Max Blumenthal’s new book, Goliath, is a well-researched jeremiad against Israel’s march toward authoritarianism. He has traveled to Israel, to all the hot spots; he’s waded into the ultra-nationalist community and recorded its ideological miasma. He’s done the work that any good journalist should do in reporting this story. The problem is that very few journalists have been willing to do such painstaking work. There is little pay-off in glory or career advancement. As a result, instead of intense discussion of the Israeli Occupation and the injustices on which Israel is based, there has been a largely empty echo chamber.
I especially like the title of the book and its reference to a Biblical enemy of ancient Israel: Goliath. He was the Philistine warrior who the little shepherd David challenged and slew with his slingshot, or so goes the story. Goliath was the prideful giant, the invincible. And he was felled by a much smaller, ostensibly weaker, less well-defended Israelite boy. The book title says that Israel has turned into its own worst enemy through its hubris. It is a warning that the Biblical giant’s fate could be Israel’s as well.
I welcome this book. Like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, it will take its place as a must-read reference work on the subject. And like that earlier book, Goliath has been excoriated by all manner of self-appointed liberal Zionist experts who see in it the worst forms of Israel demonization. Perhaps chief among them is Eric Alterman, The Nation’s long-time liberal columnist, who knows a great deal more about baseball and domestic politics than he does about Israel. Alterman’s screed, the ‘subtly’-titled, I Hate Israel Handbook, disguised as a book review, was so dyspeptic and defensive that it’s not even worth quoting it at length. Linking to it gives anyone interested the opportunity to read it if your blood pressure is at a manageable level.
The New York Times commissioned Max to produce a video for its new Doc Ops feature and when he presented to them the documentary he produced about vicious anti-African pogroms in Tel Aviv, the editors said “thanks, but no thanks. There will be no New York Times Book Review for Goliath (though a nice one by Akiva Eldar at Al Monitor); no segments on PBS Newshour. The only promotion he’ll get is what he can organize himself. So he’s discussed the book with Prof. Ian Lustick at the University of Pennsylvania and will do the same with Prof. Gabi Piterberg in Los Angeles. Those types of events will, of course, bring the book to the attention of the activist community that is already well-informed about the issues (as will this post). But that won’t turn this book into a NY Times bestseller as his previous one, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, was. More’s the pity since Goliath is a powerful book. Even Israel’s fiercest advocates should read it to know what they’re up against, what they have to explain or defend to their audience..
A disclosure is in order: Max and I had had no contact for a year or so since he wrote me an e-mail saying that he thought I was being used by intelligence interests, which he clearly implied were Israeli. I get very riled when I hear such nonsense and thought it best to sever contact.
He sent me an e-mail before the book was published and noted that he’d included my reporting about the Ameer Makhoul and Omar Said case in his book (pgs 150-152). I was impressed that despite our differences, he acknowledged my work in his book. This, in fact, was only the second reference to my blog in an English-language work. I freely acknowledge a debt to Max.
You can be the judge of whether what I write here is dispassionate.
But I do have a quarrel not just with Max’s approach to reporting on Israel, but to an entire class of blogging on the subject. This includes Mondoweiss and to a much lesser extent, Electronic Intifada (there are others in this class, but I’ve named the most popular ones). Though Max deeply reports his Israel stories and works closely with Israeli activists, there is a hint of schadenfreude in his approach. Israel, for Max and other anti-Zionist bloggers, is a freak show. The average Israeli is a bit actor in the three-ring circus that is latter-day Israel. Bibi Netanyahu is the circus master, the far-right government and Knesset are the equivalent of the elephants and tigers putting on a show for the incredulous audience represented by Max and his readers.
These crazy circus animals entertain with blood, guts, and mayhem galore. Something akin to the Roman circus with gladiators in the form of Israelis and Palestinians fighting each other to the death.
To be clear, I don’t dispute the legitimacy and accuracy of Max’s reporting. Anyone who reads this blog knows how offensive and troubling I find all the incidents he reports. That’s why I value what he does.
But many who report on Israel are outsiders. That means that while they have valuable insight into what they see in Israeli society, they see it from an emotional and physical distance. It may mean they miss nuance that insiders or others who are more sensitive, understand. It goes beyond differences of language and culture, though that is part of it. It is possibly rooted in a profound alienation from one’s own religious or ethnic identity and traditions.
I say this with a great degree of caution because I too feel a degree of alienation from American Jewish identity as filtered through its rich, white male leadership. But the difference between me and others like me, like M.J. Rosenberg, Magnes Zionist (who wrote a terrific defense of Max) and others–and Max and Phil Weiss–is that we believe in an alternate, dissenting Jewish identity that is no less strong or Jewish than the American Jewish consensus definition.
