Missing from the Times: Max Blumenthal and Goliath

The New York Times has managed to avoid mentioning Max Blumenthal during the entire of month of December. In normal circumstances, this would be hard to explain: four years ago, with his first book, Blumenthal garnered a place on the paper’s best seller list, and this fall he came out with another blockbuster that has people talking and debating, vociferously.

In 2009 Blumenthal skewered the radical right in Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. This time, in Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, he has exposed the racism, paranoia and the slide toward fascism in Israel.

As Blumenthal noted in an interview on Counterspin, he used the same techniques in reporting on Israel as he did in Republican Gomorrah, immersing himself in the culture for more than four years. The result this time is a wide-ranging look at Israeli society from the time of the state’s inception to the present.

Goliath provides close looks at Israel’s plan to ethnically cleanse the Negev Desert of its indigenous Bedouin, its racist rejection of African refugees, the brutal policy of demolishing Palestinian homes, its suppression of dissent and the rants of politicians and ordinary people against Palestinians and non-Jews. It also includes encounters with courageous Israeli Jews who oppose what the state is doing

The book has evoked outrage and praise, sparking debates in print and in public forums. Eric Alterman has attacked it three times in The Nation (see here for one example); Chris Hedges praised it on Truthdig; Natasha Lennard at Salon.com gave it a warm reception; Larry Gross, director of the USC Annenberg School of Communications, commended it; Alan Dershowitz attacked Blumenthal’s father (a former Clinton aide) for defending his son’s book;  Liel Leibovitz dismissed it as fiction; and Sohrab Ahmari, assistant book editor at the Wall Street Journal, tweeted that he has thrown two review copies of the book into his trash can.

Blumenthal also has shared the stage with academics such as Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania and Gabriel Piterberg of UCLA to discuss the book.

All this means that Blumenthal and Goliath are eminently newsworthy. Under normal circumstance the Times would review the book, run a piece about the controversy, and perhaps express dismay, asking what happened to such a promising writer who wrote a bestseller four years ago. But the Times has a special treatment for books like Goliath and their authors, and that is silence.

The silence is all the more striking in contrast with the thunderous ovation the paper has given to a very different book also published this fall, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. The book was featured and praised no fewer than four times: on the front page of the Sunday Book Review, in a separate review within the daily paper and in columns by Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.

The Shavit book admits that Israel was founded on ethnic cleansing and massacres, such as the one at Lod (Lydda), but it holds that all that was necessary to bring the new state into being. It opposes the occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s anti-democratic trend but presents Israel as a refuge and under existential threat from hostile Arabs. (See Jerome Slater’s careful critique of the book’s misrepresentations concerning Israeli history with Arab states.)

This fits into a technique often described by Alan Dershowitz in his defense of Israel, the “80 percent” strategy. Allow for 20 percent criticism of the state but be sure to emphasize 80 percent to the good. Shavit may be more honest in his critique of Israel, he may go beyond 20 percent in his condemnations, but the effect is to appear as 100 percent objective, whether you are giving the full truth or not.

The Times is comfortable with this approach, which allows Israel to retain its aura of legitimacy while opening the door to a limited amount of criticism. Goliath, however, exposes a much more disturbing truth about the state, and it must be shunned. It seems that the Times hopes to generate so much noise about the Shavit book that readers won’t hear the uproar surrounding Goliath.



Gaza Attacks: There’s More to This Story

“Killing and Retaliation at Gaza-Israel Border Continue Violent Cycle.” So reads the Christmas Day headline on page 10 of the Times. The story by Isabel Kershner begins with a Dec. 24 sniper attack from Gaza that left an Israeli army repairman dead. It goes on to say that Israel responded with attacks by air and land and a toddler died in Gaza “when a shell landed in front of [her] home.”

But why begin with the sniper? There was plenty of action in the 10 days before the deadly shooting. On Dec. 20, according to a UN report, soldiers shot and killed a Gaza man as he was “collecting scrap metal and plastics, and an ambulance attempting to enter the area to evacuate the person injured was delayed by Israeli forces for some 45 minutes.”

The report goes on: “Another eight civilians were injured [from Dec. 10 to 23] in seven similar incidents.” And it adds, “in at least five occasions during this period, the Israeli navy shot at Palestinian fishing boats sailing near the 6 [nautical mile] limit, forcing them ashore.”

In fact, the metal collector was the twelfth Gaza civilian to die from attacks by Israeli forces since a November 2012 ceasefire that ended eight days of sustained assaults on the strip. (See UN reports here and here.) On the other hand, as Kershner states, the army repairman “was the first Israeli fatality in the vicinity of Gaza since the November 2012 fighting.”

If Israel’s action was “retaliation” for one death, would it not make sense to say that the Gaza sniper was “retaliating” also, for 12 killings and dozens of injuries in the same period of time?

Times readers are left without the crucial context of this story, not only the timeline of events but also the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are under military occupation and Israel has held Gaza under a crippling blockade since 2007. The words “siege” (or “blockade”) and “occupation” never appear in the article.

“Unlawful” shooting in death of toddler 

Also missing from the Times is a statement by the Israeli human rights monitoring group B’Tselem. The organization investigated the death of the toddler, Hala Abu Sbeikhah, 2 years and eight months old, who was playing outside when an Israeli tank opened fire on her home. The group issued a press release stating that Israeli forces apparently failed to warn the family in advance of the shelling, as is required by law.

