The limits of American exceptionalism and how allies should give and take advice - opinion

American leaders have a keen grasp of areas Israel can improve but often miss the areas where Israel surpasses the US.

 THEN-PRIME minister Yair Lapid meets with US President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, last July. (photo credit: Emil Salman/Flash90)
THEN-PRIME minister Yair Lapid meets with US President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, last July.
(photo credit: Emil Salman/Flash90)

Many Americans believe in American exceptionalism, the belief that America is a unique and special country unlike any other in human history. In his State of the Union address this year, President Joe Biden spoke of American exceptionalism. Biden said, “We’re a good people. The only nation in the world built on an idea – the only one... We’re the only nation based on the idea that all of us, every one of us, is created equal in the image of God. A nation that stands as a beacon to the world.”

Biden wasn’t the first president to claim America was unique and he won’t be the last. American exceptionalism is a bipartisan belief. America’s dedication to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has set it apart from the tyrannical monarchies of other nations.

America’s dedication to individual rights became more apparent when it abolished slavery, established women’s suffrage and gave all American citizens equal civil rights. America’s distinctiveness is shown brightly against the dark backdrop of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

I am a proud American, grateful for the nation that raised me in my youth. The freedoms Americans, including my own ancestors, fight for in wars, such as the American Civil War, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, led to the liberation of my ancestors from Germany’s camps. I volunteer for the American Embassy in Jerusalem and dedicate effort and a great deal of time in two distinct areas to the United States. Out of gratitude to America, I turn down remuneration, even for expenses.

There is a downside to the belief in exceptionalism. The belief in self-exceptionality can oftentimes lead to an arrogance that blinds a person to their own faults and allows someone to believe they are better than others. This arrogance frequently manifests itself in ignoring the same faults one criticizes others for possessing. Those who believe they are exceptional can fall for the trap of lecturing those they feel are less exceptional.

 Israelis holding the US and Israeli flag protest outside the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) conference, in Tel Aviv, on April 23, 2023.  (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Israelis holding the US and Israeli flag protest outside the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) conference, in Tel Aviv, on April 23, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The belief in American exceptionalism can lend American government officials to the notion that America leads the world in best governance, leadership and morality. America’s ideals are to be emulated by all nations, but putting ideals into actual practice isn’t simple. Today’s America, like most countries, is facing internal challenges that have some calling into question the assumption that America dominates as a world leader in democracy, rights and morality.

There are specific challenges America faces that deserve highlighting. While America’s laws provide equal rights for all, many of America’s minority communities feel disenfranchised by the establishment. There are data points that support these community’s complaints that they face systemic discrimination.

America doesn't always live up to its expectations

AS A democracy, America stands for representation for all, but Washington, Guam and Puerto Rico are only given non-voting representatives in Congress. American Samoa is a territory of America and its people are American nationals, not citizens. America retains the power to approve amendments and override the governor’s vetoes and its nomination of judges.

In addition, America has allowed every one of its leaders who has committed a crime to avoid prosecution. There have been 376 school shootings with hundreds killed and almost 350,000 children have been exposed to gun violence in their schools. These are some of the examples that call America’s leadership into question.

America’s founding fathers designed their new nation to be exceptional, but it’s debatable whether today’s America is living up to the founding father’s vision. American presidents and State Department frequently prescribe to Israel’s leaders what they consider better ways for Israel’s elected leaders to govern Israel. They also frequently criticize Israel for issues America suffers from, as well.

America and Israel are the closest of allies and have an open relationship where shared advice is appreciated. There is a line between allied nations sharing concerns and advice and prescribing how their partner nations should govern themselves. Before prescribing and criticizing other countries about their governance, America’s government officials should ask themselves if they’re in a position to criticize nations about governance, leadership and morality.

During the demonstrations over the past four months, Israel has had much to be proud of in how it has handled itself. Unlike many American protests, Israeli demonstrations are largely peaceful, its elections are run efficiently and are without skepticism. Citizens carry guns responsibly and school shootings aren’t an issue. In Israel, a prime minister, a president and Knesset members have been criminally charged, convicted and jailed. Neither America nor Israel is perfect, but Israel’s 75 years of strong democracy calls into question whether it should be lectured to by other countries.

Then-prime minister Yair Lapid addressed Biden on his trip to Israel last July and discussed the strong US-Israel relationship, “Our relationship runs deep. It crosses party lines. It connects not only our governments but also our peoples. This friendship is one of the cornerstones of Israel’s national security. It is moving and it is certainly not taken for granted.”

Biden responded in kind, saying, “Israel and the US also stand together to defend their fundamental values and underwrite global security, prosperity and freedom, not just for us but for many around the world.” The US-Israel relationship is strong and both nations’ leaders respect each other.

Throughout Jewish history, the Jewish people have faced outside pressure from both friends and foes to institute policies the Jewish people did not feel were in their best interests. Israel is a strong democracy with a talented citizenry that doesn’t need to be prescribed to by other countries.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote, “Israel is an independent country that makes its decisions according to the will of its citizens and not based on external pressures, including our best friends.”

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.