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liel leibovitz

Liel Leibovitz, light and shadow

NOTE: I called Liel Leibovitz several times, e-mailed him twice, tweeted and sent him a Facebook message seeking an interview or comment on key points in this post.  I offered him an opportunity to respond, but his silence appears to have been his response.

Read part 1 in this series on Tablet Magazine here.

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 Liel Leibovitz is one of Tablet’s longest-running and most prolific contributors.  He’s written there  about his strange family background: he comes from an Israeli family harboring an unusual secret.  His father, Roni, came from “one of Israel’s wealthiest and most powerful families.”  His grandfather founded Israel’s premier olive oil producer, Eytz HaZayit.  Liel enjoyed a privileged life full of security and luxury.

But several times a week, after finishing breakfast, instead of heading with his briefcase to the office, Roni hopped on a motorcycle to rob banks.  Roni Leibovitz was no ordinary bank robber. He didn’t rob for the money. The day after the robbery, if Leibovitz is to be believed, his father walked back into the bank he just robbed and redeposited the stolen money. He even had the audacity to turn around just after the robbery, remove the motorcycle helmet he’d worn to disguise himself, and return to the scene of the crime.

roni leibovitz

Israeli postal stamp “honoring” Roni Leibowitz’s exploits as the ‘motorcycle bandit.’ Caption: “60 years of crime”

Looking for an adrenaline rush from doing the forbidden?  Such a man is clearly psychologically damaged.  In order to give himself such thrills he endangered not only himself, but ruined his family financially, and forced the nation to spend years searching for him until he was finally caught.  His father was finally caught in 1990.  He spent nine years in jail.  Almost immediately after his release, Leibovitz left Israel for America.  I can only imagine the pain and damage this episode must’ve caused.  No doubt, it was appealing to escape the notoriety and unwanted media exposure by moving to a country where no one knows you, and your reputation doesn’t precede you.

Leibovitz too, as a writer over the past decade has led a political double-life of sorts.  His earlier work was published in progressive publications like The Nation where in 2009 he described purportedly being wounded in Lebanon in 1999:

A decade ago, while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, a bit of my behind was blown off in Lebanon.

In Tablet, he noted he served in the IDF public affairs unit.  In other words, his job was to feed information flattering to the IDF to journalists.  He’s a hasbara specialist, not a combat soldier.  So unless he was wounded in an incident totally unrelated to his actual duties, it’s quite possible he’s lying.  As I wrote above, I tried unsuccessfully to contact Leibovitz numerous to clear up exactly what he meant.

The review he wrote of the Israeli film, Waltzing with Bashir, included this damning critique of the then-ongoing Israeli attack on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead:

…The Israeli public that heaped praise on Waltz with Bashir…was ignoring every one of the film’s harrowing lessons and once again unequivocally supporting an aimless military campaign, its goals unclear and its potential for rapid and incontrollable [sic] escalation vast.

…Israelis watching Beirut circa 1982 in Folman’s film are no longer shocked to the core, nor do they realize that they are still fighting the very same dumb and deadly war that so deeply traumatized the director and his friends? How else to explain their continuing support for brutal operations with little lasting strategic value, their continuing calls for increasingly bloody vendettas, their continuing endorsement of political candidates who promise tougher and more violent measures against anyone attacking Israel in any way?

This, to be sure, has little to do with any existential threats. Let’s be honest: these simply do not exist, certainly not from Hamas. The current operation in Gaza was launched in retaliation for more than 10,000 rockets launched by Hamas militants on southern Israel over the past seven years; these attacks, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, killed eighteen people. In an average year, nearly twenty-five times as many Israelis die in car crashes alone. And yet, the majority of Israelis believe that Hamas’s behavior is reason enough to launch a massive military assault on a densely populated urban environment, killing hundreds and achieving no discernible long-term strategic goal.

In language that might’ve been lifted from this blog or Steven Salaita or Max Blumenthal, he here attacks the Israeli public for:

…Cheering as the Israel Air Force assassinates hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, a significant portion of whom were civilians…

He closes his review with this final jeremiad which decries the Israeli stratagem of using art to show Israel as a sensitive liberal democracy in which issues of war and peace can be freely debated:

As I stepped out of the cinema, rubbing my scarred butt and looking at the images of the dead in Gaza – images that looked just like the terrible real-life footage of Palestinian victims in Lebanon Folman inserted at the end of his film–I muttered a silent rant, to no one in particular. Let them wage war, I thought. And let them make movies. But let them never pretend that the two have anything in common, or originate from a common mental space that is fundamentally just and contemplative and resorts to arms only when inevitable.

Israel of today is not Ari Folman’s. It is Avigdor Lieberman’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, the country of the countless men and women crying out for revenge. As we root for Waltz with Bashir, if we want to truly honor that film’s message, let us never forget that.

The metamorphosis from Israeli liberal to defender of all things Israeli is remarkable.  But his earlier career as a liberal journalist offers himself and Tablet the convenient option of parading those former liberal credentials, as if he continued holding his former views.  Israel advocates used the same ruse regarding Benny Morris, known decades ago as the Israeli New Historian who exposed the dirty secrets of Nakba and later became one of its most ardent adherents.  To this day, advocates like to tout Morris as a liberal, when he’s become more truculently anti-Palestinian than any settler ultra-nationalist.

Given the above passages, it’s not hard to believe friends in New York who tell me he spoke supportively in earlier days of BDS, and offered praise to the likes of Max Blumenthal.  But a curious thing happened.

He wrote his first piece for Tablet in 2008.  In those days, he didn’t focus much on Israel.  In fact, most of his pieces were published in the Observance section and dealt with Judaism and spirituality.  He didn’t write his first piece on Israel until April, 2009 (two months after his Nation film review) and even it was a dyspeptic look at the then recently-elected Netanyahu government.  Quickly, Tablet became his primary media home.  Its generous writing fees gradually drew his Israel politics rightward and his reportorial voice changed.  No more articles in The Nation.  He found new subjects to write about for Tablet including Rock and Roll and popular culture.  This intersected nicely with Tablet’s pretensions of pop culture relevance.

By 2011, he was joining with an ex-IDF buddy in a PR enterprise, Thunder11, that promised to bring the supposely innovative media tactics they learned there to their commercial and public policy clients.  They were hired by the New York Jewish federation’s political lobbying arm to create an anti-Iran astro-turf group, Iran180.  Its purpose was to put a serious journalistic gloss on anti-Iran activism.  It sponsored panels with New York Times Middle East reporters and Iranian monarchist and novelist, Roya Hakakian (also an Iran-bashing contributor to Tablet).  But it also got involved in some revolting gay-bashing episodes which featured giant puppet versions of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being sodomized by an Iranian WMD or, in another case, by Bashar al Assad.

When I interviewed Leibovitz about this episode, he claimed to have nothing to do with it.  Yet his name was on the website as a partner in the PR firm.  He didn’t deny he was a partner nor say he was renouncing his role.  Yet somehow he had no responsibility for what was done in his name.

This is the same sort of easy transformation he underwent in his political views.  It’s journalism not as a calling, but as a piece of theater in which the reporter takes on a role performing for his audience.  When he wrote for The Nation he could be the liberal Israeli.  For Tablet, he became (in his own mind and that of his new editors) the liberal ‘mugged by reality’ who managed to maintain his former values, while becoming more hardened and realistic about the terrible Arab neighborhood in which Israel lived.

It was a very lucrative performance.  Reviewing his Tablet oeuvre, he’s written (in approximate numbers) over 600 articles in the 2008-2014 period, an average of twice a week.  As a “senior writer,” he may be paid by the piece or may receive a salary.  If the latter, it would be hard to know how much he earned.  But if he’s paid per article, the standard Tablet fee is $500 (sometimes as high as $800), making his earnings over $300,000 in that period.  If Leibovitz was paid at the higher rate, he’d have earned nearly $500,000.  For a freelance journalist, that’s an extraordinary windfall.

