In Pt 3 of 4 of Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay, Max Blumenthal talks about the affect on him of Israel’s attack on Gaza and his break with American liberalism
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And this is another episode of Reality Asserts Itself. We’re continuing our series with Max Blumenthal, who now joins us in the studio.
Max is an award-winning journalist, best-selling author of the book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. His new book will be coming out soon, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.
Thanks for joining us again.
MAX BLUMENTHAL, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Good to be with you.
JAY: So, as I mentioned in the very beginning, in part one, that–usually we start with my guests’ back story, you know, more about how their worldview was formed, and then get into what they think. But because we wanted to deal with Egypt quickly, we started there. Well, now we’re going to go sort of back to the beginning, if you will.
So you grew up in a household where your father was a very well-known journalist and became an aide to President Clinton, and with virtue of that became a real insider and very close to Washington power. And if I understand correctly from his writings and his view, you have really diverged in terms of how you see American power, certainly on the issues of Israel, I believe. I don’t really know your father’s views on Israel, but if they’re anything like the Clintonesque views, then you’ve certainly diverged from those. So talk about that arc, about, like, growing up in that house and what gets you to these kinds of–you know, where you start to question just about everything about U.S. foreign policy.
BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Just to start, you know, me and him don’t really have big arguments about U.S. foreign policy or Israel. It’s not a big issue between us, and I don’t really see what I’m doing as a reaction against the Clintons or anything. I mean, it’s really a–.
JAY: Yeah, I wasn’t really suggesting that. I’m just suggesting that you have come to very different conclusions about the world.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, I’ve had to ask myself that question, like, to what extent am I–maybe I’m subconsciously having some psychological reaction, but I really think this is more just a reflection of my own experiences and the kind of time that I grew up in and developed my own political maturity.
But I did grow up in a home where we just lived and breathed politics. It was politics all the time. That’s all anyone talked about. I remember I went to some camp when I was, like, in the fifth grade, and I went to some camp in North Carolina with all these kids from Florida in my cabin who were all from Republican families, and they sat around telling black jokes all day, and I just covered my clothes with Dukakis pins, just as a way of saying fuck you to all these kids. And they just pinned me as, like, different, like, nerd or they–I’d never been called a nerd before, but I realized there was something different about me and that when I went out into the country, the views in my home weren’t really accepted.
My parents were big liberals. My mother worked for People For the American Way. She helped design a lot of their communication strategies during the battles that were fought in the early days of the Christian right during the Moral Majority, when there were attempts to actually censor and ban books in public schools in places like North Carolina, and she would go down there and, you know, my mother would be away, as well as, you know, my father for reporting trips, and so I would learn about why she was away and what was happening in the country.
I found some drawings I did when I was seven or eight, and one of them was of Pat Robertson. It was a pretty good rendering of Pat Robertson, and money was falling on him, and he’s declaring, “I’m a bigot.” So this was, you know, where my head was at at that time.
I moved to Washington when I was seven. This was 1985. I think Marion Barry was mayor. It was a kind of a tough time for me, because we had been living in a really nice middle-class neighborhood just outside Boston, and I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood. My father had gotten a job at The Washington Post. And we moved to a very violent, racially divided city, and at the time when the crack epidemic had just started. D.C. was becoming the murder capital. And I grew up in, you know, a neighborhood where we were one of the very few white families. And most of the other white kids growing up in the neighborhood didn’t really leave their house except to go to school. But I decided, you know, I just became friends with my neighbors and started seeing how people in D.C. live.
D.C. at that time was really–it’s changed. It’s the most rapidly gentrifying city in America. But at that time it was CC, it was Chocolate City. That’s kind of what it was known as. It was a center of black power, of the black middle class. And, you know, Marion Barry was demonized by whites, but he had created a black middle class. And so I started to see a different side of politics and a different side of this city.
And meanwhile, you know, in my house, you know, we were–and when I went to school, I was going to school with, you know, the elites of Washington at Georgetown Day School across town in this one kind of white enclave of D.C. where everyone kind of hid behind Rock Creek Park. And I started to–you know, and I saw the attitudes of the children of, you know, Washington’s political class. And it was almost like they were existing as a colony within D.C. and they were terrified of what was on the other side of the park, while I was kind of, like, forging friendships and just going and hanging out with my neighbors. So I became kind of alienated.
JAY: So this–I guess partly it’s in your DNA, but also you–coming at it from a liberal household, these are the kind of values you’re are exposed to.
BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I was encouraged to make friends with, you know, kids in my neighborhood who were going to public schools where they had to walk through metal detectors and see what kind of experiences they were having. And I didn’t–it got to a point where I couldn’t really relate to the kind of people I was going to school with across town, who would–when they would come into an area like the kind of neighborhood I lived in, they would say, this is so ghetto, and they would get really frightened and they’d worry about their own personal security. But this was my neighborhood. So I started to see things kind of from an inside and outside perspective, you know, because I had, you know, a family that had access to power, at least within the liberal intelligentsia.
JAY: What years–how old are you when your father is in the White House working as an aide to President Clinton?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, this happened–he was writing for The New Yorker, and I think he became close to Clinton, and Clinton offered him a job when I think I was 16. I remember him telling me that he was going to work in the White House. And I felt sort of troubled. I said, are you sure? You know, you know what you’re getting into. And I really didn’t. It was just sort of a visceral sense I had. And the next day, you know, in The Washington Post there is a false story about court records to prove that my father had beaten my mother for years. I once saw my mother throw a carrot at my father, but there was no domestic abuse in our home. And so this was his first day at the office.
JAY: And your father sued, and they had to withdraw the claim.
BLUMENTHAL: I think that led to a $30 million lawsuit against Matt Drudge. David Horowitz was running his legal fund, and, you know, they had endless money from right-wing Scrooge McDuck billionaires. And how are you going to maintain a legal fight against that kind of juggernaut? So he had to drop the lawsuit.
But the fight began on day one. You know. I think my father, because of his success in journalism and his talent, had engendered a lot of animosity, and that came out.
JAY: So you grew up, partly ’cause of the politics in the household and experiences like this, with a pretty visceral opposition, should I say hatred for the right, for the Republicans. And you used to do these–I mean, how I first heard of you is–probably a lot of people did–with these videos you used to do where you would go into, like, right-wing conventions and meetings and interview people, and you would kind of let them essentially hang themselves just by asking fairly what seemed innocent questions.
We’re just going to show a couple of clips just to give you a little sense of what Max was doing.
BLUMENTHAL: Sarah Palin’s daughter could have benefited from more sex education, which the Republican Party plank rejects.
MEGHAN MCCAIN, COLUMNIST, AUTHOR, AND BLOGGER: We’re just here to enjoy the convention, and we’re sitting in the box. So, you know–.
BLUMENTHAL: Do you think they should teach it in public schools?
MCCAIN: We’re just here to enjoy the convention.
JUSTIN YORK, UNIV. OF CENTRAL FLORIDA ’10: We are all supportive of the war. We all believe that it’s very important to win the war and to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq so that we’re not fighting them here in the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED: Not even just al-Qaeda. The Islamic fascists [incompr.]
DAVID CLARY, UNIV. OF ILLINOIS ’09: I like the Republican standpoint–fight them over there, not over here. I think that’s what we’re doing right now and we should keep doing it.
BLUMENTHAL: Why are you not fighting them over there?
CLARY: Why am I not fighting them over there?
CLARY: ‘Cause I’m in college right now.
BLUMENTHAL: Do you plan to enlist?
CLARY: I haven’t ruled it out.
BLUMENTHAL: Are you going to serve?
YORK: I’ve thought about it. I’m thinking about it. I haven’t decided.
BLUMENTHAL: Undecided. Why aren’t you serving just currently?
YORK: Well, I’m an undergraduate right now, and I just–I had a scholarship for Florida Bright Futures, and I just–I didn’t have any real–I didn’t have any strong urge–.
UNIDENTIFIED: Why am I not serving?
UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t know. I mean, I really support this country strongly, and I’m–you know, I didn’t enlist. I mean, there’s not much else I can say. I don’t think you can’t talk about this issue if you’re not serving.
JAY: So you became very skilled, in a sense, as your father was, at really eviscerating the right. And you found very ingenious ways to do this.
But you also then started, as you grew up in this liberal household–but when it comes to some very significant issues, you start to really part ways with the sort of traditional American liberalism. So what brings you to that?
BLUMENTHAL: Again, it was just the time that I grew up in. I mean, if you look at the way that I did journalism, it’s just a dramatically different from the kind of journalism that my father’s contemporaries practiced. And he started out in alternative media, but it was writing in alternative print media, and he went into the mainstream. I immediately sort of appeared as–I immediately defined myself as an advocacy journalist, of course, like, within the, you know, ethical boundaries of journalism, where you have to stick to the facts. But I made my views really clear as a blogger. Blogging was sort of a new thing when I started, when I got involved in journalism. Social media was kind of a new thing. And this kind of amateur video journalism was something that didn’t exist before. And what I really wanted to do with my videos was show people what I was seeing when I was going to these Christian-right and Republican conventions, and then–.
