By Sam Bahour
Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism. by M. Shahid Alam. Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pp., £55.00
Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism arrived in the mail shortly after I completed sending a thank you note to two other authors and friends, Kathleen and Bill Christison. The Christison’s had just released their newest title, Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation (Pluto Press) and I felt that they deserved a huge thank you for encapsulating their eyewitness report of Israeli military dispossession and occupation in the warped ideological framework of Zionism. I felt such a framing depicted a high sense of rarely found political maturity on behalf of American analysts. Israeli Exceptionalism was a natural next read for it peeled the onion of Zionism to reveal how deeply flawed this ideology was and is and how it has become a destabilizing factor which puts people of the region—and arguably beyond—in serious jeopardy.
Israeli Exceptionalism is not only a must read, it is a must think about book. To add intellectual spice, every chapter starts with a few quotes of prominent individuals related to the topic at hand. Reading these quotes alone speak volumes of the human tragedy, in thought and lives, that Zionism evoked.
Author M. Shahid Alam, a non-Arab, professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston does a fascinating job of creating a repository of references on Zionism by way of narrative and footnotes. Although I think of myself as well-read on the topic, I attest that I learned much from Israeli Exceptionalism, not only in terms of identifying new references, but also in terms of analysis and context.
It was not the first time I have read the word “exceptionalism” in relation to Israel. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote that Israel “lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism.” (New York Times, Oct. 16, 2009). However, Professor Alam explored this Israeli phenomenon on a deeper level of its underlying ideology to shed light on why this abnormal state seems to be unable to come to terms with modern day realities. The book addresses three principal forms of Israeli exceptionalism: 1) the “divine right” of Jews, 2) “Israeli achievements,” which at first glance seem impressive, and 3) the Jews’ “uniquely tragic history.” Alam explains that, “In order to secure itself against these “unique” threats to its existence, Israel claims exemption from the demands of international laws.” Sadly, so long as Israel resists permitting international law to be its reference point, despite the fact that Israel’s own birth is owed to the same body of law, the only alternative Israel allows for is the age-old Law of the Jungle—the law of might is right.
Throughout the book the author uses a new term, “Islamicate,” which this writer, a secular Palestinian, found a sober source of food for thought, especially given the state of global and regional affairs today. As a foil for his historical review of the development of Zionism, its trials and tribulations, and the existence of Israel, the author gives us the Islmicate—the Muslim world, or the “Islamic heartland”—which forces the reader to see the larger context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the events of 9/11 and all that proceeded it, including the shift from a Cold War paradigm to a War on Terror one, this backdrop is a key framing for the analysis. However, the author speaks at some length of the Arab nationalist movement which unsuccessfully attempted to face off with Israel, but skips the depth of the secular Palestinian national movement that broke away from official Arab nationalism leadership and kept the Palestinian struggle for freedom and impendence alive all these years, albeit under threat today from an Islamist trend in the region. That noted, Alam is correct when he ended the book by saying, “The Islamicate world today is not what it was during World War I. It is noticeably less inclined to let foreigners draw their maps for them.”
The thesis of the book is that “The Zionist movement in Palestine has generated endemic violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Since 1948, this violence has repeatedly pitted Israel against the Palestinians and its neighbors. It has dragged Western societies, especially the United States, into ever widening and deepening conflicts with the Islamicate.” Professor Alam argues that “the history of these ever-expanding circles of conflict and instability was contained in the Zionist idea itself.”
This approach to understanding Zionism and Israel —the notion that an all-encompassing plan has and is guiding Israel—is a constant source of debate between myself and many Israeli friends. I argue that a macro plan, one that has a guiding thrust to force the realization of the original Zionist myth that Palestine was a “land with no people for a people with no land” is in place and motivating many on the Israeli side. Many Israelis argue that this notion gives too much credit to their society and leadership and contend that minimal planning, chance, luck, and near total haphazardness have brought them to their precarious state of affairs. After a careful reading of Israeli Exceptionalism I tend to believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Like the founders of Zionism, Israel’s current leadership is too politically savvy to try and micromanage the future. Instead it provides an overall framework and lets its constantly adapting organizations—the World Zionist Organization, then Israel—deal with the required, real-time maneuvering based on the ever-changing realities and interests of the moment.
