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The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Elections

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Together with the young Israeli academic and New York University professor Liel Leibovitz, Todd Gitlin, one of our finest intellectuals and -- to me at least -- the most authentic and simpatico voice of the genuinely democratic and universalistic American left, offers us a thought-provoking book that deserves much attention and debate. Drawing on history, theology, literature and an obviously deep knowledge of Jews, Judaism and Israel on the one hand; and America and Americans on the other, the authors argue forcefully that it is these peoples' respective "chosenness" that renders them unique among nations. At first, I was deeply skeptical about this notion knowing full well that all peoples believe themselves to be unique and special -- thus chosen. Moreover, many -- and not only large nations like the French with their "mission civilisatrice" and the Germans with their "am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen", not to mention the Brits, of course, and the Chinese; but also small ones like the Scandinavian countries, as well as Austria and Switzerland for example who see their uniqueness and goodwill mission to the world precisely in their smallness -- still believe (or at one point in their history believed) that the qualities of their uniqueness and the positive attributes that construe their choseness would undoubtedly improve the world were it only fortunate enough to adopt these wonderful ways. (A brand-new study upon which I just embarked entails my doing a detailed content analysis of all extant national anthems belonging to all members of the United Nations. As expected, a significant majority of them extol their nation's uniqueness in one way or another.) But all these self-anointed forms of chosenness rest in an active appreciation of one's own positive qualities. As such, this kind of chosenness is a highly conscious and subjective matter.

The chosenness that comprises Gitlin's and Leibovitz's story about the Jews and Israel on the one hand; and America and Americans on the other is a completely different animal whose essence features not so much a self-ascribed subjectivity but rather a history-determined and other-defined objectivity. Thus, the key here is not that Jews and Americans claim to be special, unique and chosen (so do most other nations as well) but that they, through forces of history which the authors delineate very well, were, in a sense, made to be chosen. It becomes evident from the very beginning of the book that the main operative word here is "ordeals" which one would not automatically associate with being chosen. In other words, far from being something delightful and positive, it actually bespeaks a bane and burden that is cumbersome to say the least. From the very moment that God makes Abraham her/his choice to be the carrier of monotheism by creating a unique amalgam of people, nation and religion that has continued to define Jews to this very day to a degree that it does nobody else and that continues to render the identity of being Jewish so ambiguous, ambivalent and unclear for Jews and non-Jews alike, chosenness has brought the Jews much more harm than good. It straddled their entire history with ordeals that have continued, if anything, in an even more pronounced manner with the addition of land to this identity in ancient times but also since the latter part of the 19th century with the beginning of Zionism. The travails of the constant interaction between these four factors continue unabated.

The American case, though clearly much more recent in history than the Jewish one, has striking parallels in that here, too, the chosenness of the agents, though certainly present, attained its true potency by the chosenness ascribed to this new entity by others first in Europe and later all over the world. As I was reading the America chapter in the Gitlin-Leibovitz book, it became clear to me that Antonin Dvorak would never have written his Symphony Number 9 in E minor -- his "Symphony From the New World" -- from (or about) Canada or Australia or any of the many other European colonies that dotted the global landscape in his lifetime. The American project, though anchored in Europe, Britain in particular, had from its outset the mission to transcend its origins and thus attain a character all its own that nurtured its chosenness by becoming "a city upon a hill" (John Winthrop) ["shining hill" (Ronald Reagan)] for so many in the world, but also at the same time the most despised and threatening entity on earth for others. This deep aversion to America predated the country's political, military and economic might of the 20th century thus attesting to this antipathy's being anchored in a disdain for America the concept, the ideal, the choseness; and not the real-existing America, the country.

I have many quibbles and disagreements with this book. But in addition to the catholicity of its approach and its truly bold -- actually totally chutzpah -- scope, I was most attracted to it because it gives a fine framework wherein to situate anti-Semitism (that longest and most ubiquitous of hatreds) and anti-Americanism, both of which have preoccupied me for decades. Gitlin and Leibovitz do not provide any new insights on either, nor is either of these their main concern. But they fully recognize that the acerbity, acuity and ubiquity of these particular -- and highly related -- antipathies hail from the chosenness of America and Judaism and what each represents. They deftly discuss this under the rubric of what they call the counter-chosen whose wrath against the chosen reaches well beyond the dislike that many nations have against others, particularly their neighbors corroborating Freud's wonderful dictum of the narcissism of small differences which habitually creates and revels in dislikes that outsiders do not quite appreciate. For those worried that Gitlin and Leibovitz have written some kind of panegyric on America and Israel, fear not. They are deeply critical of both, and argue persuasively how it was often precisely the forces of this chosenness that drove each to pursue policies and actions that have been devastating and shameful. But they do not wallow in assigning blame, choosing instead to offer a truly thought-provoking argument that deserves serious attention.

And yet, there remains one aspect of the work that puzzles me. Gitlin and Leibovitz, fine secular leftists that they are, set out to write this book "wishing to put out the fires of choseness", to deflate and defeat the "scourge" of divine election and chosenness. Instead, their very own commendable work convinced them that such chosenness is less a matter of subjective self-assignation than it is the result of complicated but powerful objective forces. This, in turn, led them to the conclusion that since one cannot exit from chosenness, one better accept it but strive to have a voice in it. I deeply share and applaud Gitlin's and Leibovitz's voices and normative preferences both for America and Israel and I hope that their shouts will continue for years to come. But given the fine analysis of their book, how do they know - or even hope to know - that their voices will have the chance to prevail?

Andrei S. Markovits is the author (with Lars Rensmann) of the recently published GAMING THE WORLD: HOW SPORTS ARE RESHAPING GLOBAL POLITICS AND CULTURE (Princeton University Press, 2010).