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Wild Thing: Max Blumenthal’s Creepy Anti-Zionist Odyssey

What should anti-Zionists do about the bullying hater in their midst?

David Mikics
March 10, 2015
(Tablet Magazine )
(Tablet Magazine )

Late last year, Germany was captivated by a mesmerizing, almost absurdist video at the heart of something eventually dubbed Toiletgate. In it, anti-Zionist activists Max Blumenthal and David Sheen chase Gregor Gysi, the chairman of die Linke, Germany’s left-wing opposition party, down his office’s hallway. The two men hound Gysi with accusations that he called them anti-Semites, which Gysi denies. Gysi flees into a toilet stall, and Sheen and Blumenthal try to force their way in, without success.

German newspapers across the political spectrum denounced the obsessive radicals who had tried to prevent Gysi from urinating in peace, and the German media wasn’t shy about calling Blumenthal and Sheen—who are both Jewish by birth—anti-Semites. But the story behind Toiletgate was a little more complex. Two Linke politicians known for their opposition to Israeli “imperialism,” Inge Höger and Annette Groth—who had also sailed on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 when Israeli commandos disastrously raided the ship bound for Gaza—had invited Blumenthal and Sheen to speak at a conference on Israel in the Bundestag on Nov. 10. Tipped off that the two men were ferocious denouncers of Israel, Gysi canceled the invitation.

The reason was simple politics. The Baader Meinhof era still echoes in Germany: Nothing can tarnish a German politician like charges of anti-Semitism. Gysi has for years now been trying to put a stop to the radical antics that have led most Germans to shrug off die Linke as a sideshow. In June 2011, under Gysi’s leadership, die Linke adopted with a large majority statements affirming Israel’s right to exist and in favor of a two-state solution. Gysi also pushed through a measure stating that Linke representatives would not take part in boycott efforts and Gaza flotillas or advocate for a one-state solution. Höger and Groth, boisterous radicals (and not just about Israel), have been chafing under these restrictions. Toiletgate was their failed attempt to push back.

The day before their Bundestag conference, Nov. 9, Blumenthal and Sheen were supposed to appear at Berlin’s Volksbühne to discuss Israel’s “war crimes” in Gaza. That event also got canceled: Nov. 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, is a day of solemn commemoration in Germany, not a time for attacks on Israel. An unfazed Blumenthal explained that he had particularly wanted his event to take place on the day of Kristallnacht. “For us,” he said, “it was the perfect time to explain how the legacy of the European genocide had inspired our work, to emphasize that ‘never again’ meant never again to anyone.” Characteristically, Blumenthal cast Israel as a planner of mass murder and on a day consecrated to the memory of the Shoah.

Blumenthal’s version of what happened in Berlin is conspiratorial: “I was censored and branded anti-Semitic by left politicians acting as the puppets of American neocons,” he wrote on his website. The Germans had squelched him “with machine-like efficiency,” he added (Blumenthal loves ethnonational clichés). Blumenthal shot back against the German reporters and politicians who had branded him an anti-Semite by telling an interviewer in Germany, “Germany is the whitest country in the world.” Asked by his interviewer to define “white,” he said, “Whiteness is the supreme embodiment of privilege.” Strangely, he added that “pro-Israel organizations on American college campuses are functioning as White Students Unions that are pandered to instead of properly stigmatized.” (Are African American or Ethiopian Jews “white” if they hang out at Hillel?) Blumenthal has a fraught notion of privilege, perhaps because he is the son of the hotheaded Democratic political operative and Hillary Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, who has recently carried on a vindictive email campaign to smear Eric Alterman for criticizing Max’s journalism. In an interview with Israeli novelist David Grossman in his book Goliath: Fear and Loathing in Greater Israel, Blumenthal said that he had always felt like an “insider” in America because of his prominent father, and hinted bizarrely that high-level Jewish access to American power made a Jewish state superfluous.

Max Blumenthal’s stock in trade is anti-Zionist polemic dripping with cartoon-like, racially weighted depictions of Israeli Jews. What distinguishes him from many other anti-Zionist writers is not his political views, but the obsessive nature of his work, which seems animated not by moral passion or analysis but by hate. It’s no surprise that there are at least 300 citations of Blumenthal on the message board popular with anti-Semites, VNN Forum. Blumenthal is also a go-to source about Jewish evildoers and evildoing for the neo-Nazi Stormfront site, and David Duke has endorsed his work. One of Blumenthal’s chapter titles in Goliath has been especially popular with the white supremacist sites that gleefully embrace his work: “How To Kill Goyim and Influence People.”

And it’s not just anti-Semitic crackpots who flock to him anymore. Mainstream journalists like James Fallows and Andrew Sullivan have also praised Blumenthal’s work. Astonishingly, Blumenthal has promoted Goliath at the New America Foundation, a centrist Democratic Party think-tank, and was recently given a platform by the New York Times.

