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Comments in 2012 and 2011



‘Hamas book of the month’: attacks on Max Blumenthal

This posting has these exchanges on Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel:

1) The Nation: A Response to Eric Alterman, Max Blumenthal makes his defence against – ;
2) The Nation: The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook, Eric Alterman’s attack on Blumenthal’s Goliath;
3) The Nation: The Israel hater’s handbook continued, as the title says
4) The Nation: Israel Cranks Up the PR Machine, extract from Max Blumenthal’s Goliath;
5) Notes and links;

Eric Alterman in 2011. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

A Response to Eric Alterman

A continuing conversation about Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

By Max Blumenthal, The Nation

October 23, 2013

I am eager to debate the issues raised in my new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books), the result of over four years of on-the-ground research and reporting. Whatever one’s opinion of possible resolutions of the Israel-Palestine crisis, I have dedicated my work to presenting the facts as clearly and accurately as I could. Without understanding the realities, no true debate can take place. In writing my book I intended to loosen the blockade of suppression of thought and discussion on the subject of Israel-Palestine.

For years, especially since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist, a contingent of self-appointed enforcers has attempted to suppress an honest, free and full debate. These enforcers, recently aided and abetted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, have painted critics who do not toe the party line or journalists who report uncomfortable facts as anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews or cheerleaders for terror. Readers ofThe Nation should recognize this kind of smearing as a form of McCarthyism.

Eric Alterman’s invective against my book in his column and blog in The Nation fits that last category of smear (“this book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club”). Playing the enforcer, he is trying to frustrate debate, which might be a strange professional choice for the Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. Yet, curiously, Alterman also concedes that my book is “mostly technically accurate.” Is this a logical contradiction or cognitive dissonance?

Unfortunately, I cannot say that Alterman’s review of Goliath is technically accurate. Other writers have already carefully deconstructed his tangled mess of factual errors and deceptive claims: Phan Nguyen [Mondoweiss], Corey Robin [blog], Ali Gharib [blog], Ira Glunts [Mondoweiss] and Charles Manekin [Magnes Zionist].

Alterman’s review of Goliath is so error ridden that it would take too lengthy a reply to debunk all of them. But here are a few of his howlers:

He mockingly cited a portion of a quote by the Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky as “the definition Blumenthal quotes of the substance of Israel’s ‘fascism.’” In fact, the statement occurred during a conversation in which I initially expressed skepticism about defining Israel’s political environment as fascist. I reported Tarachansky’s quote but did not express approval, as Alterman suggested I did, though I do consider Tarachansky—an émigré from the former Soviet Union raised in the Israeli settlement of Ariel—to be an exceptionally notable source. I have recorded many conversations from all sorts of people who are not the usual sources cited by much of the US media, including Israeli dissidents, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Bedouin villagers, Palestinian popular protest leaders, members of the Knesset from across the spectrum, and a host of right-wing Israeli officials, especially from the younger generation.

David Landau, former editor-in-chief Ha’aretz urged Israelis “to stand against the wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project”. Photo from Haaretz

Early in my book, I quote former Maariv editor Amnon Dankner condemning “neo-Nazi expressions in the Knesset”; former editor-in-chief of Haaretz David Landau calling for Israelis “to stand against the wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project”; and Uri Avnery, the famed Israeli journalist, former Knesset member and once-terrorist member of the Irgun turned peace activist, who warns that “Israel’s very existence is threatened by fascism.” I also detailed a 2010 protest in Tel Aviv in which a who’s who of founding-generation Israelis issued a “Declaration of Independence from Fascism.”

Alterman carps about the titles of several chapters in my book, claiming they were “titled to imply an equivalence between Israel and Nazi Germany.” He did not bother [to] address the substance of the chapters, which explains the titles. The chapter titled, “How To Kill Goyim and Influence People” detailed a Jerusalem conference of prominent state-funded Israeli rabbis who had gathered to defend the publication of Torat Ha’Melech, a book published by their rabbinical colleagues that the Israeli paper Maariv described as “230 pages on the laws concerning the killing of non-Jews, a kind of guidebook for anyone who ponders the question of if and when it is permissible to take the life of a non-Jew.” (Among the book’s lowlights: “There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us…”)

My chapters titled “The Night of Broken Glass” and “The Concentration Camp” detail the officially sanctioned campaign of racist incitement and violence against Israel’s population of non-Jewish African asylum seekers. The former chapter described events leading up to the night of May 23, 2012, when, after an anti-African rally headlined by leading officials from the ruling Likud Party, in which Africans were described from the stage as “a cancer,” hundreds of Jewish Israelis rampaged through African-inhabited areas of South Tel Aviv, attacking their homes and cars and literally smashing the glass of their storefront windows. “I am as afraid to live in the Israel of 2012 as any right-minded German should have been in 1938,” Aliyana Traison, the deputy editor of Haaretz, wrote at the time.

