Journalist Max Blumenthal on the Perils of Being an Anti-Zionist
We spoke to the author of <i>Goliath</i> about how his harsh and uncompromising critiques of Israel have inspired a backlash from across the political spectrum.
For pretty much its entire existence, Israel has been torn apart by violence and rage, as you might expect when two groups who hate each other share a sliver of land that's smaller than New Jersey. One side of the conflict sees the Palestinians as being governed by extremist groups who want to wipe Israel off the face of the earth; the other side views Israel as an apartheid state where Palestinians are brutalized and treated like animals. Journalist Max Blumenthal sits firmly in the latter camp.
Blumenthal has written for outlets including the Daily Beast and Al Akhbar and is the author of Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. In 2013, he published Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, an exhaustive and depressing look at the deteriorating situation in the region.
In America, even light criticism of Israel is accused of being an assault on the Jewish people, and Blumenthal is a pretty aggressive critic of the country. (One of the chapters is titled "the Concentration Camp.") So naturally he's been called all sorts of names from all across the political spectrum. After the publication of Goliath, the Simon Weisenthal Center said the book was anti-Semitic; in a piece for the Nation, noted liberal writer Eric Alterman called the book "The Anti-Israel Handbook" and said that the "book could have been a selection of a hypothetical Hamas Book of the Month Club." And it hasn't helped his image that nutjobs on the radical right have started to praise his work.
More recently, a New York Times op-ed he wrote last month regarding Israel's policies toward its minority citizens was attacked all over the place, with critics claiming that he distorted facts to paint a picture sympathetic to the Palestinians due to his supposed bias.
I recently called Blumenthal to talk about the book, the future of Israel, and the charges that continue to be lobbed against him.
VICE: So, Max. Can you take me through how—
Max Blumenthal: Hold on. I'm in a coffee shop, and if I start talking about Israel/Palestine... You never know how people will react.
Is that a common problem?
When I'm on an airplane, one of my least favorite questions is, "What do you do?" I tell them I'm a journalist, I write about the Middle East. Usually people are pretty interested in what I have to say. And if they haven't been indoctrinated to a pro-Israel position, they're pretty sympathetic.
What was the process of writing Goliath?
I didn't want to take the privileges that are given to me because I'm a Jew, like a work visa or citizenship. So I got three-month visas. I spent over a year on the ground. It took me four or five years to write the book, partly because I wanted to see the situation all the way through another election, and partly because I wanted to present something that was really comprehensive, historically and journalistically.
Did you know a lot about Israel before delving into the project?
Growing up an American Jew, it kind of imposes itself on you—Zionism calls on you. You get invited to participate in all kinds of events around Israel if you're raised in a remotely Jewish environment. I went on the Israel Birthright trip, so I had a curiosity about the issue. And in 2008, when Israel attacked in Operation Cast Lead, that was a breaking point for me. I decided I wanted to invest a lot of my journalistic energy into the subject.
Were you prepared for what you witnessed over there?
I wasn't shocked. I was prepared intellectually for what I was going to witness. I wasn't prepared emotionally or psychologically, but you learn to adjust. What surprised me the most was how normalized the conditions of occupation and the sense of creeping fascism had become... Just how openly expressed the racism was, how immunized people were to what was happening within Israeli society, how routine violence was in the West Bank.
After several months of being in that environment, it becomes normal to you, and you have a struggle against that. You become accustomed to the violence, accustomed to the racism. You have to remind yourself that it's shocking, and allow yourself to be disturbed in order to produce journalism to the outside world that will further their sense of outrage and indignation.
Were you prepared to be attacked for the book?
The book became a vehicle for a movement that's growing in the United States of people who are indignant about what's happening. So obviously I became a target. I was a hard target, not only because I'm Jewish, but because it was difficult to define me as an extremist. So the campaigns you see directed against me grow increasingly desperate. One of the most recent was an attempt to paint me as the inspiration for the white supremacist who went on a shooting spree in Kansas City and attacked a Jewish center. It was ultimately discredited, but not until Rush Limbaugh went on the air saying basically that I had convinced some racist to stab Jews. In fact, no Jews were stabbed. But on the largest radio show in America, I was identified as the inspiration.
What have been some of the other attacks?
