Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Defending Israeli Exceptionalism

Roger Cohen takes exception with exceptionalism, in general. Here he bashed Sarah Palin for exceptionalism, here he bashes Americans for their exceptionalism. I would guess he was also a fan of last month’s New York Times-hosted Op-Ed on Chinese exceptionalism.

Cohen doesn’t like the idea that people or nations should see themselves as special, lest that vision lead them to justify illegal or immoral activity in the name of their outside-the-norm status.

In particular, Cohen doesn’t like the way that Israel sees itself as under siege, since that view grants Israelis – in their own minds – exceptional status, licensing them to do as they see fit in order to survive. As Cohen wrote in the New York Times last week:

Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it. But the death-cult terrorists-versus-reasonable-Israelis paradigm falls short. There are various civilizations in the Middle East, whose attitudes toward religion and modernism vary, but who all quest for some accommodation between them.

One casualty of this view, of course, is Israeli exceptionalism. The Jewish state becomes more like any other nation fighting for influence and treasure. I think President Obama, himself talking down American exceptionalism, is trying to nudge Israel toward a more prosaic, realistic self-image.

In general, the point about Exceptionalism is valid. My problem, though, is that in addressing the Middle East Cohen resembles the carpenter who only possesses a hammer – to him, every problem looks like a nail.

To my mind, blaming the problem on Exceptionalism is simply wrong. Sometimes you are paranoid, but sometimes they really are out to get you.

1. Cohen argues that not everyone wants to destroy Israel. He points to “several (unnamed) Iranian leaders” who will accept a deal with Israel – even as Ahmedinejad continues to call of Israel’s destruction. He points to “various (unnamed) civilizations in the Middle East” who quest for accomodation with Israel, but elides the several who fund terrorism directly, or host it in their lands.

Perhaps these unnamed peacemakers really do exist – but why does that matter? If one nation fires a nuclear missle into Tel Aviv, will the hand-wringing of the others bring back the dead?

2. Cohen also argues that terrorists do not pose an existential threat to Israel, writing, “Some of Israel’s enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it."

Tell me something, Mr. Cohen: Would you mind if a weaker person only chopped off your arm, since he lacked the power to kill you? Are only existential threats worth opposing?

3. And Cohen’s most offensive line is this: “The Holocaust represented a quintessence of evil. But it happened 65 years ago. Its perpetrators are dead or dying. A Holocaust prism may be distorting. History illuminates — and blinds.”

Cohen ignores the realities of recent history, in his attempt to remove the Holocaust from the debate. Which evil disappeared with the Holocaust 65 years ago, leaving a bright new world in its wake?

• If “Holocaust” represents “enemies trying to destroy Israel,” why not update it with the 1967 invasion of Israel, the 1973 invastion of Israel, the 2006 double-hit of Hamas and Hizballah on separate borders?

• If “Holocaust” represents “enemies being capable of destroying Israel,” why not update it with Iraq’s failed attempt at nuclear weapons in 1981, Syria’s failed attempt at nuclear weapons in 2007, and Iran’s current attempt? (Please don’t tell me you believe their nuclear program is peaceful; if you believe that, I have a mountain in Qom to sell you.)

• If “Holocaust” represents “nations destroying entire popultaions,” why not update it with Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and any number of other genocides in recent years?

The Holocaust was not a once-and-done; it remains, and the reasons for exceptionalism remain. Nations still exist who want to destroy Israel. Israel's enemies are capable of inflicting great harm. And the spirit of the Holocaust lives on, as evidenced on multiple occasions in recent history.

As long as there are nations who want to kill you, even if those nations are the minority, common sense dictates that you keep your guard up. And if that guard means to go outside the law, then you had better do it. Because even should the whole world oppose Ahmedinajad, that wouldn’t save us on the day he would push the button.

(For another take on Cohen’s article, take a look at The Bernstein Blog here.)


  1. I have found Cohen to be so far removed from reality it is hard to read.There is balance, nuance and reality. He just doesn't seem to want to deal with any of them.

    Your example of the amputation of a limb is solid. He doesn't really address any of this. It seems that he is ok with the idea of some people dying as long as it is not death via nukes.

  2. All of these points are legitimate and need to be stated. But there are two other issues that are being ignored: One is that while Cohen has no problem identifying American exceptionalism with deeply-held ideas (even as he condemns its excesses), he seems to regard Israeli exceptionalism as deriving solely from the Holocaust and constant victimization - as if the Biblical imperative to be an "Or la-goyyim" did not exist. In this way, he ignores the heartfelt desire to be a model nation that was expressed by leading Zionists before the Holocaust. Exceptionalism can be problematic, but it also has much power to do good. If nations never had ideals, how could they progress?
    Second, national exceptionalism leads to arrogance in cases in which the nation does not have a healthy sense of self-criticism. But Israeli society encompasses intellectuals and critics of all sorts who are ethically sensitive, and its judicial system is one of the most advanced in terms of oversight over real war-time issues (even in the midst of battle, a wide range of activists can petition the Supreme Court to issue rulings). Contrast this with the exceptionalism rampant throughout the Middle East, in which fundamentalists posit Islam as the most just system on earth without subjecting their own actions to any kind of ethical critique. The fact that Cohen conveniently ignores this issue shows his bias.

  3. Jack-

    Both interesting points. I miss William Safire; I didn't always agree with him, but I could respect the integrity he brought to his analysis. I don't see it in Cohen, at all.