Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blumenthal’s Goliath and PEP Critics like Eric Alterman

Update: My original claim of Alterman's ignorance when it comes to Israel was uncharitable, and I have changed it below.  I simply was astounded that he questioned Blumenthal's claim that Leibowitz was revered by the Israeli left -- something known by anybody familiar with the Israeli left -- as well as by his other claims about Leibowitz. I will respond to his clarification at a later time.

I read half of Max Blumenthal’s new book Goliath on Shabbat, and I would like to send a copy to every Jew I know, especially every PEP Jew I know  (“PEP” means “progressive except for Palestine.” ) This is the sort of book that even if you want to diss it, you can't dismiss it. To quote PEP critic, Eric Alterman, the book is "mostly technically accurate". And that should be enough to make anybody's hair stand on end.

Clearly, Alterman and other leftwing American secularists can't accept the unstated conclusion of the reportage that some of the fundamental problems of Israel are not due to a bunch of right-wing religious fanatics and nationalist Russians – not even due to Bibi and his crowd – but that, on the contrary, to core Zionist principles of the Ben Gurion school.  As Ari Shavit put it bluntly in this week’s New Yorker, you could not have a Jewish state without inducing the mass departure of the native Palestinians in strategic areas like Lydda and elsewhere.  And that is one of the foundations of the State of Israel today for all Israelis, left and right. Anybody who opposes the return of Palestinians refugees to their homes, or allowing their immigration and naturalization, because of a “demographic threat” justifies post factum that ethnic cleansing. (There may be other humanitarian reasons for opposing such a mass return, but that’s another issue.) That is the inexorable logic of Ben Gurionism that managed to refashion Zionism in its image. That is the core philosophy of the 1948 regime. It was not the core philosophy of Zionism before the 40s. 

In his response to Goliath, Alterman  reveals himself to be an am-haaretz (ignoramus) on key issues . My favorite howler is his criticism of Blumenthal's appeal to the philosopher Yeshayah Leibowitz. Alterman writes:
Jews all over the world “revered” Liebowitz (sic!) for the brilliance of his Talmud exegesis, not—as Blumenthal might wish—because he called Israeli soldiers “Nazis” and told them not to serve.
Alterman (or his research assistant) may be interested to learn that Yeshayah Leibowitz didn’t  write any Talmudic exegesis and was NOT revered by Jews all over the world -- in fact, virtually nobody outside of Israel knew who he was, despite his being considered 20th on a list of influential Israelis. I don't know whether Alterman's informant confused Yeshayahu with his sister Nehamah, who was indeed revered by Jews for her books on Biblical (not Talmudic) exegesis, or whether the informant may be confusing him with the orthodox theologian, Rabbi Soloveitchik.  [UPDATE: One reader has suggested that he was mixing Leibowitz up with Saul Lieberman or Emanuel Levinas.]

By the way, Leibowitz didn’t call Israeli soldiers Nazis.  He said that were they to do the things that they were said to have done in Lebanon, then they would be acting like Judeo-Nazis. And yes, he counseled soldiers who asked him  to refuse to serve in an immoral war. 

That, sadly, speaks volumes about the ignorance of the American Jewish leftwing Zionist. 
In fact, as books go on this subject, I thought Blumenthal's book pretty moderate -- yes, there is the occasional sarcasm and yes, it is pretty much only the dirty laundry, of which there is a lot.  Most of it is reportage with the obvious implication of advocacy. It is certainly not charitable or even-handed to the colonizer (although it is not particularly charitable to Hamas or the PA either. When will the hasbara trolls who “review” books on Amazon learn that the story  is not just about one ethnic group vs. another but also about civil society and civilians vs. politicians and leaders?)  

But when Alterman says that one has to take into account the "context" I wonder whether he read the book. The book is ALL about context, it is the context of the sort of Zionist ideology that never left Israel (except dying down maybe for a few years in the early eighties) and which has come back with a vengeance.

The difference between an American leftie like Alterman and somebody like Blumenthal is partly generational but mostly experiential. Alterman clearly doesn’t read Haaretz or YNET daily; he hasn’t spent months in the Occupied Territories; he gets his reporting on Israel from the mainstream media.

