Imploding the Myth of Israel
Israel has been poisoned by the psychosis of permanent war. It has been morally bankrupted by the sanctification of victimhood, which it uses to justify an occupation that rivals the brutality and racism of apartheid South Africa. Its democracy—which was always exclusively for Jews—has been hijacked by extremists who are pushing the country toward fascism. Many of Israel’s most enlightened and educated citizens—1 million of them—have left the country. Its most courageous human rights campaigners, intellectuals and journalists—Israeli and Palestinian—are subject to constant state surveillance, arbitrary arrests and government-run smear campaigns. Its educational system, starting in primary school, has become an indoctrination machine for the military. And the greed and corruption of its venal political and economic elite have created vast income disparities, a mirror of the decay within America’s democracy.
And yet, the hard truths about Israel remain largely unspoken. 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. Reality shatters the fiction of a peace process. Reality lays bare the fact that Israel routinely has used deadly force against unarmed civilians, including children, to steal half the land on the West Bank and crowd forcibly displaced Palestinians into squalid, militarized ghettos while turning their land and homes over to Jewish settlers. Reality exposes the new racial laws adopted by Israel as those once advocated by the fanatic racist Meir Kahane. Reality unveils the Saharonim detention camp in the Negev Desert, the largest detention center in the world. Reality mocks the lie of open, democratic debate, including in the country’s parliament, the Knesset, where racist diatribes and physical threats, often enshrined into law, are used to silence and criminalize the few who attempt to promote a civil society. 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.
There are very few intellectuals or writers who have the tenacity and courage to confront this reality. This is what makes Max Blumenthal’s “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel” one of the most fearless and honest books ever written about Israel. Blumenthal burrows deep into the dark heart of Israel. The American journalist binds himself to the beleaguered and shunned activists, radical journalists and human rights campaigners who are the conscience of the nation, as well as Palestinian families in the West Bank struggling in vain to hold back Israel’s ceaseless theft of their land. Blumenthal, in chapter after chapter, methodically rips down the facade. And what he exposes, in the end, is a corpse.
I spent seven years in the Middle East as a correspondent, including months in Gaza and the West Bank. I lived for two years in Jerusalem. Many of the closest friends I made during my two decades overseas are Israeli. Most of them are among the Israeli outcasts that Blumenthal writes about, men and women whose innate decency and courage he honors throughout his book. They are those who, unlike the Israeli leadership and a population inculcated with racial hatred, sincerely want to end occupation, restore the rule of law and banish an ideology that creates moral hierarchies with Arabs hovering at the level of animal as Jews—especially Jews of European descent—are elevated to the status of demigods. It is a measure of Blumenthal’s astuteness as a reporter that he viewed Israel through the eyes of these outcasts, as well as the Palestinians, and stood with them as they were arrested, tear-gassed and fired upon by Israeli soldiers. There is no other honest way to tell the story about Israel. And this is a very honest book.
“Goliath” is made up of numerous vignettes, some only a few pages long, that methodically build a picture of Israel, like pieces fit into a puzzle. It is in the details that Israel’s reality is exposed. The Israeli army, Blumenthal points out in his first chapter, “To the Slaughter,” employs a mathematical formula to limit outside food deliveries to Gaza to keep the caloric levels of the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped inside its open air prison just above starvation; a government official later denied that he had joked in a meeting that the practice is “like an appointment with a dietician.” The saturation, 22-day bombing of Gaza that began on Dec. 27, 2008, led by 60 F-16 fighter jets, instantly killed 240 Palestinians, including scores of children. Israel’s leading liberal intellectuals, including the writers Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, blithely supported the wholesale murder of Palestinian civilians. And while Israelis blocked reporters from entering the coastal Gaza Strip—forcing them to watch distant explosions from Israel’s Parash Hill, which some reporters nicknamed “the Hill of Shame”—the army and air force carried out atrocity after atrocity, day after day, crimes that were uncovered only after the attack was over and the press blockade lifted. This massive aerial and ground assault against a defenseless civilian population that is surrounded by the Israeli army, a population without an organized military, air force, air defenses, navy, heavy artillery or mechanized units, caused barely a ripple of protest inside Israel from the left or the right. It was part of the ongoing business of slaughtering the other.
