Book Reviews

American Progressives and Israel

Defenders of Israel ignore the suffering it has caused. Critics dismiss the threats it faces. We need to navigate the space between these two positions.

By Matthew Duss

Tagged Israel

Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel By Joshua Muravchik • Encounter Books • 2014 • 296 pages • $25.99
Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel By Max Blumenthal • Nation Books • 2013 • 512 pages • $27.99

In early August, as the latest Gaza war raged, two pro-Israel consultants, Meagan Buren and Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, circulated a memo addressed to “Top leaders who care about Israel and protecting Jews.” The memo discussed “significant, problematic issues in public opinion about Israel among key American demographics including liberals, minorities and young people.” Citing a recent focus group of “Capitol Hill senior staff from both parties,” the pair warned that the views and opinions they had encountered stood in “stark contrast to the public statements and votes that indicate support for our issues,” such as a recently passed (and typically one-sided) congressional resolution supporting Israel’s military operation.

“Congress is supposed to be our fortress,” the consultants wrote. “While Israel faces Hamas tunnels, it appears that the negativity and lack of support among young people is tunneling its way into congressional offices, even while the Congressmen and Senators remain steadfast on the surface.”

The two went on to list a set of tried and tested messages that Israel’s advocates should use: “Consistently connect Hamas to Iran,” they wrote. “[I]t isn’t Hamas, it is Iran-backed Hamas” (italics in original). This device, they wrote, reminds listeners “that this conflict is larger than one between Israel and the Palestinians in which Israel is the big bad guy and Hamas is the little guy just doing what it can to fight an occupying power.”

The memo was a great example of the practice of hasbara, a Hebrew word meaning “explanation,” but which has come to mean simply pro-Israel propaganda. Coping with obvious power disparity has proven to be a huge challenge for those attempting to explain Israel’s case. The contrast between these two images—Israel as embattled and democratic underdog amid a sea of hostile Arabs; Israel as oppressive colonial occupier—is highlighted by two recent books by very different authors, both of which engage in what can be understood as an expression of, or a reaction to, hasbara.

Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and is someone I’ve always considered to be one of the more serious neoconservatives. Unlike, say, Bill Kristol, whose advocacy of various new wars is shot through with an element of political opportunism and bad faith, Muravchik has wrestled far more rigorously with some of the issues of American power. One wouldn’t know this, however, from reading this book.

Muravchik’s purpose, as one may gather from his title, is to track how Israel went from being seen by Western liberals as a scrappy, liberal-democratic David to being perceived now as a Goliath, and to argue that today’s view of the conflict is incorrect. “The Six Day War,” Muravchik writes, “. . . set in motion a redefinition of the conflict. No longer was it Israel versus the Arabs. Now it was Israel versus the homeless Palestinians.” By reframing the Arab-Israeli conflict as primarily an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then establishing the Palestinian national cause as a progressive one, the Arabs pulled a fast one on the global left, Muravchik contends.

Muravchik fondly remembers the days when Americans’ views were shaped by Leon Uris’s novel Exodus (1958), which he reminds us was “the best-selling novel in America since Gone with the Wind.” It’s a fitting comparison, though not necessarily in ways Muravchik would choose to emphasize. Both novels presented a highly sanitized version of history—both, in their own way, racist and reactionary—and dramatically downplayed those on the suffering end of these stories. Gone with the Wind’s slaves are portrayed as simple, happy folk, serving as decorations in Scarlett O’Hara’s drama. Exodus’s Arabs are uniformly duplicitous and conniving, cast as villains in a Jewish redemption story. The fact that, in both cases, the history is now understood as far more complex and problematic is something to be applauded, not lamented.

Muravchik spends considerable effort trying to draw connections between the Palestinian cause and the Nazis, as if to remind us who the real bad guys are. For example, he writes that the 1936-39 Palestinian Arab revolt was “apparently financed by Adolf Hitler’s government.” It’s hard to know exactly how much work “apparently” is doing here, as Muravchik, tellingly, includes no citation. This is unsurprising, as it flies in the face of most scholarship on the Arab revolt. “There does not appear to have been much discussion or debate in German government circles over the Arab revolt and general strike,” writes historian Francis R. Nicosia, distinguished professor of Holocaust studies at the University of Vermont, in his 2000 book, The Third Reich and the Palestine Question. “The attempts of Arab leaders to secure German weapons for the Palestinian insurgents and Germany’s refusal to grant such assistance…indicate that Germany maintained a policy of noninvolvement in Palestinian affairs.”

