By Bill Boyarsky
Cowardice. That’s the reason why I, a Jewish journalist, avoid writing about Israel. It’s a loser, my points buried amid the give-no-quarter arguments of supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressiveness and the portions of the American left hostile to Israel. Who needs it?
When I was a Los Angeles Times journalist, I spoke to Jewish groups about our news coverage of Israel and Jewish affairs. At many of these events, I got hit with accusations that our paper was anti-Israel and our correspondent there—whoever it was—was pro-Palestinian. I took heat from stories about Jewish-American politics. When Bob Scheer, another Jew then on the Times staff, took a groundbreaking, deep look at the Los Angeles Jewish community, he and the paper were swamped with criticism.
One of my most unpleasant experiences occurred in 2006, after I had retired from the L.A. Times, when I was on a panel discussion put on by the Women’s Alliance for Israel. The subject was the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. On the panel with me was David Lauter, then the deputy foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. Although the religiously observant Lauter was wearing a yarmulke, it didn’t stop the audience from going after his scalp for his paper’s “anti-Israel” coverage. Afterward, I wrote in my column in The Jewish Journal, “I’ve spoken to many groups all over Los Angeles during extremely volatile times. I’ve never seen such rudeness, narrow mindedness and just plain boorishness.”
Truthdig has featured several reactions to the book “Goliath.” One by Larry Gross, and another by Chris Hedges. We also recorded an interview with the author, Max Blumenthal, which you can listen to here.
Then, there are my own opinions. They are deeply held and personal, and I don’t enjoy getting into arguments about them, especially with the vituperative types who dominate the Israel debate. My feelings toward Israel and Judaism have been shaped by a grandfather who was an original Zionist; by cousins born and raised in Israel; and by a strong identification with the American Jewish community, even though I share few of the beliefs of its more religious members. My parents influenced me, as has what I’ve read, along with a visit to my Israeli relatives. Finally, I believe in a two state solution for Israel, with Jews and Arabs living in side-by-side countries. This appears to be an increasingly unpopular view.
So when Scheer, now my editor at Truthdig, asked me to review Max Blumenthal’s new book “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel,” I thought it would be nothing but aggravation. Possibly intrigued by what I might say, the contrarian Scheer urged me on.
“Goliath” is an important book, although I disagree with much of it. Blumenthal has taken an exhaustive look at the lives of Palestinians pushed around, often brutalized, by an Israeli government that treats them as a subject, even captive, people. “I have interviewed leaders of Israeli political parties and leaders of Palestinian protests,” Blumenthal writes in his preface. “These are the stories of people living under a regime of separation, grappling with the consequences of ethnic division in a land with no defined borders.” This was a difficult task, and the fact that “Goliath” has been ignored so far by mainstream publications is distressing. The results of Blumenthal’s intensive reporting should be read and discussed as a valuable contribution to understanding a dispute that has gone on for many years, possibly back to biblical times.
He accompanied Palestinians and peace movement Israelis into Palestinian villages and witnessed the conduct of Israeli troops and police. He described assaults on protesters in the village of Ni’lin: “The soldiers let loose a volley of teargas on the demonstrators, filling the skies with large rubber coated projectiles designed to bounce after hitting the ground, scattering gas in all directions.” He fell back and talked to an Israeli lawyer who represented Palestinian demonstrators. The lawyer had been hit in the head with a rubber bullet in a demonstration in 2008 and after several operations, still suffered from memory loss and impaired vision. Blumenthal saw an Israeli soldier armed with an M-16 headed toward them. They fled to a hillside and watched soldiers fire more tear gas.
Blumenthal also digs into the links between Netanyahu’s right-wing government, the American Christian right and the pro-Likud elements of the American Jewish community. This reached a peak during the last presidential election, with the Israeli prime minister all but campaigning for Mitt Romney and against President Barack Obama. Blumenthal adds details to this narrative, especially his exposure of GOD-TV, a Jerusalem based cable TV network that blends “New World Order conspiracism with Greater Israel Zealotry.”
For all that, “Goliath” is a one-sided piece of journalism, arguing against the existence of a Jewish state. Blumenthal puts quotes around the word independence when referring to Israel’s founding in 1948 and when he talks about “a Jewish and democratic state.” Nor does he acknowledge Hezbollah shelling of Jewish settlements or terrorist attacks on Jewish civilians.
Words count, something that has been forgotten as coarse language is flung around without thought on Twitter, text messages, cable news talk shows and so-called journalistic websites desperate for clicks. Blumenthal describes Israelis, unless they agree with him, in brief, degrading ways more suited for social media than a serious book.
Cheap shots abound. Netanyahu is characterized as a “slick talking, basso-profound ideologue hoping to consolidate himself as King of Israel.” At Ben Gurion Airport, Blumenthal found a “neurotic mood of ethnic suspicion.” Hamas fighters go out on a “daring mission.” Israeli soldiers are either brutal or gutless. Told how soldiers were ordered into ground action after the kidnapping of Cpl. Gideon Shalit, Blumenthal wrote, “I imagined the terror the fresh-faced conscripts must have felt at being exposed at close quarters for the first time to a guerrilla force they were used to shelling from inside the comfort of an air-conditioned tank.”
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.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men watch Israeli surfers during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod.