A Review of Shahid Alam’s “Israeli Exceptionalism” Zionism Laid Bare


February 3, 2010

The essential point of M. Shahid Alam’s book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism,
comes clear upon opening the book to the inscription in the
frontispiece.  From the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi, the quote
reads, "You have the light, but you have no humanity.  Seek humanity,
for that is the goal."  Alam, professor of economics at Northeastern
University in Boston and a CounterPunch contributor, follows this with
an explicit statement of his aims in the first paragraph of the
preface.  Asking and answering the obvious question, "Why is an
economist writing a book on the geopolitics of Zionism?" he says that
he "could have written a book about the economics of Zionism, the
Israeli economy, or the economy of the West Bank and Gaza, but how
would any of that have helped me to understand the cold logic and the
deep passions that have driven Zionism?"

recent years, the notion that Zionism was a benign, indeed a
humanitarian, political movement designed for the noble purpose of
creating a homeland and refuge for the world’s stateless, persecuted
Jews was a virtually universal assumption.  In the last few years,
particularly since the
start of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, as Israel’s harsh oppression of
the Palestinians has become more widely known, a great many Israelis
and friends of Israel have begun to distance themselves from and
criticize Israel’s occupation policies, but they remain strong Zionists
and have been at pains to propound the view that Zionism began well and
has only lately been corrupted by the occupation.  Alam demonstrates
clearly, through voluminous evidence and a carefully argued analysis,
that Zionism was never benign, never good—that from the very beginning,
it operated according to a "cold logic" and, per Rumi, had "no
humanity."  Except perhaps for Jews, which is where Israel’s and
Zionism’s exceptionalism comes in.

argues convincingly that Zionism was a coldly cynical movement from its
beginnings in the nineteenth century.  Not only did the founders of
Zionism know that the land on which they set their sights was not an
empty land, but they set out specifically to establish an "exclusionary
colonialism" that had no room for the Palestinians who lived there or
for any non-Jews, and
they did this in ways that justified, and induced the West to accept,
the displacement of the Palestinian population that stood in their
way.  With a simple wisdom that still escapes most analysts of Israel
and Zionism, Alam writes that a "homeless nationalism," as Zionism was
for more than half a century until the state of Israel was established
in 1948, "of necessity is a charter for conquest and—if it is
exclusionary—for ethnic cleansing."

has Zionism been able to put itself forward as exceptional and get away
with it, winning Western support for the establishment of an
exclusionary state and in the process for the deliberate dispossession
of the native population?  Alam lays out three principal ways by which
Zionism has framed its claims of exceptionalism in order to justify
itself and gain world, particularly Western, support.  First, the
Jewish assumption of chosenness rests on the notion that Jews have a
divine right to the land, a mandate granted by God to the Jewish people
and only to them.  This divine election gives the homeless,
long-persecuted Jews the historical and legal basis by which to nullify
the rights of Palestinians not so divinely mandated and ultimately to
expel them from the land.  Second, Israel’s often remarkable
achievements in state-building have won Western support and provided a
further justification for the displacement of "inferior" Palestinians
by "superior" Jews.  Finally, Zionism has put Jews forward as having a
uniquely tragic history and as a uniquely vulnerable country, giving
Israel a special rationale for protecting itself against supposedly
unique threats to its existence and in consequence for ignoring the
dictates of international law.  Against the Jews’ tragedy, whatever
pain Palestinians may feel at being displaced appears minor.

ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians that came as the result of
Zionism’s need for an exclusivist homeland was no unfortunate
consequence, and indeed had long been foreseen by Zionist thinkers and
the Western leaders who supported them.  Alam quotes early Zionists,
including Theodore Herzl, who talked repeatedly of persuading the
Palestinians "to trek," or "fold their tents," or "silently steal
away."  In later years, the Zionists spoke of forcible "transfer" of
the Palestinians.  In the 1930s, David Ben-Gurion expressed his strong
support for compulsory transfer, crowing that "Jewish power" was
growing to the point that the Jewish community in Palestine would soon
be strong enough to carry out ethnic cleansing on a large scale (as it
ultimately did).  In fact, the Zionists knew from the start that there
would be no persuading the Palestinians simply to leave voluntarily and
that violent conquest would be necessary to implant the Zionist state.

British knew this as well.  Zionist supporter Winston Churchill wrote
as early as 1919 that the Zionists "take it for granted that the local
population will be cleared out to suit their convenience."  In a blunt
affirmation of the calculated nature of Zionist plans and Western
support for them, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, like
Churchill another early supporter and also author of the 1917 Balfour
Declaration, which promised British support for the establishment of a
Jewish homeland in Palestine, wrote that Zionism "is rooted in age-long
traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import
than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit
that ancient land."  It would be hard to find a more blatant one-sided

traces in detail the progression of Zionist planning, beginning with
the deliberate creation in the nineteenth century of an ethnic identity
for Jews who shared only a religion and had none of the attributes of
nationhood—neither a land, nor a common language or culture, nor
arguably a common gene pool.  Here Alam covers briefly the ground trod
in detail by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, whose book The Invention of the Jewish People,
appearing in English just months before Alam’s book, shattered the
myths surrounding Zionism’s claim to nationhood and to an exclusive
right to Palestine.  But Alam goes further, describing the Zionist
campaign to create a surrogate "mother country" that, in the absence of
a Jewish nation, would sponsor the Zionists’ colonization of Palestine
and support its national project.  Having gained British support for
its enterprise, Zionism then set about building a rationale for
displacing the Palestinian Arabs who were native to Palestine (who,
incidentally, did indeed possess the attributes of a nation but lay in
the path of a growing Jewish, Western-supported military machine). 
Zionist propaganda then and later deliberately spread the notion that
Palestinians were not "a people," had no attachment to the land and no
national aspirations, and in the face of the Jews’ supposedly divine
mandate, of Israel’s "miraculous" accomplishments, and of the Jews’
monumental suffering in the Holocaust, the dispossession of the
Palestinians was made to appear to a disinterested West as nothing more
than a minor misfortune.

