WASHINGTON — A veteran confidant of Hillary Clinton has waded into a bitter argument over the explosive topic of Israel, defending his son's intensely anti-Israel book from a liberal critic.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former New Yorker writer turned Clinton adviser from the White House to the 2008 campaign, has been waging an online campaign against Nation columnist Eric Alterman for negatively reviewing his son Max Blumenthal's book, Goliath. The book was described by Alterman, himself a frequent critic of Israel, as "awful" and something that "could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club (if it existed)."
Clinton Foundation officials refused to respond to questions of whether the elder Blumenthal is currently on a Clinton payroll.
His son's book has received little attention in the mainstream press but has proved extremely controversial in the corners of the Internet devoted to debate over Israel; its repeated comparisons of Israeli Jews to Nazis have particularly inflamed several commentators. The author is a prominent figure on the hard left of the Israel debate who has argued in the past that the "non-indigenous" majority of Israelis should not remain in the country now known as Israel. The book was released under the Nation Books imprint and an excerpt of it ran in The Nation.
In a follow-up blog post after the initial review, Alterman wrote that he had become the target of emails sent around by Blumenthal to friends and associates as a result of his review of the book.
"I attribute to these friendly relations the fact that until now, Sid Blumenthal had not seen fit to make me the object of any of the unflattering e-mails he so often sends around to journalists and others — myself included — about individuals of whom he disapproves," Alterman wrote. "Privately, I worried that by telling the truth about his son's book, I would soon hear of nasty e-mails about me sent by Sid to our mutual friends and professional acquaintances. Call it 'bizarre,' if you will, but sadly, that's just what happened."
BuzzFeed obtained one of the Blumenthal emails from a source; it features a copied-and-pasted article from the anti-Zionist blog Mondoweiss, sent with the subject line "Fact-checking Eric Alterman on 'Goliath.'" The article in question, by writer Phan Nguyen, calls on The Nation to retract Alterman's review, describes Alterman as an "unreliable narrator," and states that he has "undermined his self-proclaimed status as a conscientious critic of the Israeli occupation."
Mondoweiss is edited by former New York Observer writer Philip Weiss, who has carved out a niche in making an allegation that is, for most American critics of Israel, beyond the pale, the charge of undue Jewish influence on American foreign policy.
Alterman declined to provide any of the emails in question to BuzzFeed, saying that he does not share private emails. It is unclear how many of them were sent; Alterman declined to comment on the number or specific content of the emails.
Blumenthal's list is a longstanding feature of the elite media landscape, a mix of liberal journalists, academics, and former Clinton administration officials, and has intermittently been the subject of controversy.
"The thing about Sidney is that he's absolutely obsessed with his enemies and his way of communicating and dealing with his obsession is that he sends out emails to this very elite list of liberal journalists mostly," said one source who has been on Blumenthal's list.
The list has "ended friendships" at its most contentious moments, the source said, including an incident during the 2008 campaign when Blumenthal was accused of sending a photo of Barack Obama in African garb — an image that Matt Drudge promptly posted alongside the charge that it had come from Clinton's campaign.
Blumenthal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Blumenthal's current role in the Clinton universe is unclear. In the bio on his author page on the Atlantic's website, he is described as an "adviser" to the Clinton Foundation, Bill and Hillary Clinton's non-profit. Several phone calls and emails to the Clinton Foundation seeking clarification on Blumenthal's role in the organization went unanswered. A BuzzFeed reporter who went to the Clinton Foundation's offices in New York on Tuesday seeking the organization's most recent IRS 990 form was turned away.
"We don't know what you're referring to," said Clinton Foundation spokesperson Nick Merill when asked about the emails and whether Hillary Clinton is aware of Blumenthal's defense of Goliath. He copied Clinton spokespeople Philippe Reines and Matt McKenna on his response to BuzzFeed, as well as Sidney Blumenthal.
Blumenthal has been a divisive figure in the Clintons' circle since the 1990s, a trusted counselor seen by some of his colleagues and rivals as a source of paranoia. He came close to being appointed to a job in the State Department during Obama's first term before then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel nixed the appointment based on Blumenthal's role in formulating negative attacks on Obama during the 2008 primaries. Sources familiar with the Clinton world say he's become an increasingly marginal figure in recent years, though still talks to Hillary Clinton.
Emails alleged to be from Blumenthal that were made public earlier this year suggest that he was in communication with Clinton on matters relating to Benghazi and other national security issues this year.
The latest flap comes as the Clintons gird for another political campaign, and as their circle maneuvers for advantage.
"Do you think Chelsea went and cleaned up the operation at the Foundation only to have those kinds of people slip back in to the operation? And that was before Sid was going around defending a book comparing Israel to Nazis that his kid wrote," said a Washington Democrat who has worked for both Clintons. "Given the lessons of Hillary 2008, people would be aghast to see him around for 2016."
Reached for comment on the email flap, Alterman said he understood why Blumenthal would want to defend his son's book.
"I actually feel for Sid," Alterman said. "Leaving aside the quality of Max's journalism, it has to be painful for any Jew to see your own kid going around calling Jews 'Nazis' and 'fascists,' and insisting that not only should Israel be destroyed, but its Jewish population should be kicked out."
This story originally misstated the kind of dress of the photo of Obama sent to Drudge in the 2008 campaign. Because of an editing error, it also did not make clear that the leaked photo story is an allegation, on which Blumenthal has not commented. The story also misstated the exact wording of a Max Blumenthal quote from an appearance in October. He said that "the maintenance and engineering of a non-indigenous demographic majority is non-negotiable."