Why Are You Singling Out Israel?, or a Brief Response to Charges of Exceptionalism

[The following blog entry was inspired by an exchange with a family member. I chose to write it not so much to initiate some kind of debate, but rather because I think the issues our exchange raised have broader implications. To the extent that it may be perceived as a direct response to this exchange, I hope readers will recognize that I have written it without hostility, and in the spirit of constructive criticism. Like most of my entries, it has been written hurriedly due to time constraints.]

When one is engaged in Palestinian solidarity organizing, charges of exceptionalism become familiar refrains: Why are you singling out Israel? Why aren’t you organizing against misogyny in Afghanistan or homophobia in Iran? Why aren’t you confronting human rights abuses in North Korea?

These charges are somewhat ironic, for exceptionalism is indeed pervasive in the discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine, both on the right and on the left. On the right, exceptionalism becomes the means by which Israel and its allies justify an apartheid state and the various forms of material, psychological, and epistemological violence which are required for its reproduction. In both self-representation and external perceptions, Israel becomes the inheritor of a Jewish victimization which is taken outside of time, removed from its specific historical and geographic circumstances and said to exist in perpetuity. If Israel builds up a fortress state which regularly uses military violence against Palestinians or neighboring states, this is because Israel must keep constant vigilance, lest it be consumed by the rest of the world’s unshakable anti-Semitic compulsions (which are, naturally, always on the brink of giving way to another Holocaust). At the same time, exceptionalism manifests in a racist imaginary in which Israel becomes a bastion of Western civilization, bulwark against the barbarous hordes which make up the rest of the Middle East. If Palestinians fire rockets into Israel, it must be because they don’t value life in the same manner that Israelis (and Westerners) do; if (some) queers have greater civil rights in Israel, it must be because Israel possesses an enlightened tolerance which its backward neighbors (codified as Arab or Muslim) lack.

Meanwhile, exceptionalist discourse on the left tends to invert this fallacious representation, depicting the Israeli occupation as a regime unparalleled in its ruthlessness, and in rare instances even slipping into talk of Israel controlling US foreign policy or of Zionist designs for global conquest (contentions which are reminiscent of the anti-Semitic imaginings of an “International Jewish Conspiracy” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Both of these exceptionalist positions are, of course, entirely spurious. Israel is a settler-colonial state, unique but unexceptional, and there are numerous nation-states with which it can be compared (such as the United States, South Africa, or Australia). Similarly, while the apartheid system which Israel has developed undoubtedly has its own peculiarities, it still shares basic structural characteristics with, for example, (formal) apartheid in South Africa or the Jim Crow US South. As I noted in my introductory post (and which I will expand upon at some later point, time permitting), de-exceptionalizing this discourse – or really situating it within a more radical comparative frame – is essential not only in terms of getting to the roots of the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” but also in terms of revealing the ways in which this conflict is both implicated in and indicative of global processes.

However, most often when charges of exceptionalism are directed at Palestinian solidarity activists, it is not with the intention of deepening their analysis by way of constructive criticism. At best, questions such as “why are you singling out Israel?” are misguided; at worst, cynical attempts to discredit those working to overcome a structure of domination, exploitation, and exclusion. In what follows I briefly outline the reasons why this question is so problematic.

1) The existence of other situations of comparable ethical import does not negate the importance of engaging with this singular issue – The world we live in is filled to the brim with violent and tragic situations – unsurprisingly, as there are few spaces globally which are not integrated into the same macro-structures of domination, exploitation, and exclusion. All of us, however, face practical limitations in terms of the spaces where we can focus our intellectual and material energies. If I am unable to simultaneously confront all of the problems faced by human and non-human life on this planet, should I then withdraw my participation in particular struggles for fear of ethical hypocrisy? Of course not. Certainly I should do my best to situate the issues with which I am engaged in their broader context, highlighting both their particular and general dynamics, as well as their implications for liberatory struggles at large, but I should not bemoan my inability to do everything at once. By choice and accidents of history, we find ourselves unevenly engaged with the social field, and this is simply unavoidable.