Speaking of Iran 180, Leibovitz did another ‘180’ on BDS.  While claiming to support boycott-lite, rejecting purchases of products from Israeli settlements, he joined other erstwhile liberal Tablet contributors like Gitlin to write dyspeptically about the movement as a mortal danger to Israel.  Among the sobriquets he used was calling American Studies Assocation members who voted in favor of a pro-BDS resolution “political idiots:”

That blinding light we’re seeing is the rise of the political idiot.  The political idiot is very different from the anti-Semite. The latter is a creature driven by deep-seated and irrational hatred—quite possibly a form, as the early Zionist thinker Leo Pinsker noted, of mental illness.

Remember that interview with Newhouse in which she promised to avoid lashon hara and to uphold “responsible journalism?”  Well, there you have it.  If you disagree with anyone including your fellow Jews about Israel, they’re mentally ill.  I’m used to the bullies of StandWithUs employing such tactics.  But Tablet?  And a former liberal like Leibovitz?  That’s an eye-opener.

In another one of his Likudist regressions, Leibovitz joined no less a “progressive” voice than Bibi Netanyahu in demanding that Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  He also wrote an entire piece alleging that Mohammed Abu-Khdeir, the 16 year-old Palestinian boy burned to death by three settler hooligans, wasn’t killed by anything related to the Israeli-Palestine political hatreds, but by soccer hooliganism (i.e. the perpetrators’ affiliation with Beitar Jerusalem):

The truth is that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority, settler rabbis and Hamas all have nothing to do with the terrible events that unfurled after six lowlifes forced a sweet-faced kid into their car and burned him alive. Soccer does. So please, enough with the ancient hatreds and the cycle of violence. The death of Muhammed Abu-Khudair is a terrible tragedy, but it’s not one unique to Israel.

There is a powerful impulse in Israel apologists like Leibovitz to refuse to see the obvious, the thing that is right in front of your face.  The refusal stems from a powerful need to protect Israel from blame, even though it deserves it.

Smearing Salaita

The Steve Salaita scandal involved the University of Illinois hiring–then firing the professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies.  Leibovitz, who continues to boast on his resume of being an NYU associate professor of video gaming (he hasn’t taught there since May 2013), emphatically pronounced Salaita as unfit for academe.  He did this despite the fact that the Palestinian-American’s faculty colleagues at the University of Virginia and his new colleagues at U of I had endorsed him by hiring him and, in U of I’s case, offering him tenure.

In his Tablet hatchet-job, Leibovitz offers pallid defenses for his firing.  Supposedly, most of Salaita’s publications weren’t even in the field of Native American Studies.  But the department’s title which hired him is “American Indian and Indigenous Studies.”  In other words, Salaita studies indigenous peoples whether they be in Palestine or America.  This sort of sloppiness characterizes Leibovitz’s approach to these complex issues.

Leibovitz also doesn’t like the title of Salaita’s latest work, Israel’s Dead Soul.  He calls it “an inflammatory title” that betrays no “generosity of spirit.”  I have no idea why saying Israel has a “dead soul” disqualifies the professor from a teaching job.  Also, has “generosity of spirit” now become a condition for employment in academia?  If so, how do we quantify it?  Will we now resort to vetting the titles of academic works to determine whether someone is suitable for a faculty position?

What’s most extraordinary is that Leibovitz, who has no PhD and no academic training in Salaita’s field or anything remotely close to it, arrogates to himself the right not just to critique Salaita’s scholarship, but to determine he’s unfit for employment.  The Israeli writer forgets (apparently he’s unaware of how academia works) that this is precisely why you have a set of committees which rigorously review everything about a candidate from their publications to their teaching and all things in between.  It is these professionals who weigh their own department’s needs with the skill-set offered by the candidate.  Only after an exhaustive examination of the record, an interview, and sometimes a public academic talk, do they offer a job to a candidate.  This is why so much deference is given to the decisions of campus hiring committees.  They did the work.  They have the expertise.  If you allow amateurs and ideologues like Leibovitz or Dershowitz, in the case of Norman Finkelstein, you might as well not have academic review.  You might as well hold job interviews on the campus quad and appoint a defense and prosecution counsel and hold a public trial to whom anyone may come and say whatever they want.

Given that Leibovitz just finished three years as a visiting professor at NYU, I can imagine he might want to teach again at a university.  Should his opponents drag out his most vituperative articles and tweets and wage war against him for his attacks on Palestinians and their supporters on the left?  Despite the fact that his field of interest, video gaming, has nothing to do with the subject?  Would he not prefer his department and future colleagues to be the one judging his academic worth rather than uninformed pro-Israel activists?  After all, this is the way academia has traditionally made hiring decisions for centuries.  Should we jettison peer review in favor of decisions based on political criteria?

Leibovitz also recites the standard rote response of Salaita’s detractors that he was “uncivil” and that by endorsing supposedly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic memes he would not be a fit colleague.  In other words, Leibovitz claims that someone with strongly critical views of Israel has no place in the academy because it makes colleagues ‘uncomfortable.’  This is the first I’ve ever heard of the academy promising its practitioners a life free of discomfort or disputatious debate.  In fact, in my notion of academic life (I spent thirteen years in various undergraduate and graduate programs) there is a bold, free flow of ideas.  No holds should be barred in such debate as long as the ideas are well-argued and supported by sources and historical fact.

Here is what Leibovitz had to say earlier in his career before joining Tablet, about another academic battling to gain a prestigious faculty post:

…Mitchell Webber, a Yale graduate who is now a…research assistant for Alan Dershowitz at Harvard Law School, published an op-ed in the conservative New York Sun. Echoing many of Rubin’s points, Johnson and Webber referred to Cole as the “professor best known for disparaging the participation of prominent American Jews in government.”

Those op-eds had little to say about Cole’s academic background, focusing most of their criticism on what the Michigan professor had written on his blog.

liel leibovitz false nyu claim

Washington JCC December 2014 talk featuring his expired NYU faculty affiliation

In other words, back in 2006, when writing for New York Jewish Week, a more liberal publication, the journalist understood the distinction between academic scholarship and extramural political-publishing activity.  In the interim, after moving to the more conservative, better-paying Tablet, he changed his view and adopted the very one he’d earlier critiqued.

Liebowitz’s Inflated Resume

Which brings me to another aspect of Leibovitz’s history.  He tends to be free and easy concerning his past. Right up to the present, Leibovitz describes himself as a “visiting professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU’s Steinhardt School.”  His three-year appointment to that position ended last May.  So he has no right to continue making this claim.

In an interview with Israel HaYom, Sheldon Adelson’s vanity Likudist paper, the reporter erred in claiming Leibovitz was a tenured professor. Though I’m not aware of any other venue in which Lebovitz repeated this false claim, it’s certainly flattering to the Israeli for his friends and relatives in Israel to read he’s an accomplished permanent member of the faculty at a prestigious U.S. university, when he isn’t.

Anti-Semitizing Max Blumenthal

In his latest foray into the field of pro-Israel freedom fighter, Leibovitz has taken on Max Blumenthal, Rolling Stone Apologized. Will the Times?   Leibovitz’s title allows the reader to infer that just as Rolling Stone apologized for inaccurately reporting the story of rape at the University of Virginia, the Times has published an author who similarly falsely cries “rape” regarding Israeli crimes.

Here’s how Leibovitz begins:

Let’s not mince words here: Blumenthal is an anti-Semite. He’s been labeled as such by the Simon Wiesenthal Center…

A few problems.  He offers no further evidence to support the charge of “anti-Semitism” against Blumenthal.  The Wiesenthal Center is not an objective arbiter of anti-Semitism.  It has a decidedly Likudist, Islamophobic political ideology.  In fact, the sole justification Rabbi Marvin Hier offers to substantiate his charge against Blumenthal’s book, Goliath, is that chapter titles evoke the Holocaust.  One of those titles refers to detention facilities housing African refugees in Israel as ‘concentration camps.’  Another chapter describes an anti-African pogrom in Tel Aviv in which cars and business windows were smashed and Africans assaulted by violent Jewish protesters as in The Night of Broken Glass.  Another title, How to Kill Goyim and Influence People, refers to a book by a settler rabbi which justifies the murder by Jews of Palestinian children, saying they will grow up to be terrorists and kill Jews.  I’ll let you be the judge of whether such historical analogies are valid.

