Barack Obama (Getty Images)
Barack Obama Photo by Getty Images
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Tal Cohen
Prof. Todd Gitlin Photo by Tal Cohen

American voters are set to elect a new House of Representatives and one third of the members of the Senate. The voters are expected to deliver a blow to President Barack Obama's rearguard by giving the majority in the House to the Republicans. This could influence his foreign policy, including relations between the United States and Israel.

Simon & Schuster has just released "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election" by Prof. Todd Gitlin of Columbia University and Dr. Liel Leibovitz of New York University.

According to the thesis these two Jewish academics present in their book, the deepest roots of the special relationship between the United States and Israel lie not in the fact that they have identical interests or shared democratic values. Rather, the unique relationship between the greatest power in the world and the tiny country on the other side of the globe lies in an alliance between two peoples who have decided they were chosen by God.

Gitlin, 67, who teaches journalism and sociology, participated last week in the Jewish People Policy Institute's annual conference in Jerusalem, visited Palestinian residents evicted from Sheikh Jarrah and toured Ramallah. Shortly before he left for New York I met with him for a conversation about our chosen peoples, the elections to Congress - and the relationship between them.

In the book, you write that American presidents have always believed Americans were the chosen people. Does this also hold true for Obama?

Gitlin: "We make an argument that there are two different tendencies. There are individual presidents who combine both. On one side is the notion that America has a destiny that expresses itself territorially: western expansion, manifest destiny, 19th-century imperialism - Roosevelt and Wilson, the war against the barbarians of Europe, and all the way up through Reagan and Bush. In this line of argument, America is seen as the archangel of redemption, the liberator, the last best hope of mankind. The second sees the United States as singular, as a place in the world which is unique and important, but more modest. And in some ways it is more generous and it actually resonates with that version of the Jewish tradition: We don't know for what they were chosen, but the Jewish people are chosen.

"Two U.S. presidents articulated best this idea of America's ultimate human destiny, with the most prominent being Lincoln, the man from Springfield [Illinois]. Obama announced his running from Springfield. Lincoln was probably better educated in biblical scripture than any other American president - and he used the term 'the chosen people' only once - with a modifier: He said 'almost the chosen people.'

"Obama is inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr, the most important and original modern American theologian. In the 1930s, Niebuhr was a militant socialist and a man of the left, who evolved during the course of the Cold War to [a point where he was] warning about the limits of power. He thought humans were fundamentally flawed, damaged and limited, and that Americans should not try to convince themselves they are the embodiment of perfection.

"What interested us was that Obama used a striking formulation in his inauguration. He said, 'It is now incumbent upon Americans to choose our better history.' America is not simply the child of light - born pure. It has horrid circumstances to overcome. American history is an intertwining of achievement and promise on the one hand, and terrible sins and maybe even crime, on the other. [Obama] also believes America should not be a normal nation."

It seems like a daunting task for a black man whose middle name is "Hussein" to be accepted unquestioningly as the leader of a "chosen people."

"I am sure you have followed our meshugenahs about the Islamic center [planned for a site near Ground Zero]. When Obama was asked to speak about it - and he sounded passionate for the first time in a long time - he essentially said that the principle at stake here applies to the question of what America is. The question is not about religion per se, as the Constitution is the American faith, [but] he said - and he used the word 'I' - 'I have Muslim soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.' He was very direct and clear that the America he stands for is not ethnic, not culturally confined.

"The right-wing hysteria about Obama (as 'Muslim, as 'socialist,' and of course - though rarely articulated - as black man ) circles around the presumption that he is illegitimate, a sort of impostor, which is a defilement of 'chosenness.'

"It's a potentially dangerous situation in America. In 1982 I didn't know anyone unemployed. Now I know a lot of people who are unemployed. So it's different; the sense of economic trouble overlaps with the propensity to panic and the fevered search for demons.

"The right-wing uproar against Obama and the Democrats is fueled by resentment that America, which is used to being treated with favor, is currently being humiliated - by unemployment, by presumably ungrateful immigrants, by Muslim insurgents, etc. It is precisely because the chosenness motif assumes that America is preordained to be a successful and satisfied country, that troubles seem to be more than bad fortune or the consequence of bad policy, but rather violations of some sort of fundamental covenant - a transgression of a covenant."

Do Jews like you and Israelis like me have to take the Tea Party phenomenon seriously? Should we be concerned about it?

"The Tea Party represents a resurgence of the most primitive, exclusivist and aggressive side of Americans, abusing the notion of chosenness. It is a caricature of the idea of autonomy, of the American Revolution. It's a movement, not a party, but it's also the Republican Party. They are now an important faction in the Republican Party, which is very likely to push the Republicans into control of the House. The Tea Party is represented by people whose prime ethnic enemy seems to be Mexican, and whenever America gets into an uproar about aliens, it is not good for the Jews. Like the crackpot right who say Obama is a Muslim and wants to spread Islamic law, and that he was not born in the U.S., that he was actually born in Kenya and is channeling the national rage of Kenya - when a rationalization for raw prejudice trips off the tongue so easily, it's not good for the Jews.

"It's dangerous when Abe Foxman [national director of the Anti-Defamation League] gets more wired up about a Sufi Muslim imam who wants to build an Islamic center than [about] extremists, who organize militias and are coy about the place of Jews and of Muslims in society. In some way, Muslims are the new Jews. They can be more easily demonized. The ADL feels more worked up about the Islamic center than about the continual defamation of the Muslims in America."

In the book you say a Jewish state is above all an ethical matter, not an ethnic matter. Do you see a resemblance between the extreme right in the United States and the extreme right in Israel?