Professor Alam carefully follows the intertwining interrelationships among many seemingly disparate movements that have, collectively, driven the State of Israel—the exclusionist ideology of Zionism, interests of shifting global powers, anti-Semitism, Christian Zionism, Jewish Diaspora, the Israeli lobby, and the clout ascertained by serving the short term political interests of individual western leaders. Although the text is heavily footnoted, the author’s many insights prompt the reader to want to learn more and corroborate some of the information provided: particularly in the chapter devoted to “Jewish Factors in Zionist Success,” for example, where the author’s historical portrayal of Jewish influence in the service of Zionism/Israel around the world suggests much more of a monolithic dynamic among these communities than I tend to find plausible. For example, and Alam also makes mention of this aspect of Jewish Diaspora: “Jews of 19th century Germany founded the Reform movement, rejecting the idea of a Jewish nation …The Reform movement of those days was a compromise between total apostasy (assimilation) and orthodoxy.” (Ami Isseroff, Opposition of Reform Judaism to Zionism – A History, August 12, 2005). Given such strong trends within world Jewry that opposed Zionism for considerable periods in the movement’s history, Alam’s monolithic view seems tendentious. I would claim that superior organization and dynamic leadership among committed Zionists is what led to the “success” of Zionism, more so than any natural Jewish leaning toward a desire for an exclusionist state, with all that that means for others. A significant minority of Jews alive today in fact continue to oppose Zionism on the grounds that it is very “un-Jewish.”
Meantime, the book chronicles the emergence of an influential trend of Jewish-only exceptionalism long before the horrific misery of Jews after WWII, and as a matter of fact, even before the recognized founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, wrote The Jewish State (a book I re-read annually.) However, Alam correctly notes that “Israel’s creation and survival are anomalies” and that, after nearly 100 years of Zionist/Israeli exclusionism evinced in a policy of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, “It would appear that Israel’s demographic constraints are binding: and these constraints may well determine the ultimate destiny of this exclusionary colonialism.” “The tragedy of Zionism,” proclaims Alam, “is written into its design; its end is contained in its beginning.” That may be true for many –isms of this world, some which have already collapsed of their own weight.
A Zionist friend and writer, Bernard Avishai, recently wrote in his latest book, “Israel is a society where institutional discrimination against individuals for an accident of birth or a profession of faith has been so routine it is hardly noticed—not, at least, by Jews.” (The Hebrew Republic, Harcourt, pg. 25). Another Zionist, albeit of a completely different school of thought, Israel’s current Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, was quoted earlier this month as saying "If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic … If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state." These words coming from across the Zionist spectrum should not be taken lightly. Remember: apartheid is a crime against humanity!
Professor Alam states that “at first, Zionists did not seek to conceal the colonial character of their movement…concealment was not necessary in the age of high imperialism and triumphant racism.” The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, adopted on November 10, 1975 by a vote of 72 to 35 (with 32 abstentions), "determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination". The resolution was revoked by Resolution 46/86 on December 16, 1991. In the history of the UN, this is the only resolution that has ever been revoked. As a Palestinian experiencing the real-time impact of the racialist policies of a Zionist-motivated Israeli state, I believe that revoking this resolution was a mistake because it only postponed the inevitable day of reckoning when Israel would have to look at itself in the mirror and accept what it found there as real. Reading Israeli Exceptionalism can help us to understand how such historical oddities evolve.
Another Israeli friend, Deb Reich, a non-Zionist but someone who has lived—sometimes painfully—the Zionist reality, expressed it rather succinctly when I asked her about Zionism. She said, “I have come to believe that lecturing people about their badness is the last thing on earth that can solve our problems and will rarely change their behavior one iota; in fact, it can make them more stubborn. I know that we have no choice but to try to hold people accountable for their actions in terms of both the intended and unintended consequences for others, because without accountability there is chaos; but at the same time, if we want positive change, then we MUST open a window for people on how they can redeem themselves, and redeem the situation. That endeavor is what leadership is supposed to be about.”
Understanding history is one thing, but being able to come to terms with it and survive it is something materially different, just ask Palestinians living today. Is turning back the clock of history doable or even desirable today? Left to the tools of our day—international law, compensation, and hopefully reconciliation—will history correct itself in the future with the emergence of smarter generations of Israelis and Palestinians? Can we Palestinians survive as a people to see that day? These are questions we ponder daily while under the influence of Israeli occupation and dispossession.
Professor Alam believes that the tide of Zionism will begin to turn when the banana republics of the Middle East begin to fall and are “replaced by Islamist governments” at which time “it may become difficult for the United States to maintain its presence in the region.” I beg for the international community to uphold their obligations under international law and resolve this conflict before that day.
– Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: email@example.com. (An edited version of this review was published in Arab News -http://arabnews.com – on March 17, 2010)