Thursday, November 7, 2013

Dropping a DIME: Max Blumenthal and the Erosion of Liberal Zionism

Zionism, like capitalism, is losing its aura of beneficence and inevitability, as its fangs become harder to hide. Israel is not the Upper West Side overseas. (No matter what many people on the Upper West Side may like to think.) It is a violently racist colonial enterprise, with all the ideological and practical viciousness that implies. 

This is the implicit conclusion of Max Blumenthal’s latest book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, based on four years of reporting in Israel, which has touched a raw and festering nerve in the American liberal community.  Chris Hedges, who spent seven years as a correspondent in the Middle East, including Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, calls Goliath “one of the most fearless and honest books ever written about Israel. Blumenthal burrows deep into the dark heart of Israel.”

By “racist,” I mean, first of all, fundamentally ethno-religious supremacist: The inescapable premise of Zionism is that the lives, property, security, fears, hopes, and aspirations – all that constitutes the humanity – of Jewish settlers in historic Palestine trumps that of the indigenous non-Jewish population.  Of course, this kind of supremacism is inevitably unconfined.  Until the next plane hits a building, Americans – even American liberals – might not be overly discomfited by the discounting of Arab Palestinians’ humanity, but Israeli Zionism is becoming increasingly “racist” in a sense that Americans can easily recognize, and liberal Americans not so easily dismiss:

Send them to the camps! Oops, I mean “accommodation centers.”

Notice the curious locution. Africans fleeing oppression are not refugees, they are infiltrators, “an enemy state of infiltrators.” They (along with Israeli dissidents, if former MK (member of parliament) Yulia Shmuelov-Berkowitz has her way) will be sent to the Saharonim detention facility, which Max Blumenthal tells us, is “a vast matrix of watchtowers, concrete blast walls, razor wire, and surveillance cameras that now comprise what the British Independent has described as ‘the world’s biggest detention center.’” Deluxe “accommodations.”

As that roundup proceeds apace, the Israeli government will also be executing the Prawer Plan, a scheme, as Blumenthal describes it on TomDispatch, for “the expulsion of 40,000 indigenous Bedouin citizens of Israel from their ancestral Negev Desert communities.” These citizens of Israel are being herded into “American-Indian-reservation-style towns constructed by the Israeli government,” andsmall Jews-only communities will be constructed on the remnants of the evicted Bedouin communities.” The organization coordinating Jewish settlement in the Negev actually refers to this, without irony or shame, as a project “to concentrate the Bedouin population.” Chilling.

Citizens of Israel, forcibly removed and “concentrated” – because, as Blumenthal says, “As the fastest growing group among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Bedouins have been designated as an existential threat to Israel’s Jewish majority.” Did I mention, citizens of Israel?  

Looks like we have to turn for a moment to address the rather complicated Zionist construction of “citizenship” vs. “nationality.” In Israel, citizenship is not the same thing as nationality, and having the same citizenship does not mean having the same rights.

Every Israeli citizen carries an identity card on which is marked their nationality. The state ID categorizes your nationality as either “Arab” or “Jewish,” and it is your nationality, not your citizenship, that determines your rights and entitlements within Israel, the Jewish State.

No one in Israel carries an identity card identifying them as "Israeli," because there is no such thing as Israeli “nationality.” In fact the courts have strictly forbidden Israeli Jews from changing their nationality to “Israeli” (here and here).  As one judge pointed out: "a ruling on the existence of an Israeli nationality would have far reaching and crucial implications for the identity of the state, its character and its future." Recognizing an “Israeli nationality” would undermine the whole structure of ethnic discrimination/supremacism. (Based, it should be said, on an entirely fictional “ethnicity,” since, as Shlomo Sand has shown, there’s a good case that the Palestinians are the Jews, that Palestinian Arabs are more likely the descendants of the original inhabitants of ancient Judea than are the Ashkenazi Jews who were the vanguard of Zionism.)

