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Keep the Faith

The battered Israeli left can advance its agenda only if it learns to stop fearing religion and embrace the notion of the Chosen People

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Divine intervention on the beaches of Tel Aviv. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Yoav Lemmer/AFP/Getty Images)

The Jewish people, it turns out, are on very good terms with God. Eighty percent of Jewish Israelis say they are believers, and 70 percent agree with the proposition that Jews are the Chosen People, according to a survey released in Israel last week.

Conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys and the Avi Chai Foundation, the survey, which analyzed the responses of 2,800 Israelis, confirmed the truths I held to be self-evident when I grew up in Israel not too long ago. (Avi Chai is affiliated with the Keren Keshet Foundation, which created Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazine’s publisher.) Back then—after the arrival of McDonald’s but before the second Intifada—it felt like a given that if you were Jewish you most likely had some sort of relationship with God, regardless of your level of observance. Except for a few pesky atheists, my friends and I all defined ourselves as secular even as we fasted on Yom Kippur, took much pleasure in the way the streets cleared up on Friday afternoons, and directed our prayers—about girls we wished would notice us or older brothers we wished would make it home safely from the front—to God.

Not much has changed, according to this new survey. Yet when the findings were released, many of my colleagues on the Israeli left took to the op-ed pages to register their shock and lament the demise of modern Israel. The survey, went the common cri de coeur, was a sure sign of the impending apocalypse, which would finally turn the Jewish state into an intolerant theocracy.

Writing in Haaretz, journalist Uri Misgav argued that the findings reflected a “depressing ideological situation.” The disturbing thing “about those who believe in the theory of the Chosen People,” he wrote, “is the fear that they are not particularly smart,” perceiving the world on “an infantile theological level” that surely should have been vanquished by reason and modernity.

In the same paper, columnist Gideon Levy sounded even grimmer. “You have to give it to the pollsters,” he wrote. “They let the cat out of the bag. … Israeli society isn’t secular, it isn’t liberal, and it isn’t enlightened.”

It’s easy for me to understand Misgav and Levy. Like them, I consider myself a proud member of the battered and decimated tribe known as the Israeli left. Like them, I look with horror as brutes of all stripes—from hill-dwelling Jewish terrorists to Avigdor Lieberman and his comrades in Knesset—trample democracy’s core values. But in their disdain for and fear of religion, Misgav, Levy, and the lion’s share of the Israeli left fail to understand not only their past but also, more troubling, their future. Unless the Israeli left learns how to stop fearing and start loving—or at least understanding—religion, its chances of advancing a popular agenda are slim.


It’s tempting for secular, educated adults to see religion as the flickering remnant of a primitive fire that once guided mankind—a fire no longer necessary now that we have the quiet heat of science, technology, and rational thought. And it’s easy to look at an idea like divine election as nothing more than pure chauvinism. I used to entertain these notions. But two years ago, together with my friend and teacher Todd Gitlin, I decided to grapple with these ideas by writing a book.

What I learned startled me. Far from a simple call to exceptionalism, chosenness is a devilishly complex idea. At the height of the biblical drama, at the moment a collection of disparate tribes are made into a solid nation, God appears to the Israelites at Mount Sinai and bequeaths to them their status as his chosen sons and daughters. “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests,” God says, “and a holy nation.” Why the Israelites? What does it mean to be chosen? Are the children of the chosen also chosen in perpetuity? God never tells.

The result is a never-ending quest, over the course of millennia, to solve this divine riddle. To have been chosen means spending a lifetime wondering about what it means to have been chosen. Some possible answers to this question align neatly with the Israeli left’s worst fears: Much of the settler movement is powered by an understanding of chosenness as a divine mandate to occupy land, even when others are living on it.

