Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I want to follow up my critique of Eric Alterman’s critique of Max Blumenthal’s Goliath by posing the question: What would a useful critique of the book look like? 

One thing that really goads Alterman is when Blumenthal draws analogies between present-day Israel and Germany in the 1930s. I understand his vexation. The Nazis did lots of things: They ran food drives for hungry citizens in the winter. They built highways. They promoted groundbreaking research proving the link between smoking and cancer. They banned interracial marriage. They invaded neighbouring (and not-so-neighbouring) countries. They set up a vast industry devoted to systematically murder of the Jews of Europe. The first were acts of responsible government. Those in the middle are serious offences against common morality and international order, but in no way unique to that regime. The last is sui generis, and among the most heinous crimes ever committed.  While “acting like Nazis” could, logically, refer to food relief or cancer research, people who apply the term to their political enemies are generally referring to the middle crimes — sadly commonplace as they are — but hoping to imply guilt by association to the uniquely heinous crimes of the Nazis. As applied to Israel, it started as a tool for German leftists in the 1960s to process their inherited sense of guilt without actually having to abandon old habits of antisemitism. If the Jews are the real Nazis, that solves all the problems at one stroke: They could hate their fascist parents and the Jews. The overtones are slightly different in other countries, but it is generally noxious.

Blumenthal titles one of his chapters “The Night of Broken Glass”, in reference to the night 75 years ago today, when a nationwide wave of anti-Jewish pogroms was partly instigated and partly tolerated by the German state. He is quoting one of the victims, an African asylum-seeker, who uses this analogy not out of some anti-Jewish animus, but because he learned about Kristallnacht in the Israeli school that he attended.

So, what would have been a useful critique of Blumenthal? Rather than simply announcing his outrage, Alterman might have provided some evidence that, whereas the German pogroms were a step toward direct state-sponsorship of violence against Jews, the anti-African riots were just riots, just race riots like those that happen in many different countries at different times. Blumenthal quotes a member of the ruling Likud party egging on the mob by declaring “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” That sounds pretty bad, as does the result of a poll finding that 52% of Jewish Israelis agree with the sentiment, and the small number of members of the Israeli parliament who were willing to criticise the violence. So, what’s the context? Maybe the small number was really a large number. Or maybe the real official crackdown on racist violence occurred in a different forum, something that outsiders don’t quite understand. At a pinch, maybe Alterman could find some establishment Israelis not identified with the extreme left who publicly oppose violence against non-Jews.

For example, he might have come up with the incident where the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger, not one of the usual “bleeding hearts”, who visited a Palestinian village where a mosque had been burned down by Jewish militants. “I came here to expression my revulsion at this wretched act of burning a place holy to the Muslim people,” he said. But this might have been uncomfortable for Ackerman to cite, because the Rabbi goes on to compare the arson to… Kristallnacht: “This is how the Holocaust began, the tragedy of the Jewish people of Europe.” So it turns out, he’s just another one of those crazy leftists making outrageous comparisons between Jews and Nazis.

I think Alterman’s core of his criticism of Blumenthal is contained in this statement:

 He is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of “context.” It might be technically accurate, for instance, to say that an individual who fatally shoots a crazed killer while said killer is mowing down schoolchildren with an assault-weapon is a “murderer.” But it would also be profoundly misleading, given the context.

I agree! I’d even be willing to wager that Blumenthal agrees. He then wants to apply this homily to the case at hand: “And this is the problem with Blumenthal’s facts. He tells us only the facts he wishes us to know and withholds crucial ones that undermine his relentlessly anti-Israel narrative.”

So now’s where we get the context, the real proof of what Blumenthal has been deceiving us with, and it is… something about the unreliability of the guy who said Mossad agents sometimes pose as El Al employees. With all the racist incitement, police-statism, political abuse, and wanton violence that runs through this book, this is the incident that Alterman thinks really cries out for context? It almost makes you think… maybe Blumenthal isn’t so off-the-wall after all. If Alterman spends thousands of words, but can’t “contextualise” any of the really grave accusations, maybe Goliath is essentially accurate.

Or maybe Alterman is a sleeper agent for the Fatah propaganda ministry. Certainly I’d say Alterman’s essay itself belongs right at the front of the “I Hate Israel” handbook he raves about — at least, the postmodern edition. By throwing himself into the fray as Israel’s supposed defender, and then offering a nearly content-free rant — lots of material about how no one is reading Goliath, so really it’s an act of charity that he even deigns to spit on it, no explanation of what the significant errors or deceptions are — he conveys the impression that Israel really has no rational defence.

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