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.
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.
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.
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.
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.