In a similar vein, Muravchik quotes Six Days in June: Israel’s Fight for Survival, written by Robert J. Donovan and the staff of the Los Angeles Times, as saying that “[t]he Arabs, on the whole, sided with the Nazis with whom they shared common hatreds.” Again, this is contradicted by the scholarly consensus on the issue (at least he includes a footnote this time, even if it’s somewhat odd to base so broad a claim on one out-of-print book from the 1960s). In reality, the historical record on this subject “is a complex, mixed, and nuanced one,” as Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote in a June 2014 piece marking the anniversary of D-Day, “but the overarching fact is that Arab and Muslim involvement in the war was overwhelmingly on the Allied side, and was a significant factor in fighting on the ground.” Ibish notes that a total of around 6,000 Arabs are estimated to have fought on the Axis side, whereas tens of thousands fought and died on the Allied side, including 9,000 Palestinians in the British army alone.

It is true, as Muravchik recounts, that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, sought an alliance with the Nazis in hopes of gaining advantage against British and Zionist forces in Palestine. But while his work recruiting Bosnian Muslims to the fascist cause is indefensible, al-Husseini’s pro-Hitler propaganda found little traction among its intended audience, as the numbers cited by Ibish show.

Tracking what he sees as increased hostility to Israel on the part of the media, Muravchik laments the passing of the days “before the advent of ‘political correctness’ ”—almost always code employed by a white guy lamenting a past in which people could be more open about certain biases—when writers like “Russell Baker poured ridicule on the Arabs, going so far…as to make fun of ‘the Arab mind.’ ” Muravchik himself has developed no such compunction, writing of “the Arabs” as “hungry for violence,” and for whom “a bomb in a market is a routine form of warfare.” (Muravchik may not be aware that a bomb in a market was also a routine form of warfare for the Zionist terror group Irgun, but if he is, he doesn’t let it spoil his story.)

In Muravchik’s telling, the Palestinians, after gauging the anti-colonialist direction of international opinion, expertly refashioned themselves into an oppressed people. He attempts to revive the canard that Palestinian national identity is of recent vintage, a view long debunked by scholarly works such as Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity and Joel S. Migdal and Baruch Kimmerling’s The Palestinian People. He further argues that the Arab states then manipulated international organizations like the UN to use this invented identity as a weapon against Israel.

It’s worth recognizing here that bias against Israel at the UN does undeniably exist and is inexcusable. What’s unclear is how much this actually matters to resolving the conflict. Muravchik writes that the UN’s one-sidedness empowers Palestinian rejectionists, but of course the same could be said of the U.S. Congress empowering Israeli rejectionists, Benjamin Netanyahu being chief among them. Muravchik attributes a great deal of messaging skill and organization to a coalition of regimes that have proven time and again to lack both. At no point does Muravchik consider that the Palestinian Arabs might have had a good reason to object to the demand that they give up half of Palestine to its Jewish minority (there is, of course, no example in history of any people ever having agreed to any similar deal), or that Arabs in general might have a reason to be bothered by it.

Muravchik makes no effort to confront the reality of Palestinian life under occupation. In his view, simply by virtue of Israel being a democracy, its leaders should be taken at their word that all the policies they enact (which include, presumably, the ban on the importation of cumin and pasta into Gaza) are entirely justifiable. To the extent that Israel’s nearly half-century-old military control of the West Bank and Gaza presents any problem, it’s primarily one of perception. For Muravchik, the election of a former terrorist as Israel’s prime minister in 1977 (Menachem Begin), and the subsequent ramping up of settlement efforts, was mainly a public-relations problem. “The harm to Israel’s reputation caused by Begin’s policies was multiplied many times over by the divisions they exacerbated within Israeli society,” Muravchik writes. “There they nurtured a subculture of alienation that proved to be an inexhaustible resource for Israel’s enemies,” just as critics of the Vietnam War had affirmed anti-Americanism.

Muravchik dings Daniel Levy, a British-born Israeli peace negotiator, for having called the creation of Israel “an act that was wrong.” It’s worth exploring just how mendacious this is. Levy (who is, I should note, a friend) made the remarks, at an Al Jazeera forum, in defense of Israel: “I believe that where Jewish history was in 1948 excused—for me, it was good enough for me—an act that was wrong.” The “act” in question here was not the creation of the Jewish state itself but the expulsion of Palestinians that accompanied that creation. Levy continued, “I don’t expect Palestinians to think that. There’s no reason that Palestinians should think there was justice in the creation of Israel. But if we’re going to live as neighbors, or in one state, one has to begin to develop an understanding and a respect for who the other is. And to compare a Zionist to a Nazi doesn’t really get you very far down that road.”

