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Eric Alterman Replies to Max Blumenthal’s Letter | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

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Eric Alterman Replies to Max Blumenthal’s Letter

Congratulations to Max Blumenthal. The Nation has, over the decades, published any number of extremely harsh critics of Israel and Zionism. But, as far as I’m aware, never before has anyone defended the analogizing of the behavior of Israeli Jews to that of the war criminals who led Nazi Germany. Such arguments are, unfortunately, consistent with both the quality of Blumenthal’s judgments and the honesty of his journalism.

Blumenthal’s letter is no less dishonest and disingenuous than his dreadful book (a book, I hasten to add that has received virtually no attention in the print media, save in my column). I will answer each and every one of his charges in the order he makes them and then I hope and pray I will finally be done with this mishegas forever.

Blumenthal’s preamble to his charges is, shall we say, confusing. He writes, “These enforcers, recently aided and abetted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, have painted critics who do not toe the party line or journalists who report uncomfortable facts as anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews or cheerleaders for terror. Readers of The Nation should recognize this kind of smearing as a form of McCarthyism.” I sure hope they do because I’ve addressed these issues so frequently in this and so many other publications for the past thirty years that it would be fair to call them an obsession. For instance: Here is one recent example from The Nation. Here is one from The International Herald Tribune. Here is one from the Center for American Progress. Here is one from The American Prospect. Here is one from The Daily Beast. Here is one from The Forward. And here is one from Moment, etc., etc. As to Blumenthal’s alleged point, however, I did not call him anti-Semitic, self-hating or a cheerleader for terror. I did not even mention any of these things.* His claim to McCarthyite martyrdom is therefore rather misplaced, to put it mildly.

Blumenthal continues, referring to yours truly, “Playing the enforcer, he [Alterman] is trying to frustrate debate….” Again, I plead confusion. I’m the only person in a print outlet anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, who has even noticed the existence of Blumenthal’s book, much less debated its contents. Much to my chagrin, I’ve now devoted many thousands of words to it. Am I really the right person for Max Blumenthal to accuse of seeking to “frustrate debate?”

Blumenthal adds that he does not understand why I would concede that his book is “mostly technically accurate” but remain so critical. He is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of “context.” It might be technically accurate, for instance, to say that an individual who fatally shoots a crazed killer while said killer is mowing down schoolchildren with an assault-weapon is a “murderer.” But it would also be profoundly misleading, given the context. And this is the problem with Blumenthal’s facts. He tells us only the facts he wishes us to know and withholds crucial ones that undermine his relentlessly anti-Israel narrative. As I mentioned, he tells us that the El Al airline “has been accused” of harboring Mossad spies. He does not give us the context, which is that his accuser had just been fired, had worked for the airline for nineteen years without complaint, and presented no evidence. This is, I’m afraid, typical of a book in which the author presents no understandable explanations for Israel’s actions save the evils of the Zionist mind and the blackness of its heart. Blumenthal takes great offense at my quip that the book could have been a selection of a hypothetical Hamas Book of the Month Club, but my point remains valid. If there was a single rendering of any incident in this anti-Zionist propaganda tract that would upset the rather demanding ideological precepts of Israel’s enemies, I did not catch it. Like a child’s fairy tale, each story he tells has the same repetitive narrative, with Israel, without exception, cast as the Big Bad Wolf.

More in sorrow than in anger, no doubt, Blumenthal concludes that he “cannot say that Alterman’s review is technically accurate.” Well, perhaps, but that’s because I did not write a review and Blumenthal, conveniently, provides no links for his readers to see this. To set him and them straight, I devoted my regular Nation column to his book—at my editors’ specific request—and then followed up with my “Altercation” blog explaining to my readers why I would devote so much space to so shameful a book and adding a few points for which I lacked space in my column. Had I had more room, as in a genuine review, I might have addressed many more of its weaknesses, such as those discussed here and here and here. (No doubt more will arise should anyone else pay the book any notice or the authors above get a chance to read more deeply in the book. Those above have only just begun.)

