A call to conscience – and the discovery of a heretofore unknown libertarian thinker
December 15, 2013
Thanks to the Israel lobby’s slander campaign against Max Blumenthal and his new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, I not only learned things about the Jewish state that I never knew, I also made a wonderful discovery – but more about that later. I confess I probably wouldn’t have read Goliath if not for the controversy it has generated: those squeals of pain coming from Israel’s apologists had to mean something, I figured. Either the book was egregiously unfair to the Jewish state or else a brilliant chronicle of its depredations against ordinary human decency. I had to read it in order to find out – and what I discovered both shocked and uplifted me, furthering my understanding not only of the Jewish state and its people but also of my own philosophy of libertarianism.
Goliath is an easy read on a subject that makes many very uneasy: although
it’s fairly long, it consists of many short vignettes told in the first person,
chronicling Blumenthal’s travels across the length and breadth of the Holy Land
– and the story it tells is alarming, especially for those who count themselves
among Israel’s friends.
For years, the Israeli body politic has been moving rightward – i.e. toward
militarism, ultra-nationalism, and religious fundamentalism – to such a degree
that it seems unrecognizable to those of us who belong to the older generation.
We remember – or think we remember – the Israel of Exodus, the brave
little upstart that defied the odds and, surrounded by enemies on every side,
made the desert bloom with the verdant fields of a liberal democracy.
Goliath proves that liberal democracy is now, for all intents and purpose,
defunct: indeed, it may have never existed in the first place. The book demonstrates
this on every page with brutal real-life firsthand reporting. Starting off slowly,
Blumenthal paints a portrait of a society living in a bubble, with the Israeli
Ashkenazi aristocracy on top, the Mizrahi drone-workers charged with police
work and other non-elite tasks near the bottom, and the Palestinian helots on
the lowest rung, eking out a problematic existence with all the legal and economic
factors pointing to their eventual expulsion from Israeli society. As the rightist
wave engulfs what had been the dream of socialist Zionists to build an egalitarian
society, and turns it into a bastion of religious nationalism and outright racism,
Blumenthal moves through this society-in-transition with the unforgiving eye
of a born documentarian, mercilessly exposing the hypocrisy, mendacity, and
criminality of a country that is coming unhinged.
How else are we to explain the fact that, during the attack on Gaza, IDF soldiers
killed an eight-year-old child, one Ibrahim
Awajah, and used his corpse for target practice? This was no isolated incident:
one by one we read the stories of disgusting atrocities carried out by the IDF
– how they lobbed a shell into the living room of Izeldeen Abuelaish, a Harvard-trained
fertility doctor and medical researcher who had helped many Israelis have children.
The shell decapitated two of his daughters and "shredded" his other
children "to pieces." As this was going on, Israelis sat on Parash
Hill, near Sderot, which offers a clear view of the Gaza Strip, watching the
slaughter and cheering as if it were the latest hit movie – spectators to their
own moral degeneration.
As if they were quite well aware of what they were becoming – indeed, had become
– ordinary Israelis reacted with hatred against anyone in their midst who held
up an unflattering mirror to their war hysteria. Right-wing demagogues like
Avigdor Lieberman, now Foreign Minister, demanded that antiwar protesters be
jailed. At Tel Aviv University, the youth organizer of the ultra-nationalist
Yisrael Beiteinu said antiwar protesters should be deprived of their citizenship,
to raucous cheers: the university’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism to
the contrary notwithstanding.
As Operation Cast Lead came to a horrific and bloody close, a poll taken by Daniel Bar-Tal, an eminent political psychologist, found that more than half of Israelis wouldn’t allow an Arab into their homes. A full 68 percent wouldn’t live in the same building as an Arab, while 63 percent said Arabs represented a dire security threat to the state of Israel. Forty percent said the government should deport them all or "encourage" them to leave. The backdrop to this was a rising tide within the political and clerical class of brazen racism. Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Ovadiah Yosef, screeched "It is forbidden to be merciful to the Arabs. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable!"
Blumenthal’s portrait of Avigdor Lieberman is something the scandal-plagued right-wing demagogue and former bouncer may never recover from: while Lieberman has earned the contempt of the liberal Ashkenazi "coastal elite," as Blumenthal dubs them, in America he is less well-known. Blumenthal’s account of how this "hulking bear-like man" hunted down a twelve-year-old Arab boy and beat him up for punching his son – slamming him into a wall and "leaving him with a painful head wound" – captures the essence of a born bully. A legal "fixer" allowed the thuggish politician to get off with just a fine.
An immigrant from Russia, where he was a nobody, Lieberman came to Israel and founded a party, Yisrael Beiteinu, that is the most successful fascist political formation in the world: the party advocates a truculent mix of domestic authoritarianism and territorial expansionism, the expulsion of all Arabs and the forced "Judaization" of the West Bank. His nationalism, however, is entirely secular: he and his followers have no interest in the Torah, or the 3,000 year tradition of Jewish moral and political law. As Blumenthal puts it, "He was content to allow the army to define who was a Jew." His "politics melded authoritarian populism with a distinctly anti-clerical strain, appealing to anyone who loathed the presence of Muslims, radical leftists, and the ultra-Orthodox."