But there are other approaches to chosenness, which see it not as a prize but as unique burden—a challenge to prove worthy of our historical designation. It is this approach, I believe, that uniquely obligates the Jewish people to protect the meek, feed the hungry, and defend the innocent. Rather than give this interpretation of chosenness serious consideration, however, the Israeli left dismisses it as irrelevant. That dismissal is a particular tragedy for left-wing Zionists, since the question of chosenness is the central issue of Zionism.

While the overwhelming majority of Israelis identify themselves as Zionists, most lack a nuanced understanding of the movement’s history and nature. Had Zionism been just another 19th-century nationalist movement, it would have been relegated to the museums and the archives once it had achieved its goal of establishing the Jewish state. After all, a century and a half after Italy’s unification, no Italian would think of defining herself as a Garibaldist. That Israelis still fly Zionism’s flag suggests that the movement is not simply nationalistic.

Having survived for millennia as other nations crumbled, assimilated, or were vanquished, the Jewish people owe much of their resilience to the belief in the idea of chosenness and its earthly manifestation, the return to the promised land. But modernity posed a challenge greater than any before. The Emancipation offered Jews a devastating release from the weight of history: Trade in eternity for today, it cooed. Give up your dreams of redemption for citizenship and the right to vote. It was a deal many Jews were only too glad to take. And yet even as they assimilated, the Jewish faith—and the Jewish people’s yearning for the land of Israel—persisted. And so when Zionism came along, it was the perfect vessel for these unshakable sentiments.

To its adherents and opponents alike, Zionism insisted it was strictly a political movement charged with founding a Jewish homeland and freeing the Jewish people from generations of subservience and persecution. The truth was that a different spirit animated it from the start. In a candid conversation with an early biographer, Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s father, confessed a dream he’d had as 12-year-old boy—a dream, Herzl said, that had sparked his interest in what would become his life’s work. “The Messiah took me in his arms and carried me off on wings of heaven. On one of the iridescent clouds we met Moses. … The Messiah called out to Moses, ‘For this child I have prayed!’ To me he said, ‘Go and announce to the Jews that I shall soon come and perform great and wondrous deeds for my people and all mankind.’ ” The dream terrified Herzl, and he never spoke of it until shortly before his death.

But the truth was that the feeling behind Herzl’s religious-tinged dream was one many of Zionism’s early luminaries shared. The state’s first president, secular scientist Chaim Weizmann, for example, recalled in his memoirs that the Balfour Declaration sounded to him like “the steps of the Messiah.” Such religious fervor, whether conscious or not, united radical Marxists and stern Halachists in common cause. Zionism’s core thrust was a return to Zion—but that notion is impossible to understand outside of its biblical context. Whatever its political interests and accomplishments, Zionism was never satisfied with mere earthly affairs. It still isn’t.

In denying Zionism its religious essence, the Israeli left is proving to be inept not only at understanding the past but also at planning for the future. Increasingly, it is governed by a humanist ethos that sees the occupation and the horrific acts committed to preserve it as an affront to universalist values. But there is a very strong argument to be made that the occupation is also an absolute violation of Judaism’s core tenets, and it’s an argument that those 70 percent of Israelis who believe in chosenness should hear. The problem is that there’s no one to make it; for the Israeli left, religion is anathema.

It’s a shame. When the U.S. civil rights movement fought against seemingly insurmountable odds, it was wise enough to allow universalists like Bayard Rustin and Christians like Ralph Abernathy to coexist and saw no contradiction between speaking the language of reason and the language of faith. If the Israeli left is ever again to become a significant shaper of Israel’s course, it should be thrilled with the recent survey. Seventy percent of Israelis already believe that they were chosen by God. All they need now is someone to tell them what it is that they might have been chosen for.

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Well, at least you branded effectively Haaretz as a far-left newspaper.

