Exposing the Dark Underbelly of Israel: The Horrors Your Tax Dollars Support
Drop the New York Times’ international section and pick up Max Blumenthal’s new book. If you want to peel back the layers of deception pro-Israel groups and the media have created, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel is the perfect place to start. It’s the bluntest book you’ll read about the state of Israeli society, as it looks deep into the soul of an ethnocracy that dominates the lives of millions of Palestinians.
Blumenthal’s book, based on four years of on-the-ground reporting and research, takes the reader from the occupied West Bank to prisons for African refugees to Palestinian areas within Israel. Through a series of profiles and vignettes, he paints a devastating portrait of a country obsessed with demographics bent on permanently subjugating the non-Jews who live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Last week, AlterNet sat down with Blumenthal for a conversation about his book. We spoke about the current state of Israeli society, his method of reporting and what readers will learn about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as negotiations with Iran and the Palestinians continue.
Alex Kane: The headlines are largely dominated by other political problems in the Middle East: Egypt, Syria. So what’s the importance of a book on Israel at this moment?
Max Blumenthal: I wrote this book because I wanted to show Americans what they’re paying for. Every American's relationship to Israel can be summed up as money for nothing and checkpoints for free. We’re giving them $30 billion over the next 10 years to guarantee their qualitative military edge over all other countries. We also have to see Israel’s role in destabilizing the Middle East and in seeking to ensure that U.S. policy guarantees that Israel’s Arab neighbors are weakened and that the people of the Arab world can’t determine their own future. That’s why Israel had such a comfortable relationship with Hosni Mubarak—because he was a Western and Gulf puppet who was helping to participate in the siege of Gaza and why Israel is so excited about the coup that ousted Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood might have ceded to US demands to police the Sinai, but now with Sisi, the crackdown on Gaza is much more extreme. They have filled up possibly 80 percent of the tunnels that bring vital food and medicine and even fish into the Gaza Strip, which is shocking considering that the Gaza Strip is a coastal territory -- they must import fish through tunnels because they’re not allowed to fish. And now we're seeing Egyptian naval forces join the Israeli navy in arresting Gazan fishermen.
Now the coup regime in Egypt has committed a series of massacres which were inevitable as soon as they took power on July 3. They massacred non-violent Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, especially in the Rabba area of Cairo--they killed over 1,000 people. And the U.S. has been threatening to withdraw some military aid to Egypt--of course, they’re not going to fully hold this regime accountable for the massive human rights crimes it's committing. And Israel all the while has been demanding veto power over the United States’ efforts to hold Egypt accountable. The Israeli government is enthralled with Sisi's coup regime and the Egyptian military, and it will do all it can to see the US fund it and prevent it from being held accountable. So to see Israel as this normal, European country that exists completely independently of the chaos in the Middle East is completely bogus.
And the other reason is much more simple: that we are paying for the only open ethnocracy in the world, and its entire existence and its domination and control over the lives of millions of Palestinians and the exclusion of millions more Palestinians simply because they’re not Jews. The whole fate of all these people who are living between the river and the sea, mired in misery and refugee camps, is in the hands of the American people and Washington.
And while Israel plants non-indigenous trees over destroyed Palestinian villages to conceal its own crimes of expulsion and dispossession, the Israel lobby in the United States is attempting to erect a curtain of silence around this conversation we’re having. So what I’ve done with this book is clinically detail the facts on the ground that have been concealed from Americans through intimidation and conspiracy of silence. I don't want just to pull back the curtain a little bit, I want to tear it down.
AK: You go deep into the darkest places of Israeli society. Could you outline your method of reporting and what you think it brings to the table that readers aren’t getting elsewhere?
MB: I conceived this book project before I even started my first book, Republican Gomorrah, and when I was beginning to refine the tactics that were working really well in exposing the radical right and the Republican Party. I was simply insinuating myself into the institutions of the GOP base, and into the gatherings this party would hold, getting to know people, trying to understand their mentality, and then following up with them. And making constant calls instead of relying on other people to do the reporting for me. From there, I'd conduct my own research and analysis and immerse myself in the history of the Christian right.