The latter chapter described the construction of the Saharonim Detention Facility, a desert internment camp constructed explicitly to warehouse non-Jewish Africans for as long as three years without trial. It’s described by none other than former Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin as “a concentration camp.” Together with the independent Israeli journalist David Sheen, I produced a short documentary for offering an on-the-ground look at the racist backlash against non-Jewish Africans in Israel. I urge readers to watch it and come to their own conclusions. If the titles of these chapters are shocking, it is only because the facts are shocking.

The Saharonim detention camp built in the desert only for non-Jewish African illegal immigrants.

Alterman, to my knowledge, has yet to speak up against the organized, officially sanctioned campaign of incitement and violence against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel, a population that has been left defenseless after fleeing from genocide and unbearable repression.

A few more of Alterman’s distortions and factual errors:

§ Alterman mocks my conclusion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsessive focus on Iran’s nuclear program serves as a means to distract from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. “Does anyone else in the world think Bibi was only kidding about Iran?” Alterman pondered. As Ali Gharib pointed out, prominent liberal figures, from David Rothkopf, editor at large of Foreign Policy, to Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, to Daniel Levy, the former Israeli diplomat, to Meretz Party chair Zehava Gal-On, have offered analyses nearly identical to mine. “Iran is the Great Distraction” was the title of Rothkopf’s editorial on Netanyahu’s Iran policy.

§ Alterman takes issue with my description of Berl Katznelson as “the Labor Zionist movement’s chief ideologue,” claiming it’s “a title that exists exclusively in [my] imagination.” But as Nguyen details, Katznelson has been described in almost identical fashion by everyone from Israeli President Shimon Peres to Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld to Israeli writer Amos Oz.

§ Alterman attacks my chapter on the dissident Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, falsely claiming, “Jews all over the world ‘revered’ Leibowitz for the brilliance of his Talmud exegesis.” As Charles Manekin, professor of philosophy and director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, explained, almost no Jews outside of Israel knew who Leibowitz was when he was alive and Leibowitz never published any works of Talmudic exegesis. This led Manekin to wonder if Alterman had confused Yeshayahu with his sister, Nehamah, or with the Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman. “In his response to Goliath, Alterman reveals himself to be an am-haaretz (ignoramus) when it comes to Israel,” writes Manekin. Personally, I think it is best to leave it to Alterman to explain.

§ Alterman gets more than the big things wrong. He also, for example, misspells the name of famed Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk (“Kniuk,” he calls him), badly misquotes my own quotation of Kaniuk, misattributes the source of the quote, and alters the punctuation of the quote to warp its meaning. Phan Nguyen exposes Alterman’s bungled line of attack here.

When stripped of distortions and mistakes, Alterman’s commentary on Goliath is reduced to crude insults. For instance, following a bizarre reference to the “friendly relations” he has supposedly enjoyed with my parents since I was “a little boy,” an effort at belittlement that reflects only on the bully, Alterman blasts, “This book could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club.” While I was not previously aware of such a club, I hereby invite all “Friends of Hamas”* to join me this October 26 at 1 pm at Washington, DC’s Politics and Prose, or at one of the many venues I will be visiting during my national book tour.

After Alterman published the first of his attacks, I attempted to engage him in a public forum. I not only wanted to debate him on the facts contained in my book, I wanted to ask him how he squares his self-professed liberalism with his defense of disproportionate lethal violence against Palestinian civilians, including children (“So tough luck, fella. War is hell.”); with his insistence that the United States must pressure the Palestinians to accept “their historic position”; or with his extraordinary declaration that Americans must be willing to endure more 9/11-style terror attacks “if that’s the price we have to pay” to maintain the US-Israeli special relationship.

I had wanted to discuss these issues and many more raised in Goliath—and still do, and will. Unfortunately, when Robert Wright of The Atlantic and editor of Bloggingheads, the pre-eminent online political debating forum, invited Alterman to engage with me, Alterman declined without explanation.