Hier betrays a clear inability to understand the use of historical analogy for the purpose of political satire.  In other words, a rabbi who earns a mid-six-figure annual salary based on finding anti-Semitism wherever he can, has lost his sense of humor when it comes to Jews who attack Israel.  While that may be unsurprising, it’s no reason for Liel Leibovitz to allow Hier to become the ultimate arbiter of what’s anti-Semitic.  A book which skewers Israelis racism isn’t anti-Semitic.  It may arguably be labelled anti-Israel, but even this label must be qualified and examined in context to determine the author’s intent.

To be clear, Max Blumenthal and I have views that diverge about Israel and Judaism.  Though Israel advocates sometimes find me pugnacious, Max can be equally or more so.  I don’t always agree with Max.  But that doesn’t mean I’ll allow hatchet men to bury their blade in his skull.

Leibovitz sails on with his fulminations against the NYT for having the temerity to commission an op-ed from Blumenthal.  The former portrays the piece as:

…A hysterical, slanted, nonsensical account that obliterates all nuance in an effort to convince that Israel is a singularly awful nation—racist, violent, murderous—and therefore has little or no right to exist.

There is almost none of this in the actual piece Blumenthal wrote.  In fact, the short essay is quite toned-down for Max.  Here’s a sample passage:

Catering to a rightward trending Israeli public that is fiercely opposed to a Palestinian state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is advancing a “Jewish state bill.” In Netanyahu’s words, the bill will provide “national rights only for the Jewish people.” Some versions of the bill would make “Jewish tradition” and the “prophets of Israel” sources of legal and judicial authority.

The money quote, the one that really irks the liberal Zionist Leibovitz, concerns a series of claims about the history of racism in Israel.  Below, Blumenthal transitions from contemporary Israeli racism represented by the anti-miscegenation NGO Lehava (whose members were arrested last week for burning down a Jewish-Palestinian school), to racism spanning the decades all the way back to the founding of the State.  What raises Leibovitz’s ire is tainting Yisrael ha’yafah, the “good” social Zionist Israel, the one all American Jews were raised to love, as racist:

Over 60 years before Lehava’s segregationist crusades, there was the socialist Zionist “Conquest of Labor” that organized Jews-only work collectives and boycotted businesses that employed Palestinians. Before the settlements, there was the kibbutz movement whose admissions committees denied residency to anyone but Jews. Before the wave of vigilante “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, there was the Nakba that expelled some 750,000 Palestinians in order to establish Israel’s Jewish majority. And as Marzel mentioned, there is the Jewish National Fund, a para-governmental group founded by Theodore Herzl to provide land exclusively to Jews which recently oversaw a program that would have led to mass expulsion of Bedouin called the Prawer Plan.

If a shift is underway in Israeli politics, it is primarily tonal. Israel’s rightists intend to carry on the Zionist project as originally conceived, but without the pretense of democracy. In a way, their honesty is refreshing.

Leibovitz is correct in saying this passage paints Israel as “racist and violent,” though there’s nothing about ‘murder’ in it.  But the main problem is with his last claim, that Max believes Israel “has little or no right to exist.”  In fact, the op-ed makes no reference to this.  This is yet another example of the Israeli-American’s sloppy, lazy reporting style.

Blumenthal’s claim that Israel’s rightist government intends to govern “without the pretense of democracy” must also irk Leibovitz, who was raised to believe in his homeland as a western liberal democracy. But to ignore or deny Israel’s precipitous decline into authoritarianism and racialism is to deny what is obvious to any reasonable observer.

While attacking Blumenthal, the Tablet writer makes some grave errors of his own which point out his own ideological proclivities.  He characterizes settler price tag attacks as a:

…Series of isolated attacks perpetrated by extremists and sternly prosecuted by the Israeli police…

Regular readers here will know, based on my extensive reporting of this issue, how wrong Leibovitz is.  There have been hundreds of price tag attacks over the past few years perpetrated by scores of violators.  The crimes are rarely solved and the number of perpetrators who end up in jail is tiny.  The police do not “sternly” prosecute these crimes.  In fact, they rarely arrest anyone, let alone charge or convict anyone (though in a few prominent cases, where there is public outcry &/or video evidence of the perpetrators in flagrante delecto, there may be arrests).  Even former Shabak chiefs have noted the intelligence services lack of will in rooting out Jewish terror (again something I’ve written about here).

In the closing of his article, Leibovitz accuses Blumenthal and the Times’ editors of violating “core standards of journalism.” It’s not clear what standards either is violating and the claim appears fact-free.  He also appeals to a vague standard he calls “human decency,” which to me sounds similar to demanding that we give Israel a break because well, it’s just not ‘decent’ to do otherwise:

…While opinion pieces have more leeway…to present personal points of view, they, too, are bound by the core standards of journalism—not to mention the dictates of basic human decency—to argue with the facts rather than obfuscate them or ignore them altogether.

In his Tablet piece, the author presents no evidence that Blumenthal ignored or obfuscated anything, let alone facts.  The truth is that Leibovitz is angered by painting Israel with a broad brush that claims it was founded in racism and remains steeped in injustice.

Leibovitz’s latest book is God in the Machine, a thinly argued attempt to suggest there is a spiritual dimension to video games.   These Editor’s Notes explain the book’s purpose more coherently than Leibovitz does in the book itself, though even here the argument appears overstated:

If he were alive today, what might Heidegger say about Halo, the popular video game franchise? What would Augustine think about Assassin’s Creed? What could Maimonides teach us about Nintendo’s eponymous [sic] hero, Mario? While some critics might dismiss such inquiries outright, protesting that these great thinkers would never concern themselves with a medium so crude and mindless as video games, it is important to recognize that games like these are, in fact, becoming the defining medium of our time….

In God in the Machine, author Liel Leibovitz leads a fascinating tour of the emerging virtual landscape and its many dazzling vistas from which we are offered new vantage points on age-old theological and philosophical questions. Free will vs. determinism, the importance of ritual, transcendence through mastery, notions of the self, justice and sin, life, death, and resurrection—these all come into play in the video games that some critics so easily write off as mind-numbing wastes of time. When one looks closely at how these games are designed, at their inherent logic, and at the cognitive effects they have on players, it becomes clear that playing these games creates a state of awareness vastly different from that which occurs when we watch television or read a book. Indeed, gameplay is a far more engaged process—one that draws on various faculties of mind and body to evoke sensations that might more commonly be associated with religious experience. Getting swept away in an engrossing game can be a profoundly spiritual activity. It is not to think, but rather simply to be, a logic that sustained our ancestors for millennia as they looked heavenward for answers.

To give you a sense of Leibovitz’s approach, here he likens a game called Wario World 4 to Maimonides proofs of the existence of the Divine, even claiming that the medieval Jewish philosopher’s imprint is “evident” within the game itself:

It is doubtful that Wario–or his creators–ever studied Maimonides, but his philosophical imprimatur is evident in the game design principles it describes.  This famed 12th century rabbi understood that faith was one thing and religion another.  The former was based on belief in the existence of God, which was an ethereal concept.  You could attempt to prove that God existed…but that left you with very little knowledge of what that God was, or what God’s plan was like, or what God’s relationship was to you, the mortal creation.  Humanity, therefore, was judged and punished by a creator about whom people knew little and whose way were utterly mysterious.  The only way to commune with the divine was to follow his decrees as laid out in the holy Torah.  This notion rests, in part, on negative theology, or the idea that there are no positive, definitive statements that we could make of God.  Never able to say for certain that God exists, we should, instead, say that God doesn’t not exist.  God is an abstraction to us, and rather than ponder the imponderable we should focus on the earthly deeds God had prescribed.