There are many others of his generation like him.  These are the “I-oppose-the-Occupation; I-support-Peace-Now;-I-believe-in-Two-States-I hate-Bibi” crowd who can’t get past their self-imposed veil of ignorance. And it is self-imposed. If you want to write a criticism of Blumenthal, tfadal, go ahead.  There is enough to criticize.

But first, as Hillel said, Go study. 


Ael said...

Bang on.

wkovacs said...


who did the jews of the second aliya, colonize the land for?

who did the jews, who attempted to escape europe, pre ww2, colonize the land for?

who did the jews who were expelled from arab lands, colonize the land for

come on jerry...give a name to the colonizing authority

britain, france, germany, russia, poland, egypt????? who????

interesting that an am haaretz has problems with another

max's book is moderate? only to a soneh yisrael like you

Unknown said...

Jerry, I enjoyed your commentary, thanks.

Alterman's copious errors when reviewing Goliath, could surely lead one to think that he only spends five minutes a month thinking about Israel. However I do not think that is the case.

A significant part of his journalistic efforts are devoted to defining what is "proper" criticism and what is off limits when it comes to Israel. He is or was at least was on the board of JStreet.

I just think what Blumenthal has to say is not something people of Alterman's views and experience want to hear and often try to silence.

Maybe confronting all that "technically correct" reporting upset him to the point that he lost his ability for critical analysis.



Jerry Haber said...


The Jews of the second Aliyah (and other Jews) colonized Palestine,often through the direction of the World Zionist Organization, for the Jewish people in order to build a Jewish homeland. As you know, they called their settlements "colonies." Practical Zionist of this sort is best described as settler-colonialism, and you can read more about it (once the hasbara kool aid wears off) in the *Settler Colonialism in the 20th Century: Projects,Practices,Legacies,* where Zionism is listed as one of various 20th century settler-colonialist projects.

Jerry Haber said...

Ira, I know I keep saying this, but it's also tribalism. I shudder to think what Eric would have written had the author not been Jewish. This is what I call the, "I can criticize Israel but you can't" syndrome that afflicts people on the broad ideological spectrum that spans from Alan Dershowitz to Jeffrey Goldberg.

Heidi Wilson said...

Jerry, I'm so glad you brought up I-can-criticize-Israel-but-you-can't. As a non-Jew trying to amend my country's disastrous stance toward Israel, I feel that pressure coming at me all the time. However, we have an even worse problem than the PEPs. We've got the OLPs: "Out to Lunch on Palestine." At least my Jewish readers know the issue exists. Just gotta keep on truckin', I guess.

And an aside: as one writer to another, I think this is one of the best pieces you've ever blogged, for vigor, clarity and tone.

Heidi Wilson
Orford, NH

myron said...

Jerry, I would say that forced expulsion (without the right to return) from areas that were not planned to be part of the Jewish State can be understood as not being premeditated transfer/cleansing. It may be connected to the desire to preserve the Jewish majority but was not part of a colonial plan. It was the outcome of changed "borders" due to rejection of partition.
On the other hand..perhaps Jewish land purchase from absentee landlords and pushing landless farmers of these lands is actually a better example.

Jerry Haber said...

myron,thanks for your comment.

I don't think we have enough evidence to conclude that there was an official Zionist policy of expulsion from all the areas to be within Partition. In fact, there was no need for one -- because it was a common Zionist assumption that a Jewish state would be better off with a small non-Jewish majority, and that opportunities to have the Arabs leave should be generated. Perhaps we should call this "opportunistic ethnic cleansing" -- when the opportunity arises (and when we can create the inducement) then this is the way to go. There is enormous evidence that this was the view of the Zionist leadership, not just then, but throughout the history of the State of Israel, and that the only desire to have the Arabs stay was due to fear that the world would not accept the ethnic cleansing. Ditto for the return of refugees. And as Shavit pointed out, this is the logic of statist Zionism.

As for land purchase -- indeed, if land purchase was for the sake of Jewish sovereignty, against the wishes of the natives, then that is part of the theft of the homeland -- because when I buy a house in Spain, that doesn't give me a claim to sovereignty.

