Max Blumenthal at the New America Foundation on December 4, 2013. (Video: UStream)
“We hear this cry,” said journalist Max Blumenthal at a much anticipated lecture for Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel at the New America Foundation (NAF) Wednesday afternoon. “Finish 48.” Blumenthal said the Israeli policy of home demolitions and evictions, that Palestinians often call the “on-going Nakba,” is part of a process that began in 1948 that Israel’s rightists want to finish today.
This cry, Blumenthal tells us, is from the World Zionist Organization as they court Jews to move into the predominately Arab regions of the Galilee and the Negev for the stated purposed of “balancing” demographics.
“We hear the calls to finish 48” from the Prawer Plan, where the Israeli government will evict 30,000 Bedouins from their villages—leaving them homeless and without a resettlement option. When foreign minister Avidgor Lieberman campaigned for Likud in 2009 under the header “No Loyalty, No Citizenship,” this was a call to “finish 48.”
The loyalty oaths of Lieberman were used decades ago against Mizrahi Jews whose citizenship was threatened away for organizing an Israeli version of the Black Panther Party. Blumenthal notes as law, “this was of course first introduced by Meir Kahane,” the formerly banned Knesset member whose organization is labeled a terrorist group by Israel and the U.S. for inciting a Jewish underground armed militia responsible for bombing Palestinian facilities. “When [Ehud] Barak supported this bill Haaretz declared that Kahane was the real leader of the Knesset that his legacy had triumphed.”
This victory of the right over mainstream Israeli politics makes Blumenthal’s book stand apart. He doesn’t give a typical national history of Israel, Goliath is more like a people’s history, for Israel’s non-Jews. He shows a country on the brink, coming apart after decades of internal political woes. Most big-think books on Israel and the Palestinians focus on the occupation, the West Bank and Gaza as the moral stains to an otherwise justifiable shelter for the nearly exterminated European Jewry. Israel is then a monolith of moral judgement, an idea about redemption. When 1948 is addressed, since the publication of Benny Morris’s Righteous Victims (1999) it is presented in clear terms as an ethnic cleaning, but one that stopped when the armistice line was signed in 1949. Speaking to Ari Shavit who himself just published My Promised Land, another well-received “big think” Israel book, Morris said,
‘A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse.’
But Blumenthal double-stitches over 1948 and the next decade ruled by a military government. In his Goliath lecture he weaved the present with the past because Blumenthal says that’s what Israeli policymakers are doing. They are passing updated versions of laws that once were military codes for policing Arabs after a period of war and expulsion.
After the bloodshed of Israel’s war of Independence, the Palestinian catastrophe and expulsion subsided, Israel would not have been able to develop a Jewish majority without ensuring the Palestinian population remain small. So they banned the return of those who left during the conflict years. The anti-Infiltration act of 1954 took care of making it illegal for a Palestinians to re-enter hoping to claim their land that the nascent state had already nationalized. Blumenthal explains that the law has been updated and today it is used to imprison African asylum seekers so they may languish in a desert detention camp.
The facility, Saharonim is like a black site. It is known for its impenetrable walls preventing, among other things, journalists’ investigations. It warehouses thousands of would-be refugees for a year and a half, for no crime other than trying to access their United Nations-entitled right to file for protected persons status fleeing violence in their home country. The law also changes the state’s official terminology name for African refugees from “asylum seeker” to “infiltrator,” a throw to exactly how Israel views it’s non-Jewish victims of genocide in Darfur, and torture escapees from Eritrea.
Following the passage of the 2012 update to the law, Blumenthal says a firestorm took a hold of Tel Aviv. Miri Regev a Likud member of Knesset and a darling of the J 14 social protest movement praised for advocating cheaper housing from the inside of the tents, called Africans a “cancer.” The former Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared, “Israel is for the white man.” Then the Molotov cocktails came crashing into refugee-run businesses, a kindergarten and apartments.
During that winter, as Blumenthal continues in his barrage of policies and mob violence, settler leader and Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari organized an “anti-African” themed Hannukah party where hundreds of rightists stormed through the African neighborhood adjacent to Tel Aviv’s central bus station. They lit candles, they beat people, they called for women to be raped—the crime was being non-Jewish in a Jewish land. Back to Africa, they shouted. “Finish 48” Blumenthal tells us.
When he interviewed Ben-Ari later, Blumenthal asked the face of the Greater Israel movement why his political party had not passed any laws in the country’s parliament? Blumenthal says Ben-Ari replied, “because Likud is doing it for me.” And this therein captures the transitional period that Blumenthal writes of in Goliath and the thesis book tour for the past three weeks. The author doesn’t make any declarations on one-state, or two-states, or the occupation. He’s chronicling the Israeli systems to separate Jews from Arabs, and push non-Jews out of the country.
His critics, more recently Jonathan Tobin at Commentary Magazine called the book a “risible ant-Zionist rant” and said NAF had “crossed a line that no decent individual or group should even approach,” continuing, “they are also sending a dangerous signal in the world of D.C. ideas that talk about doing away with Israel is no longer confined, as it should be, to the fever swamps of the far left or the far right.”
Still the book talk went off without a hitch.
Also in attendance Foreign Policy’s John Hudson said that attempts to shut down Blumenthal’s events seemed “over zealous.” In Hudson’s review he teased out a bit of the controversy that was drummed up over the past few weeks:
In October, the conservative Florida Family Association called on members to flood the inbox of an Arizona hotel hosting an event featuring Blumenthal. “Americans who are concerned about Max Blumenthal’s propaganda … have the First Amendment Right to complain about this event,” read an FFA bulletin. (The group also organized against Electronic Arts for allegations about gay stormtroopers appearing in a Star Wars video game).
In a November book event at the Dallas World Affairs Council, Blumenthal said event staffers told him that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee “called and demanded the event be shut down.” A representative for AIPAC tells The Cable the charge “is not true — completely false.”
Last week, Podhoretz attempted to shame the New America Foundation out of hosting Wednesday’s book chat. “NAF has crossed a line that no decent individual or group should even approach,” he wrote. “By doing so they are also sending a dangerous signal in the world of D.C. ideas that talk about doing away with Israel is no longer confined, as it should be, to the fever swamps of the far left or the far right.”
Hudson’s piece is straightforward without narration. But there’s one point where I would urge him to narrative. Hudson writes, “With chapter titles such as ‘Concentration Camp’ and ‘Night of the Broken Glass,’ critics charge that Blumenthal is implying an equivalence between the Jewish State and Nazi Germany.” Blumenthal clarified in his NAF lecture that he is not equating Israel with Nazi Germany, but many of the Israelis he interviewed did. The chapter titles reflect their views, not his. Blumenthal’s comparisons all were U.S. specific. He calls Israel the “largest sundown town” in the world today for a law that says Africans have to sleep in a detention facility and three times during the day. Saharonim prison, he said, conjured the image of Manzanar, a Japanese detention camp that as a young journalist Blumenthal asked internment denier and Fox News presenter Michelle Malkin to sign a picture of the facility. (One of Malkin’s champions for her book In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror was Ron Radosh who also balked NAF for hosting Blumenthal).
This may seem a minor point, but I want journalists like Hudson to differentiate themselves from Tobin and not repeat slander that was first articulated by Eric Alterman in the pages of the Nation, a takedown of the book without reference to its content. However the quiet NAF event and weeks of gigs where Blumenthal has spoken on Israel’s right-wing takeover without interruption shows that while the author may have critics, any campaign to shut his events is failing. And the critics he does have are not warmly echoed by progressives.
Max Blumenthal will travel to California where he will continue his book tour next week.