Two more attacks on Max Blumenthal’s book about Israel, and two more raves.
There’s a hit job on the book and on the author’s father, Sidney Blumenthal, up at Buzzfeed, by Rosie Gray. And at Tablet, Liel Liebovitz says Goliath is a “brilliant novel”: that a zealous Blumenthal has dreamed up an evil Israel the same way that zealous nihilists in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed distorted Russia in order to destroy it.
First to the praise. Larry Gross (director of USC’s Annenberg School of Communications) has a rave up at Truthdig that dispenses with Liebovitz’s claim that the book is distorted. Yes it’s an indictment, but all the facts are facts, and they speak to a deep truth. Gross:
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..
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….
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.
By the way, was Harriet Beecher Stowe supposed to tell you all the good things that happened on plantations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Since when does transformative rhetoric entail balance?
And here is Scott McConnell, who always gets to the heart of things, at the American Conservative, calling Goliath “a bold and shocking book, presenting persuasively a major theoretical and polemical argument about Israel almost completely at odds with the image most Americans have of it.”
On the other side of the political landscape from Gross and Blumenthal, too, McConnell makes clear that Blumenthal’s is a weighty argument that our country must reckon with:
In Goliath, America’s foremost partner in the Middle East is not the humanistic and ever resourceful “David” using guile to vanquish surrounding brutes, but a militaristic and racist state whose electoral majorities have set it on a trajectory towards fascism, if it isn’t there already. Even those generally well-informed about Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories will have their views challenged by Blumenthal’s sharp eye and deadpan factual presentations.
Goliath eschews the standard liberal Zionist position that a relatively virtuous and democratic Israel was driven off course by some combination of the post-1967 occupation of territory won in the Six-Day War, the burgeoning political power of the settlers, the authoritarian political culture of Russian immigrants, or the swelling political clout of Jews from North Africa and the Arab world. For Blumenthal, Israel’s 1967 victory was not a turning point so much as a new opportunity to implement the ethnic-cleansing ideology present at the state’s creation.
To a degree that has no clear equal among American journalists who cover the Mideast, Blumenthal is versed in the history of the 1948 war that created Israel, with its multiple expulsions of Palestinians from their towns followed by wiping those towns off the map. His narrative makes regular connections between this past and the present.
McConnell offers a deadly spiritual insight:
a young [Israeli Jewish] woman acknowledged [to Blumenthal] that the bar in which they were sitting was in fact a converted mosque. “Yeah, but that’s how all of Israel is … built on top of Arab villages. Maybe it’s best to let bygones be bygones.”
Such a sentiment may have some practical utility and might be spoken in good faith, but from a citizen of a country where so much national culture is derived from remembrance of wrongs done to Jews, its lack of self-awareness is remarkable.
Now to the attacks. Liebovitz may think he is disposing of Blumenthal, but his assertions that this is “the most fascinating novel about Israel you’ll read this year” and that Blumenthal is Dostoevsky really only raise the stakes. And he raises the political point: Dostoevsky was a religious conservative, and the radicals of the Possessed ultimately triumphed. Isn’t Israel historically vulnerable in the same manner? Of course.
Ultimately, in Goliath, Max Blumenthal the author devised an ingenious cautionary tale against hardheaded dogma and a devastating indictment of those, like Max Blumenthal the character, who are willing to overlook the idiosyncrasies and the subtleties and the small moments of grace that make up the only stories about human beings truly worth telling.
That’s absurd. Are subtleties and small moments of grace the only stories about human beings worth telling? Crime and Punishment is exalted by grace, yes, but it includes a lot of other dark stuff we really want to read, because it describes the human condition, of alienation, drunkenness, lust, hatred.
Speaking of dark stuff, Rosie Gray’s piece at Buzzfeed is in the mud. Titled, “Clinton Adviser Sid Blumenthal’s New Cause: His Son’s Anti-Israel Book,” it tries to tie Max Blumenthal’s criticisms of Israel to the Clintons because his father Sidney worked for the Clintons and — hold on to your seat — Sidney has been sending out emails defending his son’s book from Eric Alterman’s attack on it. Well, good for Sidney. That’s what dads should do.
The piece never quotes Max Blumenthal. Meanwhile, it gives Alterman a platform to continue to slag the book.
“I actually feel for Sid,” Alterman said. “Leaving aside the quality of Max’s journalism, it has to be painful for any Jew to see your own kid going around calling Jews ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists,’ and insisting that not only should Israel be destroyed, but its Jewish population should be kicked out.”
Alterman apparently makes that claim on the basis of a piece I wrote about Blumenthal’s appearance at Penn. As I made clear, I disagree with Blumenthal about “indigenization.” But he has never said that Jews should be kicked out of Israel. That’s a misrepresentation. And Blumenthal’s target isn’t Jews, it’s Zionists.
Two weeks ago I called on The Nation to stage a debate between Alterman and Blumenthal, because– as McConnell, Gross and Liebovitz all make clear– they differ over profound questions about the Israeli future and the Jewish one and the American leftwing future too. Alterman sniggered at my suggestion, informing me by email that he would only debate for $10,000 plus expenses, paid in advance. And yet he continues to take cheap potshots at Blumenthal in the press.
We all deserve better, Blumenthal and Alterman included. These are the great questions of our time. Add McConnell and Liebovitz, and let’s have a proper debate, moderated by The Nation, whose heart is so torn.
P.S. McConnell does the hard labor I should have done in my post saying that Bloomberg marched with a fascist, Danny Danon: he asks whether the word fascist is properly applied to Israel, and says that it is fair to say there are fascist trends:
is there substance behind the charge today? Or is this simply another variant of the promiscuous use of “fascist” as an epithet, in the style of the American New Left of the 1960s?
One scholar who has at least tangentially addressed this is Robert Paxton, an eminent Columbia historian and one of the world’s leading scholars of fascism, the author of a prize-winning work on Vichy France’s murderous persecution of Jews. In his last book, The Anatomy of Fascism, published in 2003, Paxton speculated on fascism as a continuing menace beyond Europe and the interwar era. “If religious fascisms are possible,” he wrote, “one must address the potential—supreme irony—for fascism in Israel.” …
“By 2002,” Paxton continued, “it was possible to hear language within the right wing of the Likud Party and some of the small religious parties that comes close to the functional equivalent of fascism. The chosen people begins to sound like a Master Race … that demonizes an enemy that obstructs the realization of the people’s destiny.”
McConnell concludes that proto-fascism is a real force inside Israel, and that while J Street and Peter Beinart minimize the trend, in ten years time, Blumenthal’s view may well prove to be the prophetic one.
Update: I originally stated that Buzzfeed said it had tried to interview Max Blumenthal, and Blumenthal said Buzzfeed never tried. I misread the piece; Buzzfeed was referring to Sidney Blumenthal.