However, in suggesting “…there is a very strong argument to be made that the occupation is also an absolute violation of Judaism’s core tenets”, you attempt to tunr things on their head. First, you lambast the Left for lack of sympathy for as well as almost total miscomprehnsion of the religious framework of Zionism. You then claim, without any shred of proof or shred of argumentation that residency in the land that was the homeland of the Jewish people since Biblical days until the Arab conquest, when the great demographic emptying out was made in an act of both ethnic cleansing and economic deprivation of the Jews, is a violation of Judaism. First, in doing so, you become a Leftist by adopting general secular humanistic values to the exclusion of Jewish history, Jewish religion and Jewish culture – take your pick or all three. Secondly, you seek to negate written and (archaeologically) buried evidence that Jews lived in Shiloh, Hebron, Shchem, et al. not only in Biblical time but into the Mandate era and disavow the legal terms of the League of Nations decision that Jews had the right of “close settlement” (the exact phrase) on the land which in 1922, at least meant up to the Jordan River which now has become, somehow, the “West Bank” and “occupied”.

Not very correct, not very factual, not very logical. In fact, very muddled thinking, almost self-contradictory.

Phil N says:

The reason for the demise of the Israeli left can be summed up simply, socialism doesn’t work. Country after country has learned this. Besides Israel, such nations as India, Brazil and all eastern Europe have learned of the superiority of capitalism as an economic system. As flawed as its economic system is, even China has evolved into a capitalist system. The problem with the Israeli left, as well as the left in general, is that they fail to see the truth when it is right in front of them.

Baba Wawa says:

It’s not that the left doesn’t believe in the concept of being chosen – they just believe that they are the chosen ones, not the Jewish people as a whole. The one thing the left has for Judaism is contempt, and therefore they will never understand why the majority of people in Israel don’t buy into their crap. Neither does the author, who, despite the nod to Jewish history and the place of religion in it, still sees parts of the land of Israel “occupied” illegally by Jews. A true student of history would not agree.

Braunstein says:

The guys in the beach picture don’t look very religious to me. They are certainly not modestly dressed or even wearing kippahs. When they get tired of subsidizing the religious (both in carry the military burden and in paying higher taxes), they may move to Los Angeles, Palo Alto, New York, Toronto, London, Paris or Sydney, all of which have sizable Israeli populations. As of 2003, an estimated 650,000 Israelis lived abroad (1/10 of the population). As of early 2011, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Israelis lived in Berlin. As Israel moves towards becoming a theocracy, thousands of young Israelis are voting with their feet.

K Roseman says:

I would be considered a “leftist” by most standards. I do believe aggressive market capitalism, with its continued emphasis on perpetual “growth” is destroying our planet. “Climate change” is already here and likely to get worse. The rate of extinction of animal and plant species appears to get faster all the time. One a species is gone, that’s it. Not coming back.
As to to the main theme of this article,the author could well be right. I really do not know how to deal with religious people, and find the growth of fundamentalist religion of all sorts to be dangerous.

Liel, as always I like your sense of bitter irony and hard look of wonder into what remains of the laissez faire Israeli left.

David Zohar says:

As an unknown poet put it:

How odd of God
To choose the Jews
It wasn’t odd
The Jews chose God

And how odd of them

Who say of three

Of three there be

“We” are all only thee…

Elihu Katz says:

This is a welcome response to the Guttman study–and to those who lament its findings. It may be, I suggest, that respondents–whateveer their beliefs–were giving JEWISH answers.

It reminds me of a story told by friend Jonathan Levin, then a rerporter for Stars and Stripes, who interviewed Jewish survivors in a European refugee camp, asking them to explain why they answered “Palestine,” when polled, by camp officials, as to where they wanted to migrate. “But if so,” queried the journalist, how is it that you were just filing applications for visas to the United States?” To which came the reply, “What I do is my own business, a Jew should go to Palestine.”

Universalist values can be rooted in particularist values – including nationalist values, and nationalist values can be rooted in universalist values. They are not in contradiction.

