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Student Paper: Leftist Narratives on Israeli Occupation and Apartheid: Comparing “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel” by Max Blumenthal With “Gaza In Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians” by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe. Paper by Austin Michaels

March 24, 2015
Illegal Jewish Settlements, West Bank

Illegal Jewish Settlements, West Bank

(Note: What follows are a number of student papers from a class I taught “History of the Middle East Since 1800″ at the University of Denver – January 5 – March 12, 2015. Among them, were several I considered polished-to-publishable. The assignment was to compare two books on the same subject within the course’s framework. This paper by Austin Michaels. Michaels   compares two books on the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories – Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel and Noam Chomsky and Illan Pappe’s Gaza In Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against The Palestinians. )

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Leftist Narratives of Israeli Occupation and Apartheid

Few issues inspire such broad agreement in the top echelons of the American political system than the so-called conflict between Israel and Palestine. Since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, the American government has stood steadfastly behind Israel, ostensibly the sole democracy in the Middle East. For decades, America’s policies toward its most important strategic ally in the region have remained unwaveringly and uncritically supportive of Israel’s policies of expulsion, apartheid and what amounts to ethnic cleansing in Palestine, regardless of the party affiliation of the President or which party controls Congress. Even when the two parties disagree on issues pertaining Israel, it is for the usual superficial reasons rather than substantive differences in opinion. This was especially evident this week as some 60 Democrats and Independent Bernie Sanders skipped Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Only Sanders boycotted due to criticism with Netanyahu, the Democrats did so because of perceived disrespect to the Obama administration latent in John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. All this is to say that within the American political elite, there is little disagreement on policy towards Israel-Palestine. Thus, it falls to the radical camp to provide meaningful criticisms of Israeli apartheid and genocide. Max Blumenthal and Noam Chomsky, both American Jews and prominent voices of the American left, have both written works highly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestine and Palestinians.

Blumenthal, the son of a senior adviser to Bill Clinton, wrote Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which chronicles his journey through Israel and Palestine shortly after Operation Cast Lead. Goliath is a compelling, first-person narrative of the routine racism and violence perpetrated upon Palestinians and Arabs by both the people and the state of Israel. Blumenthal’s documentation of his own experiences, along with his interviews with activists and national politicians, provides an exciting narrative style that brings the reader’s attention immediately to the plight of those living under Israeli occupation. Goliath also contains concise, coherent summaries of the historical context that is so relevant to current developments in the crisis. This is not to say that Blumenthal’s writing is without flaw. His own strong opinions are constantly latent in his writing, and not always in a successful way. Blumenthal’s writing can often take on a tone of relentless criticism of Israel and Israelis. Even as such criticisms may contain kernels of truth, they can make Blumenthal appear unreliable and make his book inaccessible to those not already convinced of Israel’s crimes.

One factor that makes Goliath such a compelling read is Blumenthal’s narration of his experience as an American Jew seeing firsthand the havoc that Zionism and the Jewish state have wreaked upon the Palestinian people. As Blumenthal writes in the preface, “The stories that make up this book unfolded all around me, in the cities and towns throughout Israel-Palestine, in the streets outside my rented flats, and inside their walls through the lives of my roommates, friends, and journalistic colleagues” (xvi). This intimate connection with the subject about which he is writing gives Blumenthal’s work a persuasiveness and exigency that would be lacking in a more traditional, objective narration of the events. Through Blumenthal’s narration, the reader gets a sense that they too are on the ground, meeting the same people and witnessing the same events as the author. The benefits of this narrative style were especially evident in summaries of the author’s participation in demonstrations against the apartheid wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. Blumenthal recounts his first experience at such a demonstration in the town of Ni’lin: “In the parched hills above the village, Israeli soldiers took positions behind rows of cacti, preparing to launch a fusillade of percussion grenades. Suddenly, a deep, unbearably loud explosion reverberated through the crowd of protesters” (363). Much more than any objective, scholarly account of the same event could, Blumenthal’s subjective narration brings the reader face-to-face with the quotidian reality that Palestinians face in the occupied territories. In much the same way that the broadcasting of police assaults on Civil Rights protesters and battles of the Vietnam War helped to turn public opinion on these issues, writing like Blumenthal’s possesses the power to reshape the discourse surrounding the crisis in American public life.

