By Lawrence Swaim – 5 May 2012
About a month ago the brilliant British jazz player Gilad Atzmon did a tour in the US to play music and discuss his controversial ideas about religious identity and the Middle East. Shortly before he arrived, the equally brilliant Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah sent a communication to American progressives, advising them against organizational involvement with Atzmon because of his alleged anti-Semitism. So here we go again, I thought, another idiotic controversy about Gilad Atzmon. The man is clearly a provocateur and an ideological poseur in the house of identity politics, I thought, so why do people waste so much time on him? Partly, of course, because he is a musical genius, as anybody who has listened to his last two albums will attest. His music is about identity and loss of identity, homelessness and coming home, a sometimes cacophonous threnody of hopelessly addled but hypnotic Middle Eastern themes that haunt one’s waking and sleeping dreams. And there’s a fair amount of mind-blowing, straight-ahead bop music unlike anything heard since the glory days on New York’s 42nd street.
So what’s the problem? The problem is Gilad Atzmon himself, his destructive behavior, and the problems this has created for the Palestinian solidarity movement in Britain and elsewhere. For those readers who are unaware of this particular cultural outlaw, let me introduce him: born in Israel; experienced a transformative (I suspect traumatizing) encounter while serving in the IDF in Lebanon; took up music and came to Britain; is fiercely anti-Zionist and calls himself a “Hebrew-speaking Palestinian.” (A character in Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker-winning novel The Finkler Question is reportedly based on him.)
But Gilad Atzmon is also the author of books and novels and many, many essays, broadsides and statements on the internet and elsewhere in which he has disseminated various theories about Jewish identity, which he attempts to adapt, in a weirdly schematic and simplistic way, to the war of ideas in the Middle East. They basically boil down to these: the evils of Zionism are an extension of Jewish-ness; Jewish-ness is uniquely evil, aggressive and manipulative; therefore, for peace and justice to arrive in Israel/Palestine, Jews everywhere have to stop being Jews. (Whether this week or next week, he does not say.)
Atzmon’s preferred public gambit has been to attach himself to a person or group involved in Palestinian solidarity (the most well-known of these was probably the Socialist Workers Party in Britain), presenting himself as just another toiler in the vineyards of social justice. Because of his renown as a musician, he attracts a great deal of positive attention at first; but almost at once he begins to make statements that are tinged with Judeo-phobia, each more questionable and alarming than the last. He vehemently denies that he is anti-Semitic, that his critics are bigots and philistines that failed to completely comprehend his arguments; but his statements are seen to increasingly go beyond criticism of Zionism, and seemed to be aimed at Jews generally. Finally, perhaps after an interval of silence for dramatic effect, he unleashes statements that shock all and sundry with their pathological intensity (such as his avowal that he is “a proud self-hating Jew”), and he is revealed as an unabashed and enthusiastic anti-Semite. Thereupon there is a hysterical uproar that harms the Palestinian solidarity movement and the broader movement for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine.
Atzmon’s anti-Semitism (or Judeo-phobia, if you wish) clearly does not arise from the same poisonous spring as does most Western anti-Semitism, of either the Christian or rightwing political variety. Nor does it come from the same roiling springs from whence Jewish self-hatred usually arises: Atzmon isn’t after social acceptance, nor does he seek to ingratiate himself with the majority religion. (Although he has already been accused both of being a secret Christian and a secret Muslim.) His avowed self-hatred arises mainly from his exceedingly self-absorbed introspection, from certain ideas of his mother (an academic with similar beliefs), from his over-reaction to his grandfather’s Irgun terrorism; and, most likely, his experiences in Lebanon, which I believe may have been traumatizing. (His self-loathing also suggests a desire to escape the weight of Israeli history, indicating a fair amount of unresolved guilt along with whatever trauma he has suffered.) But regardless of their origins, Atzmon’s theories seem for all practical purposes indistinguishable from classical anti-Semitism, especially as Atzmon expresses them; and are clearly driven by pathological self-hatred (which he himself constantly insists upon), and are so toxic that they have no place in any organized political or social movement. He strikes everybody as a charming man, at least at first; he is an artist of staggering musical ability; but he is quite mad, at least in his attempts to impose his ideas about Jewish identity on everybody else, and upon the Palestinian solidarity movement.