2) The particular is not necessarily at the expense of the universal, or the exceptionalism of charges of Palestinian solidarity exceptionalism – When one is charged with an exceptional preoccupation with the misdeeds of Israel, rarely is it accompanied by inquires regarding the other forms of intellectual critique or practical engagement with which one is involved. In my case (and I have been on the receiving end of this charge many, many times), Palestinian solidarity work has not even been my foremost sphere of political engagement. My critical intellectual foci have tended to revolve around historical capitalism and the ways in which structures of racial, gender, sexual, and ecological domination have been articulated with this system, while my political practice has generally fallen into the multifaceted milieu of anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian organizing (most recently within the Occupy movement). I have, in other words, been both engaged with multiple particular issues and situated these particular issues within more general systemic dynamics. Yet when I have put on educational events about anarchism or food justice, or organized demonstrations against the US war on Afghanistan, or given workshops on the political economy of the global crisis, or engaged in direct actions within the Occupy movement, never have I been charged with focusing on, say, the politics of food to the exclusion of other issues. I have certainly been attacked on many fronts for my politics in these different spheres, but never with the charge of exceptionalism. As soon as I raise critiques of Israel or participate in Palestinian solidarity work, however, I am immediately charged with exceptionalism. In essence, charges of exceptionalism in relation to the Palestinian liberation struggle are often smokescreens for precisely the inverse exceptionalism, in which Israeli settler-colonialism is deemed a subject best left outside the bounds of intellectual critique or political challenge.

3) The particular and uneven ethical implications of one’s social location – Let me be clear: anyone, anywhere has a valid ethical claim to engaging in Palestinian solidarity/liberation or anti-Zionist politics. That being said, many of us, by virtue of our social location, may have a particular investment or disproportionate responsibility which motivates our engagement with these struggles. Speaking for myself, I am, firstly, a citizen of the United States, the erstwhile world-hegemonic power upon which Israel vitally depends for financial, military, and diplomatic support. My tax dollars (provided I consent to paying taxes – and I do) literally help pay for the bulldozers which demolish Palestinian homes and the M16s which extinguish Palestinian lives. Were the US to withdraw its support for Israel, Israeli settler-colonialism would not be long for this world. Thus, as a US citizen, I am implicated in the processes which reproduce Israeli settler-colonialism in particular and disproportionate ways, and can reasonably be said to have greater moral responsibility for the violence it produces. On top of this, I am a white Jewish-American, and thus located within a community which directly or indirectly lends crucial material and discursive support to Zionism and Israel. When I speak out as someone who is Jewish, the ideological hegemony of Zionism combines with racist discursive inequalities to lend my voice far greater weight than that of a Muslim or non-Jewish Arab. Conversely, when I remain silent, my silence carries greater material implications than that of, say, a non-Jewish white person. Thus, once again I can be said to have greater moral responsibility for the violence inherent in the reproduction of Israeli settler-colonialism. Furthermore, I may feel (and do) that I have what the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network calls an independent case against Zionism – i.e. I may seek to confront Zionism not only for the sake of Palestinians or humanity at large, but because I recognize the ways in which Zionism has cynically essentialized and exploited Jewish identities and histories, or has itself been built upon anti-Semitic discourse and substantially contributed to the reproduction of anti-Semitism across the globe. In other words, the particularities of my social location may give me specific reasons for choosing to emphasize the struggle against Zionism and for Palestinian liberation over various other struggles. Were I Indian, I might highlight the ways in which Indian militarism and the rise of Hindutva have been supported by India’s alliance with Israel. Were I a South African or a black American, I might focus on the ways in which Israeli apartheid paralleled my own historical or contemporary experience of apartheid, or the ways in which both are in part products of globalizing structures of racial domination. Were I Native American, I might note that the Palestinian experience of dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and historical erasure recalls my own experience with US settler-colonialism. The point here is that our social location implicates us in the struggles against Zionist settler-colonialism and/or Palestinian liberation in particular and uneven ways, and that these facts may motivate a specific (but not exceptionalist) focus on this struggle. (For simplicity’s sake, I have set aside very important questions surrounding how to best navigate the tensions inherent in organizing from one’s particular social location – e.g. for those engaged in a Jewish anti-Zionist politic, how to constructively engage with the fact of one’s voice being privileged in public discourse without simultaneously displacing Palestinian voices, and thereby reproducing the relations of inequality one supposedly seeks to subvert)

