Eric Alterman on Palestine and Israel, part 1: The liberal Zionist dilemma

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

In response to Eric Alterman’s Nation review of Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath, I posted a couple of comments on Mondoweiss that described disturbing statements Alterman has made about Palestine and Israel. I was asked to elaborate on this, and so I present this two-part study.

Here, in part one, I review some of Alterman’s statements that undermine his self-proclaimed status as a conscientious critic of the Israeli occupation.

In part two tomorrow, I will demonstrate that Alterman’s criticism of Blumenthal’s book is replete with careless errors and intentional misstatements that merit lengthy corrections, if not a complete retraction.

The “tough call” of killing someone else’s children

Just before midnight on July 22, 2002, on the cusp of a unilateral Palestinian cease-fire call, the Israeli military dropped a one-ton bomb on a Gaza City neighborhood to assassinate Hamas leader Salah Shehade, who was asleep at the time. As one would reasonably expect, the bomb ended up killing much more than Shehade. Shehade’s wife and daughter were killed, along with a dozen other people in the densely populated neighborhood. Over a hundred more were wounded and several homes were destroyed in the bombing.

Eric Alterman’s “tough luck”: In 2002, Israel took out a Gaza City neighborhood with a one-ton bomb in order to assassinate one person in his sleep.
Eric Alterman’s “tough luck”: In 2002, Israel took out a Gaza City neighborhood with a one-ton bomb in order to assassinate one person in his sleep.

The following day, in his MSNBC column, Alterman wrote about the bombing:

I don’t know if killing the military chief of Hamas, together with his family, is an effective military measure—as surely someone will rise to replace him and it will make a lot more people angry, perhaps even angry enough to become suicide bombers. It may not bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer to peace or mutual security. But I don’t have a moral problem with it.

Hamas is clearly at war with Israel. Hamas feels empowered to strike Israeli civilians inside Israel proper and not just on the war zone of West Bank. Sheik Salah Shehada could have protected his family by keeping away from them. He didn’t and owing to his clear legitimacy as a military target, they are dead too.

So tough luck, fella.

War is hell.

Alterman justified the bombing with the following three points:

1. Since Hamas targeted Israeli civilians, the Israeli military had the right to kill Palestinian civilians.

2. It was Shehade’s fault for living with his family that resulted in his family being killed by Israel.

3. “War is hell.”

Moreover, Alterman stated that the bombing had a “clear legitimacy as a military target,” presumably accepting the concept of proportionality in international humanitarian law, which requires the use of force—and the resultant “collateral damage”—to be proportional to the military objective. Yet Alterman initially noted that the bombing had questionable “effective military measure” and “may not bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer to peace or mutual security.” Thus Alterman contradicted himself when he established the legitimacy of the bombing.

Alterman backtracked the next day, but not really:

I think I better apologize for the words “tough luck” at the end of yesterday’s entry. They are inappropriate in a situation where so many innocents, including children, were killed. When I wrote them, I was as yet unaware of the extent of the civilian damage caused by the Israeli missile attack.

I still think my principle holds as to the ultimate responsibility for the death of Sheik Salah Shehada’s family. As for the others hurt and injured, well, I can argue it either way. It’s a tough call.

The extent of Alterman’s apology was to regret saying “tough luck” when he realized that it wasn’t just Shehade’s wife and daughter who were killed along with Shehade. As for the deaths of those unrelated to Shehade, “it’s a tough call.”

And while Alterman began by admitting that “so many innocents, including children, were killed,” he downplayed it three sentences later when he claimed that those killings were “a tough call” that he could “argue … either way.” At that point, in order to make the deaths more palatable, he referred to those deaths as “others hurt and injured”—which was not only redundant but also grossly understated.

The “others hurt and injured” included Ayman Raed Matar (2 years old), Dina Raed Matar (less than a year old), Dunia Raed Matar (5 years old), Muhammad Raed Matar (4 years old), Muhammad Mahmoud al-Huti (3 years old), Subhi Mahmoud al-Huti (5 years old), and Alaa Muhammad Matar (11 years old)—all of whom were not just “hurt and injured,” but killed.

Eric Alterman’s “tough call”—for an action in which he himself questioned the objective—epitomizes the public anguish of the liberal Zionist at the expense of others.

Critical support for Israel

Three months before the Gaza City bombing, Alterman wrote an article for MSNBC in which he classified dozens of US commentators into three categories that indicated whether they favored the Israeli side or the Palestinian side. The categories themselves were flawed. Those in support of Palestinian rights were labeled by Alterman as “Reflexively Anti-Israel and/or Pro-Palestinian Regardless of Circumstance”—among whom was Edward Said, who had criticized Palestinian leadership throughout his career—perhaps more so than Alterman has ever criticized the Israeli leadership.

