“If people really want to know what motivates me and the position I’ve taken, it shouldn’t require some rich explanation or ideology. It’s not about having ‘Jewish issues’ with the way I was raised, or even necessarily deep identification with Palestinian culture. All you need to feel is disgust with unfairness: it’s just not fair the way Palestinians are being treated.”
In June 2009, American journalist Max Blumenthal published a video called ‘Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem on the Eve of Obama’s Cairo Address’. In it, Blumenthal and a colleague interviewed young Jewish Americans visiting Israel, who express virulently racist remarks about the U.S. President. The clip went viral (until YouTube removed it).
At the time, Blumenthal claimed there was “an active campaign by right-wing Jewish elements to suppress the video by filing a flood of complaints.” Fast forward four years, and with the publication of ‘Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel‘, Blumenthal faced another barrage of criticism – though this time around, many of those leading the charge were self-defined liberals.
I spoke to Blumenthal during his recent visit to London, and a year on from the book’s publication and some intense clashes conducted over social media and the op-ed pages, I wanted to know what he thinks the hardest thing was about ‘Goliath’ for his critics to deal with.
“The liberal critics laundered their censorious intentions behind whiny arguments about exaggerations and terms like ‘Israel hater'”, Blumenthal replies. “Their interest was in preventing the circulation of the book because it presented the real face of Israel which was finally unmasked this summer, vindicating everything I wrote.”
Those who excoriate Blumenthal and his work typically present themselves as Israel’s defenders, something he wonders about. “If these people really cared about the direction Israel is going in, they could have used the book productively as a warning to other Jews in the West, about what this place they profess to love so much was becoming.”
The real bone of contention, however, is that Max, in his own words to me, does not “leave any room for readers to believe that there is a ‘good’ Israel within the Zionist camp that will regenerate Israeli society on its own.” Put simply, “the book’s implication is that Israel needs to be forced from the outside to end its project of apartheid, and to politically unravel as a Jewish state.”
Eric Alterman, a New York-based writer and contributor to The Nation, seemed to make it his personal mission to attack the book and its author – according to Salon, he wrote “nine critical pieces (many of them ad hominem in nature)”. Comments Alterman made for an article in Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2011 shed light on where this animosity was coming from.
Discussing Israel’s drift to the (far-) right, Alterman observes: “We always had problems. There was Sabra and Chatila. There were always things that broke our hearts. But as Jewish liberals, we have always thought that there is another Israel – that of A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Grossman. The Israel which we were attached to.” But, he admitted, “this Israel is getting smaller and smaller, and frankly, it seems that it looked bigger from the U.S. than it really is.”
Actually, this is where Alterman gets close to a key part of Blumenthal’s message – but it is also where the differences are starkest. “What I did”, Max tells me, “is not only say that those intellectuals are not influential, but that they are actually part of the problem. And I think I illustrated it well.” Blumenthal sat with Grossman, a conversation he says saw the famous Israeli writer “recite some of the same tired lines about the Nakba, and the roots of it all.”
The talk with Grossman was just one of dozens of conversations and encounters that Blumenthal had during his years of research on the ground. As someone familiar with the region myself from a number of visits over the last decade, I ask if during the course of his research there were any particular moments that stand out – that shocked him.
“The violence you witness, the physical destruction, becomes normalised”, Blumenthal reflects. “It’s the psychological violence, the daily acts of dehumanisation which are really shocking. There is a video I saw over the summer, after the discovery of the bodies of the teens when Jewish Israeli society became overwhelmed with a desire for revenge, a video of a Jewish woman who pushes a Palestinian woman into a lake. She did it because she could.”
This, for Max, scares him “more than a bomb falling on a residential tower”. Why? “Because it shows how the dehumanisation of a people who are occupied and racially outcasted has seeped into the core of common people and give them carte blanche to just humiliate them.”
This, he says, “reminds me of the dark days in Europe”. He continues: “There’s no way I can’t be reminded of the photos I saw as part of the moral formation I had as a child, of Jews having their beards cut in public by regular people, or people being humiliated for relations with Jews in 1930s Europe.” Palestinian citizens of Israel, Max comments, have “the feeling of being under siege but in a more subtle way than in the West Bank – under siege from a population who are your neighbours.”
Over the summer, Max visited those Palestinians experiencing the harshest siege of all. Entering Gaza during the bombardment of ‘Operation Protective Edge’, he spent two weeks covering the Israeli assault and its devastating impact on the fenced-in enclave’s residents. I ask him what he thinks the connection is between the themes of ‘Goliath’, and the events this summer.
