Preaching to the Choir; Reflections on Max Blumenthal’s Goliath
In my own work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I start from two premises. The first is that in light of Israeli intransigence, there is no chance of attaining a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without strong and sustained pressures from the American government, very probably including making its military, economic, and diplomatic support of Israel conditional upon the end of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians and the creation of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state.
The second premise, however, is that there is no chance of these essential changes in U.S. policies occurring unless a majority of American Jews become convinced that such actions are required by Israel’s own best interests—indeed, without exaggeration, required in order to save Israel from itself, and not only in its relations with the Palestinians but in its domestic political and societal health as well. Of course, it would be far better if Jewish support for American pressures on Israel were motivated at least as much by moral anger at Israel’s behavior and sympathy for the Palestinians; but, sadly, except for a small minority of the American Jewish community, that is not going to happen.
Given those two premises, I have mixed feelings about Max Blumenthal’s new work, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel–“the result of over four years of on-the-ground research and reporting,” as Blumenthal writes in his preface. On the one hand, it is a powerful and impressive work by one of America’s most astute and courageous young journalists, a highly detailed and vividly written compendium of Israel’s criminal—no other word will do—occupation and repression of the Palestinian people. In persuasive detail, Blumenthal reviews and exposes not only the criminal behavior of Israel towards the Palestinians, but also the variety of ways in which Israel is becoming increasingly rightwing, anti-democratic, and even “fascistic” (a term increasingly used by Israel’s own dissenters)—in its schools, in its courts, in its racism (against both the Palestinians and African refugees in Israel), in its police repression, and in its growing restrictions against free speech and protest by Jewish Israelis, let alone by its own Palestinian citizens.
Blumenthal quotes Akiva Eldar, one of Israel’s greatest journalists, who sums up the findings of Israeli public opinion surveys: “Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians, and insensitivity to their suffering.” As even Eric Alterman’s blast at Goliath in Nation (one of the few reviews in the mainstream media) concedes, the book is “mostly technically accurate”—an absurdly backhanded way of admitting that he can’t challenge the detailed evidence laid out by Blumenthal. In a rational world, then, Goliath should convince the American Jewish community as well as non-Jewish “pro-Israelis” to support the necessary changes in US policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It won’t, however—primarily because so many Jewish and other American “pro-Israelis,” like Alterman, are impervious to the facts. But Blumenthal must also bear at least some share of the responsibility for the hostile reception that Goliath is receiving—even from “liberal Zionists,” let alone from the majority of Israelis and American Jews who are well to the right of that small and increasingly beleaguered group.
The first problem concerns the disjuncture between the audience that Blumenthal wants to reach and his strategy for doing so. It is clear that Blumenthal agrees with the two premises I describe above, for in his preface he writes: “it is Americans’ tax dollars and political support that are crucial in sustaining the present state of affairs. I want to show what they are paying for, the facts as they really are today, in unadorned and unsanitized form, without sentimentality or nostalgia….Readers may not agree with all of my conclusions, but I hope they will carefully consider the facts that appear on these pages. They are, after all, the facts on the ground.”
However, Goliath is not likely to succeed in terms of its own purpose. For those who already have some knowledge of, and are increasingly disturbed by, the realities of Israeli policies and the U.S. collaboration with them, Blumenthal’s detailed reporting, analyses, and conclusions will be entirely convincing. But since that is still a small minority of American Jewish community, the problem is that Goliath is likely to end up as merely preaching to the choir. To be sure, that is far from pinning most of the responsibility for such an outcome simply on problems within Blumenthal’s book: the right wing in Israel and the U.S., Jewish or not, can’t be convinced by any evidence, period. The only hope, then, are Israeli and American centrists, who are unaware of the full truth but who are open, in principle, to reconsidering their position when the facts—powerfully presented by Goliath—are overwhelming and irrefutable.