So what I set out to do when I made my first extended trip to Israel in May 2009, right after it elected its most right-wing government in history, is to insinuate myself into the major institutions of Israeli society. For example, in my book I explain the importance of the education system in the militarization of Israeli society and in the cultivation of Israeli youth as loyal soldiers and unwavering nationalists. So to do that, I interviewed school principals who were being interrogated and trotted out before the Knesset for telling their students that they have to lash out against the occupation. I interviewed the activists of New Profile, who are educators themselves who are working to actively counsel Israeli youth who do not want to perform mandatory military services. These are middle-class, middle-aged women from the upper-strata of Israeli society in Tel Aviv who are putting themselves on the line, and who have faced harsh consequences, having their computers seized and being called into interrogations for what they've done. And through them, through radical feminist educators, talking to them about the role of women in the Israeli army, I really started to see the underbelly of this society that’s concealed from Americans.
To understand army life, I talked my way into a Border Police base in the West Bank by posing as a human rights specialist, and went into a human rights education session for a Border Patrol unit which had been involved in some of the worst abuses not just against Palestinians but also against African migrants along the Sinai border. And along with an Israeli human rights facilitator, I was able to talk to them about their lives.
I interviewed one of the only volunteers to the unit named Alex about his youth and how he came from Kazakhstan, had been abused by anti-Semites in his own country, and was essentially dumped along with his family in a development town in Israel called Ashdod. He was beaten by police horrifically there because like many of the kids in his town he was a juvenile delinquent and so he decided, “I want to be on the other side of the violence. I want to be a cop.” And so I really pitied him and what became of him. By the end of our interview he was basically calling for an exterminationist solution to the Palestinian problem, saying we should kill them all at once because we're already doing it slowly, so why not get it over with?
Another institution that I immersed myself in was the Knesset, interviewing the Knesset members who were behind the anti-democratic laws that kept pouring out of the chamber every week: laws limiting the speech of Palestinian citizens of Israel, attacking the financing of human rights NGOs, attempting to define Israel as a Jewish state first before a democratic state. And also I interviewed their targets in the Knesset, like Haneen Zoabi, probably the most hated woman in Israel, who is a Palestinian representative from the Balad party who traveled on the Free Gaza flotilla and witnessed the massacre on the Mavi Marmara and was nearly physically attacked in the Knesset when she returned. By immersing myself in the key institutions of Israeli life I was really able to paint a complete picture of what’s driving this country over the edge.
AK: You mentioned your first book Republican Gomorrah, which was an expose of the radical wing of the Republican Party. That book was a bestseller; you had people like Paul Begala, the famous Democratic strategist, reference it in a CNN column. Could you compare the reception you’re getting now and if it’s different, why it’s different.
MB: It’s definitely different because I’m not serving any institution or party inside the U.S. I’m not serving any element of American power. I was fascinated during the Bush era with the influence the Christian right had over Bush, and the theology and politics of the Christian right. For me, reporting on the Christian Right and exposing them wasn’t just about creating political space for progressive Democrats to win elections. I’m just more fascinated with the other side, those who see the world in a starkly different way than me, who have authoritarian tendencies, and learning about them. And through my book Republican Gomorrah I was able to detail the psychology of the Christian right and compose a book that wasn’t your typical political gotcha polemic. It was much deeper than the pulp that is usually marketed to liberals. At the same time, a lot of people who were progressive Democrats, who really represent the party base, the people who watch Maddow who are like 50 and older, they loved what I had to say when they heard me on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air. They were the ones who showed up at my talks and made my books a bestseller.
But on this book tour, I don't expect that much fresh air. Terry Gross has refused to have me on, and a lot of other hosts have just basically helped stitch the fabric of this curtain of silence we mentioned before. But there are a lot other courageous people who aren’t just left-wing radicals or people sympathetic to the cause of Palestine, or people who are alienated by Israeli policy, who are giving me a chance to be heard. My book tour is just starting so I want to give them a chance. But again, I know what I’m up against, and I know how uncomfortable it is for a lot of these establishment liberals who are very upset about Netanyahu and want to know more about what’s happening to even begin to discuss this issue in the way I have been doing for the past few years.
I was recently told by the editor of a progressive publication that, I, unlike other writers, have to be extra-careful with everything I do when they publish me because they are terrified of what could happen to them if I get a fact or two wrong. So even before publishing me they have surrendered to the the paper tiger of the Israel lobby.
The other thing that’s interesting is how reluctant liberal Zionists are to engage with me. I invited Peter Beinart to participate in my opening event and he refused and he’s refused at other times to participate in panels with me. I’m going to give him the chance to commission a review at Open Zion; I reviewed his book, it was a negative review but it was very respectful of him and his ideas. But I don’t necessarily see that happening so I sort of feel like Floyd Mayweather, because he can’t really get a fight with anyone of his caliber. It’s not just because my blows are impetuous and my defense is impregnable, as Mike Tyson so eloquently declared. It’s because the dream castle Israel of liberal Zionists is melting into the sands of unsentimental, clinical journalistic scrutiny.
