Eric Alterman on Palestine and Israel, part 2: Alterman vs. ‘Goliath’ (Updated)

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This is a two-part study on Eric Alterman’s questionable statements on Palestine and Israel. Part one reviewed some of Eric Alterman’s statements that undermined his self-proclaimed status as a conscientious critic of the Israeli occupation.

In this second part, I address the careless and false accusations that Alterman makes against Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath, and thus demonstrate that Alterman is an unreliable commentator on Palestine/Israel.

Ali Gharib has already refuted Alterman’s claims about Netanyahu and Iran, Jerry Haber has addressed Alterman’s depiction of Yeshayah Leibowitz, and Corey Robin has already responded to Alterman’s impression of Blumenthal’s encounter with David Grossman. Here, I will investigate Alterman’s follow-up article, which was posted on the Nation website and cleverly titled “The Israel-Hater’s Handbook, Continued…” In that post, Alterman listed four additional criticisms “about the book I did not have a chance to make in [the previous] column.” As I demonstrate below, Alterman’s four criticisms consist of false attributions, misquotes, and meaningless arguments.

Accusation #1

Quoting from Blumenthal’s book, Alterman writes:

1) Here, I kid you not, is the definition Blumenthal quotes of the substance of Israel’s “fascism”:

“What it really is, is a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends. It’s a feeling when you are sitting there having dinner—what you feel when you’re alive here. It’s the essence of what this society is. And the closer we get to the brink—and everyone is feeling that we’re getting to the breaking point—the worse it gets.”

Yep, that’s “fascism” alright. You can look it up.

So I looked it up. This is actually a portion of a conversation that Blumenthal has with Israeli journalist and filmmaker Lia Tarachansky, and those are Tarachansky’s words. The statement is made after Blumenthal expresses skepticism about the use of the word “fascism.” The full context is as follows:

“Fascism” was a word the leftists used almost invariably as they told me about having their homes defaced with graffiti death threats by right-wing thugs or about being summoned to interrogations by a Shin Bet agent named “Rona,” then finding out that the police had been monitoring their every move for years. On the bus ride back to Jaffa, the “F” word came up again as Lia gave me her impressions of the rally we had just covered. I challenged her to define what she meant by the term. How could she claim fascism was in the air when anti-Zionists like her were still allowed to conduct their journalism and activism without being jailed or simply eliminated? Wasn’t Israel at least a semi-open society?

“To explain the fascism in Israel, it’s not that easy,” Lia said, “because honestly I don’t let myself think about it that much. It’s so depressing and so terrifying that I usually repress my thoughts about it. But if you really want me to define it, then I’d tell you that it’s not just the anti-democratic laws, it’s not the consensus for occupation, it’s not the massive right-wing coalition government, it’s not watching the people who ask questions and think critically being interrogated by the Shabak [Shin Bet]. What it really is, is a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends. It’s a feeling when you are sitting there having dinner—what you feel when you’re alive here. It’s the essence of what this society is. And the closer we get to the brink—and everyone is feeling that we’re getting to the breaking point—the worse it gets.”

Eric Alterman is a “distinguished professor of journalism,” so surely he knows that in Goliath, in which Blumenthal documents his interactions with locals and quotes them at length, he is not taking personal ownership of every quote. Instead offering the reader glimpses into the characters of the book and into their senses of living in the region. Alterman falsely suggests that Blumenthal is defining the word “fascism” for his readers.

Alterman also ignores Tarachansky’s references to “anti-democratic laws,” “consensus for occupation,” “the massive right-wing coalition government,” and the Shin Bet’s interrogations of dissenters. Tarachansky ultimately sets aside these existing technical components of fascism—while acknowledging their existence—in favor of a visceral description, which Alterman selectively pounces upon.

Finding of accusation #1: Alterman misrepresents the author’s conversation with an Israeli and mistakes Goliath for a dictionary.

Accusation #2

2) Here is [Blumenthal’s] argument in favor of the Arabs’ right to discriminate against Jewish Israelis: When a Haifa café is told by the municipality that it has no right to discriminate against Israeli soldiers in uniform by refusing to serve them, Blumenthal tells us it was “officially sanction[ing] a mob campaign” against it.