In the same vein, Muravchik attacks B’Tselem, an Israeli group widely respected in the liberal human rights community, as “devoted deliberately to damaging Israel’s standing in the world.” Here, Muravchik exemplifies a peculiar tendency found among those who most aggressively trumpet Israel’s liberalism (as Muravchik did in his earlier e-book Liberal Oasis): They seem to have contempt for actual, existing Israeli liberals. This was beautifully captured in a comment made to a friend of mine, an Israeli national-security analyst critical of the current government, by an official from a conservative American pro-Israel advocacy group: “You make our job so much harder.” That is, the actual practice of Israeli liberals is inconvenient for those trying to burnish its image abroad.

Even if one would agree with all of Muravchik’s points, from UN bias to the instrumentality of Palestinian nationalism, we are still confronted with the same reality: the displacement of an indigenous population in 1948, and almost half a century of military control over a civilian population, which the current Israeli government admits it has no intention of ending. The central problem of the book is not that it’s biased or ideological—though it’s both—but that it misses the very thing it seeks to narrate and explain: how an ongoing occupation and colonization effort has made people reevaluate the Israeli story. The notion that those Hill staffers are simply being taken in by pro-Palestinian PR isn’t a convincing one.

Having previously covered the radical American right wing, Max Blumenthal would seem a good choice to report on Israel’s own rightward drift. One reads Blumenthal’s harrowing account of Operation Cast Lead—the three-week conflict beginning in December 2008 and ending in January 2009—with particular grief, knowing that it was even worse this time around in Operation Protective Edge, the seven-week conflict beginning in July 2014 and ending in August, which killed more people and destroyed far more homes and property, while similarly achieving little of value for anyone. One of the first of many short chapters (many with inflammatory names that, along with the book’s generally churlish tone, severely undermine the book’s reporting) is “The Hill of Shame,” which discusses the hilltop overlooking Gaza where Israelis gather to watch—even exult in—the destruction. We saw this scene replayed during the most recent Gaza war, too. It’s a side of Israel that most Americans remain unaware of.

Blumenthal thoroughly documents the system of discriminatory policies that privileges Jews over Palestinians within Israel. Among these is a law—recently and astonishingly upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court—effectively allowing communities to refuse residency based on Palestinian ethnicity. He also documents the daily abuses of the occupation in the West Bank. There is, at all times, an enormous machinery of violence pointed at the Palestinians under occupation. And it’s a machinery that owes them zero accountability.
What Blumenthal doesn’t demonstrate, though, is that this discrimination is inseparable from, and intrinsic to, Zionism. In Blumenthal’s telling, Zionism is fundamentally illiberal and historically indefensible. He recounts the story of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ring, an ancient trinket he shows to visitors to his office, inscribed with the name “Netanyahu,” which he brandishes as evidence of his claim to the land of Israel. As Blumenthal notes, Netanyahu’s grandfather, Nathan Milikovsky, had changed his name to Netanyahu upon emigrating from Lithuania to Palestine. “Netanyahu’s magical ring tale rested on the same logical fallacy as my own dubious assertion to a historical mandate to rule over Mexico because my grandfather, Hymie Blumenthal, had changed his name to Hymie Quetzalcoatl,” he writes. It’s a funny line, but its ahistoricism should be obvious. The Jewish faith wasn’t forged in Mexico, and Jews haven’t spent centuries ending Seders with “Next year in Jalisco.”

Special attention is paid to the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, the Moldovan bouncer-turned-foreign minister whose rhetoric, Blumenthal writes, “rivaled the most sinister of James Bond villains.” (Not just any old Bond villains, mind you, but the most sinister.) “Lieberman and his growing band of hard-right henchmen gave expression to the authentically authoritarian attitudes that radiated from the heart of Jewish Israeli society,” he continues. Blumenthal demonstrates through his reporting that these attitudes, and the policies they support, are quite real and damaging. But he doesn’t show why these attitudes are any more “authentic” than the attitudes that led to the creation of a network of strongly progressive human rights organizations of which many Israelis are rightly proud (more on them below), and which set a high standard for liberal-progressive advocacy and activism.

Both Blumenthal and Muravchik are dismissive, though for different reasons, of liberal groups working to change the status quo. They can’t seem to stand real, live Israeli liberals. Writing of young Israelis who try to bring a greater sense of moral responsibility to their service in the Israeli Defense Forces—for example, by acting more aggressively to prevent settler violence against Palestinians— Blumenthal dismisses them as “well-educated Ashkenazi teens [who] insert themselves into frontline combat units to civilize their less cultivated, lower-class peers from Mizrahi and Russian backgrounds.” Similarly, Blumenthal repeatedly cites the work of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which collects testimonies of Israeli soldiers in order to confront Israeli society with the brutal realities of the occupation, but he doesn’t let this testimony—through which soldiers, many of them self-identified Zionists, are trying, in various ways, to change the situation for the better—infringe on his thesis that Zionism is irredeemable.

