Extremists in The Mainstream

Odilon Redon David and Goliath (1875)

Max Blumenthal’s Goliath finds fascism in Israel, but overlooks the mask it’s hiding behind

There is a well-known genre in the art and literature of Israel-Palestine known as “Shoot and Cry” — a phrase which has expanded to describe a dimension of the Israeli psyche as well. Used by liberal apologists to describe the heavy heart with which Israeli soldiers take their task of managing an occupation over a large civilian population, and derisively by their critics, “Shoot and Cry” has become so established in the Israeli milieu that it is difficult to find a popular history of the conflict that doesn’t belong in this genre. The handful of books that don’t fit the mold are generally of a more openly terrifying bent: the ones who shoot and don’t cry.

In this sea of mediocre texts and thinly veiled hasbara [propaganda] vehicles for the Israeli state, Max Blumenthal’s Goliath is hardly recognizable. The latest fodder for debate on Israel-Palestine, Goliath is something of a phenomenon among its top-selling counterparts on the subject: an anti-Zionist (or non-Zionist?) book written in easily accessible language with a focus not on the extremists, but on mainstream Israeli society.

Blumenthal’s new book has incited dozens of reviews, most of which seem to start with a variation of, “I’m a leftist, but…” The “but” is followed by a range of criticisms: Blumenthal is sloppy, he’s careless, he’s one-sided, selective, or even “deliberately deceptive.” His critics are virulent in their opposition to his work, which is frequently described as purposefully provocative. While Blumenthal’s vignettes powerfully stand on their own against the dominant Zionist narrative, he often elaborates them with arguably accurate, but unnecessarily inflammatory language, at moments producing an almost cartoonish portrayal of fascism and racism in Israel.

For this reason, some readers might not see Goliath as being focused on the mainstream, and I even found myself thinking on occasion: “Israelis don’t always come off as this rabid.” But Blumenthal seems to have deliberately avoided making his work about Israel’s poster-child extremists — settlers or the ultra-Orthodox — in favor of an approach that pairs interviews with and biographical glimpses of professional politicians and analysts from across the spectrum, with a street-heavy field methodology, involving detailed descriptions of uncountable protests and riots, both right-wing and left.

For Blumenthal, the extreme is the mainstream, or probably more accurately, the mainstream is extreme. Although some of his critics have claimed that he excluded reasonable, moderate centrists from his account, these same centrists are on the contrary key to Blumenthal’s story, which implicates Israeli “center” and “left-wing” parties such as Kadima, Labor, and even Meretz, in the racist politics of the Israeli state.

Some of his critics’ points do hold. I found Blumenthal (and, one should point out, his editor) had a maddeningly poor eye for irrelevant detail (I was surprised to see one old friend promoted from PhD candidate at Columbia to faculty there), dates (the 2013 national elections were called the 2012 national elections), and inconsistent spelling of Hebrew names (“Operation Danny” on one page becomes “Operation Dani” on the next). This can get just silly, as when he mentions “baklava” (the delicious pastry common throughout the Levant) among “identifiable ‘terrorist’ trappings,” instead of the oh-so-close (but oh-so-far away) “balaclava” face mask. These mistakes are largely extraneous to the story he tells, but threaten to undermine both Blumenthal’s credibility and the politics he espouses.

But perhaps the largest problem with Goliath’s reception is that readers—and particularly liberal readers more accustomed to the “Shoot and Cry” body of literature — simply don’t recognize the Israel they know and love. This is because coextensive with the hatred that Blumenthal so accurately depicts, is — for many people — an extremely warm, family-centered country, most of which is no longer willing to take to the streets for almost anything at all.

This is the complicated, more difficult part of the story that doesn’t quite make it into Blumenthal’s telling: not that Israeli society is mostly friendly, reasonable, and not racist, but that this racism permeates Israeli law and society in ways that are often far more insidious than what goes into his book. And what Blumenthal calls ‘fascism’ is able to spread precisely because, for most Jews, Israel feels nothing like the nightmare that Blumenthal so dramatically describes.

Reading Goliath, for me, was a somewhat uncanny experience. Blumenthal’s tenure in Israel-Palestine lines up almost precisely with my own. The book picks up with Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza during which I arrived for my first serious research trip in the country, and when I started reading the book, I was surrounded by boxes and suitcases, as I packed up to return to the States from a 10-month stint doing dissertation research on a Jewish Israeli settlement just east of the Green Line in the West Bank. As I read Goliath, I found that the author had lived on the same small street and in a very similar apartment as I did in Jaffa, just one year after I had. I found friends, contacts and, acquaintances making cameos or giving Blumenthal interviews. I recognized events where I myself had been present.

