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Reading ‘Goliath’: Inconvenient Truths

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Posted on Nov 5, 2013
AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill

Israeli soldiers and border police officers take up positions next to Israel’s separation barrier during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators, not seen, at the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem.

By Larry Gross

(Page 2)

Anyone who has paid any attention to the situation in Israel and Palestine will be familiar with the general outlines of the occupation and the continued encroachment of Israeli settlements, in violation of international law, United Nations resolutions and basic human morality. Anyone who has seen such powerful recent documentaries as “Five Broken Cameras,” “The Gatekeepers” and “The Law in These Parts”—and, if you’re reading this, you should try to watch these films—will be aware of the scale and depth of the continuing tragedy inflicted on the indigenous population of Palestine, and the corrosive damage to the Israeli soul and spirit that is an inevitable price for the role they are playing. As powerful as these scenes are in “Goliath,” they were not the ones that shook me the most.

I was also already familiar with the fact that Israelis, like every other nation, could also be racist and intolerant and vicious. I had seen some of this as a teenager, living there before the 1967 war and the occupation. But the accounts of racism and ethnocentrism manifested in Israel today were more extreme and disturbing than anything I had witnessed in the past. Not surprising, perhaps, and not much different from what can be seen in other countries dealing with multiracial and multiethnic populations, but still, as always, disappointing to encounter from Jews. Is this a double standard? You could say so, but then, I was raised with a belief in Jewish values—not religious, mind you, but ethical—that always makes me hope for better.

That brings me to the parts of the book that I found most disturbing: the emergence of right-wing, religious fundamentalist, racist, sexist and anti-democratic forces, not on the fringes of society, but in the Knesset and in the media (it doesn’t help that the most powerful newspaper in Israel these days may well be Metro, owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and given away free).

Reading the chapters of “Goliath” that recount the anti-democratic legislative efforts of the various right-wing and religious parties, many of whose leaders gave quite candid interviews to Blumenthal and his colleagues, it is impossible not to think about the perversion of parliamentary democracies in the fascist states of Italy, Germany and Spain. Although I have followed some of these events from afar, many of the details were new and mostly horrifying. Among the most striking patterns that Blumenthal notes is the cowardice of many so-called moderates in the Israeli political scene. As right-wing legislators propose anti-democratic laws, Knesset members from the “centrist” parties absent themselves from crucial votes. Blumenthal gives several examples of “plurality majorities” by which anti-democratic measures were passed:

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• The “anti-boycott” bill criminalizing left-wing activists passed by 47 to 38 votes in the 120-seat Knesset.
• A bill to create “McCarthy-style commissions of inquiry” into Israeli human rights NGOs passed by a 40 to 34 margin (this was later held up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after pressure from the EU).
• The Acceptance to Communities Act, which permits towns to reject Palestinian Israeli as residents, and the Nakba law, which forbids any municipality from holding a commemoration of the Palestinian expulsions of 1948, both passed with a total of 55 members of the Knesset voting. 

Add to this the accounts of the horrendous treatment of Palestinian Israeli Knesset members and the picture of an increasingly emboldened anti-democratic movement is compelling. In a reversal of the Dorian Gray scenario, while the portrait of Israel’s democratic soul offered to the world remains pristine, its actual face, as revealed day by day on the floor of the Knesset, is scarred and frightening. 

At the heart of the tragedy of Israel’s democratic decline is the inescapable conflict between democracy and religious nationalism. As the point has often been put, it is not possible for Israel to be both a democracy and a Jewish state, and too many of its leaders, and its citizens, are choosing the latter. Certainly, this has always been a central dilemma of the Jewish state, as Israel has consistently called itself. Throughout its history there has been a pattern of accommodation to the demands of the religious factions, especially in the realm of domestic law (I recounted some of this in my earlier Truthdig article). But in the wake of the 1967 war there was an explosion of fundamentalist nationalism, allied with and supported by the contemporaneously emerging Christian right that became a powerful force in American politics.

In recent years the unabashed virulence of the fundamentalist factions in Israeli politics has been manifested in statements and positions that rival anything emanating from the ayatollahs and mullahs of fundamentalist Islam, but they have not received the same level of attention or condemnation from the media or the political elites either in Israel or, certainly, the United States.


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