It is with extreme reluctance that I return, yet again, to the topic of Max Blumenthal’s awful book on Israel (and here). I do so not because I believe anything more needs to be said about the book itself, nor are there any corrections to be made in my column (though perhaps this will change). Rather, I feel compelled because Blumenthal and his allies have seen fit to launch a campaign of character assassination against me as a result of my criticisms of the book. (I did not criticize Blumenthal personally. Indeed, I have never met him and have nothing to say about him as a person.) But I do think his book is a perfect example of how not to do journalism. Indeed, if I were still teaching how-to journalism, I would use it as a how-not-to prop.
The most important responsibility any journalist has is to provide a proper context for readers to understand the basic truths of any given story. Truth is different from “facts.” Facts can easily mislead if presented in a purposely (or even accidentally) distorted context. This is what I meant when I said Blumenthal’s attacks on Israel were mostly “technically accurate,” while at the same time “deliberately deceptive.” To describe Israeli actions in the absence of any discussion of the behavior of its enemies and the threats these enemies pose to its citizens is both intellectually indefensible and constitutes prima facie evidence of bad faith. So, too, is the tactic of hiding behind the passive voice in order to hide key information from the reader.
Overall, a reader with no previous knowledge who sought to understand the motivation of Jewish Israelis for their decisions would have no choice but to conclude from Blumenthal’s account that there is just something about these nasty Israeli Jews that leads them to act like big meanies. The behavior of the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Iranians—or groups inside these countries such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Ba’ath Party, the Muslim Brotherhood etc.—do not figure at all in Blumenthal’s analysis. Jewish Israelis act out of malevolent intent, often imputed to them by Blumenthal via apparently telepathic powers. But I literally could not find a single significant criticism of any Palestinian, or even any Arab, anywhere in Blumenthal’s seventy-three nastily named chapters. (Hence my “Hamas Book of the Month Club quip.)
The “big meanie” hypothesis is, sadly, the foundation upon which all of Blumenthal’s reporting rests. And despite cries of “censorship,” it is also, I imagine, the explanation as to why the book has been so resoundingly ignored in the media. Many critical books about Israel are published and reviewed these days. Patrick Tyler’s recent book received a great deal of attention, and I have no doubt that John Judis’s harsh rendering of Israel’s founding and the role of the US government in its early development will do so as well. Both are books with a strong, critical point of view of Israeli behavior rather than a pro-Zionist point of view. Both books, however, were written by authors who recognized the fact that that to tell just one side of an extremely complex and multifaceted story can be worse than telling none at all. Blumenthal’s book is so patently anti-Israel in its orientation that it will excite and delight those already in the extreme anti-Zionist camp but prove anathema to anyone who does not already share his animus toward Jewish Israelis. Some people refer to this kind of thing as “intellectual masturbation” but I think this is unfair. Masturbation does no harm; the same can’t be said of deliberately distorted journalism.
The response to the criticisms in my column by Blumenthal and his allies in the anti-Zionist camp has proven extremely personal in nature and vituperative in character. Rather than engage in a tit-for-tat, I will do what I have felt forced to do in the past when attacked by the so-called “pro-Israel” camp: that is, explain my own political development as it relates to the issue. I do so not to because I expect it will convince my critics of anything, but simply to create a record against which present and future distortions of my work may be fairly judged.
My very first appearance in the mainstream media occurred in the autumn of 1982, when I published a letter to the editor of The Washington Post regarding the then-recent massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps in so-called “Sabra” and “Shatilla,” following the June 6, 1982, Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was rather long, but the gist of it read: “The gradual erosion of the moral foundations of the Jewish state, which has understandably taken place under [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, could not have occurred without the cowardly acquiescence of the Jewish leadership of this country. The Lebanese invasion and the recent tragedies in Beirut are merely the logical outgrowth of a bankrupt policy.” A few years later, after attending graduate school, I researched and wrote one of the earliest exposés of the bullying tactics of AIPAC to appear in the mainstream media; this time in the now-defunct Regardie’s magazine.
My next major foray into the issue took place during the first intifada. I travelled to the West Bank to tell the story of an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy who had been murdered by an Israeli settler and the Israeli Defense Force, respectively, in the West Bank village of Beita. The article was commissioned by Vanity Fair but was rejected, and ran instead in the now-defunct Present Tense, which was then published by the American Jewish Committee in penance for its publication of Commentary. I had to sneak into Beita with Palestinian guides to do the story, which exploded the official Israeli explanation of both killings. The name of the teenage Israeli settler girl appeared in literally hundreds of stories—she was the first Israeli to be killed in the intifada, but my story was, I believe, the only one anywhere to correctly name the young Palestinian boy.
I’ve written nine books and many thousands of articles, columns and blog posts in the ensuing decades, and not all of them have been gems. When I was blogging every day for MSNBC and later for Media Matters, I wrote a few things I should probably have said differently, and would have done so had I taken more time with my words. That’s one reason I no longer do it. But overall, I’m proud of my record. And while I did experience considerable sniping over the years from the likes of the late Alexander Cockburn and a few of his acolytes, the vast majority of the attacks on my articles dealing with the Middle East have come from neoconservatives and the so-called “pro-Israel” community who attempted to portray my criticism of Israel as beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and to silence them as a result.
