Book Review

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel

Max Blumenthal

Spring 2014, Volume XXI, Number 1

There's a telling anecdote at the heart of Max Blumenthal's provocative new book. It takes place in 2009, when a dissident-minded tour guide at Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, takes visitors not to the usual end point on the tour, but to an overlook that allows the guests to peer down onto the site of perhaps the most infamous slaughter of Palestinian Arabs at the very start of Israel's existence. The guide, Itamar Shapira, tells Blumenthal that he "ushered them to the hillside and pointed them to the ruins of a village clearly visible in the valley below. Before the visitors was Deir Yassin, the site of the massacre of over one hundred Palestinian civilians during the 1948 war by the Stern Gang, a right-wing Zionist militia."

It's a poignant irony that a museum dedicated to the memory of Adolf Hitler's mass slaughter of Jews during World War II sits cheek-by-jowl with Deir Yassin, whose legend is a critical piece of the mosaic that makes up the Palestinians' own Holocaust, the Nakba (catastrophe), when hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes into refugee status. But Blumenthal, at great length, draws out the parallels he sees between the unspeakable atrocities that befell Europe's Jews and the cruelties visited upon them both during Israel's early years and more recently, and he underlines the point by arguing that the memory of the Nazi Holocaust is used cynically by Israel's leaders to sustain political support in Israel for a government that has moved inexorably since the 1970s in an ever-more conservative, ultraconservative and finally nearly "fascist" direction. "The lessons of the Holocaust have been imparted across the world to promote greater tolerance for minorities and marginalized social groups," writes Blumenthal. "But in Israel, they get routinely exploited to advance narrow nationalistic goals."

In case anyone might miss his point, Blumenthal names several of his chapters about the current state of affairs in Israel in a manner designed to spark outrage among pro-Israel partisans and many Jews and others who maintain a degree of sympathy for the Jewish state: "The Concentration Camp," "The Night of the Broken Glass," and — echoing Elie Wiesel's classic account of the Holocaust — "Night."

Shocking though such comparisons might be — and Blumenthal's book has drawn more than its share of bitter opprobrium from defenders of Israel across the political spectrum — it's not at all unusual for members of the liberal Zionist establishment inside Israel itself to draw parallels between fascism and modern Israel. Indeed, Blumenthal quotes many expressions of precisely that analogy:

Amnon Dankner, the former editor of Maariv, one of Israel's major newspapers, was moved to condemn what he saw as "neo-Nazi expressions in the Knesset" and "entire parties whose tenor and tone arouse feelings of horror and terrifying memories." David Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, echoed Dankner, calling on Israelis to boycott the Knesset "to stand against the wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project." And Uri Avnery, the famed Israeli journalist, politician, and sabra, warned, "Israel's very existence is threated by fascism."

Of course, today Israel's body politic is nothing like the often idealistic, socialist-minded European Jewish refugees who were the original settlers in the decades before Israel's independence in 1948 and who dominated Israeli politics until the late 1970s. However, since the nearly unthinkable victory of Menachem Begin's Likud bloc in 1977— which also brought to power his partner Yitzhak Shamir, a former assassin with the aforementioned Stern Gang — the electorate has undergone a steady transmutation. While the descendants of the Ashkenazi Jews still populate Tel Aviv's trendy cafes and nightlife and hold sway in academia, the new Israel also includes vast numbers of immigrant Jews from Arab countries and from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet-bloc nations. Many of the latter, Blumenthal points out, are Jewish in name only — sometimes not even that — and they've become reliable votes for a panoply of far-right, ultranationalist parties. In addition, the growth of religious fundamentalist parties, who regard the occupied West Bank as sacred biblical lands that belong to the Jews, has skyrocketed since the 1970s, and they often exhibit radical-right political views on a wide range of issues. It's no longer your grandfather's Israel.

As he did in Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, in which Blumenthal swam in America's far-right sea to see what he might find, in this book he dives deep into Israel's far right, spending chapter after chapter letting the extremist partisans of modern Israel speak for themselves.

It is, by now, de rigueur for Israeli politicians to complain mightily about supposed "incitement" against Israel in the form of extreme and often anti-Semitic statements from the Palestinian side. In January 2014, receiving Secretary of State John Kerry in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a typical comment:

In the six months since the start of peace negotiations, the Palestinian Authority continues its unabated incitement against the state of Israel. This Palestinian Government incitement is rampant. You see it in the state-controlled media — the government-controlled media — in the schools, in textbooks, in kindergartens. You see it at every part of Palestinian society.

Had Netanyahu but read Blumenthal's book, however, he might have moderated those remarks. Whereas out-of-bounds comments about Israel by Palestinians can be found by scouring a few textbooks and obscure sermons by Islamists, the overtly racist and extreme "incitements" by Israelis, including from senior officials, members of parliament and leading politicians, and top rabbis are legion. Blumenthal, horrifyingly, recounts many.

