This review of Shahid Alam’s indispensable book was written for Holy Land Studies.
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.