Two new books on Israel are exciting American Jews right now but I doubt very many people, if at all, have read or intend to read both of them. One is Yossi Klein Halevi's "Like Dreamers," an elegantly written epic story of the lives of seven IDF paratroopers who took part in the battle for Jerusalem in 1967, and how their individual trajectories personified the rise of one Zionist ideological vanguard, the religious settlers, and fall of another, the secular kibbutzniks. The second is "Goliath" by Max Blumenthal, a detailed account of racism and injustice towards non-Jews in Israel and a damning indictment of Zionist ethnocracy. I doubt that at this point I have to explain why very few American Jews will be reading both books, indeed why no publication has so far even reviewed both books. Actually, I'll be very surprised if Klein Halevi or Blumenthal will be particularly pleased by my mentioning them together in the same column.
But I think both these books are inextricably linked – they show two completely diverging views of Israel that exist in the United States, particularly among Jews, and while their content is interesting, what is fascinating is what they leave out.
The subtitles of the books are illuminating. The one for "Like Dreamers" is: "The story of the Israeli paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation." Now Israel is divided on many issues and fault lines, and Klein Halevi's narrative of descent and ascendancy of two Israeli elites certainly charts one of those lines extremely well, but it fails to explain some of Israel's deeper problems.
Israel is not divided between kibbutzniks and religious settlers; neither group ever amounted to more than a few percent of the population and most Israelis have had mixed feelings about their disproportionate influence over the country's direction throughout the years. Klein Halevi sets out to tell Israel's story over the last four decades through seven men's lives; he captures some of the strands extremely well, probably better than any writer so far, but the disintegration of the kibbutz utopia and rise of the Gush Emunim movement, while being an indispensable part of Israel's political development, can be exaggerated in its importance.
The social and economic gaps, the friction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the three-way secular-Orthodox-Haredi divide and the yawning chasm between Jews and Arabs, not to mention the inability of Israel to integrate itself in the region, all receive no more than passing mention in the book, yet they have each divided Israel as a nation to a far greater degree than the kibbutz-settlement rivalry, which has largely been within the "serving" elite. I still think that it is an extremely worthwhile book, if much too romantic for my taste, but readers shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that this is the main crack running through Israeli society.
Title says it all
The tagline of Blumenthal's Goliath is: "Life and Loathing in Greater Israel," which kind of says it all. But does it do what it says on the tin? Blumenthal admits that he knew little of Israel before he arrived for a series of prolonged stays in 2009, but he doesn't seem to have landed with much sympathy. The densely reported "on the ground" book contains not only his own impressions and coverage of nearly four years spent in the country, but a great deal of historical material reaching back to the pre-independence era. From the outset, the reader is left with no doubt that Blumenthal is out to prove that Israel is a racist entity, has always been one, that there is no moral justification for its existence as a Jewish state, and it is in rapid demise due to the increasing departure of members of its young generation.
A literary critic or reviewer (and I am writing here as neither) could pan "Goliath" for being riddled with inaccuracies, devoid of any compassion for Jewish Israelis (and not much for Palestinians either), for its breathtaking hyperbole and lack of any qualifying context to its devastating conclusions. But most of these flaws don't really matter because as far as it goes, "Goliath" is pretty factual when it comes to providing the outline and main details of "Loathing in Greater Israel." There is a lot of racism and hatred and prejudice and injustice in Israel, and regrettably this was the case both under left- and right-wing governments. That's no secret. Indeed, while lambasting Israeli journalists for toeing the official line (disclosure – I am one of the Israeli journalists Blumenthal singles out for this) the book's copious notes are mainly references to Israeli media.
Blumenthal did not invent Israeli racism. Far from enough has been done to solve the inherent contradictions in Israel's raison d'etre: to be both a Jewish and democratic state. Blumenthal could have toned down his rhetoric, refrained from the copious use of Nazi=Zionist imagery with its liberal sprinklings of "ghettos" and "concentration camps," and have been a lot more meticulous with his fact-checking, but that wouldn't have changed the book in any great deal. Because for Blumenthal, life in Israel is loathing and there is no sympathy for the life in Israel or for Israelis, or any other context because that is the context.
Blumenthal represents a view among American Jews (of course it also exists elsewhere, but that is another column) that the very concept of a "Jewish" state is racially repugnant. Today it is a minority view but a century ago it was pretty much the prevailing attitude among the American Jewish intelligentsia. It was certainly the official view of Reform Judaism in 1917 when its rabbis strenuously opposed the Balfour Declaration. Whether or not Blumenthal should have added under the definition of "Life" in Israel also something which is not about "Loathing" is an argument you cannot have with someone who cannot, or does not want to, see beyond his loathing.
Obviously it's impossible for me to put myself in another reader's shoes and try to imagine whether someone who was not aware of racism in Israel will be convinced by the massive array of facts assembled by Blumenthal, and accept his conclusion that the Zionist project is indeed inherently immoral and unjustified. Anyone who regularly reads this newspaper knows just how bad the situation is and I doubt whether Blumenthal will tell them anything they didn't know, or change their minds. But the huge majority of those who write and edit Haaretz, if not all of us, still believe Israel has just as much legitimacy to exist as any other state. Our debate is about what is wrong with and how to fix Israel, not over whether it should exist.
Not surprisingly, the reception both books have received, with a few exceptions, has been generally rapturous. "Like Dreamers" was positively reviewed in mainstream and Jewish publications, while Goliath was feted in magazines and websites of the ultra-liberal and radical left. This division pretty much reflects the prevailing views in both Jewish society and America as a whole, but it will be interesting to see whether either side of the map will allow itself to be challenged by the opposing narrative. I doubt that will be the case.