Zionism’s destabilizing force: “Israeli Exceptionalism” reviewed

In his new book Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism, M. Shahid Alam successfully argues that the moral force behind the Zionist movement is a sense of Jewish, and consequently Israeli, exceptionalism. This claim of exceptionalism underpins what he calls the “destabilizing logic of Zionism.” According to Alam, Zionism “could advance only by creating and promoting conflicts between the West and the Islamicate” (p. 3). He defines the “Islamicate” as consisting of the broader Muslim world, with the Middle East at its heart.

Alam, a professor of economics at Boston’s Northeastern University, begins his book by detailing the core problem that confronted the nascent Zionist movement: the creation of a Jewish nation from disparate and scattered Jewish communities. Zionists set out to solve this problem by creating a myth of exceptionalism that could be embraced by Jews around the globe. These myths were steeped in a combination of religious mythology and ethnic nationalist exclusivism that presented the Jews as the “chosen people” (p. 9) and Palestine as their sole and God-given birthright.

These claims were expanded upon during the British mandate of Palestine and after the founding of the State of Israel. Zionists asserted that the Jewish “liberation” movement was different from other liberation movements because “the long history of Jewish suffering, the Jewish ability to outlive their enemies, their signal contributions to human civilization, and their spectacular victories against Arab armies” demonstrated the purity of their cause and their exceptionalism (p. 5). Finally, they argued that Israel was a singular case because it was surrounded and threatened by hostile and murderous Arab states and masses. Through these arguments, Alam asserts, Zionists cultivated an environment that overlooks and in some cases endorses their movement’s human rights abuses and racist policies.

In the second segment of the book, Alam examines the history of the region, reviewing the violent history of the early Zionist colonists and describing it as a core, rather than incidental, program of Zionism. Violent, racist attitudes towards the Arabs generally and the Palestinians specifically had to be nurtured by those who would make Palestine the Jewish homeland. They acted as intermediaries between the “West” and the “Islamicate” insofar as they were of the former and claimed to understand the latter. To galvanize Western support for Israel, it was vital for Zionists to create a myth of Muslim-Christian antipathy. Alam paraphrases the perceptions caused by the myth: “[I]f the Islamists vent their anger at the United States, it is not because of its policies, but because it is Christian” (p. 42). Naturally then, a Jewish state in Palestine could act both as a buffer against Muslim masses, and a projection of Western power and interests. This is the argument presented by some Zionists.

It wasn’t enough to argue that the Arabs were uncivil to gain their land. Zionists also had to align themselves with anti-Semitic elements in Europe to advance their goals. Alam writes, “In the 1930s, the Nazis banned all Jewish organizations except those with Zionist aims; they even allowed the Zionists to fly their blue-and-white flag with the Star of David at its center. In violation of the Jewish boycott of the Nazi economy, the Zionists promised cash and trade concessions to Nazi Germany if they directed Jewish emigrants to Palestine” (p. 123). This was necessary to promote Jewish emigration to Palestine. The reality was, and continues to be today, that when Jewish people from Eastern Europe are given the choice, many will choose to emigrate to Western Europe and the US before Israel.

Through these means, Zionists gained the support of a variety of surrogate mother countries across the decades. Anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism and anti-Islamism, and Jewish influence all came together to persuade the Soviet Union, France, Great Britain and of course, the United States to support Zionism.

Israeli Exceptionalism also sheds light on British, and later, American evangelical support for Zionism. Evangelical Zionists, broadly termed Christian Zionists, came into being as a result of the Great Reformation. Catholics believe that God nullified his covenant with the Jews when they rejected Jesus Christ. But when Protestants overthrew the authority of the Catholic Church, they sought to differentiate themselves by reinstating God’s covenant with the Jews and recognizing “the Jews as God’s chosen people with eternal rights to Palestine” (p. 130). Although created by Jewish Americans, the American Palestine Committee (APC) was intended to marshal Christian support for the Jewish occupation of Palestine. By 1941, the APC’s membership included “70 US senators, 120 congressmen, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Interior, 21 state governors” and other prominent individuals (p. 134). Reinhold Niebuhr and other leading Christian Zionists later created the Christian Council on Palestine to influence fellow clergymen.

Alam argues convincingly that Zionism itself is destabilizing, and the force that sustains it — tension between the West and Islamic societies — is a deliberate, not incidental, feature of Zionism. Israeli Exceptionalism manages to provide a fresh view to a vast library of literature on Zionism by dispelling the myth of Jewish disempowerment and highlighting the role of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment inherent in Israel’s establishment. His discussion of Reformation theology is also crucial to understanding the long-standing support for a “Jewish Palestine” in American civil life, even before the founding of Israel. Alam’s straightforward and accessible discussion of the world’s last “exclusive settler colony” makes Israeli Exceptionalism an important addition to the scholarship on Israel-Palestine.

Born in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Moor graduated from university in Philadelphia, after which he spent three years working in finance in New York. He is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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