Unfortunately, as Blumenthal writes, "there was no shortage of citizens in Israel who held this sentiment."
Lieberman’s crudeness is well-known to observers of Israeli politics, but in
the US his ties to Mafia figures may be less widely understood: Michael Cherney,
a Russian Jewish oligarch, paid Lieberman half a million through a Cypriot shell
firm, and is known to have ties to criminal gangs in the former Soviet Union.
The two, says Cherney, were in daily communication. Another supporter of dubious
moral character: Martin Schlaff, whose connections to the East German Stasi
made him a rich man. Evidence of Schlaff’s $3.5 million payoff to Ariel Sharon
in exchange for permission to build a casino in Israel was rendered moot when
Sharon fell into a coma from which he has yet to emerge. Schlaff then became
a major backer of Yisrael Beiteinu, as Lieberman took in millions in mysterious
payments through a company run by his daughter. After gaining 11 Knesset seats,
Lieberman was named Minister of
Threats" in Ehud Olmert’s rather shaky government. Today he is Foreign
Minister, after being temporarily kicked out of the government while being investigated
for fraud, the David Duke of Israel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s George
What is particularly shocking in Blumenthal’s book is its exposure of the explicit racism that has become commonplace in Israeli society. When Anastasia Michaeli, a Yisrael Beitenu MK, served on a panel charged with choosing someone to represent Israel in the Eurovision song contest, she objected to one contestant because he "looks Arab." In her defense, she stated: "I am looking at this competition from a Zionist point of view."
If so, it isn’t any sort of Zionism the older Ashkenazi elite would recognize. But that’s the point: the "new" Zionism is something else altogether.
The theme of this book is encapsulated in its portrayal of one of my heroes
– or, I should say, my newest hero, since I had no knowledge of him before reading
Blumenthal’s work: his name is Yeshayahu Leibowitz. The Israeli polymath, who
fled Germany in 1933 and emigrated to Palestine where he taught brain physiology
at Tel Aviv University, starting teaching philosophy at the age of 72 (!), was
an Orthodox Jewish scholar who edited the Encyclopedia Hebraica – and
a hardcore libertarian only a little less radical than Murray Rothbard, whom
he resembles in style and mannerisms to an amazing degree. As the Independent
"On the one hand he was a libertarian, an extreme form of classical liberalism, and believed that human beings should be free to determine their way of life without any state interference. On the other hand, he was an ultra-Orthodox Jew who insisted that the state and religion must be separated completely to avoid corrupting each other.
"Leibowitz argued vehemently for two positions: that holding any state as a value in itself was inherently fascist and that sanctifying any piece of land, including Israel, was a form of idolatry. Very soon after the Six-Day War, Leibowitz predicted that if Israel didn’t withdraw immediately from the occupied territories, all of the state’s energy would be tied up in ruling another people against its will."
We first encounter Leibowitz in the form of a slogan emblazoned on the wall
of a lecture hall, where Blumenthal has gone to accompany a "human rights"
educator assigned to instruct the Israeli Border Guard in how to make their
job conform to the most basic principles of human decency – an impossible task,
as Leibowitz had predicted. Nevertheless, there on the wall was what Blumenthal
calls an "anodyne quote" – both a tribute to Leibowitz’s importance
in Israeli society and a monument to the utter cluelessness of a regime that
has appropriated the memory of its most incisive and unforgiving critic.
While he was indeed a Zionist, who believed – as I do – that Jews living in Palestine have the right to national self-determination, it was Leibowitz’s critique of the particular circumstances of Israel’s nation-building project that allowed him to see the society he was living in in realistic terms. In a prescient essay published on the eve of Israel’s great victory in the 1967 war – when the rest of Israeli society was celebrating and the Likud party was getting its start as the "Movement for a Greater Israel" – the man Isaiah Berlin called "the conscience of Israel" foretold the fate of the Jewish state if it absorbed its new conquests into the realm:
"The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police – mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 million to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would have to suppress the Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations."
And so it came to pass.
Israel, "unpartitioned Eretz Israel," would become like the apartheid state of South Africa, Leibowitz warned: racism would overwhelm the culture. Instead of filling the concrete needs of its citizens, the Jewish state, Leibowitz said, would devote itself to "the specific tasks of government and administration of this strange system of political domination."
When it was revealed that an Arab woman who had been arrested for belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organization was handcuffed while she gave birth to her child, Leibowitz took to calling the perpetrators – the government – "Judeo-Nazis." As the IDF overran the Occupied Territories, he wrote that the final phases of Israel’s moral and political degeneration would see the appearance of "concentration camps" – at which point "Israel would not deserve to exist, and it will not be worthwhile to preserve it."
