I had a good laugh when I saw the New York Times story last week with the headline: "Members of Jewish Student Group Test Permissible Discussion On Israel."
The piece told of the decision by the Hillel Jewish student society at Swarthmore College to break with the national organization over its ban on discussions of the Middle East that did not tilt toward the Israeli position. It noted that the restrictions faced by Swarthmore students are far from unusual:
At Harvard, the Jewish student group Hillel was barred from co-sponsoring a discussion with a Palestinian student group. At Binghamton University, a Hillel student leader was forced to resign his position after showing a film about Palestinians and inviting the filmmaker's brother to speak. And on many other campuses, Hillel chapters have been instructed to reject collaboration with left-leaning Jewish groups.
In any context other than the Israeli one, the idea of college students testing the limits of "permissible discussion" would be ridiculous. Imagine college students "testing the limits" of debate on abortion, gun control, the death penalty or any other issue. It's inconceivable, at least nowadays. In the United States today, students can freely discuss anything... except Israel. How crazy is that?
That is as likely to change in 2014 as it is likely Members of Congress will criticize the occupation, and for the same reason. College presidents, like other politicians, will not offend fat cat donors. It's that simple. And the Israel issue is only one of hundreds of issues where the guys writing the checks set the policy. Democracy? Not any kind Washington or Lincoln would recognize. But, as conservatives love reminding us, America is exceptional.
The same people who set limits on debate in college are also in the book censoring business. "Pro-Israel" organizations have not only condemned Max Blumenthal's book about the occupation, Goliath: Life and Loathing In Greater Israel, they have tried to ban the author from certain venues. This is nothing new; they have been doing this for decades.
A new twist in the case of Blumenthal came when Alan Dershowitz demanded that Hillary Clinton disassociate herself from Max Blumenthal's father (a Clinton friend and confidante of long standing) or face the consequences. He said that the elder Blumenthal and Clinton could avert this evil decree if Sidney merely repudiated his own son. (Calling on a parent to repudiate his child marks a new high in the lobby's deviation from Jewish law and tradition but what else is new?).
It's all pretty crazy. And stupid. The same crowd that is working so hard to smother Blumenthal's book has enthusiastically endorsed Ari Shavit's My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, helping to push it to the best-seller list. But, guess what, the Shavit book is infinitely more dangerous to the "pro-Israel" line than anything in Blumenthal's book.
Blumenthal depicts the horrors of the occupation in gory (and true) detail. The settlers are like something out of a European Jewish nightmare (armed thugs tormenting their helpless victims). Beyond that he reports on racism inside Israel itself, a growing phenomenon as evidenced by Israel's treatment of African migrants. It is sickening to see how easily Israelis have adopted the language and style of American white supremacists.
But Blumenthal is simply not credible, even though the facts are on his side, because the book drips with hatred of Israel. In fact, it concludes with a section called "Exodus Party" which expresses what he clearly hopes is Israel's future: its collapse with its people moving to Europe. Moreover Blumenthal is an American who speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic. His book, despite the truth it tells about the occupation is easy to ignore, which is what the Israel establishment should have done rather than attempt to ban it. (For the record, I recommend the book for its comprehensive reporting of the occupation but only for that).
Shavit's book, on the other hand, will be devastating to anyone who believes that there is nothing wrong with Israel that ending the occupation won't fix (although the two-state solution would go a long way). Shavit's description of how Israel was created is almost literally nauseating, at least it was for a liberal Zionist like me. He describes exactly how Israeli forces managed to get most Palestinians to leave the country which was through horrific violence.
Anyone who rejects the Palestinian characterization of the liquidation of Palestine as the nakba (catastrophe) won't feel that way after reading Shavit. While the results of the events of 1947-8 were glorious for Jews, they were accomplished by means of unambiguous war crimes including mass killings. And because Shavit is a distinguished Israeli who loves his country, his facts (unlike Blumenthal's) cannot be dismissed. From now on, Palestinian debaters need only cite Ari Shavit when they challenge the absurd myth that the Palestinians left the country after being told to flee by their own leaders. They were driven out. Period.
Either the "pro-Israel" establishment did not read Shavit or they don't much care that he has utterly destroyed much of their hasbara package. After all, he is an Israeli and he does endorse bombing Iran (that chapter seems extraneous). Blumenthal, by their definition, threatens them while Shavit doesn't. Except they have it backwards. The anti-Zionist left is the mirror image of the "pro-Israel" right. They love Blumenthal's book even though it is nothing more than preaching to the choir while Shavit's is the very opposite: opening the eyes of the brain washed.
More and more, I view the self-proclaimed anti-Zionist left as primarily being in the hate business, every bit as much as the "pro-Israel" right. The more virulent the attack on Israel and Israelis, the more enthusiastically they will endorse it. Blumenthal's book is all virulence and so they love it. Shavit's book, like The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart, is infused with love of Israel so they hate it -- even though it advances arguments they, in theory, champion. Hate gets in the way.
I recommend Shavit's book without reservation although I have to admit that it shook me up. I hated reading the truth about 1948. Anyone who cares about Israel will but it's necessary. Until we understand what happened then, we will not understand why Palestinians seem so inflexible on such issues as refugee return. The '48 refugees are not returning to Israel. But it would go far toward peace for Israel to at least admit that it caused the nakba, and it did so intentionally. Maybe then the two sides can get beyond fairly ancient history and do what must be done now to preserve Israel and what is left of Palestine: establish two states for two peoples. Denial of the nakba by Israel, and by Palestinians of Israel's legitimacy now can only lead to further catastrophe.