As Tali Shapiro, “a rail-thin writer and activist who could have passed for any other glamorous Tel Aviv bohemian,“ explained to Blumenthal: “There is no such thing as an Israeli nationality. According to the Interior Ministry, you are either Jewish or Arab. Your citizenship [even she’s caught up by the confusion, meaning “effective citizenship”] is defined here by the ethnicity, and your privileges are afforded to you accordingly. That’s the basis of apartheid.”  (Heavens! The “A”-word, from an Israeli Jew. No wonder, as she says: “They call me a yafeh nefesh now, That means a beautiful soul or a do-gooder. It is one of the biggest insults in Israel.”) Tali here echoes Uri Avnery: “Israel is a ‘Nation state’ of the Jews, and therefore it has the right to do anything that serves Jews and harms non-Jews, even when they are Israeli citizens.”

Thus, any Jew, living anywhere in the world, can come to the “Nation-state of the Jews,” get an Israeli citizen’s identity card imprinted with their Jewish nationality, and be instantly endowed with full rights and entitlement by the state of Israel; whereas, no Arabs, even those born and living all their lives as “citizens” of the state of Israel, have the same set of rights as Jewish nationals. What are some of the rights that Jewish nationality confers that Israeli citizenship doesn’t?  Little things, like the right to get land (the Land Authority holds 93% of Israel’s land for the Jewish nation), and, oh yeah, the right to get married.

It is not Israeli-ness (citizenship), but Jewishness (nationality), defined by the Orthodox rabbinate as a matter of ethnicity (kinship and descent trumping even religious conviction), that is the marker of full rights in Israel.  Every Israeli understands this, though few Americans do. This convoluted discursive and legal structure, enforced through the passbook identity card, is necessary to police the ethnic boundaries in a situation where the people who are supposed to be so essentially different often look very much alike. The confusion, in which a category of equal, but trivial, citizenship masks the category of unequal, and substantively significant, nationality, also helps to market Israel to Americans and Europeans as some kind of “democratic" polity like theirs.  But it really isn’t the Upper West Side.

Back to the Bedouins, and the plan for their “concentration.” As Blumenthal points out: “being born in Israel as non-Jews relegated them … to something like Type D citizenship, if not in letter, then in practice. Though many of them served with distinction in the army as elite trackers who helped regular units through densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip, engendering widespread resentment from Palestinians in the process, the state has always treated them as criminal invaders who had no property rights on their own land.”  Not only Israeli citizens, but elite forces who gave important service to the IDF. Not good enough. Wrong nationality. Eligible for expulsion. 

Per Avnery, the “Nation state of the Jews,” doing what “serves Jews and harms non-Jews, even when they are Israeli citizens.”

Please take a look at this video of the plan in action, and think hard about what American Zionist liberalism makes possible:

Note well that this is not about “the occupation.” As Blumenthal points out, this ethnic cleansing is taking place “well behind the Green Line … and inside the part of Israel that will be legitimized under a U.S.-brokered two-state solution.” These practices are not an unfortunate effect of the post-1967 occupation, which has somehow tainted a previously innocent Zionist project. They are fundamental to the Zionist project per se, which must look upon any significant community of non-Jews within Israel as an incipient “enemy state of infiltrators”:

The maintenance of the Jewish state demands the engineering of a demographic majority of nonindigenous Jews and their dispersal across historic Palestine through methods of colonial settlement. …Because indigenous Palestinians and foreign migrants are not Jews, the state of Israel has legally defined most of them as "infiltrators," mandating their removal and permanent relocation to various zones of exclusion.

There’s a reason why, as Blumenthal remarks: “Western media consumers will find details about the Prawer Plan and the Saharonim camp hard to come by.” That is because it’s the US government’s unconditional political, financial, and military support of Israel and the Zionist project which makes all this possible; and because that support itself depends on the overt or implicit (silence is enough!) assent of Zionist-tolerant American liberals and their conservative Christian Zionist confrères.

The liberals, for long the strongest linchpin, are becoming the weak link here. 

Thanks in large part to the new voices of intellectually and ethically consistent progressive American Jews like Blumenthal, and Philip Weiss (and his colleagues at Mondoweiss), following on the long-standing work of thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, American progressives are coming to realize that that Israel is, without exaggeration, more like the Jim Crow South at its worst than the Upper West Side. It’s a polity fighting a nasty battle to maintain Jewish (which turns out to look an awful lot like White) privilege.

