Eric Alterman, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College/ CUNY and The Nation magazine’s news media columnist, defends his scathing review of Max Blumenthal’s new book on Israel (Goliath), which he calls “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook.” His lengthy online response to Blumenthal and other anti-Israel critics of his review is also cleverly dubbed, “Despicable Me.”
It’s interesting that in crossing swords with Alterman, he’s found a brilliant left-liberal firebrand, who is also ferociously critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and of people who make excuses for these policies. His second piece — his retort to Blumenthal and his defenders — makes this clear, in some ways coming off as another indictment of Israel and its most fanatical supporters. He reminds his readers, for example, that he’s long been diligent in taking on Martin Peretz, the former publisher/editor-in-chief of The New Republic, known for being hyperbolically pro-Israel. I was surprised to learn over time that Alterman is not the anti-Israel stalwart I had thought he was. (Although not an activist, he’s evidently a supporter of J Street; I’ve seen him at conferences.)
Blumenthal evinces no interest in the larger context of Israel’s actions. Potential threats that emanate from Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Syria, Iran, etc., receive virtually no mention in these pages. Israel’s actions are attributed exclusively to the myopia of its citizens. Blumenthal blames “Israeli society’s nationalistic impulses,” its politicians who struggle “to outdo one another in a competition for the most convincing exaltation of violence against the Arab evildoers,” its “fever swamps,” its “unprovoked violence against the Arab outclass,” and its textbooks that “indoctrinate Jewish children into the culture of militarism.” It would have been easy for him to at least pretend to even-handedness here. Did it not occur to Blumenthal, for instance, that Palestinians have textbooks as well?
And this further paragraph illustrates Blumental’s myopia:
. . . Blumenthal is granted a rare interview with the deeply admired left-wing Israeli author David Grossman…. Grossman rejects Blumenthal’s proposal for “the transformation of Israel from an ethnically exclusive Jewish state into a multiethnic democracy,” not for the obvious reasons—that it is a pipe dream, given the hatred between the two sides—but because of his understanding of 2,000 years of Jewish history, in which restrictions have kept Jews from fully participating in the life of the societies in which they’ve lived. This inspires Blumenthal to lecture him that his own personal experience as the son of a White House “insider”—Clinton adviser and former journalist Sidney Blumenthal—and the experience of other “insider” Jews in the United States leads him to “have a hard time taking [Grossman’s] justification seriously.” The Israeli author and champion of its peace movement soon thereafter ends the interview and asks Blumenthal to please tear up his phone number. Here, our author attributes the response he receives, yet again, to Israeli myopia and lack of understanding of the way the world really works.
My sole argument with Alterman here is that his readers in The Nation need to be told a little more. Israel, where Arabic is an official language and most Arabs within the Green Line are citizens, is not really “an ethnically exclusive Jewish state,” but it is flawed as a democracy for seriously disadvantaging its Arab minority in a number of ways.
And the tragedy of Jewish history isn’t only that “restrictions have kept Jews from fully participating in the life of the societies in which they’ve lived,” but that Jews who have risen to be “insiders,” like Blumenthal’s father, have often set their communities up for a fall. The most glaring historical examples are in Moorish Spain and then in 20th century Germany, but this is also true in most of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The United States is a country that has evolved into an unprecedented stew of races, religions and ethnicities. But Europe has under 30 percent of the number of Jews it had in 1939, and there are fewer than 10,000 Jews left in the Arab world where there were upwards of 800,000 in 1949. The American example is an ideal case which we hope will endure, but it is one of the few exceptions to a sorry history, and one that even in the United States has its dark moments and problem areas when it comes to anti-Jewish prejudice.