BOOK REVIEW:  Israeli Exceptionalism:  The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (M. Shahid Alam)

BOOK REVIEW:  Israeli Exceptionalism:  The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (M. Shahid Alam)

by Elaine C. Hagopian

For those unfamiliar with the extraordinary evolution of Israeli exceptionalism emanating from its Zionist narrative and assuring Israel’s incredible success as a colonial settler state, M. Shahid Alam’s book is the one to read.  He has recorded a compelling, uniquely comprehensive and enlightening historical analysis of the inherently destabilizing dynamic of Zionism.  Of particular note are his detailed Chapters Nine and Thirteen. 

In Chapter Nine, he documents the constellation of Jewish factors that came together in the 19th century which assured Zionist success: the spread of Jewish intellectuals and professionals across major cities in Europe; Jewish population growth to 16.7 million in 1939 which could root a nationalist movement; business acumen and ownership of major banks and a strong media presence; growth of interchange with other Jewish leaders contributing to a sense of community – important considering that Jews had not previously formed a sense of nation according to Alam; and as European nationalism grew, Jews were affected by the idea though they had no majority presence in any one state which could be claimed by them.  Historical anti-Semitism prodded the Jewish elites toward formulation of the Zionist project even as Jews were moving out of the ghettos of a liberalized Europe.  Given their distribution throughout Europe and without a territorial base of their own, the Zionist sought and captured the needed “mother” country to implement their colonial settler state in Palestine.  This they found in the U.K initially and then in the U.S. with periodic support by other countries such as France. 

In Chapter Thirteen, he recounts the growth of Christian Zionism which underpins the Zionist project in Palestine. He takes the reader through the Protestant Reformation from which several new Protestant evangelical churches emerged and restored the notions of Jews as God’s chosen people and the Covenant promising Palestine to the Jews. These notions are crucial to evangelical belief in end times.

Alam’s Chapter Nineteen on the Israel Lobby in the U.S. is also worthy of special note.  He analyzes the way in which Zionist acumen made the Lobby so powerful.  This becomes particularly clear when Alam expertly demonstrates that Israel was not a strategic asset to the U.S. or earlier to the U.K.  However, by its well-known tactic of instigating Arab hostility to the U.S. for its support of Israel against Arab interests, Israel increasingly developed the image of a strategic asset by offering to check its created Arab hostility to American interests.  It is Israel’s need to create situations to keep the U.S. on the hook that makes it a destabilizing factor in the area.  Israel’s defeat of Arab Nationalist regimes in the 1967 war clinched Israel’s claim to be a strategic asset.  Those regimes had developed a pragmatic relation with the USSR.  The Lobby from that point on becomes almost invincible in its ability to co-shape U.S. policy in the M.E.  As such, Alam demonstrates effectively that in spite of wreaking havoc in the area, Israel is shielded from international sanctions by its engineered exceptionalism buttressed and reinforced by the astonishing array of politically powerful institutions and organizations Zionists formed in the U.S.  Alam spells out the pillars of that exceptionalism which are riveted into the public mind and serve as the automatic armor against criticism and punitive measures: the biblical mythology of Jewish chosenness granting Jews the “divine right” to Palestine and thereby invalidating Palestinian territorial rights; Israeli achievements in garnering Western commitment to creating and maintaining a Jewish State as well as demonstrable Israeli power and technology; and the constant invocation of eternal Jewish victimization to silence criticism. Much of the book is dedicated to how the Zionists achieved this unique status for Israel.  In this, Alam has generally exceeded previous studies. 

On the other hand, there are problematic sections in the book.  Although these sections are not the major thrust of the book, nonetheless they are important for thought about future developments in the area.  Alam employs a concept that only a select few understand in the West.  It is Islamicate.  This concept originated with Marshall Hodgson, a University of Chicago historian who defined it as something that “…would refer not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims.”  Alam prefers Islamicate to Islamic world since there is no pure Islamic or other culture in the world after generations of cultural co-mingling.  Alam tends to see Israel as an attack on the Islamicate set in motion by Western support for its statehood against the indigenous people.  But he predicts that the Islamicate will respond to this Israeli/U.S. assault and will recover “its dignity, its autonomy and power … on the strength of Islamic ideas.” (p. 36).