“The book shows the sensibility of the post-Oslo generation – the soldiers who went into Rafah and Khuzaa, the soldiers who cut down and fired at the abdomens and limbs of protesters in the West Bank with live fire, and who are committing atrocities at an unprecedented rate. Their actions are not just a product of military strategy which enables or orders disproportionate force – it’s the product of a mentality that’s been inculcated in them, through an education system and society as a whole that’s been comprehensively militarised.”
According to Blumenthal, the collapse of the peace process, and a belief amongst Jewish Israelis that there is no political solution but rather a need to manage occupation, has led to a generation who are “good soldiers, not good citizens.” It is a generation, he says, that has also “fallen under the influence of the religious nationalist camp”, with an identity that “is not constructed along the lines of an Israeli nationalism but a belligerent, explicitly Jewish nationalism.”
Blumenthal collected numerous testimonies of atrocities committed by Israeli forces in Gaza, testimonies he says will be published in due course. “I think the documentation of human rights crimes in Operation Protective Edge has been inadequate”, Max tells me. “Most Western reporters left after the fighting stopped and didn’t interview residents as they came back. I was able to collect testimony that other reporters weren’t.” I met up with him the week after he had appeared as a witness at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine’s extraordinary session on Gaza, where Blumenthal shared eyewitnesses’ stories of executions of civilians.
Such kind of reporting can change a person, and I ask Max whether he felt there was a difference for him personally, between the kind of work he was doing when he wrote ‘Republican Gomorrah’, and his subsequent work on Palestine/Israel. “This project has redefined me as a person”, he replies, “and provoked a deeper reflection about everything else that I had been covering or intend to work on. It has sharpened my whole understanding of the political reality that animates our lives”. Part of this is through “seeing Israel as the most severe version of the West and what it can be”, a way of understanding “Palestine as a kind of laboratory for projects of control and abuse of anyone who is left out of the dominant class.”
But in addition, he reflects, working on this project meant forging powerful relationships with people living in the middle of the situation, “and that changes you as a person.”
“Being in Gaza for two weeks and being with people who display so much hospitality and generosity from within their destroyed communities, and within the rubble of their homes – it makes me a better person. And I don’t deny carrying a lot of anger with me from what I’ve witnessed, but I can keep it in perspective having met people who deal with it directly, who can’t leave or have any relief.”
I bring up the end of the book, when Blumenthal describes a party in Brooklyn full of Jewish Israeli expats and leftists. The very last line is: “Everyone here seemed to feel at home.” How has Max’s own background as a Jewish American, son of a Washington insider and aide to President Bill Clinton, shaped what he does now?
“I always grew up in environments that were alienating and I think that has enabled me to step outside the groups I was born into, and their prejudices and tribal loyalties, to insert myself into different environments without the fear of a wider group obligation.”
Blumenthal says he understood race at an early age, living in the nation’s capital where he went to school in a white area and lived in a black area. “I understood the segregation of the city, a place where whites were the minority but had the best schools, and basically ran things.” He recounts a story of not really fitting in at school or his neighbourhood, and a sense of liberation when he recognised that he would never fit in anywhere: “recognising as I graduated high school that a lot of people were never going to like me, and I’ve taken that mentality with me into this work.”
If he feels at home anywhere, Blumenthal tells me, “it is with other alienated people who form parallel communities.” Going to different places, meeting people who have been “placed in impossible situations”, and trying to “convey their experiences back”, is work he feels he is able to do on account of his own “alienation” from the groups he was born into “as a white Jewish man in America”.
“This doesn’t mean I am acting out some kind of hostility with those groups”, he clarifies. “I just don’t feel any loyalty to anyone because of who they are – no intellectual should be taken seriously if they do.” While many of those who attack Israel’s critics speculatively ascribe sinister or personal motivations, Max is dismissive of such ad hominem.
“If people really want to know what motivates me and the position I’ve taken, it shouldn’t require some rich explanation or ideology. It’s not about having ‘Jewish issues’ with the way I was raised, or even necessarily deep identification with Palestinian culture. All you need to feel is disgust with unfairness: it’s just not fair the way Palestinians are being treated.” In other words, Max explains, he is applying the way he was raised to this seminal issue. “If you’re a bully, I’m going to fight you.”