Cut Off from the Tribe

The following text is a short segment from Max Blumenthal’s book GOLIATH: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, published by Nation Books in 2013. Goliath is interspersed with interviews that Blumenthal and Sheen conducted in 2010 with Members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In this chapter of the book, ‘Cut Off from the Tribe,’ Blumenthal describes how he first met Sheen while doing research for Goliath:

By June 2010, increasingly draconian proposals were filling the Knesset agenda by the day, including at least five bills designed to limit the power of the Supreme Court, if not completely neuter it altogether. I wanted to gain more access to the lawmakers behind the Knesset’s anti-democratic agenda. I set a goal of interviewing at least a dozen of them, hoping to gain an understanding of the sensibility that united the Knesset’s populists behind the larger campaign to strip away whatever existed of Israel’s democratic veneer.

But for a number of reasons, I needed help. First, I did not speak conversational Hebrew — I knew only enough to travel around the country, give commands, and order food (two journalistic colleagues translated my interview with Alex Miller). More importantly, I had no media credentials any Israeli official would recognize. My only institutional affiliation at the time was with a small left-wing think tank in New York City, the Nation Institute, which was associated with the Nation magazine and the publisher of this book. What I needed, I decided, was an Israeli journalist to help me gain access to the Knesset.

On a humid, sweltering night in June, I sat inches from a fan in my room in Jaffa and browsed through my e-mail. I noticed a cryptic message that had arrived through my personal Facebook page from someone who appeared to be operating under an alias. After a few exchanges, the person told me he was working as a Hebrew-to-English translator for Ha’aretz’s website. His name was David Sheen. He told me he was a fan of my journalism and requested to meet me to discuss a project he wanted to collaborate on, but he gave no details. I decided that this character, if he was for real, represented my best chance for getting back into the Knesset. He spoke Hebrew and had a Ha’aretz e-mail address. As long as he was not insane — and the Holy Land, it seemed, was a magnet for the mentally deranged — or a Shin Bet agent, I figured he could be a major asset.

Three days later, I met Sheen in front of a McDonald’s on the first floor of Tel Aviv’s chaotic and vast central bus station. He was tall, lanky, completely bald, and dressed in baggy camo pants and a loose, black T-shirt — the uniform of Israeli anarchists, but uncrinkled and much cleaner than the other enrages of the left. (This guy seemed like a kept man, I thought.) If Sheen had had a full head of hair, he might have looked like a radical leftist Keanu Reeves. He asked me to follow him up an escalator and into an Ethiopian hair salon. As he guided me toward the back of the salon, the hairdressers received him warmly, greeting him with big smiles. I told him I didn’t have enough hair to do cornrows, wondering where he was leading me.

Sheen walked over to a young black woman sitting on a short stool while an older woman meticulously braided her hair. The young woman smiled and shook my hand but said nothing. Sheen introduced her as his wife, Anne. While the hairdresser tended to Anne, Sheen pulled out his iPhone to show me some viral videos he had produced to dramatize the crisis in Israel.

The first video featured animated images Sheen appropriated from the artist Yossi Even-Kama, whose recent exhibition at Ramat Gan’s Shenkar College of Art and Design portrayed a dystopian Israel under the control of a Judeo-fascist government, earning unironic admiration from some right-wing settlers. “I would use different colors,” one religious rightist said of the exhibition, “but this is basically what I believe.” In Even-Kama’s exhibition, it was the year 2020, and after the signing of a final status peace deal with the Palestinian Authority, rightist forces staged a coup, overwhelming the country’s decadent, apathetic, liberal elite and founding the State of Judea on the ashes of Israel. In Sheen’s flawlessly edited video, a ragged cartoon figure wandered helplessly through an imposing, gray cityscape, beaming with dismay at the symbols of the Judeo-fascist regime. The scene reminded me of a line from Alan Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”: “Molloch, whose buildings are judgment!” Even-Kama’s mock propaganda posters hung on building walls around each corner the character turned. “Crush the democratic menace,” one sign read. An image of a jackboot preparing to stomp a cockroach to death hovered above the Hebrew slogan. Sheen’s video concluded with a single line against a black screen: “Fight the fascism.”

Palestinian intellectuals had for decades likened the exclusive ideology under- girding Israel’s national policies to fascism, but now, in the wake of the 2009 election results, even well-established liberal Zionists were beginning to discuss in unflinching terms the presence of fascism in Israeli life. Amnon Dankner, the former editor of Maariv, one of Israel’s major newspapers, was moved to condemn what he saw as “neo-Nazi expressions in the Knesset” and “entire parties whose tenor and tone arouse feelings of horror and terrifying memories.” David Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz, echoed Dankner, calling on Israelis to boycott the Knesset “to stand against the wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project.” And Uri Avnery, the famed Israeli journalist, politician, and sabra, warned, “Israel’s very existence is threatened by fascism.” If these august figures from the old Zionist left were to be believed, Sheen’s video could have been viewed not as a dystopian fantasy but as a depiction of the current reality.