AK: That dream castle you talk of is built on the erasure of the Nakba. You devote a lot of time in your book to the traumatic, founding events of 1948, which Palestinians call the Catastrophe because of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israeli forces. Your book takes the reader back and forth between the founding and current-day events, like the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-'09. What is the connection between historical events like the Nakba and current events?
MB: That’s the big question, and I attempt to answer it by devoting large parts of my book to the ghosts that linger over Israel. Those ghosts are the Palestinians who are excluded from the Jewish state and forbidden from living on their own property because they are not Jews. I talk about living in Jaffa, just 15 minutes south of Tel Aviv, in this Palestinian ghetto that has been made part of the Tel Aviv municipality so it can’t really govern itself. And much of that area was bulldozed -- 75 percent of the Palestinian area of Jaffa, which used to be known as the “bride of the sea," and was this economic, intellectual and cultural powerhouse in 1948, was bulldozed. Tens of thousands of people were literally thrown into the sea under artillery fire and were forced to take boats to Lebanon and Gaza and to Egypt.
What's left now is Charles Clore Park, which are these grassy dunes, and I would run by them on my way to Tel Aviv and just seeing that every day and knowing that those dunes are not natural dunes, they’re actually the rubble of Palestinian homes, of hundreds of Palestinian homes, and that some people from those homes are still living in that area--though most are in refugee camps--and they’re not allowed to return simply because they’ll upset the demographic balance of Israel was terribly upsetting. My time in Jaffa, this beautiful seaside place, was a generally depressing time. Everywhere I looked I saw the effects on the Palestinians who had remained, which is that they’re resorting to the black market to survive, mired in poverty, they can’t get permits to build their house, there are 500 standing eviction orders in this community, and they’re being heavily gentrified out of their own neighborhoods.
So you would see the legacy of the Nakba in your daily life. The Nakba is a continuous process of dispossession, and I wouldn’t have to go into occupied territory to see homes get bulldozed. This happens all the time inside the Green Line to Bedouins, to Palestinians who build without permits because they can’t get them. I witnessed bulldozed homes in the Lod ghetto, just 15 minutes east of Tel Aviv.
You’re constantly told that Israel represents the deliverance of the Jewish people from exodus and exile and that they finally have sovereignty. But you sense a complete lack of confidence there about being Jewish, a complete insecurity. And the effort to define themselves is always conducted against the backdrop of Palestinians. So one of the ways that the right-wing parties who are increasingly responsible for defining the character of Israeli society--one of their efforts is centered around criminalizing Palestinian speech around the Nakba to prevent them from even observing their own dispossession on Israeli Independence Day. If they are free and they have been delivered from exile, then why does it trouble them so much when a few Palestinians come out and wave Palestinian flags on Israel's so-called Independence Day? Why do activists from Zochrot, an Israeli Jewish group dedicated to observing the Nakba, get harassed and attacked and even arrested when they read out the names of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948 in the middle of Tel Aviv on Independence Day?
There’s this deep insecurity that defines life in Israel. But it’s that insecurity that Zionism feeds on and that it almost requires. I describe how that insecurity is played out in the Knesset, which was built on top of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Badr, and I write in my book about how Judah Magnes, the first rector of Hebrew University, warned that the partition and the establishment of a Jewish state would lead directly to massive ethnic cleansing and an unending cycle of human tragedy. And he even lobbied the Truman administration and told them not to allow a Jewish state to be established. He then argued for an arms embargo on both the Arab Higher Committee and what he called the “Jewish war machine,” which became Israel. And he was of course ignored. He watched the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Badr take place outside his office window and he soon left. These ghosts are still lingering over the Knesset, and they’re lingering over Israeli society, and they are animating efforts like the Nakba Bill which demand the erasure of the Palestinian narrative.
AK: One of the biggest splashes you made in your journalism on this issue is "Feeling the Hate” in Jerusalem video. That video is both hilarious and deeply disturbing. Could you talk about how you see this dark humor fitting into your larger journalistic ethos?
