Jan 1 2014

Trying to Slay Goliath

Media campaign against book critical of Israel

Max Blumenthal’s first book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, was praised in the US corporate media. His deep dive into the Christian right was lauded in the New York Times (1/7/07) and CNN (9/10/09), and featured on NPR’s Fresh Air (9/10/09).

The award-winning journalist’s second tome, though, has been met with a much chillier reception. Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, published by Nation Books, is a tour de force through Israeli society. (Disclosure: Blumenthal and I have written for the same website, Mondoweiss, and he is a friend.) It documents the hard-right turn Israel has taken in recent years, with dire consequences for the Palestinians under the state’s control. It’s a book that shows the dark side of Israel—a side that US media rarely shows.

blumenthal-goliathThe parameters of American debate over Israel swing from blind support to critique of Israel’s excesses while simultaneously lauding its democratic character. Blumenthal, however, indicts the entire project of Israel as an ethnically exclusive Jewish state that, by its very nature, discriminates against non-Jews. The boldness of the book should be cause for the media to pay attention. Instead, its harsh criticism of Israel has led most publications to ignore Blumenthal this time around.

Goliath has been praised throughout much of the progressive media landscape for its unflinching and blunt take (Democracy Now!, 10/4/13; TruthOut, 10/27/13; Truthdig, 11/4/13; Electronic Intifada, 11/4/13). It was surprisingly given a favorable review in the New York Observer (10/29/13). But it has yet to garner any attention in leading book review sections. And when journalists and prominent publications have taken a look at it, they have attacked the book harshly while largely refusing to grapple with its contents. The lesson, it seems, is that if you criticize Israel’s founding ethos as a Jewish state and the horrors it has inflicted on its non-Jewish neighbors, you’ll be shut out of the mainstream.

“[NPR’s] Terry Gross has refused to have me on, and a lot of other hosts have just basically helped stitch the fabric of this curtain of silence” around Israel, Blumenthal told me (AlterNet, 10/16/13).

The first attack on Goliath came from an unexpected source: The Nation magazine. Printed alongside an excerpt from Blumenthal’s book was a scathing attack (10/16/13) on it by Eric Alterman, a long-time columnist at the magazine. Calling the book an “‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook,” Alter-man attacked Blumenthal for not addressing what he calls the “larger context of Israel’s actions”: the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, which he says “receive virtually no mention.” (Blumenthal does address Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel in the book, albeit briefly, and also writes a bit on Hezbollah.) As a liberal Zionist who strongly believes in having a Jewish state, Alter-man seems offended that Blumenthal wrote a book exclusively devoted to the “shortcoming[s] of Israeli society.”

While Alterman admitted that Blumenthal’s reporting is “mostly technically accurate,” the liberal columnist claimed that Goliath was “deliberately deceptive.” Some of his criticisms are arguable. But many others, like his claim that Blumenthal made up the notion that Berl Katznelson was the Labor Zionist movement’s “chief ideologue,” or his argument that Blumenthal is wrong to write that Benjamin Netanyahu uses Iran to distract from the occupation, fall flat.

Alterman stepped up his attacks in a Nation blog post (10/17/13), writing that it “could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club,” and went on to critique the book a total of nine times. In one of his blog posts (11/15/13), he smeared Blumenthal by noting his book was reviewed favorably on the website of racist and anti-semite David Duke. Alterman ignored the fact that he himself had been praised by Duke (Mondoweiss, 12/2/13), and that Blumenthal had criticized Duke in his own reporting (Nation, 3/23/06).

The campaign against Goliath migrated to the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon (10/29/13) with an article by Alana Goodman claiming that the author’s father, former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, had waged an “e-mail campaign” against Alterman because he criticized Goliath. The basis for the article was Alterman’s claim—contained in the third article (Nation, 10/28/13) the columnist wrote about the book—that he had heard about “nasty e-mails about me sent by Sid.”

A week later, the smears reached fever pitch with an article on the popular website BuzzFeed (11/6/13). Written by journalist Rosie Gray, the article sought to tar the Clintons with the brush of being associated with a critic of Israel, by way of Max Blumenthal’s father.

Along the way, Gray made a few errors. The entire article, like Goodman’s piece, was premised on the claim that there was a “campaign” being waged against Alterman by Sidney Blumenthal. But the only proof of a “campaign” was one e-mail Gray said she obtained, which contained the text of an article from Mondoweiss that factchecked Alterman’s Nation column.

She also claimed that Sidney Blumenthal was the source of racially tinged anti-Obama e-mails sent during the 2008 Democratic primary. A correction attached to Gray’s article noted that the “photo story is an allegation.” In fact, Media Matters for America (7/14/09) had traced the source of the anti-Obama photos to the right-wing website Free Republic.

Gray reprised a criticism first found in the Jewish Daily Forward (10/31/13) that Blumenthal had argued during a talk that Israeli Jews “should not remain in the country.” What Blumenthal actually argued is that Israeli Jews have a choice between being integrated into the Arab world—where Israel is located—and remaining locked in a “dystopia” where violent conflict is the norm. While it’s a controversial argument, Gray’s line of attack implied that Blumenthal was calling for expulsion.

And while Gray—along with Alterman—criticized Blumenthal for his “repeated comparisons of Israeli Jews to Nazis,” she didn’t see fit to quote Blumenthal’s defense against the charge. Chapter titles like “Night of the Broken Glass” “detail the officially sanctioned campaign of racist incitement and violence against…African asylum seekers,” Blumenthal wrote (The Nation, 10/23/13). The “broken glass” reference is to a Tel Aviv riot where Israeli Jews smashed the windows of businesses owned by African migrants—an event, as Blumenthal notes, that reminded one Turkish asylum seeker of Kristallnacht (Haaretz, 6/5/2012), when Nazi paramilitary forces smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops and killed dozens of German Jews.

A week after her hit piece, Gray once again displayed her penchant for guilt-by-association smears. On Twitter, she noted that a favorable review of the book was by a writer she labeled “a noted Hitler apologist and antisemite.” What she didn’t note was that Blumenthal had repeatedly and harshly criticized the writer, Gilad Atzmon, for engaging in antisemitism (Mondoweiss, 3/14/12; The Real News Network, 11/18/13).

Gray’s attacks were the clearest distillation of the campaign waged against Goliath. What it all adds up to is a pack of media figures (Commentary, 11/3/13, 11/26/13; FrontPage Mag, 11/7/13, 11/10/13; Breit-bart, 11/8/13) ignoring the book’s contents, while attacking the writer and his family. Blumenthal, though, is unperturbed.

“They’ve revealed a lot about their ideological blinders,” said Blumenthal. “No one will cower in the face of this intimidation campaign.”

Alex Kane, an assistant editor at Mondoweiss .net and the World editor at AlterNet, is a former FAIR intern.

Extra! January 2014