A Review of Goliath by Max Blumenthal
Although the state would like the international public to believe it embodies the underdog “David” archetype from the “David and Goliath” trope, constantly under attack from a savage and massive enemy, in reality Israel’s state policies towards minorities and rampant racism and xenophobia position it as the overbearing and tyrannical “Goliath,” as Max Blumenthal exhaustively uncovers in his 2013 book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.
After finally finishing Goliath just a few days ago, I can say the experience was painful, but also important, and I would even argue necessary for anyone with even a remote interest in Israel and Palestine.
Max Blumenthal coherently weaves together the history of the occupation of Palestine and formation of Israel with snapshots of life in modern Israel, as well as the Occupied Territories, no easy task considering the multitude of overlapping themes and issues encompassed by such an effort. By the end of the book he pieces together an image of Israel as it exists today, dominated by conservative parties in the Knesset, who are apparently striving to repress and ultimately expel all non-Jewish populations, most notably the Palestinian Arabs.
Speaking with a wide variety of people on the ground, including Members of Knesset (MKs), Israeli Arab citizens, Jewish Israeli citizens, Israeli leftist activists (both Arab and Jewish), and even ultra-Orthodox and right-wing Jewish Israeli activists, I honestly felt that Blumenthal crafted a well-rounded picture of the political shift that has taken root in Israel since the state’s inception and how that shift has impacted society at different levels.
Breaking down the political and social myths that Israel presents in its hasbara campaigns (public relations efforts to disseminate a positive image of Israel abroad) to garner international support, Blumenthal argues that in fact contrary to these hasbara assurances that Israel is the most progressive state in the region and further the only democracy in the region, the state is actually propelling quickly towards full authoritarianism under the Likud Party. He sets out to demonstrate to the reader the ways in which this authoritarianism, borderline fascism, materializes and impacts Palestinians and even migrants from Africa (some Jewish, others not).
In 2013 when the book was released, both Blumenthal and the New America Foundation, which hosted a book discussion with the author, came under fire from pro-Israel activists and organizations, aiming to discredit Blumenthal’s work. In fact, a paper by Petra Marquardt-Bigman, a German-Israeli researcher and writer, even suggested that the entirety of the book should be discredited, claiming that the book as a whole, more than a year’s worth of reporting, research, and interviews, constituted anti-semitic propaganda. She further stipulated that, as a journalist with only one prior book on an unrelated subject (Republican Gomorrah, on how fringe movements have become the Republican mainstream in America), Blumenthal was not qualified to write a book about Israeli society and politics. Although if anything, investigating the evolution of conservative politics in America, Israel’s biggest source of foreign funds, would perhaps ideally position Blumenthal to then tackle conservative politics in Israel.
Further, Blumenthal’s first book, Republican Gomorrah, was fairly well-received, praised for its eye-opening insights and thorough research by Americans curious to see the inner machinations of the Republican Party and its biggest donors. With this in mind, the criticisms lodged at Blumenthal regarding Goliath, which resemble ad-hominem attacks more than constructive critiques, sound more sourly defensive, as if the authors would rebuff any criticism made of Israel and simply strike it down as anti-semitic.
For instance, Marquardt-Bigman, along with Eric Alterman of The Nation, contended that Blumenthal’s snapshots of Israeli life failed to provide enough evidence in support of his claim that fascism is a growing trend in Israel. Instead, as Marquardt-Bigman more prominently asserted, his interviews accounted for only marginal views on the periphery of Israeli society. Yet she does not to provide any evidence, in the form of either, studies, interviews, or anecdotes, to the contrary, but rather attempts to malign both Blumenthal and his material by noting that the book was praised by some notorious anti-semites. Still, this type of argument is like trying to prove that a holy book is inherently violent because extremists have interrupted it as such. How can an author be held accountable for the interpretations made by others who already hold bigoted views? Such instances do not diminish or negate the factual claims presented in Goliath.
In fact, in his review of Goliath, Alterman even states that “Blumenthal’s accounts are mostly technically accurate.” The real problem Alterman posits is that Blumenthal’s presentation of these facts is “deliberately deceptive.” On a fundamental level, detached from my own political beliefs, I take issue with the assumptions underlying these criticisms, namely that interviewing people on the ground and straight-forward reporting are not to be considered legitimate forms of research. Furthermore, any writer who has compiled copious amounts of research notes must develop a point of view and thesis to put forth the information with a cogent and comprehensible conclusion in mind.