Liberals are realizing, too, that this supremacist and anti-democratic dynamic is intrinsic to Zionism. As former MK Michael Ben-Ari put it in the clip above: “Our country is a Jewish State. A Jewish and democratic state. It's a very delicate balance. In some cases, the two contradict each other.” Ya think? Rayyan Al-Shawaf summed it up succinctly on Mondoweiss: “Israel has already subverted its democracy for the sake of maintaining its Jewishness.” Actually, Zionism intrinsically subverts democracy for the sake of Jewishness.

American liberals, who delight in loudly and proudly excoriating the racism of reactionary Republican attitudes toward voting rights and immigration, don’t like to think of themselves as being part of an inherently anti-democratic and supremacist political project, built on ethnic cleansing. Well, Blumenthal makes quite clear that “the philosophy of Zionism as applied in historic Palestine is a recipe for ethnic cleansing.” That now-undeniable fact, along with scenes like those in Blumenthal’s video of the anti-African street rally, and in this video, taken in in Tel Aviv in 2009, and filled with ranting about Obama, presents Zionism’s association with the kind of racist arrogance that identity-politics liberals cannot ignore:

(See all of Blumenthal’s devastating videos on his YouTube channel.)
This video has been removed from YouTube.. As of 9/1/2014, it could still be viewed here. 

Along with scenes like this, what Blumenthal calls “the Republicanization of pro-Israel support,” in which we see billionaire Republicans and Christian Zionists becoming the staunchest base of support for Israel, may also help erode liberal Zionism. This is not the company liberals like to keep.

To be clear, I’m not talking here about liberal politicians. Stalwart Zionism has been, and remains, a hallmark of Democratic-party liberalism (including Bernie and Elizabeth).  I’m talking about the sincere base of progressives, the “beautiful souls and do-gooders” like Tali, who are coming to understand how rotten the old political formulae and allegiances are, and who are willing to consider radical alternatives. We are far from the end of liberal Zionism, but we are, I think, in the midst of its erosion.

I also think that progressive Americans are becoming less intimidated. Everyone knows that the vast majority of (and certainly of the most extreme) Zionists in the world and in the US are not Jewish (and many are in fact anti-Semitic), and that many of the strongest anti-Zionist and critical-Zionist voices are Jewish. There is no critique of Zionism that is not being fiercely debated in Israel, in American Jewish communities, and in the world at large – with no holds barred, including the A-word. The only people being kept out of this debate are the general American populace, which also happens to be paying for Zionism, in so many ways. Given the US-Israel “special relationship” (which in practice means America’s unconditional financial and military support of Israel), every American, including the 97% who are gentiles, has not only the right but the responsibility to think and speak up about the colonial policies in which we are all implicated.  Critical- and anti-Zionist American gentiles and Jews have as much right to be heard on the atrociousness of those policies as their Christian Zionist cousins have to proclaim their glory.

The fear of Zionist politicians and opinion managers, especially in the context of domestic socio-economic crisis, is that, when American liberals see Zionism for what it is – when they realize that Benjamin Netanyahu (“mass expulsions among the Arabs of the Territories. …[is] a policy that I proposed, and which I still propose should be implemented.”) is infinitely more racist and murderous than, say, George Zimmerman – they will increasingly withdraw their support from this enterprise, and their tolerance of their government’s unconditional military and political support of Israel. Which is why the media goes to great lengths not to let them see it. (YouTube made Blumenthal take down that last video. Of course, someone put it back up, for the moment.)

As Blumenthal describes, in a Democracy Now interview, his motive for writing Goliath: "I was most surprised at the banality of the racism and violence that I witnessed and how it’s so widely tolerated because it’s so common…And I’m most surprised that it hasn’t made its way to the American public ... that’s why I set out to do this endeavor, this journalistic endeavor, to paint this intimate portrait of Israeli society for Americans who don’t see what it really is."

What it really is, as Blumenthal recounts, is: “’Twelve [years old] and up, you are allowed to shoot. That’s what they tell us,’ an Israeli sniper told Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass in 2004 at the height of the Second Intifada …’This is according to what the IDF [Israel Defense Force] says to its soldiers. I do not know if this is what the IDF says to the media,’ the sniper was quoted as saying.”

What it really is, is IDF soldiers getting “rabbinical guidance on the rules of engagement” in a book that says: 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"; and that the commandment against murder “refers only to a Jew who kills a Jew, and not to a Jew who kills a gentile, even if that gentile is one of the righteous among nations.” 