For several reasons, however, Goliath is not likely to have much of an impact on the mainstream centrists in America, the most importance audience for any work seeking changes in the status quo. Given Blumenthal’s overall argument, however justified by the facts and evidence he presents, reaching that mainstream would have been an uphill battle in any case. However, Blumenthal has made the hurdles even greater because of the general tone of his writing and the loaded language and even outright contempt that he occasionally indulges in—mostly not without good reason, I should add, but a serious mistake nonetheless.
The Chapter Headings
The problems begin with a number of Goliath’s sardonic chapter headings, which are designed to dramatize the vast gaps between how the Israelis see themselves–especially in their relations with the Palestinians as well as in their own highly flawed democracy– and the realities. Among other provocative titles are “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Riding the Ass,” “The Best Times of Their Lives,” and “A Wet Dream.” Far more unfortunate are those that are intended to compare Israeli behavior to that of Nazi Germany: “The Concentration Camp,” “The Night of the Broken Glass,” and probably even “How to Kill Goyim and Influence People.”
In response to critics put off by such in-your-face headings, Blumenthal has defended himself by arguing that the facts justify the title headings. In the chapters dealing with the gap between Israeli perceptions and the realities, he indeed has a very good case that they do; nonetheless, in my judgment they are still a tactical error. The implicit or explicit comparisons between Israeli and Nazi behavior are especially unwise. That is not to deny that there are indeed a number of Israeli actions that are likely to call to mind Nazi behavior, especially in its crushing of resistance in the occupied territories. Nonetheless, they are very likely to be counterproductive in their effects on the intended audience for the book—which, to repeat, is not, or at least shouldn’t be, the far left in the Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel, which already has noticed the parallels.
Further, even on the merits, and even given some basis in actual Israeli behavior, a fair treatment would have to call attention to what are still vast differences—to put it mildly!–between that behavior and that of Nazi Germany. Better, then, to just set out the facts, and let the readers think of the implications on their own. Or, alternatively, follow the strategy that I have sometimes employed: note the comparisons with the Israeli responses to Palestinian uprisings and, say, the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian and Czech revolutions –anything, that is, but Nazi Germany.
Language and Tone.
In addition to a number of the chapter titles, in too many places Blumenthal allows himself to indulge in loaded language, in some cases unfair on the merits and in others not without reason but nonetheless unnecessarily inflammatory. Here are some examples:
*The Israeli state has “corralled” the Russian immigrants “into the Zionist project, using them as human fodder to fill the ranks of the army and the major settlement blocs.” (22; all page numbers are from the Kindle edition of Goliath)
*When the managing editor of Time Magazine went to Israel in May 2012 to interview Netanyahu, he is described as “eager to relay a heavy dose of Bibi-think to the American public.” (29).
* Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States during most of Netanyahu’s current term is described as Netanyahu’s “attack dog,” to be “sicced” on critics of Israel. (29) To be sure, Oren is dreadful, but the language is off-putting.
*Blumenthal observes that a former three-hundred-year-old Palestinian mosque in Jaffa has been turned into an S & M night club. Fair enough, and sufficiently devastating without further comment—but what purpose is served, other than sheer contempt, when Blumenthal adds that “male bondage enthusiasts enjoyed having the remainder of their circumcised foreskin sewn over the tip of their penis?” (46-7)
*In shops beneath Blumenthal’s flat, “Gun-toting Orthodox settlers” and soldiers are not merely eating, but are “gorging themselves.” (237)
*It is sufficient to describe the Israeli army repression in the occupied territories without calling it the “jackboot” of repression (378), a term which is widely associated with the German army in its repression of the resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Rejection of Zionism
Blumenthal’s attack on Zionism, even—or especially–liberal Zionism, is an even more important reason why Goliath is almost surely not going to cause the majority of American Jews and other “pro-Israeli” groups to change their minds and support serious U.S. pressures on Israel.
