From the perspective of the organized Jewish community, Max Blumenthal is beyond a polarizing figure.
As they see it, he’s so far out on the fringe of the anti-Israel movement and his biases are 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 farther – so far that the neo-Nazi Stormfronts and David Dukes of the world feel comfortable citing the U.S. writer as an authority when it comes to slamming Israel.
So why, ask the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, did PEN Canada invite the controversial author to discuss reporting from Gaza?
Blumenthal, author of The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza and Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel will headline a Feb. 24 event at the Toronto Reference Library called “Embattled Truths: Reporting on Gaza.” Olivia Ward, a foreign affairs reporter at the Toronto Star, is the co-panelist.
PEN, which promotes freedom of expression in Canada and abroad, is co-hosting the event in conjunction with Independent Jewish Voices and Another Story Bookshop as part of “Freedom to Read Week.”
CIJA and the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center are perplexed at PEN’s choice of Blumenthal as their headline speaker.
“We thought this is an odd choice,” said CIJA spokesperson Martin Sampson. “Why would they do that? Why would they put their reputation at risk by associating with Blumenthal?
“I think his extreme positions disqualify him from being a rational, reasonable contributor in the discourse about Israel,” he added.
“Max Blumenthal represents the radical left’s extremist belief that Israel is the embodiment of all evil and has no right to exist,” said Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Wiesenthal Center. “His most recent book – [which has been] dubbed the ‘I Hate Israel Handbook’ – supports the mainstreaming of growing anti-Semitic attitudes by conflating Israel with Nazi Germany. While shunned by conventional media outlets, the book is popular on major anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi and conspiracy theory websites such as Stormfront and David Duke’s Rense, where his work is used to promote anti-Jewish hate.
“I’m not sure what PEN is trying to achieve by giving Blumenthal a podium from which to spew his hatred, but if its goal is to contribute to increasing anti-Semitism in Canada, then I guess they will succeed,” Benlolo said.
Blumenthal is no stranger to controversy. His book Goliath, published by Nation Books, was eviscerated in a review by columnist Eric Alterman in The Nation magazine. Alterman called Blumenthal “a profoundly unreliable narrator,” accused him of a lack of even-handedness, criticizes him for titling chapters that compare Israel to Nazi Germany and notes that after spending time with Blumenthal, left-wing Israeli author David Grossman asked the American author to tear up his phone number.
PEN spokesperson Brendan de Caires said the group’s mandate is to “raise difficult subjects,” without necessarily endorsing the views of those advancing them.
“We are a free speech organization. We embrace an open exchange of ideas,” he said, adding that Blumenthal is a widely read author who has reported from Gaza and his experience fits the topic PEN was considering – reporting from a war zone.
“The whole premise of our discussion is that this is a hot topic,” he said.
De Caires said PEN tackles difficult subjects regularly, such as the polarization of political reporting in Canada and free speech and digital warfare, the original topic for the event that was replaced by the panel on war zone reporting.
De Caires pointed to reaction on PEN’s Facebook page, where the announcement of Blumenthal’s upcoming address prompted “a huge amount of dialogue on this.” Posts ranged from allegations the library would be “hosting raving anti-Semites” to the response, “if a Jewish person isn’t in favour of apartheid they somehow hate all Jews?”
De Caires said in the past few years, PEN’s Freedom to Read events attracted about 120 people. He said audience members can challenge Blumenthal’s views during a question period. “We have no stake in the content of what Mr. Blumenthal says,” de Caires said. “We support his right to say it.”
Ana-Maria Critchley, manager of stakeholder relations for the Toronto Public Library, said she was aware Blumenthal’s appearance has stirred controversy, but the event will be going ahead. “Blumenthal has been invited very clearly not because of his personal views, but to speak on his experience as a journalist,” she said.