Examples cited in Goliath include Ehud Barak, Labor party leader and minister of defense, who says that the Zionists have created "a villa in the jungle." Or Ovadiah Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party and former chief rabbi of Israel, who says, "It is forbidden to be merciful to [Arabs]. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable." Or Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of a city in northern Israel and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, who called for "carpet bombing" Gaza, adding, "If they don't stop we must kill 100,000, even a million." (Eliyahu also charged that the Vatican organizes tours of Auschwitz to train Hezbollah in how to wipe out Jews.) Or the widely cited book, Torat Ha'Melech, which greenlights the killing of babies: "There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults." Blumenthal attended a gathering of hundreds at the Torat Ha'Melech congress, led by rabbis and including activists from the radical nationalist Im Tirtzu ("If You Will It") movement and the openly terrorist Kach group that was founded by the late Meir Kahane.

Im Tirtzu, Blumenthal adds, serves as the street-level shock troops for the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's far-right foreign minister. Lieberman, described as a "gruff former bouncer and airport baggage handler from Moldova" who built his party as the voice for Russian and other East European rightists, serves as the guardian of Netanyahu's right flank. Lieberman famously proposed that Arabs living in Israel be forced to sign a "loyalty oath" to the Jewish state, and at a conference of Yisrael Beiteinu outside Nazareth, in the heavily Arab-populated Galilee, his supporters lustily chanted "Death to Arabs!" and "No loyalty, no citizenship!" (Death to Arabs! is the near-constant chant at soccer matches of the Beitar Jerusalem football club, whose No. 1 fan is Avigdor Lieberman.)

The Israel that Blumenthal describes is a scary place, in which everywhere one looks there are virulently racist, hatred-spewing xenophobes. In bars and clubs, in West Bank settlements, at boisterous rallies and anti-Arab, anti-immigrant demonstrations, and in social and political gatherings of all kinds, Blumenthal — often quietly allowing his interlocutors to assume that he's "one of them," even if he has to disguise himself with a skullcap — lets the Israeli far right have its say. At a 2011 Jerusalem Day march, he watches as thousands of Israeli youth, joined by thousands more Jewish American youth, pour into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City shouting "Muhammad is dead!" and "Slaughter the Arabs!" In other cases, some too graphic to quote here, Israeli rightists use scatological, obscene and highly sexualized terms to describe the original inhabitants of Palestine.

It is, to be sure, not at all a balanced portrait of modern Israel. By Blumenthal's own account, many of the most extreme examples he cites were first exposed, widely analyzed and denounced in the Israeli media. Many of the most radical partisans of the extreme right find themselves denounced by mainstream politicians; even Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies in Likud, while undoubtedly making use of their militancy and seeking their votes, keep some of the more unsavory elements at arm's length. Too often, Blumenthal disparages or speaks cynically about the "original Zionist left" and what he continually describes in one form or another as the old European, Ashkenazi Zionist establishment, sharply criticizing them for their fecklessness, their compromises, and most of all for their refusal to own up to Israel's Original Sin, the post-1947 destruction of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing, land seizures and massacres that stained the Zionist project from the start. It's true that there is a lot to atone for, going forward, but if there is ever to be a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, ancient (as in biblical) and not-so-ancient (as in 1948, 1956 and 1967), history will count for less than what's happening in the here and now, and on both sides. While the far right and the even more extreme elements that Blumenthal reports on are a chilling phenomenon, the jury's still out on whether or not they'll win the day.

Blumenthal seems convinced that the battle for Israel is over and that the forces of Avigdor Lieberman (and worse) are the victors. It's not an unreasonable conclusion, but it's by no means the only one to draw from Israel's long drift rightward. In a crucial chapter, Blumenthal writes of his encounter with David Grossman, a liberal Zionist and author of The Yellow Wind, a man who he says "played a seminal role in galvanizing the peace camp inside Israel." Blumenthal seemingly pokes fun at Grossman for his optimism about Barack Obama and his belief that Obama might pressure Netanyahu to make peace, and he seems put out by Grossman's insistence that Israel remain a Jewish state. They parted, Blumenthal says "cordially, but not warmly." In a coda to the chapter, Blumenthal briefly notes how in 2010 the "remnant of the original Zionist left," including people such as Uri Avnery, Shulamit Aloni and Yoram Kaniuk, rallied around a manifesto called "A Declaration of Independence from Fascism." It was a blunt and stirring document. To Blumenthal, however, it was an exercise in "nostalgia for a past that never was, and in despair about a fascist future its members seemed to view as inescapable."

Maybe — and maybe not. There's no disputing that dark forces have been unleashed within Israel. In the end, however, it is a nation-state with plenty of pragmatic politicians who recognize that their country is utterly dependent on aid and military support from the United States and Europe, and that Washington and Brussels have their own vital national interests at stake in the Middle East. Its generals and intelligence officials — as revealed most starkly in the documentary film The Gatekeepers, which focuses on six former chiefs of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service — recognize both the reality of Israel's dependence and the dangerous road ahead if there is no accord over Palestine. And its businessmen, who are less ideological than practical, often feel the same way. Does that mean that Prime Minister Netanyahu or his successor will feel compelled to follow what until now have been ideological constraints and obsessiveness about security, or is it possible that they will succumb to reality?