A Response to Eric Alterman

A Response to Eric Alterman

A continuing conversation about Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.


I am eager to debate the issues raised in my new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books), the result of over four years of on-the-ground research and reporting. Whatever one’s opinion of possible resolutions of the Israel-Palestine crisis, I have dedicated my work to presenting the facts as clearly and accurately as I could. Without understanding the realities, no true debate can take place. In writing my book I intended to loosen the blockade of suppression of thought and discussion on the subject of Israel-Palestine. For years, especially since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist, a contingent of self-appointed enforcers has attempted to suppress an honest, free and full debate. 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.

Eric Alterman’s invective against my book in his column and blog in The Nation fits that last category of smear (“this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club”). Playing the enforcer, he is trying to frustrate debate, which might be a strange professional choice for the Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. Yet, curiously, Alterman also concedes that my book is “mostly technically accurate.” Is this a logical contradiction or cognitive dissonance?

Unfortunately, I cannot say that Alterman’s review of Goliath is technically accurate. Other writers have already carefully deconstructed his tangled mess of factual errors and deceptive claims: Phan Nguyen, Corey Robin, Ali Gharib, Ira Glunts and Charles Manekin.

Alterman’s review of Goliath is so error ridden that it would take too lengthy a reply to debunk all of them. But here are a few of his howlers:

He mockingly cited a portion of a quote by the Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky as “the definition Blumenthal quotes of the substance of Israel’s ‘fascism.’” In fact, the statement occurred during a conversation in which I initially expressed skepticism about defining Israel’s political environment as fascist. I reported Tarachansky’s quote but did not express approval, as Alterman suggested I did, though I do consider Tarachansky—an émigré from the former Soviet Union raised in the Israeli settlement of Ariel—to be an exceptionally notable source. I have recorded many conversations from all sorts of people who are not the usual sources cited by much of the US media, including Israeli dissidents, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Bedouin villagers, Palestinian popular protest leaders, members of the Knesset from across the spectrum, and a host of right-wing Israeli officials, especially from the younger generation.

Early in my book, I quote former Maariv editor Amnon Dankner condemning “neo-Nazi expressions in the Knesset”; former editor-in-chief of Haaretz David Landau calling for Israelis “to stand against the wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project”; and Uri Avnery, the famed Israeli journalist, former Knesset member and once-terrorist member of the Irgun turned peace activist, who warns that “Israel’s very existence is threatened by fascism.” I also detailed a 2010 protest in Tel Aviv in which a who’s who of founding-generation Israelis issued a “Declaration of Independence from Fascism.”

Alterman carps about the titles of several chapters in my book, claiming they were “titled to imply an equivalence between Israel and Nazi Germany.” He did not bother address the substance of the chapters, which explains the titles. The chapter titled, “How To Kill Goyim and Influence People” detailed a Jerusalem conference of prominent state-funded Israeli rabbis who had gathered to defend the publication of Torat Ha’Melech, a book published by their rabbinical colleagues that the Israeli paper Maariv described as “230 pages on the laws concerning the killing of non-Jews, a kind of guidebook for anyone who ponders the question of if and when it is permissible to take the life of a non-Jew.” (Among the book’s lowlights: “There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us…”)

My chapters titled “The Night of Broken Glass” and “The Concentration Camp” detail the officially sanctioned campaign of racist incitement and violence against Israel’s population of non-Jewish African asylum seekers. The former chapter described events leading up to the night of May 23, 2012, when, after an anti-African rally headlined by leading officials from the ruling Likud Party, in which Africans were described from the stage as “a cancer,” hundreds of Jewish Israelis rampaged through African-inhabited areas of South Tel Aviv, attacking their homes and cars and literally smashing the glass of their storefront windows. “I am as afraid to live in the Israel of 2012 as any right-minded German should have been in 1938,” Aliyana Traison, the deputy editor of Haaretz, wrote at the time.

The latter chapter described the construction of the Saharonim Detention Facility, a desert internment camp constructed explicitly to warehouse non-Jewish Africans for as long as three years without trial. It’s described by none other than former Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin as “a concentration camp.” Together with the independent Israeli journalist David Sheen, I produced a short documentary for TheNation.com offering an on-the-ground look at the racist backlash against non-Jewish Africans in Israel. I urge readers to watch it and come to their own conclusions. If the titles of these chapters are shocking, it is only because the facts are shocking.

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.

A few more of Alterman’s distortions and factual errors:

§ Alterman mocks my conclusion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsessive focus on Iran’s nuclear program serves as a means to distract from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. “Does anyone else in the world think Bibi was only kidding about Iran?” Alterman pondered. As Ali Gharib pointed out, prominent liberal figures, from David Rothkopf, editor at large of Foreign Policy, to Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, to Daniel Levy, the former Israeli diplomat, to Meretz Party chair Zehava Gal-On, have offered analyses nearly identical to mine. “Iran is the Great Distraction” was the title of Rothkopf’s editorial on Netanyahu’s Iran policy.

§ Alterman takes issue with my description of Berl Katznelson as “the Labor Zionist movement’s chief ideologue,” claiming it’s “a title that exists exclusively in [my] imagination.” But as Nguyen details, 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.

§ Alterman attacks my chapter on the dissident Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, falsely claiming, “Jews all over the world ‘revered’ Leibowitz for the brilliance of his Talmud exegesis.” As Charles Manekin, professor of philosophy and director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, explained, almost no Jews outside of Israel knew who Leibowitz was when he was alive and Leibowitz never published any works of Talmudic exegesis. This led Manekin to wonder if Alterman had confused Yeshayahu with his sister, Nehamah, or with the Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman. “In his response to Goliath, Alterman reveals himself to be an am-haaretz (ignoramus) when it comes to Israel,” writes Manekin. Personally, I think it is best to leave it to Alterman to explain.

§ Alterman gets more than the big things wrong. He also, for example, misspells the name of famed Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk (“Kniuk,” he calls him), badly misquotes my own quotation of Kaniuk, misattributes the source of the quote, and alters the punctuation of the quote to warp its meaning. Phan Nguyen exposes Alterman’s bungled line of attack here.

When stripped of distortions and mistakes, Alterman’s commentary on Goliath is reduced to crude insults. For instance, 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 blasts, “This book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club.” While I was not previously aware of such a club, I hereby invite all “Friends of Hamas” to join me this October 26 at 1 pm at Washington, DC’s Politics and Prose, or at one of the many venues I will be visiting during my national book tour.

After Alterman published the first of his attacks, I attempted to engage him in a public forum. I not only wanted to debate him on the facts contained in my book, I wanted to ask him how he squares his self-professed liberalism with his defense of disproportionate lethal violence against Palestinian civilians, including children (“So tough luck, fella. War is hell.”); with his insistence that the United States must pressure the Palestinians to accept “their historic position”; or with his 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.

I had wanted to discuss these issues and many more raised in Goliath—and still do, and will. Unfortunately, when Robert Wright of The Atlantic and editor of Bloggingheads, the pre-eminent online political debating forum, invited Alterman to engage with me, Alterman declined without explanation.

Editor’s note: Eric Alterman will respond to Max Blumenthal’s post in the Letters to the Editor section of a forthcoming issue of The Nation.

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