Anyway, this is a long topic. But thanks for writing, and maybe we will get together in Jerusalem some time.

Jerry Haber said...

Heidi, thanks for the comment. Keep on truckin' indeed.

Anonymous said...

As you know, I was very disappointed that you started using the term "PEP".

It is a pejorative in the places that it is used, and to enforce specific politically correct discipline, with the consequence of silencing those that disagree with the politically correct positions or tone.

Its usage, your usage of it, is sadly arbitrary.

I just watched a video of Max Blumenthal speaking at a forum with Ian Lustick, in which Ian "condescendingly" conveyed to Max Blumenthal siting inferences that the book cast a misrepresentative picture of Israeli society.

That is Eric Alterman's contention as well, a bit more directly and confrontationally (not all that much more though).

Further, to cast Eric Alterman as PEP, is to cast all liberal zionists as PEP, any in fact that support a two-state approach, any that aren't attracted to direct action as their chosen mode of political participation.

Eric has written critically of Israeli policies for 20 years, but without strident condemnation, and supportive of the existence of the state.

It saddens me to see ethics be damned in the effort to adopt "which side are you on" as the basis of one's political measures.

Robert Lipton said...

love, just love the PEP reference, use it often myself, why, because it is accurate and precise and bothers the hell out of those who it obviously applies to. Alterman is a fatuous bore, the liberal version of Hitchens (Alterman's self-stated friend, figures). The obvious situation is this, Israel is a US supported settler colonial enterprise, such things are ugly, definitionally morally bankrupt and almost always, really really aggressive/violent.

Robert Lipton said...

love, just love the PEP reference, use it often myself, why, because it is accurate and precise and bothers the hell out of those who it obviously applies to. Alterman is a fatuous bore, the liberal version of Hitchens (Alterman's self-stated friend, figures). The obvious situation is this, Israel is a US supported settler colonial enterprise, such things are ugly, definitionally morally bankrupt and almost always, really really aggressive/violent.

Eurosabra said...

One of the things I'm mildly worried about with "Goliath" is the "news of the weird" aspect of it, I'm afraid it may be the usual valuable topoi (security at Ben Gurion, the Latrun salient villages, Haifa the mixed city, etc) with a taxonomy of the new Israeli Right. Things that need to be heard but that I'm afraid give me little purchase to evolve as a sort-of-specialist.

I'm used to really meaty analyses like Gabi Piterberg's "The Returns of Zionism", Jacqueline Rose's "The Question of Zion", and Boaz Evron's "A National Reckoning". Perhaps this is a deliberate follow-on and reply to Oz's "In the Land of Israel", "On the Slopes of the Volcano", Grossman's "The Yellow Wind", etc. (And one can go further back and tie into 19th and 20th century narratives.) The syllabus writes itself, for a course on the genre of the travel/interview memoir drawing a totalizing verdict on Zionism/Israel.

I'm also a bit mystified by the contrast between the academic debate on the previous books and some walled-off debate as critics and analysts handle the book within the walls of isolated websites that seem to be blocking or deleting contrary views. Phan Nguyen complained that The Forward blocked a reply of his to one of Alterman's critiques. I don't think there's been an even-mildly pro-Zionist viewpoint handling the book on Mondoweiss, Firedoglake, or any of the other sites reviewing the book positively, it seems Max is pushing different buttons than the aforementioned academic authors and there's an effort to ignore/submerge the book as seen in Alterman's non-reviews.

pabelmont said...

Jerry, I was born in 1938 and I don't know -- from reading or experience -- what the various Zionisms were before 1940.

You are suggesting, above, that there were one or more non-exclusivist, non-expulsivist forms of Zionism early on (and that, had they prevailed, the I/P conflict would not have included Nakba).

Two questions, then. First, could you one day review the different Zionisms for those (many, I'd guess) who don't know. Second, could you try to explain the love of Israel that seems to prevail today even (I suppose) among those whose dreams were shattered by the turn Zionism took in 1945-48 (might be called IRGUN/STERN Zionism and then Ben Gurionism).