Max Blumenthal on exposing hardcore racism in “liberal” Tel Aviv
This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:
- “The philosophy of Zionism as applied in historic Palestine is a recipe for ethnic cleansing”: Max Blumenthal, author of new book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, tells The Electronic Intifada what shocks him most about Israel today. Read rush transcript.
- A special report from the occupied West Bank as 26 Palestinian prisoners are released from Israeli jails, we’ll hear from the brother of a released prisoner and from Randa Kamel of the Palestinian prisoner support organization Addameer. Read rush transcript.
- New music from the Gaza hip-hop group Revolution Makers.
Max Blumenthal on supremacist Israel
For four years, Max Blumenthal, journalist and author of the best-selling book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, turned his attention to the socio-political situation inside present-day Israel and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians on both sides of the green line. His new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel is, as The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah says, an unflinching look at the racist reality of Israel that America’s establishment media simply does not have the guts to confront.
From reporting on the violent mobs of racist youth, propped up by Israeli politicians and religious leaders, who target and attack Palestinians and African migrants, to witnessing the incessant bulldozing of Palestinian bedouin villages in the Naqab/Negev, to speaking directly with political leaders who design discriminatory laws against non-Jews, Blumenthal’s reportage over the past several years has helped expose the machinations of supremacist policy as the ultranationalist right-wing gains increasing power in Israel.
Recently, Blumenthal and another contributor to The Electronic Intifada, David Sheen, exposed some of the most shocking incidents of anti-African racism in Israel in a video — Israel’s New Racism: The Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land — originally produced for The New York Times.
The Electronic Intifada’s Nora Barrows-Friedman sat down with Max Blumenthal in Oakland on Tuesday, when he was in the Bay Area to promote Goliath. We began by asking him to talk about the video, why The New York Times solicited and then rejected it, and what the public’s reaction to it has been so far.
Max Blumenthal: I produced this short documentary with David Sheen, who’s an Israeli independent journalist who has done more work on exposing racism against non-Jewish African asylum-seekers in Israel than any other journalist alive. That’s not an exaggeration. And we did it because I had approached the New York Times’ Op-Docs editors with just an idea that I might do some kind of video related to my book, and I talked to Kathleen Lingo, who’s an editor there, at one of their events, and she was really eager to have me submit something.
Not only that, but she provided editorial direction, and said that everyone knows about the Palestinian situation, but why don’t you produce something for us on Africans in Israel. And I said, great, I’d love to do that. And so me and David took a while to try to adjust our documentary to the style that we thought the Op-Docs wanted, and she emailed me to ask where the submission was, and finally we submitted it. And Jason Spingarn-Koff, who’s the chief editor, rejected it without explanation. And when I asked for explanation he never emailed me back.
I think it’s pretty clear why they did so. I mean, it’s totally factual. And we were submitted to a rigorous fact-check by The Nation, which eventually carried it. But it was really EI and Ali who made it go viral. And all it took was one little push, and when people saw it, the reaction was just overwhelming.
It’s now at close to 400,000 hits — and there’s a separate video someone posted of it that is at 300,000 hits. So you can imagine what the reaction would have been if it had been hosted by The New York Times.
But we have to draw conclusion from this episode — that there has been an effort to deny especially Americans the ability to know what’s happening inside Israel to this group, and it’s particularly I think disturbing to liberal Zionists because these people are inside Tel Aviv — 60,000 Africans inside core Israeli cities, not in occupied territories, in the territory that would be legitimized under a two-state solution, being subjected to the most obscenely racist treatment, specifically and exclusively because they’re not Jews. And they’re being placed in a desert detention camp for that reason.
So it really goes to the heart of the contradiction of liberal Zionism and those who advocate a two-state solution as though this kind of racism won’t occur behind the green line.
The reaction among African Americans has been very interesting. When they see this documentary, they’re completely shocked, and they’re infuriated that they weren’t informed about this before. Davey D, right here in the Bay Area, is one of the few African American journalists I can think of who has actually put this video online and tried to promote the situation. I was just interviewed by him today, and I can’t go into details, but he’s caught some serious flack from influential people for putting this factual video out.
