Thinking Aloud: “Goliath”

Apr. 6, 2014 by Darius 

I recently read Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel by American writer Max Blumenthal.  Goliath focuses on the litany of anti-democratic and racist movements sweeping Israel, reaching all the way into the Knesset.  

Goliath is based on several lengthy trips Blumenthal took to Israel around 2010.  In fact, 2010 forms a backdrop to the entire book:  in that year, Israel’s military invaded Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”).  While Operation Cast Lead was underway, Israeli elections took place.  The result was, as Blumenthal puts it, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.  Goliath is largely an attempt to bring to light the actions of this government and those who put it in power.

Much of Goliath focuses on the anti-democratic laws passed by the Knesset elected in 2010.  Most of these laws target Israel’s Arab minority.  The Nakba Law, for example, makes it a crime for Arabs to commemorate Nakba Day, the day thousands lost their homes and lives.  Nakba Day is known to Jewish Israelis as Independence Day; the two communities have greatly divergent views of the significance of the events of 1948.  Now, though, Arabs are forbidden from commemorating what they see as their tragic loss.  Other laws have repeatedly specifically targeted Arab parties in the Knesset and even individual Arab parliamentarians.

Blumenthal also reveals the systemic discrimination among Jews in Israel.  During the first few decades of Israel’s existence, the country was populated and dominated by Jews from Eastern Europe, known as Ashkenazim.  During the 1970s and 1980s, though, many Jews from Middle Eastern countries, known as Mizrahim, arrived in Israel.  Finally, during the 1990s, a wave of Russian Jews also arrived in Israel.  The newcomers, both the Mizrahim and the Russian Jews, were often consigned to poorer parts of Israeli cities, including in West Bank settlements, and formed an economic and social underclass.  The Mizrahim and Russians are also much more right-wing and hostile to Arabs than are the Ashkenazi elite; Blumenthal likened the situation to the Jim Crow South, where some of the most racist members of society were poor whites.  Blumenthal also details how the Russian Jews brought with them their Russian affection for authoritarian strongmen, personified by Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman.

Blumenthal also details Israel’s treatment of asylum seekers from Africa escaping dictatorial regimes.  Here is where unadulterated racism appears.  Numerous campaigns have sprung up among Israeli Jews to (a) deport Africans and (b) prevent Africans and Arabs from marrying Jewish women to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority.  The apocalyptic language used to describe the “demographic threat” was quite jaw-dropping.

What was most surprising to me in reading Goliath, though, was the way the Israeli right has grown to treat the Israeli left.  Leftist rallies are routinely attacked by right-wing thugs (often Russians, according to Blumenthal); leftist politicians in Israel routinely receive death threats.  In the face of this right-wing barrage, Israel’s ostensibly centrist and leftist parties in the Knesset have become a sort of loyal opposition, even occasionally jumping in as co-sponsors of anti-democratic legislation themselves.

Some books are “warts and all” portrayals.  Goliath pretty much focuses on just the warts on modern Israel.  It isn’t an easy book to read, but it is an important book – what it documents is just too important to not be part of the debate.

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