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The Trials of Being a Chosen Nation

Two nations, two histories, two cultures, two sets of assumptions march to the same drummer. At the heart of the special friendship between Israel and America lies an extraordinary spiritual-cum-ideological bond: their unshakable attachment to the wild idea of divine election, which, however dampened, however sublimated, continues to ripple beneath the surface of everyday events. The sense of commonality even overrides what might be seen as a built-in conflict between two peoples who each believe they are chosen—presumably, if God proceeds by ordinary logic, exclusively so. Can two nations each be uniquely chosen? But in matters of divine judgment, if theologians can parse it, the rules of exclusivity must break down. Two nations that exist in time both cry out for eternity.

There is, of course, a blatant distinction that sets America and Israel apart. Israel’s laws and symbols reflect an absolute national identification with one particular religious and ethnic population, while America, from its inception, has been a haven for different creeds and cultures. America’s population has always been predominantly Christian, but its political system floats free of demography. Israel makes its religious origin clear with its flag, its holidays, its use of the Hebrew language, but the United States never seriously considered incorporating specific theological or ethnic components into its emblems or public life. At least outwardly, it remained committed to the universal values captured in that resonant phrase of the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Glance at the two countries’ histories side by side and the parallels are striking. In both cases, a small band of men and women set sail to unknown shores, moved not strictly by the privations of their homelands or the desire for richer, more prosperous futures but by a single, searing idea of consecrated mission. The names they give themselves connoted the religious nature of their undertaking: the first residents of New England were Pilgrims; the European Jews who settled in Palestine early in the Twentieth Century, Olim, or those who ascend. Both terms betrayed a deeper interest in the next world than in this one. Having set up camp, both groups made much of the importance of labor on the land. From Jefferson’s yeomen to Zionist founding father A.D. Gordon’s sanctified workers, early Americans and early Zionists imagined models for humanity among toiling farmers capable of both self-sustenance and self-governance. Both spoke of accommodating the native sons they encountered in their promised lands; the last words of the dying president in Herzl’s Zionist novel, Altneuland, are: “the stranger must be made to feel at home in our midst.”

In each case, the same sterner logic set in. The stranger threatened the purity of the project, or so it appeared. He was too alien, too wild, too retrograde and unyielding to be granted a significant place in the grand work ahead. Wars were waged, from which the chosen people emerged triumphant. With time, this culture of victory shaped the settlers’ sense of their missions. An aura of chosenness hovered around them, a heavenly mandate. It was interpreted as a license to expand in time and in space, godly proof that they were, indeed, most deserving. In the real world, on the earth that human beings share, these beliefs were often translated into marching orders and military commands. The beliefs became the ghosts in the machines of statehood. While seldom articulated anymore in so many words, these beliefs never evaporated. They sank into the nations’ collective unconscious. As metaphysical as this may sound, we see no better interpretation of the known facts than to conclude that the foundation of chosenness remains eternally present.

When a people declare themselves chosen, or act as if they are, or were, there is no rolling back the history that ensues. The clock cannot be reset to zero. We cannot choose to be unchosen. We cannot end the ordeal. The cycles of race hatred, revenge, and war cannot be rescinded, erased from memory. History is unsparing.

The concept of chosenness leaves many Israelis and Americans baffled and ill-at-ease. For educated, largely secular Westernersm, to credit a Biblical notion for the birth of nations seems a tall—even archaic—order. In classrooms and legislative chambers, on op-ed pages and in electronic shoutfests, we feel more at ease in disputes about who did what to whom, or with policy debates choked with figures, than with inchoate stirrings emanating from the soul and thence heavenwards. The subject of chosenness would seem best left to the true believers, the zealous minority who, in both countries, have fashioned theologies of divine election into agendas of narrowness and aggression.

But it would be naive to think that either Americans or Israelis can walk away from the extraordinary, entrancing, ancient, deep, and—in so many ways—odd idea that we are, or began as, God’s chosen people.

Whether or not we approach the matter by taking the premise on faith, we must, like Israelites of old, willingly bear the immense burden of membership in a tribe many of whom feel, and have long felt, chosen by God. If we are to overcome the most reckless interpretations of chosenness, it is no use trying to bludgeon the notion into nonexistence. We must stare at it long and hard—must wrestle with it—must reject the crudest, most violent reflexes—must search for subtler, deeper, more constructive uses of the past.

In this arduous journey, we are not without guides. If we consult our national stories, we will see that the path was revealed before. It was marked by Moses, who rejected the surveyor’s logic, the rigid dictates of materialism and conquest, for the vision of a kingdom of priests, a holy nation that governs itself with a keen eye to justice and mercy. It was marked again by Lincoln, who spoke of an “almost chosen people” as he pursued the difficult path to emancipation. In every generation, on either side of the ocean, there have been men and women who took the hard road and understood chosenness to be not a prize but a calling.

That calling sounds still. It is not shouted, but whispered softly, like a prayer. It is easy to miss amid all the sound and fury. Sometimes we strain to hear it. To heed it requires effort.

The chosen people must choose.

This post is adapted from the new book by Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

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