In one scene from Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, Max Blumenthal finds himself on a night bus to Tel Aviv, next to an enthusiastic American tourist.
As our minibus blasted down Israel’s central coast toward Tel Aviv, we passed Jewish mitzpim built high on the hills to our left, and the remains of “abandoned” Arab homes on the coastal dunes to our right. The doctor peered out the window and nudged me with his elbow. “It’s amazing what they’ve built, isn’t it?” I was tempted to reply that it was almost as remarkable as what they had destroyed.
That destructive power was on full display this summer. The Israeli state killed at least 2,100 Palestinians in its assault on the captive population in Gaza, many of them civilians; it repeatedly bombed Gaza’s sole power station, its hospitals, schools and mosques. When that was over, Israel moved to turn Palestinian land over to Jews, seizing 1,000 acres of farmland and announcing plans for the construction of 2,600 units of settlement housing in East Jerusalem. At the same time, the racism pervading Israeli society was revealed to the world. Nine-tenths of the Jewish population of Israel supported the attack. Violent mobs marched through Jerusalem, chanting, “Death to Arabs.” Civilians gathered on couches and lawn chairs in Sderot to watch and cheer bombs drop on Gazans. Across the world tens of thousands protested in city after city, suggesting at least that many were horrified at the deadly truths they were learning about Israel.
Although Israel’s standing plummeted this summer for many, this sort of behavior is far from new. In fact, Max Blumenthal finds these same themes running throughout the history of Zionism. To write Goliath, released in paperback in October, Blumenthal spent four years traveling to Israel, conducting interviews and recording observations, and researching Israeli history. The product is a masterful work of reportage, painting a damning portrait of seven decades of state terror, deployed in the service of growing the Zionist state, and the ideological contortions required to justify sustained violence, occupation, and apartheid.
Blumenthal makes few direct arguments in Goliath, instead choosing to fade into the background and let Israeli life speak for itself. Hundreds of pages worth of contemporary and historical anecdotes make clear what was required for historic Palestine to become increasingly Judaized, and what the outcomes of Judaization have been. What becomes impossible to gainsay, after reading Blumenthal, is the fundamental contradiction in coupling the terms “democratic” and “Jewish” in the phrase “democratic and Jewish state,” for when faced with the choice between making Israel more Jewish or more democratic, Israelis have rarely—if ever – chosen the latter at the expense of the former.
While the dispossession of the Palestinian people has not all happened at the barrel of a gun, Palestinians have certainly not acceded to their own cleansing from their own land. Ultimately, Goliath is the story of how a land became more Jewish, less democratic, and about the extreme ideological depths Israeli society must plunge to justify decades of occupation and apartheid. In this way, Goliath traces a progression that anticipates what for millions was only revealed to them this past summer.
The Only Democracy in the Middle East™
“In the late 1990s and onwards, ‘Death to the Arabs’ became a common chant in almost every football stadium in Israel,” writes Blumenthal. More recently, “throughout May 2012, a gang of about a dozen youths terrorized Africans in Tel Aviv, attacking them with clubs and iron chains, while robbing their stores of thousands of shekels.”
Shortly afterward, Blumenthal observed a demonstration of 1,000 Israelis protesting African migrants. Knesset member Danny Danon addressed the crowd, exclaiming, “The infiltrators have to be expelled. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that word—‘expulsion now!’” This language could have been lifted from the height of fascism in Europe. The audience laps it up, as they also do when Miri Regev, another Knesset member and the former spokesperson for the Israeli Army follows with, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body! We will do everything in our power to return them to their countries of origin.”
The demonstration quickly devolves into a riot. Reporters recognized as unsympathetic are chased and, if caught, beaten. The mob spends the rest of the night attacking African migrants and smashing the windows of African-owned businesses and cars. In the aftermath, Miri Regev posts an apology to her Facebook page for her comparison of Africans to cancer—that is, she apologizes to cancer patients for the insulting comparison.
There is no official rebuke for Knesset members Danon or Regev. In fact, for Israeli politicians staking out positions that range from apartheid to xenophobic to genocidal, the only reliable consequences seem to be election to office. As Blumenthal notes, polls revealed that in 2012, 52 percent of Israeli Jews agreed Africans were a cancer, and 63 percent in Tel Aviv supported the outright expulsion of all non-Jewish Africans from Israel. Shortly after the anti-migrant riot, a deputy editor at the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz writes, “I am as afraid to live in the Israel of 2012 as any right-minded German should have been in 1938, or as any right-minded American should have been in the 1960s.”
