In his new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, award-winning journalist Max Blumenthal goes deep inside Israeli society, offering a rare and unfiltered lens into the hideous implications of Israel’s commitment to Jewish supremacy.
With his fearless brand of uncompromising honesty, Blumenthal exposes Israel as a racist colonizer that more closely resembles the American Jim Crow South and Apartheid South Africa than a modern-day democracy. In one gripping scene after another, Blumenthal shows Israel to be a nation infused with nationalistic fervor, where mainstream political leaders routinely incite hatred against non-Jews and use the Holocaust to justify violence and discrimination against Palestinians and African migrants, a far cry from the picturesque “Jewish and democratic state” revered in the establishment press.
Meanwhile, daily life for Palestinians between the river and the sea has deteriorated to levels of epic misery, as Israel continues its illegal campaign of dispossession and ethnic cleansing inside and outside the green line, all in the name of maintaining its demographic imperative as a majority Jewish state. Even those who disagree with Blumenthal’s analyses will come away shocked at just how far mainstream Israeli culture has descended into fascism, the inevitable outgrowth of a national identity based on ethnic purity.
I recently caught up with Blumenthal, who was kind enough to participate in a lengthy interview about racism in Israel, US media bias, Holocaust exploitation and his own Jewish privilege, with bits of charming humor mixed in. Blumenthal’s expertise provides a refreshing and desperately needed break from US mainstream discourse on the Israel-Palestine crises.
Rania Khalek: Challenging the pro-Israel narrative, as your book does, isn’t the most lucrative career move for an American journalist. With that in mind, why did you write this book?
Max Blumenthal: I was following a really successful book called Republican Gomorrah that got me on MSNBC, Air America [and] NPR, and I had a big liberal Democrat-oriented audience who were eager for my analysis of the radical right. I could’ve leveraged that into another book deal about Republican racism, made loads of money and sold tons of books. But this isn’t why I’m in journalism. I don’t look at journalism as a career. I look at it both as a profession and a craft and also as a means for exposing injustice. I’ve been watching the increasing violence and racism of Israeli society for most of my adult life, especially in their treatment of Palestinians. Having been born in 1977, I came of age during the First Intifada and then watched during the Second Intifada as Israel destroyed the Jenin Refugee camp. And then the Second Lebanon invasion happened. Israel basically carpet-bombed southern Lebanon, turning one-quarter of the country into refugees. Then there was Operation Cast Lead, the three-week assault on the besieged Gaza Strip that left 1,400 dead. It was so hard to watch, and it occurred after Barack Obama had been elected, someone I was deeply skeptical of. During the slaughter, I went to midtown New York and filmed a few hundred Jewish-Americans celebrating the attack. They were dancing a hora line outside the Israeli consulate and offering very clearly genocidal statements about the need to eradicate the cancer in Gaza. I put this online as a video, and it went viral. Before long, I was contacted by all kinds of people from across the Middle East who are directly affected by the Israel-Palestine crisis, inviting me to come there to see the situation on the ground. I agreed, and I put a lot of my book advance into the first extended reporting trip there in May 2009. That’s what led to me getting the deal to write Goliath and to spending the last four to five years of my life writing about this situation. It definitely changed my life in a lot of ways that I never expected, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see things the same way again.
RK: Goliath came out October 1. What has the reception been like so far, compared with that for Republican Gomorrah?
MB: Pro-Israel partisans in the US typically get hysterical about books like this because the real Israel is really impossible for them to grapple with. It shatters the dream castle Israel that goes to the heart of their identity as tribalistic, secular American Jews. I really believe that they are determined to ignore this book for as long as they can. It may take me going on national TV with one of those foam giant fingers and twerking on Abe Foxman for them to pay attention.