Failing to note that he was talking about a comment I made in my blog post explaining my initial reluctance to write about his awful book, he writes, “following a bizarre reference to the “friendly relations” he has supposedly enjoyed with my parents since I was “a little boy,” an effort at belittlement that reflects only on the bully, Alterman….” First, note the name calling. Second, note the fact that I pointed this out in the explanation on my blog that I had managed my personal and professional relationship with his parents, Sid and Jackie Blumenthal, for the past thirty years without any open animosity between us. I attribute to these friendly relations the fact that until now, Sid Blumenthal had not seen fit to make me the object of any of the unflattering e-mails he so often sends around to journalists and others—myself included—about individuals of whom he disapproves. Privately, I worried that by telling the truth about his son’s book, I would soon hear of nasty e-mails about me sent by Sid to our mutual friends and professional acquaintances. Call it “bizarre,” if you will, but sadly, that’s just what happened.

Continuing on, Blumenthal’s letter objects to the fact that I noted that he quoted a ridiculous definition of Israel’s alleged “fascism” without challenge or criticism. He says he did not “express approval” of the quote. Well, he did not express disapproval either. He simply quoted it as if it explained the situation. He appears to wish to distance himself from it now, quite understandably, but in that case, what is it doing there? People say all sorts of crazy things all the time and most journalists feel no compunction about quoting them respectfully and at length, and without anyone voicing any contrary views. The fact that he has now quoted others accusing Israel of “fascism,” in his letter to the editor—though here, he does not even bother to define the word—is irrelevant to my point. Look up “fascism” in any remotely respectable academic source and you will find that “a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends” bears it no relevance.

Regarding his morally disgusting and intellectually indefensible equation of Israeli Jews to Nazis, all Blumenthal can say is “If the titles of these chapters are shocking, it is only because the facts are shocking.” But chapter titles are not “facts,” by any definition of the word—not even Blumenthal-style “facts.” And his are stupid and offensive because their author has purposely chosen them to be so.

Blumenthal goes on to pat himself on the back for a video he apparently made about non-Jewish refugees in Israel and continued, “Alterman, to my knowledge, has yet to speak up against the organized, officially sanctioned campaign of incitement and violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel, a population that has been left defenseless after fleeing from genocide and unbearable repression.” Yes, this is true. Here is yet one more injustice in the world against which I have failed to speak up. Add it to the millions of other injustices in the world against which I have also failed to speak up. Sadly, I am haunted by the billions of victims of injustice in every nation on earth saying, “If only Eric Alterman would ‘speak up…” Thanks to Max Blumenthal, I understand the importance of such empty moral posturing and am ready to take action: I hereby denounce “the organized, officially sanctioned campaign of incitement and violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel etc, etc. ” together with every other injustice in the world, past, present and future. You’re welcome, everybody.

Back to the book… Regarding the alleged naiveté of Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the progressive daily newspaper Haaretz, Blumenthal again appears to believe that if he can find other people making arguments that strike him as similar to his own, this somehow makes his a true one. I cannot speak to arguments I have not read by authors with whom I am unfamiliar. I do, however, find the level of chutzpah necessary for Max Blumenthal to lecture Aluf Benn—who has covered six Israeli prime ministers from Yitzhak Rabin through Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term, and reported on Israeli-Arab wars and peace negotiations for twenty years—on Netanyahu’s real motivations for absolutely anything to be a sight to behold. (Though to be fair, his lecturing of David Grossman is perhaps even more impressive in this regard.) And I find no less ridiculous Blumenthal’s insistence—again, with no evidence save apparently mental telepathy—that Netanyahu is only pretending to be alarmed about Iran’s nuclear program in order to draw attention away from the occupation. It is, after all, not unheard of for a world leader to find him or herself dealing with more than one problem at one time. Netanyahu can be genuinely concerned about Iran and at the same time, wish to hold onto the West Bank. This is, after all the position of his party, his cabinet, his advisers and, unfortunately, the millions of Israelis who continue to keep him in office. It hardly seems a stretch to assume that he believes it too.

