Max Blumenthal is one of the leading Jewish-American critics of Israel. His latest book, Goliath: Fear and Loathing in Greater Israel, has caused considerable controversy for its coverage of racism and militarism in Israel. This week, Max will be one of a group of thirty Jews coming from across the world on Jewdas’s BirthWrong tour to Andalusia. We had the chance to talk with him before he joins us. We talk about Zionism, Jewish diaspora, anti-Semitism and sunny Spain.
Jewdas: Your book “Goliath” talks about the extreme racism and militarism in Israel. How much of that do you think will continue with Netenyahu’s reelection?
Max Blumenthal: We will see the Israeli right in a triumphalist mode. Following his reelection, Netenyahu no longer has to position himself at the hollow centre of Israeli society. He’ll now be in a position to get behind the Jewish nation state law, or what I call the “JSIL (Jewish State of Iraq and the Levant) law”, which was first introduced to the Knesset in 2011.
This law defines Israel explicitly as a Jewish state, with its Jewishness taking precedence over its democratic character. Although the bill has been watered down, it still includes removing Arabic as a second language. We’ll see the religious right and the secular right unite on this platform, claiming a mandate from the election to advance the hyper-nationalist agenda.
Netenyahu will himself claim a mandate to oppose “Obamastan”, especially following Iran’s nuclear deal. He’s supported in this by his friend and longtime advisor, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, a card-carrying Republican who has close ties to the Republican Jewish elite of Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer, whose outfits want to drive pro-Israel support firmly into the Republican column.
He and Netanyahu see Iran and its allies like Hezbollah as far more threatening than Al Qaeda-allied Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. That’s why you see Israel treating Jabhat al Nusra soldiers and letting them back over the Syrian border. Groups affiliated with Hamas like Bayt al-Makdis are fighting against ISIS in Yarmouk, and Israel is backing those fighting against them. This is an extension of Israel aligning itself with Saudi Arabia in the current geopolitical wrangling.
All of this means that we’re heading towards a massive confrontation within the region, as well as within US politics.
Jewdas: The flipside of Netenyahu’s reelection has been that it’s caused even more disillusionment and anger with Diaspora Jews against Israel. How important a role do you think Diaspora Jews play in challenging Israel?
Max: Diaspora Jews can no longer stand aside and be apathetic, especially within Europe, because there, the Israel-Palestine crisis is helping to drive anti-Semitism. This is actually something that we and the Zionists agree on.
What we don’t agree on is that there are legitimate Palestinian grievances which have morphed into anti-Semitism. The Zionists claim that any surge of anti-Semitism is simply an extension of endemic Islamic anti-Semitism, which supposedly stretches back 700 years. And they have deliberately blurred the distinction between Jews and Israel in order to advance their own agenda of fomenting a clash of civilizations. They want to reorient the clash in Israel-Palestine over resisting colonialism into a global religious war.
I’ll give you an example of that. After the Paris attacks against Jews earlier this year, Netanyahu actually told French Jews that Israel was their true home and that they all should move there. Netanyahu, like the anti-Semites, is pushing this vision of a Judenrein Europe.
So Diaspora Jews are in this position of having to fight against the collusion between the Kouachi brothers and Netanyahu; of being caught between JSIL and ISIL. The beginning of any pushback against this terrible scenario is the construction of a Jewish future beyond Zionism, that builds links with other oppressed groups and promotes a diaspora-centered Jewish history, which is completely independent of Israel and Zionism.
Jewdas: With such a big task ahead then, do you see much reason to be hopeful?
Max: Definitely. The dark dystopian vision Netanyahu is advancing, which comes straight out of traditional Zionist ideology, combined with a Huntingtonian “Clash of Civilisations” thesis, just isn’t attractive to most Jews.
Opinion polls of American Jews, particularly of our age and younger, show that they’re very skeptical about Israel’s desire for peace, and even if this is a country we should be supporting at all.
A good example is Rabbi Brant Rosen, who led a Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, Illinois, until he was removed, apparently for his public protest against the war in Gaza last summer. Brant started out as a liberal Zionist and wound up as one of the most forceful Jewish voices promoting BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions – a set of actions in solidarity with a call-out from Palestinian civil society). I meet Jews all the time, and even a few rabbis, who are of the same view, who tell me some version of “Liberal Zionism is utter bullshit and I just can’t do it any more.”
So Jewish Voice for Peace is now the fastest-growing Jewish organisation in the US, and it is out there promoting BDS. There are so many alternative movements forming outside of, and against, Zionism. Jewdas is a perfect example of that. It’s helping us to break out of this intellectual bubble that Zionism’s created for us, and it’s so important that we do because Zionism forces you to dumb yourself down.
Jewdas: Have you encountered much hostility from the mainstream Jewish establishment?
Max: I have encountered organised hostility, but it’s mostly been put forward top-down by a small coterie of neoconservative Republicans who have no grassroots base. They’ve advanced a smear campaign against me, generally fabricated and based on half-truths, to construct an image of me as anti-Semitic. For the most part, it hasn’t gained much traction outside of the neoconservative hothouse.
However, it has had an impact. In Germany, their narrative gained traction, and they managed to get events canceled where I was supposed to speak. There are elements in Germany society that see Palestinians, and even anti-Zionist Jewish narratives, as a threat to how Germany’s dealt with the lessons of the Holocaust.
When I take the universalist approach to dealing with the Holocaust, making clear that I’m saying “never again – to anyone, including the Palestinians”, they claim that’s anti-Semitism — that I’m equating Israelis to Nazis. This tactic is often used to silence pro-Palestinian voices.
