Goliath the Israel Slayer: Why Max Blumenthal’s New Book is a Painful Read

While almost all the energy for and against Israel these days seems focused on the current “situation” (Israelis call it ha-mazav) as to whether there will or will not be, can or can no longer be, two states, there is another conversation that is less apparent: what does it mean, at this moment, to be a Zionist, Anti-Zionist, non-Zionist? This was once a very serious debate, and still is in some parts of Israeli society.

But for much of American Jewry this debate is almost null and void. To be a Zionist is to be pro-Israel, and to be an anti-Zionist is, at best, to be anti-Israel or, at worst, anti-Semitic. Enter Max Blumethal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel which, as the title suggests, is written in the style of the infamous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The difference is that Thompson, for all his foibles, was a master at unveiling the ugliness and horror of what we live with as normal. He knew he was being as entertaining as he was informative. He was a hopped-up, stoned version of Jon Stewart, who once told Fox News, which had charged that his news program was slanted: “but my show is on Comedy Central!”

Thompson was able to awaken his readers to the absurdity of their lives by documenting the absurdity of his. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s comment to Dan Quayle in their vice presidential debate: Max Blumenthal is no Hunter Thompson.

Blumenthal’s Goliath is not funny, nor is it very entertaining. It is, for many reasons, often painful to read, especially for someone like me who stands very much on the left.

Blumenthal went out in search of the ugly—and he found it. Occupation is an ugly business; it makes people on all sides look ugly, think ugly, act ugly. Jewish figures as disparate as David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Hannah Arendt, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz told us that prolonged occupation would destroy Israeli society. They were right. In that sense, Blumenthal hasn’t taught us anything new, although he has shown us the many details of what lies behind the curtain of “Circus: The Occupation,” brought to you by Israel and Zionism’s inability to recognize and integrate a large, vibrant Arab population into its “Jewish” state (not only from 1967 but from 1948), the Arab world’s inability to reconcile itself to the fact that Israel both exists and has a right to exist, and by the Palestinian inability to recognize that armed resistance is a failed tactic, a relic of the twentieth-century.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading Goliath. As the title suggests, there is only one monster in this circus: Israel. Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are hapless victims of a larger-than-life predator. 

The fact that Goliath is one-sided isn’t really the problem. Most books about the Israel/Palestine conflict are biased, and even the fact that Blumenthal seems to have only a cursory understanding of the larger historical context of the events he writes about is also not the problem. The basic problem with Goliath is that it has no argument, it only has details. Some of these details are indeed painful, and many are important to know, but without an argument they simply expose the ugliness of one side while veiling the ugliness of the other.

Descriptions of Israeli politicians, their assistants, and their environs are almost always negative; they are disorganized, belligerent, intolerant, messy. Descriptions of Palestinian politicians, their assistants, and their environs, on the other hand, are almost always positive; they’re clean, organized, polite, sympathetic. He doesn’t appear to have found any Israelis on the left or Palestinians who support terrorism to interview. Goliath operates as though these people do not exist.

All of which is a shame because there is much here that is useful. Goliath depicts in great detail many things that English-speaking readers do not know, including, for example, the important work of Nurit Peled-Elhanan and her book Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education. The myth of what Palestinians actually learn about Israel and Israelis juxtaposed with what Israeli Jews learn about “Arabs,” Palestinians, and the “territories” is debunked in Peled-Elhanan’s work.

It’s unfortunate that Blumenthal often gets details wrong. Some aren’t especially relevant, but if all you have are details, they all become relevant.

Take the following passage from page 287: “Both [Peled-Elhanans] joined me in their spacious salon, while their son, Elik, prepared to travel to New York City, where he had accepted a faculty position to teach in the Jewish Studies Department at Columbia University.” There are actually three errors in this one sentence. Elik didn’t go to New York to accept a faculty position, he went as a graduate student. And he wasn’t in the Jewish Studies Department at Columbia University, which doesn’t exist,* he was in the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Department (also known as MESAS).

Many of his more substantive comments aren’t wrong so much as deceptive. In discussing the pernicious book Torat ha-Melekeh—which sanctions, according to Jewish Law, under certain conditions, the murder of non-Jews, sometimes even children—Blumenthal writes, “And here they were to defend a book that openly justified the mass slaughter of gentile babies, though to be sure, not all were willing to say they agreed with its content.”

Now I surely don’t want to defend Torat ha-Melekh, or the rabbis who defend the book (most rabbis in Israel have discounted it), but it doesn’t “justify the mass slaughter of babies.” In any case Blumenthal, who admittedly knows very little Hebrew and has almost no knowledge of the tradition, could not on his own decipher the contents of Torat ha-Melekeh, so he was forced to rely on others to tell him what the book said.

In a chapter entitled “How to Kill Goyim and Influence People,” Blumenthal notes that he walked in Jerusalem, “through the crowds of tourists, baby-faced soldiers, and packs of Orthodox settlers milling around on Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall…” How would he know that they were “Orthodox settlers”? Are all Orthodox Jews “settlers”? 

Blumenthal describes the horrible way immigrant workers in Israel are treated today by using the term “concentration camps,” citing Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s comment in 1969 that if the occupation does not end “concentration camps would be erected by the Israeli rulers.”

While Leibowitz did indeed say this, Blumenthal is tone deaf to Leibowitz’s intentions, both here and elsewhere, and simply flattens him to sound-bites that can be deployed to promote his Israel-as-Goliath narrative (admittedly Leibowitz makes himself vulnerable to such distortion). If Blumenthal actually sat down and read Leibowitz, preferably in the original Hebrew but even in the English translations that are readily available, he would have a better sense of Leibowitz’s more complex position on these matters.