what he calls the "destabilizing logic" of Zionism, Alam builds the
argument that Zionism thrives on, and indeed can survive only in the
midst of, conflict.  In the first instance, Alam shows, Zionism
actually embraced the European anti-Semitic charge that Jews were an
alien people.  This was the natural result of promoting the idea that
Jews actually belonged in Palestine in a nation of their own, and in
addition, spreading fear of anti-Semitism proved to be an effective way
to attract Jews not swayed by the arguments of Zionism (who made up the
majority of Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries)
to the Zionist cause.  Early Zionist leaders talked frankly of
anti-Semitism as a means of teaching many educated and assimilated Jews
"the way back to their people" and of forcing an allegiance to
Zionism.  Anti-Semitism remains in many ways the cement that holds
Zionism together, keeping both Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews in thrall
to Israel as their supposedly only salvation from another Holocaust.

the same vein, Alam contends, Zionists realized that in order to
succeed in their colonial enterprise and maintain the support of the
West, they would have to create an adversary common to both the West
and the Jews.  Only a Jewish state waging wars in the Middle East could
"energize the West’s crusader mentality, its evangelical zeal, its
dreams of end times, its imperial ambitions."  Arabs were the initial
and enduring enemy, and Zionists and Israel have continued to provoke
Arab antagonism and direct it toward radicalism, to steer Arab anger
against the United States, to provoke the Arabs into wars against
Israel, and to manufacture stories of virulent Arab anti-Semitism—all
specifically in order to sustain Jewish and Western solidarity with
Israel.  More recently, Islam itself has become the common enemy, an
adversary fashioned so that what Alam calls the "Jewish-Gentile
partnership" can be justified and intensified.  Focusing on Arab and
Muslim hostility, always portrayed as motivated by irrational hatred
rather than by opposition to Israeli and U.S. policies, allows Zionists
to divert attention from their own expropriation of Palestinian land
and dispossession of Palestinians and allows them to characterize
Israeli actions as self-defense against anti-Semitic Arab and Muslim

treats the Zionist/Israel lobby as a vital cog in the machine that
built and sustains the Jewish state.  Indeed, Theodore Herzl was the
original Zionist lobbyist.  During the eight years between the launch
of the Zionist movement at Basel in 1897 and his death, Herzl had
meetings with a remarkable array of power brokers in Europe and the
Middle East, including the Ottoman sultan, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King
Victor Emanuel III of Italy, Pope Pius X, the noted British imperialist
Lord Cromer and the British colonial secretary of the day, and the
Russian ministers of interior and finance, as well as a long list of
dukes, ambassadors, and lesser ministers.  One historian used the term
"miraculous" to describe Herzl’s ability to secure audiences with the
powerful who could help Zionism.

lobbyists continued to work as assiduously, with results as
"miraculous," throughout the twentieth century, gaining influence over
civil society and ultimately over policymakers and, most importantly,
shaping the public discourse that determines all thinking about Israel
and its neighbors.  As Alam notes, "since their earliest days, the
Zionists have created the organizations, allies, networks, and ideas
that would translate into media, congressional, and presidential
support for the Zionist project."  An increasing proportion of the
activists who lead major elements of civil society, such as the labor
and civil rights movements, are Jews, and these movements have as a
natural consequence come to embrace Zionist aims.  Christian
fundamentalists, who in the last few decades have provided massive
support to Israel and its expansionist policies, grew in the first
instance because they were "energized by every Zionist success on the
ground" and have continued to expand with a considerable lobbying push
from the Zionists.

conclusion—a direct argument against those who contend that the lobby
has only limited influence: "It makes little sense," in view of the
pervasiveness of Zionist influence over civil society and political
discourse, "to maintain that the pro-Israeli positions of mainstream
American organizations . . . emerged independently of the activism of
the American Jewish community."  In its early days, Zionism grew only
because Herzl and his colleagues employed heavy lobbying in the
European centers of power; Jewish dispersion across the Western
world—and Jewish influence in the economies, the film industries, the
media, and academia in key Western countries—are what enabled the
Zionist movement to survive and thrive in the dark years of the early
twentieth century; and Zionist lobbying and molding of public discourse
are what has maintained Israel’s favored place in the hearts and minds
of Americans and the policy councils of America’s politicians.

is a critically important book.  It enhances and expands on the
groundbreaking message of Shlomo Sand’s work.  If Sand shows that Jews
were not "a people" until Zionism created them as such, Alam shows this
also and goes well beyond to show how Zionism and its manufactured
"nation" went about dispossessing and replacing the Palestinians and
winning all-important Western support for Israel and its now
60-year-old "exclusionary colonialism."

Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and the Wound of Dispossession and co-author, with Bill Christison, of Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation, published last summer by Pluto Press.  She can be reached at kb.christison@earthlink.net.

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