Alexis de Tocqueville 521.
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America may have been the first to
suggest that the United States was different from any other country in the
world. He didn’t coin the term “American exceptionalism,” but he noted that in
contrast to Europeans (who for him, one supposes, made up the rest of the
world), Americans were unusually motivated by the principles of freedom,
equality and private enterprise as well as by their unique religious
The exceptionalism he wrote about was America’s difference. But
over time it morphed into the idea that America is superior to the usual run of
nations by virtue of its unique birth (a country created by an idea rather than
the accident of a certain national group living in a geographically contiguous
area), its values (as per de Tocqueville) and how it succeeded so well in
running its affairs (more than two centuries of continuous democracy and
The idea of American exceptionalism would seem to be
something confined to tweedy academic seminars and Fourth of July speeches, but
today it’s the currency of real politics. Thus when US President Barack Obama
(whose credentials as an American are subject to unusual scrutiny) outlined his
stance on intervening in Libya, he was subjected to a flurry of commentary. Did
he always believe in American exceptionalism? Or is he a recent convert? Just
what kind of exceptionalism was he talking about – different or superior? In its
most benign form American exceptionalism expresses itself in the naïve idea
that, given the chance, everyone from Frenchmen to Muslim fundamentalists would
like to take the Federalist Papers to the beach and read them while drinking
Cokes. But it also has its dark side, such as when George W. Bush thought Iraqis
would welcome American troops as Walmart greeters ushering them into a new era
of democracy and prosperity.
Israeli exceptionalism exists too, although
it remains unarticulated.
Indeed, there is no term for it. It comes in a
variety of different forms, but they all have an origin that is very different
from America’s. Israeli exceptionalism is borne of self-criticism and a sense
that history has dealt unkindly with us. It is the mirror opposite of America’s
IN ITS most benign form – call it provincial
exceptionalism – it is the stuff of dinner- table conversations, lazy punditry
and occasionally government policy. It usually appears in the form of “In normal
countries…” while only in Israel is the middle class being squeezed, do children
behave badly and are waitresses inattentive. This kind of exceptionalism is
propounded by Israelis; for some reason, visitors don’t seem to notice
A classic example of provincial exceptionalism was expressed by
former MK Yossi Sarid when Arab- Israeli director Scandar Copti set off a storm
by saying that if he won an Oscar for his film Ajami he wouldn’t regard it as an
Israeli achievement. Sarid, who has apparently never attended a soccer match
between two national teams, thundered back at Copti’s critics, “Only in Israel
do we latch on to every achievement abroad. Only in Israel is every success
ascribed to the collective.” Needless to say, in normal countries of course, no
pundit would dare make such a ludicrous claim.
The next kind of
exceptionalism is religious exceptionalism, which obviously has its origins in
the biblical description of the Israelites as a people uniquely chosen by God.
This exceptionalism manifests itself in strange ways, informing the worldview of
early Christian Zionists and improbably winning Israel support from American
fundamentalists who would normally take no interest in the Middle East. More
often it is fodder for anti-Semites, who choose to ignore the other half of this
exceptionalism, which sees Jews as a generally powerless people dwelling
If that were the sum total of Israeli exceptionalism we could all
enjoy it as an amusing or interesting cultural phenomenon.
another kind of Israeli exceptionalism – call it the Israel Is Our Home
Exceptionalism – that has emerged over the last decade. It looks on Israel as
exceptional not in the sense of unusual, but as possessed of a unique moral
superiority that makes it unanswerable to outsiders.
It believes Israel
has its Manifest Destiny – a small one compared to America’s, in fact no bigger
than the size of a few counties somewhere in the midwestern US, but one that
cannot be surrendered under any circumstances. It has very few thoughts about
what kind of country Israel should be so long as it’s strong and always ready
for a fight.
The odd thing about this exceptionalism is that it’s not
exceptional at all. It’s the kind of mystical claptrap shared by right-wingers
around the world. Among Russian nationalists, it is expressed as Holy Russia and
its special place between East and West. In France it manifests itself as an
overarching cultural superiority.
In America, exceptionalism has been
seized by the Right as the answer to defeatists who dare to suggest that
American power in on the wane. If you think back a few decades, you can find
some other exceptionalist ideologies in Europe.
They led their countries
THE PROBLEM is that this form of Israeli exceptionalism has
forced its way into the core of our politics and, worse yet, diplomacy.
Sometimes it’s dressed up as realpolitik, like putting a Turkish diplomat on a
low chair to send his country a message, but it isn’t. Like the captain of the
Titanic who steamed into an iceberg fully confident that he was piloting a ship
built like no other, this kind of Israeli exceptionalism refuses to yield to
such a small obstacle as reality. If the ship sinks, after all, it was the