Sam Bahour on Shahid Alam

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.

4 thoughts on “Sam Bahour on Shahid Alam”

  1. The article by Mr. Bahour is entitled “Zionism’s Invented State”. The irony of this is apparently lost on both you and him.

    With the exception of Egypt which was for centuries ruled by outsiders, every Arab state was “invented”. There isn’t a single one whose borders weren’t drawn by some French or Englishman’s ruler. If another Arab state to be called Palestine would come in being, that will be only the most recent of these inventions.

    Mr. Bahour proposes that Islamism will unite the Arab world. It will further divide it. History has seen the Mahdi and the Hashashin rise, roil the Arab world for a time, then pass from the scene. The same will happen with Bin Laden.

  2. That’s true, the borders of all Arab states were drawn by foreigners. Palestine like India and Nigeria were not centralised nation states as we recognise them today until European interference. Absolutely true. The nation state was an idea that developed in Europe. True. So what you are saying is that Palestine (and India and Nigeria and the rest of Asia and Africa) therefore does not exist. You’re missing a lot more than irony. Your argument was used by European imperialists for years. Now only Zionists trot out this absurd line. The natives of Palestine are Palestinians. They have lived on their land for thousands of years, since the beginning. Palestine has been recognised as a distinctive region of bilad ash-sham for many centuries. By the way, here on PULSE we are not backing an excuse for a Palestinian state; we are backing equality and rights for Palestinians in all Palestine – those parts invaded and ethnically cleansed in 48 and those parts occupied in 67.

    Mr Bahour doesn’t propose that Islamism will unite the Arab world. He’s reviewing a book. Shahid Alam does suggest that future Islamist governments will confront Zionism far more effectively. I agree with him that future governments in the Middle East will be far more effective in defeating Zionism, but I don’t necessarily share Prof Alam’s optimism about Islamism. In any case, it’s quite clear he isn’t talking about bin Laden (or the Assassins – what on earth does a medieval Ismaili group have to do with it? You’ve read too much Bernard Lewis and not enough reality). Organisations like Hizbullah perhaps show what the future is made of, not Wahhabi-nihilist useful idiots like bin Laden.

  3. Hezbollah, literally “God’s party”, are the Mahdists of the 21st century. And just as fanatical.
    Trying once more to grab the whole of Palestine? The last time the Arab armies regular and irregular tried that a lot of people ended as stateless refugees, unwelcome everywhere. Why not press for equality and rights for the Sunni in Syria, Christians in Iraq, Druze in Lebanon?
    If you are trying to show that colonial constructs can become unitary states, you have picked some poor examples in Nigeria and India. They both have had secessionist movements active for every day of their existence. Israel is no more “invented” than is Jordan, Yemen or Algeria.
    You are more honest than many in conceding that Palestine was long known as South Syria. If a “Palestinian” state is created on the West Bank, will Syria try to take it back?

  4. No, I wasn’t suggesting that colonial constructs can become unitary states (although they sometimes can). My point was that your argument suggests that sovereignty does not belong to people, but only to states with the kind of centralised organisation that the West recognises. Ergo the Indians and Nigerians and Palestinians have (or, in the case of the first two, had) no sovereignty. Ergo it is entirely valid and right for foreigners to come from other countries to rule the land and even, in the case of Israel, to drive the natives off the land. I think that’s a pretty poor argument.

    No, Palestine was not known as south Syria. It was known as Palestine. But it was a part of the bilad ash-sham administration under the Ottoman empire. I personally believe that these countries belong together. This doesn’t mean that I would support the current state called ‘Syria’ absorbing Palestine by force any more than I would support it absorbing Lebanon or Jordan by force. If one day we are to have free movement of people and goods in this region it must be done democratically, rather as the EU has done it. I hope than one day the Jews of a democratic Israel-Palestine will benefit from open borders as much as Israel-Palestine’s Muslims and Christians.

    You won’t have noticed, but on this site we press for equality and rights in general. As a Syrian Sunni, I can tell you that Sunnis are no more oppressed than anyone else under the imperfect Syrian regime. Christians in Iraq are certainly having a terrible time as a direct result of the US invasion and occupation, encouraged by Israel. And Hizbullah is not fanatical, but the best organised political and military force that the modern Arab world has produced. This is what worries you.

    It would be absurd to say Israel is bad, Arab regimes are good, but nobody here is saying that. What we are saying is that imperialism has had a large part to play creating non-viable mini-states ruled by dictators, and that Israel is a colonial settler state with an imported population based on ethnic cleansing, apartheid and repeated massacre.

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