The vast system of prisons and "administrative detention" camps set up by the Israelis to detain thousands of Palestinians held without charge – as well as the giant concentration camp being constructed to intern African refugees who have turned up seeking asylum – is well documented in Goliath. Indeed, we follow Blumenthal as he takes us into the heart of this monster, and he tells the story of resisters and just plain ordinary people caught up in the maleficent wheels of an oppressive system. As both Palestinians and Israelis-with-a-conscience are arrested arbitrarily, held without charges, and abused , we hear their cries for help – and, sitting there, we want to help.
What kind of a "liberal democracy" segregates its citizens according
to their ethnic affiliation, with entire Palestinian towns – whose inhabitants
are indeed citizens of Israel – walled off from "Israel proper" and
forced into destitution and ruin by petty regulations forbidding commerce and
building renovation? What kind of "democracy" has a police state apparatus fully mobilized to detect and crush even the slightest form of nonviolent dissent,
responding to peaceful demonstrations with bullets and brutal repression? The
knock on the door in the night – a feature of Nazi Germany, or any totalitarian
system – is a regular occurrence in Goliath: activists, both Palestinian
and Israeli, who are organizing for peaceful change are harassed, arrested,
beaten, and attacked. The chilling conformity of Israeli society, where "patriotism"
and militarism are the norm, is depicted here in disturbing detail.
Particularly shocking is the degree to which segregationist policies, going far beyond those of the old American South, are openly and even enthusiastically advocated even by the ostensibly "liberal" Ashkenazis. The stretching of the law to allow for "Jews only" housing, roads, and entire towns is dramatized over and again by the stories of people whose fate is a plaything in the hands of a police state: one couple must give up their sun-filled home in a good area for life in a dark slum because one doesn’t have the right papers and will be deported if they move. Villages where people have lived since the time of Christ are demolished, the inhabitants driven out and "Jewish only" communities arise out of the ruins – all paid for and justified by the Israeli government, which is being funded to the tune of $3.5 billion per year by you and I.
Yes. Israel still has a relatively free press, but military censorship is a
reality: yes, they have elections, but the electorate is poisoned by a crazed
nationalism and a racist streak that resembles the Ku Klux Klan at its height:
formally, Israel is still a "democracy," but Leibowitz was right when
he declared that "Israel is the only dictatorship that exists today in
the enlightened world." It is a "democratic" despotism based
on blood, soil, and conquest, and it is fast losing even its formal democratic
character: e.g., when the Supreme Court makes decisions the government disagrees
with, such as the right of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens to organize
protests, the court is ignored. And nothing is said. Increasingly there are
attempts by the far right to make it impossible for open dissent to assert itself:
laws demanding a "loyalty oath" of all citizens, and blatant attempts
to stifle speech are increasingly in the air. The desire for an "Israeli
Putin," a strong leader who will dispense with the "democratic"
niceties, transfer the Arabs out, and unite the nation around the vision of
a Greater Israel, is palpable. This is the vision of Lieberman and his fellow
rightists, many of whom emigrated from Russia in the 1980s, and it is increasingly
the Israeli reality.
Yes, my longtime readers will note that I’ve been covering this upsurge of
Israeli ultra-nationalism in this space for years, but Blumenthal’s book dramatizes
this depressing scenario in a series of on-the-scene episodes that have real
impact. Added up, they amount to a new insight into the direction Israeli society
Of particular concern to the Israelis and their Western amen corner is the movement for nonviolent resistance to the apartheid state, which is being taken up by both Palestinians and Israeli leftists, including the BDS campaign to boycott Israeli goods: this movement has been ruthlessly crushed wherever it has arisen, but it just keeps bouncing back – much to the consternation of the publicity-conscious regime, which is horrified by the prospect of the whole world watching as nonviolent Palestinians and their Israeli comrades are brutalized by their thugs. The Israelis are truly the Bull Connors of the new millennium.
It is now illegal to advocate boycotting Israeli goods inside Israel, or to memorialize "the Nakba" – the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians from
their historic homeland. Mob attacks on Palestinians right in the center of
Jerusalem are commonplace, along with vicious attacks – including the arson
of an orphanage – on African refugees. This coarsening – brutalization, really
– of Israeli society is something one imagines Leibowitz would have despised
had he lived to see it. The mere fact that the Israelis routinely arrest and
torture Palestinian children as young as eight should be enough to delegitimize
the "Jewish state" in the eyes of the world – that is, if enough eyes
Libertarians will love this book for two reasons: 1) It underscores our emphasis on the centrality of absolute property rights as the basis of a society that is both civilized and free. The systematic violation of the Palestinians’ property rights is the key to understanding how the Israelis turned them into a class of helots, without any rights or legal recourse. And 2) the discovery of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a towering intellectual figure who was indeed the most hardcore of hardcore libertarians. Go here, here and here for a taste of his radicalism. No, I haven’t read any of his books yet, but I am certainly going to read this one. Leibowitz, whom I had barely heard of before reading Goliath, is Blumenthal’s great Christmas gift to libertarians: the discovery of a major libertarian thinker is a wonderful surprise.
Buy this book, read it, and pass it on to your friends.