So when I came to Germany, many politicians, including many who identify as leftists, accused me of anti-Semitism and put pressure on hosts to cancel where I was going to be speaking with the Jewish-Israeli journalist David Sheen.
Jewdas: Why do you think this is the case in Germany?
Max: There are a number of reasons why Germany’s dealt with the Holocaust in the way it has. By supporting Israel, Germany can of course curry favour with the USA, advancing the post-Cold War state that is comfortable with American empire and neoliberalism, but there’s more to it than that. There’s also the issue of reparations and accountability.
Rather than seek absolution from Jews around the world, which is fraught with difficulty, Germany got off easy, paying off Israel in the form of aid, which was initially very useful to Israel in the 1950s when it was beginning to place Palestinians inside Israel under military occupation. They’ve also paid off Israel with military hardware, such as Corvette ships that they’ve recently sent over to enforce the naval siege of Gaza.
So it’s clear that, by their logic, if Germany wants to absolve itself of the crime of genocide, Germany believes it needs to be complicit in human rights crimes against the Palestinians. And it’s for disagreeing with that, that they called me anti-Semitic.
Jewdas: With all this in mind, do you ever find it difficult to carry on being Jewish? Here, in Europe, we have people like Gilad Atzmon, who see Jewishness as the problem and reject their Judaism.
Max: The atrocities committed by Israel and its racism have absolutely no bearing on me maintaining a Jewish identity. It’s not a challenge for me to see that Judaism’s prophetic voice speaks beyond space and time, and certainly beyond the militarized frontiers of Israel. Israel doesn’t at all make me feel guilty for being a Jew.
But I do have practical difficulties keeping up my Judaism. With my work, I move around a lot. I’m always in new places with new people, and while I’ll be somewhere with a group of leftist Jews and literally the next day I might find myself in the deep suburbs of Los Angeles speaking in a mosque. And that’s great, I love being out there, but that’s not my religion.
And I’m constantly being bombarded with attacks from fanatical Zionists who explicitly demand I give up on being a Jew and become the anti-Semite they want me to be. In order to resist this kind of gaslighting, I want to stay connected with like-minded Jews. That’s why I’m so grateful for groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jewdas, who not only share my values but are also generally cool people.
And the main thing I’m grateful for is having a supportive family. The biggest barrier for many young anti-Zionist Jews is “coming out” to their families. It can do deep damage to somebody’s personal life to make that political decision. I often find myself playing counsellor to younger anti-Zionist Jews going through the struggle of balancing their personal politics with their relationship with their families.
When my book, Goliath, was published, the first thing Zionists did was to try to emotionally and politically attack my family. My family are connected to the Clintons (Max’s father, Sidney, was an aide to the former President) and they held a book launch at their house. These Zionists tried to paint it as some kind of scandal that my parents were proud of me.
Alan Dershowitz (a right-wing political commentator and trial lawyer in the US) basically said that either my parents change the locks on their doors to keep me out, or the Clintons would have to publicly denounce them. I’m thankful that my family laughed it off for the joke it was.
In fact, my mother bought pizza for the book launch, so I guess she’s guilty of material support for anti-Semitism.
Jewdas: You’re about to come with us on BirthWrong, our radical Jewish trip to Andalusia. What made you decide to come?
Max: I first heard about BirthWrong when I met a contingent of Jewdas in London breaking Yom Kippur fast last year. It was an idea I’d always entertained in my own mind, that we need an agenda that not only shows young Jews what lies behind the separation wall, but that we provide them with an exit ramp off of the Zionist super-highway to dystopia. So many non-Zionist Jews don’t feel like they can make the transition to anti-Zionism unless they can hold on to their Jewish identities, and that’s why it’s so urgent to start this kind of movement.
I realised that Jewdas were serious, committed organisers who were actually going to Spain to lay the groundwork for the trip, and I was amazed at seeing them actually taking the initiative. I loved the people and I loved hanging out with them, so I decided to go on the trip. Mondoweiss agreed to fund my ticket because they saw value in it too, and thanks to them my participation is logistically possible.
I love the fact that this trip is centered around Andalusia. It’s so important to build on the concept of the “Levantine Bridge” between Sephardic Judaism and Arab Islam. Cordoba’s a great place to focus the trip on, because it offers us so much history of religious co-existence and solidarity, and shows us a way forward beyond the damage that forced separation has done in the Holy Land.
I am going with some apprehension, however. I hope this isn’t a diversion from my work. Baltimore, a place that I have a real connection with, partly because I grew up in Washington DC, is on fire right now and I’m about to take off for a sunny trip in southern Spain, so I have some regrets about that. I feel that what’s happening in my own backyard is at least as important as what’s happening internationally.
Moreover, we’re going to be partying – at least part of the time – as a migrant crisis is happening not many miles away in the Mediterranean, and we’re able to do that because we have these passports that give us the privilege to go on holiday across international borders or live as expats wherever we want. While this is happening, the EU is going to be debating militarily attacking these migrant boats full of people who are not welcome in the Western world.
I don’t want to be too earnest, but I hope that we can use this time together to sharpen our vision, to engage with these catastrophes unfolding all around us and to energize one another.
Max Blumenthal’s views are his own. Jewdas is a network of radical, Diasporist Jews. Our activists all have different political and religious opinions. We are united by our love of the Diaspora. If you’d like to get involved, or have something to say, get in touch.