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‘Goliath’s’ Missing Pieces
Posted on Nov 20, 2013
Zevulun Orlev, an anti-Arab politician, is a “portly, clean shaven settler with an eerie resemblance to Dick Cheney.” Blumenthal interviewed some young Jewish Americans from the settler movement in a place called “Crack Square” and found them to be yeshiva students determined to “party their way into oblivion” or “rejected, runaway children of settlers who had fled domestic abuse and religious fanaticism for a life of narcotics, alcohol and the constant specter of police violence.” Or a “drunk 15 year old with an acne scarred face” or “skinny Israeli American guy with a knit kippah.”
He describes “gun-toting Orthodox settlers and soldiers shopping for discount clothing and gorging themselves on pizza and frozen yogurt.”
Blumenthal also minimizes the Holocaust, treating it as a device used by the Israeli government to promote national unity. The Eichmann trial, not the murder of 6 million Jews, “forced the Holocaust into the Israeli national ethos,” Blumenthal writes. “The lessons of the Holocaust have been imparted across the world to promote greater tolerance for minorities and marginalized social groups. But in Israel they are routinely exploited to advance narrow nationalistic goals.”
This brings us to a central point of the book: Blumenthal disapproves of the very idea of a Jewish state of Israel. Let the boundaries be erased and the Jews who live there blend into the rest of the population, living side by side with people whose leaders are dedicated to destroying the Jewish state, and taking Jews along with it. His feelings are clear in a revealing account of his interview with David Grossman, a liberal Israeli journalist whose soldier son was killed in the 2006 Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon.
“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,” Blumenthal writes. “ ‘For two thousand years,’ Grossman told me when I asked why he believed the preservation of Zionism is necessary, ‘we have been kept out, we have been excluded. And so for our whole history, we finally have a chance to be insiders.’ ”
“I told Grossman my father had been kind of an insider,” Blumenthal continues. “He had served as senior aide to Bill Clinton, president of the United States, the leader of the free world, working alongside other proud Jews like Rahm Emanuel and Sandy Berger. I told him I was kind of an insider, and anti-Semitism had never obstructed my ambitions. ‘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.’
“It was here that Grossman, the quintessential man of words, found himself at a loss. He looked at me with a quizzical look. Very few Israelis understand American Jews as Americans but instead as belonging to the Diaspora. But very few American Jews think of themselves in that way, especially in my generation and that, too, is something very few Israelis grasp. Grossman’s silence made me uncomfortable, as though I had behaved with impudence, and I quickly shifted the subject from philosophy to politics. Before long, we said good-bye, parting cordially but not warmly. On my way out of the cafe, Grossman, apparently wishing to preserve his privacy, requested that I throw my record of his phone number away.”
There was another possibility. Perhaps Grossman’s look was more disgusted than quizzical, and he wanted Blumenthal to erase his phone number not for privacy but so that he would not have to talk to the American journalist again. Perhaps Blumenthal’s habit of mixing self-righteous lectures with his questions reminded Grossman of a certain part of the Passover Seder, as it did me. The service is heavy on asking and answering questions, and this portion deals with how four sons ask them. One son is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask.
In addition, many Israelis don’t approve of American Jews who regard themselves as Americans first and Jews second and perhaps Grossman’s reaction reflected that. But I also thought he might have been put off by the American journalist telling him that he had a hard time taking his explanation of Zionism seriously. Grossman clearly meant for Blumenthal to take him seriously. For Blumenthal to dismiss him with a lecture on the “golden age” of American Jewry was the height of rudeness to a man who has lived through rough days in Israel, covered many hard stories and lost a son in combat.
Blumenthal finally finds happy Israelis—far away from Israel. In Brooklyn, he encountered Rafi Magnes, the grandson of the late Rabbi Judah Magnes, once president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an advocate of a Palestinian-Jewish state. Magnes and his wife live in a newly chic neighborhood. “ ‘I call ourselves luxury refugees,’ Liz Magnes told me. ‘We could have stayed, of course, but the fascism had gotten too overwhelming. Thank God we left.’ ” At a party in Brooklyn, Blumenthal writes, “The sound of Hebrew chatter was pouring from the room, and there was also English in a smattering of foreign accents. Everyone seemed to feel at home.”
Home for him and the partygoers, but not for the Jewish residents of Israel. Their home is where they live and Blumenthal should have done a better job of trying to explain why they feel that way.
It’s not as though the Jews picked up a travel guide and chose to settle in Israel sometime in the 20th century. The Babylonians and the Romans exiled Jews from Palestine, but a small number remained through the centuries and religious services through the Diaspora always ended with a ringing “next year in Jerusalem.” The Holocaust, of course, was a pivotal event, but before that were the murderous pogroms in Russia and the anti-Semitism deeply rooted in Europe, all of which led to the creation of Zionism. Hitler’s Final Solution had a long history behind it.
Jews were divided over whether there should be a Jewish state. To some extent, they still are. Blumenthal is not a lonely voice in this regard. The history is incredibly complex. It touches deep emotions, stirred up each time Jews and Palestinians kill one another or whenever Jews argue about Israel. And as Blumenthal reports in his book, the hatred in the so-called Holy Land is so deep that it’s difficult to see how the conflict will ever be settled.
I wish Blumenthal had reported on the feelings of Israelis who disagree with him. He should have interviewed soldiers, even though he thinks they are brutes. Still, it takes a fearless Jewish writer to explore the bloody clash, and Blumenthal should be commended for that.
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