Thus the only value in the article was how the author categorized himself. Alterman placed himself in the closest thing to a middle-ground category, which he labeled as those

likely to criticize both Israel and the Palestinians, but view themselves to be critically supporters of Israel, and ultimately, would support Israeli security over Palestinian rights. [emphasis mine]

Israeli security (left) versus Palestinian rights (right)
Israeli security (left) versus Palestinian rights (right)

First, Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not diametric opposites; many have argued that the security of Israel is compromised by its denial of Palestinian rights (which is basically human rights accorded to Palestinians).

Second, Alterman suggests no such trade-off when weighing the rights of US citizens or even journalists’ rights against pretenses of US national security.

Yet Alterman’s category reveals how he sees the conflict—not only in the limited extent that he considers Palestinians as deserving of rights as any other people, but also in the limited extent to which he is willing to criticize Israel.

Saving Palestinians from the words he puts in their mouths

By presenting himself as an even-handed critical supporter of Israel, Alterman establishes a foundation on which he occupies the moral high ground. Alterman proudly proclaims himself “both a liberal and a pro-Zionist Jew”—and being the good liberal Zionist that he is, he casts his arguments not as a personal defense of Israel, but as a concern for Palestinians. For instance, Alterman condemns Max Blumenthal’s Goliath on the grounds that

[Blumenthal’s] case … will likely alienate anyone but the most fanatical anti-Zionist extremists, and hence do nothing to advance the interests of the occupation’s victims. [emphases here and below are mine]

He repeats this assertion in his follow-up article:

As I said, arguments this simplistic and one-sided do the Palestinians no good.

His criticism of Blumenthal’s book is no different from his criticisms of the BDS movement, in which Alterman also claims he has the Palestinians’ interests in mind as he lectures them:

it cannot possibly serve the cause of peace and self-determination for the Palestinians for their spokespeople and supporters to demand that Israel, as currently constituted, commit suicide…[S]o long as they insist, as Omar Barghouti does, on the achievement of a set of goals that would mean the end of the Zionist project, then they will only strengthen those who seek to keep them in a permanent state of oppression and immiseration as they simultaneously undermine those who would champion their cause.

This  passage comes from a 2012 BDS forum on the Nation website, in a section promoted as “Where progressives come to debate.” Here, Alterman is responding directly to an article by Palestinian BDS proponent Omar Barghouti, which is published on the same page. Let’s look closer at what the good ally Alterman seeks to protect Barghouti from. Alterman writes:

Barghouti apparently thinks that the support of a food coop or an obscure pop singer somehow constitutes the beginning of Israel’s ultimate destruction. By talking in these terms … he strengthens the case of Israel’s hardliners and actually helps to ensure the permanent oppression of the Palestinian nation.

Then in the paragraph that follows:

…Barghouti, who in effect calls for Israel’s destruction

And in the next and final paragraph:

As [Barghouti’s] plan now stands, it is of a piece with the programs of Hamas and Hezbollah and with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent call for “the destruction of the Zionist regime” by peaceful means.

So Alterman is saying that Barghouti’s own pronouncements help to keep him “in a permanent state of oppression and immiseration.” Yet at no point did Barghouti call for the destruction of Israel. In fact he had written the opposite:

Israel and its well-oiled lobby groups … have been trying to delegitimize the Palestinian quest for equal rights by portraying the nonviolent BDS call’s emphasis on equal rights and the right of return as aiming to “destroy Israel.” If equality and justice would destroy Israel, what does that say about Israel? Did equality and justice destroy South Africa? Did they destroy Alabama? Justice and equality only destroy their negation, injustice and inequality.

Alterman ignores this passage and—in five consecutive paragraphs—proceeds to accuse Barghouti of “demand[ing] that Israel … commit suicide,” of working for “Israel’s ultimate destruction,” “in effect call[ing] for Israel’s destruction,” and of being part of “Ahamdinejad’s recent call for ‘the destruction of the Zionist regime.’”

While putting words in Barghouti’s mouth, Alterman simultaneously lectures Barghouti against saying these things. Such statements, says Alterman, “will only strengthen those who seek to keep [Palestinians] in a permanent state of oppression and immiseration,” will “undermine those who would champion their cause,” will “strengthen[] the case of Israel’s hardliners, and will help “to ensure the permanent oppression of the Palestinian nation.”

Yet who is actually saying these words? Alterman, not Barghouti. It is Alterman who makes the false claims about BDS, which he then criticizes as helping to bolster opponents of Palestinian rights and undermine supposed allies.

And who can save Palestinians from this? Again, it’s Eric Alterman, who warns Omar Barghouti from saying the things that Alterman puts in his mouth.

