Monday, October 25, 2010

Bound by Choice

In The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz explore the complexities of setting, and settling, apart

The following review was posted last week on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

My initial reaction to encountering a book with this title was to be be reminded of Randy Newman's camp-classic song "It's Lonely at the Top": a smug alert went off in my head. Turns out, however, that it's a deft little (192-page) piece of scholarship that takes up resonant questions in a notably fair-minded way. The book deserves wide consideration in a variety of contexts, and I will not be surprised if it turns out to be a fixture on undergraduate syllabi for many years to come.

After a brief -- and necessary -- introduction that notes many people throughout history have considered themselves chosen, the authors perform an elegantly simple piece of exegesis on the Book of Genesis, in which they tease out the many ambiguities that lurk in the covenants God made with Abraham and Moses. This analysis includes discussions of the repeated failures on the part of the Israelites to keep up their part of the deal, as well as the burdens, psychological as well as political, that being a chosen people imposed on them. Gitlin and Leibowitz note that Zionism emerged both as an ethnic alternative to the assimilationist thrust of post-Napoleonic emancipation as well as a secular alternative to diaspora Judaism.  But the post-1948 fusion of people, faith and land created a spiritual cocktail that even the most hard-bitten pragmatists found impossible to resist after the Israel's territorial gains in 1967. The authors consider this a bad bargain, and criticize those who unstintingly embrace it as indulging in worship of "a golden calf," though they do not repudiate the idea of a Jewish homeland.

Gitlin and Leibovitz then shift their gaze to the United States. In some ways, the analysis is familiar -- we hear lots about the Puritans, of course -- but we also hear some surprising accents. Despite his religious skepticism, the authors show Thomas Jefferson as a full-throated exponent of the United States as a Promised Land, evident in his famous assertion that "those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his substantial deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Though it's possible to discern latent heterodoxy in Jefferson's use of the word if (there are any chosen people) Gitlin and Leibovitz make a compelling case that a covenant sensibility shaped Jefferson's approach to the Louisiana Purchase, and that this sensibility coursed through the psyches of his successors.

The title of this part of the book, "His Almost Chosen People," comes from a single reference in speech Abraham Lincoln delivered on his way to Washington in 1861.  Gitlin and Leibovitz stint the degree to which the word "almost" decisively checks Lincoln's embrace of the idea, notwithstanding that the Great Emancipator famously described the United States as the "last, best, hope of earth" (a phrase, curiously, that they do not quote). In any case, it remains true that the language of the chosen people recurs through the rhetoric of politicians ranging from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. As in the parallel case of Israel, that language can be alternatively sacred and secular, invoked in the name of principle or real estate, and those who reject such language understand they operate in a discourse saturated in it.

From here, the authors then turn their attention to the so-called "unchosen." The core of their analysis is an arresting juxtaposition between the Jews' relationship with the indigenous population of Palestine, and that of the U.S. with Native American peoples. Gitlin and Leibovitz also take a critical look at those who react to the claims of the chosen by fashioning counter-narratives of their own chosenness; while typically a minority impulse, compounds difficulties for just about everybody. They note that the majority of Palestinians, for example, reject the extremism of Hamas.

The Chosen Peoples concludes with a look at the U.S.-Israeli relationship itself, one Gitlin and Leibovitz  assert has transcended self-interest and the seeming contradiction of a harmonious tie rooted in separate claims of primacy. Again, they specifically reject the proposition that either nation can disown its chosen identity; instead, they regard it as something that must be grappled with in an ongoing and creative way.

In the acknowledgments that follow the main text of the book, the authors thank "Columbia University, which gave Todd Gitlin the opportunity to teach several sections of Contemporary Civilization." It's not often that a senior scholar expresses gratitude for the privilege of teaching standard service courses, even courses as storied as those in Columbia's CC program. But the experience was clearly invigorating in allowing a powerful thinker -- one who has spent most his time grappling in twentieth century U.S. history -- to engage a new set of discourses. The Chosen Peoples is a worthy testimonial for teaching and writing grounded in foundational sources and clear-eyed prose.