If Atzmon merely wrote books (his novels are thin but absorbing), played music (which has the potential to heal the homeless of all nations), and shared his theories about Jewish identity with other identity mavens, there would be no problem; he and others who wish to shed or investigate their identities could band together, compare notes and struggle manfully together against their common demons. (I’ve got a couple of Irish-Americans I could set him up with.) The problem arises from the fact that Gilad Atzmon has repeatedly insinuated himself into the midst of the Palestinian solidarity movement; and instead of working with Jews who oppose Israeli oppression of Palestinians has instead attacked those same Jews for being Jews. To Atzmon, Zionism is just an extension of a uniquely Jewish, tribal and aggressive nature. (Apparently he has never heard of Christian Zionism.) Therefore the first step in helping the Palestinians, according to Atzmon, is to attack all Jews, especially anti-Zionist and progressive Jews, until they stop being Jews. The craziness of this, on many different levels, cannot be overstated, as well as its potential for harm.
Besides, how exactly does one stop being Jewish? Do people don masks of famous Christians and slow-dance to Mantovani? Does one take an oath and submit to an exorcism? Does it involve—I really don’t want to think too much about this—some kind of surgical re-assignment? You can discard a religion or embrace it, but the culture lingers. Ask the several thousand lapsed Mormons—they’re called Jack Mormons—living in the vicinity of Salt Lake City. They have jettisoned most of Latter-Day Saints’ belief system, some are theological and political liberals, but the emotional and cultural orientations remain: they remain, in short, cultural Mormons. The experience of the vast majority of human beings is that you are better off accepting those influences that shaped you, rather than hating them—indeed, self-acceptance in the first step to becoming the new and better person you may wish to be.
Atzmon’s belief that Zionism is solely and completely an extension of Judaism strikes at the heart of the anti-apartheid movement in our time. Progressive Jews have dedicated their lives, at great expense and risk to themselves, precisely to pointing out the difference between their form of Judaism, which promotes universal values, and Zionism, which is increasingly based on religious nationalism and worship of Israeli state power. Zionism is indeed engaged in an effort to hijack Judaism in its entirety—but the historical role of progressive Jews is to oppose blind obedience to the Israeli state, in order to once again ground the Jewish experience in universal values. Whereas a person such as Atzmon wants to abolish Jewish identity, the anti-apartheid movement wishes to reclaim it from Israeli nationalism. Jewish identity is not only personally of great importance to anti-Zionist and progressive Jews—it is precisely Jewish identity that they wish to rescue from religious nationalism and robotic obedience to a foreign state. Palestinian leaders cannot, of course, be indifferent to this issue, because they are acutely aware that any suggestion of anti-Semitism in the Palestinian solidarity movement will effective destroy it. Furthermore, although Palestinian civil society is in the leadership of the nonviolent BDS movement, progressive Jews are extremely important allies in the West. Furthermore, those same progressive Jews are now playing an important role, along with Muslim organizations, in the struggle against Islamophobia in the West.
I defend Atzmon’s right to freedom of speech and association, and I also defend his right to publish his beliefs; his books provide many insights into his particular brand of self-hatred, and we can and should debate some of the issues he raises, as I will try to demonstrate later. But the man has no place in the Palestinian solidarity movement, nor any other social justice movement, because he cannot think strategically about the political constraints, experiences and aspirations of other people—and (perhaps needless to add), he is constitutionally incapable of taking leadership from others. Atzmon shows little remorse for the harm he causes to others; his intention all along is mainly to attract attention to himself and his pet theories concerning the evils of Jewish identity. What he seeks, what he has always sought, is publicity and attention for himself, and exposure for his toxic ideas. The deeply aggressive and narcissistic nature of his entire presentation seems obvious to this writer, although Atzmon himself may be blissfully unaware of it.
Like so many gifted but troubled people, he presents as likeable, charming and even child-like. The British journalist David Aaronovitch captured the bad-boy, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nature of Atzmon’s public posturing when he called him “a silly boy advancing slightly dangerous arguments.” Indeed, Atzmon is only slightly dangerous to society at large, because others have the freedom to critique his views, which in the end are more laughable than lethal. But he would be deadly for the Palestinian solidarity movement, if he were accepted into it, because nothing would kill it more quickly than anti-Semitism, ultimately making little difference whether it is the self-hating or rightwing variety. Above all, Atzmon’s central ideas are morally wrong, by any standard. Atzmon may personally need to shed his Jewish-ness; but insisting that others must do the same is as crazy, and as morally corrupt, as Theodor Hertzl’s early idea that Jews should convert to Christianity as a group to achieve acceptance.
