When Pope Francis, during his recent visit to the Holy Land, spontaneously got out of his jeep in Bethlehem, touched his forehead to the security wall that separates Jews from Arabs and silently prayed for the suffering of Palestinian children, the gesture was widely seen as an expression of his love for humanity. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, was reportedly taken aback and asked the pope to visit a memorial to the Jewish victims of terror attacks.
Netanyahu’s objection reflected his core belief that only Jewish suffering matters. As Max Blumenthal documents in Goliath, this belief has since the 2009 parliamentary elections led to policies that have eroded the rights of Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied territories.
The 2009 elections took place against the backdrop of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip to punish and destroy Hamas for launching rocket attacks on southern Israel. The simultaneous election and military campaigns confirmed the rightward drift of Israeli politics, fueled by the influx of a million Russian Jews who have immigrated to Israel since the 1980s. Ehud Barak, the Labor party leader and defense minister in charge of Cast Lead, hoped that the aggressive military force, which killed over 1,400 Palestinian civilians, would appeal to Israeli voters.
Nonetheless, Labor finished in a disappointing fourth behind Netanyahu’s Likud party, the centrist Kadima party and the ultra right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by the Russian-born Avigdor Lieberman, a former night club bouncer whose campaign slogan was “No loyalty, no citizenship.” Lieberman’s harsh rhetoric against Palestinians, including calls to expel them from Israel, appealed to his Russian base, which yearned for a Putin-type strongman. As a result of the elections, Netanyahu formed a government in which Lieberman became foreign minister and his party an influential partner of the governing coalition.
Relying on interviews of government and party officials—Knesset members, intellectuals, activists, Jews and Palestinians from every position on the political spectrum—Blumenthal explores how the government’s policies have affected the daily lives of Israeli Arabs, Palestinians in the occupied territories and African refugees.
Blumenthal, an investigative reporter and author of a book about the Republican Party, presents many aspects of contemporary Israeli life that have not generally been reported in the American press. Some of the facts, particularly the surge of Israeli hatred of Arabs and African migrants, make for uncomfortable reading. Particularly chilling are Blumenthal’s eyewitness accounts of street violence against minority populations fomented by extreme religious youths and gangs affiliated with Yisrael Beteinu. These events are consistent with respected opinion polls that show most Israelis would prefer to be completely separated from their Palestinians neighbors. Thus the security wall, originally intended to be temporary, has become a permanent symbol of the separation that most Israelis prefer.
At the root of this turmoil is the overriding concern of every political party about the demographic threat the rapidly increasing Arab population poses. In 2010 the Israeli government approved legislation originally proposed in 1984 by the outlawed extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane that would deny full citizenship to any immigrant who refuses to sign a loyalty oath recognizing Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. In 2011 the Knesset enacted a law that permitted towns to reject Palestinian Israelis as residents on the basis of “social suitability.” In 2012 Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a law that banned West Bank Palestinians from obtaining citizenship if they married Israeli citizens and blocked them from receiving temporary residency. In Blumenthal’s view, these and similar actions reflected the majority Israeli view that preserving the essential Jewish character of the state trumps minority democratic rights.
These actions raise the larger question of whether Israel can exist as both a Jewish and a democratic state. While Blumenthal’s method is to present the fruits of his interviews instead of arguments, his selection of facts reflects his belief, expressed in other writings, that the answer is no. In fact, Blumenthal believes, contrary to Zionist orthodoxy, that the creation of Israel was flawed at its inception because it expelled over 700,000 Arabs from their homes during the 1948 War of Independence to create a majority Jewish population and then refused the refugees the right to return. Blumenthal also shows how Netanyahu cynically uses the Holocaust to advance narrowly nationalistic goals while deleting from school textbooks references to the expulsion of Arabs. Despite Israel’s dominant military position, Netanyahu constantly evokes the Holocaust to oppose a Palestinian state and remains content with what he calls “the Big Quiet,” neither war nor peace but a status quo in which the subservient population is managed.
Thus, Blumenthal disagrees with many critics of Israel, including liberal American Zionists, who believe the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, was the defining event that compromised the democratic values of the Jewish state. These critics of the occupation, including Peter Beinart, the author of The Crisis of Zionism, celebrate the birth of Israel but mourn the loss of democratic values since Israel became an occupier.
While Goliath has been largely ignored in the United States, some critics have derided Blumenthal for presenting a one-sided view, but Blumenthal presents interviews with defenders of the current policies. Moreover, Blumenthal’s account is a necessary corrective to a vacuous U.S. dialogue in which any criticism of Israel is harshly condemned. Secretary of State John Kerry was recently compelled to state that he misspoke when he predicted that the breakdown of peace talks might lead to apartheid, even though prominent Israelis, like Barak and Ehud Olmert, have for years compared the occupation to apartheid. Unless Americans prefer to believe, like many of Netanyahu’s defenders in the United States, that Israel can do no wrong, Goliath presents troubling facts that every American should at least consider.