The same logic applies in video games.  Any concrete knowledge of the creator–the never-seen designer–is unavailable, and the creator’s plan remains carefully concealed; to reveal it would be to spoil the pleasures of the game.  Therefore, while some actions serve to directly promote the progression of the plot, many others are designed simply to sustain the inherent logic of the game as a hermetically sealed universe.  Maimonides suggests that, being human, we’ll never know God and therefore may as well focus on what’s closer to us, on the intricate procedurals of religious life.

While I’m no expert in the field of video gaming, this seems to me to be overdetermined claptrap.  It’s the daydreams of a highly intelligent boy with an interest in both spirituality, metaphysics, and video games who’s attempting to create a nexus between them that barely exists, if at all.

It’s no accident that the book wasn’t published by a mainstream publisher, but rather by Templeton Press, the vanity publishing imprint of Wall Street banker and Christian conservative, John Templeton.  Templeton created the Templeton Prize awarded to philosophers who advance the donor’s notions of Christian virtue in the public sphere. This includes advancement of ideas like intelligence design, if not creationism.   Leibovitz appears right at home in this conservative theological universe.

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Liran hajbi sexual harrassment

Lt. Col. Liran Hajbi, accused sexual harasser teaching soldiers in Jenin how to break into a Palestinian home.  (photo: Amir Buhbut and Shlomi Gabai)

Israeli media reported today (Hebrew) that an IDF battalion commander had been accused of sexual misconduct.  The report also noted financial irregularities in accounting for donations offered to the unit.  This is the same unit which faced an earlier claim of sexual harassment made by two soldiers who said they’d been harassed by their superiors.  Attempts were made at the time to suppress news of the incident, which were exposed two weeks ago.

tzabar battalion

‘Cactus’ Symbol of the Tzabar battalion

There is a gag order in place in Israel forbidding the naming of the commander.  But my source informs me his name is Lt. Col. Liran Hajbi and he commands the Tzabar battalion.  Hajbi is accused of directing two of his subordinates to reserve a guest house at Kibbutz Tze’elim (in the northern Negev not far from Gaza) for himself and a female subordinate, during the Gaza fighting of last summer.  He’s also suspected of harassing his office manager, who fled the base and eventually transferred to another unit.

Two members of the battalion committed suicide.  One had been videotaped engaging in an indecent assault in a base rest room and his superiors published the video.  Shaming him in this way contributed, according to members of his unit, to his suicide.  When four weapons were stolen from the armory, the supervisor was investigated for the theft.  Before he could be charged he too committed suicide.

When the Hajbi’s deputy went up the chain of command to complain about the suspicious activities he was told not to intervene.  When he appealed even higher, he was relieved of his post for insubordination.

Another military source told Yisrael Hayom that the unit operated like a criminal organization with a distinct ‘criminal code of conduct.’

Though doubtless the reporter didn’t see the irony in this–he was told by an IDF source that these incidents were “norms unknown to the IDF,” and that they suggested a “collapse of basic values.”  It’s arguable whether this is true in terms of how the IDF treats its own (given regular scandals involving sexual improprieties and suicides), but certainly a direct contradiction to how the IDF treats Palestinian civilians.

Hajbi’s family name indicates he is of Yemenite ethnic background.

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ARROW 3

Arrow 3 interceptor firing as it’s supposed to work

Reuters reports that the latest test launch of Israel’s most sophisticated long-range missile defense system, the Arrow 3, failed.  The missile was supposed to lock on to its target, but failed to do so and the launch was cancelled to save the $3-5-million expense of the missile.  This is a jointly-developed Israeli-American weapon in which the U.S. has invested at least $1-billion.

Since the failure of Israeli weapons systems is a highly embarrassing phenomenon for the IDF, it will simply obfuscate or lie outright about such developments.  True to form, it released this statement which allowed Israelis to read whatever they wanted into it:

Israel’s Defence Ministry said that “within the framework of preparations for a future interception test, a target missile was launched and carried out its trajectory successfully”.

It later added, in a statement, that “the conditions had not been ripe for launching an interceptor missile”.

Israeli defense reporter Yossi Melman was none too happy with the air force’s dissembling.  He titled his Jerusalem Post article: Israel’s defense establishment lies about failed missile test – again.  He didn’t mince words here:

The test failed, but the Defense Ministry issued a statement a few hours after the test claiming the target missile had been successfully launched on its designated course. The statement said nothing about the canceled launching of the intercepting missile, which together with the interception itself are the most important phases of any test. The ministry thus created the impression that the entire test was successful.

Astonishingly, the defense ministry public affairs flack argued before journalists that since the interceptor wasn’t actually launched, the test should be labelled “no test,” rather than a failure.  This, friends, is how the national security state works.  Just like the man caught cheating on his wife who tells her when she walks in on him with another woman: “who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”  Melman and a few other reporters know what happened.  But the army will do its damndest to make the rest of the nation believe a lie.

This is the second failure in a row of an Arrow test firing.  In September, an Arrow 2 interceptor failed to hit its target.

 

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This is the first of a two-post series that will appear today and tomorrow. Read part 2 here.

Eli Valley's satire of contemporary Jewish pretensions (suitable for Tablet as well)  (Eli Valley)

Eli Valley’s satire of contemporary Jewish cultural pretensions–suitable commentary on Tablet as well (Eli Valley)

Tablet Magazine is, according to the PR blurb its editor Alana Newhouse sent me, in answer to questions I posed to her:

…A site devoted to coverage of Jewish life, identity and culture in all of its forms and expressions.  As frustrating as it can be for some readers, we adhere to no orthodoxy — religious, cultural or political. We publish avowedly secular pieces alongside ones than assert the supreme rightness of observant Judaism; authors who think Philip Roth should win the Nobel as well as those who think he’s an overrated abomination; pieces that argue vehemently that Jews must celebrate Christmas with Chinese food but never with trees on the same day as well as ones that say precisely the opposite

That’s a disingenuous statement as you’ll find later when I address it.  But before I explain why, I want to credit Tablet as a serious, but deeply flawed attempt to create a cultural institution that embodies the richness and vitality of contemporary American Jewish life.  In this age of cheap gotcha-gossip journalism and ersatz kitsch passing for Jewish identity, it was a bold stroke to put forth such vision. In an era when organized American Jewry seems in retreat on many fronts, Newhouse should be credited for creating this vision.  It was even luckier that Tablet found, in pro-Israel philanthropist Mem Bernstein, a deep-pocketed donor who shared the vision.

The problem with the implementation of such a vision is that Tablet assumed so many of the bad habits of the American Jewish “consensus.” There is the suffocating pall of anti-Semitism haunting its pages, along with the unexamined assumptions of solidarity with Israeli state policies, including the embrace of the “13 Principles of [Zionist] faith” by which American Jewish communal life operates.  They say the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Tablet is examining American Jewish life, but barely scratching the surface.

In the New York Observer, an op-ed took Tablet to task on precisely this issue.  The piece questioned Tablet’s stridently pro-Israel coverage during last summer’s Gaza war, which included attacks on the supposedly-biased reporting of the NY Times:

By denying their bias, Tablet is guilty of exactly the journalistic sin they attributed to The New York Times: “By playing coy with readers about the reasons why coverage is so imbalanced, the Times may think that it’s defending the work of its reporters and photographers. In fact, it’s making them and the paper look foolish …”

Joshua Leifer elaborated on this theme in his own piece in Medium:

Tablet uses its tolerant, liberal bent on issues of culture or lifestyle as a counterweight to its staunch, right-wing position on Israeli politics, hiding in plain sight an ideology far to the right of that of its readership. Tablet’s politics, though buried between stories about hamentaschen recipes and potentially Jewish celebrities, amount to justification and support for Israel’s illegal occupation and settlement of the West Bank.