What it really is, is “Unarmed civilians .. torn to pieces with flechette darts sprayed from tank shells; several other children covered in burns from white phosphorous chemical weapon rounds … a few … found dead with bizarre wounds after being hit with experimental Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) bombs designed to dissolve into the body and rapidly erode internal soft tissue.”

What it really is, is the inexorable logic, and ethic, of colonialism, whose pretty garments burn off in the light of day.

Blumenthal’s own trajectory was profoundly affected by those images of unarmed civilians in Operation Cast Lead.  He gives us another emblematic story of transformation, that of David Sheen, whose profile matches millions of North American Jewish liberals. Sheen had grown up in Toronto, “heavily immersed in the tribalistic culture of Zionism.” He had also “cultivated strong leftist views through his participation in anti-globalization protests.” Like a million others: “With every other issue besides Israel, I was on the left side of the spectrum. I was a PEP – a Progress Except for Palestine.” As Blumenthal recounts, however: “Within a month of arriving in Israel, that began to change. He realized that everything he had known about Israelis and Palestinians was a fantasy cultivated through years of heavy indoctrination.” 

Truth is, in the 21st century, there is no such thing as "Progressive Except Palestine Colonialism" any more than there was "Progressive Except Birmingham" in 1963. Those who don't get that, eventually will.  Progressives can no longer pretend that Zionism-as-colonialism, the elephant in the room, is something we just can't bother talking about, something not great but OK, something tolerable, not that bad. It’s not that bad; it's worse. And it's unavoidable – something we cannot avoid taking a position on.  Silence gives assent.

That is why Max Blumenthal’s work may well turn out to be a decisive turning point in the American narrative about Israel and Zionism, an intervention that brings us much closer to the day when a critical mass of liberals and progressives do finally get it.  His videos bring the full, decrepit body of Zionism into the light of day, and Goliath threatens to drive a stake through the heart of liberal Zionist mythology. It is therefore being furiously ignored by the gatekeepers of mainstream American culture. But that’s not going to work either, in the 21st century. 

Furthermore, Blumenthal’s previous book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, was a from-the-inside critique of the Republican Party, that was hailed as sly and righteous by American liberals. So when, in Goliath, he drops the dime on Israel and Zionism with another from-the-inside critique – quite a bomb indeed – it may be considerably more discomfiting to the liberal audience (most of whom would just rather not), but it cannot be entirely ignored.

So Goliath is also being furiously attacked by the gatekeepers of liberal Zionism, by those who, as a self-identified “Israeli, American, and Orthodox” Jewish studies professor put it: “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 …, on the contrary, to core Zionist principles of the Ben Gurion school.” 

The Nation’s Eric Alterman has been the point man on this. In his first critique, he at once says that Blumenthal’s book “could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club,” and, at the same time, criticizes it for “do[ing] nothing to advance the interests of the occupation’s victims.”  This ignores, of course, Blumenthal’s precise point that Palestinians are not victimized just by “the occupation,” but by Zionist ideology as a whole. It also implies that holding such a harsh mirror up to Israelis, who hold the fate of the Palestinians in their hands, is not the way to “advance the interests” of Zionism’s victims.

I’ll make two points about this kind of argument.  First, while it is of course important to address individual persons in a way that is aware of, and sensitive to, their feelings and preconceptions, the sensitivities and preconceptions of a privileged, ethno-religious supremacist, colonial elite -- or of those who, for whatever reasons of tribal identity or religious dogma, sympathize with that colonial elite – cannot limit or determine the positions we are willing to take in support of the people who are that elite’s victims. The struggle against colonization cannot be determined by the feelings of the colonizers!  In Israel and the US, a lot of people are going to have to deal with some heavy wounds to their narcissism, which will be nothing like the hardships suffered for sixty years by Palestinians. 

Second, as I have been arguing here, Blumenthal is not primarily addressing Israelis, to tell them to lighten up a bit on “the occupation” and all. He is primarily addressing American liberals, confronting them with the ugly reality of actually-existing Zionism. If he succeeds in that, nothing will help Zionism’s victims more. It’s the connivance of the American state, premised on the acquiescence of the American public, and particularly American liberals, that makes the atrocities of Israeli colonialism possible. Undermine that, as Blumenthal’s work is doing, and Israelis’ arrogant presumption of eternal supremacy, along with the seemingly invincible Zionist project, will begin to crumble. That’s what’s at stake, and everybody knows it.