Editor’s note: Eric Alterman will respond to Max Blumenthal’s post in the Letters to the Editor section of a forthcoming issue of The Nation.

The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook

Max Blumenthal’s carelessly constructed case against the Jewish state won’t help the occupation’s victims. Review.

By Eric Alterman, The Nation October 16, 2013

Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, published by Nation Books, consists of seventy-three short chapters, each one devoted to some shortcoming of Israeli society and/or moral outrage that the Jewish state has perpetrated against the Palestinians. Some are titled to imply an equivalence between Israel and Nazi Germany (“The Concentration Camp,” “The Night of Broken Glass”); others merely evidence juvenile faux-cleverness (“How to Kill Goyim and Influence People”).

Israel is rarely wholly innocent in the stories Blumenthal tells. Its brutal military occupation of Palestinian land, now entering its forty-sixth year, has not only deeply damaged Israel’s democracy, but also desensitized its citizens to the daily humiliations it inflicts on the Palestinians. But Blumenthal proves a profoundly unreliable narrator. Alas, his case against the Jewish state is so carelessly constructed, it will likely alienate anyone but the most fanatical anti-Zionist extremists, and hence do nothing to advance the interests of the occupation’s victims.

Blumenthal evinces no interest in the larger context of Israel’s actions. Potential threats that emanate from Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Syria, Iran, etc., receive virtually no mention in these pages. Israel’s actions are attributed exclusively to the myopia of its citizens. Blumenthal blames “Israeli society’s nationalistic impulses,” its politicians who struggle “to outdo one another in a competition for the most convincing exaltation of violence against the Arab evildoers,” its “fever swamps,” its “unprovoked violence against the Arab outclass,” and its textbooks that “indoctrinate Jewish children into the culture of militarism.” It would have been easy for him to at least pretend to even-handedness here. Did it not occur to Blumenthal, for instance, that Palestinians have textbooks as well?

Blumenthal’s accounts are mostly technically accurate, but often deliberately deceptive. In one relatively trivial but revealing example, Blumenthal hides behind the passive voice to repeat the accusation that El Al “airline has been accused of allowing Mossad officers to pose as El Al staffers to collect information on non-Jewish passengers in foreign airports” . Lo and behold, it turns out that the accuser in question was a recently terminated El Al employee who spent nineteen years at the company without ever mentioning any of this (and who presented no evidence for his claim). Nor does Blumenthal even briefly weigh the charge from the standpoint of common sense. Think about it: El Al employees wear company uniforms and are the most visible Israeli workers in any foreign country. Also, the airline’s offices abroad are all well advertised. Is that where you would plant your spies?

Blumenthal’s selectivity often gets in the way of his truth-telling. For instance, he credits Zionist pioneer Berl Katznelson, whom he calls “the Labor Zionist movement’s chief ideologue”—a title that exists exclusively in the author’s imagination—with saying, “The Zionist enterprise is an enterprise of conquest.” Yes, but Katznelson also said, “I do not wish to see the realization of Zionism in the form of the new Polish state with Arabs in the position of the Jews and the Jews in the position of the Poles, the ruling people. For me this would be the complete perversion of the Zionist ideal….” Apparently, there are more things in Labor Zionist history than are dreamt of in Blumenthal’s philosophy.

Blumenthal accuses others of naïveté, but it is he who is the naïf. He condescendingly accuses Aluf Benn, editor in chief of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, of “underestimat[ing] the prime minister’s cynical gamesmanship” for failing to realize that the real purpose of Bibi Netanyahu’s “hysterical rhetoric” regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program was to take the world’s attention away from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. (Does anyone else in the world think Bibi was only kidding about Iran?)

Blumenthal writes with great admiration of the late Israeli theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who accused the country’s soldiers of behaving like “Judeo-Nazis” and incited them to refuse military service. “Many members of the Zionist left still claim to revere” him, Blumenthal complains, “but few are willing to heed his most consequential advice.” Blumenthal names no names and does not bother to footnote his claim, but to the degree that it is accurate, it is also, per usual, misleading. Jews all over the world “revered” Leibowitz for the brilliance of his Talmud exegesis, not—as Blumenthal might wish—because he called Israeli soldiers “Nazis” and told them not to serve.

Writer David Grossman [above] and Max Blumenthal could not agree about where Jews might feel they belong [See extract at end.]