The other more obvious and salient reason why I’m not getting the same mainstream attention I got with Republican Gomorrah is because people like Rachel Maddow and Terry Gross, who can really move books, are simply afraid of the Israel issue and what it can do to their careers and the kind of pushback they’ll get from pro-Israel partisans behind the scenes. What we’re seeing is cowardice at the top of a hollow media establishment that extends into public radio. I think if shows like “Fresh Air” were to host me about Goliath, the response would be massive and mostly positive because I’m presenting the facts on the ground. Even people who don’t agree with my conclusions about what should happen in Israel-Palestine are hungry for this kind of information.
RK: American discourse on Israel-Palestine tends to focus on the seemingly endless peace process, but your book goes beyond that and gives readers a lens into the daily realities on the ground, exposing a lot of ugly truths about Israeli society. Were you prepared for just how ugly it would be?
MB: Having covered the radical right in this country and attended white nationalist conventions, I was emotionally and psychologically prepared for a lot of the scenes I would witness and the statements people would make to me in interviews. But one of the things that was surprising to me was the extent to which groups and figures, remarkably similar ideologically and psychologically to the radical right in the US and to neo-fascist movements across Europe, controlled the heart of Israeli society and the Israeli government. I was surprised at how far right the Israeli government had gone and how strong a base this government had within Israeli society at large.
For example, I present many scenes in my book where I’m hanging out at nationalist rallies where people are calling for the expulsion of Arabs from their neighborhoods and for the expulsion of African asylum seekers just south of Tel Aviv, calling them a cancer, chanting “nigger, nigger, you’re a son of a bitch,” while members of the Knesset, Israel’s deliberative body, are on stage inciting them.
RK: There are plenty of mainstream US journalists stationed in Israel, yet the vicious and open hostility toward equality that’s reflected in your book is rarely covered in the establishment press. How is that possible?
MB: The New York Times has definite ideological blinders when it comes to this situation. I mention in my book that their Jerusalem bureau is in the former home of the Karmi family, a family of Palestinian aristocracy who were ethnically cleansed in 1948. Thomas Freidman purchased their house in the 1980s, when he was the Jerusalem correspondent. I don’t understand why the Times feels compelled to fill its Jerusalem bureau with exclusively Jewish correspondents. You can’t tell me that these are purely objective people. When you grow up Jewish in the US, you’re called on by Zionism in one way or another. Until recently, the Jerusalem bureau chief was Ethan Bronner, who had a son in the Israeli army. He has since been replaced by Jodi Rudoren, who was an education reporter in New York but whose husband, Gary, is pretty open about being a Zionist and has deeply assimilated himself in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem society. Jodi Rudoren doesn’t seem to feel as connected to Palestinians as she does to the Ashkenazi elite of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That was reflected in her story about stone throwing in Beit Ommar, a Palestinian village. She discussed Palestinian boys as though they were throwing stones to kill time due to a cycle of violence and poverty, rather than the result of legitimate grievances. This is reminiscent of her reporting on African-American youth in American cities. Their other reporter is Isabel Kershner, whose husband, Hirsh Goodman, is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an Israeli think tank closely linked to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. She’s sharing a bed with this person, and that does matter. It is a conflict of interest. The deputy editor of The New York Times Jerusalem Bureau is Myra Noveck, the wife of Gershom Gorenberg, who is a liberal Zionist Israeli pundit and writer. Their child has been in the Israeli Army, and I’m fairly sure, and this needs to be investigated, that they have a child who is currently in the Israeli Army.
This is just The New York Times, and they rely on all kinds of Palestinian stringers in the Gaza Strip and West Bank who never get credited. The Washington Post just hired Ruth Eglash as their Jerusalem correspondent, and her husband is a professional Israeli propagandist who is paid to promote the state of Israel abroad through various deceptive means.
As much as I can blame the mainstream papers for their hiring policies, they’re also dealing with structural Israeli racism and the limitations on Palestinians and Arabs to travel in territories controlled by Israel. Even if they were to hire Palestinians, the policies of the state of Israel are so institutionally racist toward Palestinians, Arabs and even Arab-Americans that there’s no guarantee they could get their reporters through the airport.