Given the facts obtained a good writer will take a clear stance, one which readers are welcome to disagree with. However, to call this approach “deliberately deceptive” is akin to denouncing all writers as con-artists. Of course some information that might add to the topic may be left out, as not every book can present every single fact, but rather will include those facts which are relevant to the topic and thesis.
Even if one can claim that Blumenthal’s interviews represent only anecdotal evidence, not representative of all Israeli citizens’ beliefs, it does nothing to dismiss the greater issue and that main point of the entire book, which is the far-right wing domination of the Israeli government, evidenced by the conservative Likud Party’s control of the Knesset since 2009, having most recently been victorious in the 2015 elections. In fact, Likud’s conservative sway is compounded by the presence of even farther-right parties like Yisrael Beiteinu and the Shas Party, both which even formed a coalition with Likud in 2009. As Blumenthal also points out, even centrist parties claiming to be liberal or moderately liberal, like Kadima, have taken markedly right-wing stances in recent years.
In this vein, no other instance is as highly notable as the proposed plan of then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (and member of Kadima from 2005-2012) in 2007-2008 to forcefully transfer Israeli Arab villages to the Palestinian Authority. Although a very superficial understanding may have led some to find the deal equitable at the time, the proposition was a blatant violation of international law, which would have denied the Palestinians affected by the transfer to actually decide for themselves in which territory they had a right to live, although Livni at the time also declared that she opposed international law and further found it unnecessary for the Palestinians. In any case, the proposed deal, which did not come to fruition, was a blatant push for the ethnic purity of Israel and would have forcefully expelled many Palestinians from their homes in Israel to live in an impoverished territory occupied by a Western, neo-colonialist state.
This overt conservatism continues to manifest itself in more and more stringent and discriminatory laws in Israel meant to repress the non-Jewish citizens, primarily the Arab Israelis. Notable examples being the “Jewish nation-state bill” that would require non-Jews to swear a loyalty oath to the state of Israel and would attempt to erase those citizen’s often Arab language cultural identities, or the “Nakbah Law,” which denies Palestinians the right to commemorate their own history.
In more recent years this discrimination has also been directed towards African migrants as more refugees have been making the dangerous journey to Israel primarily from Eritrea and Sudan. In response, the Israeli Government has built border fences to keep these refugees out and, for those who still make it past the fence, a detention center in the middle of the desert where detainees are given restrictions on the amount of food and water they can consume. And for some Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who actually try to create lives for themselves within Israel, the authorities have offered them “$3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa,” within 30 days of being notified or else they could be imprisoned at Saharonim prison.
Structurally, this type of racism, also materializes in the behavior of IDF soldiers, like Eden Abergil, who received widespread criticisms in 2010 when pictures of her posing coquettishly with Palestinian detainees all of whom were bound, began circulating online. Her response? To exclaim she had nothing to be sorry for, “that she would ‘gladly kill Arabs – even slaughter them,’” and that it was common among the soldiers anyway, to treat prisoners so callously.
In Goliath, Blumenthal takes care to confer all the facts aforementioned and a great many more to present the case that authoritarianism, under the auspices of right-wing politicians, is rapidly dominating Israeli politics and society. The snapshots he presents are not meant to label every single Israeli citizen a racist or a bigot, but rather to map the overall political trend that has been leading the country further and further to the right, so that at the current moment we can understand how much more conservative the present government is when compared to the founding government of Israel and to understand what that means for the Palestinian struggle.
Attempting to discredit substantive research and reporting as anti-semitic because it shines a light on a state-sanctioned military occupation, now on-going for more than 60 years, only hurts those most affected by the Occupation even further. By moving the conversation away from violations of international law and human rights treaties and towards parsimonious criticisms of minor discrepancies in details only prolongs the conflict and creates further polarization without any attempt at arriving at a real resolution.
I hope to read the book again, at least few times to further absorb the details, as there are many that I feel have slipped through the cracks of my short-term memory, which add nuance to the narrative of Goliath.