M. Shahid Alam, Israeli Exceptionalism:  The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009

This is an excellent book that dares to transgress the regnant taboos and myths in the American mainstream on the issue of Israel. The author, M. Shahid Alam, a professor of economics at Northeastern University of Pakistani nationality, is a published writer on contemporary social and political topics that far transcend his academic field.  Due to his proclivity to write on controversial and taboo topics, he has attained a place in ultra-Zionist David Horowitz’s book, “The Professors: The One Hundred and One Most Dangerous Academics in America (2006).”

Israeli Exceptionalism lucidly encapsulates in its relatively short 220-page narrative the essential aspects of the Zionist movement, showing how it has been able to rapidly advance from its birth to regional dominance, and how, concomitantly, its amazing success has brought the United States, its powerful patron,  into the cauldron of never-ending Middle East wars.  While undoubtedly hostile toward Zionism, Alam manages to write rather dispassionate prose. And it is difficult to take issue with the validity of his arguments.

The author states that book’s “primary theme” is to “focus on the germ of the Zionist idea, its core ambition—clearly discernible at its launching—to create a Jewish state in the Middle East by displacing the natives. This exclusionary colonialism would unleash a deeply destabilizing logic, if it were to succeed.  It could advance only by creating and promoting conflicts between the West and the Islamicate [the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam].  Since its creation, this primordial logic has driven the Jewish state to deepen this conflict. Overweening ambition launched Zionism, but the destabilizing logic of this idea has advanced and sustained it.” (p. 3) Because of Zionism’s unparalleled influence over American policymakers, this “destabilizing logic”  has mired the United States in a Middle East morass from which it is now politically unable to extricate itself.

Interwoven in the narrative is the theme of Israeli and Jewish exceptionalism, which provides the title of the book.  The Jews have historically seen themselves as an exceptional people—“God’s chosen people”—and the Zionists expanded on this religious theme to make it serve as the intellectual basis for the modern state of Israel’s existence and defense.  Moreover, this exceptionalism is recognized, at least tacitly, by Western countries, and, consequently, Israel is able to ignore the norms and rules usually applied to other countries.   Most significantly, Alam notes that Israel stands alone as the only European settler colonial state that was created and continues to exist in an era of anti-colonialism.

Alam emphasizes that Zionism originated as a very ambitious project that had to overcome a number of formidable hurdles.  The Jews were a people without a homeland and without much of a national feeling, but the Zionists intended to establish a Jewish homeland on land fully inhabited by another people and, in the process, mold a national identity.  Moreover, unlike other European colonizers, the Jews did not have a motherland to support their colonial venture, which required them to find one.

Unlike what many pro-Israel mythologists imagine to be the case, Zionism did not have a morally pure beginning—at least by the standards of modern international morality. From the outset, the Zionists intended to occupy land inhabited by others, bringing about the latter’s displacement.   The early Zionists did not give much consideration to the native Palestinians and thus did not dwell on the need to forcibly expel them from the land.  It was the revisionist Zionist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who in the 1920s brought out into the open the inevitable need for violence against the Palestinians in order to achieve the Zionist goals.  Alam remarks, however, that the Zionist leaders had “always known what Jabotinsky now challenged them to acknowledge and confront openly” (p. 27).

The Zionists’ choice of Palestine, a settled land, for a homeland guaranteed conflict. What was the reason for choosing Palestine?  And why did the Zionists seek a homeland at all?  A conventional argument, disputed by Alam, is that the Zionists sought a homeland abroad because hostility to Jews in Europe necessitated moving elsewhere.  To falsify the idea that finding a safe haven was the fundamental motive, Alam reviews the suggested alternative homelands for Jews, which were very sparsely inhabited and whose native occupants thus did not face displacement by Jewish emigrants.  In short, Jews could have emigrated to areas where the likelihood of conflict was much less than in Palestine. Since the Zionists did not show much interest in these much safer, alternative homelands, it would seem apparent that finding a haven for Jews was not their overarching goal.

Orthodox Jews, of course, had prayed about returning to Jerusalem, but Alam points out that very few actually tried to live there prior to the advent of Zionism.  And even the Zionists found it difficult to attract Jewish settlers to Palestine before the era of Nazi persecution. Alam, in short, maintains that the choice of Israel did not reflect the historical longing of the Jewish people but rather the ideological needs of modern Zionism.

Alam contends that Zionism was essentially a 19th century nationalist movement, similar to other forms of European ethnic nationalism, and was not simply a  defensive reaction to the threat of  anti-Semitic persecution. In fact, the condition of European Jews had actually improved significantly in the 19th century, as they prospered economically and could assimilate into the higher echelons of gentile society, which had become available to them as Western society had become more open and free.   For numerous Jews, however, this move toward assimilation caused considerable angst as they lost their Jewish religious distinctiveness.  To compensate for this psychological loss, Jewish thinkers started to emphasize Jewish racial identity as a group unifier.

Other European nationalist movements could rely on a home territory, inhabited by their nationality, as a magnet to provide group unity and a sense of nationhood.  For the Jews, in contrast, territory would need to be taken in order to forge this sense of unity and nationhood among a congeries of disparate people alien from one another in language and culture, and linked together only by a religion and its customs.  With this arduous task at hand, the choice could not be any available territory.  To provide the necessary social and cultural binding for nationhood, the territory chosen would have to have a strong connection to a Jewish nation that had existed in the past—thus the only choice was Palestine.

In trying to get hold of a foreign land, the Zionists were quite like other Western settler colonial enterprises, but were radically different from other colonial ventures in that they did not have a mother country to facilitate their enterprise.  They would have to find a surrogate mother country.  Zionists were able to turn what would seem to have been a weakness into a strength, since they were in a position to choose their mother country and thus could select the one best suited to their needs.  Prior to gaining independence, the Zionists would rely on England, which was critical since it held the League of Nations Mandate over Palestine; after the Israeli state came into being in 1948, they would gradually switch to the United States, which, as England’s military capability waned,  had become the mightiest country in the world and was assuming burgeoning global responsibilities in its Cold War with the Soviet Union.

It was also of crucial importance that Jews were very influential in the West because of their wealth and dominant positions in key sectors of society, such as the media.  To influence the foreign powers and their populations, the Jewish Zionists would have to present a rationale for their takeover of already-inhabited Palestinian land.   Alam observes that the Zionists essentially provided a number of fundamental arguments to justify their endeavor.  First, they argued that the land did not really belong to the native inhabitants but was, instead, the Jewish homeland by historical right, and that it had been given to them by God and later usurped by invaders. This argument has especially appealed to Protestants with their special affinity for the Old Testament.  Next, they claimed that they were more progressive, both socially and economically, than the native Arab inhabitants, and thus appealed to both the socialist Left and the capitalist Right.  And what has especially become a key argument since the Holocaust has been the claim that Jews have suffered more than all other peoples and thus deserve recompense.  This claim of being the ultimate victim not only served to morally justify the Zionists’  take-over of Palestine but also has shielded them from criticism for their mistreatment of the Palestinians, since any suffering experienced by the Palestinians could not compare with  the infinite suffering endured by Jews in the Holocaust.  Finally, for individuals motivated less by moral empathy than by national self-interest, the Zionists have claimed that the Jewish state serves as a strategic asset to Western interests in the Middle East.