RK: Do you think an Arab or Palestinian could have written this book?
MB: This book is the product of Jewish privilege. One of my Arab-American friends in New York or Washington would not have been able to write this book even if they had the same intentions and talents or were more talented than I am, and many of them are more talented than I am. I just can’t imagine them getting through the airport, where you’re given a number from one to six, one being the lowest security threat, based on your ethnicity. Because I have J-positive blood, I usually get a number one or two, and I’m quickly waved through. And my passport has a special little pen mark that says I’m eligible for return. In other words, I can return to this place that I was supposedly in three or 4,000 years ago when I was chilling with Methuselah, Shim, Ham and Japath, drinking St. Ides on the corner with Aaron and Moses. It’s absurd.
RK: In your book, Israel’s unrelenting efforts at silencing recognition of the Nakba reminded me of the whitewashing and erasure of Native American history in the US. Do you see parallels between the treatment of indigenous people in America and Israel?
MB: The parallel with the dispossession of Native Americans is profound and needs to be explored more widely, especially on campuses across the US. The new generation of native academics and intellectuals needs to be incorporated more strongly into the Palestine solidarity movement, which is actually happening in the Southwest, where these bonds of solidarity are building nationally against border militarization.
One of the strongest parallels is the situation of the Palestinian Bedouins of the Negev desert in the south of Israel. The state of Israel has built seven towns for Bedouins that are remarkably similar to Indian reservations. The Israeli government-affiliated organization that administers these towns, called the OR movement, openly states on its website that these Bedouin towns are designed to “concentrate” the Bedouin populations. They’re using the language of “concentration,” which has dark resonance in Jewish history but also in Native American history, when they were taken off their land and concentrated on Indian reservations.
The Prawer Plan, which was just been passed in the Knesset by mainstream and right-wing Israeli parties, seeks to remove Bedouins from their ancestral grazing lands and put them in these Indian reservation-style cities, where they will be transformed into an urban proletariat to basically serve the Jewish population as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the chosen people, as former Israeli politician Uri Lubrani said. The Prawer Plan calls for the removal of 40,000 of the 80,000 Bedouins who live in unrecognized villages, where they’re unable to connect to the state water supply or electricity grid, even though electrical wires run directly over their villages. They can’t have public medical clinics or public schools in their villages either. They are basically left to fend for themselves because they’re not Jews. And their villages will be replaced by small Jews-only communities that will provide cheap housing for former soldiers, reservists and religious nationalists who send their children to school inside the occupied territories, over the green line. We constantly hear about settlement activity and illegal occupation, but this is happening inside the green line, the part of Israel that will be legitimized under a two-state solution, which will force the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state where Jews enjoy superior privileges and rights over all others.
This is a classic settler-colonialist project that we’re seeing play out before our eyes. The difference is that Native Americans were dispossessed and slaughtered en masse before the era of international law, before World War II and the Holocaust, before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Israel is operating in the era of international law, so it has to do things in a much more gradual way. It’s also operating in the Internet era, where everyone has cellphone cameras and acts of hideous violence can be recorded and quickly transmitted around the world. Israel is having a much harder time carrying these policies out, which are essential to the maintenance of an exclusively Jewish state. So it finds itself in a quandary. The BDS movement has gone a really long way toward at least slowing this process down and obstructing it.
RK: You also make comparisons between Israel and the Jim Crow South.
MB: One of the darkest chapters in American history is the lynching of Emmett Till, who was accused of whistling at a white woman.
Near Zion Square, the heart of central Jerusalem, where I lived for several months, there was a 19-year-old Palestinian guy named Jamal Julani. He was walking through occupied East Jerusalem, which has a large Palestinian population, and he was set upon by a mob of Jews chanting “death to Arabs.” They started beating him because a 15-year-old girl had spread rumors that he had made a pass at her, which turned out to be false. They beat him into critical condition. Zion Square is constantly crowded. There were many bystanders that stood by and did nothing. Some of the kids were caught, and they were unrepentant at their trial. They said they would do it again because they were proud of what they did. This goes to the heart of how Jewish youth are being educated in Israel and how reminiscent it is of the way Southern whites were educated and cultivated during the Jim Crow era.