The Observer article calls Tablet “hip and hawkish.”  Following on that, I find it an odd amalgam of serious literary journal, lifestyle, spiritual quest, kitsch, schmaltz (literally), gossip, and Jewish identity politics (including a strong dose of bad-will-hunting, in the form of finding anti-Semitism where it exists, and even where it doesn’t).  It’s The Forward meet Rolling Stone. A cross between Jan Wenner and Jeffrey Goldberg.

Here’s how Syracuse University’s Prof. Zak Braiterman described his qualms about the Jewish publication:”

…Beneath the slick, flip, lavishly financed new electronic Jewish tribalism at Tablet lurk the old parochial anxieties about the Jews, Judaism, and the State of Israel. Looking past the youthful cool so intentionally cultivated, I am more and more convinced that anxiety is the hallmark of the new Jewish conservatism, both in the culture at large and at Tablet.

I especially like Braiterman’s phrase, “electronic Jewish tribalism.”  As he notes, Tablet cultivates a high gloss/high concept style with breezy, colorful graphics. It offers Joan Nathan’s “Chosen Food” for the Chosen People. Adam Kirsch even reads a daf yomi (“daily page”) of Talmud, which he slicks up with suggestive titles like: Virgins, Sodomy, Bestiality, Prostitutes, Marriage, and Forbidden Sex.  Just imagine: get your daily dose of Talmud spiced up with naughtiness.  What more could a Jew ask for?

Why schmaltz, of course, and lots of it.  This week’s issue features a profile of the Secret Sauce of Ashkenazi Jewry.  Editor Newhouse even managed a promotion for the issue, getting a favorable mention in the NY Times food section:

Although rendering poultry fat is a simple task for chefs, the technique is a lost art for many home cooks. To help remedy this, Alana Newhouse, the editor of Tablet magazine, has an annual schmaltz-making party at her home in Brooklyn that she calls the “schmixer.”

Not only does she show people how to make traditional schmaltz, she also encourages guests to flavor individual batches with herbs, spices and even chiles. Everyone takes home a small Mason jar of the gorgeous fat.

All her guests love it. “One can easily peg this to nostalgia, and maybe that’s part of it,” Ms. Newhouse said. “But it’s also real engagement.”

Yes indeed, schmaltz as a form of Jewish ‘engagement.’  Jewish food as the path to the Yiddishe neshumeh!  Reminds me of that old saw: the way to a man’s heart is…You may’ve thought such stereotypes went the Way of All Flesh, but not in Tabletworld.

And who can forget Jeffrey Goldberg in the pages of Tablet cajoling Mormon Sen. Orrin Hatch to write and record a “hip-hop” Hanukah song, saved for posterity here.  I thought nothing could surpass it till I read this:

“Watching Orrin Hatch in the studio, I said to myself that nothing this great will ever happen to me again,” said Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet.

The most controversial aspect of what Tablet does is its vociferous flag-waving on behalf of pro-Israel politics.  It features one of the most notorious, scuzzy of Jewish journalists, the Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith.  One of his claims to fame is calling Stephen Walt, Phil Weiss, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald “agents of anti-Israel influence” in a Tablet piece.  Reading him is like reading a pro-Israel version of a pulpy Grade B crime novel in which the bad guys are furtive anti-Semite-leftists and the good guys, the Israel Lobby.  His pieces drip so full of vitriol and hate you feel like you need a shower (or in Tablet’s case, a dip in the mikveh).

The irony of this is that the founding editor, Alana Newhouse, had this to say about the concept of lashon hara (words that can mean ‘gossip’ or ‘speaking ill’ of someone) in an interview with her hometown Jewish newspaper:

Regarding the principle of Lashon Hora, Newhouse was more direct.  “A big part of your job is speaking about other people — sometimes ill. I think we balance speaking ill with the good of the community,” she explained. “We know that journalism can be radioactive, so we try to use it sparingly and responsibly.”

Apparently, Newhouse believes that some Jews are so bad that it’s appropriate to speak ill of them because, after all, you’re doing it for the good of the community.  You might justify this to yourself, but what if you’re wrong?  What if there are Jews you view as the enemy who aren’t?  What if they have an important useful contribution to make and you view them as, and publicly label them “anti-Semites?”  As for ‘radioactive’ journalism, after reading these posts I’ll let you judge whether Tablet uses it “responsibly.”

She once told Luke Ford this about her background in an interview:

“What clique did you hang out with high school?”

“The JAPpy clique. I grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, and I loved it. To this day, I can do a better French manicure than any French manicurist you can get in Manhattan. I can put lipliner on in a dark cab. I was pretty focused… I’m a well-honed JAP.”

I don’t know many Jewish women who would call themselves JAPs.  She’s either very candid or very foolhardy.

One of Tablet’s more recent articles featured former AP Israel reporter, Matti Friedman excoriating his ex-employer and the entire foreign press corps in Israel for supposedly giving the Palestinians a ‘free pass’ when it came to tough coverage.  Jeffrey Goldberg appears to have loved his reporting, because The Atlantic, where he’s a contributor, published yet another version of Friedman’s sour grape’s story there (Goldberg was once a regular Tablet contributor and Newhouse has labelled him one of her journalistic heroes).  Though much of what Friedman wrote in both stories is tendentious and based far more on pro-Israel ideology than journalistic critique, I want to take issue with one aspect of his story with which I’m personally familiar.  Readers here will recall the story ginned up by the pro-Israel media accusing Al Quds University of sponsoring a “Nazi-style” rally in support of Palestinian terrorists.  A mystery photographer was on the scene and shot supposedly incriminating footage of masked protesters in black garb raising their arms in what was termed a “Nazi salute.”

Friedman complains that he brought these pictures and story to his AP editor, who turned it down.  His boss said it wasn’t newsworthy, which drove Friedman into high dudgeon and fueled his narrative of an overly fawning foreign press eager to protect Palestinians.  There’s only one small problem with the Al Quds story: though the rally was real and the pictures were as well, everything else about the reporting of the incident was a charade.

The rally was not sponsored by the University, but by Islamic Jihad.  The group had promised not to hold public rallies on campus and broke its promise to the administration.  The president immediately after the protest, criticized it, while affirming the right of students to resist Occupation, on a campus where Israeli Border Police regularly assault students and ransack the school and its equipment.  There was no “Nazi-salute,” merely a raising of arms toward Al Quds (Jerusalem) as a place sacred to them and Islam.

Neither Friedman, nor Tom Gross, the blogger who eventually did publish the pictures, would reveal who took them. If you were an editor and one of your reporters brought you pictures and you refused to identify who shot them, wouldn’t that raise a few questions in your mind?  And even if you knew the identity, if you couldn’t report that to the public, how would that look journalistically?

In the Beginning was Nextbook

mem bernstein

Mem Bernstein, pro-Israel funder of Tablet Magazine

Before there was Tablet, there was Nextbook.  It was a higher brow version of Tablet, primarily focused on Jewish literature, culture and arts.  It regularly published volumes (mostly biographical) on major Jewish figures like Spinoza, Abraham Kahan (Seth Lipsky), Menachem Begin (Daniel Gordis), Moses, Rashi, Judah Maccabee (Jeffrey Goldberg), Ben Gurion (Shimon Peres), and Maimonides.  Hardly an effete galusdikeh (Diaspora) Jew among them, except perhaps Kahan.  Certainly no pointy-headed liberals like Einstein or Arthur Hertzberg, no Ahad Ha’Am, Yochanan Ben Zakkai, nor any of those provocative prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah or Amos.

Show Us the Money

Roger Hertog, age 73, is a wealthy Wall Street trader who co-founded the brokerage, Sanford C. Bernstein.  After his partner Sanford (who became “Zalman Chaim” after a late life turn toward Orthodox Judaism) died in 1999, Hertog and Bernstein’s widow and third wife, “Mem” (Miriam), founded Nextbook in 2003.  They cumulatively pumped $5-million a year into it.   In 2005, Hertog bailed on the project to devote more time and resources to his efforts, under the aegis of his Tikvah Fund ($152-million in assets in 2012), to create the controversial Tikvah Advanced Institutes.  These are Jewish studies institutes which are semi-independent projects within their respective campus communities .  As Prof. Zak Braiterman wrote in an e mail to me (his published critique is here), their goal is:

…To do an end run around these academic institutions to create para-academic, autonomous think tanks as a way to insinuate [Jewish] right-wing conservative culture into the liberal mainstream.

