"They’ve helped sell my books," Max Blumenthal said Wednesday about the critics of his controversial and newly-published book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.
Blumenthal was smiling before a seated audience at the New America Foundation, a prominent Washington think tank, which itself came under attack for hosting the event for Blumenthal’s book. To critics, Blumenthal is an anti-Israel smear artist. The Nation’s left-wing scribe Eric Alterman called his work the "‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook" and labeled him a "profoundly unreliable narrator." Commentary’s right-wing writer Jonathan Tobin called the book "trash" and ripped New America’s president Anne-Marie Slaughter for associating her institution "with a book that smears Israelis as Nazis." In the mainstream American press, Goliath’s detractors outnumber its supporters. But Blumenthal isn’t bothered.
"The fact is, a balloon needs hot air to rise," he told the crowd. "I thank them on some level."
The "hot air" Blumenthal spoke of has followed him across the country as he supports his book — a 500-page indictment of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians based on four years of research and reporting in the country. To supporters, Blumenthal is an unapologetic truth-teller.
"The only worthwhile, honest discussion of Israel can come from someone who possesses two attributes: fearlessness and expertise," wrote former Guardian journalist and provocateur Glenn Greenwald in praise of Goliath. "Max Blumenthal wields both in abundance, and the result is an eye-opening and stunningly insightful book."
But praise from established Israel critics hasn’t made the book tour any less rocky. Goliath has ruffled D.C.’s foreign policy establishment and reaffirmed the radioactive nature of the Israel-Palestine debate in the U.S.
In October, the conservative Florida Family Association called on members to flood the inbox of an Arizona hotel hosting an event featuring Blumenthal. "Americans who are concerned about Max Blumenthal’s propaganda … have the First Amendment Right to complain about this event," read an FFA bulletin. (The group also organized against Electronic Arts for allegations about gay stormtroopers appearing in a Star Wars video game).
In a November book event at the Dallas World Affairs Council, Blumenthal said event staffers told him that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee "called and demanded the event be shut down." A representative for AIPAC tells The Cable the charge "is not true — completely false."
Last week, Tobin attempted to shame the New America Foundation out of hosting Wednesday’s book chat. "NAF has crossed a line that no decent individual or group should even approach," he wrote. "By doing so they are also sending a dangerous signal in the world of D.C. ideas that talk about doing away with Israel is no longer confined, as it should be, to the fever swamps of the far left or the far right."
That the book is controversial is unsurprising. With chapter titles such as "Concentration Camp" and "Night of the Broken Glass," critics charge that Blumenthal is implying an equivalence between the Jewish State and Nazi Germany. That the book would be deemed unfit for public events, however, strikes some as overly-zealous.
"If a think tank can’t have a book event, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing," Peter Bergen, the event’s moderator, told The Cable. "It was a public event and if they wanted to challenge [the book], it was open to anybody who wanted to come."
Bergen characterized the controversy surrounding the book as one of style versus substance. "The critiques of your book seem to be not as much about the facts," he said during the event, "it’s more about the tone in the book."
But that doesn’t mean the think tank wasn’t prepared for significant or even violent blowback. On Wednesday, NAF sent out an all-staff e-mail notifying employees "we are hosting an event which requires additional security." Elevators up to the event required a key swipe.
Surprisingly, Blumenthal didn’t take any flack during the event’s Q&A segment, which attracted a sympathetic crowd of Middle East enthusiasts who commended Blumenthal on his dedication to the topic. The kumbayas ended during the book signing when a reporter for the right-wing news site Washington Free Beacon asked Blumenthal if he was concerned about a positive review of his book by a white supremacist — an endorsement Blumenthal did not solicit.
"I am not answering your questions or speaking to you," Blumenthal told the reporter. "I’m not speaking to you."
The Free Beacon has made the controversy surrounding the book an editorial priority, including one article centered on Blumenthal’s father, a longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton confidante. "I don’t consider them to be a site that wants to do anything but smear me or publish one derogatory post after another," Blumenthal told The Cable. "It just shows how desperate they are."
Though Blumenthal brushed off criticisms of his book with humor, he pushed back hard against the perceived double standard of acceptable Israel-focused discourse in Washington.
"Naftali Bennett just spoke at the Brookings Institute and there was no effort to prevent him from speaking at the premier think tank in Washington," he said, referring to Israel’s economy minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. "I don’t know that there necessarily should be [an effort to censor him] even though Naftali Bennett recently endorsed the decision … to bar religious Jewish women from volunteering in hospitals after 9 p.m. for fear that they would date Arab doctors."
He went on to list the various book events in which Israel advocates protested his presence. "I’m not surprised by it," he said. "But I am impressed by anyone who stands up to this suppression as the New America Foundation has done."