The most bizarre episode in the book occurs when Blumenthal is granted a rare interview with the deeply admired left-wing Israeli author David Grossman, who lost his son in the 2006 Lebanon war. Grossman rejects Blumenthal’s proposal for “the transformation of Israel from an ethnically exclusive Jewish state into a multiethnic democracy,” not for the obvious reasons—that it is a pipe dream, given the hatred between the two sides—but because of his understanding of 2,000 years of Jewish history, in which restrictions have kept Jews from fully participating in the life of the societies in which they’ve lived. This inspires Blumenthal to lecture him that his own personal experience as the son of a White House “insider”—Clinton adviser and former journalist Sidney Blumenthal—and the experience of other “insider” Jews in the United States leads him to “have a hard time taking [Grossman’s] justification seriously.” The Israeli author and champion of its peace movement soon thereafter ends the interview and asks Blumenthal to please tear up his phone number. Here, our author attributes the response he receives, yet again, to Israeli myopia and lack of understanding of the way the world really works.

Perhaps a better title for this book would have been Chutzpah.

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the “Think Again” column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute. Alterman is also a regular columnist for Moment magazine and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

The Israel hater’s handbook continued

By Eric Alterman, blog, The Nation

October 17, 2013

My new Think Again column is called “Heads, the Tea Party Wins; Tails, the Tea Party Wins.”

Here, unfortunately (and foolishly in my view) behind a paywall for now, is my Nation column, The “I Hate Israel Handbook.” A few words of explanation and clarification if I may:

When I was asked to do my column about Max Blumenthal’s book, Goliath, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I like to be a team player. But on the other, whenever I criticize BDS types, I apparently invite an avalanche of personal invective from its fans. (This happens when I criticize neocons on Israel as well, but to be honest, the BDS types appear to have more time on their hands for this kind of thing.) Second, I’ve known the author’s parents since he was a little boy, and whatever the quality of the book, I expected that my honest views of it might threaten three decades of friendly relations.

What tipped my decision was when I was informed that The Nation magazine would be publishing an excerpt [see below]. I don’t feel personally implicated by what Nation Books publishes—it does not reflect on me in the eyes of anyone I know—but the magazine is different. I’ve been writing here for more than thirty years and regularly as a columnist for nearly twenty. Hence I feel a deep sense of both loyalty and personal and professional identification. I don’t want people to have the impression that the reflexive anti-Zionism of some of its contributors is its only voice on the issue— one that is as important to me as any.

The complication arose when I finally received the book. I expected to disagree with its analysis. I did not expect it to be remotely as awful as it is. Had the magazine not published its excerpt, it would have been easy to ignore. It is no exaggeration to say that not an argument as it does not even consider alternative explanations for the anti-Israel conclusions it reaches on every page. Its implicit equation of Israel with Nazis is also particularly distasteful to any fair-minded individual. And its larding of virtually every sentence with pointless adjectives designed to demonstrate the author’s distaste for his subject is as amateurish as it is ineffective. As I said, arguments this simplistic and one-sided do the Palestinians no good. There will be no Palestinian state unless Israel agrees to it. And if these are the views of the people with whom Israelis of good will are expected to agree, well, you can hardly blame them for not trusting them.

Here are a few points about the book I did not have a chance to make in column:

1) Here, I kid you not, is the definition Blumenthal quotes of the substance of Israel’s “fascism”:

What it really is, is a feeling that you have sitting on a bus being afraid to speak Arabic with your Palestinian friends. It’s a feeling when you are sitting there having dinner—what you feel when you’re alive here. It’s the essence of what this society is. And the closer we get to the brink—and everyone is feeling that we’re getting to the breaking point—the worse it gets.

Yep, that’s “fascism” alright. You can look it up.

2) Here is his argument in favor of the Arabs’ right to discriminate against Jewish Israelis: When a Haifa café is told by the municipality that it has no right to discriminate against Israeli soldiers in uniform by refusing to serve them, Blumenthal tells us it was “officially sanction[ing] a mob campaign” against it.

3) Blumenthal describes Yoram Kniuk’s book about a Jewish violinist who forced to play for a concentration camp commander and then quotes a Palestinian saying “Our enemy’s existence in this Arab region was justified and is still justified by our suffering by Jewish violinists in the camps.” Nowhere does he mention that Kniuk was a novelist. He wrote, um, fiction.

