Max Blumenthal: I knew Alterman would freak out

"Goliath" author tells Salon about life in Israel lobby's cross hairs and the logic of the Jewish state (Updated)

Published December 4, 2013 3:58PM (EST)

 Max Blumenthal
Max Blumenthal

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

Thousands of protesters worldwide joined in a "Day of Rage" late last week to decry Israel's despicable Prawer Plan, a government policy (wildly underreported in this country) to destroy 35 Arab villages in the Negev desert, which will lead to the forced displacement of up to 70,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens.

The plan is further vindication of Max Blumenthal's central thesis in his new book, "Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel," namely that Israel's raison d'etat is the maintenance and expansion of a colonial ethnocracy -- the expansion of the Jewish Israeli demographic, the containment of all others.

While Israeli government policies like aggressive West Bank expansion, the Gaza occupation, the warehousing of non-Jewish Israeli Africans and the Prawer Plan fiercely bear out Blumenthal's point, the author has, since Goliath's publication, run the gamut of predictably fervid criticism from Israel's attack dogs within the U.S. commentariat.

But Max Blumenthal is not surprised. The 35-year-old author and journalist knew what he was getting into with "Goliath." It's a bold, personal and unapologetic book. Its central thesis -- that the very logic of the Israeli state is essentially that of a settler colonial ethnocracy -- was, as Blumenthal well knew, bound to draw some flustered censure. On cue, following "Goliath's" publication, Eric Alterman has written a whopping nine critical pieces (many of them ad hominem in nature) against Blumenthal; BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray compiled a decrial of Blumenthal; Alan Dershowitz wants Blumenthal's father, Sidney Blumenthal, former aide to President Clinton (and Salon alum), to be personally denounced by the Clintons for his son's book.

The younger Blumenthal was ready for the onslaught, which, he says, has played out with absolute predictability. While en route to his parents' D.C. home (sorry, Mr. Dershowitz, Sid has yet to disavow his progeny), Blumenthal spoke on the phone to Salon about life in the Israel lobby's cross hairs, and the unique challenges and importance of critiquing the Israeli government's sugar-coated state narratives, buoyed by its unquestioning supporters in the U.S. The conversation has been lightly condensed for brevity.

"Goliath" does not just tell a story, or a series of stories, it offers a very specific critique of the very logic and ideology undergirding the Israeli state. Was this a hypothesis that you held before immersing yourself in Israeli life and politics to research for "Goliath," or did your conclusions about Israel emerge while reporting?

My understanding of Israeli society was not upended or altered in any significant way by my immersion in it. I understood what I was getting into when I embarked on my first extended reporting trip to Israel and Palestine in May 2009. This was right after Israel elected the most right-wing government in its history. I decided to do this book because I had been following the situation for years and watching the religious nationalist and extremist trends in Israel and understanding its roots -- the foundational structure of the state as a settler colonial ethnocracy. What spurred me to do this book was not some sort of epiphany or sudden understanding of what Israel had become but just a moment in history that, to me, marked the culmination of a transitional period into a permanent right-wing majority in Israel and a permanent right-wing future.

That moment was the national elections carried out during Operation Cast Lead -- the three-week massacre of the Gaza civilian population. The assault and the elections propelled one another. You had a defense minister from the Labor Party competing against extreme right-wingers like Avigdor Lieberman, who was openly campaigning to strip Palestinian citizens of Israel of their citizenship rights. There is pretty clear evidence that defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak was running up the body count in Gaza in order to win over the Russian vote and outflank Lieberman as the tough guy. Tzipi Livni, who was running as a centrist, declared “our troops in the Gaza strip behaved like hooligans, which I demanded of them."

"Goliath" highlights a number of highly specific examples of explicitly racist rhetoric employed by key Israeli politicians. These comments rarely get air in the U.S. media, despite being part of very public Israeli politicking.

That was another reason I decided to do this book. The rhetoric of mainstream Israeli politicians, which is bellicose, paranoid and racist, is so rarely conveyed to the American public. Meanwhile the issue of Palestinian incitement is a constant feature of mainstream American reporting on Palestinian society. There was a comment that formed the title of a chapter in my book, “This belongs to the white man.” And that chapter has been criticized or assailed by liberals like Eric Alterman and J.J. Goldberg. Of course, they don’t address the content of the chapter, and if they did it would probably throw them into some sort of personal existential crisis since their identity as Jews revolves around the ethnocratic state of Israel. And that chapter title is inspired by a quote by Eli Yishai, who served as interior minister from 2009 to 2013, and what he said was that, “these black Africans” -- refering to the 60,000 non-Jewish African asylum-seekers living in Israel -- “are Muslims who do not recognize that this country belongs to us, the white man.”

