Max Blumenthal’s sprawling portrait of contemporary Israel is far more a work of journalism than political theory. It largely avoids sustained argument or analysis, allowing its main points to be inferred through the words of Israelis and Palestinians and short contemporary or historical descriptions, presented in several dozen vignette-like chapters. This is nonetheless a bold and shocking book, presenting persuasively a major theoretical and polemical argument about Israel almost completely at odds with the image most Americans have of it.
In Goliath, America’s foremost partner in the Middle East is not the humanistic and ever resourceful “David” using guile to vanquish surrounding brutes, but a militaristic and racist state whose electoral majorities have set it on a trajectory towards fascism, if it isn’t there already. Even those generally well-informed about Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories will have their views challenged by Blumenthal’s sharp eye and deadpan factual presentations.
Goliath eschews the standard liberal Zionist position that a relatively virtuous and democratic Israel was driven off course by some combination of the post-1967 occupation of territory won in the se-Day War, the burgeoning political power of the settlers, the authoritarian political culture of Russian immigrants, or the swelling political clout of Jews from North Africa and the Arab world. For Blumenthal, Israel’s 1967 victory was not a turning point so much as a new opportunity to implement the ethnic-cleansing ideology present at the state’s creation.
To a degree that has no clear equal among American journalists who cover the Mideast, Blumenthal is versed in the history of the 1948 war that created Israel, with its multiple expulsions of Palestinians from their towns followed by wiping those towns off the map. His narrative makes regular connections between this past and the present. For instance, a section on security procedures in Ben Gurion Airport is introduced by a description of the massacre of civilians in the Arab town of Lydda in 1948 that was followed by a forced march of 55,000 survivors to Ramallah, the so-called Lydda Death March. Lydda was then Hebraicized to “Lod,” site of the international airport where visitors to Israel and the occupied territories are now sorted by ethnicity before interrogation, their electronic devices often searched or seized.
Another episode: during the 1970s, the Jewish National Fund planted fir trees to cover the ruins of three Palestinian towns Israel had bulldozed in the aftermath of the 1967 war. The trees were nonindigenous to the region, though they reminded some Israelis of Switzerland. Three years ago, they burned in a huge forest fire Israel could not control. Some who fled the conflagration came from nearby Ein Hod, which once was an Arab town built of stone houses. In the 1950s, an Israeli artist lobbied for Israel to preserve the houses as studios instead of bulldozing them as planned, and the town was turned into a tourist destination. When Blumenthal visited, a young woman acknowledged that the bar in which they were sitting was in fact a converted mosque. “Yeah, but that’s how all of Israel is … built on top of Arab villages. Maybe it’s best to let bygones be bygones.”
Such a sentiment may have some practical utility and might be spoken in good faith, but from a citizen of a country where so much national culture is derived from remembrance of wrongs done to Jews, its lack of self-awareness is remarkable.
Not all the past memories are bitter. Blumenthal tells the story of Benjamin Dunkelman, a Canadian officer who volunteered to lead troops in Israel’s War of Independence. After signing a local peace pact with the notables of Nazareth, a cultural and economic center of Palestinian Christians, Dunkelman received a general’s orders to expel the inhabitants. He refused. When the general sought a formal written order to override Dunkelman, David Ben Gurion, who had given such orders before with a wave of the hand, balked at putting them in writing. So Palestinian Nazarenes, both Christian and Muslim, continue to live in Israel today.
A story of one of them, Hanin Zoabi, is told in one of Goliath’s pivotal chapters. Blumenthal arrived in Israel shortly before the Mavi Marmara affair, when a flotilla of boats sailed from Turkey with provisions to alleviate the blockade Israel had imposed on Gaza, the strip of territory it had evacuated settlers from in 2005 and then pulverized three years later. Israeli officials joked that Gazans, a majority of whom were suffering from what the United Nations called “food insecurity,” were having “an appointment with a dietician” and emailed to journalists sarcastic remarks about the menus of Gazan restaurants. As the flotilla approached, the Israeli military and Hebrew-language press ginned up a great panic about the boats, with their crews of aging European peace activists and a few Palestinian politicians. While the organizers assumed that Israel would relent and allow the provisions through, Israel sent commandos on helicopters and attack dinghies to storm the ship.