Blumenthal then goes on to object to the fact that I find his description of Berl Katznelson as “Labor Zionism’s chief ideologue” to be “a title that exists exclusively in the author’s imagination.” He writes that in “Katznelson has been described in “almost identical fashion by everyone from Israeli President Shimon Peres to Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld to Israeli writer Amos Oz.” Alas, “almost” is a big word here, (almost as big as “everyone”). If in fact the quotes are accurate, Blumenthal, who does not himself speak Hebrew (!) and whose source notes are almost entirely in English, is citing three Hebrew speakers. None of them used the phrase Blumenthal did, which is a good thing, because, in English at least, which is the language in which Blumenthal seeks to communicate, it makes no sense. Any pronouncement that unironically employs the term “chief ideologue” with regard to a non-hierarchical political philosophical movement is by definition foolishly reductive and literally false. Was Reinhold Niebuhr “the chief ideologue” of American liberalism in the 1950s? Was John Dewey? Was Arthur Schlesinger Jr.? Was Lionel Trilling? Was John Kenneth Galbraith? And once again, Blumenthal ignores the main point of my criticism, which was that Katznelson spoke of conquest as a “complete perversion of the Zionist ideal” exactly the opposite of how Blumenthal sought to portray his views with his selective and non-contextual quotation.

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Next up, in response to another criticism of mine, Blumenthal also cites Professor Charles Manekin, who claims that Yeshayahu Leibowitz never published any works of Talmud exegesis. I don’t know why anyone would say such a thing. I have attended lectures on his theology at a local Yeshiva that covered exactly this topic. The online Merriam-Webster definition of “exegesis” reads “EXPOSITION; EXPLANATION; especially an explanation or critical interpretation of a text.” The lengthy entry for Leibowitz in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that “Leibowitz has much to say about the nature of the mitzvoth, particularly as they relate to human values, and based on a basic Talmudic distinction between two forms of religious worship.” Does the above not sound like a “Talmudic exegesis”? It’s almost impossible to be a Jewish theologian or philosopher of Judaism—as Leibowitz undeniably was—without also writing Talmudic exegeses, because the religious teachings with which one must contend derive from the Talmud, which is itself primarily (but not exclusively) a collection of exegeses on the text of the Torah.

As for the Manekin/Blumenthal claim that “almost no Jews outside of Israel knew who Leibowitz was when he was alive,” this is just nonsense. Leibowitz served as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, read by countless Jews all over the world. He died in 1994, but published an English translation of his book, The Faith of Maimonides in 1987 along with a collection of his essays in 1992. Both books were also translated into French. I don’t know why Manekin—who also blogs on behalf of BDS under his nom de plume, “Jerry Haber”— would make so easily disprovable a statement, but I do see a tendency in his writings to offer opinions on matters on which he has literally no knowledge. For instance, in the same blog post to which Blumenthal refers, Manekin/Haber writes, “Alterman, I imagine, spends maybe five minutes a month thinking about Israel. He clearly doesn’t read Haaretz or YNET daily.… he gets his reporting on Israel from the mainstream media.” Here again, I’m afraid, Manekin/Haber is entirely full of shit… and therefore a perfectly appropriate source for Max Blumenthal.

Moreover, regardless of whether one considers Leibowitz a Talmudist, a theologian, a philosopher or biochemist—and he was all of these things—it was misleading of Blumenthal to suggest that Israelis revered him for his extreme political views. He was revered—and rather bravely chosen to receive the Israel Prize—in spite of those views, not because of them.

Regarding Yoram Kaniuk, here Blumenthal has his only legitimate point. His name was misspelled in my blog post owing to a typo. And while Blumenthal did fail to identify the “book” to which he referred as a fictional one, my primary point, I did misread the quote of Kaniuk’s quoted in The Guardian to be that of a Palestinian being quoted in response. My apologies.