It’s an interesting comment given that he is of Tunisian descent and would not be considered white in the U.S. but, as a Jew, it marks him as part of the ethnic overclass and in his own mind he’s therefore "white." That comment was printed but buried in the bottom of a New York Times article by Isabel Kershner on page A15 or A23 about a massive race riot in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2012, against the African population in which literally hundreds of vandals and thugs smashed the storefronts of African-owned businesses, attacked any African they found in the street and smashed African cars. That story was completely whitewashed in the U.S. -- this was a riot encouraged from the highest level of Israeli government after a rally in South Tel Aviv attended by thousands where major Israeli government figures called Africans “a cancer in Israel’s body” and the crowd chanted, “nigger, nigger you’re a son of a bitch.” So there is a clear effort, a concerted effort by American correspondents in Jerusalem, to conceal from the public the horror -- and the real horrific state of Israel society -- the Moloch that Israel has become. What I sought to do with my book was merely fill the void and show Americans the Israel that Israelis know.

You've mentioned that the backlash you've received from writers like Alterman and Goldberg did not surprise you. Can you expand a little bit on the shape of the attacks you've received and in what ways they have and have not been predictable?

I fully expected the playbook of the pro-Israel propagandists to unfold as follows. First, they would attempt to ignore me and hope the book wouldn’t generate any attention, so that it would just go away, then there would be a freakout. I predicted two months before the book came out that if the Nation gave it any attention (I predicted this in a Real News Interview with Paul Jay two months before the book came out) that Eric Alterman would freak out. That’s exactly what happened. So I expected that.

Alterman broke the Jewish boycott on my book and what he attempted to do was to portray me as an unreliable narrator who didn’t understand Israel and got the facts and the history wrong. But he was dealt a really harsh blow when people like [Charles] Manekin, who is a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, or Corey Robin at Brooklyn College, who is Alterman’s colleague, tore his argument apart and showed that it was he who got all the facts wrong. So Alterman was flailing; he had been pretty much knocked through the ropes. [editor's note: an accusation initially published here could not be corroborated.] This culminated with BuzzFeed's completely false smear piece, which should be retracted on the basis of its factual errors, by Rosie Gray.

Then Free Beacon attacked my father for hosting a party for me. I attempted to alert them to the fact that my mother ordered pizza for the book party, which means that she provided material support for delegitimization!

Alan Dershowitz called on the Clintons to denounce my father, since he worked in the White House with Bill Clinton, and he called on my father to denounce me. Of course, none of that happened. The final stage of this terminal phase was to point to a review on [white supremacist] David Duke's website that was positive about my book, which is just the most pathetic and desperate tactic ever. So there are the three phases: ignore, undermine and smear. And then when all three of those failed, anything goes. So now we are in the anything goes phase. And I don’t know what that means but there are people who are less privileged than me who have experienced the devastating consequences for their work to counter Israeli human rights abuses.

A number of writers and theorists -- philosopher Judith Butler comes to mind -- have written about the dangers of conflating critiques of Israel or Zionism with anti-Semitism. As Butler wrote last year, "[T]he Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated. Honestly, what can really be said about 'the Jewish people' as a whole? Is it not a lamentable stereotype to make large generalizations about all Jews, and to presume they all share the same political commitments?"

You have been smeared as anti-Semitic and extremist for your critiques of Israel. What do you think is the effect (social, cultural, political, ideological) of charging Israel's critics with anti-Semitism?

I wrote this book at a time when these charges had been weakened to the point where it’s difficult to actually single out real anti-Semites and marginalize them because the pro-Israel has cheapened anti-Semitism to such a degree that it no longer contains the discursive power it used to.

