Whether it is desired or not, Israel will always be an exceptional nation.
It is in the nature of Israel’s birth – of Israel as the manifestation of a dream, or several dreams, and the yearning and investment those dreams hold. The awakening of a Jewish national consciousness within the galut, the revival of the Hebrew language, the founding of Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim, the greening of the land, the victories in existential wars fought on multiple fronts – it is a secular, pioneering achievement unparalleled in modern history.
But that’s not even the half of it. As a Jewish state, Israel will be exceptional simply because it is a state for Jews. On one level this is benign – every nation has its qualities that make it different or unique. In the case of my country of birth and residence, the United Kingdom, it would be the English language and our literature, as well as our contributions to the rule of law, good governance, and fair play. For the United States, it would be their documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – and the ideas of liberty and democracy embedded within them.
For Israel, it would be that Judaism and Jewish civilisation has sustained itself, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzburger have recently persuasively argued, not as a bloodline but a textline. “Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interpretations, debates, and disagreements,” they write in Jews and Words. “In synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation.”
The Jewish propensity for argument and self-criticism, interpretation and reinterpretation, is essential to the Israeli national character, the Israeli chutzpah, as well as Israel’s political culture, its social fabric, and its literature. Alive and ever-evolving, the textline makes Israel a subject of fascination for those who have an interest in such things as Jewish history and culture. Judeophilia will, since it affects Jews, inevitably impact upon the Jewish state as well. I can attest to this, writing as a non-Jewish Zionist who cannot help but find the idea of a textline both enchanting and enthralling.
But Israel cannot enjoy this more celebratory manifestation of Jewish exceptionalness in isolation. Unfortunately, it must also put up with its grimier, less appealing facets. The first of these is one which goes beyond simply an interest in Jewish achievement, entirely separate from Judeophilia, into a pattern or scheme of thought which turns Jews into a kind of magical people with almost superhuman or supernatural traits.
Jews here are portrayed as being extraordinarily clever and intelligent, have an uncanny ability to make money and succeed in business, and have a great deal of influence in politics, media, and entertainment. In Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish once noted how in China, “Jewish visitors are often greeted with the platitude, ‘Ah, Jews, you so easily make money’ (no joke), and there are dozens of Chinese-language books promising insight into Jewish secrets like raising smart children, succeeding in business, or unlocking the moneymaking secrets of the Talmud,” for example.
The mirror image of this philo-Semitic mysticism is an anti-Semitic one, and often makes use of the same language and manipulates the same tropes. Jews - to anti-Semites - are also clever, though in an insidious way which indicates deviousness and cunning. More than being influential, Jews are either servile to the powerful, a treacherous fifth column, or are a kind of hidden hand in national and international politics, typically involved in conspiratorial plots with freemasons, Bolsheviks, or global banking. They have, according to this view, secret texts and hidden rituals, adding to the mystery.
For Israel, this anti-Semitic attention manifests itself in theories pertaining to The Jewish Establishment or The Israel Lobby, for example – the notion as perpetuated by Walt and Mearsheimer that a homogenous bloc consisting of Israeli and Jewish individuals and pressure groups is steering the course of American foreign policy. Support for Israel is sometimes achieved through traditional lobbying, yet often through bribery. “Remember that old political adage, Follow the money! I wish the press would follow the money on our country’s Israel policy,” states Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of the anti-Zionist site Mondoweiss.
Another type of magical interest derives from religion, specifically Christianity. For Christians, Israel cannot be anything other than a special place as the land where Jesus of Nazareth is believed to have wandered, taught, and above all put to death and revived himself. One cannot turn a corner in the Old City without slamming into a pack of pilgrims, wearing identikit T-shirts and caps, on their way to the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Israel here is a museum in which Jews are part of the attraction, a living and breathing connection to biblical times and to the Nazarene himself.
The Christian spiritual attachment to Jerusalem and Nazareth typically births support for Israel, sometimes kindly, sometimes not. In terms of the latter, the evangelical incarnation of Christian interest in Israel, straddling the boundary between philo- and anti-Semitism, is in turns fantastical and sinister. Jews in evangelical Christian Zionism aren’t just magical but chosen characters in a horrifically nasty fairy story, one where the ingathering of all the exiles to the Land of Israel will summon the Second Coming of the Messiah and the end of all things. Those Jews who then do not cease to be Jews by converting to Christianity will be put to the slaughter.
And one cannot talk about Israel’s exceptionalness without addressing the dynamic with the Palestinians. The present condition of Palestinians in the West Bank, one of occupation and subjugation, draws upon Israel condemnation and exclusion. But it is unavoidably so that the sheer quantity of hateful denunciation, its vociferousness and volume – and not just of the occupation but of Israel itself – makes Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict different from any other nation and conflict anywhere in the world.
It would be nice to believe that these ultra-critical observers hold Israel as a Jewish state to a higher standard because of certain humane and progressive values associated with Judaism and tikkun olam – that they really do wish for an Israel which “will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity,” as Herzl wrote. But when Zionism is denounced by the United Nations as racism in and of itself, when Israel is labelled a colonial-settler entity, when peoples and states dare not even speak its name and wish for Israel’s imminent destruction, it would be a stretch to believe that higher ideals are a motive, to say the least.
Notwithstanding this, it is more than possible for Israel to achieve normality as a state and an institution. Indeed, even considering its non-recognition throughout swathes of the Arab and Muslim worlds, Israel functions as a state ought to – it is a liberal democratic member of the United Nations and the OECD, enjoys excellent relations with the United States, trades with the European Union and around the world, participates in the Olympics and hosted the European under-21 football championships, is a magnate for tourism and innovation. And on and on.
But as a nation, and moreover as an idea or a dream, Israel as a Jewish state and the fulfilment of Zionism can never be normal. Israel will always be a subject of interest and fascination, a cause to be taken up or combated, and the target of unwarranted and undesired attention from those who’d rather it did not exist or wish use it for their own destructive and malicious ends. The perception of Israel as exceptional can bestow rewards – but at a price.
Liam Hoare, a graduate of University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, is a freelance writer on politics and literature published in The Forward, The Atlantic, and The Jewish Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter at @lahoare.