Once Anne’s braids were in place, I redirected our meeting to a Chinese restaurant located next to the bus station near the HaTikva neighborhood. The area was the overcrowded, choking center of migrant life in the city, where the cheap labor of North Tel Aviv lived in ramshackle housing, sleeping sometimes five to a room. The migrants had come from Thailand, the Philippines, Sudan, Eritrea, Congo — from poverty-stricken and war-torn regions across Asia and Africa to fill the low wage jobs that Palestinians from the Occupied Territories used to occupy before Gaza and the West Bank were physically separated from “Israel proper.” They were the invisible glue that held Tel Aviv together, enabling hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis to enjoy a first world, Europeanized standard of living. Though many of the migrants were asylum seekers with refugee status, the Jewish state viewed them, like Palestinians, as a demographic threat that necessitated swift action. “The goal is to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the migrants.“We will not let thousands of foreign workers flood the country.”

Over a plate of surprisingly decent bean curd in black bean sauce at the Chinese restaurant — one of only a handful I knew of in the city — Sheen recalled how he arrived in Israel in 1999 from a solidly middle class, ultra-Zionist family from Toronto, Canada. At age twenty-five, he was brimming with excitement about the earthy communal dream that awaited him: “I saw Israel entirely through the frame of a Zionist education. I grew up in a very heavily Jewish environment, in a Jewish neighborhood, a Jewish school, synagogue — everything. The school was Zionist, and I was heavily immersed in the idea that we need Israel so there won’t be another Holocaust, and that Israel needs us because it needs to be built up — it’s surrounded with enemies so it needs our help to build itself. So when I first arrived in Israel I was thinking about the collective, and the concept of the Jewish people represented the strongest collective.”

Though Sheen was heavily immersed in the tribalistic culture of Zionism, he had also cultivated strong leftist views through his participation in anti-globalization protests in Toronto. “With every other issue besides Israel, I was on the left side of the spectrum,” he said. “I was a PEP — a Progressive Except for Palestine.” Within a month of arriving in Israel, that began to change. He realized that everything he had known about Israelis and Palestinians was a fantasy cultivated through years of heavy indoctrination. His view of the occupation as a necessary, albeit unpleasant, security measure was shattered after he spent long hours chatting with Palestinian workers who woke up at 4 AM each morning to slip into Israel from Nablus to work construction jobs for meager pay.“Once I saw how the occupation created a permanent underclass and that it existed to promote exploitation — just by realizing that I broke with the PEP mentality.”

Sheen’s contact with actual Israelis undermined his idealized vision of the Zionist collective.“Israelis were not exactly trying to pull together in the name of the Jewish people like I thought,” he said. “It’s a dog-eat-dog shark pool where you’ve got to swim to survive, and nobody has any idea of what civility means. People are manipulative and exploitative without any moral compunction or sense that there’s anything wrong with that. They’re not embarrassed about taking advantage of other people.”

Alienated by the aggressive capitalism that was consuming urban life in Israel, Sheen retreated to a kibbutz in the Negev Desert called Kibbutz Lotan. At first he thought he had finally found the slow-paced, communal lifestyle he had been seeking. But then he peered beneath the kibbutz’s socialist veneer. “What broke me was they got workers from Thailand to work on the kibbutz for next to nothing,” Sheen recounted. “I realized it wasn’t really socialism they were practicing. It was socialism for Jews only. I grew up in multicultural Toronto, where diversity was a positive thing. So it went against my values, and I tried to convince the kibbutz not to do this, to let the Thai workers live in normal apartments like everyone else — don’t stick six of them in a fucking closet. Treat them like normal humans. Very few people even saw it as an issue worth discussing, let alone dealing with. They didn’t see them as deserving of basic standards of living. They said, ‘They’re making more here than they would back in their country.’ So that makes it okay? I wanted to get away from capitalism and away from exploitation, but I saw that kibbutz life was just that — it was segregationist Zionism. So I left.”

