Someone at Religion Dispatches gave Shaul Magid the thankless task to read and review Max Blumenthal’s recent book on Israel, what to all appearances looks to be a total screed. I’m not sure he should have done it. Sometimes arguing with people so far off point can drag you closer towards a center position that a critic like Shaul might not want to occupy. Responding to them dilutes the moral clarity that you want to bring to what is in this case a political problem. There’s the law of diminishing returns. Shaul is much sharper when he writes critical stuff about Israel, not having to defend it.
Blumenthal’s book does raise questions about the limits of discourse. At what is an expression so extreme that it’s not worth having on the table. One takes it off the table not to censor unpopular discourse as much as to maintain one’s own mental hygiene, one’s own political sense of position as to what one thinks is morally right and wrong. Shaul makes an important distinction between “facts” and “details,” writing that “The basic problem with Goliath is that it has no argument, it only has details. Some of these details are indeed painful, and many are important to know, but without an argument they simply expose the ugliness of one side while veiling the ugliness of the other…Facts are often about what ostensibly is, or what should take place in principle; details are about what actually takes place. ” The problem then is to respond to this kind of piece means that you yourself get lost in the details.
So then let’s say that Blumenthal’s book is way off point. What about other types of anti-Zionism? What about cases that may have an actual argument about the kind of things that Shaul thinks should interest us, like the relationship between the nation-state and Jewish identity. This reminds me of Butler’s recent book on Jewish identity against Zionism, about which we can agree that there is an argument, but whose theoretical acumen is undermined by many of the same problems identified by Shaul in Blumenthal’s book, namely a failure to consider the cultural, historical, and political complexity of its object. To use Shaul’s terminology, Butler’s book is all argument, but with little attention to “detail.” Reading Stanley Fish’s piece at the NYT against BDS, and then tracking the links to a series of articles published by the AAUP on the tension between political ethics and academic freedom, I came to the conclusion that, for me, it was a pointless waste of time; not just because the arguments were weak, but because the discussion just dragged on.
When and on what basis is one to decide that certain things are worth reading, and at what point are they an unpleasant and counterproductive distraction? In the case of Butler’s book, it is the theoretical sophistication and the author’s reputation that may or may not justify the time spent put in the book –and if so, then only so far. Or it could be that you determine that it’s an interesting symptom. And at the end of the day, you hopefully come out of the experience with a little more clarity and perspective than you had going in. That’s why I’ll read almost anything written by Shaul about Israel and Zionism –for the combination of facts and detail. But the sad “fact” is that time is short, while the arguments about the “facts” for and against Israel are endless, as are the details particular to the Israel-Palestine conflict. At some point, the returns diminish and you walk away with less and less. Like Nietzsche’s thought about an infinite God, the bad infinity of certain kinds of discourse leaves you diminished as a human being.