There is a strong case for distinguishing between Zionism’s argument for the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state today (as opposed to a state of all its citizens) from the earlier Zionist arguments for the creation of a Jewish state in the aftermath of the murderous Russian and East European anti-Semitism of the late 19th / early 20 centuries and, obviously, the Holocaust. However, Blumenthal strongly implies that Zionism has always been wrong.
Early Zionism. Throughout the book Blumenthal describes Israel, from its outset, in terms of colonialism. For example, he writes: “In the narrative of the new nostalgia, Israel’s crisis began in 1967 with its conquest of new Arab land, and not in 1948, when it defined its settler-colonial character.” (272) Elsewhere, Israel is described as a colonial power, or one that has a “colonial character.” Or, he argues, kibbutzim that were established—“planted” is his term–in the Galilee or along Israel’s borders with Gaza were part of the “colonial agenda” designed to “to hold back the restive natives” on the other side. (87)
It cannot be denied that there are some legitimate comparisons between Western colonialism and Israeli behavior–unquestionably of its ongoing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem since 1967, but even in the pre- and early post-state period. The parallels are obvious, and Blumenthal is hardly the first Jewish or Israeli dissident to point to them—yet, there are also highly important differences, and it is incumbent upon critics of Israel to acknowledge them in a serious manner.
It is beyond the purview of this review essay to go into detail, but at least at the level of motivation (consequences are a different matter), anyone describing Israel in terms of colonialism must also acknowledge that the driving force behind early Zionism was the felt urgent necessity (I would say, objective urgent necessity) to create a haven from murderous anti-Semitism. That must be distinguished from the obvious motives and complete lack of objective necessity that drove Western colonialism– power for its own sake, economic gain or simple greed, or “the white man’s burden,” none of which had the slightest thing to do with early Zionism.
The Nakba. Blumenthal is particularly critical not only of Israeli rightists but also—if not especially –of liberal Zionists who, in his judgment, fail to realize the significance of the Nakba (the violent and frequently murderous expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from lands conquered or coveted by Israel during the 1947-49 period) in calling into question the legitimacy of Israel from the outset. For example, in Goliath’s chapter on his interview with the famed novelist and essayist David Grossman, a leading liberal Zionist, Blumenthal writes this:
Despite his outrage at the misdeeds committed after 1967, Grossman excised the Nakba from his frame of analysis. Of course, he knew the story of Israel’s foundation, warts and all. But the Nakba was the legacy also of the Zionist left, as were the mass expulsions committed in its wake….By singling out the settlement movement as the source of Israel’s crisis, Grossman and liberal Zionists elided the question altogether, starting the history at 1967. (273-74)
Liberal or even many not-so-liberal Zionists—Ari Shavit’s recent writing comes to mind—typically acknowledge the horror or even the criminality of the Nakba, but argue that it was necessary to establish a secure Israeli state with a large Jewish majority. My own view is different, as I developed it (and largely repeat here) in a March 2011 essay on this site, “Ethnic Cleansing and the Creation of Israel: Were There Alternatives?
Many post-Zionist critics of Israel argue that ethnic cleansing was an inextricable and inevitable outcome of Zionism itself, and that it simply wasn’t possible to create a viable Jewish state without driving out large numbers of Palestinians. However, while there can be no doubt that the principle euphemistically called “transfer” was deeply embedded in Zionist ideology, it doesn’t follow that the brutal expulsion of the Palestinians was the only way to ensure a large Jewish majority in Israel–or at least an Israel that remained within the UN boundaries.
