pursue justice and peace, a “slow and harrowing process of self-discovery and social repair.” At its most innocuous, chosenness inspires “jealousy, rage, and sorrow,” and at its most harmful it can lead “those who quiver with the radical impulse [to] easily be tempted to hear Wagnerian cadenzas and behold the invisible visions of future utopias.” The authors maintain that chosenness and decency are nearly always at odds: “Unless all concerned act with supreme wisdom,” they write, “it is in the nature of a nation that believes itself chosen to antagonize the unchosen, to suspect them?…and often enough go to war with them.” According to their formulation, this has led naturally to Israeli oppression of Palestinians and the American destruction of Native American society. Gitlin and Leibovitz contend that this oppression, while enabled by the larger Israeli and American societies, is in fact advanced and stewarded by religious leaders in both countries.
The sequential logic of the book’s argument is, in its way, satisfying; it is also fundamentally misguided. The very bedrock upon which Gitlin and Liebovitz construct their critique of chosenness is compromised by a glaring built-in bias. The authors’ account of American and Israeli exceptionalism draws entirely from a distorted idea of religious entitlement and ignores all the ways in which both countries are actually, and complementarily, exceptional. There is a universe of books on the demonstrable fact of America’s unique political character, yet Gitlin and Liebovitz expend no energy on such distractions. Nor do they bother highlighting Israel’s singular achievements as a democratic Jewish state in a hostile sea of autocracy and radicalism.
A slew of intellectual errors flow from the authors’ fallacious premise. The attention given to prominently religious Israelis and Americans vastly outweighs that given to their less religious, though undeniably more impactful, compatriots. If a time traveler read this book upon exiting his DeLorean, he would finish its last page with an intimate understanding of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, an early leader of the West Bank settlement movement. Yet he would hardly have heard of David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, or Ehud Barak, and he definitely wouldn’t know that these incorrigibly oppressive Jews offered peace deals to the “unchosen” Palestinians on five separate occasions.
American leaders come in for similar treatment. The authors liberally quote outwardly religious American presidents and social leaders from the 18th and 19th centuries, but they neglect to cover the increased secularization of political discourse and policy as history moves closer to the present time. The authors’ chief examples of the impact of divine election in modern-day society are the second Bush administration’s freedom agenda as applied in the Middle East and its having sought the evangelical vote in election campaigns. That’s a far cry from the McKinley administration’s conquering and attempting to Christianize the Philippines, but a book on divine delusion must have its zealots.
The Chosen Peoples hits its nadir in the final section, where the authors attempt to explain the reasons behind the suspiciously strong relationship between America and Israel. “There must be more to [the U.S.-Israel] alliance than meets the eye,” Gitlin and Leibovitz write; the bond shared by the two countries “feels more than a marriage of convenience.” The authors proceed to list a number of occasions in which the United States supported Israel for electoral or geopolitical reasons—but, apparently, those fall short in explanatory power. Indeed, the countries enjoy “an enduring visceral temperature hard to account for by calculations of mutual interest or by political parallels,” and that is because, “while seldom articulated anymore in so many words, these beliefs [in divine election] never evaporated.”
As Tallulah Bankhead might have said, there is less to this argument than meets the eye. Yes, there is a religious dimension to American aspirations. Yes, the Jews live by a religious doctrine that teaches of their chosenness. But if the Gitlins and Leibovitzes of the world wish to claim that America and Israel are bound foremost by a shared, semi-secret embrace of mystical, retrograde chauvinism, they must ignore some stubborn realities. First, in the global game of divine election, America and Israel don’t even rank high enough to buy in. In rogue countries such as North Korea and Iran, national identity and regime legitimacy are wholly reliant on the relentless and overt rehearsal of messianic narratives about greatness and destiny. This is to say nothing of the world’s religious monarchies, in which the heads of state are imbued with the authority of a state church. Moreover, if a shared faith in chosenness is the necessary and sufficient precondition for strong alliances, why have America and Israel not opened up their cloak-and-dagger circle of the elect to these pioneers in the field?
The answer is that both the U.S. and Israel have evolved into beacons of startling modernity, freedom, and self-determination. As such, they face similar goals, challenges, and threats and share little common ground with regimes actually built on prejudice and oppression.
The authors spend ample time explaining why Americans, thinking they are chosen, would support the Jewish state. They don’t explain why Jews, if thinking themselves chosen and therefore contemptuous of the “unchosen,” would reciprocate. Perhaps this would lead Gitlin and Leibovitz to the unavoidable truth of shared interests and converging ideals.
America and Israel are close allies because of their truly exceptional, and truly similar, worldviews. Both countries believe in the necessity of a liberal democracy supported by free markets and vocal, robust civil discourse. Both countries believe in the ability to defend their citizens in times of need. Both countries currently face existential threats, and, yes, both countries see the significant individual and communal value of religion. What The Chosen Peoples proves most effectively is that both countries are increasingly under intellectual assault from critics who neither recognize exceptional virtue nor adequately disdain its opposite.