IN THE MAIL: Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz, “The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election” (Simon & Schuster), described by the publisher as “a bold new take on both nations’ histories.”
Here are two excerpts, one from the Introduction and the other from the final page of the book:
We began writing this book wishing to put out the fires of chosenness, but completed it thinking that -- however dangerous they are if allowed to rage out of control -- they are here to stay and just might light a way forward.
* * *
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.
I am not sure that a book suggesting that the respective heritages of Israel and the United States “just might light a way forward” qualifies as “a bold new take.” But it is a bold development when someone like Todd Gitlin writes a book like this.
The subject is dealt with more extensively in David Gelernter’s “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion,” which argues persuasively (in the words of Booklist) that “America is a biblical republic and Americanism a biblical religion encompassing an American Creed with three political ideals (liberty, equality, and democracy) and a doctrine, American Zionism, incorporating the biblically derived ideas of a chosen people in a promised land.” See also "Thinking World Historically." Gelernter writes that:
Freedom, equality, democracy: the Declaration held these truths to be self-evident, but “self-evident” they were certainly not. Otherwise, America would hardly have been the first nation in history to be built on this foundation. Deriving all three from the Bible, theologians of Americanism understood these doctrines not as philosophical ideas but as the word of God. Hence the fervor and passion with which Americans believe their creed. Americans, virtually alone in the world, insist that freedom, equality, and democracy are right not only for France and Spain but for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rabbi David Wolpe wrote an eloquent post yesterday at the Washington Post, arguing there are “at least three areas where America's singularity shines:”
1. We remain the greatest hope for those who are oppressed and shackled throughout the world. Refugees still teem to our shores, understanding the unique nature of this nation's possibilities.
2. … Much of the twentieth century was a battle to overcome successive tyrannies that enslaved humanity. America was the most important combatant on the side that was both right and victorious.
3. America, uniquely among nations, manages to combine a rich religious legacy with the best of the enlightenment. Built not on a group or tribe, but on an idea, we became both a powerful engine for technology and innovation, and a nation that takes spirit seriously.
Rabbi Wolpe concludes that “America does not always live up to its promise” but “the promise is brighter, more shining and vital than any other that has been bequeathed to a nation on God's earth.”
Well, maybe more shining and vital than any other, with the possible exception of one -- one that was bequeathed something several thousand years ago that reverberates still, most recently in a book written by a former president of Students for a Democratic Society and founding member of the New Left.