We are publishing a series of reviews and responses to PULSE contributor M. Shahid Alam’s latest work, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism. I would recommend this clear-sighted book to any student of the origins and trajectory of Zionism. Here, Sam Bahour describes his own provocative engagement with Israeli Exceptionalism.
Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism peels 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 that Zionism evokes.
Author M. Shahid Alam, a non-Arab and 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.” However, 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: The “divine right” of Jews, “Israeli achievements,” which at first glance seem impressive, and 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. 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 Islamicate — the Muslim world, or the “Islamic heartland” — which forces the reader to see the larger context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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 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 into ever widening and deepening conflicts with the Islamicate.” 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.
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. 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 of which have already collapsed of their own weight.
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.