But the truth is that Blumenthal is a pisher di tutti pishers and the mainstreaming of him has no political importance, since none of his political views are original to him. As a reporter, the best one can say about him is that he doesn’t speak Hebrew or Arabic, and he doesn’t have any sources—so it’s hard to fault him for getting things wrong. Rather, his specialty is the age-old marketing of Israel as a unique repository of the world’s evils and therefore a deserving target of unrestrained invective. The question then, is really for anti-Zionists who believe their cause to be motivated by justice and human rights: What to do about the hater in their midst?


Bad behavior is Blumenthal’s stock in trade. A few months ago he took to the Electronic Intifada in what appeared to be an effort to humiliate Jodi Rudoren, the New York Times Israel correspondent. Blumenthal wrote that the Rudorens had “embedded themselves” in an “insular, ethnocentric environment” because they chose to live in a West Jerusalem apartment that the Times provides for its correspondents. Rudoren and her husband were “basking in Jewish privilege,” Blumenthal fumed. Rudoren Tweeted succinctly back on Nov. 24: “I do not respond to inappropriate attacks on my family.”

Last year, Blumenthal sought to establish his putative credentials as a grown-up thinker with Goliath, a 400-page, no-holds-barred assault on Israel’s right to exist, full of vitriolic disdain for every detail of the Jewish state. The book was received with distrust in most quarters, not just because of Blumenthal’s high-handed way with the facts, but because he breathed such revulsion for his subject: He routinely twisted his descriptions to make Israelis across the political spectrum look like unhinged racist barbarians. The words fascist and Nazi, applied solely to Israeli Jews, pepper Blumenthal’s pages (to be fair, Blumenthal also regularly slimes nearly every public figure who shares his politics, from Norman Finkelstein to M.J. Rosenberg, with similar Stalinist fervor).

Blumenthal has been busy since Goliath. In September he testified in Brussels at the Russell Commission on the Gaza War, on an anti-Zionist “jury” featuring such noted Middle East experts as Richard Falk, Roger Waters, and Ken Loach. In October he spoke about Gaza at Britain’s House of Commons, invited by MP Jeremy Corbyn, and introduced by James Thring, a prominent defender of Holocaust deniers David Irving and Lady Michèle Renouf.

Blumenthal’s true analogues can be found among the Soviet historians who routinely changed history to suit their rulers’ will—in his case, the emotional needs of an audience for whom the Jewish State must be a unique source of evil. Blumenthal regularly misrepresents Israeli history in order to cast all guilt on the Jews while absolving their Arab opponents, whose armies are airbrushed out of his account. One instance can stand for many. Blumenthal describes Zionists driving helpless Palestinians from Haifa in 1948, leaving out the Jewish leaders’ well-known plea to Arabs to remain in the city and live in peace. Blumenthal does not mention the battle of Haifa, giving the impression that it never happened. His fantasy version of 1948 is a wild and unprompted Jewish pogrom against Palestinians, with no Arab armies, no Arabs shooting at Jews, no promises to drive the Jews into the sea, etc.

Goliath has allowed fanatical anti-Semites to claim that they appreciate the work of “progressive” Jews who are “critical” of Israel. When Blumenthal appeared on Iran’s Press TV, which disseminates anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, he let viewers know that at least some Jews realize that the only proper comparison for Zionism is Nazism. Last year, after Goliath came out, Blumenthal appeared with a fellow binationalist, the political scientist Ian Lustick, at the University of Pennsylvania. Their joint project was wishing for the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish state. Lustick has admitted in a New York Times Op-Ed that this would lead to an ethnic civil war, but he seems to believe that such a civil war would be somehow cathartic. Summing up his impression of Goliath, Lustick suggested at Penn that “Israel is not just a little bit fascist, Israel is a lot fascist,” and that this is the “ultimate delegitimizer,” because “after World War II nothing fascist can even be allowed to survive.”

Lustick then asked Blumenthal the looming question: Are you calling for “the end of Jewish collective life in the land of Israel?” Blumenthal’s answer was, in effect, yes: He told Lustick that Israeli Jews must “become indigenized” and assimilate to the Arab world. For Blumenthal Jews are not natives, not even the Mizrahi, about half of Israeli Jews, whose families have lived in the Middle East since long before Islam arrived. Instead, Jews are “settlers” and “colonizers,” guilty creatures whose proper role is to expiate their sinful history by giving up sovereignty in their country, which was recognized by the United Nations, and by Yasser Arafat too, as the Jewish state. The fantasy would be foolish were it not so common these days, especially on the campus left.

For those who are confused about the nature of Zionism, Blumenthal has recommended the writings of Columbia Professor Joseph Massad. “Massad’s work on the symbiosis of Zionism & anti-Semitism,” Blumenthal tweeted, has “never” been “countered.” Blumenthal praised the notorious Al-Jazeera article in which Massad explained what he called “the anti-Semitic basis of Zionism.” In Orwellian fashion, Massad turned the word “anti-Semitism” upside down, insisting that Israel is the anti-Semitic country par excellence, and that therefore Arab anti-Zionism is the best way to battle anti-Semitism. Blumenthal seems to accept Massad’s looking-glass logic: The real lesson of the Shoah is not that Jews need to establish a state in order to defend themselves, but that they themselves are the real génocidaires.