To phrase this in prophetic terms, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and the other moral titans of that era were equally fierce in their denunciation of the transgressions of ancient Israel. But they were not outside their society (in fact, some were members of the élite) when they railed against its injustices. In fact, this only increased the power of their words.
I imagine that if you scratched beneath the surface you’d find that many anti-Zionists either equate Judaism with Zionism, saying there is no difference and both are equally pernicious; or they believe that there is a fundamental divide between the two. That is why you’ll find a website featuring the Neturey Karta, as if they somehow are the representatives of an authentic Judaism instead of the marginal offshoot they are. It’s why they often point to the bygone idyll of American Jewry in the period before the Holocaust, when Reform Judaism was largely anti-Zionist.
I write all this not to deny the historical validity of this perspective: Reform Judaism has largely abandoned and rejected its history without understanding it. You know what happens to those who forget their history…So it is a valuable contribution to acknowledge the past and attempt to revive rejected ideas that are relevant to contemporary Jewish life. This is why many of us want the visionaries of Brit Shalom (Magnes, Buber, et al.) to be restored to their previous place in the Zionist pantheon alongside far more problematic figures like Jabotinsky. But it is, to an extent, wishful thinking to pretend that Neturey Karta are authentic Jews while all the rest of us are somehow interlopers or Zionist imposters. Just as its wishful thinking to believe that American Jewry will return to those days of yesteryear and become anti-Zionist.
One of the more problematic aspects of the anti-Zionist narrative among Jews is the almost knee-jerk rejection of the term “Zionism,” and the assumption that it can only represent forces that are dark, atavistic, and hateful. Again, the problem here is lack of nuance and lack of understanding of the disparate streams that have composed Zionism over the past century or more.
There is no question that the prevailing mode of Zionist thinking today, what I call “classical Zionism,” is ultra-nationalist, implacable, and revanchist. It seeks to restore an imagined historical era of Jewish supremacy in the Biblical Land of Israel. When what I call “settlerism” becomes a synonym for Zionism, then it is legitimate to reject both.
But it is far too sweeping to say that there is only one stream in that river I alluded to above. I maintain that there is a Zionism that can co-exist with Palestinian nationalism peaceably. It can do so within a two-state or one-state context. Such a revisionist (if you’ll allow me to pilfer the term) definition of Zionism is not the consensus today. But in truth, what is the consensus today is such a failed project, that retrieving abandoned models from the past can only help meet the crisis in the present.
I’ve often written here that Israel today is not just one homeland. It is at least two: one for Israeli Jews and another for Israeli Palestinians. Israel as a unitary state cannot be only a Jewish state. Rather, it must be a state that incorporates two peoples and doesn’t privilege or prejudge either one.
In this, unlike much of the anti-Zionist Jewish left, I don’t prejudge whether the ultimate solution is one-state or two. That’s frankly not my responsibility. As Ian Lustick wrote in the NY Times recently: history and the two peoples themselves will work this out over time.
The most important thing is to establish the principles of democracy, equality and tolerance that will have to inform any future Israeli state. Max is right to focus on the subjects he does. If Israel is to survive it will somehow have to rid itself of the violence and hate he documents.
But frankly, I don’t believe the anti-Zionist left understands or cares about religious identity (either Jewish or Muslim) in Israel. It is similar quarrel I have with Palestinians who denounce Hamas and have their hearts set on what used to be called a “secular democratic state.” Derogating religious identity is a surefire way to guarantee that you will miss important elements of contemporary Israeli (Jewish) and Palestinian identity. It will also lead you off the beaten path into the weeds in terms of maintaining political relevance.
When I use the term religion or religious identity I am not talking about them in the triumphalist sense that Jewish extremists and Islamist fundamentalists use them. I mean a religious identity that offers a guide to ethical behavior and to living side by side with other religions and cultures. Despite the religious hate that Max documents so well in his book, there is another form of religious expression. I don’t believe that Max or those who share his views believe that such a tolerant form of religious identity can be realized on the ashes of the current religious extremism.
So my ultimate quarrel with Max has to do not with what he writes, but what he doesn’t write. What he misses. I believe that religious identity and expression is one key to co-existence in a future State of Israel. Rejecting it or reviling its most extreme forms is only the beginning of the process of redemption that must happen if Israel is to survive. What must follow is a radical transformation that allows two peoples and three religions to co-exist in peace, security and prosperity.