"In the U.S., there is a disturbing tendency to identify with that, to think we are a country in decline, embattled. Chinese power. Mexican immigrants. It is an absurd panic of Manichaean feeling that because we're so great we're also on the verge of collapse. It is an illogical combination. The confidence that pride is sealed together with panic and the sense of glory is fused with the sense of victimization - Israel suffers from this gravely.

"When I see the loyalty oath, I feel ashamed as a Jew. It's actually rather shocking to me that so much of the Israeli people are content to defend its policies against the lowest possible standard. This reminds me of what Sarah Palin said: When the Saudis permit us to build a synagogue or a church in Mecca, then we will allow them to build in New York. So now our standard is to be taken from the Saudis? This is not America.

"I think it is entirely possible for a fair-minded conservative Jew today to think that the course Israel is on now is not only destructive, but also inconsistent with Jewish values. I think that they [the Israelis] are in a paranoid and Manichaean state of mind, and if you challenge the automatic excellence of Israeli policy, then you've sided with the enemy. I am talking about people for whom Jimmy Carter has become an enemy. The sense of oneself as the eternal victim is the perverse form of the chosenness theme - we were chosen to suffer - and I reject that. There's a lamentation quality in the sort of Judaism that I was raised by. It is not an absurd reading of the history of the Jews, but it doesn't bring out our best. This is true for nations and individuals: that self-pity and the belligerent compensation for it is a form of reaction that weakens you spiritually. It weakens your flexibility and intelligence, it blinds you to reality. Israel has its vulnerabilities and they will multiply to the degree to which the conflict with the Palestinians festers."

A covenant between "chosen peoples" is stronger than an alliance of political interests. Can it be understood from your thesis that Israel will always be able to rely on the support of the United States?

"Israel is enormously popular with Americans across the board. Israel is probably America's favorite country. There is a subterranean sense of affinity we share, not just civilizational roots, but a position of being special in the eyes of the creator. I say this even though many Americans and even more Israelis are agnostics or atheists. But I am talking about a sense that our nation was carved out of the wilderness, and, with the exception of slaves, made of immigrants, people who came to conquer the land, who had to encounter the 'savages' and defeat them. And [about] a sense that Israel, whether the old Israel or the new Israel, is in the vanguard of humanity. It is the light, the incarnation of the good.

"What's so striking is that after American Jews, the most uncritically supportive American population vis-a-vis Israel are fundamental Christians. The affinity of fundamentalist Christians, Evangelicals and other kinds, is more than ideological, but [rather] a matter of identity - identity with the people from whom Jesus came, with the Holy Land. They might not acknowledge that Jesus was a Jew, but they know the book of the Jews is at least the prologue to their book."

Will an American who is one of the chosen people support Obama if he enters into conflict with the chosen twin, Israel?

"This is a deteriorating process that we are in. You intervene if one member of the family is acting cruelly. You should stop the big kid from beating up the little kid, you see beyond the passion of the moment. I have never heard anyone saying that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is a man who thinks beyond the deals of the moment. Obama, I believe, is. And if he has to invest political capitol in putting American commitment to Israel to a test of seriousness, it would be a necessary thing to do. In 1956 the U.S. had to intervene over the war in Suez; [President Dwight] Eisenhower had the stature to do it. No one would have maintained at the time that he was an enemy to Israel.

"The occupation has badly damaged the reputation of Israel among [American] elites - intellectuals, university people, academics. Cyclically, over the last 30 years, there has been a rise in [the number of] younger American Jews who want a just, two-state resolution, and [then] the establishment, which, whether Democrats or Republicans, tends to side automatically with the most aggressive features of the Israeli political class - calls for an ideological war against them. J Street is doing better than any of its predecessors. It is skilled in Washington, appeals to all age groups, young and old. It is a live organization and I am hopeful, though I am not naive about the AIPAC advantage. But I don't think it is all triumphant, all-powerful. They are a powerful lobby, but not the elders of Zion. Bush, Sr. was willing to walk away from them, so was Clinton ...

"I wouldn't argue that Jews, young Jews as a bloc, will find commitment to Israel vanishing - but there will be a polarization among American Jews, and some will decide that Israel doesn't matter to them. The polarization would take place precisely over a conflict between Obama and Bibi: Obama would win a significant fraction of American Jews, even a majority."

Netanyahu, Gitlin notes, can rely on people like Abe Foxman: "Foxman is not the only one who has articulated a view that Jews have been overemphasizing the concept of tikkun olam - as if liberal Jews who have been passionately committed to the nation of Israel have gone over to the enemy."

A few days ago Jimmy Carter told me he expects the loss of the Democratic majority in Congress will distance Obama from our morass and he will invest his energies instead in his local morass. Can Bibi relax?

"It is almost a miracle that the health care bill passed against the bulldozer of the Republican machine. Even to pass a resolution on behalf of motherhood and apple pie will run into Republican obstruction. One tragic consequence is that a politically weakened Obama is more likely to take the path of least resistance vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians - that is, to satisfy the more uncritical supporters of Israeli government policy. The most cautious incarnation of Obama would think 'I don't need this trouble.' A partial defeat on November 2 would to a degree liberate Obama to take the political risks of pressuring Israel toward an agreement during the next two years. He would have to irritate and or threaten and possibly shock his allies - specifically American Jews. It would be bold of him to do it.

"I think uncritical American support for the infrastructure that underlines the occupation is not defensible, and [it] ought to be put forward, and strongly, before the Netanyahu government that this support should not be taken for granted - by using pressure - loan guarantees, security, votes. If he wants to make his mark on the world or retroactively earn his Nobel Prize, I would advise him to take the chance.

"I think Obama could make an utterly persuasive argument, speaking over the heads of the American Jewish lobby; in a way we [Americans] are identifying with the finest in the Jewish tradition - not the occupier impulse. To make Israel a sustainable center of value, to make Israel a beacon proverbial light unto the nations, requires an intervention."

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