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.
“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.
The secularists, the majority of Israelis, ultimately yielded on the question of the West Bank and Gaza settlements – even though they disagreed – because “they dared not try to stop” the gun-toting, religiously-inspired settlers and “[t]hey could not offer an ideological counter.” Zeal overwhelmed moderation, not for the first time in the Middle East. While the messianic Jewish settlers tied their destinies to the disputed territories, secular Jews called for what they viewed as a just solution that offered land for peace. The “chosen” settlers dug in with the determination of all “chosen” people who see the hand of God behind their actions.
Turning to the United States, the authors explore our founding as a “chosen” people. The Puritans, of course, spoke of creating “a city upon a hill,” a New World example of Godliness to inspire the rest of the globe. Steeped in the Bible, taking their laws from it, New England Puritans viewed themselves as “Israelites” in the Promised Land, filled with messianic fervor that allowed them to endure constant hardship.
The authors show how, in the 19th century, the divine purpose of the US was encapsulated in the concept of Manifest Destiny, the idea that God had chosen Americans to people the continent in the name of spreading Christianity, democracy, and civilization. Of course, the “unchosen” native Americans needed to be pushed off their lands.
The “chosen” peoples have historically opted for territorial expansion, whether in the West Bank or the American West, but they might have decided otherwise. The authors suggest “a missing alternative” to the chosen peoples: “a divine commandment to build a society that treats [everyone] with compassion” and “the notion that the Promised Land cannot thrive without justice.” Leaders like Moses and Abraham Lincoln, the authors say, “took the hard road and understood chosenness to be not a prize but a calling” to bring justice to all.
While Gitlin and Leibovitz don’t cover new ground in “The Chosen Peoples,” they do shed light on the strong messianic impulses in the history of both “chosen” nations, especially Israel. The basic questions they ask at the book’s beginning, questions that Talmudic scholars have long been struggling with, remain unanswered: What does it mean to be chosen? And having been chosen, what are the obligations of the chosen people? Is “chosenness” a divine mandate for territorial expansion and does it create a higher obligation to be just to the nonchosen?
What Gitlin and Leivobitz offer readers is the chance to imagine new answers to these questions. The chosen peoples will continue to wrestle with the burdens of interpretation.
Chuck Leddy regularly reviews books for the Monitor.