When some passengers resisted by throwing bottles and debris at the boarders, Israeli commandos replied with live ammunition. Nine passengers were killed, including a 19-year-old Turkish-American, shot in the face execution-style while lying wounded on the deck. Israel eventually apologized to Turkey for the incident and will probably pay compensation. But Blumenthal recounts with some astonishment that an overwhelming majority of the Israeli public felt their country’s brutal treatment of unarmed peace activists on the high seas was perfectly justified.
In the aftermath, the IDF went into public-relations mode. Israeli soldiers gathered up knives from the boat’s kitchen and laid them out in a photographic display with several Qurans, supposedly evidence the Mavi Marmara was leading an Islamist terror convoy. Israel jailed the surviving passengers and confiscated their laptops and electronic equipment. The IDF doctored a sound clip to make it appear that flotilla organizers were crazed anti-Semites. Outside the Turkish embassy, Israeli demonstrators railed against Turkey. Blumenthal interviewed several of them, who ranged from self-described peaceniks to Meir Kahane supporters. “The longer I spoke with the demonstrators,” he relates, “the more likely they were to merge their nightmare visions of the flotilla activists as hardcore agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran and al Qaeda with Holocaust demons. ‘Everything is against the Jews and we have the right to defend ourselves.’ ‘No matter what we do everything is against us—everybody. And we know we’re right’.”
This sentiment was echoed in the Knesset, when Hanin Zoabi, a 38-year-old Palestinian representative from Nazereth, elected by one of the Arab parties, instigated a virtual legislative riot by challenging Israel’s right to board the Mavi Marmara on the high seas. Zoabi holds a master’s degree from Hebrew University and had been a feminist activist prior to her election in 2009. She was on the boat, and after the assault began she grabbed a loudspeaker and used her Hebrew to try to get soldiers to stop killing unarmed passengers. Returning to the Knesset two weeks after the incident, she was interrupted by shouts of “terrorist” and “go back to Gaza” while the Likud speaker of the legislature tried in vain to restore order.
A member of Yisrael Beiteinu, one of Israel’s governing right-wing parties, presented Zoabi with a mock Iranian passport. Michael Ben Ari, a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane—whose party had been banned for racial incitement in the 1980s—initiated a measure to strip Zoabi of her parliamentary privileges. It passed with minimal opposition. The next week Zoabi was deprived of her diplomatic passport. The Knesset then passed a bill, called the “anti-Incitement act,” promising to criminalize speech that could be characterized as disloyal.
These maneuvers reflected a broader popular spirit: an Israeli grocer offered free groceries for life to anyone who would assassinate the Nazarene legislator, while an “Execute Zoabi” Facebook page was created, attracting hundreds of supporters. No one in the Knesset and few in the media protested. Blumenthal sardonically concludes, “shouting down Arab lawmakers had become a form of electioneering.”
Sadly, the episode was in sync with Israel’s broader political culture. Was the verbal violence against a Knesset member more troubling than the regular chants of “Death to the Arabs” shouted out at Israeli soccer stadiums? More menacing than legislation designed to impede marriages between Israeli citizens and West Bank Palestinians? More detestable than the Jerusalem celebrations of the life of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish-American doctor who murdered 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron in 1994? Or the provocation parades through Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where hundreds of young Israelis and American Zionists join together to march the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, booming the Hebrew slogans “Muhammed is Dead!” and “Slaughter the Arabs”? Or the mob violence young Israelis carried out against Arabs in the center of Jerusalem? Or the fact that followers of Kahane sitting in Parliament boast that the late rabbi’s vision is now widespread in Israel’s governing parties?
