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The Chosen Peoples

What are the responsibilities of a ‘chosen’ people?

By Chuck Leddy / September 15, 2010

The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election By Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz Simon & Schuster 272 pp., $26

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In The Chosen Peoples, authors Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz blend historical and religious perspectives to show how Israel and the United States have viewed themselves as God’s “chosen” peoples. The concept of being “chosen” is multifaceted, able to be interpreted in different ways. Being chosen, the authors show, has given these two nations a dynamism that can be used for both good and evil and that can trigger antagonisms with others viewed as “nonchosen” peoples (whether American Indians or Palestinians). Being chosen creates power, say the authors, but this power should be joined with justice.

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“The Chosen Peoples” begins with God making biblical covenants with Abraham and the Jews. The authors emphasize that God’s reasons for selecting Abraham, for choosing a particular people and promised land, remain unclear: “If the covenants were self-explanatory, centuries of Talmudic argument could have been avoided. But the covenants are neither straightforward nor, for that matter, consistent.” From this mystery point, the authors next explore the historical roots of Zionism, a political-religious movement so fractured that its adherents continue to argue over its true meaning.

As the authors note, “the early Zionists were [not] explicitly religious.” Moses Hess and Theodor Herzel, the two leading Zionists of the 19th century, did not base their call for a Jewish state in Palestine on religious grounds, but “derived [it] from modern anti-Semitism,” the secular need to protect Jews from persecution. There were messianic Zionists, the authors note, those who viewed Zionism as God’s vehicle for a biblical restoration of the Promised Land, but they were the minority.

Israel was founded in 1948 as a secular state, but religion would always be crucial. The most insightful part of “The Chosen Peoples” illuminates how secular and messianic Zionists took vastly different views of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Six-Day War. Secularists within Israel viewed the seized territories as a bargaining chip they could use to gain concessions from Arab states. Messianic Jews viewed – and settled – these territories as part of God’s Promised Land, property owned and occupied in accordance with God’s ancient covenants.

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