4) He nastily and condescendingly mocks Time editor Rick Stengel for “marketing” Bibi Netanyahu as a “potential peacemaker.” Isn’t Netanyahu obviously a “potential peacemaker”? Isn’t every war-maker a potential peacemaker? Wasn’t Begin before he ended Israel’s occupation of Sinai and signed a peace agreement with Egypt? Wasn’t Sharon before he ended Israel’s occupation of Lebanon? Wasn’t Nixon before he went to China? Blumenthal is also apparently capable of reading Stengel’s mind, even when he’s not present: (“Rick Stengel arrived at his doorstep eager to relay a heavy dose of Bibi-think to the American public.”)

Believe me, I could go on…

Israel Cranks Up the PR Machine

It’s deploying all its resources to fight the growing world movement against the occupation. This article is adapted from Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, published in October by Nation Books.

Max Blumenthal, The Nation

October 16, 2013

In the post-Oslo era, as the strategy that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle refers to as “peace without peace” captured the Israeli consensus, human rights activists ratcheted up grassroots efforts to challenge the occupation of Palestine and Israel’s prevailing structure of ethno-religious discrimination. Popularly known as BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israeli institutions involved in occupation has generated shock waves in international pro-Israel circles and within the top levels of Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus. The government-linked Reut Institute has designated BDS as a key national security threat and produced a blueprint for sabotaging Palestine solidarity networks around the world.

While paranoia mounts inside Israeli policy circles about the rising tide of nonviolent global resistance, Netanyahu has grown obsessed with Israel’s withering image in the West. Under his guidance, the term “delegitimization” has become a household word signifying BDS and nearly everything done in the name of exposing Israel’s violations of international law. And thanks to Netanyahu’s instigation, Barack Obama has become the first American president to explicitly pledge to battle the pressure campaign.

Groping for a convenient solution to its public relations problems, the Israeli government has turned to hasbara. The literal meaning of this Hebrew word is “explanation,” but when put into practice, most informed observers recognize it as propaganda. The more the State of Israel relies on force to manage the occupation, the more it feels compelled to deploy hasbara. And the more Western media consumers encounter hasbara, the more likely they are to measure Israel’s grandiose talking points against the routine and petty violence, shocking acts of humiliation and repression that define its treatment of the Palestinians.

Under the leadership of Netanyahu—a professional explainer himself, who spent the early years of his political career as a frequent guest on prime-time American news programs perfecting the slickness of the Beltway pundit class—the Israeli government has invested unprecedented resources into hasbara. Once the sole responsibility of the foreign ministry, the task of disseminating hasbara now falls on a special Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, led until 2013 by Yuli Edelstein, a right-wing settler and government minister who has called Arabs a “despicable nation.” (Edelstein is now speaker of the Knesset.)

Edelstein’s ministry boasts an advanced “situation room,” a paid media team, and coordination of a volunteer force that claims to include thousands of bloggers, tweeters and Facebook commenters who are fed the latest talking points and then flood social media with hasbara in five languages. The exploits of the propaganda soldiers conscripted into Israel’s online army have helped give rise to the phenomenon of the “hasbara troll,” an often faceless, shrill and relentless nuisance deployed on Twitter and Facebook to harass public figures who express skepticism about official Israeli policy or sympathy for the Palestinians. These efforts have been complemented by the office of the prime minister, the IDF spokesperson’s unit, and the ministry of tourism and culture, each of which hosts newly created hasbara units. Even the Jewish Agency, a state-funded para-governmental organization primarily engaged in absorbing and settling new Jewish immigrants, employs a full-time social media operative named Avi Mayer, who spends his days on Twitter attacking Palestine solidarity activists with usually baseless claims of anti-Semitism and deception.

Whether they like it or not, every Jewish Israeli citizen is a potential recruit for the national hasbara brigade. While Tel Aviv University sends hasbara delegations to campuses across Europe and the United States, the National Union of Israeli Students offers Israeli college students $2,000 to spread propaganda “from the comfort of home.” El Al Airlines deploys its flight attendants in American cities to make the case for Israel during specially allotted paid vacation days. Meanwhile, back at Ben Gurion International Airport, large billboards posted by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy instruct Israelis to “be good diplomats” when they travel abroad. By corralling an entire population into promoting Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” the state strengthens a culture that treats dissent and critical inquiry with instinctive hostility.

Israel’s pin-up girl, Melody Sucharewicz, winner of the TV competition The Ambassador in 2006 for skills in ‘public diplomacy and political PR’. German-born, she had only been living in Israel for 6 or 7 years and spends much of her time on peace missions to Germany.

