Publisher: New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, xi +274 p.
By Stephen J. Sniegoski:
Author of “The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel,” Norfolk, Va.: Enigma Editions, 2008.
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.
Despite the Zionist propaganda, Alam points out that individuals espousing the viewpoint of the U.S. foreign policy elite, who dominated the unelected positions in the State Department and the Defense Department, opposed the creation of Israel as contrary to American interests because it would deeply antagonize the Arab nations in the crucial Middle East, which they realized would become increasingly important as energy providers for the United States and its allies. The elite was especially concerned that American support for Israel would radicalize the Arabs and turn them toward the Soviet Union. Zionists, however, were able to exercise immense power in the political arena. President Truman thus supported the creation of Israel “because the exigencies of electoral politics weighed more heavily than concerns about the long-term strategic costs of creating a Jewish state in Palestine. Domestic politics had trumped the vital interests of the United States.” (p. 166)
None of this is to say that the Truman administration (or any other president’s administration) was willing to abandon an effort to maintain good relations with the Arabs. In fact, Alam points out that after the 1948 elections, “Truman felt he had more latitude in resisting the domestic pressures of Zionism” (p. 166) and thus distanced the United States from Israel.
Israel realized that in order to get full United States government backing for its policies, it would need to do more than passively depend on the political support from the Zionist lobby. Israel would have to take actions to affect the Middle East environment in such a way as to make itself appear valuable to the strategic interests of the United States. Thus, Israel pursued the following strategy, as outlined by Alam. Instead of making concessions to obtain peace with the Arabs, Israel strove to antagonize them. “These provocations served a variety of Israeli objectives,” writes Alam. “They deepened Arab anger, radicalized Arab politics, and turned Arab nationalists against the United States.” (p. 174) Particularly important were violent threats against Israel. This heightened Arab belligerence toward Israel (induced by the latter’s provocations), however, was wholly rhetorical since the Arab states lacked the military strength to actually endanger the security of the Jewish state.
But Israel used these “hollow Arab threats to demand expanded military and economic assistance from the West.” (p. 174) In response, the West, especially the United States, provided the requested aid. This, in turn, caused Arab hostility to the West to intensify, and, consequently, some Arab states began to seek support from the Soviet Union. Then Israel could more realistically present itself as the West’s only reliable friend in the Middle East in order to justify even greater support. In essence, “Israel had manufactured the threats that would make it look like a strategic asset” (p. 218), writes Alam. “Without Israel,” Alam maintains, “there was little chance that any of the Arab regimes would turn away from their dependence on the West.” (p. 171)
As the 1950s progressed, the United States would turn more toward Israel, but its support would often be covert so as not to antagonize the Arabs. The move toward Israel was not as rapid as it might have been because President Eisenhower, having a strong base of popular support, could politically afford to buck the Israel lobby. “The resurgence of the Israeli lobby,” Alam observes, “began during the Presidency of John Kennedy; from then onward the sky would be the limit.” (p. 177)
Israel would be able to prove its value to the United States in the Six Day War of 1967. “It had now gained the gratitude of the Western world by greatly diminishing the Arab nationalist threat to their interests in the region,” writes Alam. (p. 181) But, of course, any threat to Western interests had been initially caused by Israel. Alam emphasizes that Israel’s 1967 victory did not create the special relationship between the United States and Israel but “only imparted fresh momentum to forces, ascendant since the late 1950s, that were pushing for a stronger U. S. commitment to Israel as a strategic asset.” (p. 206) In fact, Alam views this special relationship as an inevitable result of Israel’s very creation, which “would force the major actors to take the course that they did take over the subsequent decades. This inexorable logic flowed from the simple brute fact that the West, led by the United States, could not abandon Israel.” (p. 206)
But the United States realized it could not maintain its strategic influence in the Middle East without a friendly relationship with the Arab world, which was being undermined by its support for Israel. The United States thus sought to end the Arab-Israeli conflict by bringing about a comprehensive peace.
