Commentary Magazine


A Disingenuous Defense of Hate Speech

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the disturbing decision of the influential New America Foundation to host and promote Max Blumenthal’s new book calling for Israel’s destruction. As I wrote then, and in a previous post noting the civil war that has broken out on the left about it, any discussion of this piece of trash need not detain us long. It is an ignorant piece of agitprop the purpose of which is to depict the State of Israel as comparable to Nazi Germany. His goal is not to add to the debate about West Bank settlements or the critique of liberal foes of the Netanyahu government but also, as leftist writer Eric Alterman noted, to question the legitimacy of Zionism and the whole idea of Jewish sovereignty over a single inch of territory on either side of the 1967 lines. This is a theme Blumenthal has addressed with refreshing candor during some of his book tour appearances when he has pondered the question of whether Jews should be allowed to live in the territory of what is now Israel after his wishes are fulfilled. It is as devoid of any intellectual integrity as any screed produced by those who support Hamas and its vision of a new Middle East without Israel. However, the issue isn’t a book that engages in hate speech but what a respectable and well-connected think tank like the NAF was doing promoting it.

That issue has now been addressed by the group’s founding director James Fallows, who not only defended the book and its author but seemed to think my piece and another that inspired it by historian Ron Radosh was a campaign aimed at suppressing free speech. This is nonsense. As Radosh has noted in a response, no one is stopping Blumenthal from writing a book and speaking about it. But we do have a right to ask why the New America Foundation thinks it is worthy of being given their imprimatur. The problem with engaging Fallows’s argument is that he is being completely disingenuous. In order to defend Blumenthal and his book he has to completely misrepresent it and the discussion that he says is worth having about it.

Fallows claims Blumenthal belongs to the tradition of muckraking advocacy and “is a particular kind of exposé-minded, documentary-broadside journalism whose place we generally recognize and respect.” He compares it The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath and claims it is no more anti-Israel than The Wire was anti-American. But in order to make this claim Fallows has to ignore not only the content of much of the book but Blumenthal’s open advocacy of the cause of dismantling Israel. The comparisons are ludicrous since neither Upton Sinclair nor John Steinbeck wrote books aimed at convincing people that the United States ought not to exist as an independent country. Criticisms of the book are not based on the notion that the isolated interviews he conducts with Israeli extremists are fabricated, but that Blumenthal thinks even Israeli liberals and bitter critics of Netanyahu like author David Grossman are just as illegitimate as the wingnuts of Israeli society. Grossman rejected Blumenthal because his purpose wasn’t to reform Israel but to end its existence as a Jewish state.

Fallows concludes by saying he isn’t sure whether Blumenthal is right or wrong, but, “he is documenting things that need attention … If he is wrong, his case should be addressed in specific rather than ruled out of respectable consideration. If he’s right, we should absorb the implications.”

That is a position that makes sense when you are talking about those who critique Israel’s settlement movement or the wisdom of its positions on the peace talks. I may disagree with some of those who take that position, but these are debatable points. But when Fallows claims the same is true of Blumenthal’s screed, he is saying something very different. By claiming that this book requires our attention, he is asserting that Israel’s existence and the right of its six million Jews to self-determination and self-defense is debatable. The answer to Fallows from those of us who were offended by NAF’s decision to embrace Blumenthal is to say that these notions are no more debatable than the positions of the Klan, apartheid advocates, or those of al-Qaeda. Blumenthal’s book belongs in the category of those things that are offensive, not because he is critical of an imperfect democracy but because his purpose is to advance the cause of its dissolution.

That Fallows won’t admit this forces us to ask whether his powers of reasoning and reading comprehension skills (assuming that he has actually read Blumenthal’s book) are really this feeble or whether he is just not telling the truth about it for some reason, such as solidarity with Blumenthal’s influential parents who are his friends or dislike of the pro-Israel critics of the book on both the right and the left. But either way, the issue here is not free speech but the disturbing willingness of supposedly respectable figures to be agnostic about Israel’s existence. Max Blumenthal is no more worthy of being given important soapboxes like the NAF than David Duke is. If Fallows disagrees, his judgment and integrity have been called into question, not those whom he wrongly smears as opponents of free speech.