Challenging Israel’s exceptionalism in American politics
While support for Israel across the political spectrum remains strong in Washington, the traditional bipartisan consensus in favor of unconditional support for Israel has begun to fray in recent years. More than a half century of Israeli occupation, the rightward drift in Israeli politics, and shifts in the American political landscape, have led growing numbers of Americans, particularly left-leaning Democrats, to become more vocal in their support for Palestinian rights and in their opposition to unconditional support for Israel. This trend has been anything but uniform, however, as the bulk of American liberal and progressive politicians continue to adhere to the traditional pro-Israel orthodoxy.
It is this group that is the focus of the new book, “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics,” by Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick. “Except for Palestine” is a timely and compelling treatise on the moral failings of U.S. policy and American politics in relation to Israel/Palestine.
The book’s central argument is simple: Palestinians are a subjugated and dispossessed group whose rights and humanity American liberals and progressives should have no problem openly and vocally affirming and advocating for. And yet not only are self-styled progressives silent on Palestinian rights, but many also actively support policies that perpetuate Palestinian suffering and dehumanization.
Unlike conservatives, whose illiberal stances on Israel/Palestine are largely consistent with their stated values, many progressives routinely talk about principles of freedom, justice, and equality, while consciously or unconsciously carving out an exception for Palestine and Palestinians. Moreover, the authors argue, such negligence directly harms Palestinians given America’s inordinate involvement in the conflict.
Hill and Plitnick tackle of some of the thorniest issues of the conflict, such as Jerusalem, refugees, and the man-made disaster known as the Gaza Strip, and do so with great nuance, sensitivity, and clarity. For example, the authors’ discussion of the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, campaign, an issue steeped in hyperbole and hysteria, is among the most nuanced, clear-eyed, and refreshingly nonpolemical out there. Hill and Plitnick make clear that Palestine’s liberal exemption is “not the product of Jewish cabals of power, political conspiracies, or any of the other centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes that have been used to dehumanize, isolate, and otherwise harm Jewish people.” But neither, they insist, can the fight against the scourge of antisemitism be carried out the at expense of Palestinian rights and humanity.
But what truly sets “Except for Palestine” apart from other books on the subject is the authors’ willingness to challenge not just the substance of Israeli and American policies toward the Palestinians but the very philosophical and ideological underpinnings of those policies — and specifically, the notion that Zionism, Israel’s founding political ideology, is or should be normative.
This exception for Palestine, the authors argue, is ultimately a function of the exceptionalism with which Israel is itself treated in American politics and foreign policy, starting with the expectation that Palestinians (and their supporters) recognize Israel’s “right to exist.” While the notion of Israel’s “right to exist” may seem unremarkable, it is in fact highly idiosyncratic. For one, it is seldom if ever invoked for any country other than Israel. As a rule, countries and political movements either recognize or don’t recognize each other. And since states mostly come about through some combination of power and historical accident, it is doubtful that any state has a “right to exist” as such. Moreover, the demand is typically made only of Palestinians. As the authors note, neither Egypt nor Jordan in their respective peace treaties were asked to recognize Israel’s “right to exist.” Nor were the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, or Sudan asked to recognize such a right before normalizing relations with Israel. Indeed, for Israel’s founders, the mere existence of Israel and its recognition by other countries made its “right” to exist axiomatic. As the authors remind us, men like Abba Eban, Zeev Jabotinsky, and Menachem Begin rejected the idea that Israel’s existence should be subject to the approval of others, and instead envisioned an Israel that would be “a state like any other.”
Despite this, the Palestine Liberation Organization was required to recognize Israel’s “right to exist” as a condition for its entry into the peace process, with which it grudgingly complied in 1988. So why was this demand made only of Palestinians? And why was it so difficult for them to do so? The answer to both questions is the same.
