Israeli Exceptionalism

By Robin Yassin-Kassab

M. Shahid Alam’s latest book ‘Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilising Logic of Zionism’ is a fascinating historical analysis, densely detailed and referenced, of the nature and trajectory of Jewish nationalism. It is bracingly honest, dispensing with the usual Western pieties to describe three elements of what Edward Said called Israel’s ‘ideology of difference.’ These are, firstly, the notion of Jewish chosenness and divine right to Palestine; secondly, the ‘miraculous’ creation and survival of the state; and thirdly, the uniquely tragic history of the Jewish people.

Many studies have deconstructed the first two myths. Less attention has been lavished on countering the third, the “lachrymose historiography” of the Jews (in Salo Baron’s words) and its employment to neutralise criticism of the Zionist project. Alam argues persuasively that Zionism was not simply a response to virulent anti-Semitism but also, crucially, the result of Jewish power.

Until the rise of fascism, the trend of Jewish involvement in modern Europe was one of phenomenal success. This is despite recurring episodes of anti-Semitism, particularly in the east. The European Jewish population increased more than tenfold in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the general population increase was by a factor of 3.3). In the same period, Jews moved into the West’s urban power centres. Ironically, anti-Semitic discrimination had “endowed the Jews disproportionately with those assets that would give them vital advantages in Europe’s emerging capitalist societies.” By the early 19th Century, Jews owned 30 of 52 private banks in Berlin. In Vienna in 1900, 62% of lawyers, half the doctors and over half the journalists were Jews. An important strata of Jews now had both money and access to political and cultural elites.

Assimilation produced a secularised pride in Jewish achievement which led in turn – naturally enough in the nationalist and racialised European context – to a redefinition of the Jews as an ancient and uniquely gifted race rather than as a group of ethnically diverse religious communities. This new vision of Jewishness was shared by philo-Semites and anti-Semites alike.

Capital gave some Jews substantial political clout. Yet most Jews at this stage were not Zionists but radical socialists who hoped to end Jewish ‘abnormality’ by eradicating both nation and class. Theodore Herzl played on establishment fears of Communism, arguing that Zionism could redirect radical Jewish energies towards Asia. Wealthy assimilated Jews feared revolution no less than their Christian neighbours, and were also disturbed by the resurgent anti-Semitism provoked on the one hand by economic competition and envy, and on the other by the arrival in London, Berlin and Paris of poor Jews fleeing pogroms in the east. Monied Jews organised funds to ‘repatriate’ immigrants eastwards, and were increasingly attracted to Zionism not because they wanted to live in Palestine themselves, but because they hoped the uncouth escapees from Russian ghettoes would.

Herzl exploited the perception that he could marshal enormous funds even before he won the support of wealthy Jews. Balfour’s (himself an anti-Semite) Declaration resulted from German-British competition for Jewish finance during the First World War. By 1939, in new circumstances, Britain was distancing itself from maximalist Zionist aims, but Zionism has been able at different times to galvanise essential support from France, Germany, the USSR, and the USA.

Today important sections of the American Jewish community act as ‘mother country’ for the Zionist state, helping to shape American (mis)perceptions of the Arab and Muslim worlds, and arguing insistently that Israel and America share identical interests and enemies. Again, Zionist lobbying successes arise from Jewish power. Norman Finkelstein, though he disputes the key role of the lobby in forming American Middle East policy, has detailed (in ‘The Holocaust Industry’) the disproportionate American Jewish presence in cultural and political elites. It should be emphasised once more that this is neither a sign of unique Jewish genius nor of an eternal, evil conspiracy, but the result of concrete historical factors. And, interestingly, in the battle for American Jewish hearts and minds, Likudnik organisations such as AIPAC now face competition from the soft Zionists of J-Street and even from a small but increasingly vocal contingent of anti-Zionists.

The crucial role of Jewish power is made visible by a brief comparison with the Gypsies. Proportional to their numbers, even more Gypsies than Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, yet today there is no Gypsy colonial settler state, and anti-Gypsy racism, like Islamophobia, remains widespread, even acceptable, in Europe.

A useful chapter considers Zionist reliance on and cooperation with anti-Semitism. Zionist organisations broke the Jewish boycott of the Nazi economy in return for assurances that German Jews would be directed to Palestine, and failed to support international efforts, for instance at Lake Evian in 1938, to resettle German Jews in the West. After the war, Zionists bullied – to the extent of withholding food rations – those Jews in Displaced Persons’ camps who insisted on emigrating to America. Mossad’s bomb attacks on Iraqi Jews, its recruitment of Egyptian Jews (in the Lavon Affair) to bomb Egyptian cinemas, and Israel’s current alliance with anti-Semitic Christian dispensationalists, are further examples of de facto Zionist collaboration with anti-Semitism.

So what of the title’s ‘destabilising logic’? Israel’s creation and crimes generated anti-Western feelings in the Islamicate (remember America was wildly popular in the Middle East until the late 50s) which Israel then used to convince the West that it required more funds and arms, to keep anti-Western forces in check. As Arab nationalism gave way to Islamism and the ‘war on terror’, an ever-expanding vicious circle began to spin. The West (including oil companies and the business community) and the Muslims both suffer. Alam’s argument here would have been strengthened by fuller engagement with Mearsheimer and Walt, and deeper examination of the Israel lobby’s role in agitating for the invasion of Iraq. Likewise, his dismissal of Arab nationalism as ‘petty bourgeois’ is perhaps too simplistic, and his hopes for future Islamist government are perhaps too optimistic.

“Israeli Exceptionalism” is nearly the best introduction to Zionism there is, but not quite. It feels slightly improvised. A stronger structure would have communicated Alam’s key points more effectively still and would have reduced the risk of repetition. But Alam’s central arguments, his insistence – against the grain for the traditional left – on bringing culture into the equation, and the wealth of fresh information in this fascinating book, make it essential and provocative reading for any serious student of the conflict.

– Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel published by Penguin. He is co-editor of and he blogs at He contributed this article to (This review was originally published in the Holy Land Studies journal and was also published at PULSE.)

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