The only way to avoid this kind of backlash is to not report accurately on Israeli society or to use the tried and true and trite hackneyed frames to frame this critique in terms of your concern for the soul of Israel, which means that you are a lover of the Jewish state and its soul. I don’t believe that any state with its own interests and policies has a soul. Israel is not a person and I sought to address it without sentimentality or nostalgia or ideological blindness. This is why the book is being attacked because it is just an unvarnished view of Israel at its most extreme. I address the roots of the crisis in the foundational structure of the state as an exclusively Jewish entity that strives for ethnic purity through violent demographic engineering, most of which was carried out by the Labor wing, by the left wing of the Zionist movement. It’s because of that that I have deprived myself of any allies with the American Zionist movement, which is very influential in our politics and our media, and they are seeking to castigate me and I think they’re shocked at how much support I have received in online media and social media and on the road. My talks are heavily attended and I’m getting strong support from fellow Jews. The audience at my talks are heavily Jewish. Many people describe themselves to me as recovering Zionists. So it’s just a red line that is set for you and when you cross it and start to really address the reality as I experienced it without this mock sensitivity to a state that is engaged in apartheid and settler colonialism, you can expect a certain level of castigation. I guess what has surprised me the most: how weak the attacks have been and how strong the support has been. I think we are witnessing a sea change of opinion in this country, even if we may not have reached a tipping point.

I think that people a lot of people who have been engaged with this issue for a long period have been waiting for a book like this to be written by someone who is a foreign correspondent but who has the Jewish privilege to be able to access all areas controlled by Israel. A Palestinian-American journalist could not have written this book.

If you had to have one aspect of your book -- be it about the treatment of African immigrants, standard segregation, positions of lawmakers -- which aspect would you say is most important for you to see resonate through the American public?

The aspect is demographic engineering. David Sheen, who is an Israeli independent journalist, has covered the issue of non-Jewish Africans in Israel more than any other journalist alive. He and I produced a video, called "Israel’s New Racism," about the plight of non-Jewish Africans in Israel and their racist treatment. The video was originally solicited by the New York Times, but they actually wound up rejecting it without explanation. It initially received half a million views, with a massive response from African-Americans and Africans on social media, who never knew that such a situation existed in Israel, or that racism had reached such an extreme degree in the Israeli mainstream. They have, of course, been intimidated into silence by the pro-Israel lobby in this country. When Davey D, who is a hip-hop journalist from Oakland, published our video on his website, he actually received angry phone calls from local legislators demanding that he take it down.

What really struck a chord with people was the idea that non-Jewish Africans couldn’t be absorbed in Israel, not because they were black, but because they were not Jewish, and that Israel actually has an open policy establishing a demographic threshold of non-Jewish citizens it can tolerate within the perimeters of control. It set the threshold at a Jewish majority that it needs to maintain at 70 or 72 percent. This governs Jewish-Israeli society’s relationship with the Palestinians as well. So, what we explained in this video, and I explain very clearly in this book, is how the concept of the Jewish state requires an endless ethnic cleansing and expulsion of non-Jews. The Jewish state requires their concentration in detention centers like the Saronim, where thousands of non-Jewish Africans are staying right now in shipping containers in the Negev desert through; or the Prawer Plan, which mandates the removal of 30- to 40,000 veteran citizens of Israel to Indian reservation-style communities from their ancestral lands; or the fact that Palestinians face constant home demolitions -- we’re talking about 26,000 home demolitions since 1967. The Jewish state mandates the creation of the separation wall, which is said to prevent “demographic spillover”; and it requires the Gaza Strip to be under siege perpetually, because 80 percent of its population is refugees who have legitimate claims to the land and property inside what is now the state of Israel.

When you apply that fact to the American situation -- and I always ask audiences, “What is the limit that the United States should set, or which your city should set, on the white Christian population, and what is the threshold of the white Christian majority that must be maintained according to official U.S. policy?” -- the room always goes silent. People don’t respond for one or two minutes, they’re scratching their heads, when finally someone will pipe up and say “We don’t have such a policy; our country isn’t structured that way.” Of course there’s de facto racism in the U.S., institutional racism, but it’s not governed by demographic imperatives -- and that shocks people. This is why we’re seeing in Israel horrors that we haven’t seen in the U.S. since the Jim Crow era. The Saharonim detention facility for non-Jewish Africans may have to come to an end because the Supreme Court overturned a law allowing authorities to detain non-Jewish Africans for three years without trial. But there’s a new law that will allow them to detain them for one year without trial, and Netanyahu is building an alternate facility near Saharonim at Sadot, and it will allow non-Jewish Africans to go out during the day, but they’re not allowed to work, and they have to sleep there at night, so they can be separated from the Jewish-Israeli public, which is eerily reminiscent of the sundown towns that dotted the landscape of the U.S. during the Jim Crow era, and which were enforced by ordinances that forbid African-Americans from entering the town after dark. With this new, alternative solution to the non-Jewish African problem in Israel, Netanyahu has proposed to make Israel the largest sundown town in the world, and that is something that should resonate with Americans and shock them, because it goes to the very heart of what the Jewish state is all about.