Nextbook’s publishing venture became subsumed under the Tablet website.  But Tablet notes that Nextbook remains its parent, saying the former is:

“…A project of the not-for-profit Nextbook Inc., which also produces the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.”

In light of this, it’s important to note that Morton Landowne, the executive director of Nextbook, is “responsible for overseeing all facets of the project.”   Presumably this means he’s Newhouse’s boss.  He’s paid $250,000 according to the group’s IRS 990 report.  Leifer notes in Medium that Landowne is also a vice-president of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, which is the educational outreach arm of the West Bank-empire of settler Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.  Landowne’s bio claims that the institution is “in Israel,” but that all depends on your ideological perspective, I suppose. A number of the foundations mentioned above and in the next paragraph offer annual mid-six-figure donations to Ohr Stone.

Bernstein and Hertog made their fortune selling their brokerage firm to Alliance Capital in 2000 for $3.5-billion.  It enabled them to become Jewish philanthropic entrepreneurs. Hertog founded the Tikvah Fund and Mrs. Bernstein founded the Avi Chai ($571-million in assets in 2012) and Keren Keshet ($223-million in assets in 2012) Foundations.  They sunk a large portion of their newly-minted wealth (over $1-billion, cumulatively) into the various philanthropic funds.

Keren Keshet is Bernstein’s vehicle to fund Tablet.  Its last recorded gift to the online media outlet was $3.5-million in 2013.  That originated in a donor-advised gift from the Jewish Communal Fund of New York.  Bernstein gives over $15-million yearly to JCF, which in effect shields the identity of her donees.  But her foundation IRS reports do note gifts to some right-wing groups and educational institutions including a $600,000 annual gift to the David Project, $55,000 to Commentary Magazine and $1-million to Yeshiva University.

It’s extremely rare for a publication like Tablet to have a single donor funding its entire operation.  That may be why Tablet has begun fundraising from its readers.  But it’s dubious such fundraising will bring in meaningful sums compared to what Bernstein offers.  Despite the high gloss and doses of “serious journalism” it offers, Tablet is a vanity enterprise of a wealthy widow honoring her and her husband’s pro-Israel right-wing politics.

In comparison, The Forward, a competing national Jewish publication has an annual budget ranging from $7.5-8.5 million.  But it has a much longer history, a large endowment, and supports a larger editorial and reporting staff.  Though it covers some of the same territory, the Forward prides itself on breaking much more hard news and does so with a firmer journalistic footing.  Its politics skew more liberal than Tablet, though decidedly liberal Zionist.

Alana Newhouse: Tablet’s Self-Described “JAP”

Tablet’s Alana Newhouse comes from a Long Island Orthodox Jewish background.  She attended a local modern Orthodox day school, Hebrew Academy of Five Towns Rockaway High School, and Barnard College.  Newhouse’s idea of a “mixed marriage” was having a parent who was Ashkenazi and another who was Sefardi.  A profile in the Long Island Orthodox paper, The Star, notes this about the editor’s office.  It gives you an idea, even as a joke, of the parochialism of her Jewish interests:

Behind her desk, a red and white poster outlines the laws of Muktzah (Shabbos prohibitions).  The poster was a gift from her parents when she was in first grade. She even has a favorite, which she pointed out on the yellowed poster: Muktzah machmas kis, a prohibition on objects whose main use and value is forbidden on Shabbos. Examples on the poster included a hammer, a checkbook and a slaughtering knife.

After college, she gravitated into the circle of David Garth (who passed away yesterday at age 84), the media whiz who made the political career of Ed Koch and a number of other New York Democratic power brokers.  After burning out on NY politics, she went to Columbia University’s School of Journalism.  Later, she made her way to the Forward, where she became arts and culture editor.  When J.J. Goldberg stepped down as managing editor, Newhouse was passed over for his job, which went to Jane Eisner.

Newhouse departed for the media start-up, Tablet, which launched in 2008.  According to its last filed IRS 990 report, she was paid $220,000 (Eisner earned only $200,000 in 2013) in 2012.  One may assume Newhouse earns more today.  According to those who knew her earlier in her career, Newhouse’s expertise is not in Jewish history, sources or traditions.  “Buzz” is her middle name.

The underlying principle behind both Nextbook and Tablet for their elderly Jewish donors is the same principle driving Sheldon Adelson’s $100-million bet on Birthright.  It’s a form of kiruv, drawing assimilated or alienated young Jews back to their tradition and, by extension, to pro-Israel politics.

What better way to do this than to mix a page of Talmud with a dash of forbidden sex?  The question is what are they selling and is anyone buying?  For her roughly $16-million investment, Bernstein and Newhouse have a website which Alexa ranks 25,000 globally.  In comparison, the Forward ranks 29,000, (L.A.) Jewish Journal 23,000, JTA ranks 67,000, the right-wing Algemeiner 50,000.  There’s no question that Tablet is read.  But does it have influence?  In terms of hard reporting, the Forward beats Tablet hands-down.  In terms of soft features, it probably has found a niche.  But it’s one that Haaretz is filling as well with its revamped English edition (Alexa rank 6,500), devoting lots of column inches to Jewish recipes, lifestyle, travel, etc.

Newhouse refuses to concede an ideological bias to Tablet.  But in her encomium above, she boasts mainly that Tablet embraces both secular and religious Jewish lifestyles.  The proud Jewish secular tradition represented by Abe Cahan, the Jewish Forward and the Bund, doesn’t revolve around whether or not you may eat Chinese food on a Jewish holiday.

As for politics, Newhouse again boasts of her Big Tent approach:

Our political coverage — of Israel as well America and the rest of the world — is no different. We give platforms, via profiles or features or interviews or podcasts, to a wide spectrum of views, from Noam Chomsky and Ron Dermer and Tzipi Livni to Michael Oren and Maen Rashid Areikat to Avi Shafran and the Reverend Al Sharpton and more. We are also proud to have published a collection of writers — including but not limited to Seth Lipsky, Victor Navasky, Lee Smith, Michelle Goldberg, Daniella Cheslow, Jon Emont.

There’s a problem here: Newhouse believes that because she commissions her husband, David Samuels, who seems to be the liberal conscience among the writing staff, to do interviews with Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, that she’s fulfilled her obligation to the Jewish left.  To prove this assertion, look at the “left-wing” writers she boasts of publishing: Victor Navasky at age 82, represents the oldest of the Old Guard, who has minimal impact on progressive Jewish thought these days. Michelle Goldberg though liberal on many issues, recently wrote a piece denouncing BDS.  That would certainly make her appealing to Newhouse, who uses the liberal Zionist Todd Gitlin to serve that role at Tablet.  But that doesn’t qualify Goldberg as progressive on the Israel-Arab conflict.  I suppose in Tabletworld, Tzipi Livni qualifies as an Israeli “leftist” since she’s only a former leader of the Likud.  But for most of the rest of us in the Jewish left, she’s not a figure offering much beyond warmed over liberal Zionism.

There are many writers who Tablet has never published and will never publish.  Writers that fall far outside what Newhouse and Bernstein view as the acceptable Jewish consensus.  You won’t find bylines of Judith Butler, Corey Robin, Neve Gordon, Max Blumenthal, Shlomo Sand, Shlomo Avneri, Avi Shlaim, David Schulman or many others there.  If free-thinking Jews like Spinoza, Einstein, Trotsky, Jacob de Haan or Ahad Ha’Am were alive, you wouldn’t find them in Tablet either.  They’re far too frightening to the consensus-driven Jewish identity Tablet cobbles together for itself and its readers.

The second post in this series on Tablet will appear tomorrow.

