The radicalization of Max Blumenthal

I have followed the work of journalist Max Blumenthal for a long time. He was a correspondent for the magazine The Nation among other publications and his forte was to document the follies of right wing politics in the US. He would often go with a camera crew to the functions hosted by various right wing political and religious groups and interview the ordinary attendees and any dignitaries he could collar and then post videos of what they said on the internet. Since the people at these events said the most ridiculous and extreme things, his videos were both amusing and disturbing.

Pretty soon Blumenthal became a marked man and the people at these events would recognize him and would start yelling at him and the organizers would throw him out, but even those videos were fun to watch. Blumenthal had the great gift of being unflappable. He would stand there with a benign smile on his face and ask questions as attendees and security people hassled him. He parleyed his experiences into a 2009 book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party that was an amusing but disturbing chronicle of how the Republican party had been taken over by the crazies, an analysis that holds true even more now.

Republican Gomorrah – Blumenthal’s remarkable, muckraking debut – is a bestiary of dysfunction, scandal, and crime from the heart of the movement that runs the Republican Party. Blumenthal describes with no-holds-barred detail the people and the beliefs that establishment Republicans – like John McCain – have to kowtow to if they have any hope of running for president, and how moderates have been systematically purged from party ranks. He shows why the unqualified Sarah Palin was the party’s only logical choice and how her most fanatical supporters will be setting the strategy for the Republican assault on the Obama administration. Blumenthal warns that the Christian right will quietly exploit the widespread financial misery caused by the economic meltdown while mainstream media pundits churn out faddish and unfounded tales of the movement’s death.

In recent interviews, Blumenthal has spoken about how he was hailed for this book in the American media. He got a lot of publicity, invitations to talk shows, interviews on NPR and the like, and many favorable reviews. But as soon as he turned the critical eye that had been focused on Christians in America onto a similar phenomenon going on in Israel, and wrote Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel that chronicles the rapid rise of outright racist attitudes in Israel towards Palestinians and the creation of an apartheid state, he was frozen out of the mainstream US media and criticized for being a self-hating Jew or even an anti-Semite, something that is commonly experienced by even mild critics of Israel.

Glenn Greenwald interviewed Max Blumenthal, who has a new book out that deals with the attack on Gaza by Israel last year that was named Operation Protective Edge. The book is called The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza and you can read Greenwald’s review of the book here.

Greenwald asks Blumenthal how it came to be that he, who comes from a solidly establishment and well-connected family in the US (his father Sidney Blumenthal is a close advisor to the Clintons and a major player in Washington), became a harsh critic of Israel’s policies. The story of the evolution of his views is quite poignant as he describes how he was disturbed by the disconnect between what he saw happening on the ground in Israel and how liberal Democrats said nothing or even gave active support to Israel policies that he found appalling. His story is not an uncommon these days and explains the rise in support for things like the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement from people, including many American and Israeli Jews, who have despaired of the intransigence of Israeli political leaders and of their enablers who think that they must support that country’s government’s actions no matter what. He said that very blinkered view helped to drive him away from them.

Well, I’ll do my best. You know, I’m part of the generation that went through 9/11, the Bush era, but also, the generation of American Jews that went through the Second Intifada, the second assault on Lebanon, and then Operation Cast Lead, the assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, and it was formative for me in a way that goes well beyond Israel/Palestine.

As a Jew growing up in Washington, DC, in a middle- or upper-class family, in a place like Washington, especially, Zionism calls on you. There’s really nowhere to hide, especially within my family. My family’s not particularly Zionist, but I was sent to a Hebrew school where there was an Israeli flag next to the bimah, the podium where the rabbi stood. Next to the Israeli flag was a U.N. flag draped in black, in protest of the now-defunct U.N. resolution correctly declaring Zionism to be a form of racism. Which already had planted the seeds of doubt in my mind as a fourth grader.

Zionism had been kind of accepted within the Jewish community in Washington, and within the Jewish establishment to the point where it was scarcely even questioned. During the peace process, the acceptance of Zionism was consolidated because Israel was seen as kind-of a liberal project that sincerely wanted peace.

So the Second Intifada was on the way. It was the year 2000 and I decided to go on the Birthright Israel trip. This is a free trip for American Jews, and Jews across the Diaspora, which centers Jewish identity within the state of Israel by sending you on a free trip to Israel for 10 days. And I just thought, you know, free trip, could be cool, I don’t know what to expect here.

The funders of this trip, who include Sheldon Adelson, the right-wing Republican warlord who’s a close friend of Benjamin Netanyahu, Michael Steinhardt, the hedge funder, Charles Bronfman, they aim to establish a lifelong connection between American Jews who are young and the state of Israel.

In a way, it worked with me, because so many questions were implanted in my consciousness. Why did we have to be surrounded by Israeli soldiers with weapons all the time? Why were we instructed not to interact with Palestinians? Why were we encouraged so aggressively to mate and engage in promiscuous sexuality? Why was Jewish life centered so far away from The United States, which was where my Jewish experience took place?

All of these questions were roiling in my mind when I returned and the Second Intifada erupted and I watched the Israeli military destroy the refugee camp of Jenin. And it was then that I started questioning what the occupation was about, what Zionism was about, why I hadn’t been told the truth.

