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The Tangled History of American and Israeli Exceptionalism

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The American publishing industry does not skimp when it comes to Israel. It has provided us with bookshelves groaning with hagiographies of generations of Israeli leaders, acres of glossy coffee-table books lauding the Israeli miracle in the desert, and a plethora of studies of Israel and its relations with the world.

In the last category, studies of Israel’s relationship with the United States have a special place. Most are informed by a deep sympathy with Israel and staunchly defend the closest possible partnership between the two countries, even if they are occasionally critical of each other’s excesses. Much of this writing is by political scientists or former diplomats, whether Israeli or American, and concentrates on diplomacy and strategy.

The better books in this extensive literature have a narrow temporal focus, like Michelle Mart’s Eye on Israel and Peter Grose’s Israel in the Mind of America, or take an international-relations approach, like Camille Mansour’s Beyond Alliance, John Judis’s Genesis, and Irene Gendzier’s Dying to Forget. As a result, even the best of these studies often ignore the cultural, intellectual, religious, and emotional forces that have also played a role in shaping Israeli-US relations since the end of World War II.

Amy Kaplan’s Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance helps fill that void. A tour de force of both history and cultural studies, it is the first work to describe, fully and rigorously, America’s relationship with Israel in terms of the profound cultural ties that bind the two countries so closely together and to examine their evolving relationship over several generations. The title of Kaplan’s book is extremely telling: This is a story of how a national and colonial settler project in a distant and seemingly exotic part of the world was normalized and Americanized to the point that, in the American imagination, Israelis are seen as close kin. In a certain sense, for many Americans, Israel is a part of us.

Amy Kaplan is a historian of American culture and intellectual life at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work is widely respected among scholars in the field for its perceptive understanding of the crucial role of culture in history, and here she offers an exemplary examination of how American exceptionalism and the sense of Israel as a special place and people fostered by Zionism have mirrored each other. For Kaplan, this explains a crucial aspect of the extraordinary affinity between the two peoples: They share a belief that their nation’s existence was divinely ordained and that it is therefore exempt from the rules that apply to other nations.

In explaining this affinity, Kaplan draws on the two peoples’ parallel pioneering mythologies and their similarly disdainful views of the indigenous populations in the lands they rule over. She shows that American and Israeli forms of exceptionalism intersect in many ways—not just in the manner in which both countries understand their respective manifest destinies but also in the material means by which they have realized them through systematic colonization and the suppression of indigenous populations. Kaplan stresses the crucial importance of this process of suppression in the paradoxical victim-and-victor image that Israel has long enjoyed in the United States. Emphasizing the consequences of this long-standing sympathetic view of Israel for the usually invisible third party to this triangle—the Palestinian people—she also notes how the negative image of Palestinians in the American mind was largely shaped by hostile Israeli views of them, as well as by American Islamophobia and Arabophobia.

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