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I’ve been quiet for the past few days because I’ve been preparing a major profile-expose of a major American Jewish publication and one of its star contributors.  The research and writing has taken a long time, which explains the absence of new posts.  By tomorrow, this two-part series should commence and I believe you’ll find it was worth the wait.

In the meantime, as the year comes to an end and some of  you contemplate choices about charitable gifts, I want to ask you to make a contribution to support this work.  Tzedakah, what many of us call philanthropy, comes from the Hebrew word tzedek or justice.  Tzedakah is not an elective act.  It’s something one must do to support tikun olam, a better world.  You believe in justice or you wouldn’t be here.  Justice is the foundation of this blog.  So now do you own act of justice by giving a gift.

If you read this blog regularly or even infrequently you know that while there may be other voices online which share my (and your) politics, there’s no one doing what I do.  No one regularly defies the Israeli generals, intelligence chiefs and censors to expose the inner workings of the Israeli national security state.  They may hate me but I know they read me.  How else will they find out which of their ‘secrets’ I know?  This is work that is hard, painstaking and requires constant research and cultivating close, ongoing relationships with Israeli sources.  It’s simply not being done by anyone else–at least not to the extent that I do.

I have nearly 2,000 subscribers to this blog and nearly 7,000 Twitter followers.  You value what I do enough to take the time to subscribe and read this blog.  Now please make a decision to click one of the buttons here or in the right sidebar to make a donation: Network for Good for tax-deductible gifts (be sure to check the Tikun Olam box) and Paypal for taxable ones.

A happy, just and peaceful New Year!

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Adam livix

Adam Livix, 30, U.S. terror suspect arrested by Shabak

Last month, I discovered the Shabak was secretly holding a foreign citizen on suspicion of serious security offences. I tweeted this on November 26th (see tweet below). But I could not obtain further information except that his name was “Adam L.”

This morning, an Israeli journalist confirmed the story in an e mail to me, and within an hour the Shabak “coincidentally” released a full account of the arrest and charges against him. The police report noted that he’d been indicted.  Haaretz’s Hebrew language story here.  The AP story is here:

As you read MSM accounts of this story and see this fact omitted, you may wonder why.

The suspect is Adam Livvix, age 30, a resident of Texas and wanted there on drug charges. Though there are indications he may be from Illinois, where other close family members live.  He appears to have jumped bail in the U.S. As a a fugitive on the run, he might’ve fled to the West Bank to avoid capture. The journalist told me that Livvix is a Christian fundamentalist and “probably not very stable.”

According to the Shabak release, he first traveled to the West Bank, where he lived in Hebron. After boasting about serving in the Navy SEALS, Palestinians allegedly solicited him to join in an attempt to assassinate Pres. Obama during his trip to Israel last year.  They offered him a sniper rifle to use as the weapon.  He purportedly refused, but the Shabak began to investigate him at that point.  Later, he came to Israel and moved in with a roommate who was an IDF solider.  Livvix told him that he was a former Navy SEAL, and bought stolen Israeli military munitions from him.  His goal was to blow up Muslim holy places.

I find the alleged assassination plot to be the most lacking in credibility.  I simply don’t believe Palestinians would attempt to assassinate the U.S. president.  It’s possible that Livvix approached settlers or Palestinians with this goal in mind.  But not for Palestinians to have initiated such a plot.  Further, can you imagine a Palestinian militant approaching a deranged Christian fundamentalist American in Hebron to join a plot to assassinate an American president?  They would have to be very stupid terrorists.  I would challenge the Shabak to produce any evidence justifying this claim.

Livvix was secretly arrested last month and has been held incommunicado at Ayalon Prison since then. The Shin Bet statement claims that the FBI has been apprised of the arrest. I asked the agency for comment and they released this:

“We are aware of the recent arrest of an American citizen in Israel and are currently working with the Israeli authorities to assist in their investigation. The FBI continues to work closely with our counterparts in Israel to identify, apprehend, and hold accountable those who threaten the public with violence.”

This would presume that the domestic intelligence agency endorsed the Israeli secret police’s abusive treatment of Livvix.   It also goes a long way to presuming Livvix’s guilt since it presumes he “threatened the public with violence.”  My impression was that this needed to be proven in a court of law and couldn’t be presumed.  But given today’s release of the CIA terror report and the revelations of U.S. torture of suspected Al Qaeda militants, it appears we’re fine with Shabak’s torture techniques as well, even if used on U.S. citizens.  In fact, the CIA has exploited Israeli use of torture as a justifying precedent for its own brutality.

Generally, the Israelis arrest Jewish and Palestinians security suspects in secret.  They gag the media from reporting the story.  They hold victims without charge and without legal representation for periods of time determined solely by the secret police in collaboration with a malleable judicial system.  They use abusive interrogation techniques, even ones specifically excluded by Supreme Court rulings.  This is what Adam Livvix has endured.  He has, in this case, the benefit of not being Palestinian and holding U.S. citizenship, so they probably went somewhat easy on him.  That is, comparatively easy, since U.S. officialdom has apparently washed its hands of him.

One also has to wonder why the Shin Bet did not question him after he was unsuccessfully recruited for the supposed assassination attempt on the U.S. President, and only arrested him after he began planning terror attacks against Muslims.

Why is it when the U.S. exports human beings to Israel they tend to be lunatics like Livvix or Jewish terrorists like Jack Teitel, Ephraim Khantsis and others? Why are our haters and human flotsam drawn to Israel?  It would be wrong for anyone to label Livvix a nutcase and outlier.  He and the comrades I listed above are the Ugly Face of Israeli extremism.  But Israel extremism rules Israel.  If you tapped into Bibi Netanyahu’s sub-conscious, the miasma floating around in there wouldn’t be terribly different from what’s in the mind of Adam Levvix.  Bibi’s Jewish, shrewder, wears better suits and has a nicer accent.  Other than that…

I’ve just asked the State Department for comment about the case. This is their statement in full:

We have seen these reports.  The Department of State takes its obligation to assist U.S. citizens abroad seriously.  When a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, we stand ready to provide all possible consular assistance.  Due to privacy considerations we are unable to comment further.

This means that Livvix would have to waive his right to privacy in order for State to comment publicly.  But it could easily mean diplomatic officers in Israel did not approach him to ask for such a waiver; or that the Shin Bet refused to allow them to visit him.  At any rate, State is refusing to tell us whether they had any contact with him, which is unacceptable.

While I find Livvix to be an odious character based on these reports, I’m proud that once again my Israeli partners and I have been able to penetrate the opaque national security state to guarantee that no prisoners are disappeared without access to legal representation and their rights.  This appears not yet fully to be the case with Livix, but the process has begun.’

Please support this important work through a donation. Thanks to several Israeli sources for help in breaking this story.

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An earlier version of this essay was published by Middle East Eye, whom I thank for offering it a home:

I love that old Linda Ronstadt song from classic era of Eagles-inspired soul-rock, It Don’t Matter Anymore.  Describes the upcoming Israeli election to a ‘T.’

During the U.S. anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s there was a popular slogan: suppose they gave a war and nobody came?  I’d like to amend that to the Israeli context: suppose they called an election and nobody came or cared?  That sums up the coming March election, which Bibi Netanyahu has precipitated for no apparent reason other than to prolong his record as the longest serving Israeli prime minister.  At this rate, he’ll be embalmed in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem like Lenin in the Kremlin.  They should change his title to Prime Minister for Life.  The irony is that 60% of Israelis polled don’t like him or want him to be prime minister.  They just want the other guy even less.

israel as jewish state

Settler Judaism comes to define Israel as “Jewish State”

If you were cynical (and it pays to be when you observe Israel and its political system), you’d say Bibi has been orchestrating key events for months leading up to his call for new elections.  There’s nothing like a good war against Gaza or Lebanon to perk up poll numbers.  I have little doubt that Operation Protective Edge was part of his plan to prepare for elections.  Even if it wasn’t, it dropped a wonderful campaign gift into his lap.  Further, the Israeli provocations that led up to the last month of terror attacks and killings were also likely laying the groundwork for elections.  There’s nothing like feeding red meat to the settler ‘dogs’ of the Likud’s far-right flank–with police assaults on the Haram al-Sharif, Palestinian expulsions from Silwan to further the Judaization of East Jerusalem–to motivate extreme nationalists to vote Likud.  The latest series of what I call Knesset “Race” Bills (but which Israelis call “Nationality Laws“) has also monopolized the political discourse.  Even though these racist proposals have been roundly criticized abroad and by no less figures than Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin (the current and past presidents), and it’s unlikely they will pass in their current form, they play well to the 60% of Israelis who polls show have racist views of Palestinians.