MB: My grandfather always said, “without a little mishagas, you'll go crazy.” And that’s how I feel about my life right now. I would go crazy if I wasn’t able to maintain some kind of humor and critical detachment. So when I go out and do video reporting, I make sure that I maintain a kind of interaction between me and my viewer through inside jokes. In most cases, my viewers are hipper than my interview subjects so I’m making little cracks and one-liners to help to bring the viewer into the scene. My viewer is likely shocked at what the interview subject is saying -- “let’s burn out the cancer in Gaza” or "Obama should be shot." It's my job to keep a straight face, maintain some critical detachment and interrupt the insanity of the moment with humor that highlights how out of touch the interview subject is. That makes these videos much more tolerable for a lot of people who aren’t necessarily drawn to the subject matter I explore. It’s how I’ve been able to appeal to wider audiences.
A woman complained to me in one of my videos about a photo she saw of a Shia man slashing the head of his daughter in some religious ceremony, and she was attempting to use that to highlight the primitivism of the Muslims and essentially why Israel needs to bomb them. It was a really ridiculous point. And I said, “Well, my parents had a mohel slash my penis soon after I was born. This was also a religious ceremony." I think it was a really salient point but it was also a funny one that exposed the ridiculousness of this woman’s logic, which is the logic of a lot of right-wing Zionists. And the “Feeling the Hate” video--me and Joseph Dana were rolling on the floor when we were editing it, I was laughing into tears. But obviously the video had a deadly serious point.
There were two components of that video which needed to be taken seriously but which were not, and those who condemned it did all they could to prevent that message from setting in. It was that Zionism in its current phase provokes an unending moral free-fall in Jewish life, in world Jewry, and it’s had an extremely toxic effect on certain sectors of Jewish American life. And these kids you saw in the video were perfect examples of it -- they don’t see anything wrong with blending the lessons of the Holocaust into calls for assassinating Obama and carrying out genocide on the Palestinians.
The second serious point we wanted to make is that this kind of incitement leads to physical action, and in Zion Square, where we filmed it, a year later, Jamal Julani, a teenage Palestinian kid, was beaten into a coma by dozens of Jewish youth who had heard he made a pass at a Jewish girl. It was like being in 1940s Alabama, being in central Jerusalem. And we had tried to warn the American public with this video, and warn the Jewish world, that this area of central Jerusalem, which they consider to be a spiritual home of the Jewish people, is also a mecca of racist incitement and nationalistic violence. We were ignored and our worst fears were realized.
AK: Something that I found refreshing was your focus on all aspects of Palestinian society, and not just the occupied territories. You also talk a lot about African refugees in Israel. Talk about why you chose to have such a wide focus in your book.
MB: I chose that partly because those issues are ignored in the U.S., and they’re absolutely essential to understanding what Israel is, and what Palestine is. Because thanks to over 120 years of colonization of Palestine we can’t really define either geographically. They’re basically both ideas at this point, which is a reason why people are obsessed with this issue. Just consider the fact that Israel doesn’t even recognize its own national identity. As I said, the identity of Israeli Jews is fraught with insecurity, but what does it mean to be a Palestinian citizen of Israel.
This is why I spent so much time in Haifa and Jaffa -- I wanted interview Palestinian citizens of Israel about their lives and their identities and to get to know them. I wrote about a young woman named Fidaa Kiwan in Haifa who had, along with a business partner, opened a trendy cafe called Azad in one of the nicer areas of the city, and it was a place where she wanted to foster coexistence--an equal coexistence, where Palestinians and Israeli Jews could feel comfortable together. When you walk down the streets of Haifa, a lot of Jews carry guns and wear uniforms and this symbolizes to Palestinians their destruction and dispossession. So she imposed a policy forbidding uniforms of any kind. So a young soldier comes in with a uniform and she says “I’ll give you the best service you’ve ever had but first put on civilian clothes.” So he comes back in uniform, films being denied service on a cellphone cam, gets involved with Im Tirtzu, this ultra-right-wing youth group who are endorsed by the Netanyahu, and they mount a national boycott against Azad. Israel and Israeli society are the ultimate boycotters. The Facebook page dedicated to boycotting her cafe, Azad, got 50,000 likes, there were daily protests outside the restaurant, they would drape Israeli flags over its windowns and eventually she was driven out of town because even though they couldn’t find any legal means of moving her, they would send inspectors into the restaurant until they found enough code violations to shut it down. In the end, Fidaa was sued by the soldier, the judge forced her to pay the soldier for all the “damage” she had done to him.