A problem of many leftists (and especially those cited by Liel in this article) is that the see things in a one-sided way, as either-or, mutually exclusive, and therefore they fail to see that their supposed universalist values (which often are really far from universalist in actual application) are rooted in particularist values, including nationalist values, and are not in contradiction.

Jojlolo says:

First time Liel is not writing only nonsense but also a few intelligent things.

But I agree with people before. The lefties see themselves as the “anointed ones” as Thomas Sowell put it. They are the Chosen People, Chosen by themselves, and that’s the reason they hate the Jews so much, and why the Jewish Left is full of self-hatred.

Regarding Judaism and the “occupation” – well, it’s easy. 99% of rabbis (real rabbis) are right-wing. The Sanhedrin used to decide by vote. The majority rule also works here.

And to Braunstein, “As of 2003, an estimated 650,000 Israelis lived abroad (1/10 of the population).”

In fact the number is closer to 550,000, including Arabs and non-Jewish Russian immigrants:

Arnold Handelman says:

I see three glaring facts that lead to the inevitable conclusion that Jews are the chosen people. Firstly: their survival through the most impossible history and circumtances. Secondly: the incredible and disproportionate positive contribution Jews have made to human civilization in so many different fields. Medicine, physics, psychology, sociology, business, high tech,biotech, law, literature, media, morality, monotheism, faith and religion, movies, hedge funds, etc. Jews are about 2% of the US population, but comprise 20-25% of the richest Americans. Perhaps 20% or more of dentists, doctors, lawyers, accountants. Thirdly, the amazing correlation between societies helpful to Jews succeeding, and societies opposed to Jews being destroyed. Can anyone explain these extraordinary phenomena? Yes, but only feebly and inconclusively. One starts to see forces at play that can only be described as divine.

Arnold Handelman says:

These three grounds cannot be rationally explained: 1. Jewish impossible survival through horrible history; 2. Jewish incredible and wildly disproportionate positive contribution to human civilization in so many fields of endeavour;and 3. the uncanny way that civilizations friendly to Jews thrive, but those hostile to Jews end up destroyed.
One can only move into the realm of faith and see the divine at work when it comes to the Jewish people. Nothing short of miracles makes sense when you look at Jewish history. But there is no free lunch. Suffering. Pogroms. Holocaust. And, the feeling that “to whom much is given, much will be expected”. So far, if we measure ourselves, we see we are unworthy.

l wineman says:

I just have one ? If as you wrote in your article about the ads directed to ex pat Israelis, you have moved to the US and have found a richer jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan than in Israel..why do you always write about Israel. Surely you would have better insights on how the rest of American Jewry can replicate the incredible Jewish experience of the Upper Westside. There is no reason for a reader to think that sitting there with your American jewish worldview you have anything of particular insight (or potential influence on this subject). If you want the Israeli misrad haklita not to make judgements about your expat Israeli life in America, then excuse us living in Israel to pass on your advice on how we should build our jewish society in Israel. Aren’t there any great stories to be written from NY about American Jewry ? Now that’s something those of us in Israel might think you could possibly give us some insight into ?

dash m’yerushalayim

Michael Fieldman says:

I find Leibovitz’s attempt to link “choseness” to a sense of responsibility for the best interests of those not chosen, to which he devotes half of this article, both unconvincing and paternalistic. And while I agree that the Israeli Left shuns anything smacking of religion in a knee-jerk fashion, this, considering the current anti-democratic bent of the religious Right, is not without cause.

More importantly though, the Left are essentially inconsequential these days in Israel and the author would do better to peddle his theory of religion-based liberal enlightenment to the 80% who are already religiously inclined.

l wineman says:

On a more general note I am curious as to the editorial decision making involved in having almost all the commentary on Israel in table written by an Israeli ex pat sitting on the UWS of Manhattan. If Tablet is interested I can forward them a number of highly competent anglo journalists here in Israel who could become your primary commentators on Jewish life in America, after all they can read the Jewish Week, Forward Tablet et al from their computer in Israel a mirror image of your NY based commentator on the Israeli scene.