For Blumenthal, particularly culpable are the liberals and progressive Zionists who, by giving morally pained cover to Israel’s excesses, perpetuate them. “According to the philosophy of liberal Zionism,” Blumenthal writes, “Israel was an enlightened, European-style democracy before the rise of the settlement movement.” It’s quite right to push back on the tendency of some Israeli liberals to locate the cause of Israel’s problems among the settlers, although I’m unaware of any prominent liberal Zionists who hold this philosophy, at least as Blumenthal caricatures it. But it provides Blumenthal’s desired context for a pivotal scene, in which he visits the home of Israeli author David Grossman, an actual prominent Israeli liberal. Grossman shares his hopes that, under Obama, Israel’s pro-settlement right wing will be forced to comply with American efforts toward a two-state solution. (As Blumenthal observes, now in hindsight, this hope has been sadly misplaced.)

But Blumenthal’s inability, or unwillingness, or both, to understand the value that Grossman places on Jewish statehood is emblematic of his lack of empathy. “For two thousand years,” Grossman tells Blumenthal, “we have been kept out, we have been excluded. And so for our whole history we were outsiders. Because of Zionism, we finally have a chance to be insiders.” Blumenthal flippantly responds that lots of Jews are insiders in America, including his own father, Sidney Blumenthal, who was a senior aide in the Clinton Administration.

As with Muravchik’s refusal to engage seriously with the Palestinian perspective or the reality on the ground, at no point does Blumenthal consider that there’s anything reasonable in the Jewish desire for national self-determination, or that contemporary Jewish Israeli fears might have a basis in reality, especially in the wake of the second intifada, which saw Israel’s urban centers terrorized by bombs in buses, shopping centers, and restaurants. One needs to understand the grievances that give rise to a Lieberman, just as one needs to understand the grievances that give rise to a Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader. A small measure of empathy would have made this a far better and useful book. But then, it would have been a far different one.

A key shortcoming of both books is that they simply preach to their own respective choirs. If Muravchik’s book can be treated as hasbara—and I think it can—then Blumenthal is engaged in a sort of reverse hasbara, relentlessly bombarding us with Israel’s ugliness.
The challenge for progressives is to find a space between these two views, one that recognizes the political facts of fear, mistrust, and oppression that drive Israeli policy and Palestinian resistance, both violent and nonviolent. This isn’t to suggest a familiar, comforting “both sides are to blame” equivalence—there is no equivalence between occupier and occupied—but to suggest that empathy for both sides’ experiences and fears is necessary to understanding this most-written-about of conflicts. It should also be said that, while the progressive side is properly most concerned with the occupation, it should make demands of the Palestinians, too. Living under occupation does not create a special dispensation for terrorism, corruption, or authoritarianism, and it would be an enormous tragedy if the occupation were merely to give way to yet another Arab security state in its place.

A key question is whether there is a common denominator to be found among all the groups that we might define as within the progressive camp: one-staters, two-staters, liberal Zionists, and post-Zionists. Progressives will disagree on a lot, but I would suggest that one thing we can agree on is that ending the occupation—that is, the U.S.-sponsored domination of Palestinians by Israeli forces—is imperative. The formulation “no nation in the world would tolerate . . .” is often used to defend Israeli actions. Rarely is it said of the Palestinians, but it’s true: No nation in the world would tolerate living under perpetual occupation. Its people would resist in any way they could. (The early Zionists certainly did; we don’t have to theorize about that.)

To return to the memo from the two consultants, while it’s true that Operation Protective Edge increased the level of antipathy toward Israel among progressives, this doesn’t seem to have resulted in any sense of mobilization, but rather of resignation, and a decision not to engage. This is a huge mistake. Progressives need to be more engaged on this issue, not less. Specifically, we need to be bolder in asserting solidarity with our progressive Israeli colleagues—that is, the very people Muravchik and Blumenthal both, in their own way, disdain—as we go about the common work of creating more just and equitable societies. American and Israeli conservatives have for years worked closely together, developing networks and pushing common messages. Progressives should look to imitate this. Can the U.S.-Israel relationship be used to advance mutual progressive goals, rather than simply empowering an ascendant Israeli right? We won’t find out if progressives simply throw up their hands and walk away.

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Matthew Duss is a Visiting Scholar in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2017-2022 he was foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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