Anyone familiar with Max Blumenthal’s journalism—in print or video (his interviews with Chicken Hawk Republicans are legendary)—knows him to be absolutely fearless. Whether he’s exploring the id of American conservatism or the contradictions of Israeli nationalism, Max heads deep into the dark places and doesn’t stop till he’s turned on all the lights.
Courage in journalism requires not only physical fortitude but also an especially shrewd and sophisticated mode of intelligence. It’s not enough to go into a war zone; you have to know how to size up your marks, not get taken in by the locals with their lore, and know when and how to squeeze your informants.
Max possesses those qualities in spades. With laser precision, he zeroes in on the most vulnerable point of his subjects’ position or argument—he reminds me in this respect of an analytical philosopher—and quietly and calmly takes aim. In academia, this can make people squirmy and uncomfortable; in politics, it makes them downright nasty and scary. But Max remains unflappable; he’s never fazed. And that, I think, is because he’s not interested in making people look foolish or absurd. He’s not a gonzo of gotcha. He’s genuinely interested in the truth, and knows that the truth in politics often lurks in those dark caves of viciousness.
Max’s new book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel has just come out. It’s a big book, but it’s conveniently organized into short chapters, each a particular vignette capturing some element of contemporary Israeli politics and culture (not just on the right but across the entire society). I’m still reading it, but it’s the kind of book that you just open to any chapter and quickly get a sense of both the particular and the whole. You’ll find yourself instantly immersed in an engrossing family romance—one part tender, one part train-wreck—and wish you had the entire day to keep reading. Put it down, and pick it up the next day, and you’ll have the exact same feeling.
One chapter, in particular—”The Insiders”—has gotten into my head these past few weeks. It’s a portrait of David Grossman, the Israeli writer who’s often treated in this country as something of secular saint. Less arresting (and affected) than Amos Oz, the lefty Grossman was to Jews of my generation a revelatory voice, particularly during the First Intifada. But in the last decade, his brand of liberal Zionism has come to seem more of a problem than a solution.
I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first started reading the chapter because Grossman is not a typical subject for Max. He’s cagey, elusive, slippery. Max knows how to fell Goliath, I thought to myself, but can he get inside David? Turns out, he can.
Max begins his treatment of Grossman by setting out the conundrum of many lefty Israelis: like other liberal Zionists, Grossman thinks Israel’s original sin is 1967, when the state seized the West Bank and Gaza and the Occupation officially began. But that position ignores 1948, when Jewish settlers, fighters, and officials expelled Palestinians from their homes in order to create the State of Israel itself.
But notice how Max sets the table. Rather than rolling out the standard anti-Zionist party line, Max weaves in the voices of the Israeli right, creating a conversation of difficult contrapuntal voices. It makes for a wonderful, if excruciating, tension.
Despite his outrage at the misdeeds committed after 1967, Grossman excised the Nakba from his frame of analysis. Of course, he knew the story of Israel’s foundation, warts and all. But the Nakba was the legacy also of the Zionist left, as were the mass expulsions committed in its wake, and the suite of discriminatory laws passed through the Knesset to legalize the confiscation of Palestinian property. Were these the acts of an “enlightened nation?” By singling out the settlement movement as the source of Israel’s crisis, Grossman and liberal Zionists elided the question altogether, starting the history at 1967.
Though the Zionist left kept the past tucked behind the narrative of the Green Line, veterans of the Jabotinskyite right-wing were unashamed. In September 2010, when sixty actors and artists staged a boycott of a new cultural center in the West Bank–based mega-settlement of Ariel, earning a public endorsement from Grossman, who cast the boycott as a desperate measure to save the Zionist future from the settlers, they were angrily rebuked by Knesset chairman Reuven Rivlin.
A supporter of Greater Israel from the Likud Party, Rivlin was also a fluent Arabic speaker who rejected the Labor Zionist vision of total separation from the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. (He appeared earlier in this book to defend Hanin Zoabi’s right to denounce Israel’s lethal raid of the Mavi Marmara against dozens of frothing members of Knesset.) Contradicting the official Israeli Foreign Ministry version of the Nakba, which falsely asserted that Palestinians “abandoned their homes…at the request of Arab leaders,” Rivlin reminded the liberal Zionists boycotting Ariel of their own history. Those who bore the legacy of the Nakba, Rivlin claimed, had stolen more than the settlers ever intended to take.
“I say to those who want to boycott—Deer Balkum [“beware” in Arabic]. Those who expelled Arabs from En-Karem, from Jaffa, and from Katamon [in 1948] lost the moral right to boycott Ariel,” Rivlin told Maariv. Assailing the boycotters for a “lack of intellectual honesty,” Rivlin reminded them that the economic settlers of Ariel were sent across the Green Line “due to the orders of society, and some might say—due to the orders of Zionism.”
Greater Israel had become the reality while the Green Line Israel had become the fantasy. But with the election of Barack Obama, a figure the Zionist left considered their great hope, figures like David Grossman believed that they would soon be released from their despair.
That line about Rivlin being a fluent Arabic speaker is a nice touch. But that line “those who bore the legacy of the Nakba, Rivlin claimed, had stolen more than the settlers ever intended to take” made me shiver.
Max managed to get an interview with Grossman in 2009 at a very difficult moment in Grossman’s life. Grossman’s son had been killed in the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and he wasn’t giving interviews. But Max got one.