As Israeli society veers further right, politicians vie with each other to win a larger audience—and a seat in the Knesset—by outdoing each other in their outrage toward Palestinians. Increasingly, that audience is made up of both those chanting “Death to Arabs,” as well as those willing to support apartheid when framed slightly more diplomatically:
At 2:42 a.m. on March 23 2011, a month after voting to enact a parliamentary inquisition against Israeli human rights NGOs, the Knesset rushed through two laws: the segregationist Acceptance to Communities Act, which would legally authorize towns to reject Palestinian Israelis as residents on the basis of “social suitability”’ and the Nakba Law, fining any municipality, including Palestinian Israeli ones, for any commemoration of the expulsion by Zionist militias of 750,000 people from Palestine in 1948. As usual, only 55 of the Knesset’s 120 members bothered to appear to vote on the bills, which both passed by wide margins.
Numerous other, less obviously racist policies may be formally colorblind, but do little except excluding non-Jews. One example is the requirement for military service (in which only Jews participate):
“I can’t get into half the nightclubs in Tel Aviv,” Fadi remarked to me, “because the bouncers will stand outside asking everyone for proof of military service. It’s the same for jobs: whenever I apply, more and more companies ask for proof that I did army. I see more and more want ads in the papers saying, ‘Army service required.’ This is just another way of saying, no Arabs allowed, because we don’t serve in the army.”
If Israel is able to shroud itself in a veneer of democracy, it is only to the degree that no one is looking very closely. The conception of Israel as a great democracy disappears at its doorstep. In 2009 Blumenthal arrived at Ben-Gurion International airport, where “chronicles of harsh interrogations and the arbitrary deportation of journalists, international human rights activists, and dissidents . . . are legion.”
Of course, it’s not just journalists and human rights activists who are targeted. “Their treatment pales in comparison to the abuse meted out by Shin Bet officers to Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Arabs in general.”
Upon arriving at the airport, security guards randomly pull people out of lines for accent checks. If the person for any reason does not pass muster, they can find themselves taken aside for more detailed searching, or taken to an Arab Room for interrogation. “Any Arab flying out of Ben Gurion must arrive at least five hours in advance,” explains Blumenthal. “‘Palestinians who pass through security procedures receive a special sticker on their passport reading, ‘Did you pack a bomb by mistake?’”
A 2006 human rights report observed, “It is hard to find any Arab citizen who travels abroad by air and who has not experienced a discriminatory security check at least once.” Six years later saw the introduction of the “Ethnic Minorities Form.” Since 2012 Arabs flying out of Ben Gurion must list the names and passport numbers of family members.
As a white Jewish man with a US passport, Blumenthal avoids much of the Israeli security regime. Still he confesses an anxiety upon each arrival, a sense of relief coming only after he has made it through each step of the process.
Shortly before Blumenthal’s arrival there had been several high profile incidents, in which Israel denied entry to “several prominent left-wing international political figures.” Spanish clown Ivan Prado had come to Israel to organize a clown festival in Ramallah, but “was detained for six hours and deported because the Shin Bet (Israel’s general security service) claimed he had ‘links to Palestinian terror organizations.’” Noam Chomsky “was detained and interrogated at Israel’s border for five hours by the Shin Bet on his way to speak at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and finally deported to Jordan.”
The routine hostility Arabs, journalists, and activists endure in the name of security is an early sign of how deeply embedded apartheid has become in Israeli society. Like many others, Blumenthal develops strategies in anticipation of the likely obstacles.
“Whenever a security officer greeted me with the requisite opening question, ‘Are you Jeweesh?’ I have learned to casually respond, ‘Of course.’”
Ghosts of the Nakba
Blumenthal’s spare, blunt descriptions of the everyday racism he encounters can be heart stoppingly effective. But Blumenthal hasn’t just produced an account of contemporary racism. For every incident he observes in the present, there is a corresponding horror story buried in Israel’s violent past. Blumenthal presents historical narratives of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, long-since buried by Zionist mythology that they had arrived to find “a land without a people, for a people without a land.”
For instance, before Israel was established in 1948, Ben-Gurion Airport was called Al-Lydda. The Arabic name was borrowed from the city of Lydda, which along with its twin city Ramle, represented 20 percent of the urban population of Palestine. Al-Lydda airport was captured in Operation Dani, part of an Israeli drive to conquer and control the forty-one mile stretch of land between Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. Blumenthal recounts how Israeli militias, lead by their hero Moshe Dyan, brutally emptied the land of its Palestinian inhabitants:
170 Palestinian Arabs instructed to take shelter in the Dahmash mosque near Ramle were slaughtered by forces under Rabin and Allon’s direct command, then left to rot in the July heat . . . About twenty to fifty more Palestinian men sent into the mosque by Israeli forces to extract the corpses and bury them were shot dead in the graves they had just dug.