It’s not just the left that is growingly irrelevant for Israelies – it is also American Jewry and, reading Tabletmag and Forward, it seems to make them crazy in the States.
Israeli Jews love Diaspora Jews as fellow brothers. But they really don’t give a shit about what they think we, in israel, should do and how we should behave, when it comes from half-assimilated people living thousands of kilometers from israel.
You want to influence Israel ? Come and you will be equal to any of us. You want to stay in NY ? Enjoy but don’t patronize us.
And yes – keep your money.

I find this treatise very odd, especially this key statement:

“Increasingly, it is governed by a humanist ethos that sees the occupation and the horrific acts committed to preserve it as an affront to universalist values. But there is a very strong argument to be made that the occupation is also an absolute violation of Judaism’s core tenets, and it’s an argument that those 70 percent of Israelis who believe in chosenness should hear.”

It’s an identical argument with a slightly different rationale (based on Jewish values rather than universalist values). Hardly seems substantial enough to solve the entrenched problems in Israel.

One other point – I’m shocked by the repeated assertion in the comments that a “leftist” Jew is by definition self-hating. How absurd. To desire that Israel should embody Jewish values and democratic values is the greatest, deepest, and most sincere form of love that could possibly exist. You can disagree with my position, but you cannot fairly suggest that I’m not an authentic Jew!

Michael Evers says:

I think you make strong points, particularly about the Israeli left not planning for the future and the distancing from Jewish history, found in the tex.
Part of the complexity of this story is answering the question, what happened to zionism post 1948? Surely the body of thought associated with the movement was more than just establishing a state. As I see it, zionism has a two part definition: 1) Seeking the right of self-determination for Jews – as a collective and as individuals – 2) in a state of their own. Herzl understood that the structures of European society did not make any room for Jewish self-expression as Jews (he gets worried when he hears the crowds outside Dreyfus’s conviction yelling “Blame the Jews” It is the collective blame of the Jewish people that worries him).
After 1948, and Israel’s founding in the shadow of the Holocaust zionism has been co-opted into a nationalistic language and lost some of its revolutionary flavor – asserting self-determination for Jews.
Furthermore, the question then becomes how do Jews articulate a vision for themselves in the world where we are not regulated to the back burner by someone else’s vision – Christian and Muslim visions of a Jews place in the social structure, etc. – but our own?
The path is very precarious and it is a question that Jews and the rest of the world has to deal with – like distinguishing between Jews, Judaism, Israelis, and Zionists. They overlap in certain sectors, but are also distinct in their own ways.
How do Jews create a future for themselves where the history, embedded in the religious texts, can be used to build a future without allowing only religion to define what it means to be Jewish? This is part of the current conversation in Israel and a distinguishing characteristic many American Jews have forgotten as they increasingly see themselves only through a religious lens.
Anyways, I always enjoy what you write. It gives me material to ponder.


Dan O. says:

“But there are other approaches to chosenness, which see it not as a prize but as unique burden—a challenge to prove worthy of our historical designation. It is this approach, I believe, that uniquely obligates the Jewish people to protect the meek, feed the hungry, and defend the innocent.”

Is there any shock that Israeli-leftists, after a sustained 60 year old campaign to define the above sentiments as Jewish self-hatred, should reject the common presupposition of the chosen? That’s not to make it right, of course, just an explanation

David B. says:

I am a WASP male 60 yr. old American, who stumbled across this site while researching
the (pending) conflict with a nuclear armed Iran. I am not anti semitic. I am not anti anyone. I am pro people!
My reason for addressing the readers here is, to gain greater insight to the thinking of Israelis regarding this matter. To me, no ones opinion regarding this matter can be more relavent than those who most face the possible danger.
Please, please, for the sake of honest discourse, and the possibility of peace, leave aside pride in any of your comments.
I am asking, and I am asking for one reason only: I want to know what your thoughts are?