In the first part of this accusation, Alterman falsely claims that a Haifa café, Azad, was “discriminat[ing] against Jewish Israelis.” But here’s what Blumenthal wrote:

To cultivate the café as a sanctuary of equal coexistence, [the café’s] owners insisted on enforcing a policy that defied Israeli society’s culture of militarism: “No uniforms allowed” read the sign on its door. The policy applied not just to soldiers, but also to boy scouts and security personnel—to anyone identified with the state’s exclusive institutions.

When an armed Israeli soldier entered the café, one of the café’s owners told the soldier that

“we have a policy against uniforms, so if he comes back in civilian clothes I will be happy to serve him and I’ll give him the best service he’s ever had.”

This is clearly not a depiction of “discriminat[ing] against Jewish Israelis.” In the second part of the accusation, Alterman actually misquotes Blumenthal and thus changes the context. Alterman claims that, according to Blumenthal,  the Haifa municipality “officially sanctioned a mob campaign”—the indefinite article suggesting a campaign that did not yet exist but could following the municipality order. What Blumenthal actually wrote was that “the Haifa municipality officially sanctioned the mob campaign” by “issuing an order to shut down the café.”

The definite article refers to a mob campaign that had already begun. Blumenthal:

In March, a mob of Israeli students and soldiers, including members of the Likud-linked Im Tirtzu student group, rallied outside the café, waving flags and holding signs that read “Don’t discriminate against soldiers” and “Soldiers keep us safe.” After a raucous rendition of the Israeli national anthem, protesters climbed atop the roof of [the café] and draped Israeli flags over the café’s sign, while blocking the view of the patrons inside with an even larger Israeli flag. A few police officers stood by and watched without doing a thing. Images of the scene recalled images from Shuhada Street in Hebron, where violent Jewish settlers living under the protection of Israeli soldiers have forced hundreds of Palestinian shops to close, marking the triumph of each store driven out of business by spray-painting a Star of David on its front door, or by planting an Israeli flag on its roof.

The episode shook the local Palestinian community.

Protesters drape an Israeli flag over the sign to the Azad café and surround patrons, Haifa 2010.

Protesters drape an Israeli flag over the sign to the Azad café and surround patrons, Haifa 2010. (Image: YouTube)

And contrary to Alterman’s claim that Blumenthal was arguing “in favor of the Arabs’ right to discriminate against Jewish Israelis,” Blumenthal quotes a Haifa court judge as determining that

“The alleged discrimination … was not supported by even a shred of evidence when the motion was submitted to the court.”

Moreover, the claim that was dismissed alleged discrimination against soldiers, not against “Jewish Israelis.”

Finding of accusation #2: Alterman misleads the reader by claiming “discriminat[ion] against Jewish Israelis”—an accusation that he invents. He then misquotes Blumenthal.

Accusation #3

3) Blumenthal describes Yoram Kniuk’s book about a Jewish violinist who forced to play for a concentration camp commander and then quotes a Palestinian saying “Our enemy’s existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified[,] by our suffering[;] by Jewish violinists in the camps.” Nowhere does he mention that Kniuk was a novelist. He wrote, um, fiction.

First, Alterman omitted punctuation in his excerpt (restored here in brackets), which changes the meaning of the quote.

Second, Alterman attributes the quote to “a Palestinian.” In fact the quote belongs to Yoram Kaniuk. This is clearly stated in the book, as well as in Blumenthal’s source.

Third, Alterman faults Blumenthal for not mentioning “that Kniuk was a novelist. He wrote, um, fiction.” Um, so what? The quote does not derive from one of Kaniuk’s novels, but rather from an opinion piece that appeared in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

Finding of accusation #3: Alterman misquotes, misattributes the misquote, and then follows it up with a non sequitur. No argument is made and none is supported.

Accusation #4

4) He nastily and condescendingly mocks Time editor Rick Stengel for “marketing” Bibi Netanyahu as a “potential peacemaker.” Isn’t Netanyahu obviously a “potential peacemaker”? Isn’t every war-maker a potential peacemaker? Wasn’t Begin before he ended Israel’s occupation of Sinai and signed a peace agreement with Egypt? Wasn’t Sharon before he ended Israel’s occupation of Lebanon? Wasn’t Nixon before he went to China? Blumenthal is also apparently capable of reading Stengel’s mind, even when he’s not present: (“Rick Stengel arrived at his doorstep eager to relay a heavy dose of Bibi-think to the American public.”)

