One day most politically aware Americans and Europeans will greet a book like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel with a yawn. Israel will be universally seen as a serial violator of international law and the only discussion will be about how to make it respect that law.
That day may be closer than it appears: one of many indications is US Secretary of State John Kerry’s hyper-intensive drive for a peace deal, which he has warned may be one of Israel’s last chances to stave off “increasing isolation.”
But we are not there yet, and this is why Goliath is such an important book. Whereas others have pierced the myth of Israel as a besieged beacon of democracy, Blumenthal punches a hole through it. He does so by juxtaposing harrowing accounts of Israel’s brutal dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948—known as the Nakba (catastrophe) when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes and never allowed to return—with the no less harrowing accounts of Israel’s ongoing dispossession of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. The result is a portrait of a society hurtling headfirst toward ultra-nationalism, relinquishing any claims to democracy it may have had as it seeks to pummel a subject population into submission.
Two main themes dominate the book: the impact of the extreme right-wing nationalists’ consolidation of power since the collapse of the peace process in 2000; and the way in which today’s Israel is the logical evolution of the Zionist enterprise from its inception in the late nineteenth century.
From the start, Blumenthal sets the stage to illustrate his first main theme—the right’s victories in the Knesset, among other key state institutions—by vividly describing how Israel’s horrific 2008–09 Operation Cast Lead against Gaza was tied into Israel’s February 2009 national elections. The first pages also kick off Blumenthal’s fast-paced journalistic style, which makes one relive the terror and mindless destruction of the assault on Gaza.
For many in the United States, and perhaps particularly for American Jews, Gaza was a wake-up call similar to the one in Europe during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut orchestrated by the late Ariel Sharon. Appalled at the savagery of that attack, many Europeans said, “But this is not the Israel we know” and began to mobilize against its human rights violations. (For Palestinians, of course, this was the Israel they had always known.)
However, as Blumenthal deftly illustrates, the assault had the opposite effect within Israel. There, it united a fractured Jewish public—what Blumenthal calls “a deeply traumatized, heavily indoctrinated society”—and solidified the “authoritarian trend” that had been building for years.
Not surprisingly, Cast Lead’s primary beneficiary was Benjamin Netanyahu, whose “knack for leveraging the fear and trauma of the Jewish public into votes” earned him the nickname “Scaremonger-in-Chief,” Blumenthal writes. Others reaped rewards as well. Avigdor Lieberman, the proto-fascist Soviet émigré who leads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, zoomed into third place. (In fact, Lieberman and his party had been chalking up two additional Knesset seats for several election cycles thanks to their campaigns against the Palestinian citizens of Israel—the 150,000 Palestinians who were able to stay on their own land after the Nakba and who, at some 1.2 million, now account for nearly 21 percent of the citizens of Israel—but with Cast Lead as backdrop, they strengthened their place in the government.)