I was interviewed by BET [Black Entertainment Television] about the video. And the journalist who interviewed me was outraged by what he saw. But we have seen no article or segment from BET since my interview, and I don’t know what’s happening with it. But we see a dereliction of duty not just on the part of mainstream American media, but on the part of mainstream African American media. And the definite intimidation campaign on the part of the Israel lobby to bully African Americans into silence on this issue.
The Electronic Intifada: In your book, you talk a lot about the contradictions and hypocrisy of Zionism itself, and especially what’s called liberal Zionism. And recently in the last week Eric Alterman at The Nation, your colleague at The Nation, has really attempted to slam your book and do a character assassination of you. How do you see that playing out, and what has Eric Alterman exposed himself to really be, in your view?
MB: Yeah, I mean this is one of the few times that I’ve actually read Eric Alterman. Not just because it’s about me, but because he’s so consistently boring and predictable. And it really represents everything that’s wrong with the sycophantic liberal punditry in the Obama era. He’s exposed himself to be completely out of touch with what’s happening on the ground in Israel-Palestine, in contrast to a veteran journalist like Avika Eldar.
But I just have a question about this, because liberal Zionists have really avoided engaging with me. And I want to stay civil with them. I don’t want to insult them in public, or humiliate them, but I want to engage on the core issue — of contradictions between liberalism and Zionism.
So Alterman has kind of delegated himself as the liberal Zionist who will mount the counter-attack on my book and the critique of it, and many people I think within his world are embarrassed by what he’s done, because he’s declared it to be the “Hamas book club book-of-the-month,” and said that my presence “shames us all,” which makes me the anti-Jay Z, whose presence is charity. And I’m happy to be the anti-Jay Z, by the way. I’m with Harry Belafonte on that one.
But what if this is the strongest critique that liberal Zionists can offer of my book? What if this is all they’ve got? What if he’s just totally shot the liberal Zionist load and this is all there is? Because when I attempt to engage with other liberal Zionists they just avoid it altogether and are attempting to ignore me.
EI: Why do you think that is? What’s the contradiction there that you’ve exposed?
MB: That the philosophy of Zionism as applied in historic Palestine is a recipe for ethnic cleansing. And it’s not just me saying that — I mean, Ari Shavit, who’s like the Thomas Friedman of Israel, said as much in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, but he can’t come to the same conclusion as me — he can’t come to any conclusion.
So if you read his piece about the ethnic cleansing of Lydda in 1948 — and he gets a lot of facts wrong about it, by the way — I write about this extensively in my book, about Lydda and Operation Dani. But by the end, he concludes that it’s all too immense for him. He almost uses that exact phrase. It’s almost too immense to grapple with or come to any conclusions about, and that the ethnic cleansing was necessary for him to be born. He suggests that or even states that clearly.
And what I’m saying is just the opposite — that there’s no way that a system that requires ethnic cleansing can be negotiable. It has to basically be unraveled and reversed. The institutions like the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency have to be outlawed. I’m sorry to deprive Avi Mayer of a position and I hope he can stay in Israel-Palestine and have a shared future with Palestinians, with equal rights for all, but if he chooses to reject that shared future, I wish him well in his ancestral homeland of suburban Maryland.
EI: You spent four years, nearly, researching and documenting your experiences and the experiences of so many people in Palestine for this book. What was the most shocking revelation?
MB: You know, there are a lot of episodes in the book that disturb me, that stay with me, and that really galvanized me to see this project through, that gave me energy. The first thing that shocked me was just watching Operation Cast Lead. I had to watch Al Jazeera English because I couldn’t really watch the same images on my American networks, which covered it as though it were two equal sides going to war.
But being in Haifa was one of the most intense times in reporting this book. And really, in the course of a few days, I would have lunch with Cindy and Craig Corrie, be sitting over hummus with them at Fattoush restaurant, and I hear them talk about how Dr. Yehuda Hiss, who is the chief pathologist of Israel, looted the organs of their daughter, and how they’re trying to retrieve her body parts.
EI: This is Rachel Corrie.
MB: This is Rachel Corrie. And this is all documented, and I’m not making slanderous allegations. Yehuda Hiss has even been accused of doing this by settlers, and Israeli soldiers’ parents. And then I would be meeting with Janan Abdu, hours later, whose husband, Ameer Makhoul, had been basically taken in a night raid. He was the leading figure of Palestinian Israeli civil society, and was jailed for 9 years under trumped-up charges, he was tortured, he was held as a “security prisoner,” and just hearing her talk about that episode and how she’s having to raise her daughters alone, with her daughters racing in and out of the living room after school.