JAY: Your book Republican Gomorrah is still not at odds with American liberalism, in the sense you’re attacking the Republicans, you’re dissecting the Republicans. But when you start to do journalism about Israel and you start becoming so critical of Israel, you really part ways with American liberalism.
BLUMENTHAL: I don’t even know what–I mean, this goes to our discussion about the philosophy of liberals like Obama, to the extent that they can be called liberals. And Reinhold Niebuhr–I don’t even know what American liberalism is anymore in the era of Obama. I don’t know what set of principles and beliefs they’re adhering to when you see so many liberals on a network like MSNBC lashing into people like Edward Snowden and defending the NSA. I don’t understand what liberalism is when they’re defending endless drone warfare. It really seems to me like Obama has dragged liberalism along with him and dragged it into this kind of abyss where it’s become hollow. And so that’s part of my political formation is, you know, living through this Democratic presidency that had imbued so many people with hope and has let so many people down. But people continue to hold on to it. And I don’t really know what principles undergird his presidency or the liberals who are defending it. I mean, if anything, at best he’s holding the line against an extremely radical Republican Party.
But if you want to understand my formation and how I kind of went beyond what’s traditionally defined as liberalism–and I don’t even know how I would define myself now. I never thought of myself as an ideologue. I never became particularly attracted to any philosopher. It was that I grew up–I mean, I talked a little bit about my childhood and seeing inequality and racism and police violence growing up. That affected me a lot.
But also growing up Jewish in Washington did have an effect on me. I’m not going to lie. When you’re Jewish in America, particularly if you grow up in a middle-class or upper middle-class background, Zionism calls on you. And it called on me. I went to Hebrew school. They didn’t particularly indoctrinate me. But there was an Israeli flag by the Bema, by the podium, and there was a flag draped in black on the other side, and that was the UN flag. And the Rabbi told us that the flag had been draped in black to protest the “Zionism is racism” declaration at the UN. And all that does is put seeds in my mind and make me want to understand what is Zionism.
I went on the Birthright Israel trip. It’s a free trip for Jews 18 to 25 or 28 in the United States to Israel for ten days. I’m wondering, why can’t I meet any Palestinians on this trip? I’m wondering, why did that bomb shake my hotel? What’s happening? The Second Intifada had just started at that time. And there was indoctrination on that trip. And that affected me massively. But it affected me more to come back and be really interested in this issue and watch Operation Defensive Shield when Israel reduced the center of the Jenin refugee camp to rubble, to nothing, knocking down buildings on top of people, and trying to reconcile that with this liberal Zionist idea that I’m supposed to believe in because it’s, you know, part of being a Jewish liberal in the United States. And I was unable to reconcile the two.
But I had just kind of started my journalism career, and I wasn’t ready, I didn’t think I was prepared enough to confront the kind of backlash and engage in the kind of intellectual battle that I would when I came out publicly, and I didn’t quite understand Zionism well enough. And so it took me really six years. And it was Operation Cast Lead when Israel killed around 1,800 people, mostly civilians, in the Gaza Strip during the course of three weeks that I just snapped. And a lot of people of my generation went through this experience, and they tell me the same thing when we talk about it that something inside them just broke, and they decided either to engage in Palestine solidarity activism or to just go to a protest. Or what I did was I decided to use the talents that I’d cultivated in journalism to expose not just America’s relationship to Israel but what Israel really was. And that’s what–my book Goliath is really the culmination of that process, four years later, publishing this book.
But, you know, I’ll tell you just before–’cause, I mean, I really want to, like, get to your question–I’ll tell you just a quick story, which was that this war, Operation Cast Lead, it happened right after Obama had been elected, I think. And I knew that Obama was being briefed on the war. And I couldn’t–it made it emotionally impossible for me to identify with my counterparts, my journalistic liberal counterparts, who were just enthralled with this victory of Obama. And I wound up at an election night party with a Palestinian friend, a Palestinian-American friend, hosted by Norman Lear. And all these actors came on stage, and they declared before just 1,000 people, like, who were just, you know, all Obama people–the Black Eyed Peas had just been on stage. And these people came up, and they were supposed to represent, you know, archetypes of different Americans, like the cowboy and the city dweller, this kind of–the hipster. I am a born-again American again, they declared; I am born again. And I remember just sitting there with my friend and feeling like the whole thing was this masquerade that I had no emotional or psychological capacity to identify with. So on a visceral level, that break that I felt inside me was also a rupture with this liberal movement that I felt was embracing an illusion, while just a massacre of a ghettoized, besieged people was happening before their eyes. And I just couldn’t be a part of it.
