Review: Donald Akenson’s God’s People: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster


I am happy and relieved to be posting my final book review of the quarter for my independent study with Hendrik Spruyt on Donald Akenson’s God’s People: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster.

While I was not ultimately convinced by the scope of Akenson’s argument, it is a compelling and thought provoking read.  At 350 pages, the book is quite long by academic standards.  That said, it is definitely worth the time for anyone interested in the role of religion and biblical allusion in the construction of cultural and political claims.

Please find the review after the jump.  As always, comments and criticisms are welcome

Donald Akenson’s God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster

Donald Akenson’s God’s Peoples, is a bold attempt to explain the seemingly anachronistic and internationally defiant behavior of three political communities: the Afrikaners of South Africa, the Ulster-Scots of Northern Ireland, and the Israelis. He argues that these communities have in common that “they can be understood only by direct reference to the very oldest strands of the cultural fabric that is shared by western societies: the memory of events that occurred as much as four millennia ago and are recorded, sometimes blurred form and other times with eerie sharpness, in the scriptures.”[1] Specifically, he claims that these three groups draw their understandings of appropriate state behavior and cultural entitlements from ancient Hebrew ideals drawn from literal readings of the Old Testament (Jewish Bible). From this framework rises the idea of a chosen people drawn into a legal, contractual relationship with G-d himself. Tasked to perform the will of the divine on earth, Akenson argues that these groups place great emphasis on social law, are characteristically inflexible in their relationships with outsiders, cling to a deity that is highly anthropomorphized and warlike, exhibit profound attachments to specific territory as Promised Land, explain great historical movements in the motif of the biblical Exodus, and place great store in group purity whether religious, racial, or both in form.[2]

Critically, he does not simply take these roles and covenantal cosmologies as given but goes to considerable analytical and narrative lengths to explain how these distinctive understandings emerged in a modern international context that he believes is antithetical to these beliefs. For the Afrikaners, Akenson believes that although their Dutch Calvinist roots made them more susceptible to harsh literal readings of biblical texts, it was their eventual isolation and marginalization under British rule that catalyzed their move toward self-reification as a chosen people.[3] The Afrikaner’s “Great Trek” northward in 1836, the Boer Wars at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries coupled with their return to the Cape and assumption of complete control of the state by 1948 only reinforced and hardened this identification with the plight and historical divine mission of the ancient Israelites. In the case of Northern Ireland, Protestantism ascendancy is firmly associated not only with British imperialism but with firm control of the economic middle class by Presbyterian Ulster-Scots. Adherence to the doctrine of the elect and preservation of tribal exclusivity coupled with liberal employment of redemption motifs of biblical prophecy were critical in not only preserving the distinction between Protestant and Catholics but, with British patronage, institutionalization of an obvious “ethnic” socioeconomic and political hierarchy.[4]

Interestingly, he insists that in the Israeli case there also was no automatic or irreversible association of exclusive national identity with a covenantal grid highlighting the predominant secularism of the Ashkenazi (European) Zionist movement and the pragmatism of many of Israel’s early elite in their territorial demands.[5] Rather he sees the critical turning point as 1967 with the capture of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Golan, Gaza, and the Sinai. Although some territories were instrumentally retained as bargaining chips, others, particularly Jerusalem, were seen through “redemptive” eyes by elites and the population at large coupled with the emerging power of social movements such as the Land of Israel Movement and Gush Emunim who saw it as their mission to retain these territories. Akenson thus argues, “[T]he ‘occupied territories’ were in themselves a catalyst, one that stimulated Israel to develop further along the path to their reborn covenantal culture.”[6]

While this framework is quite compelling given the evidence presented, Akenson systematically overreaches and underreaches in ways that significantly question the theory’s overall validity. With regard to the former, it problematically reifies the social and political influences of the covenantal grid in ways that are only problematically supported by the cases themselves. In terms of the latter, it overestimates the exclusivity (or underestimates the scope) of the indicators of “covenantal” culture to those that seem to draw their political and cultural narratives from the biblical Israelites.

For South African and Northern Ireland, Akinson makes a strong case that covenantal rhetoric has played a prominent role in forming and legitimating the exclusivist ideologies of the Afrikaners and Ulster-Scots respectfully. Yet in his final chapters, despite the apparent centrality and ideological durability of the covenantal matrix underlying these cultures, he takes the position that the breakdown of these ideologies and their accompanying social structures were largely the product of endogenous changes within the community rather than exogenous pressures from domestic political competitors or the international community. In particularly, he credits their demise with the rise of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland that displaced nationalist demands with ones for social equity and the changing interests of the Afrikaner haute bourgeoisie, in part a response to international trade sanctions, as the key causal factors. [7] While this account sits comfortably with those who see the work of transnational advocacy networks and socialization to international norms as critical to domestic change, it does not readily conform to Akenson’s theory in which external pressures should result in greater insularity and external rejectionism.[8] For instance, his contention that “the defection of even a minority from the unity of the volk was unremittingly fatal to the entire Afrikaner cosmology” does not sit well with the reality of most religious ideologies, including that of the ancient Israelites, that recognize and frequently survive the defection of apostates and the influence of heretics.[9] That a covenantal culture would be so lacking in resilience to succumb to the “corrupting” influence of even a significant minority of its wayward followers fundamentally problematizes the claim that a given society can be rightfully called a covenantal one.