Then I looked out into the harbor of Haifa, and I saw the Mavi Marmara there, what the mayor of Haifa had proposed turning into a hotel and a museum of peace, after the Israelis had committed this massacre on the top deck. And it was just sitting there, this stolen property.
And I came down after meeting with Janan and I met with two guys whom I was friendly with through Facebook, who I only refer to in my book as Ala and Ameer because they don’t want to use their last names, because they had both been interrogated by the Shin Bet and they don’t know why. And they’re tech workers — they’re two of the few Palestinian citizens of Israel who work in the Israeli tech industry, and hearing about the episodes of racism they endure, even at the top of the Palestinian totem pole, with good educations — they had both gone to the Technion — and hearing Ala at the end of the interview remark, “sometimes I wish I wasn’t an Arab, I wish I was a guy.” It’s deeply dispiriting.
Meeting the next day at Adalah, the Palestinian Israeli civil rights organization in Haifa, and hearing story after story of discrimination, and then the next night meeting up with friends, one of whom happens to be Fidaa Kiwan, and hearing her talk about starting a cafe called Azad which had a no uniforms policy, because she wanted to create a space where Palestinians didn’t feel threatened by soldiers, and something that was completely legal to do, by the way.
And having her cafe shut down after a campaign of harassment by the city, and seeing mobs just besiege her cafe, hanging Israeli flags over it, and hearing her talk about being sued by the soldier, having to pay out money to the soldier, and paying her loans and declaring that, you know what, I’m sick of being here, I’m going to move to Ramallah. I’m basically self-transferring, because the occupation is out in the open there. I don’t like the sexist attitudes there, it’s like a double occupation, but at least everybody there knows they’re occupied, and I’d rather be with the people than be here where the occupation is hidden behind these layers of fake democracy.
And I met her again in Ramallah, and she was there. And that’s what she’d done, she turned her back on ‘48 [present-day Israel] because of the extreme environment, the atmosphere of racism that was all-encompassing.
And by the way, after that interview, I walked by Azad and its windows had been smashed. And when I see storefront windows smashed — because that store has been singled out, as owned and run by a member of an ethnic outclass that has been officially demonized, it takes my mind to a dark place in history.
And this was all in Haifa, again — a core Israeli city, not an occupied territory. Didn’t have to go to Nablus to see this kind of hideous activities. That was really intense for me, and I’ve detailed it extensively in my book. But it took me a while to recover from those few days in Haifa, psychologically and emotionally. And you were there with me, so you know what I’m talking about.
Report by Patrick O. Strickland and Dylan Collins from Ramallah
On Sunday night, an Israeli government committee approved the release. A bill introduced by the pro-settler, ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party attempted to prevent the release, but it was rejected in the end.
It is the second phase of a four phase prisoner release that will bring home a total of 104 Palestinian political prisoners if completed. As negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government continue, the release has been called “a gesture of goodwill” by the Israeli government and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Issa Abd Rabbo was among those who was released Wednesday morning after serving nearly 30 years behind bars. He was imprisoned in 1984 after being convicted for the murder of two Israelis. Although Israel maintains that they were civilians, his brother Abd told The Electronic Intifada that he had killed two soldiers in retaliation for the death of their 12-year-old cousin:
Issa is currently the longest serving prisoner in all of Palestine.
I haven’t seen him in twenty years. Every time we applied for a visitation permit, it was denied… even when we tried to apply through the Red Cross we were denied. I didn’t see him. Tonight, it’s a dream for me to see him.
His children were young when he went to prison. Now they are grown up, they’re married and have their own kids.
My feelings tonight… I’m very, very happy. And thanks to god and the president Mahmoud Abbas. He made a promise, and he followed through on the promise. He promised us and he achieved it. He’s an honest guy and may god give him strength. May god keep him with us.
Issa … all of the people in prison loved him, all of the prisoners loved him. His children, his siblings, his parents, everyone who knows him loves him very much. He didn’t differentiate between between anyone … he treated everyone well.