A few examples:
In 2002, in a column that continues to cause me tsuris until this day, I grew frustrated with how weak a voice Palestinians enjoyed in the mainstream media, and wrote a piece for MSNBC in which I noted, “In most of the world, it is the Palestinian narrative of a dispossessed people that dominates,” but in the US it was Israel’s.” One reason I offered for this was the “pro-Israel “domination of the punditocracy, with approximately seventy members—and I named them—who could be “could be counted upon to support Israeli reflexively and without qualification.” “The value of this legion to the Jewish state,” I added, was literally incalculable, but it certainly prevented the Palestinians from having their voices heard and their case put before the public. A United Press International column wrote at the time, “Alterman’s list feeds into the racist paranoia that the media is controlled by the Jews. Lists such as the one he has assembled are of little value except to extremists looking to prove a point.” Andrew Sullivan went a bit further. He compared my column, I kid you not, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and I still see it turning up as a reference on the websites of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, as well as garden-variety Israel-haters and anti-Zionists. But what it said was true.
Three years later, in 2005, and also on MSNBC, I wrote critically of those pundits who objected to Israeli Arabs’ and West Bank Palestinians’ refusal to honor Israel’s observance of the Holocaust. “I’m a Jew,” I wrote, “but I don’t expect Arabs to pay tribute to my people’s suffering while Jews, in the form of Israel and its supporters—and in this I include myself—are causing much of theirs.” “The Palestinians have also suffered because of the Holocaust,” I added. “They lost their homeland as the world—in the form of the United Nations—reacted to European crimes by awarding half of Palestine to the Zionists… . To ask Arabs to participate in a ceremony that does not recognize their own suffering but implicitly endorses the view that caused their catastrophe is morally idiotic.”
This resulted in a Boston Globe column by a woman named Cathy Young, who wrote, “Call it self-hatred or something less psychoanalytic; the bottom line is, this is the kind of rhetoric that, coming from a non-Jew, would be clearly seen as anti-Semitic.” Young even accused me of blaming “long-dead Holocaust victims” for Palestinian misery and arguing that “every Muslim is justified in viewing every Jew as the enemy.” (In fact, the item in question spoke of Arabs, not “Muslims.”) She concluded: “We live at a time when anti-Semitic rhetoric is creeping into the respectable mainstream: on the left, in the form of Israel-bashing… I’m not sure whether such rhetoric is any more reprehensible when it comes from Jews. But it is certainly no better.”
This was a particularly tasteless attack, but it consistent with much of what I have seen written by members of the so-called “pro-Israel community” in order to delegitimize my views. Just two years ago, in 2011, ex-AIPAC flack Josh Block, told Politico, referring to a column I published on Americanprogress.org, where I have been a columnist for exactly ten years today, “Either they can allow people to say borderline anti-Semitic stuff’—a reference to what he described as conspiracy theorizing in the Alterman column—‘and to say things that are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Democratic party, or they can fire them and stop it.’” (I was not asked by Politico to respond to this characterization, by the way, when the article was published.) Block, who has since been named head of The Israel Project, was referring to a column in which I argued that members of the Israel lobby, on behalf of Bibi Netanyahu, had been advocating an American attack on Iran. When The Forward, where I was also a columnist at the time, did not allow me to respond to this smear in a timely fashion—and without the interference of my editor there—I resigned my position.
I could point to any number of such incidents over the past thirty years; incidents that are in many respects the mirror image of the one inspired by my column on Blumenthal’s book. I suppose the major difference between the attacks of the conservatives who fund and control the professional Jewish organizations and those of Blumenthal and company is that the while the former have the money and power to interfere with my career and undermine my ability to earn my living as a writer and a scholar, the latter have only Twitter accounts.
And speaking of which, I have been unable to keep up with the all of attacks on Twitter, and see no reason even to try, given the quality of the insights that have come my way. But I would like to respond to two of Mr. Blumenthal’s that have been forwarded to me by friends with more patience than I.
First, before almost anyone, including myself, had even seen the column in the magazine, Mr. Blumenthal expressed apparent shock and anger that I had declined an invitation to debate him on Bloggingheads.tv. Keep in mind that I have never debated any subject of a Nation column that I’ve published in the eighteen years I’ve been doing this. The magazine pays me to write a column, not to debate its subjects. Blumenthal also had no reason to believe that I’d want to appear on Bloggingheads for any reason. I’ve not done so in four and a half years, since March 2009. I did two shows in 2008; one to plug my own book, and one to give my late friend, Christopher Hitchens, a chance to explain why everything he had ever said about the Iraq War had turned out to be wrong. Before that, the last time I appeared was June of 2007. I don’t begrudge Blumenthal his attempts to gin up attention for a book that is being (appropriately) ignored, but I wish he’d do it less hysterically and more honestly.