Contemporary news reports fill out the gruesome picture. “The corpses of Arab men, women, and even children strewn about in the wake of the ruthlessly brilliant charge.” Those who were not killed immediately were forced to march to Ramallah. Nearly 55,000 plodded the thirty miles, a Palestinian trail of tears on which hundreds more died.
This history is invisible today as millions arrive at the modern, gleaming Ben-Gurion airport, named for a leader of the 1948 military campaign and Israel’s first Prime Minister. As Blumenthal makes his way to the baggage area in 2009, he is greeted by an “exhibit of vintage Jewish National Fund posters—‘Conquering the Wilderness,’ one of them read.”
Jumping back and forth in time creates a timeless effect. Each year sees Israeli society veer farther to the far right, more willing to tolerate Palestinian bloodshed—if not to demand it outright. Meanwhile, every town and street Blumenthal visits is haunted by ghosts of the Nakba.
In June 2010, Blumenthal visited Haifa a month after Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara and murdered nine humanitarian relief activists. When Blumenthal arrived the Mavi Marmara sat docked at Haifa’s shore, “Where the blood of its dead and wounded passengers was promptly hosed off of the top deck.” As it became increasingly clear that Israel was unwilling to release the boat back to its native Turkey, the mayor of Haifa suggested repurposing it: “If Israel decides to confiscate the Turkish ship, I ask for it to be given to the city of Haifa to turn it into a floating hotel opposite the city’s shore.”
Like so many other sites Haifa remains haunted by past massacres. In 1948 armed Zionists raided, speakers blaring the soldiers’ orders: “‘Kill any Arab you encounter, torch all inflammable objects, and force the doors open with explosives.’” Today, the city is dotted with empty, decaying homes, and absentee properties are left empty by fleeing Palestinians:
[The Israeli state] holds them in perpetuity for refugees whose return it will never allow, and which has places done on the real estate market in violation of international law. The abandoned homes can be found all over Haifa—along the beach and on the hills overlooking the city’s municipal courthouse, itself constructed on confiscated Palestinian land. And only those who managed to maintain total ignorance to Haifa’s past and present could avoid seeing the remnants of the Nakba that fester like open sores on the city’s scenic landscape.
Blumenthal finds himself in the town Ein Hod (original Arabic name Ayn Hawd), where Arabs had lived from the twelfth century. In 1948 they were driven into the nearby hills, where they watched their homes fill with Zionist families. Five years later the state established an all-Jewish art commune and today the area is a quant tourist destination, complete with bed and breakfasts. Blumenthal enters a bar in Ein Hod, and asks patrons if it is true that the building they are standing in used to be Ayn Hawd’s mosque.
“Yeah, but that’s how all of Israel is,” an Israel woman answers. “This whole country is built on top of Arab villages.”
These are but a few of the many stories Blumenthal tells in Goliath. Everywhere he turns in his travels through Israel, he is standing on land that Palestinians once lived on, and were cleansed from, land which became Judaized. As Palestinians were forced out of land repopulated by Jews, the names of these cities were Hebraicized: Lydda was now Lod. Tel Al-Rabi became Tel Aviv. And so on.
Goliath is not just a story of present-day apartheid, racism, and violence. Nor is it a history of a colonized, displaced, occupied people. It’s also the story of the disappearance of any trace of that history. Zionist expansion cannot merely leave Palestinians homeless and penniless. It must also rob them of even the memory of the unending catastrophe that is the state of Israel. Recapturing that history helps explain the bizarre world in which Israel demands we accept it as a highly democratic society amidst routine occupation, violence, and apartheid. Works that achieve this, from Pappe’s Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine to Blumenthal’s Goliath, are enormous services to the fight for justice for Palestine.
There is a sullen, exhausting horror that sets in as you make your way through Goliath. If Blumenthal weren’t such a brilliant writer, and if he didn’t punctuate the desperation with surprising gallows humor, it would be a difficult work to finish. Instead, it’s difficult to put the book down; as each scene ends one is compelled to move on to the next. The literary equivalent of binge-watching a riveting drama on Netflix, this used to be called reading an incredibly good book.
You should read Goliath. You should get others to read it. Whether you are new to questions surrounding Israel/Palestine, or have grappled with them for decades, Goliath will shock and anger you. Most importantly, it will redouble your commitment to the fight for Palestinian liberation, and against Zionism.