With friends like this, Israel doesn’t need enemies

After reading Goliath, Max Blumenthal’s damning and highly disturbing account of racism and human rights abuses in Israel, I was eager to see what the other side was saying. Israel has many passionate defenders, and Blumenthal is a blatantly partisan writer (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing), and not a Middle East expert — except in that he spent years in Israel researching this book — and doesn’t even seem to speak either of the major languages of the region, so I assumed there would at least be plausible basis for charging Blumenthal with major distortions, errors of fact, or concealing important context.

What I found was this article in The Nation by Eric Alterman. (Followed by this response from Blumenthal, and this counter-response from Alterman.) Alterman is obviously a strong supporter of Israel, obviously smart and competent, and those very facts make his article effectively a defence of Blumenthal’s book. You have to think, if this is all an enraged and intelligent opponent can come up with, the book must be pretty solid.

Because what he comes up with is, essentially, nothing. There’s plenty of invective and playground insults. It’s a “dreadful book” that could have been published by the “Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club” (not just that — Alterman insists that this is “no exaggeration”). Again and again he ridicules the insignificance of the book: “I’m the only person in a print outlet anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, who has even noticed the existence of Blumenthal’s book.” He rightly derides Blumenthal’s annoying Chomsky-esque tic of larding his descriptions with judgemental adjectives.

And yet, when he hauls out against the book’s substance, his attacks range from the trivial to the bizarrely false. He takes issue with Blumenthal introducing a quote from Burl Katznelson by describing him as Labour Zionism’s “chief ideologue”, saying that this characterisation exists “exclusively in the author’s imagination”. When Blumenthal cites several Labour party leaders using this term, Alterman replies that he’s sure this is a bad translation of whatever it is they said in Hebrew. Well, maybe, but that hardly sounds like a hanging offence. Similarly, they get into a tussle over whether Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s theological and philosophical writings are appropriately described as “talmudic exegesis”. On the other hand, Blumenthal accuses Israel in great detail of systematic harassment of activists, ongoing dispossession of non-Jews, failure to enforce the rule of law with regard to the murder of Arabs and migrants (not even to mention the theft of their property), and official winking at eliminationist racist propaganda. Again, amid all that, if the sharpest criticism he can think of is that some of the chapter titles are overly harsh… The only charge of Alterman’s that is both modestly serious and true is his criticism of Blumenthal’s comment that Mossad agents pose as El Al airline employees to collect information about passengers, which turns out to be based on accusations of a single fired employee. This is pretty thin stuff to do the work that Alterman wants it to, of discrediting the entire book.

Instead, Alterman manufactures quotes or rips them out of context to try to portray Blumenthal as foolish or deceptive. (When caught manipulating a quote, Alterman apologises, saying he “misread it”. Fair enough, if slightly hard to explain. But the fact that Alterman has managed to botch one quote in a 1000-word blog post should give him pause in bashing Blumenthal for his translation of the Hebrew word for “ideologue”.)

Above all, Alterman clearly doesn’t like the fact that Blumenthal isn’t showing proper deference to his elders — he describes Blumenthal as ‘lecturing’ both Ha’Aretz editor Aluf Benn and novelist David Grossman, exactly the kind of tiresome rhetoric that he chided Blumenthal for. He never engages with any of Blumenthal’s arguments, accounts, and accusations, and instead simply spews contempt for Blumenthal and all of his readers, as when he writes “If Blumenthal wishes to categorize Hamas as a group of “terrorists,” as his letter implies, this would be a shock to the readers of his book.” I’m not at all sure what Alterman means to say with this — something like that the only people who would read Goliath are Hamas sympathisers. Of course, Alterman himself has read the book (apparently) but he’s not one of his READERS. Presumably this is some leftist trope that outsiders can’t quite grok. Maybe if I’d been to Woodstock…

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