In 2005, the American reality TV program The Apprentice reappeared in Israel as The Ambassador, a hit show featuring hundreds of Israeli citizens engaging in heated hasbara competitions before a national audience and a panel of judges that included top army generals and journalists. At stake were cash prizes, a chance to speak in international parliaments and the adulation of their fellow citizens. At a 2010 conference of liberal intellectuals in Herzliya sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the think tank of the German Green Party, I encountered the winner of the second season of The Ambassador. She was pretty in a classically telegenic way, slender and extremely poised. The 30-year-old woman in a gray pantsuit was Melody Sucharewicz, but to many Israelis who viewed her as a celebrity, she was simply known as “Melody.” Since her victory, Sucharewicz has spoken about Israel’s “quest for peace” at the United Nations and secured a plum position at the Peres Center for Peace.

During a question-and-answer session at the conference, Sucharewicz leapt to defend Israel against even mild criticism from various panelists, including the renowned Israeli historian Tom Segev. For five minutes she delivered a breathless, semi-coherent rant, as though she were in a contest to spin as many current events in Israel’s favor as possible. Finally, the moderator asked Sucharewicz to conclude her remarks with a question. “Of course you want me to stop talking,” she snapped at him. “You will never let a woman speak long enough to express herself.” Having shamed the moderator into submission, Sucharewicz plowed ahead for five more minutes of hasbara.

When I interviewed her in the hallway afterward, I found her unflappable. To my question about the wave of anti-democratic laws flooding the Knesset, she responded, “Israel is not perfect. They can only strive to be more perfect…. I wouldn’t go as far as saying there is pure discrimination.” On issues ranging from civilian casualties in the 2008–09 attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) to the bulldozing of Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev region, Sucharewicz always returned to one point: Israel is not perfect, but it is constantly improving.

Above, an early effort in the Brand Israel campaign, and below, a later one of Tel Aviv. Both from Mondoweiss on Brand Israel.

The same year that The Ambassador hit Israeli airwaves, the government focused on rebranding Israel as a cosmopolitan, technologically advanced party playpen for Western visitors, especially sex-hungry, upwardly mobile men between 18 and 35. A series of edgy commercials promoting tourism highlighted the new Brand Israel campaign. The first of the ads, released in 2006, depicted two randy young men sitting shirtless on the Tel Aviv beach while a parade of scantily clad Israeli women appear before them:

Man #1 (staring at a nubile young woman rubbing lotion on her thighs): Holy shit, man!

Man #2: Holy fuck!

Man #1(glancing at the bouncing breasts of a bikini-clad blonde jogging in his direction): Holy Jesus! Oh! Come to papa!

A brunette bikini model drops a paddle ball near the men and gives them a sultry look.

Man #1 (overcome with passion): Oooooh!

Slogan appears on-screen: “Israel: No Wonder They Call It the Holy Land.”

With $90 million from the municipality of Tel Aviv to promote the city as a gay paradise, and with free trips provided by the tourism ministry for gay Israelis willing to “conduct public diplomacy activities abroad,” the Brand Israel campaign has increasingly centered on what many international gay activists call “pinkwashing,” or using the country’s relatively progressive gay rights record to conceal its human rights abuses. The campaign has included sending openly gay Israeli soldiers to speak on college campuses, screening pro-Israel films at gay rights festivals, and even sending a bizarre float into the 2011 San Francisco Gay Pride parade featuring a blow-up doll of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being sodomized by a nuclear missile.

Among the most aggressive promoters of Israel’s supposedly queer-friendly culture was Michael Lucas, one of the world’s wealthiest gay porn producers. A fervent supporter of Israeli airstrikes on Iran and a vehement Islamophobe (“I hate Muslims absolutely”), Lucas leveraged his fortune to found a company promoting gay tourism to Israel. “I find it absolutely maddening that gay people, who are the number one target of Islam, are so ignorant of the facts,” he told an interviewer from the far-right US journal FrontPage Magazine. “They are romanticizing the same Palestinians that hang gay people on cranes, but demonizing Israel, which is a safe haven for gay people.” Lucas’s most heavily promoted porno film, Men of Israel, which became a vehicle for his gay tours, featured two actors having sex inside a Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias in 1948.

