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Apr 23, 2014
Reading ‘Goliath’: Inconvenient Truths
Posted on Nov 5, 2013
By Larry Gross
Doorstop. That’s what publishers call 400-page books like Max Blumenthal’s “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.” But as I read it the term that came to mind was heart stopper. The book is hard to read, despite its short chapters and accessible prose, because of its relentless parade of facts—details, names, places, events—that add up to a portrait of pain and despair and injustice.
I don’t need to be told that the book is one-sided, that the author fails to acknowledge the many exceptions to the patterns and policies he reports, or that he doesn’t give equal, or much attention, really, to the aggressive and even murderous acts committed by the enemies of Israel. That’s really not the point. Because, if Blumenthal’s account is accurate—and even his most visible critic so far, Eric Alterman, notes that he is “mostly technically accurate”—then it is a damning and depressing portrait of a society that has been accustomed to presenting itself to the world as a righteous actor, the “Middle East’s only democracy,” surrounded by implacable enemies and forced to defend itself by any means necessary.
I have previously recounted on this site my own experience living in Israel and my disillusionment as I came to see the hollowness of much of the idealism I was taught. So, like so many others, I remain torn between sentiment and love for a landscape and a dream, and anger at the immorality and stupidity of its leaders as well as much of its people.
As I read “Goliath” I kept thinking that I would soon see a barrage of counter-argument, taking on his accounts and attempting to discredit him, point by point. After all, the forces of “Hasbarah” can usually be counted on to engage in massive retaliation. Literally, “explanation,” Hasbarah has come to mean the legions of official and unofficial PR flacks who labor tirelessly to counter any criticism of Israeli policies. But, in this case, it appears that the favored technique has been to attempt to ignore rather than engage. With the exception of Alterman in The Nation, a Google search turns up very few reviews, and nothing in the big league venues such as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, or The Washington Post. What one does turn up in a Google search are point-counterpart blogs siding with Blumenthal or Alterman, and more even-handed reviews in The Forward and Haaretz.
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More importantly, the critics also chide Blumenthal for his frequent use of Nazi and Holocaust imagery, especially in several chapter titles. But he can and does offer a defense that counters the charge of glib rhetoric. A chapter titled “The Night of Broken Glass” recounts a Tel Aviv anti-immigrant riot sparked by racist speeches by Knesset members, in which mobs broke store windows in an immigrant neighborhood, while riot police stood by passively. He quotes an editor at Haaretz, who wrote that she was “as afraid to live in the Israel of 2012 as any right-minded German should have been in 1938, or as any right-minded American should have been in the 1960s.”
Anyone familiar with Israel will be aware of how the Holocaust is taught, remembered, and used as a political tool and weapon. Every visiting political leader, like most tourists, is sure to include Yad Vashem on their itinerary, and few fail to acknowledge the power and importance of its message. As Blumenthal recounts, a visit to Auschwitz has become a common experience for Israeli teenagers before entering army service, and these visits are designed to evoke identification with the victims of the Holocaust that will fuel their sense of righteousness as they patrol the streets of the occupied West Bank. Most interestingly, Blumenthal reports that a program that sent Israeli army officers on the same tour had the unanticipated effect of producing “a steep decline in the officers’ commitment to the Jewish state and the army,” apparently because they came to see themselves as perpetuating some of the same dehumanizing tactics.
As I read “Goliath,” I applied a familiar test: When he was writing about things I knew about firsthand or was otherwise familiar with, he got it right. Thus, I tend to extend credibility to those accounts of things with which I am not familiar. And, as I’ve noted, even the relatively critical responses have ceded the overall accuracy of his account, while accusing him of leaving out the other side, or cherry-picking the most vivid instances that fit the story he wants to tell. But here is precisely the point: Even if he is selectively focusing on the worst examples he can find, there are too many of them, and their cumulative impact is too powerful to shrug off. The term fascism is always loaded, and used way too often by all sorts and all sides. But there are elements of Blumenthal’s account that evoke images and memories of those scoundrel times and evil practices.
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