The Most Fascinating Novel About Israel You’ll Read This Year
Don’t believe the hype: Max Blumenthal’s ‘Goliath’ is a brilliant work of fiction about those who want the Jewish state to disappear
Very early on in Goliath, the brilliant new novel by Max Blumenthal, an Israel Defense Forces brigade storms into Zeitoun, a neighborhood of Gaza City. It is the seventh day of Operation Cast Lead, and the soldiers are filled with the rhythms of war: Their faces darkened by camouflage, they enter the home of one Ateya al-Samouni, ignore his clear motions of surrender, shoot him dead, and wound other members of his family, including a young boy who will eventually bleed to death. The Samounis are then moved into a nearby storehouse. Because the neighborhood is classified as a war zone, civilian ambulances are not permitted to evacuate those in need of urgent care. The following morning, parched and ravenous, a few older members of the family are permitted to leave the house to gather firewood. They are attacked by IDF artillery and run back to their house. Assault helicopters take to the air and fire on the house, killing 21 members of the Samouni clan. All of the details depicted in this bloody scene are lifted from reality. Nothing was fabricated. But that’s hardly the point: In describing the death of the Samounis, and in the 72 short chapters that ensue, Max Blumenthal delivers something far greater: a treatise on the peril of politics in the service of passion delivered through the character of a young and fiery journalist named Max Blumenthal.
To observe his achievement, let us examine what Blumenthal chooses not to tell us about the tragic death of the Samounis: that an army drone hovering above the Samouni compound took photographs of the men and their kindle; that the photographs were then transmitted to a local command center, where the bits of wood the Samouni men were holding were mistakenly identified as RPG missiles; that several of the younger Samounis were suspected of belonging to the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization; that seeing photographs of the Samounis with what he believed were firearms, the colonel in charge of the operation, Ilan Malka, ordered an airstrike; that representatives of the Israel Air Force, seated next to Malka in his HQ, told him to abort the strike as the men in the field were most likely terrified civilians; that Malka proceeded anyway, claiming later that he couldn’t hear the warnings due to the intense din and chaos of his makeshift operations center; that according to a leaked army investigation, Malka knew about the civilian casualties in real time but ordered a second air strike regardless, even though it was clear that more innocent people were likely to die; that the same investigation revealed that seconds before that strike began, the drones’ cameras picked up the face of a young child, and that the HQ was shaken by a chorus of voices yelling “ceasefire!,” thereby averting an even greater tragedy. Pieced together, these details tell a complex story in which clarity is lost in the fog of war and war, as it always does, sees some men doing their best and others their worst and others yet held back from doing anything at all. Pieced together, these details tell a story we customarily refer to as journalism, which we understand—the battered old cliché is useful here—to be some attempt at history’s first draft.
Novels, of course, do something entirely different. They are meant not to transcribe but to transport, a tougher emotional undertaking that demands an arsenal that far exceeds the reporter’s notebook and pen. Novels exaggerate and belittle. They tell us sometimes too little, sometimes too much. Sometimes, they are tempters, other times they assault. They do whatever they need to in order to get us to see overly familiar realities in new and strange ways. A journalist, then, would have never given chapters in a work of reportage titles like “To the Slaughter,” “The Concentration Camp,” or “The Night of Broken Glass.” As a novelist, though, Blumenthal does just that, framing each dispatch as an exercise in creative chronology designed to suggest that contemporary Israel and Europe of the 1930s and 1940s are somehow interchangeable, the victims’ descendants this time recast as the killers. Making the most of its literary license, Goliath leaves the tepid conventions of journalism far behind. The book is not a report—it’s a howl.
Some critics seemed to miss this point when they took issue with Blumenthal’s work. Their vitriol—one even quipped that had Hamas had a book club, Goliath might make for required reading—suggests that they approached Goliath as a work of journalism and were maddened by the book’s intimation that Israeli society is nothing more than a monolith made up of racists and thugs, ethnic cleansers and religious goons, gun-toting settlers and mild-mannered intellectuals whose support makes the whole mechanism of the occupation seem tolerable.
But Goliath is a novel, and it takes the liberties of literature seriously. Like the novel it resembles most—Dostoevsky’s Demons—Goliath is a mosaic of forces, beliefs, ideologies, hatreds, passions, denouncements, and betrayals. The neat trick of Dostoevsky’s title is that we’re never quite sure who is doing the possessing and who is being possessed; Goliath pulls off a similar feat. Its title may suggest a singular and powerful behemoth, but the Israel depicted in its pages is teeming with opposing forces: For every Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a scholar critical of what she claims is an anti-Palestinian bias in Israeli textbooks, there’s a vociferously anti-Arab ideologue like Rabbi Dov Lior.
A lesser artist, not to mention a scholar, would have shied away from exploring the extremes and would have gotten lost contemplating whether a society that has cultivated so many doubters and dissenters can ever truly be a Goliath. But Blumenthal, like his Russian predecessor, is interested in the utmost stirrings of the soul. His soul. He is an allegorist, and the puny problems of a particular country do not move him much. Political solutions are just cudgels in the hands of brutes. The only truly interesting tremors in Blumenthal’s fictional Israel are not those brought about when conflicted people cautiously interact, but when true believers—in God, in country, in nothing at all—clash.
Dostoevsky’s true believers—the murderous revolutionary Pyotr Verkhonvesky, the nihilistic Kirillov, the religious nationalist Shatov—are mostly despicable, but we’re fascinated with them because we understand them to be not real people but embodied ideologies, arguments concealed beneath a thin layer of skin whose sole purpose is to clash with each other for our edification. Similarly, Max Blumenthal the author has given us Max Blumenthal the character, a wonderfully hapless creation, a self-assured pugilist who lands in Israel eager to slay the giant only to find out that the slingshot business isn’t what it used to be: The more of Goliath we read, the more the great denouncer of zealotry comes to sound like one of his subjects. In his Manichean outlook, in his certainty, in his eagerness to assume that human actions have singular and dogmatic causes, Blumenthal the character is plagued by the same ills he so aptly diagnoses in his subjects. He is not their slayer but their mirror.
And there’s hardly a better time to take a peek at this world: In Israel and in America, on the left and on the right, young men and women occupy themselves not with the dusty and creaking levers of real life, but with the sparkling promises of radical politics. Whether they’ve a modicum of power and shut down the government, or none and file into a downtown park, they sneer when adults inquire about demands. They’ve only one demand: for the existing order to admit it is irredeemably evil, collapse its structures, and disappear forever. Whether the existing order toward which they direct their ire is the Obama Administration, capitalism, or the Jewish state is immaterial. And in Max Blumenthal we’ve one of the first truly great characters of the age of rage. You feel for him: As he will never accept Israel until it is bereft of any trace of Jewish national sovereignty, and as the end of the Jewish state as such is unlikely to come about by any means other than the catastrophic, his best—his only—hope is to wait for Armageddon.
It’s a hell of a way to go through life, but it is also great literary conceit. Ultimately, in Goliath, Max Blumenthal the author devised an ingenious cautionary tale against hardheaded dogma and a devastating indictment of those, like Max Blumenthal the character, who are willing to overlook the idiosyncrasies and the subtleties and the small moments of grace that make up the only stories about human beings truly worth telling.
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I was reminded of the Polish critic and Shakespeare scholar at the New Yiddish Rep’s production of Beckett’s masterpiece