“Unarmed civilians were torn to pieces with flechette darts sprayed from tank shells,” Blumenthal writes. “Several other children covered in burns from white phosphorous chemical weapon rounds were taken to hospitals; a few were 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. A group of women were shot to death while waving a white flag; another family was destroyed by a missile while eating lunch; and Israeli soldiers killed Ibrahim Awajah, an eight-year-old child. His mother, Wafaa, told the documentary filmmaker Jen Marlowe that soldiers used his corpse for target practice. Numerous crimes like these were documented across the Gaza Strip.” By the end of the assault, with 1,400 dead, nearly all civilians, Gaza lay in ruins. The Israeli air force purposely targeted Gaza’s infrastructure, including power plants, to reduce Gaza to a vast, overcrowded, dysfunctional slum. Israel, Blumenthal notes, destroyed “80 percent of all arable farmland in the coastal strip, bombing the strip’s largest flour mill, leveling seven concrete factories, shelling a major cheese factory, and shooting up a chicken farm, killing thirty-one thousand chickens.”
“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, Blumenthal writes. “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.
The 2008 murderous rampage is not, as Blumenthal understands, an anomaly. It is the overt policy of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who advocates “a system of open apartheid.” Israel, as Blumenthal points out, has not lifted its state of emergency since its foundation. It has detained at least 750,000 Palestinians, including 10,000 women, in its prisons since 1967. It currently holds more than 4,500 political prisoners, including more than 200 children and 322 people jailed without charges, Blumenthal writes, including those it has labeled “administrative detainees.” Israel has a staggering 99.74 percent conviction rate for these so-called security prisoners, a figure that any totalitarian state would envy.
Blumenthal cites a survey of Jewish Israeli attitudes on the Gaza bombing, known as Operation Cast Lead. The survey, by Daniel Bar-Tal, a political psychologist from Tel Aviv University, concluded that the public’s “consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians, and insensitivity to their suffering.” Bar-Tal tells Blumenthal “these attitudes are the product of indoctrination.” And Blumenthal sets out to chronicle the poison of this indoctrination and what it has spawned in Israeli society.
The racist narrative, once the domain of the far right and now the domain of the Israeli government and the mainstream, demonizes Palestinians and Arabs, as well as all non-Jews. Non-Jews, according to this propaganda, will forever seek the annihilation of the Jewish people. The Holocaust, in which Israeli victimhood is sanctified, is seamlessly conflated with Palestinian and Arab resistance to occupation. The state flies more than 25 percent of Israeli 11th-graders to Poland to tour Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps a year before they start army service. They are told that the goal of Arabs, along with the rest of the non-Jewish world, is another Auschwitz. And the only thing standing between Israelis and a death camp is the Israeli army. Israeli high schools show films such as “Sleeping With the Enemy” to warn students about dating non-Jews, especially Arabs. Racist books such as “Torat Ha’Melech,” or “The King’s Torah,” are given to soldiers seeking rabbinical guidance on the rules of engagement. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira and Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, the authors of the 230-page book, inform soldiers that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and may have to be killed in order to “curb their evil inclinations.” “If we kill a gentile who has violated one of the seven commandments [of Noah] ... there is nothing wrong with the murder,” Shapira and Elitzur write. The rabbis claim that under Jewish law “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.”
These narratives of hatred make any act of deadly force by the Israeli army permissible, from the shooting of Palestinian children to the 2010 killing by Israeli commandos of nine unarmed activists on the Turkish boat the Mavi Marmara. The activists were part of a flotilla of six boats bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza. The Israeli propaganda machine claimed that the small flotilla was a covert terror convoy. Never mind that the Mavi Marmara was in international waters when it was attacked. Never mind that no one on the boat, or any of the five other boats, was armed. Never mind that the boats were thoroughly searched before they left for Gaza. The Israeli lie was trumpeted while every camera, video and tape recorder, computer and cellphone of the activists on board was seized and destroyed—or in a few cases sold by Israeli soldiers when they got back to Israel—while those on the boats were towed to an Israeli port and detained in isolation. The ceaseless stoking of fear and racial hatred—given full vent by the Israeli government and media in the days after the Mavi Marmara incident—has served to empower racist political demagogues such as Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, a camp follower of Meir Kahane. It has also effectively snuffed out Israel’s old left-wing Zionist establishment. “In Israel you have three systems of laws,” the Israeli Arab politician Ahmed Tibi observes in the Blumenthal book. “One is democracy for 80 percent of the population. It is democracy for Jews. I call it an ethnocracy or you could call it a Judocracy. The second is racial discrimination for 20 percent of the population, the Israeli Arabs. The third is apartheid for the population in the West Bank and Gaza. This includes two sets of governments, one for the Palestinians and one for the settlers. Inside Israel there is not yet apartheid but we are being pushed there with ... new laws.”