Incorrectly claiming that the village had been depopulated hundreds of years before, Lucas wrote in a press release, “We went to an abandoned village just north of Jerusalem. It was a beautiful, ancient township that had been deserted centuries ago…however, that did not stop our guys from mounting each other and trying to repopulate it. Biology may not be the lesson of the day, but these men shot their seeds all over the village.” After the filming concluded in the “abandoned” village, Lucas and his cast were received by a news crew from Israel’s Channel 1, which covered the porn shoot as a boon to Israeli public relations.

In June 2011, when activists around the world convened in Greece for the attempted launch of the second Gaza Freedom Flotilla—one year after the Israeli military attack on the Mavi Marmara that killed nine activists—the Israeli government released a YouTube video designed to tar the flotilla organizers as homophobes. The video depicted a gay activist who called himself “Marc3Pax” talking about how the organizers had refused to allow him on board because of concerns expressed by their supposed partners among the anti-gay Hamas. Marc3Pax closed the video by warning gay viewers that joining the Palestine solidarity movement meant “getting in bed” with bearded jihadis who hate homosexuals.

Sensing that the video was a hoax, US-based writers Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty of the Palestinian news and opinion website Electronic Intifada quickly unmasked the star of the video as an Israeli actor and nightclub promoter named Omer Gershon. When I investigated the video’s origins, I learned that the first person to promote it on Twitter was a character named “Guy Seemann.” At first, I could not believe that an actual person named Guy Seemann was disseminating a gay hoax video. I soon discovered that Seemann was not only real, but that he was a low-level operative working in the office of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In a video Mark claimed to be an American gay rights activist who had discovered a nefarious connection between a flotilla to Gaza and Hamas homophobes. Electronic Intifada found him to be an Israeli actor called Omer Gershon [above].

The Marc3Pax hoax was followed by another dunderheaded and downright weird video designed to undermine the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Produced by a Tel Aviv–based production company with links to the prime minister’s office, it’s titled “Sex With the Psychologist.” It features an attractive and extremely bothered young woman reacting to Rorschach inkblots displayed by a leering, gray-haired psychologist. As the woman descends into varying stages of agitation, shots of her thighs flash on the screen. “All you want to do is live in peace,” she complains in South African–accented English, “but you keep trying to embarrass her and attack her and harass her.” Her words are interrupted by jarring montages of knives and clashes on the deck of the Mavi Marmara. “Doctor, why are you showing me these pictures?” she protests. “Stop telling me lies and presenting me only one side of the story…. Leave her alone, stop provoking her!… What do you want? For her to disappear off the map?”

The woman was apparently a metaphorical representation of Israel as it wishes to be seen: peaceful, cosmopolitan and erotic, but also traumatized, vulnerable, and driven to neurosis by marauding terrorists and Jew-hating activists—an innocent victim in need of rescue. At the video’s end, the woman storms out of the psychologist’s office and a message appears on-screen: “Don’t support another violent flotilla.”

* * *

The go-to man for the right ‘killer words’, Frank Lutz, strategic adviser to the Republican party and to the Israel Project.

The lurid hasbara of Brand Israel was directly inspired by corporate PR, and no single figure has devoted more energy at refining its techniques of damage control than Frank Luntz. Luntz earned acclaim—and notoriety—in 1996 when he crafted a memo for Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” The memo advised Gingrich to promote the GOP agenda with positive words like “moral,” “lead” and “prosperity,” while hammering Democrats with terms like “abuse of power,” “corrupt” and “intolerant.” Luntz went on to garner lucrative contracts from Enron, ExxonMobil and, most recently, the financial industry, which hired him to help undermine the Occupy Wall Street movement. Luntz’s bestselling vocabulary guide, Words That Work, was originally titled Killer Words.

Given his history of helping corporate crooks talk their way out of crises, perhaps it was appropriate that Luntz was contracted by the Israel Project, an international pro-Israel activism outfit with ties to the country’s foreign ministry, to craft its official hasbara handbook. In the 116-page guide, fine-tuned for the sensibilities of an audience high on passion and low on information, Luntz outlines strategies for promoting Israel in the media and on campus. Throughout the document, Luntz urges pro-Israel activists to lead attacks on adversaries by “start[ing] with empathy for both sides first.” He advises Israel advocates to feign humility and concern for Palestinian children before opening up a relentless focus on the “Iran-backed Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.”

In an unusual—and probably unintentional—moment of candor, Luntz warns that if Israel remains in a perpetual state of war with no plan to resolve its crisis, “Americans will not want their government to spend tax dollars or their president’s clout on helping Israel.” To hold off the looming storm, Luntz advises Israel supporters to “remind people—again and again—that Israel wants peace.” For him and professional hasbarists like Sucharewicz, the word “peace” is, of course, nothing more than a rhetorical device.