I met Fidaa one night and we hung out and drank arak at an apartment in Haifa and she told me, “I’m sick of living here. I’m moving to Ramallah, because whether I’m here or there I’m occupied. But at least there [in Ramallah] I know I’m occupied. It sucks to be a woman in the West Bank because there is gender discrimination, but at least I’m with people who know what they’re up against. Out here, it’s all hidden and it’s all fake. But it's occupation nonetheless.” And so she basically self-transferred. That’s the situation some Palestinians face who dare to resist this, not just a system of discrimination but a culture of discrimination. They face an entire society that will gang up on them like a mob. Every day I spent in Haifa, I couldn’t avoid hearing these stories of Palestinians who feel like they’re in jeopardy just living in their own homes.
AK: We’re conducting this interview at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is spending his time railing against the Palestinians--comparing them to Nazis-- and the Iranians. What does your book tell us about Netanyahu’s position on both the Iran and Palestine issue?
MB: My book doesn’t deal with the Iran issue as other books do because my book isn’t about geopolitics. One of the few valuable books I’ve seen about Israel’s relationship to Iran right now is called Iranophobia by Haggai Ram. He explains that Israel’s paranoia about Iran offers a means of ventilating internal Israeli disputes and playing out the conflicts between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular Ashkenazim, or between the secular Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim. They’re constantly comparing the ultra-Orthodox to ayatollahs, for example, so when Netanyahu warns of medievalists in Iran, he's projecting his own internal issues outwards.
What I tried to do in my book is get to the base of Netanyahu’s mentality and how he approaches the outside world. I interviewed one of the leading political psychologists in the world, Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University. He’s done the most comprehensive studies on Jewish Israeli attitudes. And I remarked to him, “Netanyahu is always exploiting the Holocaust when he’s discussing Iran.” He replied, “he’s notexploiting the Holocaust. This is who he is and what he genuinely believes.” Netanyahu genuinely believes the old Israeli adage, “ the whole world is against us.” He genuinely believes Israel is on the verge of a second Holocaust. And as absurd as it may seem, his words fall on fertile soil.
I show in my book how the Holocaust has been used as one of the central tools for establishing political support in Israeli society for the occupation and for the constant brinksmanship with Iran. And I explain it through my reporting on the education system, I write about how four-year-olds were lined up in a school in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, before a board that says, “who wants to kill us?” And it has lines pointing to Arabs, lines pointing to Nazis, and lines pointing to Persians, referring to the Iranians. The lines lead to a question -- "What do we need?" -- and finally to the answer: "We need a state."
And I talk about the militarization of the education system and how at age 17, as Israeli high schoolers are preparing to go off to the army service, they are sent to Auschwitz, on the March of the Living, with their high school classes to be indoctrinated and to be cultivated to view the Holocaust in the light of their army experience. Polls on adolescent attitudes in Israel on the occupation and the army show that they’re very conflicted about the whole thing before they go on these trips. But after going through this whole process, which ends with a candlelight ceremony in a gas chamber where they’re asked to take on the personas of Jewish children who were slaughtered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, they come out with much more strongly nationalistic opinions and much stronger support for the army as an institution.
Netanyahu has gone through a similar process in his own life as a Jewish Israeli, particularly in his generation. And so we have to view Netanyahu’s paranoid statements about Iran’s genocidal intentions and the Palestinians being Nazis not just as political fodder, or as exploitative--and of course they are--but also as a genuine reflection of his own paranoid psyche and of that of the Israeli public. After 65 years, I think it's safe to say this kind of situation Israel has placed itself in by attempting to embrace and maintain a settler-colonial model has been incredibly corrosive for generation after generation of Israelis. Having to convince a population that the whole world is against them is obviously not very healthy.
The last chapter of my book describes a major debate that’s riveting Israel right now. Not only do one million Israelis live outside Israel, but the destination of choice for young Israelis who are educated and secular and cosmopolitan is the place where the Final Solution was planned: Berlin. And at least 15,000 young Israelis are living in Berlin. That’s a massive community of expats in a city like that. They get citizenship there and they love it. They don’t want Netanyahu’s doom and gloom. They don’t want to live the spirit of the Holocaust every day. And most of all, they don’t want to control other people who they could just as easily see as their friends and neighbors. And so they’re leaving. They want light and justice and some of them might even want to embrace more positive aspects of Jewish values than those taught to them by the Jewish state. This exodus is going to continue as long as the present system is in place in Israel.