Another strength of Goliath, and one for which Blumenthal deserves much credit as a writer, is the abundance of interviews with Palestinians affected by the crisis and the room created for victims of the occupation to tell their own stories. Blumenthal’s interviews with Palestinians involved in the top levels of government and those striving to effect change from outside the system give the reader a well-rounded view of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and apartheid. The author’s interview with Hanin Zoabi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset in the Arab Balad Party painted a picture of virulent racism within the top levels of Israeli government that provides context for the Israeli state’s policies of apartheid. Zoabi tells Blumenthal of her abuse on the Knesset floor after her participation in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010: “Hardly anyone spoke up for me. Jamal [Zehalka, the veteran Balad legislator] said the Knesset is the worst we’ve ever had…The guards and the workers who’ve been around the Knesset for thirty years told me it’s never been this racist” (138). Zoabi’s interview gives the reader a view of the racism and anti-Arab sentiments at play in the corridors of power of the Israeli government that directly shape the policies and actions of the state towards Palestinians living under occupation. Blumenthal doesn’t stop at conducting interviews with the few Palestinians involved in the upper echelons of government, but also makes an effort to let Palestinians living in occupied territory to tell their story. In the town of Nabi Saleh, Blumenthal interviews Palestinian activist Bassem Tamimi, who describes nonviolent resistance to occupation: “From the beginning of our struggle the Israelis targeted the women of our village…My wife was arrested and jailed for ten days. The army targets the women here because they know our culture; they know that we see women as fifty percent of our struggle and no less” (377). Interviews like these present the readers with facts on the ground that they might otherwise not encounter, and help to dispel stereotypes and generalizations of a culture that is often demonized in Western media. Western conceptions of Islam posit a culture of misogyny and exclusion of women from seats of power, while the testimony and experiences of activists like Tamimi present women as indispensable to the peace process.

Goliath also provides and summarizes the historical context that underlies current developments in the crisis commendably. Too often, scholarship and writing on the subject ignore historical context that is so important to understanding the situation on the ground, but Goliath manages to remain firmly grounded in an understanding of this history. It is easy for those of us not living under the occupation to lose a sense of why and how the crisis has developed in the way it has, but Blumenthal’s writing remains grounded in the history of the expulsion and elimination of Palestinians. He writes, for instance, of “the Davidka, a weapon created by Israeli engineers during the 1948 war solely for the purpose of driving masses of Palestinian Arabs from their villages in terror” (53). This concise sentence provides invaluable historical context in triplicate. First, it reminds the reader that Israel wasn’t created quickly and cleanly, but rather after a war that killed tens of thousands. Secondly, it emphasizes that Israeli towns and villages weren’t simply carved out of empty lands but were previously occupied by Palestinian Arabs for generations. Finally, this statement serves as a reminder that the Israeli Army has been using terror as a tactic against Palestinians since long before Hamas and Hezbollah employed rocket strikes that pose an ostensibly existential threat to the existence of Israel. It is with concise summaries of historical events wished away by Israel and its supporters that Blumenthal is able to undermine the classical narratives of the occupation

While Goliath remains an important, well-researched look into the conflict, it is not without its drawbacks. Somewhat ironically, the same first-person narrative style that makes the book so compelling also counts as one of its greatest shortcomings. Whether fair or not, Western (especially American) audiences are inherently skeptical of subjective accounts of news and current events. Thus, those that are not already sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and Blumenthal’s views on the occupation, will find the book to be an inaccessible screed written by an author fundamentally biased against a Jewish, Zionist state. Blumenthal’s tendency towards bombast is perhaps most evident in the titles of his chapters. Examples include “Banning Books,” “How to Kill Goyim and Influence People,” “The Concentration Camp,” and “The Night of Broken Glass.” Such pithy titles with allusions to Nazi Germany and fascism are appeals to irony that speak to the crowd that agrees with Blumenthal’s positions, but are over-the-top, borderline offensive attacks in the eyes of those that support Zionism and a Jewish Israeli state. While Blumenthal’s style appeals to readers (mostly on the left) like me that agree fundamentally with his view on the conflict, this same style renders the book inaccessible and unserious to those who support Israel, that is, those whose minds must be changed.

In contrast to the subjective, personable style of Goliath is the collection of essays from well-respected academics and historians Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé entitled Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians. This volume represents the confluence of the work of two of the world’s foremost academic voices in the Israel-Palestine debate. Combining essays co-authored by Chomsky and Pappé as well as interviews with the authors, Gaza in Crisis provides a thoughtful dialogue on the conflict between two leading Jewish, academic critics of Israel’s policies of apartheid and occupation. Gaza in Crisis benefits from the credence given to it by the authors’ long history of scholarship on the subject and the authors’ ability to contextualize the facts of and developments in the so-called conflict in the larger field of international relations, especially with respect to changing US policies towards Israel-Palestine as American strategic interests transform.

