Thanks to the Israel lobby’s slander campaign against Max Blumenthal and his new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, I not only learned things about the Jewish state that I never knew, I also made a wonderful discovery – but more about that later. I confess I probably wouldn’t have read Goliath if not for the controversy it has generated: those squeals of pain coming from Israel’s apologists had to mean something, I figured. Either the book was egregiously unfair to the Jewish state or else a brilliant chronicle of its depredations against ordinary human decency. I had to read it in order to find out – and what I discovered both shocked and uplifted me, furthering my understanding not only of the Jewish state and its people but also of my own philosophy of libertarianism.
Goliath is an easy read on a subject that makes many very uneasy: although it’s fairly long, it consists of many short vignettes told in the first person, chronicling Blumenthal’s travels across the length and breadth of the Holy Land – and the story it tells is alarming, especially for those who count themselves among Israel’s friends.
For years, the Israeli body politic has been moving rightward – i.e. toward militarism, ultra-nationalism, and religious fundamentalism – to such a degree that it seems unrecognizable to those of us who belong to the older generation. We remember – or think we remember – the Israel of Exodus, the brave little upstart that defied the odds and, surrounded by enemies on every side, made the desert bloom with the verdant fields of a liberal democracy.
Goliath proves that liberal democracy is now, for all intents and purpose, defunct: indeed, it may have never existed in the first place. The book demonstrates this on every page with brutal real-life firsthand reporting. Starting off slowly, Blumenthal paints a portrait of a society living in a bubble, with the Israeli Ashkenazi aristocracy on top, the Mizrahi drone-workers charged with police work and other non-elite tasks near the bottom, and the Palestinian helots on the lowest rung, eking out a problematic existence with all the legal and economic factors pointing to their eventual expulsion from Israeli society. As the rightist wave engulfs what had been the dream of socialist Zionists to build an egalitarian society, and turns it into a bastion of religious nationalism and outright racism, Blumenthal moves through this society-in-transition with the unforgiving eye of a born documentarian, mercilessly exposing the hypocrisy, mendacity, and criminality of a country that is coming unhinged.
How else are we to explain the fact that, during the attack on Gaza, IDF soldiers killed an eight-year-old child, one Ibrahim Awajah, and used his corpse for target practice? This was no isolated incident: one by one we read the stories of disgusting atrocities carried out by the IDF – how they lobbed a shell into the living room of Izeldeen Abuelaish, a Harvard-trained fertility doctor and medical researcher who had helped many Israelis have children. The shell decapitated two of his daughters and “shredded” his other children “to pieces.” As this was going on, Israelis sat on Parash Hill, near Sderot, which offers a clear view of the Gaza Strip, watching the slaughter and cheering as if it were the latest hit movie – spectators to their own moral degeneration.
As if they were quite well aware of what they were becoming – indeed, had become – ordinary Israelis reacted with hatred against anyone in their midst who held up an unflattering mirror to their war hysteria. Right-wing demagogues like Avigdor Lieberman, now Foreign Minister, demanded that antiwar protesters be jailed. At Tel Aviv University, the youth organizer of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu said antiwar protesters should be deprived of their citizenship, to raucous cheers: the university’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism to the contrary notwithstanding.
As Operation Cast Lead came to a horrific and bloody close, a poll taken by Daniel Bar-Tal, an eminent political psychologist, found that more than half of Israelis wouldn’t allow an Arab into their homes. A full 68 percent wouldn’t live in the same building as an Arab, while 63 percent said Arabs represented a dire security threat to the state of Israel. Forty percent said the government should deport them all or “encourage” them to leave. The backdrop to this was a rising tide within the political and clerical class of brazen racism. Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Ovadiah Yosef, screeched “It is forbidden to be merciful to the Arabs. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable!”
Blumenthal’s portrait of Avigdor Lieberman is something the scandal-plagued right-wing demagogue and former bouncer may never recover from: while Lieberman has earned the contempt of the liberal Ashkenazi “coastal elite,” as Blumenthal dubs them, in America he is less well-known. Blumenthal’s account of how this “hulking bear-like man” hunted down a twelve-year-old Arab boy and beat him up for punching his son – slamming him into a wall and “leaving him with a painful head wound” – captures the essence of a born bully. A legal “fixer” allowed the thuggish politician to get off with just a fine.
An immigrant from Russia, where he was a nobody, Lieberman came to Israel and founded a party, Yisrael Beiteinu, that is the most successful fascist political formation in the world: the party advocates a truculent mix of domestic authoritarianism and territorial expansionism, the expulsion of all Arabs and the forced “Judaization” of the West Bank. His nationalism, however, is entirely secular: he and his followers have no interest in the Torah, or the 3,000 year tradition of Jewish moral and political law. As Blumenthal puts it, “He was content to allow the army to define who was a Jew.” His “politics melded authoritarian populism with a distinctly anti-clerical strain, appealing to anyone who loathed the presence of Muslims, radical leftists, and the ultra-Orthodox.”
Unfortunately, as Blumenthal writes, “there was no shortage of citizens in Israel who held this sentiment.”
Lieberman’s crudeness is well-known to observers of Israeli politics, but in the US his ties to Mafia figures may be less widely understood: Michael Cherney, a Russian Jewish oligarch, paid Lieberman half a million through a Cypriot shell firm, and is known to have ties to criminal gangs in the former Soviet Union. The two, says Cherney, were in daily communication. Another supporter of dubious moral character: Martin Schlaff, whose connections to the East German Stasi made him a rich man. Evidence of Schlaff’s $3.5 million payoff to Ariel Sharon in exchange for permission to build a casino in Israel was rendered moot when Sharon fell into a coma from which he has yet to emerge. Schlaff then became a major backer of Yisrael Beiteinu, as Lieberman took in millions in mysterious payments through a company run by his daughter. After gaining 11 Knesset seats, Lieberman was named Minister of Warmongering “Strategic Threats” in Ehud Olmert’s rather shaky government. Today he is Foreign Minister, after being temporarily kicked out of the government while being investigated for fraud, the David Duke of Israel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s George Wallace.
What is particularly shocking in Blumenthal’s book is its exposure of the explicit racism that has become commonplace in Israeli society. When Anastasia Michaeli, a Yisrael Beitenu MK, served on a panel charged with choosing someone to represent Israel in the Eurovision song contest, she objected to one contestant because he “looks Arab.” In her defense, she stated: “I am looking at this competition from a Zionist point of view.”
If so, it isn’t any sort of Zionism the older Ashkenazi elite would recognize. But that’s the point: the “new” Zionism is something else altogether.