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.
Truthdig has featured several reactions to the book “Goliath.” One by Bill Boyarsky, and another by Chris Hedges. We also recorded an interview with the author, Max Blumenthal, which you can listen to here.
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.
The striking thing about the critical reviews I have seen is the relatively small points they use to support their attacks. As one writer put it, these are gotcha moments, and even as some of these turn out to be erroneous and some accurate, they miss the main message of the book.
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.
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:
• 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.
One of Blumenthal’s most arresting accounts appears in the chapter titled “How to Kill Goyim and Influence People.” Several critics of the book have cited this title, along with chapter titles that evoke the Nazi era, as evidence of Blumenthal’s tendentious partiality. But that really fails to address the shocking facts recounted in the chapter, which focuses on the contents and response to a book published in 2009. The book, “Torat Hamelech”—The King’s Torah—written by two rabbis, was described by the newspaper Maariv as “a kind of guidebook for anyone who ponders the question of if and when it is permissible to take the life of a non-Jew.” It turns out that it is very often permissible and even advisable. The rabbis inform their readers—the book was designed as a guide for soldiers and army officers—that the commandment against murder refers only to the killing of Jews by other Jews, not to the killing of gentiles. The rabbis further explain that the rules of war, as defined by their reading of the Torah, “permit intentional hurting of babies and of innocent people, if this is necessary for the war against the evil people. … [T]he infants are not killed for their evil, but due to the fact that there is a general need of everyone to take revenge on the evil people, and the infants are the ones whose killing will satisfy this need.”
Blumenthal’s chapter on this series of events paints a disturbing picture of fundamentalist extremism that is not only countenanced by the ruling political parties, but seems semiofficially supported, if only by the lack of condemnation. Certainly, similarly hateful speech can be found in the oeuvre of American fundamentalist extremists, but it would be difficult to find prominent public officials defending, say, the Westboro Baptist Church’s God Hates Fags website or the Rev. Terry Jones’ love of threatening to burn a Quran. However, the response to “Torat Hamelech” was far from uniformly condemnatory. On the contrary, the book was endorsed by leading state-funded rabbis while Netanyahu maintained a careful silence.
Israel does not have First Amendment-style protection of speech and it does have laws against “incitement” that are selectively applied and enforced. In this instance, one that certainly seems to be an unambiguous case of racial incitement, the state proved unwilling or unable to enforce the law. Rabbi Lior, one of the state rabbis who gave the book an official endorsement, refused to appear for questioning and defied an arrest order on the grounds that the Torah superseded the law. With the support of Israel’s chief rabbis and 24 Knesset members, the defiant rabbis won, as the government backed down, saying that the book was written in a “general manner,” and thus couldn’t be charged with inciting racism.
So, what I am left with after reading all 400-plus pages of “Goliath,” besides a lot more heart-rending details that fill in the outlines of things I already knew? In part, I know that things are worse than I realized, even though I am also aware of many positive facts and stories that didn’t make it into “Goliath.” Nor need they have done so. Blumenthal was not pretending to write a “balanced” account and that doesn’t lessen the importance of the book.
Israel is losing the battle for the sympathies of the younger generation, those for whom the Holocaust no longer trumps the realities of the oppression of the Palestinian population. Just as the war in Vietnam, not to mention later unjustifiable military adventures in Iraq and elsewhere, squandered America’s post-World War II moral authority, so Israel’s prolonged and increasingly horrific occupation and destruction of Palestinian territory have replaced the righteous image of the heroic sabra with that of the self-righteous religious settler claiming that God gave the Jews absolute dominion from the (Mediterranean) sea to the (Jordan) river, if not, as found in Genesis, from the Nile to the Euphrates.
Blumenthal concludes with a description of the growing disaffection of younger Israelis, many of whom have emigrated with large numbers, ironically, settling in Germany. For the younger generation in much of the world, and increasingly in the United States, the Palestinians are the victims and Israel is the colonial oppressor. This reality will become only more acute unless the current anti-democratic trends in Israeli political life are reversed, and unless the apparently inexorable destruction of Palestinian society in the West Bank is halted. For all the state sponsored Birthright tours for Jewish youth, the coming generations exposed to YouTube-carried images of raw racism will be a much harder sell for the purveyors of Hasbarah. This is the reason that “Goliath” is a threat to the Israeli status quo—not because it doesn’t have oversights and overstatements; of course it does—but because it tells too many inconvenient truths.
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.