4) The particular material and symbolic importance of Israeli settler-colonialism and the Palestinian liberation struggle – Finally, the struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism and for Palestinian liberation is not simply a struggle among struggles, equal to all others in terms of its world-historic implications. At a material level, Israel remains a kind of imperial outpost for a number of North Atlantic states – most importantly the US – in a region which is absolutely central to the reproduction of global capitalism (I am referring here to oil, for while Southwest Asia and North Africa certainly have other reasons for their geostrategic centrality, their concentrated possession of this energy resource is the most important). And while the US may no longer be a world-hegemonic power in the sense that it was a half century ago, it is still by far the most powerful national state apparatus, arguably the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, and the principle state agency through which transnational capitalist class power has been projected. The US would not go through so much trouble to support and defend Israeli settler-colonialism were this small state not especially important to its geostrategic designs (those who attribute US foreign policy in relation to Israel almost exclusively to the presence of a powerful Zionist lobby within the US are, in my view, entirely off the mark). Israel/Palestine is also a kind of laboratory for new forms of militarism, security, and policing which are emerging on a global scale. Here I am referring not only to the obvious ways in which Israel leads the way in the production of new military and policing technologies (weapons, monitoring systems, etc.), but also to their theoretical and organizational innovations in realms such as counterinsurgency. There are few places in the world where exploitive inclusion is so successfully coupled to profound exclusions through constant surveillance, control of movements, fragmentation of space, and low-intensity warfare. In addition, the struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism and for Palestinian liberation has profound symbolic importance to peoples and struggles across the globe. Israel has become a symbol of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, US and Western domination of West Asia and North Africa, modern settler-colonialism and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, and an emergent regime of world-systemic inequality – which combines a highly selective and exploitive integration, massive expulsions, and new mechanisms of policing and control – that many are referring to as “global apartheid.” The struggle for Palestinian liberation, meanwhile, has come to symbolize the fights against racism and colonialism, policing and militarism, and even the global justice movement at large. Thus, for those of us engaged in liberatory struggles on a global scale, the struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism and for Palestinian liberation has special material and symbolic import, which we ignore at our own peril.

There is no question that Palestine is hard-wired…into the circuits of the struggle for global justice. At a time when the deep structures of globalization threaten to render politics itself a thing of the past, this struggle seeks to defend and breathe new life into the process of participatory, democratic politics. At a time when the actions of powerful settler states such as the US and Israel threaten to render international law useless, this struggle insists on the need to move past the politics of exceptionalism. And at a time of permanent war and immanent social militarization, this struggle aims to imagine and actualize productive and liberating ways of using the tradition of nonviolent “popular defense” in order to exit from the suicidal dynamic that combines war, ecological destruction and the predatory search for endless capital accumulation. Palestine remains both the site of a struggle to decolonize itself and a key node in the globally networked struggle to decolonize a world whose current structures of inequality and injustice have been shaped by the global politics of settler colonialism.

– John Collins

Further Reading

Collins, John, Global Palestine (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., 2011).

Veracini, Lorenzo, Israel and Settler Society (London: Pluto Press, 2006).


2 comments on “Why Are You Singling Out Israel?, or a Brief Response to Charges of Exceptionalism

  1. matson says:

    Thanks for this post, it clarified some thoughts for me. I especially appreciated the point on how unexceptional Israel is as a settler-colonial state. I think this is excellent footing for the beginning of the discourse. The justifications that are made on behalf of Israel’s land grabs are not new either. Has anyone done an extensive side-by-side comparison of arguments for Israeli expansion with arguments for Indian removal or expansion of Germany? (e.g. “Israel is vulnerable and territorially compromised” is not unlike the Lebensraum argument, “God gave it to Israel” is not unlike manifest destiny, and arguments referring to bad behavior on the part of the Palestinians are just like arguments about bad behavior of Indian tribes and they are used to support ethnic cleansing.)