He opens his account of that encounter on a sympathetic note:
Grossman had told me in advance that he would agree to speak only off the record. But when I arrived at our meeting famished and soaked in sweat after a journey from Tel Aviv, he suddenly changed his mind. “Since you have come such a long way, I will offer you an interview,” he said. But he issued two conditions. First, “You must order some food. I cannot sit here and watch you starve.” And second, “No questions about my son, okay?”
Grossman was a small man with a shock of sandy brown hair and intense eyes. He spoke in a soft, low tone tinged with indignation, choosing his words carefully as though he were constructing prose. Though his Hebrew accent was strongly pronounced, his English was superior to most American writers I had interviewed, enabling him to reduce complex insights into impressively economical soundbites.
Max then moves the interview to politics, and you can feel his frustration with Grossman starting to build.
At the time, Grossman was brimming with optimism about Barack Obama’s presidency. Though the Israeli right loathed Obama, joining extreme rightists in the campaign to demonize him as a crypto-Muslim, a foreigner, and a black radical, liberal Zionists believed they had one of their own in the White House. Indulging their speculation, some looked to Obama’s friendship in Chicago with Arnold Jacob Wolf, a left-wing Reform rabbi who had crusaded for a two state solution during the 1970s before it was a mainstream position. If only Obama could apply appropriate pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu, still widely regarded as a blustering pushover, Israel could embark again on the march to the Promised Land, with the peace camp leading the tribe.
“This is the moment when Israel needs to see Likud come into contact with reality,” Grossman told me. “For years they have played the role of this hallucinating child who wants everything and asks for more and more. Now they are confronted with a harsh counterpoint by Mr. Obama, and they have to decide if they cooperate with what Obama says—a two-state solution—or continue to ask for everything.”
Grossman seemed confident that Obama was willing to confront Netanyahu, and that he would emerge victorious. “A clash with a strong and popular president is not possible for Israel. Israel can never, ever subjugate an American president,” he claimed. “I see Netanyahu reluctantly accepting the demands of Obama to enter into a two-state solution. [Netanyahu] will pretend to be serious about it, but he will do everything he can to keep the negotiations from becoming concrete. He will drag his feet, blame the Palestinians, and rely on the most extreme elements among the Palestinians to lash out in order to stop negotiations. My hope is that there is a regime in America that recognizes immediately the manipulation of the Likud government and that they won’t be misled.”
By the time Max poses a question about the US flexing its muscles over Israel, you know exactly what Grossman is going to say, and because of the way Max has set things up, you can see the combination of naivete and cynicism in Grossman’s position on full display.
I asked Grossman if Obama should threaten Netanyahu with the withholding of loan guarantees in order to loosen his intransigent stance, as President George H. W. Bush had done to force Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (Netanyahu’s former boss) to the negotiating table. He rejected this idea out of hand. “I hope it shall be settled between friends,” Grossman responded. “The pressure Obama applies should be put in a sensitive way because of Israeli anxieties and our feeling that we’re living on the edge of an abyss. The reactions of Israelis are very unpredictable. It will take simple and delicate pressure for the United States to produce the results they are looking for. But whenever American presidents even hinted they were going to pressure Israel, they got what they wanted. Netanyahu is very ideological, but he is also realistic and he is intelligent, after all. He will recognize the reality he is in.”
Max doesn’t say anything, but you can see his eyes rolling in frustration and impatience (mine certainly were). Now he’s ready to get personal , to zoom in on the empty silence at the heart of Grossman’s position.
For Grossman and liberal Zionists like him, the transformation of Israel from an ethnically exclusive Jewish state into a multiethnic democracy was not an option. “For two thousand years,” Grossman told me when I asked why he believed the preservation of Zionism was necessary, “we have been kept out, we have been excluded. And so for our whole history we were outsiders. Because of Zionism, we finally have the chance to be insiders.”
I told Grossman that my father [Sidney Blumenthal] had been a kind of insider. He had served as a senior aide to Bill Clinton, the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, working alongside other proud Jews like Rahm Emanuel and Sandy Berger. I told him that I was a kind of insider, and that my ambitions had never been obstructed by anti-Semitism. “Honestly, I have a hard time taking this kind of justification seriously,” I told him. “I mean, Jews are enjoying a golden age in the United States.”
It was here that Grossman, the quintessential man of words, found himself at a loss. He looked at me with a quizzical look. Very few Israelis understand American Jews as Americans but instead as belonging to the Diaspora. But very few American Jews think of themselves that way, especially in my generation, and that, too, is something very few Israelis grasp. Grossman’s silence made me uncomfortable, as though I had behaved with impudence, and I quickly shifted the subject from philosophy to politics. Before long, we said goodbye, parting cordially, but not warmly. On my way out of the café, Grossman, apparently wishing to preserve his privacy, requested that I throw my record of his phone number away.
Like Blumenthal, you leave the interview feeling uncomfortable. Both at that anguished and abject confession from Grossman that Jews “finally have the chance to be insiders”—This is what all that brutality against the Palestinians was for? This is what Jews killed and were killed for? To be insiders?—and Blumenthal’s riposte that Jews outside Israel are insiders, too. Whether in Israel or at the highest levels of American power, that’s what we have become: insiders. That’s what Zionism means for us, whether we’re in Israel or without. We’re on the inside. The people of exile, the wandering Jew, has come home.
I’ve been sitting with that bleak exchange for days.