The notion of an exceptional nation suggests the role of providence (divinity or God) in the securing of its destiny. American “exceptionalism” in this sense means America’s republican experiment with freedom and democracy has been in part religious or providential.

One of the most notable American sociologists, Seymour Martin Lipset (1922-2006), devoted his life studying what made the United States an exceptional country. In American Exceptionalism (1996), Lipset wrote, “there can be little question that the hand of providence has been on a nation which finds a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt when it needs him.”

But if there is one nation that was and remains exceptional, chronologically speaking, ahead of America, it is Israel, or the Jewish people. Since most non-Americans, however, find the notion of American exceptionalism as another expression for, it might be said, political chauvinism, similarly great many non-Jews are derisive of “Israeli exceptionalism” or Jews as “chosen people.”

Derision aside — especially from those who have made Jew-hatred or anti-Semitism a uniquely lethal form of bigotry — there is little to be disputed about the significance of Israel’s role as a nation, an idea, a religious inspiration, an historic reference, an ethical compass, and as people of the book (the Bible) in the formation of the western civilization.

There would not be Christianity without Judaism. And while Jews suffered grievously under Christian bigotry, Israel would not have been established without Christians seeking atonement from Jews for their guilt of abusing them.

Modern Israel is a testimony of how a people joined together by faith and memory, despite their ordeal and near destruction — first by ancient Romans, and then in the last century by German Nazis — survived, overcame immense difficulties, and renewed their history in the land where their ancestors were the first to worship the one supreme God.

It is precisely in this sense, of survival and surmounting obstacles, that Israel is an exceptional nation. And “chosen people” has meant to Jews, by providential command, to be an example for others of faithfulness in the worship of the one and only omnipotent God.

On occasions in Israel’s history, ancient and modern, “the hand of providence,” has seemingly hovered over it. This is evident in the leaders that have arisen among Jews from Moses, David, and the prophets of the Old Testament to Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and others in modern times.

Once again Israel in recent years is surrounded by enemies near and far. The unremitting hostility of Arabs and Muslims threatens Jewish survival in the land from where Romans expelled Jews nearly 2,000 years ago.

The oddest thing about Muslim hostility to Jews on the basis of religion is there would not be Islam without Judaism. The Qur’an is a book containing Jewish history, revealed as instructions to a prophet born among idol-worshippers, to raise them from ignorance into worshipping the God of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews.

But if the past foretells the future, Jewish leaders, such as Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could prove to be the providential tool that eventually cures Arabs and Muslims of their bigotry, as Christians were.  Such, ironically, would be the mysterious ways of Abraham’s God.