As Blumenthal documents, even Israeli Jews no longer live in a democracy. The mounting state repression against human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents has reached the proportions of U.S. Homeland Security. The overtly racist cant of the political elite and the masses—“Death to Arabs” is a popular chant at Israeli soccer matches—has emboldened mobs and vigilantes, including thugs from right-wing youth groups such as Im Tirtzu, to carry out indiscriminate acts of vandalism and violence against dissidents, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and the hapless African immigrants who live crammed into the slums of Tel Aviv. Israel has pushed through a series of discriminatory laws against non-Jews that eerily resemble the racist Nuremberg Laws that disenfranchised Jews in Nazi Germany. The Communities Acceptance Law, for example, permits “small, exclusively Jewish towns planted across Israel’s Galilee region to formally reject applicants for residency on the grounds of ‘suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook.’ ” And all who denounce the steady march of Israel toward fascism—including Jewish academics—are attacked in organized campaigns as being insufficiently Zionist. They are branded as terrorists or collaborators with terrorists. As a headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz read: “The settlers are the real government of Israel.”
“Woody [a law school graduate from New York] became my initial liaison to Tel Aviv’s radical left, introducing me to a loose-knit band of a few hundred anarchists, disillusioned ex-soldiers, disaffected children of ultra-Zionists, queers, academics, and generally idealistic and disillusioned young people who came of age during the Second Intifada when the liberal Zionist ‘peace camp’ closed ranks with the militaristic right wing,” Blumenthal writes. “This tiny band of social deviants comprised the only grouping of people I met who sincerely embraced multiculturalism and who took concrete action against the discriminatory foundations of their country’s political apparatus. Right-wingers and many Jewish Israelis who considered themselves part of the social mainstream referred to members of the radical left as smolinim, which simply means ‘leftists,’ but the word carried a deeply insulting connotation of an unacceptable caste, an Other. As branded social outcasts, inflexible in their principles, disdainful of ordinary politics, and brazen in their racial liberalism they resembled nothing so much as the pre-Civil War abolitionists.”
The late Amnon Dankner, the former editor of Maariv, one of Israel’s major newspapers, Blumenthal notes, denounced “neo-Nazi expressions in the Knesset” and “entire parties whose tenor and tone arouse feelings of horror and terrifying memories.” David Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, has called on Israelis to boycott the Knesset “to stand against the wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project.” And Uri Avnery, a left-wing politician and journalist, says: “Israel’s very existence is threatened by fascism.”
The disillusionment among idealistic young immigrants to Israel dots the book. As one example, Canadian David Sheen is recorded as saying that everything he had known about Israel and Palestinians was, in Blumenthal’s words, “a fantasy cultivated through years of heavy indoctrination.” But perhaps what is saddest is that Israel has, and has always had, within its population intellectuals, including the great scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who sought to save Israel from itself.
Leibowitz, whom Isaiah Berlin called “the conscience of Israel,” warned that if Israel did not separate church and state it would give rise to a corrupt rabbinate that would warp Judaism into a fascistic cult.
“Religious nationalism is to religion what National Socialism was to socialism,” said Leibowitz, who died in 1994. He understood that the blind veneration of the military, especially after the 1967 war that captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was dangerous and would lead to the ultimate destruction of the Jewish state and any hope of democracy. “Our situation will deteriorate to that of a second Vietnam, to a war in constant escalation without prospect of ultimate resolution.” He foresaw that “the Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police—mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 million to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.” He warned that the rise of a virulent racism would consume Israeli society. He knew that prolonged occupation of the Palestinians would spawn “concentration camps” for the occupied and that, in his words, “Israel would not deserve to exist, and it will not be worthwhile to preserve it.”
But few, then or now, cared to listen. This is why Blumenthal’s new book is so important.