On the way to his predicted restored Islamicate, he takes us through the failure of Arab Nationalism to defeat Israel and its U.S. backer.  He blames the failure on two things.  First, he insists the Arab nationalists turned their backs on their Islamic roots and tried to build a new ethnic identity drawn primarily from Western secular thought, thereby apparently weakening the Islamicate and forfeiting membership in it. This seems to contradict the definition of Islamicate.  If cultures and ideas have co-mingled over time, Arabs who embraced Arab nationalism did not necessarily cease their embrace of values shared by the Islamicate.  Alam’s juxtaposing of Arab and Islamicate seems to belie a more rigid definition of the Islamicate, one that makes Islam, the religion, the litmus test rather than cultural values emanating there from. It seems Arabs are not part of the Islamicate if they embrace secular ideas but could be if they adopt Islamist ideologies. 

Second, Alam states correctly, the Arab Nationalists were basically petit bourgeoisie and committed to their separate states.  As such, when confronting Israel, they did so through their inferior state militaries rather than by guerrilla war so successfully used in Vietnam and Algeria.  But indeed, there were attempts at guerrilla war against Israel.  Most notable was the organized Palestinian Fedayeen resistance in the 1960s.  It did not receive the support of the Arab States.  Islamic based Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban do employ guerrilla tactics and have been somewhat successful.  But their ability to do so stems primarily from the fact that they are fighting on their national territory.  My argument with Alam is that he assumes the present Islamist movements will create “more integrated structures across the Islamicate” and will confront and replace these failed and fragmented regimes with their special interest groups leading ultimately to a restored Islamicate.  It is not at all clear to this reviewer that this will be the outcome.  Changed regimes may not differ in promoting interests of the separate states and/or integrating a significant secular content in their political systems over and above the content of an imagined Islamicate. After all, they too live in a globalized world. To give Alam his due, however, he draws his conclusion based on the movements he sees before him today, but also, understandably, from a personal preference for some semblance of a restored and unified Islamicate.

There are a some errors in the book.  Two stand out: 1) he writes “All Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire outside Palestine were promised to the Arabs. …” (p. 110).  Palestine was included in the 1915 McMahon/Hussein agreements which led to Arab support of Britain against the Turks and Germans. The British then chose to neglect their commitment regarding Palestine.  Alam did not cover these agreements in his book.  And 2) he notes quoting Benny Morris, “… the British administration in Palestine ‘went out of its way to promote Arab political frameworks parallel to Zionist institutions.’” (p.114)  The British did create Arab institutions.  However, as recent archival records indicate, Arab (Palestinian) institutions intentionally had no power.  Herbert Samuel, British High Commissioner in Palestine (1915-1920) was a Zionist.  Samuel worked closely with the Zionist Commission in Palestine, the National Council for Jews in Palestine and the Jewish Constituent Assembly (Va’ad Leumi) precursor of the Israeli Knesset.  He blocked every effort by the majority Palestinians to gain authoritative representation, while simultaneously granting the Zionist minority considerable power. (Sahar Huneida, A Broken Trust:  Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians).  In fact he laid the foundations of the future state of Israel.

In spite of these minor lapses, Alam’s book remains a brilliant exposition of the dazzling success of Zionism and its ability to sustain Israeli exceptionalism. 

M. Shahid Alam, Israeli Exceptionalism:  The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism.  New York: Palgrave/MacMillan, c. 2009.


Elaine C. Hagopian
Professor Emerita of Sociology
Simmons College, Boston
May 17, 2010

See also:  MacMillan review and praise:  http://us.macmillan.com/israeliexceptionalism 

M. Shahid Alam is an economist, historian, and poet. In his wide-ranging work, he has demonstrated a capacity to cut across disciplinary boundaries, engage the real world, and look at issues spatially, historically and globally. As a social scientist, he believes that his primary task is to stand outside the dominant structures of thought and examine how they falsify reality in the service of power.

Alam has published three previous books, Governments and Markets in Economic Development Strategies (1979), Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (1990), and Challenging the New Orientalism (2006). His articles have appeared in American Economic Review, Kyklos, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Science and Society, and Review of Radical Political Economics. His translations of Ghalib have appeared in Chicago Review, Beloit Poetry Journal and Marlboro Review. His political essays have appeared in Dawn, The Daily Star, Al-Ahram Weekly, CounterPunch, Outlook India and Tehelka.

Currently, Alam is a professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston.

Visit Prof. Alam’s site at http://aslama.org/


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