It’s worth reading Alterman’s critique and Blumenthal’s response, and Alterman’s counter-response (as well as the responses of Phan NguyenCorey RobinAli Gharib, Ira Glunts, and Philip Weiss).  It’s certainly worth listening to Blumenthal’s Electronic Intifada Podcast (with transcript), and his aforementioned Democracy Now interview (also with transcript).

I’ll leave it to Chris Hedges, in his usual passionate way, to summarize what’s at stake: 
Liberal supporters of Israel decry its excesses. They wring their hands over the tragic necessity of airstrikes on Gaza or Lebanon or the demolition of Palestinian homes. They assure us that they respect human rights and want peace. But they react in inchoate fury when the reality of Israel is held up before them. This reality implodes the myth of the Jewish state. It exposes the cynicism of a state whose real goal is, and always has been, the transfer, forced immigration or utter subjugation and impoverishment of Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied territories.
Liberal Jewish critics inside and outside Israel, however, desperately need the myth, not only to fetishize Israel but also to fetishize themselves. Strike at the myth and you unleash a savage vitriol, which in its fury exposes the self-adulation and latent racism that lie at the core of modern Zionism. 
The work of Max Blumenthal and others has irreversibly opened the curtain. Don’t think about the elephant! no longer works. It’s way past time for American progressives to dispense with the fantasy of Zionism, and of our own innocence (or even virtue!) in supporting it, that has been cultivated through years of heavy indoctrination, and to confront the reality of the supremacist, colonial violence in which we, as Americans, are so heavily implicated.

Works Cited
Blumenthal, Max. Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Nation Books.

Chris Hedges, “Imploding the Myth of Israel

Uri Avnery, “The Future of Israel as Nation State”

Eric Alterman and Reed Richardson, “The Israel Hater’s Handbook, Continued.. “| The Nation

Corey, Robin, “Eric Alterman v. Max Blumenthal


  1. Incredible shit!
    Those migrants "were" accepted (not anymore) because of Israel's historical past of Jews denied asylum. More than a 100k Sudanese and Erytrean entered Israel, a few that survived shooting practice in the Sinai by the egyptian army.
    So, what happened?
    They were provided money, medical check ups and transportation to Israeli cities. South Tel Aviv became a refugee camp. Besides shitting and urinating in the streets, these characters started raping women when not robbing and mugging passers by.

    100k refugees in a country of 6 million Jews is the equivalent of millions in the US or anywhere in Europe. Nobody can absorb those people and provide them with whatever they want, demand or need.

    Local residents are terrorized and avoid completely leaving their homes at dark hours. But, it is easy to be a resented and envious Jew Hater and beat the Israelis when the only thing they did was trying to help (a big mistake). From the 200 a day, now its maybe 5 a week.

    It is disgusting to see opportunistic SOBs using the Internet for their selfish and obscure objectives.

    Shame on you

  2. Goodonya for recognising that there's nothing 'progressive' about the racism inherent in support for a Jewish ethnocracy.

    But I think you do Max and principled antiZionists a disservice in tracing our lineage through Chomsky and Finkelstein who persist in advocating The International Consensus™, which is all about preserving Israel's 'Jewish character'. As for Weiss, he seems to have some weird conception of 'Jewish power' reminiscent of the Mearscheimer/Walt dog wagging hypothesis.

  3. I understand your point about Chomsky and Finkelstein. I would call them "critical Zionists." The debate has moved beyond them, but they have laid the groundwork, over many years, that enabled many young liberals and Jewish liberals to take a critical distance from Zionism. So I consider them precursors.

    Regarding the dog-wagging power of the Zionist lobby, you seem to agree with Chomsky. I think Mearsheimer-Walt-Weiss are onto something. I see the Zionist lobby as a relatively autonomous determinant variable, whose power has increased in the last fifteen years. (Although it does seem at this moment that it has a real fight on its hands re Iran and Syria. I am eager to see how that plays out.)


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