A Further Perspective

Israeli Exceptionalism

No other country casts such a giant shadow.

By 9.8.11

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Much was made of President Obama's dismissal of the idea of American exceptionalism, when he noted that the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism, etc. No doubt Achilles believed in the latter, as Hector believed in Trojan exceptionalism. But in many ways there truly is no more exceptional a nation than modern Israel.

Exiled for nearly two thousand years by Roman imperialism, survivors of countless persecutions over the centuries -- including those of an Islam far less tolerant that "Religion of Peace" partisans would have us believe -- the Jews were awakened to the promise of return to the Holy Land by Napoleon. The man Winston Churchill called "the greatest man of action to take the world stage since Julius Caesar" invaded Egypt in 1798 and, more even than the atrocities of September 11, 2001, that invasion "changed everything." Bonaparte promised the Jews that they could return to the Holy Land if they supported him. Napoleon spent his last days on St. Helena, in the south Atlantic, an inhospitable place. Given the condition that Jews coming to Zion found "the land of milk and honey" in, St. Helena was the Ritz by comparison. When the Arabs arrived in the seventh century they brought with them not only their religious faith but black goats, which promptly gorged themselves on the abundant vegetation. Denuded, the Holy Land became in short order a visual and ecological wasteland. The City of David withered for lack of care, as Umayyads from Damascus, Abbassids from Baghdad, Fatimids from Cairo, Seljuks from eastern Turkey, Crusaders from Europe, Ayyubids from Damascus (led by Saladin, a Kurd), Mongols from the steppe (Genghis' grandson, Hulagu, who went home else he would have razed the city), Mamluks from Egypt, and Ottomans from Constantinople, serially conquered the City.

Enter the Jews late in the Ottoman period, finding a land Mark Twain described as desolate and deserted when he came to Jerusalem in 1867, six years after the first settlement outside of the Old City's walls had been started. As Jews came to Palestine, a place that had never denoted a city, let alone a country of any kind or, for that matter, a people, so the Ottomans took notice, and sent Arab tenant farmers in. The hundred-plus years and counting war between Arab and Jew in Palestine began early in the twentieth century. Jews came not as conquerors, and purchased from absentee landowners (the effendi class) the farms worked by the farmers. Through a century of backbreaking labor and ingenuity they restored green fertility and beauty to the wasteland left after thirteen centuries of Muslim (mostly not Arab, as only the Umayyads were ethnically Arab) misrule and neglect.

Now the "Palestinians" -- a misnomer if ever there was one -- want it all back. They would end the miracle that is Israeli exceptionalism. one that tops ours. America was a vast land, rich in natural resources, protected by two immense oceans, and populated by a few dozen pre-modern tribes. It took a full century from George Washington's 1789 inauguration to close what Frederick Jackson Turner called the final frontier. Along the way, America had time to develop and prosper, shielded from the destructive wars of monarchical Europe, until in 1917 it came to the rescue of a Europe attempting to commit suicide.

Israel had no such luxury. Shooting started the very night that news of the November 29, 1947 UN partition resolution reached the Mideast, and continued through Israel's May 14, 1948 proclamation of statehood. Sixty-three years of unremitting Arab hostility have followed. Israel is a tiny island surrounded by more than one-quarter of a billion Arabs, virtually none of whom think there should be a single Jew in the Mideast, let alone in Jerusalem. David? First Temple? Second Temple? Say -- in Arabic, please -- "Bah humbug!"

Yet Israel has prospered, gliding through the recent near global crash with a growing economy and the world's second most dynamic tech sector. It is a triumph of the human spirit and genius. Arabs, awash in petrodollars, lack the human capital to match Jewish dynamism. Israel, put simply, beat longer odds than did the United States.

Frank Sinatra's voice lights up the business center at the Tel Aviv Dan Hotel as I type. You remember him, the pilot in Cast a Giant Shadow who dropped soda-pop bottles to scare off Egyptian tanks. Fortunately for the state of Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces have more than soda-pop bottles to resist Arab aggression. And the IDF will need all they can get to continue to protect Israel's ability to prosper. Frank is long gone, but the IDF is here. Perhaps Israel will adopt "Come Fly With Me" as a theme for the 21st century.

(Mr. Wohlstetter has been reporting from Israel all week.)

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.