In terms of theoretical underreach, the aforementioned six conditions that Akenson asserts should be indicative of a covenantal culture are in no small measure central to many if not most contemporary national and religious cultures. A strong emphasis on social law, to the extent that this is seen as a means of controlling social morality and acceptable political relations, is readily apparent in every non-liberal state and community and, if more discreetly, in every liberal one as well. As for cultures that draw a sharp and inflexible distinction between in-groups and out-groups and those that see their deity or deities as particularly warlike or aggressive, this is always a product of subjective judgments and a matter of degree. The continued international debate over the character of Islam as a “religion of peace” versus an incubator of religious fundamentalism demonstrates this quite clearly. Similarly, Akenson’s casting of endogamy (in his words the biological preservation of group purity) as inherently racist implies that groups that do not support proselytization or intermarriage such as Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Mennonites, and others are morally problematic. It also fails to acknowledge that these practices are far from limited to groups that identify with narratives drawn from ancient Hebrew biblical texts. Finally, profound attachments to a plot of land are hardly exclusive to the groups Akenson has investigated. Rather this is an elementary claim central to every incarnation of modern nationalism in which almost all recognized political collectivities, nearly without fail, declare an entitlement to a particular territory most often contained by the modern nation-state. Once all these factors are recognized to be considerably more universal and generalizable than Akenson would have the reader believe, it becomes clear that the inclusion of an Exodus motif in a group’s cultural narrative, the final condition of a covenantal society, seems more an often correlated although ultimately unnecessary condition rather than an integral one to this social type.

If the conditions for covenantal culture are in fact so potentially generalizable beyond those that fit Akenson’s mold, it should be asked what else might be stimulating these groups’ claims. The most obvious connection is that all three states are or were on unstable ground in terms of their international legitimacy. They all also face or faced significant challenges to their internal political legitimacy from opposed (and frequently marginalized) ethnic groups. At risk of turning Akenson’s analysis upside down, it may be reasonable to argue that the increasing inflexibility of these cultures was more a product of the challenges they faced rather than an indication of the nature of the cultures themselves. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine that any existing outwardly cohesive nation-state would respond positively to a challenging of their core values or cultural borders. One need only look to the seemingly irrational behavior of the French government in banning Muslim female students from the wearing of headscarves in school and the high and often tensions between traditional French society and the large North African immigrant population to understand that behavior apparently characteristic of covenantal cultures can erupt in even the most committed secular states.

All this said Akenson’s final point that we must take these cultures seriously is well taken. His warning that policymakers who ignore the realities of culture demonstrated in his book invite failure in dealing with them is perhaps too totalistic in assuming that every element of political interaction and negotiation with these cultures will be determined by covenantal sensitivities.[10] Yet when it comes down to those issues which are internally viewed as integral to national culture, namely sacred territory, in-group integrity, and notions of collective justice, outsiders must tread lightly in all matters excepting those too egregious to excuse external intervention. These sensitivities are all the more important once it is recognized how pervasive these claims are across almost all national groups’ dominant discourses and cultures.


Akenson, Donald H. God’s Peoples : Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. “Transnational Advocacy Networks in International and Regional Politics.” International Social Science Journal 51, no. 159 (2007): 89-101.

Klotz, Audie. “Norms Reconstituting Interests: Global Racial Inequality and U.S. Sanctions against South Africa.” International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995): 451-78.

[1] Donald H. Akenson, God’s Peoples : Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 5.

[2] Ibid., 41-42.

[3] Ibid., 65-68.

[4] Ibid., 111-18, 37-43.

[5] Ibid., 151-64.

[6] Ibid., 335.

[7] Ibid., 273, 99-301.

[8] Audie Klotz, “Norms Reconstituting Interests: Global Racial Inequality and U.S. Sanctions against South Africa,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995), Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, “Transnational Advocacy Networks in International and Regional Politics,” International Social Science Journal 51, no. 159 (2007).

[9] Akenson, God’s Peoples : Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster, 300.

[10] Ibid., 356.

One Response to Review: Donald Akenson’s God’s People: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster

  1. Susan McCarthy says:

    Just wanted to let you know I appreciate your review of Akenson’s book. I’m teaching an undergrad senior seminar this fall on the global politics of religion (*huge* wide open topic, I know) and plan to use the book. I was pleasantly surprised at how unusually readable it was for an academic treatise (I say that as an academic), in addition to being well-researched and provocative.

    Good luck in your Ph.D. program!

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