Israel’s position was quite different, however. “Should the Arab nationalist states make peace with Israel and abandon the Soviets, this would greatly diminish Israel’s value to the United States,” Alam astutely observes. “Israel could not claim the privileges of a strategic asset if key Arab nationalist states—like Egypt and Syria—too joined the American camp.” (p. 186)
In essence, Alam’s view here is very different from that of Noam Chomsky and his epigones, who believe that Israel really is a true American asset, serving to advance American strategic and economic interests in the Middle East. Alam, in contrast, does not claim that the U.S. relationship with Israel has been of net benefit to the United States. Rather, by Israel’s taking actions that turn the rest of the Middle East against the United States, the Israel lobby has been able to tout the Jewish state as America’s only reliable friend in the region. Alam devotes a number of pages (pp. 197-205) to explicitly refuting the Chomsky thesis.
In contrast to America’s search for a compromise peace in the Middle East, “the Zionists increasingly shifted to the right in their rhetoric and their policies –and prepared for the inevitable war against the Palestinians and the neighboring Arabs.” (p. 207) Alam maintains that this shift to a more overt militancy, however, did not represent a real change in Zionism, as liberal Zionists would like to believe, but rather a logical continuation of Zionist history. “This shift was inevitable,” writes Alam, “as the Zionists confronted the central demand of their movement: they could not establish a Jewish state in Palestine without the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” (p. 207)
This rightward shift took place both in Israel and in the leadership of Zionist groups in the United States. One leading rightist Zionist element in the United States was the neoconservatives, “a mostly Jewish elite group who sought to place American power in the service of Israel.” (p. 211) Alam writes that “Over time, the Jewish neoconservatives cultivated close ties with right-wing Israeli politicians and ideologues; they often worked together in American and Israeli right-wing think tanks. Together, they advocated placing the U.S. military behind Israel’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.” (p. 211) Alam briefly describes how the neocons brought about the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Alam addresses the intriguing question as to which is the leading partner, Israel or the Israel lobby in America. Alam writes that “It would be unhistorical to see the rise of American Jewish power as a force in isolation from Israel. The fortunes of the two have been deeply interconnected.” (p. 212) But while the two are interconnected, Alam maintains that Israel “has directed the global Zionist enterprise.” The American Jewish community has “shaped its institutions, values, and even alliances more and more to serve the needs of Israel.” (p. 212)
What Alam writes here is largely true, with one small caveat, which is necessary to point out in order to counter possible distortions by critics. Members of the Israel lobby are not simply agents of the Israeli government who mechanically follow orders, analogous to American Soviet agents of the 1930s and 1940s. In contrast to the robotic agents of Stalinist Russia, American Jews freely promote policies that they believe will serve the needs of the Jewish state, which may not always be in harmony with actual Israeli government policy. For example, the neoconservative-developed “Clean Break” agenda of 1996, which called for Israel to pursue an offensive war policy, was critical of the policies of the Labor governments and was not implemented by the incoming Netanyahu-led Likud government. Similarly, the neoconservatives encouraged Israel to widen its 2006 invasion of Lebanon to bring Syria and Iran into the conflict, which the Olmert government refrained from doing. Finally, the neoconservatives developed the idea of U.S.-directed regime change in Iraq by military means, and the Sharon government came to support it. (It is true that somewhat similar strategies to weaken Israel’s enemies–though with Israel taking the military action–had been broached in the past by Israeli strategic thinkers, as I discuss in my book, “The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel.”)