In 2006, Israeli forces simultaneously carpet-bombed the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon. Israel blanketed the Gaza Strip with more than six thousand artillery shells and missiles, deliberately destroyed Gaza’s main power plant, then bombed the access roads to prevent the plant from being repaired. Within the span of about two months, the army had killed at least 202 civilians including 44 children in an operation billed to Israelis as a search for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. In Southern Lebanon, Israeli bombing turned 800,000 Lebanese citizens—over a quarter of the country’s population—into refugees while killing more than 1,100 civilians, including at least 300 children. Summarizing the views of the Israeli military leadership at the time, columnist Yaron London, one of the most prominent tele- vision journalists in the country, wrote,“There is no longer any need for complicated distinctions… In practical terms, the Palestinians in Gaza are all [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal, the Lebanese are all [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, and the Iranians are all [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.”

Indignant at the disproportionate violence Israel had unleashed against civilians, Sheen joined up with the small but feisty bands of Israeli radical leftists who had dedicated themselves to direct action against their country’s militaristic policies. During a gay pride rally in Tel Aviv called “Queeruption,” Sheen and a group of friends held signs reading, “Stop the bombing.” They were immediately set upon by riot police who beat them with billyclubs before dragging them away.

“I was shocked,” Sheen remarked.“Nowadays everyone knows the police are brutal, but at the time I still couldn’t believe that Israeli police would attack other Jews — and for simply holding signs.” At another anti-war protest in Tel Aviv, a prim-looking waitress burst through the door of a nearby restaurant and hurled a glass at the protesters. “I watched that glass hit the ground and shatter. I can still hear the sound. It was when I realized that even in the heart of liberal Tel Aviv there is a seething hatred for anyone with humanistic values,” Sheen said.

At the time, Sheen was living on a moshav (a collective farm) near the Gaza border. From his home, he listened to the thundering sound of bombs falling on Gaza all day and all night.“The ground was literally shaking underneath my feet,” he recalled. Sheen ventured into town filled with revulsion at the shelling of Gaza.“When I told people at the supermarket what I thought of the bombing, they would all say, ‘What do you care? It’s not going to hit you, it’s hitting them.’ I said back, ‘It’s hitting actual people. Doesn’t that matter to you?’ And they would get enraged and say, ‘What are you, a fucking leftist? You don’t care about the Jews.’ That’s when I realized that in Israel, you’re either in favor of any level of violence unleashed on those people, no matter who they were, or if you’re against it, you’re with the terrorists. I was shocked that that attitude was so mainstream.”

Sheen went on: “To come out against these wars on civilians — you were cut off. You were not part of the tribe. You were not part of the Jewish people. You were alone. Once you have a personal experience like that, it etches those beliefs into your soul.”

Sheen’s struggle to reconcile his values with life inside Israel was complicated when his wife, Anne, whom he had met in Canada in 2009, joined him in Tel Aviv. Because Anne is not Jewish, the Interior Ministry erected what seemed like an endless array of bureaucratic hurdles against her application for permanent residency. One government document informed her that as someone from “outside the community” — a bearer of non-Jewish blood — her children could not receive health insurance in Israel.

In her daily life in Tel Aviv, Anne said she occasionally encountered the same sort of verbal abuse that African migrants and Ethiopians routinely receive. “I’ve had people call me ‘Kunte Kente,’ or goya — female goy,” Anne told me. “I’ve never dealt with so much open racism in my whole life. For a while I didn’t leave the house; I just didn’t want to deal with the negativity that I got in the street, so I just stayed in my bubble. But now I’ve learned not to internalize the way people react to me — it’s their problem. A lot of times they think I’m Ethiopian so they think I will be timid and not stand up for myself. So if I stare at them back with a hard look they are taken aback, and they eventually stop.”

Sheen’s tale of transformation was not unusual. Many Israelis I knew who had transitioned from a Zionist upbringing into radical left activity, especially those who had emigrated from Western countries where multiculturalism was celebrated, had snapped almost as soon as they were forced to reckon with the militaristic culture of their new country. In numerous cases, however, those who made the dramatic break with Zionism found sanctuary within a hermetic anarchist subculture where vegan- ism, communal living, and a rejection of consumer culture were de rigeur. They had formed a tiny tribe within the tribe, mobilizing for a constant series of direct actions against the state while doing very little to inform the non-Hebrew-speaking outside world about what they were doing. Indeed, only a handful of the radical leftists I encountered were savvy with English language social media. Even fewer sought to cultivate a journalistic following. But the handful who were like Sheen were capable of making an enormous impact.

When I told Sheen about my intention to interview the Knesset members behind the new battery of anti-democratic laws, his eyes lit up. He had yet to produce any copy for Ha’aretz — his duties were limited to translating articles for the English website — but he recognized my proposed project as a chance to gather essential journalistic reporting. By the end of the week, Sheen had arranged five interviews with Knesset members from Kadima, Likud, and Yisrael Beiteinu.