Sloppy comments like these sink this book of details. If one is going to write a book composed solely of details one has to be very certain the details are accurate and contextualized. Hunter Thompson knew that better than anyone.

Reading Goliath got me thinking about Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel that I’d read with my students earlier in the semester. Both books fail, in some ways, for the opposite reason. The Case for Israel is written as a legal brief for a country. Legal briefs, as we know, are not about truth, but about persuasion. They cannot be openly false but they needn’t be true either; that is, they can avoid components of the case that do not fit into the narrative of the client and they needn’t go into more detail than is absolutely necessary. Legal briefs are about persuasive narratives and not about history.

A friend once told me a story of a dinner conversation he witnessed between his father, a lawyer, and his mother. His father had given his mother a legal brief he was working on for her to read, after which she said, “Well Herb, this looks like an open and shut case,” to which his father replied, “Yeah, but you haven’t seen the other guy’s brief!” 

The Case for Israel is a manual for Israel’s Hasbara (explanation/propaganda) Industry. It’s not a serious book because, while it clearly contains an argument and lots of conjecture, there are few details. There are plenty of so-called “facts,” but facts are not the same as details. Facts are often about what ostensibly is, or what should take place in principle; details are about what actually takes place. Statements like “Israel is the only democracy,” “the Israeli army is the most moral army in the world,” or “we left Gaza and all we got were rockets,” are often weakened when you go on the ground and witness what actually happens in Israel’s democracy; or what happens in the IDF on a daily basis; or how the evacuation from Gaza took place and how the borders were closed and the strip was under constant siege with Israel controlling the water and electricity. Yes, there was an Israeli evacuation from Gaza but it never took the inhabitants of Gaza into account (which may have precisely been Sharon’s point, and yet another example of Israel’s larger failure regarding the Arabs under its jurisdiction). This is not to deny the evil of the rocket fire in any way but it does set it in a particular context.

Asked if he thought Israel was “a Jewish and democratic state,” Ahmed Tibi replied, “Yes, if you’re an Arab it’s a Jewish state and if you’re a Jew it’s a democratic state.” The problem with The Case for Israel is that it may get the accused client acquitted (“if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”) but it may create more problems than it solves because it justifies the continuation of criminal behavior.

The problem with Goliath is that it denies altogether that there are actually two criminals, which is problematic for the very same reason. 

Dershowitz’s book fails because he loves Israel too much. Blumenthal’s fails because he hates Israel too much. Which, again, is too bad because there is so much in Goliath worth knowing.

How many readers outside of Israel know of the plight of Yonatan Shapira, the Israeli air force pilot who became an active peace advocate and critic of the IDF who’s suffered miserably with imprisonment and interrogations? How many know of the physical and verbal abuse of Israeli Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi such that security guards had to be provided for her when she entered the Knesset to protect her from the abuse of her fellow parliamentarians? She was, after all, elected by Israeli citizens and is part of Israel’s democracy, which reveals the failure of Israel to integrate its Arab population. An early Zionist once said “The success or failure of Zionism will depend on how its treats its Arab population.”

Among the more damning parts of Goliath are selected comments of Israeli leaders before 1967, like Moshe Dayan’s open acknowledgment of Israel’s “colonialist” polices; more recent events like the settlers’ consistent abuse of Palestinians under the watchful eye of the IDF; or the New Profile movement of Israeli youth who, after refusing army service, were subject to KGB-like abuse by the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. Most Israelis know all this. Most American Jews do not, even though a film like The Gatekeepers has been around for almost two years.

But Blumenthal’s medium, a combination of myopic perspective, selective focus, and a limited understanding of context and history subverts a valuable opportunity to present another side of this ugliness, a side that American Jews and pro-Israel advocates should hear. What readers will likely see instead is the apparent hatred of one intelligent man for one subject (Israel), and the unrealistic romantic love for the other (the Palestinians).

Again, I write this from the left—some may even say far-left—of the political spectrum of this conflict. But even for those of us on the left the conflict is a conflict—both sides feed off the worst in the other, Israel and Palestine are engaged in a tragic embrace that is suffocating the beauty and value of each side.

One can say this whether one is a Zionist or not. I believe Zionism was one of the greatest Jewish experiments of the twentieth century even as, in many respects, I think that which was most valuable in that experiment has disappeared. It was, as one Zionist historian wrote, “a Copernican revolution in Jewish history.” It was a civilizational revolution, in language, literature, art, politics, and identity. It was one important form, among many, of Jewish modernity.

Sadly, it has become, especially in America, simply about advocacy of a nation-state. Few American pro-Israel advocates even know what Zionism really is, or was. Few take the time to study its writers, examine its internal debates, its complexity.

There is an important debate about Zionism, the nation-state, its choices, and the realistic alternatives that is not taking place—and surely not in America. Critics of Zionism are often labeled anti-Israel when what they espouse is actually rooted in another form of Zionism that has largely been eclipsed. Diasporists who refuse to collapse Jewish identity as tied primarily to a nation-state are likened to “self-hating Jews” or traitors.

So yes, there is an important battle that needs to be waged, and it’s not about supporting or criticizing Israel as a nation-state, but about what kind of nation-state is worth supporting and whether the nation-state should be the primary anchor of identity for Jews who choose to live elsewhere. Unfortunately, Max Blumenthal’s Goliath contributes little to that debate. What, then, has been accomplished?

*There is an interdisciplinary Jewish Studies program but that is something quite different. 

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