Madmen for Israel: Selling Zionism

Madmen don’t just pitch beer and toothpaste. Most progressives today agree their credits include the selling of America’s wars, but as Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi explained the other evening at Brooklyn Law School, even the mythology that dominates most Americans’ thinking about Israel can be traced back to the clever fellows on Madison Avenue.

Below, I’ve transcribed an excerpt of Professor Khalidi’s remarks from September 22nd because the better we understand the true origins of Israel’s mythology about itself, the more effective we can be at stopping the humanitarian nightmare playing out inside the Gaza Strip. For length’s sake, I do not run the entire speech here, but anyone who asks is welcome to my recording file. Please feel free to repost, tweet or circulate this via courier pigeon.

And do not even think of missing the New York book launch of Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict, Tuesday, Sept. 28, click for details. The book contains dozens of essays 2-4 pages long—perfect for subway and bus commuters (or those with the attention span of a gnat).

Excerpt from Rashid Khalidi’s comments, B’klyn Law School, Sept. 22, 2010:

There have been significant changes in recent years in the way in which the whole question of Palestine is treated in the American public sphere. One way to appreciate this is to look back on changing ways Americans have comprehended the history of the conflict in Palestine since 1948.

…. It marks the period when half of the population of Palestine, more than 700,000 people were dispossessed and became refugees and all Palestinians were made stateless. Palestinians call these traumatic events a nakba in Arabic or the catastrophe.

In the American public sphere and in the U.S. political arena in particular, most of these past 63 years it has been possible to talk about only one side of this dual anniversary and that is the Israeli side. The sole event being marked every May 15th was therefore the seemingly miraculous birth of the state of Israel only three years after the revelation of the Holocaust. And those events were always linked in peoples’ minds.

Any reference, especially in the first 30 or 40 or 50 years after 1948, to the dispossession that these events entailed for the Palestinian people was seen as scandalous. Talking about it was seen as indecent if not as a sign of borderline anti-Semitism. How can you sully an event like this, by talking about  that?

It is important to stress that most Americans knew, and know, almost nothing about Palestine except the falsifications that have been foisted upon them from decades of propaganda which starts off by stressing the biblical roots of the modern Zionist enterprise and then goes on with other tropes. Thus, for most Americans, looking at one side of the coin seemed and still seems to be only right and natural way and that explains the background for some of the egregious things that Glenn [Greenwald] has just talked about.

You may or may not know that this stuff doesn’t develop on its own. This carefully crafted propaganda was the work of seasoned professionals. People like someone you probably never heard of, a man named Edward Gottleib, for example. He’s one of the founders of the modern public relations industry. there are books about him as a great advertiser.

In order to sell the great Israeli state to the American public many, many decades ago, Gottlieb commissioned a successful, young novelist. A man who was a committed Zionist, a fellow with the name of Leon Uris. He funded him and sent him off to Israel to write a book. This book was Exodus: A Novel of Israel. Gottlieb’s gambit succeeded brilliantly. Exodus sold as many copies as Gone With the Wind, which up to that point was the greatest best-seller in U.S. history. Exodus was as good a melodrama and sold just as many copies.

I could take a non-scientific poll in this room and prove what I’m trying to say. I would argue that a large proportion of the false ideas that Americans have held, and still hold about Palestine, are drawn from Uris’s images of that heroic modern David facing a backwards, brutal Arab Goliath, can be traced to this persuasive book and to the popular motion picture of the same name, which starred a then-young, then-handsome Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan.

Now this process of selling Israel didn’t stop with Gottlieb. Gottlieb was the father of the American iteration of Zionism. It has continued unabated since then. If you’re really enterprising you can go online and see that it’s still ongoing.

This is rooted in something that’s historic and important. In addition to being successful as an idea, in addition to being wildly successful as a national movement, in addition to being one of the few colonial settler movements ongoing, political Zionism has always been, since the days of Herzl and Weitzman, a resounding public relations success sold by professionals. This stuff does not create itself. These are people who are very good at doing it, top-drawer American professionals.

People like Frank Luntz, one of the foremost pollsters for the Republican Party, who does stuff for the Israel on Campus Coalition, which is quoted by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books article that I’ll talk about in a minute.

The systematic hoodwinking of the American public by precisely the same means whereby the Republicans sold us the Iraq War—rehashed myths combined with distorted or cherry-picked facts put together with a lot of skill—is thus still ongoing when it comes to selling the Israeli narrative to the American public.

Precisely the same people, Luntz for example, are actually doing the selling. This is where this matrix comes from. My point is that over the past decade or so the limits of this process of indoctrination are clear. I would argue that this is especially the case with the younger generation of Americans.

End of transcript excerpt

  • For those who would like to hear my own talk on the topic of the waning Zionism of Jewish Americans, please listen to my 15-minute speech given July 2, 2010, in Oakland, CA. It was part of a panel with Jess Ghannam, Wael Elasady and Paul Larudee on Breaking the Siege of Zionism. My speech is the final 16 minutes of the file here. Breaking the Siege of Gaza

Sherry Wolf  is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak on Breaking the Siege of Gaza and other topics at your campus, community center or union hall for a moderate fee. Wolf is the associate editor of the International Socialist Review and author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, named one of theProgressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.

4 responses to “Madmen for Israel: Selling Zionism

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  3. Pingback: Exodus, Myth and Malpractice – Rashid Khalidi and his Gang |

  4. Pingback: American Tribune » Blog Archive » Which Side are You On?

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