Monday, November 04, 2013

'Goliath' Deconstructed


Max Blumenthal’s Israel is a very dark place indeed.  There are no colors except black and white, no nuance, and no relief from atrocities of all sorts.  There are oppressors (most Israelis) and victims (all Palestinians).  Seemingly except for Max’s friends, most of whom are leaving the country or have already left, there are virtually no sparks of light.  Even the liberals, those who support a genuine two-state solution and do what they can to better the situation, are dupes or enablers, usually both.  The only relief is to leave.  The book is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

Max Blumenthal is a Jewish American freelance reporter who spent most of 2009-13 in Israel and the Palestinian territories.  This book is the product of that experience.  It has not made a large stir in the media; Max claims a deliberate embargo of sorts, and he may well be right, in that it has not received major reviews.  What discussion I’ve seen has been vitriolic and acrimonious, even more so than for most books on the conflict.  Eric Alterman of the Nation (the book is published by Nationbooks), a dedicated left-liberal, devoted a column to it, writing, among other choice epithets, that "the book could have been a selection of a hypothetical Hamas Book of the Month Club."

Multifarious bloggers, all various shades of Left, have attacked or defended it, with Max giving as good as he got.  I can't claim to have read even a large portion of these postings; I thought the arguments got old very quickly, even for someone immersed in the subject.  For those interested, Ralph Seliger, the esteemed editor of this blogspace, has collected some of these discussions here.  Andrew Sullivan, who likes the book despite not having read it, has collected some of the pro-Blumenthal comments here.

As a friend of a friend I was invited to a book party at Max's father's house and spoke briefly to the author.  He was polite enough but clearly disdained my critical-but-supportive-of-Israel views, making clear that to him they belonged to the last century and were irrelevant in the current climate.  I read his book out of curiosity and, frankly, found it a hard read because of its unrelenting bleakness.  But bloggers should be made of sterner stuff, and I made it through.

The book documents a host of Israeli evil deeds, past and present.  It has 73 chapters; most are really vignettes based around a  single theme or experience, though some members of the large cast of good and evil characters appear repeatedly in different roles.  Many of the references are familiar to anyone who knows Israel: Dir Yassin, Im Tirtzu, the Mavi Marmara flotilla, etc. etc.  Many more are little known anecdotes, some seemingly important, others recounted in order to illustrate Israel's evil, or its banality, or even the banality of its evil.

The discerning reader will have realized by now that I didn't like the book, though it does express a sort of truth.  The book is not full of lies; I couldn't really find many misstatements, even the sort of minor errors that those not all that familiar with Israel invariably make.  And I am someone who has criticized Israel for many of the same things Max does.

What is missing is any sort of open-minded inquiry, any compassion for Israelis, any sense of another narrative.  Max is sure that Israel gets far more good mainstream press than it ever deserved, and that Israel has been coddled far too much for years.  It is time for tough love, minus the love.  Israel, in Max's eyes, has forfeited any right to understanding.  While the book doesn't delineate a blueprint for "solving" the situation, I overheard a conversation at Max's book party in which he envisioned most Israeli Jews leaving the country when Palestinians finally retake what is theirs.  Not that he thinks that this is imminent, though he does seem to think it's inevitable, and just. 

Though Max doesn't (thankfully!) overdo the Nazi/Israeli comparison, he does seem to treat Zionism and Israel as a near-ultimate evil, what most of us think of Nazi Germany.  Yet I wouldn't like this book even if it were about the Nazis.  I read about unpleasant things to try to understand them, but this book doesn't provide insight or understanding.  It provides anger and evidence; two things that are already in abundant supply in this conflict. 

Max seems to think that holding the reader's face to Israel's injustices will somehow provide greater awareness to clueless Americans of what our tax dollars are subsidizing.  I sincerely doubt that.  I think the only people who appreciate the book will be those who are already convinced of Israel's evil -- and perhaps some of those who don't themselves accept the "Israel=evil thesis, but are desperate to make liberal American Jews understand that they should stop enabling Israel's consistently disastrous policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.  Perhaps that explains the blurb on the book's back cover by Akiva Eldar, a liberal Israeli journalist for whom I have enormous respect.  But this sort of journalism doesn't persuade; it repels the reader more from its own certainties than it does from Israel.