    I’m not so sure how oil plays into the role of the United States in Israel. Israel/Palestine doesn’t have much oil, its near neighbors aren’t major exporters, and being 500 miles from major deposits is not notable. (If it really was all about oil, then Israel would have the geostrategic importance of Guatemala or Togo). Besides, wouldn’t you figure the U.S. would have more steady access to oil if it was not allied with Israel? The Arab Oil Embargo was a major problem. I do think it should be acknowledged that if you are trying to maintain hegemony, infuriating hundreds of millions of people (muslims) is quite costly.

    I also need to be persuaded on this last point of yours: “The US would not go through so much trouble to support and defend Israeli settler-colonialism were this small state not especially important to its geostrategic designs.” I think you imply too much rationality and strategy on the part of the United States. Support for Israel is a structural part of U.S. politics in the sense that it is politically risky for public figures to diverge from support from Israel. There is a deeply rooted cultural affinity for light-skinned people who are under threat from muslims. And this goes beyond just the United States, in Canada public opinion is even more firmly behind Israel. The geostrategy, in this view, emerges haltingly from competing pressures, and affinity for Israel is the driving force.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on these topics, but don’t let it stop you from doing your work. I really appreciate your dispatches- each is a compelling documentary of events – and I’m inspired by your efforts.

    • Matson, thank you for your generous appraisal and thoughtful reflection. I don’t have time to give you the response you deserve, but briefly:

      1) Yes, there are a growing number of scholars undertaking comparative analyses of settler-colonialisms in Palestine and North America. See, for instance, Lorenzo’s Veracini’s Israel and Settler Society and John Collin’s Global Palestine (I can’t recommend the latter strongly enough). That being said, settler-colonialism studies is a relatively recent area of research, and (as far as I know) you could probably fit most of the key literature on a single bookshelf.

      2) As for Israel’s geostrategic importance in relation to oil, I’m not positing as direct a link as you seem to be suggesting. What I’m saying is that oil is the determining geostrategic factor for the Global North in West Asia and North Africa, and that the US alliance with Israel has an enormous influence on the balance of power in the region (militarily, diplomatically, and economically). In the past, at least, it has been a major bulwark against Arab nationalisms potentially threatening to Northern states seeking to maintain control over this crucial energy supply. Certainly this is not straightforward, and the alliance with Israel also generates a great deal of regional instability, but with developments such as the recent Arab Spring, I think the US will still be relying heavily upon this counterweight. And the Arab Oil Embargo was not actually as straightforward as it appears at first glance. As you know, the resultant price hike flooded many of these Arab states with capital which they then recycled into Northern transnational financial institutions. These financial institutions, in turn, funneled much of this capital into burgeoning Third World debt, thereby giving transnational capital even greater leverage when the Third World debt crisis exploded in the early 80s. In the final analysis, the Arab Oil Embargo may have indirectly facilitated the integration of the erstwhile Third World into the global neoliberal regime, as well as a major redistribution of wealth from the Global South to the Global North. Who then were in fact the biggest winners? Northern transnational capital, arguably the most important agency in the shaping of US foreign policy.

      3) Certainly US geostrategy is not always rational and coherent (on the contrary, it is rife with tensions and contradictions), but I do think that it is firmly grounded in material interests (in this sense, I suppose, I’m a bit of a vulgar Marxist – joking). While the racism you describe certainly has a life of its own, and cannot simply be reduced to a function of economic imperatives, I do also think that it typically works (and has been shaped) in the interest of Northern capital accumulation (it’s worth noting, incidentally, that media depictions notwithstanding, less than half of Israel’s population are Ashkenazi – i.e. white Jews). And while it’s certainly true to say that it’s politically risky for US politicians to diverge from enthusiastic support for Israel, to treat this as the determining factor is essentially the same as saying that Zionist (or Jewish) pressure dictates US foreign policy in relation to Israel/Palestine. I don’t think that argument holds weight. I think that the moment supporting Israel became a policy clearly at odds with the state and capitalist interests which shape US foreign policy, that support would promptly vanish (and no amount of protest from AIPAC would change this).

      Thanks again for your feedback. Keep it coming!

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