Sunday, July 31, 2011

Power + Exceptionalism = Disaster

After intensively studying Israel for some time now, I believe the problem that it presents to itself, to the Palestinians and to the world can be captured simply. Exceptionalism (the "we are different and superior" idea) combined with power is dangerous and if unchecked leads to disaster. What makes the case of Israel so instructive is that it is a tiny state that would normally be almost un-noticed in the affairs of the world but for the invincible shield of a super-power that is obedient to its wishes.

If you make special claims for your own, it can be harmless enough and it is certainly a human characteristic. In fact, it is a necessity. We all do this as individuals and with our families.

But when the group becomes larger, goes beyond the family to become tribal, then conflict begins with other groups and tribalism takes over. This has been seen in Europe for centuries and is seen in Africa and Asia today. It causes slaughter but the damage is contained unless it breaks out into catastrophes of opposing alliances as was the case in the world wars of the 20th century.

For the Jews, exceptionalism was reinforced by exceptionally strict containment with their numbers small and under constant threat from the larger non-Jewish populations in which they lived. In fact, it was very rugged exceptionalism that kept Judaism going after it stopped being a proselytizing religion with the advent of Christianity.

Jews had no choice but to withdraw when confronted. Exceptionalism was contained and reinforced by powerlessness.

Enter Zionism and the cataclysm of World War II.

Sympathy for the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis is a consequence of centuries of prejudice and oppression. It provided the magic key to the establishment of a Jewish state and its perpetuation.

The worldwide sympathy for the Jews allowed Zionists to commit an appalling act of ethnic cleansing that continues today. People from foreign lands took the land away from those living in Palestine in a blatant act of aggression based only on a mythology that the invaders brought with them but, most importantly, shared with the Christian world. If not for this shared mythology, the Zionist project would have been seen for the preposterous thing it truly is. The Arab Palestinians, being an alien people to the West, the suspicious other to both Europeans and Americans had no standing from which to make a plea for justice.

Though Palestine was certainly not a land without a people, it might as well have been for Zionists and Christians.

The struggling Yishuv suddenly made a slam dunk.

Far from presenting the constraint of a competing tribe, the Arab Palestinians as a rural agricultural people provided no effective resistance against the Zionist project. The history of Israel shows exceptionalism with unrestricted power and in that sense is no different from the rise of National Socialism until it was checked by the allied response to the adventurism of Hitler.

People fail to realize that appeasement, a word that we now despise because of its connection to the British response to Nazi Germany, has been on display by the United States in regard to Israel for decades.

The results are the same - ever more audacious moves by the appeased as they become more confirmed in their superiority and right to do as they please. What we have to ask ourselves is how the inevitable tragedy will play out.

The world does not permit exceptionalism unlimited reach because it is offensive to the universal sense of justice and the now common acceptance of human equality.

Israel has been different only because it has been undertaken by a people toward whom the world has felt a debt. It has played this hand repeatedly holding high the club of anti-Semitism. This is why Israel has been allowed such a long historical leash without effective counteraction. Otherwise it is only the old story of a territorial grab, unusual only in that those doing the grabbing were dropped into their target area from distant places.

The question for the rest of the world is if there is any way to avoid tragedy for Israel. This is a question only America can answer, because it holds the key to change in the form of the transcontinental life support that keeps the Israeli pot of extremism on course to self-destruct. Will the U.S. extend the leash to Israel to the point where it destroys itself from both internal contradictions and an historic split within Judaism that will see a rejection of the country that claims to be its child?

Regardless of what the Palestinians do, this is only a matter of time.

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