Here, Alterman resorts to meaningless pedantry after quoting three words outside of the sentence they appear in. This is what Blumenthal actually wrote:

Having convinced one of the American media’s most influential figures to market him as a potential peacemaker, even as he rattled off violent threats against Iran and authorized thousands of new settlement units in the West Bank, Netanyahu and his inner circle celebrated the sensational public relations score. [emphasis mine]

In other words, Blumenthal points out the irony of a “potential peacemaker” who was moving in the opposite direction of peace and who was promoting greater conflict. It should not be that difficult to understand, especially for a “distinguished professor of English and journalism.”

As for “nastily and condescendingly mock[ing] Time editor Rick Stengel”—to the extent that it is even true, it is arguably warranted. Blumenthal is accurate when he reports that Time magazine

compared the prime minister to Moses, imagined him arguing with God, and dubbed him, “King Bibi.”

Blumenthal also correctly points out that Time recycled a cover theme for its feature story, in which Netanyahu was once again marketed as a potential peacemaker (“Can he make peace?” / “Will Netanyahu make peace?”).

Time 1996: “Can he make peace?” Time 2012: “Will Netanyahu now make peace?”

Time 1996: “Can he make peace?” Time 2012: “Will Netanyahu now make peace?”

For Alterman, a celebrated media analyst, to not understand why someone would find this problematic calls into question Alterman’s ability to interpret the media.

Finding of accusation #4: Just plain stupid and petty.

And this is not the only time that Alterman criticizes Blumenthal’s word choices and gets it totally wrong. In his first piece criticizing Goliath, Alterman writes that

[Blumenthal] credits Zionist pioneer Berl Katznelson, whom he calls “the Labor Zionist movement’s chief ideologue”—a title that exists exclusively in the author’s imagination… [my emphasis]

“Exclusively”? Here’s how some prominent Israelis and academics described Berl Katznelson:

  • Shimon Peres: the “principle ideologue of the Labor Zionist movement.”
  • Former Labor party politician Shlomo Ben-Ami: the “main ideologue of the mainstream Labour movement.”
  • Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld: “the Mapai ideologue in chief.”
  • Oxford University Professor of Israel Studies Derek Penslar: “the chief ideologue of mainstream Labor Zionism.”
  • Israeli writer Amos Oz: “the ideologue and leader of the labor movement.”
  • Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer: “the [Mapai] party’s chief ideologue.”

If we take away all the falsehoods and debunked accusations in Alterman’s criticisms of Goliath, this is what we’re left with:

  • “fanatical anti-Zionist extremists”
  • “Al Qaeda”
  • “Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club”
  • “anti-Israel conclusions”

And assuming that Alterman approved of the titles of the articles in question, if he didn’t in fact conceive them himself:

  • “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook”
  • “The Israel-Hater’s Handbook, Continued…”

Alterman6In other words, it reads like a book review you would expect to see in Commentary or FrontPage Magazine. Instead it appeared in the Nation, initially under the banner of “Two Views on Israel.” I eagerly await the Nation’s future cover stories: “Two Views on Labor,” “Two Views on Homosexuality,” “Two Views on Neoliberal Globalization,” and “Two Views on Obama’s Birthplace.”

In the meantime, I hope the Nation and Alterman take stock of the false accusations and misquotes and issue corrections, if not a complete retraction.

Unless, of course, this is Eric Alterman’s way of exposing the myth of the liberal media.

Update:

I failed to note that there is an additional misquote in accusation #3. Not only did Alterman change the meaning of the quote by removing essential punctuation and misattributing the source, he also changed a word in the quote, replacing “Our entire existence” with “Our enemy’s existence.

Here is the original quote as printed in Goliath and properly credited to Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk:

Our entire existence in this Arab region was justified and, is still justified, by our suffering; by Jewish violinists in the camps.

And here is Alterman’s misquote, which he incorrectly attributes to “a Palestinian,” with brackets indicating the modifications:

Our [enemy’s] existence in this Arab region was justified[] and is still justified[] by our suffering[] by Jewish violinists in the camps.

Thanks to Mondoweiss commenters “tree” and “German Lefty” for noting this.

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