Since the 1920s there has been a word in Western discourse for this style of politics. The Israeli leftists and dissidents who became Blumenthal’s friends have now taken it up. “‘Fascism’ was a word the leftists used almost invariably,” writes Blumenthal, “as they told me about having their homes defaced with graffiti, death threats by right-wing thugs or about being summoned to interrogation.” Speaking with journalist Lia Tarachansky on a Tel Aviv bus, Blumenthal probed what Israelis meant by the word. How could she claim fascism was in the air when anti-Zionists like her were permitted to conduct their journalistic and political activities freely?
The Israeli replied:
To explain fascism in Israel, it’s not that easy … it’s so depressing I usually repress my thoughts about it. But if you really want me to define it, then I’d tell you it’s not just the anti-democratic laws, it’s not the consensus for occupation, it’s not the massive right-wing coalition government, it’s not watching the people who ask questions and think critically being interrogated by the Shabbak. What it really is, is a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends.
A young woman who had overheard their conversation interrupted to ask Blumenthal, “You with Israel or Turkiya?”
Blumenthal and his Israeli friends were not the first to broach the subject of fascism; the word has some history in Israel as a term of denigration against the right by the Zionist left. But is there substance behind the charge today? Or is this simply another variant of the promiscuous use of “fascist” as an epithet, in the style of the American New Left of the 1960s?
One scholar who has at least tangentially addressed this is Robert Paxton, an eminent Columbia historian and one of the world’s leading scholars of fascism, the author of a prize-winning work on Vichy France’s murderous persecution of Jews. In his last book, The Anatomy of Fascism, published in 2003, Paxton speculated on fascism as a continuing menace beyond Europe and the interwar era. “If religious fascisms are possible,” he wrote, “one must address the potential—supreme irony—for fascism in Israel.” He noted that Israeli national identity is associated with human rights, long denied to Jews in the Diaspora. But he also observes Israel’s demographic shift away from European Jews to Jews from North Africa and the Mideast (and today Russia), where democratic traditions are far weaker.
“By 2002,” Paxton continued, “it was possible to hear language within the right wing of the Likud Party and some of the small religious parties that comes close to the functional equivalent of fascism. The chosen people begins to sound like a Master Race … that demonizes an enemy that obstructs the realization of the people’s destiny.”
Surveying the “mobilizing passions” of fascism, Paxton lists among others “the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it” and “the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies both internal and external.” A reader of Goliath will find a people thoroughly marinated in such sentiment.
Blumenthal closes his book with a short chapter on Israeli expatriates: fully 13 percent of Israelis now reside abroad. The United States and Germany are the most favored destinations. “The Exodus Party,” he calls them. In Brooklyn, Blumenthal encounters several Israeli expats, including Rafi Magnes—the grandson of Judah Magnes, a famous Reform rabbi who was a founder and former president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem—along with his wife, Liz. The latter relates, “We could have stayed of course, but the fascism had gotten to be too overwhelming.”
Is the situation really so dire? Blumenthal arrived in Israel shortly after the election of Israel’s most right-wing Knesset ever. Those inclined to optimism can assert that that this election represented a high tide; more recent election results were somewhat more centrist.
The Israel Goliath depicts would probably not be denied by liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart or the leaders of J Street. But they would argue that the proto-fascism is neither as widely nor deeply entrenched, nor as truly representative of the essential Israel as Blumenthal maintains, and that a fair settlement with the Palestinians could break the fever of racism and allow more sensible leaders to re-emerge as Israel’s dominant voices. They could point out, as well, that Israel remains a functioning democracy for its Jewish citizens and at least guarantees some rights to others, while true fascist regimes—if popular at the outset, as they always were—eventually dispense with competitive elections and legal norms.
It is by no means obvious to me, however, which interpretation of the Israeli reality will appear, 10 years hence, to have been closer to the truth.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.