Update, 12/4/13: In response to Blumenthal's comments about him in this post, Eric Alterman submitted the following response to Salon:

"I have always respected Salon’s standards, both ethical and journalistic, in the past and hence I must admit to surprise that these appear to have been so casually discarded in the interview with Max Blumenthal published under the (ridiculous) headline, “Max Blumenthal: I knew Alterman would freak out.” I’ve been trying to avoid getting sucked any further into this controversy than was necessitated by my initially agreeing—at the behest of my editors at The Nation—to devote my regular column to Blumenthal’s book which was published by Nation Books and was to be excerpted in the magazine. Following the column, I explained myself in a blog post, added a few details for which I had no room, and would have been happy to end the matter there. Since then, I have been forced to address falsehood after falsehood put forth by Blumenthal and his defenders and now, because this is Salon and not some other publication known for its dishonesty and/or anti-Zionist fanaticism, I am forced to do so once again. So let’s get it over with…. 

1)   The piece’s author, Natasha Lennard writes, “Eric Alterman has written a whopping nine critical pieces (many of them ad hominem in nature) against Blumenthal.” This is false. As I said above: I wrote one column at the explicit request of my editors and added one clarifying blog post. Literally everything else I have felt forced to write about Blumenthal and his book has been an attempt to address the lies and misrepresentations written in response. I doubt very much they all add up to “a whopping nine,” as Lennard puts it, but most of these alleged “pieces” are just a a few sentences on my weekly blog, “Altercation” and do not even address Blumenthal or his book. The most recent one—which I hoped would be the last—was merely a response to the letters to the editor printed in The Nation, and again, was done at my editors’ request.

2)   Blumenthal says: “And that chapter [“This belongs to the white man”] has been criticized or assailed by liberals like Eric Alterman and J.J. Goldberg. Of course, they don’t address the content of the chapter, and if they did it would probably throw them into some sort of personal existential crisis since their identity as Jews revolves around the ethnocratic state of Israel.” This is false in every respect. First, I never addressed that chapter title. (My criticism focused primarily on those equating Jews with Nazis.) Second, whatever the content of my “identity as a Jew” may “revolve around,” Blumenthal certainly has no particular insight into it since we’ve never met or spoken. Ms. Lennard might have inquired about his evidence for this before printing it unchallenged.

3)   Blumenthal says “But he was dealt a really harsh blow when people like [Charles] Manekin, who is a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, or Corey Robin at Brooklyn College, who is Alterman’s colleague, tore his argument apart and showed that it was he who got all the facts wrong. So Alterman was flailing; he had been pretty much knocked through the ropes. He started calling on his few allies like J.J. Goldberg at the Jewish Daily Forward and they got everything wrong and had to issue a correction.” Again, Blumenthal is wrong in every respect. First, Manekin and Robin notwithstanding, there were no factual errors at all in the Nation column on the book and hence, no corrections have been issued . (There were a few minor technical mistakes in the blog post that did not bear on its substance and a correction was appended to the blog.) The second part of his claim, however, is an outright lie. I never “called on” a single ally regarding Blumenthal and indeed, had no conversations with Goldberg or anyone else at the Forward about him or his book.  I had no such conversation with anyone at all. Once again, a responsible journalistic ethos might have dictated that he be asked to provide evidence for this contention, but luckily for Blumenthal and sadly, both for Salon and myself, he was not.

I am confining myself to those aspects of the article that addressed me personally and attempting, once again, to avoid being further sucked into this distasteful debate any further than absolutely necessary. I don’t expect that what I have written will make much difference to Blumenthal’s partisans, but I would hope that Salon’s more open-minded readers understand that these accusations are, without exception, false and should never have printed in Salon in the first place."

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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