Human rights organizations and critics have pointed out that the prisoner release gives no concrete guarantees to either the Palestinian Authority or released prisoners. While the families welcome their loved ones home, the released prisoners have not been granted immunity and will live in a constant state of uncertainty.
While the prisoners received a warm welcome, around 5,000 Palestinians remain behind bars in Israeli prisons, according to Addameer, a human rights group that supports Palestinian political prisoners.
A total of 137 of those prisoners are administrative detainees — they are held on “secret evidence” without charges. Another 180 detainees are classified as child prisoners.
The Electronic Intifada spoke to Addameer’s Randa Kamel about the obscure details surrounding the prisoner release:
According to the conditions to the conditions of their release, the Israeli occupation army has the right to arrest to arrest them and have them serve the remainder of their previous sentence. As you know, these are all.. those who are being released as part of this deal are all pre-Oslo prisoners. They all have extremely high sentences of at least thirty, forty years or above. Some of them have several life-sentences. So, and we’ve seen in the past that prisoners have gotten rearrested after being released in such a deal and they have attempted to have them serve the remainder of their previous sentence.
While these prisoners should have been released in 1993, prior to, at the start of the Oslo Accords, they do not address the policy of arrest and arbitrary detention that Israel uses against the Palestinians. They can be arbitrarily arrested for anything, from participating in demonstrations, from writing slogans on the apartheid wall, from being in an illegal organization — which is basically any organization that Israel deems to be working towards human rights, towards resistance, anything.
For example, in 2011 in the previous prisoner releases between Hamas and the government of Israel, when 1,027 were exchanged for Gilad Shalit … between the first phase of the release and the second phase of the releases there were 477 arrests of Palestinians.
Similarly, in these negotiations, since Kerry has announced these negotiations there’s been at least 1,100 arrests of Palestinians. And if you include those that were, you know, held at checkpoints or in residential areas that number jumps to over 1,700.
According to the document that was released from Netanyahu’s government when they voted on the prisoner release, it says that Israel creates the conditions for the prisoner release, and they will only release the prisoners if the negotiations are going well. So at any time they can stop the prisoners’ release. And we’ve seen that in the past where they have released some of the prisoners, but then they just say that the negotiations are not going in their direction and they stop the release of the prisoners.
Sabih Borhan, a former prisoner who was released during the first phase back in August, spoke to The Electronic Intifada shortly after his release. Although he was released to his home village near Jenin, he was not given an opportunity to agree to the release or its conditions.
Borhan says these conditions make it so that he lives in a constant state of uncertainty. For the first year, he is not been allowed to leave the Jenin district. Each month, he must meet the Israeli district military commander for an interrogation.
For ten years, he cannot travel abroad. If he violates any of the numerous conditions, he can be put back in prison and forced to serve his original sentence of six life-terms.
Borhan said, “We were not released so that we could just live in a bigger prison.”
Meanwhile, while public attention is fixed on the diplomatic implications of the prisoner release, Israeli occupation authorities continue to use mass arrests to weigh down Palestinian civil society. Academics, intellectuals, community leaders and activists are often targeted for arrest.
As Addameer’s Randa Kamel explains:
For example, Ahmed Qatamesh, who is a political scientist and academic, has been on administrative detention for over two and a half years, and has been held without charge or trial. So these policies haven’t changed.
The prisoners have been used and exploited throughout the last twenty years in negotiations. They are, the Palestinians are consistently being promised with prisoner releases and Israel constantly reneges on them. You see that in the Oslo Accords, you see that in the Cairo Agreement, and the Road Map agreement where prisoners are promised to be released and in the end Israel does not release them or releases, partially releases prisoners… and you see a series of mass arrests right after the release.
In fact, just two days ago, right when the release was being announced, there was raids in Hebron and Nablus, where many Hamas members were arrested, as well as university students, and as well as two Palestinian Legislative Council members. These are elected members of the law-making body for the Palestinians. Nine Palestinian Legislative Council members are being held under administrative detention right now. So this just shows you that the policy of arrest is not changing despite the negotiations. And that’s why Addameer calls for the unconditional release of all the Palestinian prisoners before returning to the negotiations table so that we can build confidence in these negotiations.
While the prisoner release has allowed dozens of families to reunite and rejoice, the families of another 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners are still left waiting.
For the Electronic Intifada podcast, this is Patrick O. Strickland and Dylan Collins reporting from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.