Braunstein says:

Ben, my partially disabled neighbor struggles with his health insurance bill every month. I wish we could keep the money here (in the US), where there are so many unmet needs. Unfortunately, I have only one vote and a lot less influence than AIPAC. Just because I think 30 year old Haredis ought to be working full time in the regular economy and stop being such schnorrers (beggars in Yiddish) does not make me crazy or irrelevant.

lwineman says:

Just wondering…have you moved back to Israel or are you stil in bliss on the UWS of manhattan. If it’s the latter you are no longer a member of the Israeli left, you are a member of the American Jewish critics of Israel telling Israelis what to think and how to act.

Do you return to Israel to vote in each election ?…as you know doubt know ther are no absentee ballots

Braunstein says:

I guess that makes me an American Jewish critic of Israel. If Israelis don’t like the criticism of American Jews, they should stop taking our foreign aid.

Moshe Blei says:

Ben, very well said.
Leil, stupid comparison between the US civil rights movement and whatever you consider horific in Israel.

I agree Liel that the left in Israel (and elsewhere) needs to take religion more seriously.

As a non-religious Jew, btw, I never thought of the concept of choseness as a religious theme and in a very narrow sphere: keeping the 613 onerous commandments.

Still, I can see why some would think the miracle of Jewish survival a “sign” of choseness.”

To me Judaism means culture, language, people, and an independent State on its historic haunts.

I am grateful to religious Jews who kept that consciousness alive.

Moshe Blei says:

“Leil, stupid comparison between the US civil rights movement and whatever you consider horific in Israel.”

Give him a break, Moshe. No comparison is perfect.

He is speaking to “progressives,” and Liel’s point was that appeal to religious sensibility can motivate people who would otherwise be indifferent to fight for their rights, be it the right to establish a State or their right to civil rights.

Leftists tend to disparage religion as “reactionary” when it actually has provided the rational for many secular moral programs.

Even Marx’ theory of Labor value has its origins in religious notions (even though Marx wasn’t aware of that.)

David Fisher says:

I simply cannot accept the idea of being a Chosen People. Even to be chosen as a burden is an arrogant idea. Being a Chosen People in any sense denigrates the rest of humanity as not chosen. Bishop Spong is rying to rid Christianity of antisemitism, homophobia and other regressive ideas that are in their heritage. The Chosen People is a nasty concept which I cannot and need not accept.

Baba Wawa says:

David Fisher – chosen doesn’t mean better. It means having different responsibilities. What’s arrogant is not living up to those responsibilities and thinking you’re a better person for it.

henry gottlieb says:


jacob arnon says:

“Even to be chosen as a burden is an arrogant idea. Being a Chosen People in any sense denigrates the rest of humanity as not chosen.”

David Fisher, tell that to the antisemites.

Is why there are so many Holocaust deniers? They cannot accept the idea of Jews having suffered as a people (American Jews and Mr. Fisher I presume are excluded) more than anyone else.

Do you deny the Holocaust David Fisher?

btw, Fisher,

do you know of any group of people who do not think of themselves as “chosen” in some way?

“Humanity” exists only in the mind of Jews like you, disaffected, self doubting, ashamed to be Jewish, or however else one could describe you.

Most human beings, be they Christian, Muslims, Marxists, Chinese, Japanese, even etc think of themselves as “chosen” or “elected” in one way or another.

Only Jews ashamed to be Jews think of themselves as being part of the “human race” and not some subgroup.

Jerry Blaz says:

The problem Mr. Leibowitz discusses leans too much upon the problem of Jewish chosenness and not enough on the lack of chosenness of the Israeli rabbinate by the citizens and residents of Israel who do not have a choice.


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Keep the Faith

The battered Israeli left can advance its agenda only if it learns to stop fearing religion and embrace the notion of the Chosen People