The Misguided Exceptionalism of US-Israeli Relations

I used to hear people talk about Islam or Muslim-majority states and sense that something was not right. It wasn’t that everything people were saying was necessarily wrong, but it was about how they said it. Namely, it was that the tropes they used, such as “barbaric” and “savage,” could understandably be seen as distasteful. After all, the history of colonialism in the Middle East and in Africa often relied on tropes about indigenous “incivility,” and leftists are sensitive toward (or should be sensitive toward) the reproduction of colonial rhetoric. Nonetheless, we sometimes see colonial rhetoric simply adapt to the times that we are in, as I have recently argued.

Similarly, there are ways that people criticize Israel that do not intentionally target it qua Jewish state, but nonetheless draw on pernicious tropes about Jewish people. As I have argued before, we on the left ought to listen to Jewish people and be aware of how our critiques can draw on oppressive stereotypes. And they often can; by our own admission in left-leaning political theory, hegemonic ideology affects our conception of the world regardless of who we are. If we admit that white supremacy exists as a hegemonic ideology, surely we must admit that we have all internalized pernicious tropes about people that are marginalized by whiteness.

White supremacy makes us conceive of Israel’s relationship with the United States as exceptional. And this is not a left versus right issue. Some on the right have argued that Israel is exceptional for evangelical reasons, claiming that Israel will bring the second coming of Jesus. Some on the left argue that Israel controls American political affairs, which makes the United States care more about Israel than about domestic politics. This line in particular brings in some infamous dual loyalty accusations — another historically anti-Semitic trope. And such tropes should not be welcome in a movement that purports to combat white supremacy.

Here is the problem. Israel is unexceptional in ways that are relevant to American politics. To claim that it has some exceptional power over America while overlooking other ways in which money has a role in American politics is to fall into the hands of white supremacist stereotypes. Instead, we ought to conceive of this issue by focusing on two things.

First, the American government is not democratically representative of everyday Americans’ interests. It is comprised of wealthy individuals with little regulation on their financial conduct. These individuals all have personal economic interests, and we do not have good reason to believe that they operate in American politics for purely ideational reasons rather than as self-interested agents.

Second, the wealthy political class in the United States benefits from supporting governments that are politically cooperative and aligned with their interests. Israel is one of these states; they are a channel for the United States to defend its interests in the Middle East. The United States receives intelligence about anti-American “threats” while Israel can profit from military sales to the United States. But I must emphasize again: this is unexceptional. The United States also has similar beneficial alliances with states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which have contributed to the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain and the murder of countless Yemeni civilians. They have a track record of allying with right wing governments abroad.

While avoiding pernicious language that paints Israel as a uniquely bad partner-state, we ought not to turn a blind eye to the fact that Israel and the Netanyahu administration is part of the global right wing alliance that cooperates with the United States’ interests abroad. This is not an Israel problem per se, but a matter of wealthy and powerful anti-democrats that are allied under American global hegemony. It is also not a matter of some small and elite council of people meeting and conspiring to control our political views. Rather, it is a matter of rational agents operating in positions of power under a capitalist system and bolstering themselves with convenient and common hermeneutics.

So, let’s establish that Israel is unexceptional when it comes to American political action. The U.S. is not controlled by its allies; rather, it is influenced by alliances and has interests in maintaining them. It is not that America is otherwise free, but influenced not to be. Rather, the U.S. has a set of geopolitical interests that alliances with anti-democratic powers can further. Israel is one of many right wing governments in this alliance.

Now, there is another way to treat Israel exceptionally that we should avoid, which is to ignore its role in this hegemonic alliance. That is, acting as though Israel is not a right wing government that benefits from allying with other right wing governments. This alliance means that Israel can influence American politics to an extent without necessarily “controlling” anything. Just like the U.S. and other states involved influence each other all the time. If it is in the interest of the American elite to ally with Israel and American representatives are self-interested agents, it makes sense that that would influence American politics. This does not mean that one controls the other. In fact, it would be absurd to deny American hegemony for the sake of arguing instead that Israel controls America. But it does mean that people are well warranted in pointing out that American politicians are incentivized to unconditionally support Israel — for their own benefit, and not necessarily Israel’s. We need not single out support for Israel here though. For instance, I do not take America’s support for Saudi Arabia to be about genuine care for Muslim interests, and I am sure plenty of American Muslims would agree with me. We can oppose politicians’ support of Saudi Arabia and similar states as well and identify the stakes of US political support for these regimes.

American exceptionalism is at the heart of this problem because it pushes the idea that America is an otherwise good and wholesome democracy, so long as other foreigners don’t intervene. But America’s international conduct shows that this is demonstrably false. American politicians have contributed to funding al-Qaeda affiliated groups and overthrowing democratically elected governments to create conditions favourable to them.  

But because white supremacy is hegemonic, it often is the quickest and most available language and conceptual framework people have. Hence, people resort to language that relies on white supremacist conventions, including the trope that Jewish people control America, and including the trope that Middle Eastern states are rogue and uncivilized and in need of intervention.

Critiques of Israel must be situated in America’s relationship to the Middle East. If we properly situate and contextualize our critiques, we will avoid both the use of pernicious stereotypes that single out Israel as an international player and the treatment of Israel as an exceptional state that deserves protection from anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist criticism.

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