Blumenthal visited Gaza during this summer’s war, and his coverage was predictably partisan. His Aug. 6 column for AlterNet quoted with approval “a recorded message broadcast on July 29 by al-Aqsa television, Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades general commander Mohammad Daif [which] declared that Gaza fighters were exclusively targeting active duty Israeli military personnel and avoiding attacks on civilians.” The problem, Blumenthal explained, is that Israel uses its own civilians as human shields for its military, cleverly placing soldiers throughout the population. “Israel is the most militarized society on earth,” Blumenthal writes, “with soldiers and military installations honeycombed throughout its civil society.” Therefore, Blumenthal argues, Hamas might seem to be directing rockets at civilians, but they are really targeting Israeli soldiers. No word from Blumenthal about whether soldiers were occupying Sderot’s kindergartens and elementary schools, which—only when school is in session, of course—are favorite targets for Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets.

In another article from this summer, Blumenthal proclaimed that Israeli soldiers had committed a “series of massacres” during the battle of Shejaiyeh. According to the most reliable estimates so far, about 70 Palestinians were killed in Shejaiyeh, along with 13 Israeli soldiers, during Hamas’ fierce counterattack against Israel’s Golani Brigade. These figures suggest a hard-fought battle rather than a “vengeful frenzy” and “gruesome massacre” (Blumenthal’s words for what Israel did in Shejaiyeh). Blumenthal also does not mention that Shejaiyeh was an elaborately fortified underground military base and weapons facility that concealed the entrances to ten terror tunnels leading into Israel.

What makes Blumenthal’s shoddy reporting and venomous distortions worth a look is that they are edging closer to becoming the default opinion of right-thinking people in the wake of the last Gaza war: It’s obvious that Israel could make peace, but it prefers to enjoy the ruthless domination of the Palestinian other. Knowingly or not, many of his ideas have crept into the discourse. This summer Jon Stewart argued to Hillary Clinton on The Daily Show that Hamas had “no choice” but to fire its rockets at Israeli civilians. The Blumenthalesque habit of asserting that the IDF aims to maximize rather than minimize enemy casualties has spread to much of the mainstream press, though it frequently appears as an insinuation rather than an overt argument. It wasn’t just Blumenthal who called Shejaiyeh a massacre, it was also the Nation; and the BBC pitched in too, repeatedly quoting descriptions of the battle that used the word “massacre.” Even Ban Ki-Moon condemned Israel’s “atrocious action” in Shejaiyeh (though he also repeatedly denounced Hamas’ rockets directed at Israeli civilians). During this summer’s war, the press gave prominent place to charges that Israel was firing at Gaza indiscriminately. Notoriously, the New York Times in the first week of the war began quoting estimates that civilians were over 80 percent of the deaths in Gaza, using casualty figures had been transmitted to the United Nations by Hamas, and which were proven to be vastly inflated (the actual ratio was about 50-50).

The “Israeli mainstream” is “overcome with anti-Arab eliminationism,” Blumenthal writes in Goliath. Yes, it’s true that Israel’s Palestinian citizens deserve much more from their government and from Israel’s Jewish majority—but that’s not what Blumenthal is saying. To accuse Jews of trying to eliminate their fellow Palestinian citizens is absurd hyperbole. Despite the current deeply disturbing wave of Jewish racism in Israel, Israeli Palestinians are in fairly good socio-economic shape. Even residents of East Jerusalem can choose to become Israeli citizens, a fact now routinely omitted in the mainstream press. For Blumenthal, though, Israel’s Palestinians teeter on the brink of genocide, with the Jews already sharpening their knives. The aim of “Israel’s founding generation” was an “ethnically exclusive Jewish state,” Blumenthal writes. In fact, Israel’s founders, every one of them, called for and created the opposite kind of nation, a state of both Jews and Arabs—but since the facts don’t match up with the lurid caricature in Blumenthal’s head, he simply discards them.

Blumenthal sees those who believe in a two-state solution as unrepentant racists, since Jews, being colonialist settlers, have no right to the land we mistakenly call Israel.

Goliath ends with a warm portrait of the Israeli Jews who, out of disgust with their country, have decided to live somewhere else. The chaos that results from the end of Israel may well look like Lebanon circa 1980, or worse, but, Blumenthal implies, the Israeli Jews who matter will be the radical exiles who long ago decamped to Brooklyn or Berlin, so one need not worry about the fate of those who remain.

Gysi, the Linke chairman, is more worried. In a speech at the Rosa Luxemburg Institute on the occasion of Israel’s 60th Anniversary in 2008, Gysi declared that “Anti-Zionism cannot … for the left in general and for die Linke in particular … any longer be a justifiable position.” Between Israel and its enemies, he said, “the German government is not, will not, be neutral … no one in this hall is neutral, including me.” Gysi continued, “Whoever wants one democratic state for Jews and Palestinians has to accept the fact that the Palestinians would obtain the majority and would take everything; the thousands-year-old persecutions, repressions and pogroms against Jews would start again, they could not be prevented.” Being a German ex-communist hardly makes Gysi any kind of authority when it comes to Jews. But at least his experience seems to have inoculated him against the kind of age-old hatred that is Max Blumenthal’s stock in trade.


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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.

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