Were Barghouti to ask American Jews to join him in pressuring Israel to come to its senses and negotiate a secure settlement based on the 1967 lines, with necessary adjustments on both sides and some sort symbolic (and perhaps financial) redress for Palestinians without the “right of return,” he might stand a chance of attracting significant support even among American Jews and within the Israeli peace camp.

Who are these “American Jews” whom Barghouti can potentially win over as allies? Liberal Zionists such as Eric Alterman. And the way to champion the Palestinian cause, Alterman proclaims, is to not upset liberal Zionist allies such as himself.

Alterman, then, is the interpreter of BDS, the lecturer of Palestinians, the supporter of Palestinian rights, and ultimately the savior—all in one, all at once. Not bad for a Zionist who values “Israeli security” even more.

It is unsurprising, then, when Alterman writes with great sensitivity in the same article,

I genuinely despair for Israel’s future … as I also grieve for the victims of its occupation.

The exception to the latter, of course, is the July 2002 Gaza City bombing, which is a “tough call.”

The Alterman way of balance

Alterman criticizes Blumenthal for making “arguments this simplistic and one-sided,” for telling stories in which “Israel is rarely wholly innocent,” and for failing to “at least pretend to even-handedness”

This poses a few problems:

1. Alterman is employing the typical mantra of “balance” to attack Blumenthal for making an argument at all. What would be a “two-sided” argument, except for an argument that neutralized itself?

2. If Israel were “wholly innocent” of something, wouldn’t it be a non sequitur to mention it in a book about Israel?

3. Alterman is essentially criticizing Blumenthal for not telling the stories that Alterman would prefers to be told—for not writing the book that Alterman would prefer to write—which is a sign of a bad book reviewer.

The title of Blumenthal’s book, after all, is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel—not Israel: What I Believe and What I Don’t Believe. Imagine if one were to criticize Alterman’s book When Presidents Lie (a decent book, by the way) for not mentioning all the times that presidents didn’t lie. Or criticizing Alterman’s The Book on Bush for only focusing on the negative aspects of the Bush administration, as if George W. Bush were “rarely wholly innocent.”


In fact, Alterman’s own attempts at balance provide a textbook example of how this practice is ultimately deceptive and unbalanced.

During the first intifada, Alterman wrote the feature story for the March/April 1989 issue of Present Tense, the magazine of the American Jewish Committee. In the story, Alterman profiled the separate deaths of an Israeli teenager and a Palestinian teenager. One could detect in the story pitiful attempts at balance, such as:

While Zionism is unquestionably one of the greatest success stories in modern history, it suffered from one fatal flaw: It did not account for the fact that there were … over 650,000 people, mostly Arabs, already living in Palestine …

If we take that “one fatal flaw” into account, how can Zionism be “unquestionably one of the greatest success stories in modern history”—unless we accept that the only ones allowed to question Zionism are Zionists themselves?

Ever since large numbers of Jews had begun arriving in Palestine in the late 1880s, the Arab inhabitants of Palestine had resisted the growth of their power, and many thousands of people on both sides have since died because of the inability of the two sides to reach a compromise…

Alterman depicts Zionist attempts to supplant the indigenous non-Jewish population and establish a state specifically for Jews as a “growth of … power,” devoid of agency. He describes the refusal of this indigenous non-Jewish population to be marginalized on their own land as an “inability … to reach a compromise”—a blame to be shared equally by both sides.

By such “even-handed” logic, one can state that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were driven away or killed off because both they and the invading settlers were unable “to reach a compromise.”

If Blumenthal’s stories had been weighed down by such deceptive equivocations and euphemisms, it would not be more well-rounded; it would simply be meaningless.

Ironically, Alterman has warned of the tactics used by right-wing ideologues who call upon others to be more balanced. In an article last year, Alterman quoted Matt Labash, a conservative writer for the Weekly Standard:

“While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective … It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket.”

In part two tomorrow, I will take a look at specific accusations Alterman makes against Blumenthal’s book and compare them to the actual book.

Editor’s Note: You can find Part Two of this post here

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

What an amazing, cogent, and factual evisceration of the charlatan called Alterman!

Tremendous kudos and thanks.

(It’s also beautifully written, Phan)

I think Israel’s murder of Hamas leaders does not serve Israel’s true best interests.

If an idea contains ‘one fatal flaw’ it is a false idea, isn’t it? One is enough. In this case the fatal point was a glaringly obvious one. Alterman doesn’t seem to see the logic of his own position. If you pursue an idea with a fatal flaw and insist… Read more »

The Nation is supposed to be a progressive magazine. Perhaps they would be willing to present a progressive counterpoint to their conservative book review?

Chomsky via the Guardian “Israel is following policies which maximise its security threats … policies which choose expansion over security … policies which lead to their moral degradation, their isolation, their deligitimation, as they call it now, and very likely ultimate destruction. That’s not impossible.” Obama arrived in Israel… Read more »