* * *

While the Israeli government deployed a steady barrage of sophistry and diversionary tactics to guard its image, the military-intelligence apparatus resorted increasingly to repression to silence its internal critics. One of the most effective was Yonatan Shapira, an air force pilot who in September 2003, at the height of the second intifada, organized twenty-seven active-duty and veteran pilots to sign a public letter of refusal to fly any more missions that endangered civilians in the territories. After leaving the military, Shapira joined the BDS movement, incurring the wrath of the Israeli right-wing media as well as a threatening interrogation by the country’s internal security service, the Shin Bet.

In September 2009, Israeli authorities detained Palestinian human rights activist Mohammed Othman when he returned from a trip to Norway, where he had lobbied Norwegian officials to support BDS and the grassroots campaign against Israel’s separation wall. Othman was released months later, but only following a sustained campaign by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to publicize his status as a political prisoner. In December 2009, Israel detained Jamal Juma, a leading member of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, designating him as a dangerous “security prisoner” before releasing him without charges weeks later.

Among the dozens of Israeli activists caught in the Shin Bet’s dragnet was Leehee Rothschild, a 29-year-old human rights activist who was a constant presence at unarmed Palestinian demonstrations against the occupation in the West Bank, and who had recently joined a small group of pro-BDS Israeli activists and academics called Boycott Within. In March 2012, a year after police raided her apartment and rummaged through her belongings, Rothschild was detained by the Shin Bet while returning home from a trip to Europe, during which she had participated in a series of educational BDS events. At Ben Gurion International Airport, she was interrogated by “Shavit,” the director of the Shin Bet’s “extreme left and right department,” who suggested that his agency was listening to her phone calls, reading her e-mails and had bugged her apartment. When she was released, Rothschild wrote, “[Shavit] said that for now, I’ve stayed within the law, but once I broke it, I’d better remember that they are watching me, and that they view me as a leader, so I could be held responsible for leading other people into illegal acts.”

The mounting panic over BDS fed directly into a Knesset effort to criminalize the boycott of Israeli products. In March 2011, a bill was introduced by the Likud Party’s Ze’ev Elkin, a right-wing populist from the party’s cadre of thirty- and fortysomething upstarts, and passed a committee vote, sending it to the Knesset floor for a final vote. The bill represented a streamlined version of a previous proposal that would have punished boycotters with actual jail time, while deporting noncitizens who called for boycotts of Israel in their own country. In its new, diluted form, the bill explicitly punished speech considered harmful to the Jewish state, allowing any Israeli who felt his or her business had been damaged by another Israeli’s call for a boycott—no evidence required—to sue the perpetrator in civil court. The bill read: “It is forbidden to initiate a boycott against the State of Israel, to encourage participation in it or to provide assistance or information in order to promote it.”

Anat Matar was one of the first Israeli citizens to publicly promote a boycott. A professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the mother of prominent left-wing journalist Hagai Matar, Anat quickly became a hate figure for Knesset right-wingers, who demanded that she be ousted from her tenured academic post. In a speech before Tel Aviv University’s 2010 graduation ceremony, the super-hasbara super-lawyer Alan Dershowitz accused Matar and two other pro-BDS Israeli academics, Rachel Giora and Shlomo Sand, of “impos[ing] their ideology on students,” and urged “patriotic” students and faculty members to “stand up to propagandizing professors…in appropriate forums outside of the classroom where different rules govern.” Matar told me that 250 of her academic colleagues were inspired by Dershowitz to sign a public letter condemning her in vitriolic terms.

Matar told me that despite the mounting intimidation, she was not the real target of the anti-boycott legislation. “If the law passes, it’s not only me who gets hurt,” she said. “And if I’m fired, that’s actually the least important thing. The most important is what will happen with the NGOs like Adalah [the legal center for Arab minority rights], with [the occupation monitoring group] Yesh Din, with B’Tselem. If I’m fired, it’s a personal inconvenience—but if that happens, it’s much more than a sweeping attack on a lunatic from academia. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t see any way out of this.”

Notes and links

The Israel Project’s secret hasbara handbook exposed, Richard Silverstein on Frank Lutz, 2009.
Ian Lustick and Max Blumenthal discuss Goliath at Penn University, video (1 hr.22mins) (in which we learn that Ian’s name is pronounced Iron).

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