Mirror mirror

A comparative review of two books: one, a journey inside an Arab-American family, the other, about life and loathing in Israel.

Max Blumenthal (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Max Blumenthal
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
 In a moment of letting his guard down, Max Blumenthal describes his own father, Sydney Blumenthal, as a White House “kind of insider… a senior aide to Bill Clinton.”
Najla Said, towards the end of her memoir of growing up in the US in the shadow of her famous Arab-American father, Edward Said, notes: “None of that has made me any less of an Upper West Side princess.”
Blumenthal and Said are mirrors of each other. Both born into influential circles at the pinnacle of American power, they each sought out the Middle East as a shadow-boxing metaphor for their own lives, a figment of both their imagination and sometimes short visits, to wrestle with. But this encounter with the self and other produced wildly different results – one a self-righteous creed, the other an introspective, personal account.
It is unclear what motivated Blumenthal’s hard-to-place text on Israeli society, titled Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. He claims, “My subject is the State of Israel, during a period of deepening political and societal crises.”
He argues that the story of how Israel’s right-wing government is of great import to the US, because American tax dollars “are crucial in sustaining the present state of affairs. I want to show what they are paying for.”
He posed as a journalist to write his account, sailing “effortlessly through checkpoints, and cruising from the West Bank to Tel Aviv.” What follows isn’t so much gonzo journalism, since the author doesn’t seem to enjoy himself too much the way the great Hunter S. Thompson did, but a strange odyssey into what he sees as Israeli society.
Indeed, Blumenthal brags about how he accomplished his task of inserting himself into different group settings.
Going to a meeting of Im Tirtzu, a group promoting Zionist values, he says, “We took the precautionary measure of introducing ourselves as clueless Jewish- American tourists,” pretending they heard there was a party taking place.
Going to a conference for the book Torat Hamelech, “we posed as modern-Orthodox settler types.” To get into an IDF base, “all I needed to do… was declare I was one of the human rights facilitators and keep my mouth shut.”
On the one hand, the reader is happy to know that the author is honest about deceiving those he interviewed; on the other, disguising the work as journalism seems to bring the trade into a bad light and cross numerous ethical boundaries.
SAID CHRONICLES a much longer period in her work Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family, beginning in the 1970s and taking shape in the ’80s, as she navigates her way through first and secondary school. She describes an awkward upbringing, ensconced in what she calls the WASP culture of American bluebloods, attending an all-girls private school.
It was a constant battle against being one of the few “others” in the school. She describes singing a Christmas carol “Noel born is King of Israel,” and being chided by her brother to say “occupied Palestine.” She recalls frequent trips to Lebanon, home of her ancestors.
“After my escape from bombs in Beirut, my difference at school started to feel deeper.” Hers is a story of an American very much aware of not being part of the Middle East, but also knowing that her family background and connections make her stand out in the US.
In contrast, Goliath has no such introspection. It appears chronological, with short two-page chapter-vignettes loosely themed and junked together. One minute it is about politician Avigdor Liberman, then a story about a new gentrified high-rise in Jaffa, “an impoverished suburb of Tel Aviv, plagued by substance abuse, crime and the ongoing trauma of a Nakba.”
The mainstay of the book is offhand, generalized, highly judgmental descriptions of almost everything in Israel, with a posed insider knowledge of what is happening, with clichéd descriptions thrown in. Im Tirtzu has a “committed right-wing cadre,” and one of its founders was involved with a “shadowy” organization. A certain street in Jerusalem is a “warren of seedy bars,” when in fact it is just a street with bars on it – though “warren” implies a “network of rabbit burrows.”
People interviewed have “acne-scarred” faces or are “chubby-cheeked.” Every Israeli ethnic group is drawn out in detail, such as the “old Ashkenazi elite of Tel Aviv.”
The Blumenthal world of Israel is like a caricature; either exaggerated or inaccurate. A “freckle-faced teenager” is described as a “well-known rightist street thug,” which begs the question how a teenager can be so “well-known”? Women in the army are said to be “provided with beauty tips and help on custom-tailoring their uniforms for maximum sex appeal. In turn, they are used as props in pro-army propaganda.” His vitriol aimed at female soldiers is clear; they are described as serving “between randy generals and stir-crazy conscripts desperate to relieve their pent-up frustration… women soldiers are often induced into the role of ‘mattresses,’ realizing their value to the state through sexual availability and by maintaining an impeccably prim alluring appearance.”
He also claims IDF women are forbidden “from hitchhiking without a male soldier present.” In fact, the army forbids all soldiers to hitchhike.
Said’s is a more nuanced account that almost sucks the life out of some of the more interesting encounters. In 1992, she set off with her family for a momentous visit to a place her father had not seen since 1947: Jerusalem. She describes a slight chauvinism in her father’s preference for talking politics with her brother, Wadie: “Little girls like me didn’t need to know about serious things.”
Met by an unnamed Arab MK, they are followed around by a British photographer in a flak jacket, which made the trip seem “like a farce, a reality show.” In Gaza, she felt “conspicuous and alienated from ‘my people.’” At one point, Edward is taken to a home of “important people” and the women are separated from the men. “Most of the men didn’t even know why my father was important.”
Meeting Yasser Arafat in Jordan, she recounts his slobbery kisses: “I wiped my hand across my face in disgust.” No attempt is made to rewrite this story to give glory to the deceased rais of the Palestinians.
Goliath is a book of petulant and flippant clichés, comparing various things in Israel to a “concentration camp” and “night of the broken glass.” Said’s book, on the other hand, is a humane portrait of a young woman and her struggle with her Arab identity.
Indeed, she describes being in Beirut during the Second Lebanon War and being consumed with “real, pure, true hate” for the Israelis bombing the city: “Whether you are an Israeli or an Arab, you are going to continue to hate unless you have an alternative.” Said did in fact have an alternative in 2006 – her Jewish therapist in New York, whom she recalled calling during the ordeal.