Under the UN plan, the land allocated to a Jewish state contained about 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs. Understandably, David Ben-Gurion told other Zionist leaders that “Such a composition does not provide a stable basis for a Jewish state….[It] does not even give us absolute assurance that control will remain in the hands of the Jewish majority.” Even strong critics of the entire Zionist enterprise, such as Ilan Pappe, agree: “The almost equal demographic balance within the allocated Jewish state was such that…Zionism would never have attained any of its principal goals.” (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 35)
What demographic balance would have worked? In fact, since the creation of Israel Jews have constituted about 80% of the population, evidently sufficient to provide a stable Jewish majority. Let us suppose, then, that in 1947 the Zionists had agreed to accept such an 80% majority within the UN boundaries: in that case, some 220,000 Palestinians would have had to be moved into the rest of Palestine or neighboring Arab states, rather than the approximately 750,000 that were expelled when Israel expanded its borders in 1948-49.
More importantly, there might well have been other ways to achieve that goal without engaging in murderous ethnic cleansing. For example, there should have been serious efforts to buy out the Palestinians with very generous offers, or if one prefers, “bribing” them to leave, as in fact Franklin Roosevelt had briefly considered: surely the international community as well as wealthy Jewish supporters of Israel would have been willing to provide the funds.
And even if financial inducements to leave had proven insufficient, it hardly follows that draconic ethnic cleansing was the only available method: there could have been a far less extensive and brutal “transfer”–such as, if necessary, non-voluntary relocation but accompanied by generous financial restitution. Indeed, it is worthy of note that the partition plan recommended by the British Peel Commission in 1937 cited previous precedents in which “compulsory exchanges of population” had succeeded in preventing civil or international conflict.
That is not to deny that no matter how well compensated, compulsory relocation would still constitute an injustice to Palestinians who refused to leave their homes and villages under any circumstance. Even so, differences in degrees of injustice matter a great deal. First of all, numbers matter: Of the 220,000 Palestinians who would have had to be relocated in order for the Jews to attain a large majority in Israel, surely some significant number of them would have done so if they had been offered very generous compensation and other forms of assistance in picking up their lives elsewhere.
In short, some relatively small number of Palestinians (say, 50,000?) would had to have been involuntarily moved—“transferred”–to areas just a few miles away, with essentially the same geography, climate, history, religion, language, and culture. Yes, that would still be an injustice, but radically less so than the violent expulsion of 750,000 people, many of them who fled in justified fear that they were in imminent danger of being killed, and others who were rounded up in a matter of hours and marched across the border with little but the clothes on their backs.
Finally, even after the expulsion of the Palestinians, in a variety of ways the Israelis might have at least mitigated the injustice–better said, the criminality–of the Nakba, if only they had had the moral and practical sense to have done so. First, they should have acknowledged and apologized for the Nakba, and committed themselves to do everything to make up for it– short of disbanding Israeli as a Jewish state.
Second, they could and should have avoided further territorial expansion and expulsion of the Palestinians after 1949, especially the conquest and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza after the 1967 war. Then, they should have agreed to a genuinely viable and independent Palestinian state in those territories, and along with the international community, provided generous development assistance to it.
Still further, the remaining Arab minority within Israel should have been given full political, social, and economic equality, as in fact Israel’s Declaration of Independence had promised, a commitment that has been violated throughout the history of Israel.
Had they done all of these things, there is every reason to believe that despite the Nakba the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have been brought to a peaceful and otherwise acceptable end long ago—and probably still today.
In one of the most important—and revealing—passages in Goliath, Blumenthal further discusses his interview with David Grossman:
For Grossman and liberal Zionists like him, the transformation of Israel from an ethnically exclusive Jewish state into a multiethnic democracy was not an option. “‘For two thousand years,” Grossman told me when I asked why he believed the preservation of Zionism was necessary, “we have been kept out, we have been excluded. And so for our whole history we were outsiders. Because of Zionism, we finally have the chance to be insiders.” I told Grossman that my father had been a kind of insider. He had served as a senior aide to Bill Clinton, the president of the United States…working alongside other proud Jews like Rahm Emanuel and Sandy Berger. I told him that I was a kind of insider, and that my ambitions had never been obstructed by anti-Semitism. “Honestly, I have a hard time taking this kind of justification seriously,” I told him. “I mean, Jews are enjoying a golden age in the United States.”’(275)
Blumenthal then adds: “It was here that Grossman, the quintessential man of words, found himself at a loss,” the apparent implication being that his (Blumenthal’s) argument is unanswerable.
