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Thursday, January 29, 2015
- When one writes a book about Israel, one must expect that it will be analysed not for its quality but for its ideological bent.
The critique will generally be based on whether or not the work is “balanced,” which usually means whether the reviewer feels their own point of view was given a fair hearing in the book. On this basis, Max Blumenthal’s new book, “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel”, was doomed to failure before it was ever published.
But that expectation, which seems so especially prevalent for any book about Israel, is bound to fail because Blumenthal’s book is not an attempt to ask what Israel is. Rather, it is an effort by a journalist to answer the question of why Israel is what it is today.
The bulk of Blumenthal’s research was done simply by being in Israel and talking to the people there. He offers us a series of snapshots that don’t reveal new and hidden facts about the issues that made headlines in Israel, and often beyond, during his four years of research for this book.
Rather, they sum up and coalesce into a picture of an Israel drifting increasingly to the right, descending into fascism and with an opposition that is increasingly being boxed in and weakened.
Blumenthal’s critics have ruefully admitted that his reportage in “Goliath” is factually accurate. Instead, they have complained that Blumenthal’s editorialising (which he doesn’t do a lot of in the book, but certainly there is enough to make his readers very clear about his own opinions) and selection of stories paints a distorted picture of Israel.
There’s a better critique available of the book, although it’s certainly not one Blumenthal’s many detractors would prefer. If we accept that Blumenthal is making no attempt to paint a full picture of Israel but rather is trying to examine what Israel’s right-wing orientation and drift toward extremism looks like and why the country is moving in such a direction, then a better question to ask is what might be done about it.
This, too, is not the theme of Blumenthal’s book, but it is one that seems more of a natural fit in the work, and one whose absence is much more keenly felt.
It is quite possible that I shared an experience with those attacking Blumenthal, but for a different reason. No doubt, most of Blumenthal’s critics had an unpleasant experience in reading his book, feeling that Israel was being unfairly maligned and that they, as readers, were being beaten over the head with the evils of Israel.
I understand the feeling. Among my own many trips to Israel and the Occupied Territories, I spent an extended amount of time there at the end of 2008, when Israeli elections coincided with the beginning of the onslaught on Gaza that became known as Operation Cast Lead.
Outside of my circle of Israeli Jewish friends and colleagues, I was thoroughly dismayed at the growing popularity of Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right Russian immigrant whose party advocates the transfer of Israel’s Palestinian citizens to the Palestinian Authority’s rule in their vision of a “two-state solution.”
I was even more disheartened, as bombs fell on Gaza, at the apathy or even hostility I encountered toward the civilian victims, even among relatively liberal Israelis, whenever I struck up a conversation in a coffee house or a taxi.
Goliath brings that same feeling back home, and one feels a keen hopelessness in it, a feeling that is hammered home with every chapter describing the grim situation, and the harsh zeitgeist that increasingly permeates Israel.
In a chapter ironically titled “Change From Within,” Blumenthal describes an Israeli soldier, named only Ben in the book. When Ben’s fellow soldier objects to the use of the word “apartheid” to describe the situation in the completely segregated city of Hebron, where the formerly bustling Shuhadah Street has been largely shut down and closed off to Palestinians because nearby settlers threw rocks, eggs and whatever else they could get their hands on down on shoppers and merchants alike, Ben argues against him.
“It is apartheid,” Ben says. “It is also fascism. It is not just here, but across the West Bank—I’ve seen it. One people controlling another.”
Yet, when Blumenthal asks Ben, who claimed to have requested that his army service be fulfilled in a combat unit so he could spread humanistic values among the soldiers who were most commonly in direct contact with Palestinians, if he will do anything about it upon his release from the army, the answer is no.
Ben will not even give testimony to the group “Breaking the Silence,” made up of Israeli reservists who gather and publish testimonies from fellow soldiers to expose the realities of the occupation. No, Ben plans to return to his studies and become a teacher. Like so many of his fellows, Ben sees the wrongs of the occupation, but will not act upon it.
When set against so many other stories where Blumenthal describes a growing racism both on the street and in the Israeli government, what emerges is utter hopelessness. In another passage, Blumenthal relates an exchange in the Knesset, during a televised session.
Knesset Member (MK) Hanin Zoabi is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, representing the Arab party Balad. She has been a frequent lightning rod for controversy for her anti-occupation and anti-Zionist positions. She is an authentic voice of many of Israel’s over one million Palestinian citizens. MK Tzipi Hotovely is a far-right member of Israel’s leading party, the Likud. Blumenthal reports:
“’I am in favour of removing Knesset members like you from their positions,’ [Hotovely] informed …Zoabi…’The Balad Party should be outlawed.’
“’So the right wing should run the state?’ Zoabi asked.
“’I have news for you,’ Hotovely shot back. ‘The majority of Israel is right-wing…We can change the rules of the game. Until now, people like [Zoabi] have been taking advantage of democracy.’”
On every level, from the government to the street market, the army to the coffee shop, Blumenthal paints a vivid picture of a country sinking further into a quagmire of apartheid, where the right wing is becoming more numerous and extreme and the more liberal forces are either staying silent or being effectively marginalised.
That picture is accurate as far as it goes. Anyone who has been to Israel and stepped outside the pleasant bubble of apolitical cosmopolitanism that most visitors comfortably remain in during their time in Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem and Haifa, would be dishonest if they say it is not accurate. But that accurate picture falls short of being groundbreaking.
Most readers of Blumenthal’s book are not likely to be changed by it. Those who already consider Israeli policies to be tantamount to apartheid will appreciate the book. Those who defend Israel’s policies or who generally oppose harsh measures on Israel to end its occupation will revile it.
For a group of people who might be swayed in Blumenthal’s direction, a way forward needs to also be part of it. It is one thing to write a series of articles reporting on Israel’s misdeeds; it is quite another to assemble a 400-page book which describes a problem but offers no solution.
It is worth asking Max Blumenthal, “So, given all that, what are we to do? How are we to activate a protest movement in Israel, or at least move the still fair number of liberal Jews in Tel Aviv and Haifa to break their silence?”
Indeed, Blumenthal himself illustrates this very flaw in his book when he interviews the liberal writer David Grossman, a strong proponent of the two-state solution, but who also supports an ethnically Jewish, Zionist state of Israel.
The interview, which is illuminating and largely mutually respectful, ends in a complete disconnect, with Grossman asking Blumenthal to lose his number.
It is a dead end, but there needs to be an alternative path if activists, whatever their ultimate vision, are to persist in trying to divert Israel away from its fascist course.
Blumenthal illustrates the problem well, but only makes a solution more obscure.