There’s an unpleasant little debate sloshing around the Web lately that tells you all you need to know — and perhaps more than you want to hear — about the current state of relations between Israel and the left.
The debate revolves around an unpleasant book published October 1 by Nation Books, titled “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.” The author is Max Blumenthal, gonzo journalist, video provocateur and son of onetime Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal. The book is the product, the author says, of four years’ work, including more than a year living in Israel and the Palestinian territories to study the facts on the ground.
As his title makes clear, he didn’t think much of the place. He’s written a collection of 73 short vignettes, weaving together reportage, history and interviews to show the suffering and unbroken spirit of the Palestinians and the callous cruelty of the Israelis. Lest anyone miss the point, many of his chapters have titles like “The Concentration Camp,” “The Night of Broken Glass,” “This Belongs to the White Man” and “How to Kill Goyim and Influence People.”
The hottest debate, though, isn’t over the book itself. It’s about a magazine column devoted to the book. It appeared October 16 in the left-wing weekly The Nation, whose publishing arm put the book out. It’s by Eric Alterman, the magazine’s sharp-tongued media columnist. Its title: “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook.”
A prolific author, academic and liberal pundit, Alterman is regarded as a chronic Israel-basher by the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd, while devoted Israel-bashers call him a “member of the Israel lobby.” He stipulates that Israel’s “brutal occupation” inflicts “daily humiliations” on the Palestinians, but says Blumenthal “proves a profoundly unreliable narrator.” The book, he writes, shows “selectivity” toward truth. Its chapter titles are “juvenile,” its accounts “often deliberately deceptive.”
Alterman elaborated the next day in a blog post. That’s when things heated up. He said the magazine had asked him to write about Goliath, but he’d hesitated, wary of the “avalanche of personal invective” that comes whenever he writes about “BDS types,” meaning those engaged in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions campaign against Israel. He finally decided to proceed, wanting to be a “team player.”
Then the book arrived. “I expected to disagree with its analysis,” he wrote. “I did not expect it to be remotely as awful as it is…. It is no exaggeration to say that this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club (if it existed).”
The left-wing blogosphere erupted. Alterman was called an “ignoramus,” a “smearmeister” and, repeatedly, a “liberal Zionist.” One blogger, writing at the anti-Zionist group blog Mondoweiss.net, where Blumenthal is a regular contributor, questioned Alterman’s right to call himself a critic of Israel, since he sometimes defends it. Another, also at Mondoweiss, questioned The Nation’s judgment for assigning the review to a “liberal Zionist” known for “impassioned devotion to Israel.”
One blog after another took whacks at Alterman’s credibility: He misspelled the name of novelist Yoram Kaniuk (true). He unfairly ridiculed Blumenthal’s descriptions of the long-dead Israeli philosophers Berl Katznelson and Yeshayahu Leibowitz (arguable). He misrepresented Blumenthal’s substantive assertions about Israeli “fascism,” “racism,” “militarism” and more (entirely untrue).