Similarly, I have also seen myself repeatedly accused of defending Bibi Netanyahu as “sensible and sincere” without any attached qualification. This is due to the paragraph in my column where I note that I find it odd that Blumenthal would condescendingly treat the editor of Haaretz as naïve because he believes that Netanyahu’s advocacy of an attack on Iran to be genuine. I find this bizarre. It would not be easy to find a columnist who has shown less sympathy for Bibi Netanyahu, particularly with regard to his refusal to negotiate fairly and honestly with the Palestinians. I see, via Google, that I wrote a piece for The Daily Beast in June of 2009 titled “Bibi’s Bait and Switch.” It is just one of many. Moreover, I imagine I set a world record for criticism of The New Republic under Martin Peretz on this, and pretty much every issue relating to Israel and the Palestinians. Most intelligent people are capable of understanding that it is possible for Netanyahu to wish to ignore legitimate Palestinian demands and simultaneously, to enable an attack on Iran. One hardly need negate the other. I don’t understand why it’s such a problem for Mr. Blumenthal and friends.
Moreover, I have been frequently accused by Blumenthal boosters of instructing the Palestinians and their supporters how to behave. Well, perhaps I am guilty of this. But I won’t pretend that I do so because I hold some special concern in my heart for Palestinians, any more than I do the Kurds, or Cubans or Canadians, Cantonese, Khazars, Kazakhs, etc. Of course I care about all God’s children, etc, but the intensity of my interest with the issue derives from a combination of my own country’s responsibility in the region as well as my profound emotional and intellectual attachments as a Jew. To the degree I address myself to supporters of the Palestinian cause, I do so because I would very much like to see Israel end its ruinous occupation and live alongside a Palestinian state with peace and dignity for both sides, and I fear that the Palestinian leadership, both today and in the past, has helped to make this much harder to do than it had to be. Were both nations to compromise—the Israelis, more than the Palestinians, of course, as they are the occupying power—the historic Zionist project might right itself from the wrong turn it took in 1967. In addition, the United States would be able to end its costly and counterproductive participation in Israel’s continued oppression and occupation of the Palestinian people, which causes so much hatred toward us around the world and no doubt helps to inspire countless terrorist acts against innocent individuals in both nations.
Unfortunately, as I have argued at length here and here, I feel pretty confident that the BDS strategy will accomplish exactly the opposite—to harden Israeli opposition to the kinds of concessions necessary to build trust between both sides and provide the basis for taking the necessary risks for peace. In this respect it reminds me of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. There’s no remotely practical theory of success, merely the insistence that one’s conscience should dictate one’s political actions, irrespective of results. I find such behavior deeply irresponsible, as it abandons the victims of injustice to salve the feelings of those who profess to care their welfare. And just as Ralph Nader and company helped to saddle the world with George Bush, Dick Cheney and the invasion of Iraq, among so many other awful things, I see BDS undermining the very people in Israel—academics and cultural figures primarily—who are doing the most to fight the occupation and advocate for a modicum of justice for those under oppression.
I wouldn’t expect anyone in a position of authority on the Palestinian side to care what I think. (Nor do I expect the personal attacks on me to stop any time soon, just as they continue from the days of Nader’s politically suicidal campaign, now thirteen years ago.) But leaving me out of it for a moment, I would be awfully interested in hearing what Blumenthal and his allies in the BDS movement believe they are likely to accomplish with their insistence that Israel simply stop doing what it’s doing when they cannot bring themselves even to recognize the reasons it does so. In the absence of that recognition—the continuation, in other words, of the “big meanie” critique—lies the continued misery of the Palestinian people and a great deal of unnecessary death and suffering for all concerned.
Finally, and I do hope I mean that since I’m writing this damn thing for free, I’ve returned over and over in my Nation columns and elsewhere to the topic of “Jewish McCarthyism”—that is the desire to shut down honest debate over Israel with accusations of anti-Semitism by neocons and other partisans of Israeli intransigence vis-à-vis the Palestinians. (I first addressed it in The Nation twenty-two years ago, in 1991, during the first Iraq war in an article called “Semites and Anti-Semites.”) The personal attacks leveled by Blumenthal boosters and BDS partisans over disagreements with my work do not fall into the same category, exactly, but they do serve the same purpose. If my editors came to me again and asked me to devote my column to Blumenthal’s book, knowing what I know now, I would tell them, “No, thanks.” Why invite such personal abuse into one’s life, especially to address the flaws in a book that is not likely to convince anyone of anything anyway? On the basis of such examples, I imagine that critics of both of BDS and Israeli hardliners will decide to choose other topics for debate and discussion as well. So maazel tov to them on that, at least.
Now let’s go Sox!
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P.S. I understand that Max’s father, Sid Blumenthal, loves his son and would not enjoy seeing his work so severely criticized. Naturally, I don’t blame him for this, I’m a father myself. Even so, I was disappointed to see Sid sending around scurrilous attacks on yours truly to our mutual friends, just as I thought it a mistake when he did the same thing to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. Though to be honest, I don’t mind the company…
Editor's note: Eric Alterman will respond to Max Blumenthal's most recent post in the Letters to the Editor section of a forthcoming issue of The Nation.