Barbara Kay: Anti-Israel crusader Max Blumenthal does not deserve the honour of a PEN Canada audience


National Post - Tuesday February 23rd, 2016

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli soldiers stand on a Merkava tank stationed at an army deployment along the Israeli Gaza border, on July 22, 2014.

Marking Freedom to Read Week, on Wednesday,  Feb, 24, at the Toronto Reference Library, PEN Canada will present, “Embattled Truths: Reporting on Gaza,” a talk by U.S. polemicist Max Blumenthal followed by a conversation with Toronto Star foreign affairs reporter Olivia Ward. Blumenthal is blurbed in the invitation as an “acclaimed U.S. journalist” who will “discuss the challenges of sifting truth from propaganda when reporting on conflict in the Gaza strip.”

I’m not alone in finding Blumenthal a disappointing choice for this sensitive topic. A report in Canadian Jewish News describes Blumenthal as “so far out on the fringe of the anti-Israel movement and his biases so glaring that you’ve got to venture past people like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein before you start to get into Blumenthal territory. Then you’ve got to go a little further … ” Indeed, some enthusiastic “acclaim” for Blumenthal’s ideas has come from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and the white-supremacist site Stormfront. Controversial ideologues cannot choose their fans, of course, but it’s perhaps surprising his writing seems so well-regarded among the most unsavoury types imaginable. 

To be clear, Blumenthal is not a complete pariah, and occasionally surfaces in reputable publications like The New York Times. A few respected writers like James Fallows and Andrew Sullivan have expressed admiration for Blumenthal’s intensely held convictions and high-octane style. But the default response to Blumenthal’s gonzo journalism amongst most credible critics is profound revulsion. And not only, or even primarily, from pro-Israel pundits. The left-wing magazine The Forward, for instance, referred to Blumenthal’s 2014 book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, as “so anti-Israel it makes even anti-Zionists blush.” Highly respected left-wing columnist Eric Alterman of The Nation described Goliath as a screed appropriate for a “Hamas Book of the Month Club.”

These aren’t serious exaggerations. Goliath contains chapter headings like “The Concentration Camp,” The Night of Broken Glass,” and “How to Kill Goyim (non-Jews) and Influence People.” Perhaps concerned that Nazi atrocities wouldn’t resonate with millennials, in Sept 2014, Blumenthal helped promulgate the hashtag #JSIL. No exegesis required, I trust.

Blumenthal tried to appear with Toronto anti-Zionist David Sheen before the Berlin Volksbühne on the 2014 anniversary of Kristallnacht (!), but instead earned himself a lifetime ban at the German Parliament

Blumenthal’s obsession sometimes takes a farcical turn. He tried to appear with Toronto anti-Zionist David Sheen before the Berlin Volksbühne on the 2014 anniversary of Kristallnacht (!) to “explain how the legacy of the European genocide had inspired our work,” but instead earned himself a lifetime ban at the German Parliament, for whom any association with anti-Semitism is anathema (Google “Toiletgate, Blumenthal” for the entertaining details).

A spokesperson for the venue stated, “Max Blumenthal has been invited very clearly not because of his personal views, but to speak on his experiences as a journalist.” Journalism is a big tent, true, but even apart from his bias, Blumenthal’s sum total of war experience — a few weeks in Gaza — do not make him a war commentator worthy of such a prestigious platform.

Blumenthal speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic. Given his previous writings, it’s fair to ask whether he went to Gaza with the motivation of reinforcing foregone conclusions. His reports arguably perpetuate discredited statistics, ignore crucial context, fail to cite sources and he has, at times, uttered blatant falsehoods (in a 2014 interview with La Presse, for example, he stated that since 2000 no Israeli soldier has ever been indicted for murder, when in fact dozens of investigations into Operation Cast Lead yielded a number of indictments; and he falsely stated Israeli soldiers are immune from prosecution). Blumenthal says he wants to “sift truth from propaganda,” but to many, he himself is a propagandist.

There is no shortage of war zones in the world and no shortage of knowledgeable war correspondents. Why Gaza? And if Gaza it had to be, then why not a debate between Blumenthal and, say, veteran Israeli-Canadian journalist Matti Friedman? Friedman’s comprehensive, 2014 evidence-based analysis of media coverage in Gaza (“An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth” in Tablet Magazine) truly merits the word “acclaimed,” and Friedman would have brought necessary balance to the event (more accurately, he would have mopped the floor with Blumenthal).

When you are spending donor and taxpayer dollars, you willy-nilly have a stake in the content you are facilitating

I spoke with Brendan DeCaires, program director for PEN Canada. He confirmed that PEN and the Reference Library knew exactly what they were getting in Blumenthal, but DeCaires will only concede that Blumenthal is “pugnacious,” asserting, “We have no stake in the content of what Mr. Blumenthal says. We support his right to say it.” That is puzzling on both counts. When you are spending donor and taxpayer dollars, you willy-nilly have a stake in the content you are facilitating. And nobody is disputing Blumenthal’s speech rights, only the propriety of PEN and the library lending his alarming views an uncontested pulpit and cultural legitimacy, whose ripple effect will be a raft of further invitations from mainstream institutions who would otherwise — quite justifiably — have considered Blumenthal beyond the pale.

My final question to DeCaires was, “Do you consider Blumenthal to be a reliable narrator?” A three-beat silence, followed by a non-sequitur. I can think of many fanatically held biases that are too rancid to pass PEN’s and the venue’s smell test. Why were they oblivious to the stench arising from this one?

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Twitter.com/BarbaraRKay