The Anti-Zionist Civil War on the Left
Jonathan S. Tobin
Some in the pro-Israel community are having a good chuckle at the feud that has erupted between Jewish left-wingers in the past couple of weeks. But rather than laughing, those who care not only about Israel but also the direction of the conversation about Israel in the post-Oslo era and what it portends for the future should be concerned.
The exchange between the anti-Zionist Max Blumenthal and his antagonists among the ranks of left-wingers who are often critical of Israel but defend its existence shows how pointless much of the debate that has been carried on between the left and the right about borders and settlements has been. As risible as the arguments put forward by Blumenthal trashing Israelis as “non-indigenous” interlopers in the Arab world who must be made to surrender their sovereignty, culture, and homes may be, they represent the cutting edge of left-wing thought that has come to dominate European discussions of the Middle East.
The dustup centers on Goliath, a new anti-Israel screed by Blumenthal, the son of Clinton administration figure Sidney Blumenthal, published by Nation Books. But to Blumenthal’s chagrin, the magazine (which is no stranger to anti-Zionist articles) allowed columnist Eric Alterman to write about it in The Nation. Alterman is himself a fierce and often obnoxious critic of Israel and defenders of Israel, and has been a major promoter of the myth that the pro-Israel community has been seeking to silence the Jewish state’s critics. Yet Blumenthal’s book was so appalling that Alterman took it apart in the magazine that spawned it. Calling it “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook,” Alterman scored it for its frequent comparisons of the Jews with the Nazis and its complete absence of any acknowledgement of the Muslim and Arab war to destroy Israel. As Alterman wrote in a subsequent blog post, “It is no exaggeration to say that this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club (if it existed).”
To give you a taste of how outrageous this book is, Blumenthal even has the nerve to recount a conversation with Israeli author David Grossman who has been an important figure in the peace movement in which he lectured the Israeli about the need for the state to be dismantled and for its citizens to make their peace with the need to rejoin the Diaspora rather than to cling to their homes. Grossman responds to Blumenthal by walking out and telling him to tear up his phone number. Blumenthal attributes Grossman’s reaction to Israeli myopia.
But it gets better. As the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg writes in his own column on the dispute, Blumenthal appeared at a Philadelphia event with the University of Pennsylvania’s Ian Lustick (whose recent anti-Zionist diatribe in the New York Times was discussed here).
Almost halfway through their 83-minute encounter (minute 34:00 on YouTube), Lustick emotionally asks Blumenthal whether he believes, like Abraham at Sodom, that there are enough “good people” in Israel to justify its continued existence — or whether he’s calling for a mass “exodus,” the title of his last chapter, and “the end of Jewish collective life in the land of Israel.”
Blumenthal gives a convoluted answer that comes down to this: “There should be a choice placed to the settler-colonial population” (meaning the entire Jewish population of Israel): “Become indigenized,” that is, “you have to be part of the Arab world.” Or else …? “The maintenance and engineering of a non-indigenous demographic population is non-negotiable.”
This is sobering stuff and, as Goldberg, put it, “a chilling moment even for the anti-Zionists among us.”
The bottom line here is that the real debate about the Middle East is not between the so-called “Jewish establishment” and left-wing critics of Israel like the J Street lobby and writers like Alterman and Goldberg. Rather it is between anyone who recognizes that Jews have a right to a state and those who wish to see that state destroyed. The vitriolic nature of Blumenthal’s disingenuous responses (here and here) to criticisms from these left-wing writers is, in its own way, a mirror image of the way Palestinians and European anti-Zionists have raised the ante in the past two decades as the line between critiques of Israel and traditional Jew-hatred have been blurred. Suffice it to say that in Blumenthal’s world, anyone who believes in the Jewish right to a state even in a tiny slice of their ancient homeland is a fascist, a Nazi, or a fellow traveler.
This shows how the discussion of Israel has deteriorated in the last generation of peace processing. Instead of appeasing its critics, every move toward peace in which Israel has given up territory has only convinced its enemies that it can be portrayed as a thief that can be made to surrender stolen property. While some of Israel’s critics think that conception can be limited to the lands beyond the 1949 cease-fire lines, people like Blumenthal remind us that this is an illusion.
For 20 years since the Oslo Accords Israel tried to trade land for peace only to have each offer of statehood for the Palestinians be rejected. Despite the spin that is directed at the West by some Palestinians, their culture of hatred for Israel and the Jews has made it impossible for even their most “moderate” leaders to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. While Israel’s political thinking has shifted in this period to the point where even the supposedly “hard line” Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted a two-state solution, the Palestinians remain stuck in a time warp in which Fatah and Hamas compete for support based on their belligerency toward the Jews.
Unfortunately many American Jews are similarly stuck in the past and cling to the belief that Israel could entice the Palestinians to make peace via concessions. But rather than continuing to bang away at each other, as they have for a generation, the pro-Israel left and the pro-Israel right need to focus on the real opponent: the growing BDS (boycott, disinvest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic warfare on the Jewish state whose aim is its destruction and its allies.
Alterman and Goldberg may think that if only Netanyahu and the overwhelming majority of Israelis who have drawn logical conclusions from Oslo’s collapse would change their minds, peace would be possible. But they, like those on the right who see them and J Street as the real enemy, are wasting their time. The only argument that means anything in the post-Oslo era is between those who stand with Israel’s right to exist and those who oppose it. While Blumenthal’s despicable hate is deserving of every possible condemnation, he deserves our thanks for reminding us of this.