Returning to the overall impact on the United States, Alam emphasizes that in backing Israel, the United States has acted contrary to its own national interests, as the American foreign policy elite had realized at the time of Israel’s creation in the years immediately following the end of World War II. Over the years, America’s support for Israel has alienated the Arab people, brought about the rise of anti-American Islamic radicalism, led to unnecessary wars, and involved massive economic costs. And the dire problems caused by this policy are far from over. “The costs that the United States—and the rest of the Western world—might incur in the future are likely to be much greater.” (p. 219)
The costs for the United States are especially immense, in Alam’s view, because no peace settlement with Israel is possible since the issue transcends the grievances of the Palestinians. He writes that “If the Zionists could somehow displace the Palestinians without directly impacting their neighbors—say, by transporting all the Palestinians to Argentina—the Islamicate would still resist this intrusion.” (p. 192)
Alam is quite different from many other critics of Israel who believe that if Israel would pursue a more moderate, conciliatory policy toward its Arab neighbors, peace would prevail. Rather, Alam seems to be saying that the creation of a Jewish state on what had been Islamic territory is simply unacceptable to the neighboring Muslims. “When these settlers create their own exclusionary state,” he contends, “they declare war not only against the people they displace. They declare a more general war, entailing violence against the demography, cartography, geopolitics, and the historical memory of the region on which they impose themselves.” (p. 192)
So as not to be misinterpreted, it should be noted that Alam strictly states that the Middle East Muslims will not accept the existence of a Jewish “exclusionary state”; he does not write that the Muslims hold that Jewish people should now be removed from the area. Thus, only an intentional misreading of what he writes could give fodder to the Zionist propaganda that Israel’s Islamic enemies intend to bring about the genocide of Jews. What Alam seems to be indicating is that the position of Middle East Muslims toward Israel is comparable to the position taken by Black Africans towards the former white-ruled South Africa. Black Africans opposed a white exclusionary state, but Black voting, which meant Black majority rule, did not mean the forcible removal of white people. But undoubtedly many Jews live in Israel only because it is a Jewish “exclusionary state” and would leave if it were not, just as many white South Africans have emigrated from South Africa since the onset of Black rule.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that his view is close to being the mirror image of that of the Israeli Right, which also believes that Israel’s neighbors will never voluntarily accept peace with the Jewish state. For the government of Israel and the Israel lobby are concerned about the acceptance of the current Jewish state, not simply the acceptance of the Jewish people per se. Thus, Jabotinsky, the godfather of the Israeli right, called for the creation of an “iron wall” to protect the Jewish state—that the Jewish state’s Arab neighbors had to be beaten into submission and thus forced to accept its existence. With this mindset, the neoconservatives believe that the Middle East must be reconfigured to allow for Israel’s security. As I point out in “The Transparent Cabal,” this view implies the weakening and fragmentation of Israel’s enemies, as brought out by Likud thinker Oded Yinon. Of course, if the United States were to pursue this Israelocentric policy, it would entail never-ending warfare.
Alam, although regarding Israeli policy as having been very successful so far, does not assume an ultimate victory for Israel, which is not unreasonable given the demographics of the region. At the close of the book, Alam makes some allusions to the future, in which he is understandably somewhat vague, since this was not the focus of his book and like all mortals he cannot foretell the future. He refers to the possibility that Israel might “wither away”—due to demographics, a lack of will, and other factors—which, because of its close connection to the United States, could cause the latter country to “begin to wobble.” (p. 219) Envisioned is a future in which the United States would lose its hegemony over Gulf oil, and the region would be dominated not by another foreign power such as China or Russia, but by the native Islamicate. Since oil is a fungible commodity and is the Gulf region’s fundamental export, it would not seem to me that such a situation would cause any appreciable rise in cost for American consumers, since the price of oil for Americans is currently the same as for everyone else in the world. To Americans other than ardent Zionists, war profiteers, and perhaps some non-competitive oil and oil infrastructure companies, such a future outlined by Alam, where the United States would not be involved in continual counterproductive warfare in the Middle East, should hardly seem dystopian.
All in all, it is difficult to disagree with the overall thrust of Alam’s analysis. Everything fits together in a very logical
fashion and would seem to be the most reasonable interpretation of the historical evidence, as pessimistic as it might appear to those who pollyannishly believe that Israel and its neighbors could coexist in peaceful harmony. Obviously, the book’s themes will not make it popular in the mainstream, so it is unlikely to get the media attention it deserves. On the issue of Israel, it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain any measure of popularity in the United States while expressing the unadulterated truth. But anyone interested in the latter would be advised to consult this book.