And so here I am, and I’m facing the consequences, and the consequences are subtle but severe.
JAY: Well, sometimes not-so-subtle. I was saying off-camera before, I think Max is probably the target of being called a self-hating or a self-loathing Jew probably more than anyone on the planet. If you do a Google with those two phrases, there’s endless number of links to stories about that.
And how is that felt emotionally? And as you say, you grew up, you know, as part of the Washington Jewish community and you grew up with that grammar. It’s–was part of your identity. And, you know, you are shamed now. You are–what’s the word?
JAY: Shun. Yeah.
BLUMENTHAL: It doesn’t really affect me that much emotionally. And that has to do with my childhood and being, you know, the child of parents who were publicly attacked and demonized by the Republican right and seeing how they handled it. And so, I mean, I’ve always been prepared for that. I think I have a thicker skin and a shorter emotional memory than most people. And I’ve also had to stand six inches from the face of Andrew Breitbart while he fulminated and called me the worst person in the world. And that, you know, didn’t really–I don’t really feel that affected by these things.
But what really troubles me is–and–yeah, and you said that I’ve been called a self-hating Jew a lot. I mean, that’s just beyond ridiculous. And one of the proudest days of my life was when Haaretz quoted me, the Israeli paper quoted me quoting Woody Allen or Larry David, saying I am self-hating, but being Jewish has nothing to do with it.
But what disturbs me–I don’t know if it hurts me or not, but it disturbs me that I used to have much more access to mainstream media than I do now, and I can’t publish the kind of reporting which I think is very high-quality reporting on Israel-Palestine, on the U.S. relationship with Israel, in the publications that I used to write for.
JAY: Like, for example?
BLUMENTHAL: Like the Daily Beast. And when I started writing about it and I took my first really sustained reporting trip to Israel and I was on staff at the Daily Beast, they would come up with bizarre excuses for not running videos that I did, which I thought were really important, for example on the settlement movement, that, you know, Israel has tighter libel laws and some of these people I’ve interviewed might sue, I mean, you know, stuff they’d never thrown at me before about other videos. And actually Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter had considered suing me, and the Daily Beast had no problem with that. In fact, they liked it for the publicity they got. Last week I was booked to go on the New York affiliate of PBS, and then I was unbooked on the grounds that there were too many men on the panel. And I said, well, why don’t you unbook another man on the panel? And there was no real answer I got there. But it’s–.
JAY: ‘Cause to critique Israel to the extent you do–I mean, which in my mind just means being realistic on the other. But to critique it the way you do puts you completely on the margins of mainstream media, including, I should say, some progressive media. I mean, I put some quotations around the word progressive, but you can find people who were opposed to the war in Iraq and are opposed to Obama’s drone attacks and many, many issues you could say have progressive positions, but when it comes to Israel, it’s the Israeli exception.
BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. I mean, denying that Israel is an apartheid state, that it practices apartheid towards the Palestinians and other non-Jews in its territory, like African migrants, is like saying that climate change exists. To deny it is to be a denialist. But, you know, if I were to write something like that, you know, and extrapolate on it, really expand on it in The Nation, I could expect possibly a response from Eric Alterman, you know, someone like him. So it’s very touchy even in progressive media. I’m not knocking The Nation, but progressive media and the progressive movement has its priorities, and I think it prioritizes things like fighting the anti-union campaign, which is just, like, this fullbore assault on unions, or fighting the war on women, which is just a complete attack on women’s reproductive rights at the state level. That to them is much more important than taking on Israeli apartheid. And so, you know, why risk it all to publish someone like me, to run my videos?
You know, my “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem” video was banned by YouTube. It was banned by Vimeo. The Huffington Post refused to run it. This is video that just goes viral that people are hungry to see, and it’s exposing what I think the real facts on the ground are. And it really matches my experience spending almost a year inside Israeli society. And then from, you know, right to center to, you know, liberal left, they want really nothing of it.
JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment of our interview, we’re going to talk about anti-Semitism and whether critique of Israel is anti-Semitism or not.
Thanks for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself.
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