Israeli exceptionalism

Israeli exceptionalism is borne of self-criticism and a sense that history has dealt unkindly with us.

Alexis de Tocqueville 521 (photo credit: Wikicommons)
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 faith.
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 prosperity).
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 optimistic exceptionalism.
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 it.
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 apart.
If that were the sum total of Israeli exceptionalism we could all enjoy it as an amusing or interesting cultural phenomenon.
But there’s 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 to disaster.
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 iceberg’s fault.