There is a massive anti-miscegenation movement in Israel led by a group called Lehava. It’s founder, Benzi Gopstein, who is a member of the Kach terrorist group, was outside the courtroom where the kids who had beaten Julani were put on trial, and he praised them. Gopstein has organized anti-miscegenation coast guards who go to beaches and warn Jewish women not to date Arabs, who will kidnap them, beat them and make them prisoners to their primitive culture. They have a sister organization called Hemla, which runs a home for Jewish women who have supposedly fled relationships with Arab men. Hemla has received hundreds of thousands of shekels in state support. Gopstein sits on the board of Hemla, so the anti-miscegenation campaign basically receives state support.
On my last trip to Israel, in September, Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss and me met some Jewish teens right off Zion square, where Palestinians are routinely attacked. They told us how in their high schools they’re given sex-ed type classes on relationships where they’re [told] that it’s very corrosive for Jewish women to date Arabs, not only because their kids might not be raised as Jews but because Arabs are primitive and endemically abusive.
There’s also an organization called Yad L’Achim, which is a commando force that works with the Israeli army and supposedly stages raids on Arab villages across Israeli and Palestinian towns in the occupied territories to rescue Jewish women. This is classic Jim Crow-era morality crusading. What the Ku Klux Klan did to win the support of the middle class as an organization that drew from the working class and lower class in the South was to stage morality crusades, where they would claim to be rescuing white women from the predations of black men. Of course there’s still massive racism in the United States today that is rooted in sexual fears, but it’s at least considered unacceptable. In Israel it’s a mainstream phenomenon that’s encouraged and supported by the state because it supports Israel’s demographic imperative in its ethnocratic political structure.
RK: There’s a tragic irony in watching President Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, unconditionally embrace a nation engaged in such blatantly racist practices, especially in light of the horrific treatment of African migrants inside Israel. What do you make of that?
MB: I don’t know how Barack Obama feels and whether he understands what’s really happening there or if he manages to compartmentalize the reality on the ground from the whitewashed, absurd rhetoric he spouts about Israel. On his trip to Israel, they introduced him to the Ethiopian Ms. Israel, who was clearly chosen for propaganda purposes. They didn’t introduce him to the thousands of African asylum seekers who were sleeping in parks in Tel Aviv because they’d been denied work permits. After fleeing the Janjaweed in Darfur, horrific torture and abuse and persecution in Eritrea and poverty and genocide in Congo, they’re now facing a new nightmare. They’ve been targeted as a “cancer” by Miri Regev, a member of the Knesset. They’ve been arrested and held without charge or trial at a detention facility in the Negev desert called Sahronim, which The Independent called the world’s largest detention center and which the Israeli architectural collective calls a concentration camp. There have been routine attacks on the African migrant community in south Tel Aviv. Israeli activists have had to chaperone African children on their way to school to prevent attacks by roving gangs of racists, the same tactics that have been used to protect Palestinian children on their way to school in Hebron from settler attacks.
There was one night, which I call “the night of shattered glass,” where Israeli lawmakers stood on stage before a crowd of thousands inciting against African migrants in Tel Aviv. The crowd chanted “nigger, nigger, you’re a son of a bitch,””deport them all,” “Sudanese to Sudan” and then rampaged through the neighborhoods where African migrants were living in Tel Aviv, smashing windows of businesses and attacking anyone they could find while they chanted, “the people want to burn the Sudanese.”
Africans are being targeted not necessarily because they’re outsiders but because they’re not Jews. They’ve been identified as a demographic threat just like Palestinians. Netanyahu has said they threaten the Jewish character of the state, and he’s proposed harsh solutions. This is different than the anti-immigrant nativism and xenophobia that we see in the United States, because Israel has a clear definition of who can and cannot be a citizen. Anyone who doesn’t fit the ethnic criteria who is currently residing inside the frontiers controlled by Israel can be defined legally as an infiltrator and will face harsh consequences.