I remember protesting on an e-mail list that some Birthrighters were on and receiving a phone call from one of the rabbis who had escorted us on the trip, who was from Chabad, a radical, right-wing, Messianic cult that had actually been involved in guiding me on my first trip to Israel. And he started defending the Israeli destruction of the education industry in Ramallah. The burning of books! This is the way I saw it. So it was completely unacceptable to me, but I didn’t have a way of framing it or understanding a way out of Zionism beyond the current parameters of the situation, which had always been framed in terms of the peace process and a two-state solution.

I didn’t have a Palestinian friend until 2007 who could explain from an authentic Palestinian perspective what it was like to go through this situation. So it was a long process for me. I know it’s been a long process for many other Jews. But as someone who grew up in the liberal Democratic establishment, there was another process taking place, which was kind of seeing how empty our politics was. I witnessed the second invasion of Lebanon, which destroyed a large part of Beirut, and watched our government call it the birth pangs of a new Middle East. It was really the episiotomy of a new Middle East.

And then Operation Cast Lead starts taking place. All of my colleagues at The Nation magazine were in love with Barack Obama. The Nation had kind of become a “My Barrack Obama” page. And Barrack Obama was being briefed on this assault, and he was saying nothing as 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were killed and besieged.

I remember meeting Al Franken who had been elected to the Senate and seeing him go to a rally with Norm Coleman, his opponent, to support the war. Seeing the Democratic establishment fall in line with the Republicans and the Israel lobby to support an assault on a besieged people.

Barack Obama was elected and the Democrats won the Senate, and I remember winding up in Washington at a party hosted by Norman Lear. It was a victory party. Everyone was proclaiming themselves a “new American” or a “born-again American,” and they had all these different archetypes come up on stage. The cowboy, the urban African-American, the cosmopolitan person. “I’m a born-again American.” Obama was going to renew us all.

This assault was taking place and I was watching it closely because, for the first time, I had access to Al Jazeera’s live feed. Ayman Mohyeldin was reporting it from the border of Gaza. And I remember looking around at this ridiculous party and seeing the Black-Eyed Peas on stage, that ridiculously over-marketed corporate rap band, and thinking, this is a masquerade. Our politics are completely empty, and Barack Obama is not going to change this situation one bit. If anything, it’s going to worsen under his hand. I have to do something different.

And it was really then that I decided to step out of the box and use the privilege I have as a Jewish American with a very connected family, and I embarked on this project to write Goliath, which basically consisted of me taking the royalties that I made from my first book, Republican Gomorrah, to finance all these trips to Israel, Palestine.

I made contact with the radical left elements in Israel, these Jewish Israelis who are basically besieged within their own society. I made contact with the Palestinians waging a kind of unarmed popular struggle in the West Bank villages against the occupation. These people became my friends and my closest comrades and my eyes and ears on the ground.

Once these people come into your life, their experiences become your own. You just change as a person. So here I am, five or six years later, I’m completely changed. There’s no going back, and I know that I’m routinely demonized to the point where Republican Jews call me an anti-Semite.

But I’m not going to be able to stop, because covering this situation and advocating on behalf of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which I think is the only tactic we have right now to intervene in this emergency situation, and going beyond my role as a journalist, and being an advocate, is part of my identity. It’s part of who I am, and sometimes I lose sight of how I became this way. I think, in a lot of ways, like a lot of other younger people, and particularly younger Jewish-Americans, I’m a product of failed politics in Washington. I’m hoping to provide some kind of alternative to it.

I have not read Blumenthal’s new book but have read Goliath and can recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the terrible state of affairs in Israel today.


  1. says

    Excellent piece, unfortunate title. Why is exposing Israeli atrocities and racism akin to radicalization? There is no preexisting spectrum of conservative to radical, just humanistic to terrorizing.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Why were we encouraged so aggressively to mate and engage in promiscuous sexuality?

    An (ahem) interesting feature of the “Birthright Israel” program, which if advertised more widely would surely increase participation among Jewish teens and possibly even catalyze some conversions.

    Alas, at least in this interview, Blumenthal does not answer his own question.

  3. doublereed says

    Well that’s an obvious answer: because they want Jews to marry each other rather than intermarry with Christians. There’s few Jews so they do want people to be raised Jewish. It’s not like a sinister, hidden motive. They’ll say that.

    Although I think that aspect of birthright has been lessened in recent years because it seemed a bit silly. And it doesn’t resonate with Jews whose parents are intermarried.

  4. Knight in Sour Armor says

    Eh, birthright’s still alive and well-ish. Have you seen the number of Craigslist ads for Jewish surrogates?

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    doublereed @ # 3: … because they want Jews to marry each other …

    Even when I was a teenager back in the Dark Ages when Richard Nixon roamed the earth and Roe had not yet confronted Wade, adolescent sex in the US rarely led to marriage. (Perhaps Adelson and his fellow ethno-eugenicists had not realized that even by Max Blumenthal’s puberty…?)

  6. doublereed says

    @5 Pierce

    I don’t know about “rarely.” Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. Jews are a small minority in the US. Birthright is an opportunity to meet a lot of Jews that you simply wouldn’t otherwise. I don’t think they expect a majority of people to find love on Birthright or anything. But it does happen.

    Also, it’s not really “adolescent sex.” They’re young adults, 18-26.

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