Noam Chomsky, the famed historian and linguist, and Ilan Pappé, an Israeli professor of political science and international studies, have spent decades researching and writing about what they term Israel’s war against the Palestinians in an academic setting. This background lends their examination of the crisis a certain credence and seriousness that is impossible for investigative journalists like Max Blumenthal to cultivate. This long-term expertise of the authors becomes apparent in the sixth chapter, a dialogue entitled “The Ghettoization of Palestine.” In this dialogue, mediated by Frank Barat, Chomsky and Pappé note that they are each working on several projects pertaining to the Israel-Palestine crisis, including books, essays and speeches on the topic (145). This demonstrated commitment to and research on the issue gives the authors a sense of gravitas and credibility that makes their work appealing not just to those already committed to justice for Palestine, but to all those that strive to understand the history and current developments of the crisis.

The other major strength of the work, which goes hand in glove with the authors’ academic backgrounds, is their ability to frame the crisis in the context of the broader field of international relations and especially in the context of shifting US support of Israel’s policy of apartheid. Chomsky and Pappé write, “While the pro-Israeli lobby (see below) concentrated its efforts on wooing the Democratic Party toward Israel, these Christians turned the Republican Party into a sympathizer, at the very least” (27). Statements like these provide valuable context that help the relatively uninformed reader understand how and why the US stands as one of Israel’s strongest supporters and how this support allows Israel to pursue the policies it does. Here, the authors explicate AIPAC’s role in influencing American policy toward Israel. From this short statement, the reader can get a sense of why the Christian Right is quite possibly the most ardent supporter of Israeli occupation, and why the US espouses unequivocal support for militant Zionism when this group (for whom Israeli Jews are religious brethren fighting the evil fascism of Islam) is in power in the United States. Thus, the authors’ academic backgrounds in international relations allows them to draw valuable connections that might be invisible to readers that are not steeped in the history of the conflict.

The authors’ ability to ground their analysis of the crisis in its historicity is another invaluable strength of the work. This is especially apparent in the essay “State of Denial: The Nakbah in Israeli History and Today.” The authors write of the conception of the 1948 Independence War as “ ‘a miraculous event’ in the collective Israeli Jewish memory” and the importance of “the military conduct of the Jewish soldiers on the battlefield in 1948” as “a model for generations to come” (57). The importance of historical context cannot be overstated in relation to issues like the Israel-Palestine crisis, which exist as long-simmering conflicts that erupt in full-scale violence every few years. The ability of the authors to connect long-ago events like the Nakbah to patterns of Israeli violence today is an invaluable tool that helps readers to analyze the issue in the holistic way that it demands. Without historical context like this, readers might be tempted to dismiss the outrageous war crimes of Israel as an understandable response to the threat of terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza without pausing to consider why some Palestinians turned to terror in the first place.

While the authors’ academic background is integral to their expertise and credibility on the issue, it gives their writing a dry style that fails to provide a call to action to the reader. Juxtaposed with Goliath, which relies on successful appeals to pathos, Gaza in Crisis reads more like a textbook history than an inspiration to get involved in the discourse surrounding the crisis. Perhaps it is inescapable, but Gaza in Crisis reads like exactly what it is: a collection of essays on Israel and Palestine, rather than a call to political action. Chomsky and Pappé certainly have no obligation to produce a polemic against the Israeli occupation, but if they wish to see the crisis resolved with justice afforded to Palestine, their readers must be inspired to work towards this end. Change is never effected from within power structures, and Chomsky and Pappé stand as prominent voices of the radical left that can inspire action in those committed to an end to Israeli apartheid.

Goliath and Gaza in Crisis stand as a pair of works that, when read together, provide the reader with a nuanced understanding of the Israel-Palestine crisis on emotional, political and intellectual levels. Despite Blumenthal’s unmasked antipathy towards Zionism and Israeli violence, Goliath remains an effective appeal to American readers to stand opposed to occupation and apartheid imposed on Palestine. Goliath provides the emotional appeal that Gaza in Crisis, with all of its invaluable historical context, lacks. Read together, these books have the power to win over, as the Bush administration put it, the hearts and minds of those willing to approach the Israel-Palestine conflict with an open mind.

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Bibliography

Blumenthal, M. (2013). Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. New York, New

York: Nation Books.

Chomsky, N., & Pappé, I. (2010). Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War against the

Palestinians. Chicago, Ill.: Haymarket Books.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jamie Roth permalink
    March 26, 2015 1:03 pm

    This is a terrific paper! It’s very well written with appropriate nuance. It shows how the authors approach their subjects and just what the difference between them is.

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