There's a flurry of articles painting me as an anti-Semite because I've been published in the New York Times. It makes the assailants who represent the right wing of the Israeli lobby feel like their attacks have failed because The Times is taking me seriously, so all they have left is this allegation of anti-Semitism. They don't care whether I keep kosher or not, whether I go to synagogues. All they care about is my relationship to Israel, and my opposition to a religiously and ethnically exclusive state. I went to Germany to speak recently, a country where there really isn't any distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Germany has kind of absolved itself of its Holocaust guilt through its support of Israel. So I was targeted there.
Before that, Eric Alterman, who is probably the only liberal who's attacked me in a really aggressive way, wrote nine vitriolic personal attacks on the Nation website painting me as some kind of neo-Nazi. I can't say I wasn't prepared. I am a little bit surprised at how desperate and rabid the attacks are. But it's sort of amusing. I live in the New York area, and I get recognized on the street a decent amount, and strangers shake my hand and make conversation. So there's a lot of encouragement I'm getting, too.
It seems like the mood has been shifting over the past few years.
The New York Times inviting me to write after basically refusing to review my book is a sign of the times. Jim Fallows, the editor in chief of the Atlantic, wrote a really rousing defense of my book. The New York Review of Books finally published a positive review of my book. You're seeing a major shifting in the debate. David Remnick of the New Yorker, who's been a liberal Zionist his whole life, wrote a piece basically throwing in the towel on the two-state solution, suggesting we have to start exploring solutions that deal with the issue of rights rather than land. So it's kind of gone mainstream in a way. But what hasn't been challenged enough is the issue of Zionism, and whether anti-Zionism is an acceptable opinion, what is anti-Semitism, who is an anti-Semite.
Have you ever feared for your safety?
I can tell you there have been more than published attacks. But I live completely without any fear and I don't do anything in my daily life or my personal life differently than I would do otherwise.
Did you plan on shifting over from journalism into a kind of activist?
I wouldn't have any shame in calling myself an advocacy journalist. I think the idea of journalistic objectivity is completely false. It's nonexistent. Everyone brings their prejudices and their experiences to their work, so I'm just being open about my perspective. But my work rises and falls on journalistic quality. Meaning, if it's not factual, it won't have any traction.
What about becoming pigeonholed as a one-issue journalist?
It's increasingly hard to get out of the Israeli box, for two reasons. One is because I'm one of the few people with my forum doing it. But the second reason is once you really start going into the issue, you start seeing things in a different way. My perspective has been sharpened on issues like police brutality, the militarization of police, American politics in the Middle East.
When you're looking at Israel, you're seeing the West's most severe image of itself, the only active settler colonial entity in the world. And when you look at Palestine, particularly Gaza, you're seeing the most severe image of what can happen to those who are deemed to be surplus humanity. It's impossible not to see things in such a stark way after going into this issue. And when I look at the Republican Party, I'm seeing the future base of pro-Israel support in the US.
Why would Republicans be more inclined to support Israel?
It's often about eschatology, about Israel being the future landing pad of the Messiah. But it's also about Israel being the only country in the West that has a clear ethnic and religious criteria for who can be a citizen. So, for those who think America should be a white, Christian nation, Israel provides a great model. Israel is what they see as the Fort Apache on the front lines in the clash of civilization.
Looking forward, what's going to happen with Israel and American relations?
You can look at both of my books as a guide. In my first book, [Republican Gomorrah], I explain why Republicans are going to have a huge challenge holding executive power in the United States because they've moved so far to the right. The right wing of the party has prevented the GOP from winning over centrist voters. So, you're looking at Democrats holding the White House for the next ten years. Probably. I mean, anything can happen, external events could affect things. But let's assume there's a Democrat in office for the next eight years.
Then, if you look at Goliath, in Israel I'm projecting right-wing trends for the rest of its existence, primarily because of the militarization of Israeli society and the rising influence of religious nationalist elements. All opinion polls show rising racism among Jewish Israeli youth. So, the clash between the US and Israel is going to become more open. Which means more lobbyist pressure on the president, more generals and joint chiefs complaining about Israel harming US interests, the mainstreaming of BDS, and the mainstreaming of the narrative I've been presenting through my book and public talks.
Have you been back to Israel since the book was published? Do they let you back in?
I haven't had any trouble getting in. I was able to go to the Gaza Strip for the first time this summer and was inspired by the place, and by the way people are able to maintain resilience and high spirits in a place that's uninhabitable, in a situation that's increasingly unbearable. But you never know when you're going to wind up on some list. So many of my friends, including a lot of my Jewish friends, have been denied entry and deported for ten years. You have to be prepared. The Israeli government doesn't pay attention to critical journalism... Unless it appears in a place like the New York Times.
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