The release continues: “B’Tselem does not know the reasoning for the tank’s firing at the Abu Sbeikhah home. Hala’s uncle, who was outside during the firing, said there was no activity by armed Palestinians in the area at the time. The IDF Spokesperson announcement did not state the proposed object of the strike, apart from the laconic description of the attack on the central Gaza Strip as aimed at ‘a core of terrorist activity and terrorist infrastructure’. The IDF announcement also stated that ‘the targets were seen to have been hit precisely,’ yet to the best of B’Tselem’s knowledge, the only casualties in of the military attack were the four members of the Abu Sbeikhah family. The IDF Spokesperson’s announcement did not address the harsh results of the shells fired.”

B’Tselem has demanded an immediate army investigation of the incident, and it has also condemned Israel’s retaliatory closing of Kerem crossing at the Gaza border. The closing amounts to collective punishment, the group states.

Will the Times report any of this? The press release was issued on Dec. 25, and a search online and in print for Dec. 26 shows no mention of B’Tselem’s charges.


Unfit to Print: The Long Journey of African Refugees

Some news is not fit to print, but you may find it online. Today the Times ran a short item in the World Briefing section of its print edition. It is titled “Israel: Migrants Protest New Law,” and it contains fewer than 100 words, a very brief account.

It’s also a very ho-hum story. The migrants (asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan) are dismayed by a new law that allows for their indefinite detention. About 200 of them protested outside the prime minister’s office and marched to parliament. With some background about the law, that’s the end of the story.

But the real story didn’t begin there and didn’t end there. The Africans had walked out of their open prison in the Negev Desert two days before, making their way on foot to Beer Sheva, in the midst of bitter cold. They arrived in Jerusalem by bus, held their protest, and then they were hauled back to prison, this time to a closed facility.

The online story by Isabel Kershner is nearly seven times the length of the printed piece. It describes the shoddy footwear of the marchers, their journey, the placards they held and their re-arrest in Jerusalem. It quotes an asylum seeker who asks, “How can a refugee be in prison for two years?” and it quotes Prime Minister Netanyahu, who refers to the refugees as “infiltrators.”

At the bottom of the online piece a brief notice states, “A version of this article appears in print on December 18, 2013 on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Israel: Migrants Protest New Law.’”

You would think that a Times editor would be quick to print the full story, for it involves drama, pathos and serious concerns about racism and unequal treatment. It has drawn the attention of Israeli and international activists, and it has been covered elsewhere in greater detail, especially in the Israeli press.

But the usual standards often don’t apply when the news involves Israel, and sometime before the print edition went to bed, a decision was made: readers of the Times print edition were deemed unworthy of knowing the full story.


A Good Deal for the Bedouin?

Jodi Rudoren reports in the Times today that the Israeli government has withdrawn plans to resettle tens of thousands of Bedouin in the Negev. It was opposition from Arab and Jewish Israelis, international activists and rightwing members of the Knesset that doomed the proposal, at least for now.

To hear her tell it, the loss of the “Prawer Plan” is a setback for the Negev Bedouin, who are citizens of Israel. It “would have resolved the Bedouins’ long-contested land ownership claims.” It would have moved them from “ramshackle communities built without permits” to townships. It would have provided them with “badly needed infrastructure” and with “schools, health clinics, job training and other services.”

Israel undertook Prawer, she writes, not to ethnically cleanse the Negev as its critics claim, but to “redevelop the sprawling desert and move two huge military bases there.” Officials have no choice but to crowd the Bedouin into smaller enclaves “because their tents, tin shacks and other illegal structure are scattered over many miles.”

There are several difficulties with this scenario: Bedouin villages are without electricity and social services because Israel denies them these necessities by failing to “recognize” their communities. Their homes are illegal because Israel balks at giving them permits. And many Bedouin live in permanent homes of concrete, not in tin shacks and tents.

Moreover, the Bedouin, who were farming and raising their herds in the Negev long before the State of Israel came into being, are now confined to less than five percent of its area.

And this is how Israel is “developing” the desert as it rids the land of its indigenous population: it destroys the villagers’ olive and fruit trees and replaces them with “green zones.” It also moves Jewish settlers into the area.

The Negev Bedouin village of El Araqib is a case in point. In 2010 the Israeli authorities sprayed the village orchards, killing 4,500 trees and replacing them with fast growing pine and eucalyptus. Bulldozers destroyed the village houses, and all that remains is the century-old cemetery.

The residents of El Araqib have returned more than 50 times to erect tents on their former village, and each time the bulldozers have torn them down. Bedouin villagers elsewhere in the Negev remain in place, clinging to their homes.

Oren Yiftachel, professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told a group of us earlier this year that the remaining Bedouin “hang onto the land against the authorities” because “they know that if they leave the land, quick smart, it will be registered under a Jewish name.”

T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights group, notes that Israel “has established more than 100 new exclusively Jewish communities in the Beer Sheva District of the Negev with an average population of only 300 residents. In contrast, the 45 Negev Bedouin villages and agricultural communities, each have between 400 and 4,800 residents and remain unrecognized, even though they meet the indicated criteria required of new Jewish communities.”

What can you call this but ethnic cleansing?

Oren Yiftachel and T’ruah are excluded from the Times story, but readers can find fuller information by visiting the T’ruah website and outside news sources.

Israeli news outlets give a fuller view of the situation than the Times. In Haaretz, readers can find stories about anti-Bedouin rhetoric and the struggle of one village to survive. In 972 Magazine you can find several stories about the Prawer plan here.