I am happy to put away this book and finish this discussion.  I still don't completely understand my reaction to it.  Far rightists will sneer at my cavils since they would consider my own criticisms of Israel next door to Max's.  Far leftists will mock my unwillingness to accept what they consider the necessary implications of my own criticism.  And from where they stand, perhaps they're right.

Actually, I have finally thought of what is perhaps the only sane way to read this book.  It should be bundled together with a volume that would seem its complete opposite: namely, Saul Singer and Dan Senor's saccharine paean to Israel's entrepreneurial genius, Start-Up Nation.  Just as for Max Blumenthal, even when Israel does something right, it's evil; for Saul Singer and Dan Senor, should Israel ever do something wrong, it's still right there on the side of the angels.  Perhaps these two books, differently devoid of a recognition of human and national complexity, really belong together.

6 comments:

daveed in Princeton said...

It has been said that the Far Right and the Far Left often meet at the same place in their opposition to those who strive to find a way to find solutions that place a value on the humanity of their enemies, and a compromise that opponents can live with. All of the reviews I've read of Max Blumenthal's 'Goliath' clearly show that Blumenthal can't see the bit of David that lives in every Goliath.

Edward Goldstein said...

I can respect Scham's approach. Honest: Goliath is disturbing, must be thought about. And linkage to Start-Up Nation is interesting. But I think we do need such compendia as Blumenthal's. No one should be able to say "I didn't know." Goliath as a handy source is thus important. There's also the question: at what point do Israel's growing negatives overpower the positives and render the State fundamentally compromised...morally, Jewishly, politically?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Scham,

Wondering if you have any comments on this from your colleague Ralph Seliger in his post that you linked to, since you met both Max and his father:

"And the tragedy of Jewish history isn't only that "restrictions have kept Jews from fully participating in the life of the societies in which they’ve lived," but that Jews who have risen to be "insiders," like Blumenthal's father, have often set their communities up for a fall. The most glaring historical examples are in Moorish Spain and then in 20th century Germany, but this is also true in most of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union."

Did Blumenthal's father seem like he may potentially be causing the downfall of the Jewish people to you?

Thanks,

Ted

Paul L. Scham said...

Reply to Ted:
No, to the extent that Ralph may have been implying (and I'm not sure that he was) that Jews rising to be insiders are setting "their communities up for a fall," I don't agree. I don't think we have a full understanding of why Nazi Germany or Catholic Spain turned on the Jews, and I don't think it will "happen here." Furthermore, I am wary of justifying Israel's existence, now, through Jewish suffering. I think that was the main reason for Zionism originally, but Israel's main reason for existence should be like that of every other nation, that it does.

I'm not sure why Max's father's closeness to the Clinton's and to power is relevant to Max's book.
Paul Scham

Ralph Seliger said...

I don't think that it's inevitable that Jews will be slapped down wherever they rise up, but there is a tragic pattern to this effect. Various kinds of anti-Semitism and xenophobia explain why Catholic Spain and Nazi Germany did what they did -- as they also explain the bigotry of Czarist Russia and interwar Poland (which engaged in a devastating boycott of Jewish businesses in the 1930s); likewise why the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, Croatia, Hungary and Rumania engaged in genocidal anti-Semitism during World War II. Jews-- perceived as the classic "other" -- served as convenient scapegoats, reinforced by age-old religious prejudice.

Paul and I agree that Jewish suffering was the main reason that Jews embraced modern political Zionism. Apparently, I'm more concerned than Paul that the tragic pattern of anti-Semitism may reassert itself. But still, we both agree that Israel's main justification for survival today is the same as any other nation's, that it exists as a nation and needs no more justification than that.

daveed in Princeton said...

Israel does not need to justify its existence. Every people has the right to self-determination. Israel is the fulfillment of the struggle for national self-determination that Am Israel lacked for so many centuries in the Diaspora.
But in claiming the right of self-determination, we also have to accept that the Palestinians share the same right. The State of Israel needs to fully recognize this, and accept the creation of a Palestinian state.