(From the Tablet)
Without a sense of exceptionalism, a country of chosen people cannot prosper
Biblical Israel was America’s inspiration. Its successor, the State of Israel, yet may be America’s salvation, though usually the issue is put the other way around. America’s founders, to be sure, saw in their “new nation, conceived in liberty” a new Israel, and Lincoln dubbed Americans an “almost chosen people.” We long since put the notion of national election on the back shelf along with other memorabilia of the Revolution and Civil War. But Israel’s founding and fight for survival strike a chord in our national character that reminds of us what we were and still should be.
The notion of “national election,” to be sure, has scant purchase in a world where every identity group claims the right to the equality of its own narrative. It evokes Europe’s wars of national aggrandizement, foreign wars to make the world safe for democracy, and the marginalization of minorities. The notion that one nation’s narrative might trump another’s offends the leveling Zeitgeist: Identity politics excludes the distinction between good and evil, for every narrative is valid in its own terms. That was the nub of President Barack Obama’s oft-quoted 2009 remark, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Projected into foreign policy, identity politics avers that all national narratives are equally valid: Iran’s grievances against the West have as valid a claim on American attention as Israel’s assertion of its right to exist. If Iran builds nuclear weapons, sponsors terrorists, hangs hundreds of citizens annually for thought crimes and sexual misconduct, kills American soldiers, and declares its intent to wipe Israel off the map, the fault lies with us: with the Western history of intervention into Iran’s politics. If America accommodates Iran’s narrative, Iran will behave responsibly. As Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, “What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.”
All men are created equal, but not all nations. There are two nations and only two nations in the world that are “chosen,” because their inhabitants became citizens by choice rather than happenstance: the United States of America and the State of Israel. Every other nation in the world defines itself by common territory and heritage. America has sought to undo its election since the end of the Civil War, which exacted a terrible cost that even the victors shuddered to pay a second time. One cost of the existential fear that certainties about human freedom and divine election engendered in the American national psyche was the condemnation of black Americans to a century of nationally sanctioned apartheid. It is the reason why Confederate flags still fly over U.S. state capitols where streets and schools are named for the wicked slaveholder and arch-rebel Jefferson Davis. Read more