Max Blumenthal, son of former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, made quite a splash on the Internet recently when he posted a video portraying drunken Americans in Israel hurling racist epithets against President Barack Obama. One of his subjects even shouted “white power!” Blumenthal titled his video “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem,” as if inebriated ugly Americans abroad reflect in any way on the opinions of people who live in Jerusalem. You can’t watch the video because YouTube removed it due to a “terms of service violation.”
This time around, he features Israelis, not foreigners, who might even live in Tel Aviv. But just like in the first installment of his juvenile series, he goes out of his way to showcase Israelis with offensive opinions. While attending the White Night music festival, for instance, he managed to find two individuals who don’t like Iranians. “I hate them,” said one. “I hate them all,” said another. If he asked anyone else what they thought of Iranians, their response did not make the cut.
It might have been interesting if Blumenthal had aired the opinions of a large number Israelis about their feelings for Iranians when Israel and Iran are in a state of cold war — especially now that millions have risked beatings and worse while taking to the Iranian streets and screaming “death to the dictator.” (It would also be worthwhile for a reporter to canvass Iranian public opinion among those attending anti-regime rallies and ask what they think about the people of Israel.) The “Green Revolution” broke out in Iran after Blumenthal shot his footage. But he apparently doesn’t care whether he makes Israelis look like anti-Iranian bigots at a time when most of the world has just learned that Iranians detest the deranged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as much as everyone else.
After editing out or ignoring the opinions of thousands of reasonable Israelis at the White Night festival, he proceeded toward Tel Aviv University, where he edited out or ignored the opinions of reasonable people on campus.
“Do you think they [Israeli Arabs] are traitors?” he asked a student. “Yeah,” said the student. Another said he wants to see Israelis of Arab descent at the university deported to Gaza. “If you want to keep democracy,” said yet another, “you can’t let people protest against the country.” And so on.
There’s nothing wrong with quoting extremists. And there’s nothing wrong with focusing exclusively on extremists if they’re the subject. I’ve done it. Lots of journalists do it. Responsible journalists, though, make it clear to their audience that extremists are, well, extremists.
Here’s the problem with Blumenthal’s series: I’ve met exactly one person in Israel who talked like the people he featured in his videos. And I’ve been there twice when tempers were flaring, when Israel was under mortar, rocket, and missile attack. It’s certainly possible that I’ve met more than one person like Blumenthal’s crowd without knowing it. Perhaps a few of my interview subjects had the good sense to keep their bigoted thoughts to themselves. I don’t wander around Israel, or any other country, trying to bait people like Borat. In any case, since Blumenthal can’t be bothered to acknowledge that he went quote shopping, those of us familiar with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv ought to point out to everyone else that his videos don’t remotely represent average people who live there.
Author, historian, and Jerusalem resident Yaacov Lozowick didn’t take kindly to the first episode Blumenthal shot in his home town. “Say you’re interviewing the locals at Time Square about some matter,” he wrote, “so as to figure out what Americans think. Inevitably, you’ll come across a lot of tourists, it being Time Square, but what are the chances you’ll find not a single card-carrying American? And if that happens, and you then post your video to Youtube to castigate America, what does that tell us about you?”
Alex Stein at the left-wing British blog Harry’s Place isn’t impressed with Blumenthal’s Tel Aviv episode. “Doing a serious vox-pop in Tel Aviv is not a complicated task,” he wrote. “Spend the entire day going from café to café, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, hummuseria to sushi bar, interview people and then edit it in such a way that accurately reflects the multiplicity of voices that you hear. In this case, there is simply no evidence that Blumenthal has bothered to be this rigorous.”
Stein’s method is the correct one. And Israelis aren’t the only people in the Middle East deserving this courtesy. When I visited the West Bank a few years ago, I quoted every single Palestinian I spoke to without exception, and I gave all of them more time to air their views than Blumenthal did with his subjects. I’ve spent twice as much time in Lebanon as I have in Israel and never once quoted or described Hezbollah supporters in such a way that even suggested they might represent the mainstream of the society.
Blumenthal says he set out “to probe the political opinions of young local residents.” If he meant to zero in on the most obnoxious people he could possibly find, he should have made it clear that the sample he featured was the result of selective editing. If he hoped to capture mainstream public opinion among Tel Aviv’s youths, or pretend to, he failed spectacularly.