Next, Blumenthal goes on to complain at length that I would not debate him when invited to do so. He has repeated this over and over on the Internet, but nowhere does he mention that he never had any reason to believe that I would wish to do so. And why would I? I’ve never met him. I have zero obligation to him. I clearly don’t think very highly either of his work or his character and I have already done more to publicize his awful book than anyone else alive (albeit inadvertently). More to the point, I have never, in the eighteen years I’ve been a columnist and the thirty-one years I’ve been a contributor to this magazine, ever debated any one of the subjects of my columns or blog posts. I am sure not about to start with someone who congratulates himself for comparing Jews to Nazis.

To go on about what a terrible person I am—we are now off the topic of my column and blog post—Blumenthal complains of an infelicitous quote of mine from an MSNBC blog post I wrote back in 2002 when I was blogging every day. I am familiar with it, as it was a favorite of Alexander Cockburn’s as well. Like Cockburn, however, Blumenthal never bothers to inform readers that I withdrew the comment in question a day after I made it, on the basis of improved information. As I wrote eleven years ago: “I think I better apologize for the words ‘tough luck’ at the end of yesterday’s entry. They are inappropriate in a situation where so many innocents, including children, were killed. When I wrote them, I was as yet unaware of the extent of the civilian damage caused by the Israeli missile attack.” Do I even need to add that this information was contained in the same blog post to which Blumenthal linked, but he ignored it in his letter? Once again: technically accurate, but deliberately deceptive.

I have, to this point, answered every one of Blumenthal’s complaints, and fortunately or unfortunately, he saved the worst for last. Blumenthal’s final citation of mine does not even rise to the level of “technical” accuracy. It is demonstrably false, and indeed, one might even safely call it a “lie.” Here, Blumenthal pretends to be shocked by my allegedly “extraordinary declaration that Americans must be willing to endure more 9/11-style terror attacks ‘if that’s the price we have to pay’ to maintain the US-Israeli special relationship.”

That would be extraordinary if I had said it, but I did not. Check the link that Blumenthal, himself, provides and you’ll find an article by the fanatical anti-Zionist and Blumenthal booster, Philip Weiss, in which he reports on 2011 panel discussion in which I participated at the 92nd Street Y. (My words are often big news for Weiss’s website, though its accuracy can be iffy at best.) The article contains both a video of the panel as well as an apparent partial transcript. (I cannot vouch for the latter’s accuracy.) The issue in question was the extremely sensitive one of dual loyalty of some American Jews to both Israel and the United States. In it, I admit to my own conflicted feelings and explain that while I, personally, as a pro-Zionist American Jew, would be willing under certain circumstances to accept such attacks as the price of American support for Israel—indeed, this is yet another argument for Israel to compromise with the Palestinians and allow a peaceful Palestinian state to be built alongside Israel in order to reduce or perhaps even eliminate this threat—I hardly think it appropriate to pretend that there is no price for America’s support for Israel. Nor do I think that the interests of America and Israel are identical, as so many neoconservatives and members of the “pro-Israel community” so frequently insist. In other words, in the quote in question, I was quite clearly speaking for myself personally as a Jew who cares deeply about Israel before a Jewish audience attending a conversation about Israel at a Jewish institution. I was not even attempting to speak for “Americans” as Blumenthal pretends, because more than 99 percent of them are not, like yours truly, Jews who happen to care deeply about the fate of Israel. Employing only the second half of my quote (and none of its context, surprise, surprise), Blumenthal substituted the words “Americans must” for my words, “I’m willing,” to deceive the reader into believing I made the exact opposite argument of the one I made.

Literally nothing this fellow writes can be taken at face value. He shames all of us with his presence in our magazine.

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* If Blumenthal wishes to categorize Hamas as a group of “terrorists,” as his letter implies, this would be a shock to the readers of his book. I think they are, unfortunately, the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians in Gaza, however distasteful one may find their ideology and methods.

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Max Blumenthal responds to Alterman’s initial criticism of Goliath.

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