In short, I recognized the Greater Israel of Blumenthal’s account. But the key difference in our experience of this place, was that for Blumenthal, as a journalist, he mostly seems to have spoken his mind. He pushed people on the politics and the racism of their speech, and they pushed back. Blumenthal experienced the exclusionary politics of Israel that are invisible to most American Jews who visit that place.

Coming from the very different methodology of anthropology, I took up residence in my field site, determined to fit in as best I could for the duration of my research. For 10 months, I held my tongue until I nearly choked on it. Living on a settlement was killing me bit by bit every day, in ways I wasn’t even aware of until after I left. As my plane descended over Chicago, I felt the thick blanket of politesse and anthropological disinterestedness fall from my shoulders, revealing a self I hardly recognized: partial, eaten away by the months of my own silence, of smiles and nods at the very racism which drew me to my field site.

Because I held back, because I listened rather than spoke, and most importantly, because I’m a nice Jewish girl, I was taken into this settlement, welcomed as part of the community, and treated by some even like a daughter. I interviewed people in their homes, enjoying their hospitality, and, after a short while, rarely spent a Shabbat evening on my own.

This wasn’t a settlement filled with sidecurls and Uzis. They didn’t form vigilante gangs or light Palestinian olive trees on fire. These were precisely the reasonable, middle-class folk that Blumenthal’s critics found missing in his book. With only eight percent of the nearly 10,000-strong settlement identifying as “religious,” they voted, on the whole, slightly further to the “center left” of the rest of the country in the most recent elections. But—although they balked at the term—they were also settlers.

Most of them didn’t like talking politics and never went to protests of any sort. They rarely talked about Arabs or Palestinians without my prodding. When I did prod, they would repeat the same sorts of sentiments that make Blumenthal’s informants so cringeworthy, but it wasn’t the kind of subject they liked to talk about. In general, they prided themselves on the superficial and usually paternalistic relationships they cultivated with their Palestinian “neighbors” and workers.

This was the sort of affluent bedroom community, where everyone knew everyone’s business and what little crime existed was blamed on outsiders — Palestinians from one of the nearby villages. One morning, as I walked down the street, a smiling woman I’d seen before, but never spoken to, stopped me, saying, “Isn’t this just the most beautiful day? Aren’t you glad to be alive today?”

I smiled back at her and agreed.

But these pleasantries hid a deeply rooted, racialized politics, which was moreover supported by a legal regime that made this lifestyle possible in the Seam Zone beyond the Green Line. That for these settlers — and for most Israelis — the Green Line is no longer relevant or even in existence suggests the subtle ways in which the idea of Greater Israel has taken hold.

Not that things are always pleasant or subtle. On my last night in the settlement, I finally opened my mouth, expressing faint displeasure at one woman’s suggestion that we kill “a million Arabs.”

“I didn’t say that!” she snapped back at me. “I said millions of Arabs!”

I was dumbstruck.

She and the others at the table went on to chastise me for my upcoming move to Ramallah. “We don’t mix!” she shouted. “It’s forbidden!”

I hesitated. “Historically, actually, we do. And today, there are hundreds — maybe thousands — of foreigners in Ramallah. Including tons of Jews.”

She scowled. As the conversation progressed and got even more heated, I said less and less, until all five of my drinking companions were shouting over one another, as they leaned over the small table, some just inches from my face. An old man joined us from the next table over, punctuating his own points with, “True? Or not true?”

I nodded, acquiescing to his arguments.

These were the same people who had taken me in, who had made me a part of their families, who smiled affectionately at me and waved me over when I passed them in the street. But most telling from this interaction was not how quickly the pleasantness could fall away, but the ways I realized I had already been marked as a political outsider, long before I’d ever opened my mouth.

“Of course you’re a leftist! You love Arabs!”

Even though for ten months, I hadn’t expressed a single political opinion, I had also not hidden the fact that I’m not afraid of Palestinians or Palestinian towns and cities. Even in my role as a researcher, by simply being open to visiting and speaking to Palestinians, I had marked myself as leftist. In Israel, a lack of racist paranoia is in itself a political position.

These are the parts of Israel that most American Jews don’t see, and most Israeli Jews don’t see anything wrong with. As a book about Israelis, Goliath runs up against the problem that the reality it depicts is beyond a large portion of its potential readership’s imagination. Whereas Israel’s liberal critics ask what went wrong, or how we can salvage the Zionist dream, Blumenthal’s critique cuts deeper, settling in the rifts of contemporary Israeli society and following the politics of apartheid to their terrible conclusion. His is not a picture of a polarized society, but one that is frighteningly cohesive, as it moves ever closer to fascism.

The strength of this text is that it renders these trends visible. But by failing to account for how politicians and advocates of the Israeli state instrumentalize the logic of liberalism, Blumenthal not only misses a significant piece of the puzzle and, I think, an even stronger critique — he loses some of his readers as well.

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