Barack Obama, the son of Africa, has been humiliated more than any other president by the small state of Israel in being forced to make absurd unsupportable statements, like Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, it exists to insure “a Holocaust will never happen again.”
RK: You devote several chapters to the exploitation of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and the effect it has on the Israeli psyche. What are the dangers of this mindset?
MB: If you listen to the rhetoric of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Holocaust is always present when he’s talking about threats to the state of Israel. He recently gave an address at Bar-Ilan University, where he spent much of his speech accusing the Palestinians of having a direct role in the Final Solution, which is false. They weren’t responsible for any Jewish deaths in Europe. You can imagine how Israeli teens who are entering the army are going to play this out. It’s pure incitement, but it falls on really fertile soil. Many Israeli dissidents I interviewed told me that they, as youth growing up in Israel, lived out the Holocaust every day. They told me that one of the hardest things to overcome in their process of deprogramming from years of constant indoctrination they received in Israeli schools and all of the key institutions in Israeli life was to accept that the whole world wasn’t against them as Jews, that a second Holocaust was not imminent and that the Nazis did not have heirs in the Palestinian national movement.
RK: One of the most upsetting aspects in your book, at least for me, was the indoctrination in the Israeli school system.
MB: In my book, I talk about a preschool in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, where children were seated before a diagram, which asked them, “Who wants to kill us?” followed by an arrow that points to “Pharaoh,” “Nazis,” “Arabs,” etc. From there, an arrow pointed to the question “What do we need?” and then another arrow pointed to the answer, “We need a state.” These children, who are not quite able to form coherent sentences, are being taught to fear the outside world, to hate Arabs and to see them as Nazis dedicated to Jewish genocide. The process continues throughout the rest of their lives as they’re raised to become not necessarily good citizens, but good soldiers who will engage in the project of controlling Palestinians.
RK: And this continues into high school?
MB: The militarization of education blurs into holocaust indoctrination. By the time Israeli youth begin pre-army training at age 17, thousands of Jewish Israeli teens are sent to Auschwitz for the annual “March of the Living,” where they participate in ceremonies alongside uniformed Israeli soldiers and generals. They come in skeptical about army life, but the process leads them through a frightening experience where they’re brought into contact with the history of Jewish genocide. They’re eventually brought into a darkened gas chamber at the end of the ceremony and they’re asked to take on the personas of Jewish children who were slaughtered in Auschwitz. By that point they break down one after another. Poll after poll shows that these trips to Auschwitz immediately heighten levels of nationalism in Jewish teens and improve their opinion of the Israeli Army. But there’s one other poll I cite in Goliath, which is fascinating to me. It was a poll of Israeli Army veterans sent to Auschwitz on a separate program. And after seeing the exhibitions, their nationalist sentiments were shattered and they immediately developed anti-Israel responses to questions in the poll. The researchers couldn’t understand why this was, but the reason is pretty obvious. They began to see the Palestinians in the Jews who were ghettoized in Europe whose future was destroyed by a movement dedicated to ethnic purity.
I’m certainly not comparing Israel to the Nazis, but many Israelis often do this, including people I interviewed in the book. Many members of Israel’s founding generation have openly declared that Israel is a fascist state.
RK: Why should Americans care about what happens in Israel-Palestine?
MB: Everything that I’ve described is made possible only because of American financial and political support. It’s not just the $30 billion in taxpayer money the US has pledged to give to Israel, but also the weapons, the political cover at the UN, Congress. The world’s only superpower will give anything to support Israeli occupation and dispossession. Meanwhile, the consequences of US support are not relayed back to the taxpayers, who are being billed for it. This isn’t just an issue for Jews and Palestinians to be interested in. All Americans have a right to be informed, speak out about it and to pressure their public officials to end this aid until Israel abides by international law.