For Palestinians, recognizing Israel’s “right to exist” meant accepting not just Israel’s existence as a political and military reality but the rightness of its creation, which as most everyone knows entailed the destruction of Arab Palestinian society and the dispossession of most of its population. This was not a practical or political demand, in other words, but a moral and ideological one. As Hill and Plitnick explain, “When someone asks if one supports ‘Israel’s right to exist,’ they are tacitly asking if one agrees that Israel’s elevation of Jewish rights above those of Palestinians in the land they all inhabit is acceptable.” Asserting Israel’s “right to exist” thus serves as a proxy for legitimating Zionism and/or delegitimizing Palestinian national narratives as well as a kind of ideological litmus test used to stifle criticism of Zionism or Israel or weed out non- or anti-Zionist voices. In a world where Zionism is not only the norm but normative, opposition to Zionism is necessarily seen as heresy.
In practical terms, Israel’s exceptionalism extends to almost every aspect of the U.S.-Israel “special relationship” — from its unmatched (and unconditional) $3.8 billion military aid package to the unwavering commitments by both Democratic and Republican administrations to provide political and diplomatic cover to Israel in international forums. It has even entered the U.S. domestic sphere, most notably in the effort to quash BDS and other speech critical of Israel or Zionism.
BDS was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society with the aim of pressuring Israel to end its occupation and respect Palestinian rights. It is a direct response to the perceived failures of both the U.S.-led peace process and the Palestinian leadership in restraining Israel or holding it accountable. Israeli leaders and pro-Israel advocates, however, reject BDS as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel and accuse it of unfairly “singling out” the Jewish state. Despite the nonviolent nature of BDS and the long tradition of boycotts in American and other liberation struggles, BDS quickly became short-hand for “anti-Israel” if not a manifestation of “antisemitism.” As a result, some 30 states have enacted laws that aimed at prohibiting boycotts of Israel. Such laws in effect make it legal to boycott any country, state, city or political entity in the world except Israel. So far, four of these states have already seen their laws overturned by the courts on constitutional grounds.
Opponents of BDS claim the movement unfairly “discriminates” against Israel, a charge Hill and Plitnick say effectively turns that concept on its head. If anything, the goal of BDS opponents is not to prevent Israel from being singled out but to ensure that it continues to be singled out by exempting it from serious scrutiny and accountability. Indeed, Israel has never had to face the consequences of its own actions, whether settlement expansion, the killing of civilians, or other violations of Palestinian rights. Not because such actions didn’t carry costs but because the United States actively worked to defray or deflect those costs at almost every turn. In contrast to the Palestinians, who have been subjected to a staggering array of U.S. sanctions since the start of the Oslo process in 1993, no U.S. administration has been willing even to apply pressure on Israel much less sanction it. Instead, successive administrations from both parties have consistently shielded Israel from the costs and consequences of its own actions, whether in the context of the peace process or in various international forums.
This trend has continued under President Biden. Just days after promising to make human rights and multilateralism centerpieces of his foreign policy, the Biden administration took aim at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, accusing the two multilateral human rights bodies of unfairly targeting Israel. However, as Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth put it, “If the Biden administration wants to reduce the number of resolutions on Israel at the UN Human Rights Council, it should end the U.S. practice of vetoing resolutions on Israel at the UN Security Council, which is why governments turn to the rights council.”
It is this exceptional state of impunity that both the authors and BDS seek to remedy and that the anti-BDS campaign seeks to preserve. As Plitnick and Hill both understand from their involvement in Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other social justice movements, for a powerful group that is accustomed to acting with impunity the prospect of any type of accountability will invariably feel like persecution.
The alternative to an Israel-centric approach is not one that inordinately favors Palestinians but one based on universal values of freedom, justice, and equality. Hill and Plitnick’s fundamental hope is for American politicians in general and progressives in particular to acknowledge “that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights to freedom, justice, equality, safety, and self-determination as everyone else around the world,” including Israeli Jews.
Yet such a reasonable outcome seems almost unthinkable in the context of Israeli exceptionalism and in the absence of a robust policy debate, which has long been stymied by ideological dogmatism and an almost religious commitment to maintaining a “bipartisan consensus” on Israel. If basic fairness is not sufficient motivation, then we should at least endeavor to treat Israel as its founders had envisioned — as “a state like any other.”