Another critical move the Knesset made to anaesthetize the left was raising the electoral threshold for political parties from 2% to 3.25%.  It’s no accident that no single Palestinian party wins more than 3.25% of the vote.  The upshot is that unless the parties unite, they will be shut out of the Knesset.  So instead of Israeli Palestinians having only half the actual representation they should have in proportion to their actual population in the current Knesset, they will have none.  It was a shrewd racist move in many ways.  Even if the parties do coalesce into a single entity Palestinians, almost half of whom refuse to participate in the electoral process at all, will be far less motivated to vote.  Imagine if the UK Tories and Social Democrats were forced to unite in order to rise above an electoral threshold.  How many voters in each party would be so turned off by the cheapening of their values that they would say to hell with both of them and stay home?  I predict this is what’s likely to happen in the coming Israeli election.

This is not an academic exercise, nor is it’s impact limited to Israeli Palestinians.  It is yet another in a long line of successful ploys designed to emasculate the Israeli left.  The extreme nationalist right has engineered (barring outside intervention) a permanent settlerist majority.  Israeli democracy is dying.  Any society which disenfranchises 20% of its population in the name of Jewish supremacism is on its way to political hell.

Netanyahu’s announcement of the sacking of the two centrist ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, in which he accused them of orchestrating a “putsch,” is also the stuff of political theater.  The idea of Israel’s pathetically weak centrist parties having the coherence, savvy or boldness to organize such a political maneuver is beyond ridiculous.  Neither Livni nor Lapid can agree on what day it is, let alone join together to try to take over the government.  But conspiracy-mongering of this sort of plays well to the Likudist electorate, always smelling a conniving “leftist” rat.

Netanyahu, whose performance in the last election was actually quite poor, forcing him to cobble together an awkward coalition of far-right nationalists with centrist liberal Zionist parties, stands to do much better in the coming one.  He has neutralized the political center and stimulated the right with Pavlovian policies like those I outlined above.  The opposition is demoralized, the governing coalition is mobilized.  It promises a sure win for the rightist coalition.

Now let me say something heretical for most observers of Israeli politics: who wins doesn’t matter.  In the inconceivable event Lapid or Livni win, policies would not be significantly different.  Sure, there will be a few sops thrown to the social justice movement.  Maybe Mahmoud Abbas would be invited to visit.  Israel might allow a nuclear agreement with Iran and not threaten to attack.  But no Israeli prime minister would be able or willing to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians and other frontline states (Lebanon and Syria).  There is simply no consensus about this and no one has the guts to try to forge one.

Nor does it matter much who’s elected to the Knesset.  That body, despite being Israel’s legislative branch, does precious little that has any substantive impact on Israeli society.  Government policy is implemented by a tight-knit circle of the political, military and intelligence elite including the prime minister, defense and finance ministers, the intelligence chiefs and IDF chief.  The main purpose of the Knesset and ministerial portfolios is to hand-out political pork to supporters and factions.  This is why the Haredi, Mizrahi and Orthodox parties have done so well in past governments.  They had little interest in impacting policy in significant ways.  They wanted political fiefdoms from which they could parcel out goodies and patronage along with the odd Judaic morality play about preserving rabbinic control over marriage and divorce.

In other democracies, the purpose of the legislative branch is to oversee the executive branch: to review policies and finances and ensure government functions in a fair and transparent way.  The Knesset doesn’t monitor the prime minister, military or intelligence branches as they might in a real democracy.  Its members do a lot of grandstanding.  They give interviews to newspapers in which they vent about the latest Palestinian outrage.  It’s all pandering to an electorate which laps up Palestine-baiting.  The grandstanding is little more than political positioning for the next election.  They more column inches you get in Yisrael HaYom the higher you’ll be placed in the party list and more likely you’ll enter Knesset and become a minister.  Israeli politics is little more than a gravy train leading to perks and patronage.

Lest anyone doubt this, take Ehud Olmert’s political career as a model.  From almost the beginning when he became mayor of Jerusalem through his role as a junior cabinet minister up to becoming prime minister, he was as crooked as the day is long.  Almost everything was for sale for the right price.  If he couldn’t find Israelis able to finance his lifestyle, he turned to kindly Diaspora Jews like billionaire, S. Daniel Abraham, to shower him with Slimfast boxes full of cash.

Now Olmert whines about how bad Israeli politics works and how little is being done to solve real problems.  But when he had a chance to make peace with the Syrians and Palestinians, he demurred.  In the former case, he preferred starting a useless war against Gaza than signing a deal with Pres. Assad.  Only when Israeli politician leave power do they sound like the soul of Hamlet.

Netanyahu hasn’t quite followed the same path.  He’s corrupt, but not on the same scale (as far as we know).  He is more ideologically motivated than Olmert.  But even Bibi is willing to trim his sails to suit the prevailing winds.  Though he’s repulsed by the notion of a Palestinian state, he gave George Bush a speech in which he endorsed it with his fingers crossed behind his back.

Bibi’s primary goal is not to make an indelible mark as a statesman.  Not to solve an intractable national problem.  His goal is survival.  Longevity.  He likes hearing the sound of his own voice delivering orations at the UN or before Congress.  It flatters him.

He has no strategic vision.  He’s not trying to get from Point A to Point B in terms of pursuing a political agenda.  He satisfied with the settlers providing the ideological passion and energy.  He sits above it all as a conductor leading the orchestra, making sure no one plays too much out of tune.

In 2011, Jerry Haber penned a post, Bibi for Prime Minister, which at that time seemed heretical to some.  I wasn’t sure at the time I agreed with him.  I do now.  In fact, I’d prefer a victory by someone even more extreme like Lieberman, Bennett or Danon.  They will expose the fangs of Israeli racialism and fascism.  The world will know what it’s getting with that crew.  There will be no mincing words, no waffling, no hoping for better future outcomes.  Once Israel elects the Apocalypse there will be no turning back to a nation of liberal democracy.  There will be no nostalgia for the past of kibbutzim, collectivism, and social democracy.  That will be thrown on the dust heap of Israeli history.

This time, Israel will be exposed like the Alien monsters in the film franchise who lurk undetected inside perfectly nice and unsuspecting human beings.  But at a certain moment, these aliens explode from the bodies, killing their hosts as they show themselves in all their hideous “glory.”  That’s the direction Israel is heading.

France has had its Republics.  Like France, Israel’s history has included kings, prophets, judges, conquerors, and prime ministers.  Now, Israel is closing out another chapter in its history.  The era of the democratic nation state is lapsing into a Judean theocratic regime.  Paraphrasing Yeats, some “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches” towards Jerusalem to be born. The sooner this beast appears, and wreaks the full measure of his havoc, the sooner the world will realize that it must act to prevent an even greater catastrophe.  Things will get worse, much worse, before they get better.

The NY Times published a similar take on the elections from Max Blumenthal, which is worth reading.  I especially enjoyed this passage:

If a shift is underway in Israeli politics, it is primarily tonal. Israel’s rightists intend to carry on the Zionist project as originally conceived, but without the pretense of democracy. In a way, their honesty is refreshing.

I recorded an audio interview with Robert Rosenblum of The Truth About Israel, to which you may listen here. The audio isn’t terribly good, but you can make it out decently if you listen closely. Head phones help:

Check Out Politics Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with Truth About Israel.
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