It isn’t. His argument is common among Jewish post- or even anti-Zionists: the core Zionist principle, the need for Jews to have a state of their own, is said to be now anachronistic because of the strength of Jewry and its “insider” status in the United States. For three reasons, it is not a persuasive argument. First, it is ahistorical, even in terms of the United States. In my own lifetime there was considerable anti-Semitism in the 1930s and early 1940s—not exactly ancient history. In this connection, three recent major works that include discussions of anti-Semitism in America before WWI–especially prominent in much of the isolationist movement– make instructive reading: Susan Dunn’s 1940; FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler (2013), Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days (2013), and Philip Roth’s exercise in alternate history, The Plot Against America (2004), which persuasively imagines what might have happened in America if Charles Lindbergh had become president, an altogether realistic possibility in the late 1930s.
In any case, secondly, I am aware of no supporter of Zionism who focuses on the Jewish situation in the United States in support of the argument that Israel must continue as a largely-Jewish state as a potential refuge against the rise of anti-Semitism. It isn’t ancient and therefore irrelevant history that in late 19th and early 20th century European anti-Semitism was not only severe but murderous—in Czarist Russia, in eastern Europe and, of course, in Germany, where the Jews were increasingly assimilated and powerful– until, that is, the rise of Nazism. And even when contemporary anti-Semitism has fallen short of becoming murderous, it was sufficiently severe to convince over a million Russian Jews that it was wise to emigrate to Israel.
Third, and most importantly, there is no prospect that Israel will agree to a peace settlement that doesn’t preserve Israel as a Jewish state. That fact of life alone makes the post-Zionist argument irrelevant, even if it were a persuasive one. Even a two-state settlement that preserves Israel as a Jewish state is becoming increasingly remote, let alone the transformation of Israel into a single binational state in which the Jews would almost certainly become a minority in the next few decades.
What is the best strategy to try to persuade Americans, especially Jewish Americans, that their nearly unconditional support of Israel is contributing to the current disaster? My argument on this issue assumes that the American Jewish community and other pro-Israeli groups are divided into three groups. The first are ideologues who are uninterested in the facts and can’t be moved. The second is a probably smaller group who not only know but care deeply about the facts, and need no further convincing that the unconditional US support of Israel is both morally wrong and contrary to the true interests of both Israel and the United States. The third and probably largest sector are the “liberal Zionists”: American Jews (and their supporters) who are proudly liberal in their general values and in the context of American politics, who are unhappy about the Israeli occupation, oppose the settlements, and support a two-state settlement—but who are not prepared to say either that Zionism was a mistake from the outset or even that it is no longer justified.
Because of problems in both tone and—less often—substance, Goliath will probably not have much of an impact on these liberal Zionists (sometimes more unkindly described as “PEPS,” Progressives Except for Palestine). Indeed, most of them will never even hear about Goliath, let alone read it, because Blumenthal’s frequently confrontational or sardonic rhetoric has apparently resulted in a decision by the mainstream media to ignore the book.
That is most unfortunate, for Blumenthal is right that Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians is indefensible and antithetical to what we used to be pleased to call “Jewish values.” Thus, I fully understand why he has chosen to bluntly express his (mostly) justifiable rage and contempt–to let it all hang out. Indeed, I’ve sometimes succumbed to the same temptation—but almost always to my later regret. Better, in short, to just let the brute and irrefutable facts speak for themselves.
To be sure, as one of Goliath’s best chapter titles puts it, for many Israelis and their US supporters “There Are No Facts.” Even so, those of us who share Blumenthal’s values and his knowledge of the realities have little choice but to continue our work and hope that at some point the facts will actually come to matter.