Israeli Exceptionalism

By Steve Salaita

M. Shahid Alam. Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 274.

People have been against both the idea and practice of Zionism since its inception. Zionism is an ideology that has never earned the support of all Jews, and one that has never been accepted by the vast majority of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Zionism has likewise failed to achieve significant support in the so-called Third World, and has been almost uniformly rejected by black nationalists inside the United States. Yet Zionism has been successful insofar as its desire to create a Jewish-majority nation-state has been achieved. Despite its discursive self-image as a liberation movement, Zionist practice is colonialist and brutally violent.

In his latest book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan), M. Shahid Alam explores these paradoxes with great skill and insight. Israeli Exceptionalism takes its place among a series of recent books that question the logic of Zionism. Most of these books argue in favor of a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict; inherent in that argument is a rejection of Zionism. Alam takes a slightly different approach in his rejection of Zionism, one that is global in scope. He points out that “[a]s an exclusionary settler colony, Israel does not stand alone in the history of European expansion overseas, but it is the only one of its kind in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (14). Israel, in other words, is an anomaly: a settler colonial society still in thrall of the ideologies and racism of the nineteenth century. As with the European colonization of North America, Zionism conceptualizes itself as an exceptional force of good in history. 

In response to this self-image, “Critics of Zionism and Israel—including a few Israelis—have charted an inverse exceptionalism, which describes an Israel that is aberrant, violates international norms with near impunity, engages in systematic abuse of human rights, wages wars at will, and has expanded its territories through conquest” (14). Much of Alam’s subsequent analysis focuses on Israel’s unsavory behavior, paying special note to the various discourses that justify Zionist aggression as a modern exemplar of civilizational splendor. 

I eagerly recommend this book to anybody interested in the discourses and practices of Israeli colonization.  It would also be of interest to enthusiasts of current affairs and geopolitics. I would describe the primary style of Israeli Exceptionalism as discourse analysis. Alam examines the geopolitical consequences of Israeli colonization and Zionism’s rootedness in multiple histories of ethnic cleansing. He calls his approach a dialectical analysis of Zionism’s destabilizing logic. Over the course of the book, Alam demolishes the ethical premises and mythologies of Zionism with considerable vim and impressive acumen. I especially enjoyed Alam’s criticism of leftist hero Noam Chomsky for his problematic views on the nature of Israeli power. All too often, writers are hesitant to critique icons, to the detriment of a shared sense of political and moral responsibility. Alam is more concerned with Zionism’s many victims than he is with upholding the mechanisms of political celebrity.

Israeli Exceptionalism is scholarly and well-researched, but appropriate for general readers. It is an important contribution to current discussions about the viability of Zionism and the future of Palestine. Alam writes with keen purpose and with an ethical point of view, one opposed to the injustices inscribed in Zionist logic, and one that is unfortunately still marginalized in North America. It is a point of view, however, that is increasingly gaining momentum as more and more people realize that opposition to Zionism isn’t deviant or disturbing, but perfectly in keeping with the anti-racist and anti-imperialist sentiment to which the vast majority of people in the world now adhere. 

– Steven Salaita is author, most recently, of The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought. He contributed this article to

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