The days when people can generalize about an entire group as being irremediably good or bad, are over; such ideas belong in the ash heap of history, along with the Christian idea of the inheritability of evil. There is no “they,” there are only individuals, and in groups people participate in good or bad behavior. Christianity is often a money-grubbing, bigoted, imperial racket—that doesn’t mean all Christians are evil. Many American Jews have adopted religious nationalism as a secular religion—that results in destructive behavior, but that’s not the same thing as being essentially evil. The idea is to change people’s evil behavior by patiently struggling to change their ideas, and ultimately engaging them in nonviolent encounters that changes their emotions. If you start out indicting them at the bar of ethnic or religious hatred, you get nowhere. And by the way—self-hatred is about the worst premise for organizing people that I’ve ever heard of, especially for justice for a place as volatile as Israel/Palestine.
Are we violating Atzmon’s freedom of speech and association by keeping him out of the Palestinian solidarity movement? No, not really. Let me gives an example of the way this might work in another context. Let us say that I am a union organizer who seeks to organize a big box store for the Retail Clerks union. I set up a website, get support from the labor council, talk to local lefties, contact my network, and together we agree to communicate with each other about the organizing campaign on our website. Let us say, however, that a local conservative wants access to the website, to promote his idea that collective bargaining is a Bolshevik abomination. He is a regular customer at the store, he says, and therefore has a right to express himself on our website, because it involves his favorite store. As the reader may already have anticipated, I would refuse him access to the website, because it would distract greatly from an already difficult task. Above all, it would compromise my goal, which is to organize a trade union, and in the process win greater economic and political power for working people.
But there’s more—I might, in addition to the above, scandalize my progressive friends by supporting this conservative’s right to be heard in the local newspaper, and to express his view elsewhere. I wouldn’t encourage his opinions, of course—I simply wouldn’t interfere with his right of speech or his rights of association; indeed, I would support and encourage those same rights of speech and association, in some appropriately informal way, because I believe in the free dissemination of competing ideas. But I wouldn’t allow him to get on my union website during the time when I am engaged in an organizing project, because I am aware that he disagrees with the basic purpose for which the website was created. Denying access to a particular movement or project may be necessary, but it is not the same as denying freedom of speech and association in the larger society.
For all the above reasons (and a few more), I understand and generally support the recent initiative of Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American journalist and founder of the website Electronic Intifada, that warned American activists, during Gilad Atzmon’s recent tour in the US, of Atzmon’s background and his divisive ideas. (In this tour Atzmon both played music and talked about his beliefs.) One also understands why Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish organizations active in the struggle for Palestinian human rights were similarly well-advised to denounce Atzmon; such organizations are at a historic turning point, especially on the campuses of America, where JVP activists are acutely aware than it cannot afford to make mistakes at this pivotal moment. For much the same reason I also agree with the blocking of anti-Semitic commentary on the Mondoweiss website, a historically important website tracking Jewish thought in the US.
Such things are necessary because Israel/Palestine is a violent, wrenching issue that attracts a great many unbalanced and violent people; and while one empathizes with the passion expressed by many—indeed, one also learns from the ideas of those with whom one disagrees—the organizations, websites or activists dedicated to justice in Israel/Palestine currently occupy (pardon the pun) a historic moment that requires rigorous focus on the issue at hand. There are some sobering signs that organizations associated with the Israel Lobby in the US are drifting toward violence and threats of violence. There is no letup in the demonizing of people who are critical of the increasingly arrogant Netanyahu, and his meddling in US politics. In such a situation, personal arguments and philosophical speculation must take second place in such venues to the clear thought, hard work and respectful engagement in dialogue, and eventually the nonviolent direct action, that can move us forward to a settlement in Israel/Palestine.
On the other hand, I must respectfully take issue with certain aspects of Ali Abunimah’s thoughtful initiative, and others who call for boycotts of those media outlets and publishers who disseminate Gilad Atzmon’s written materials. An informed awareness of Atzmon’s destructiveness, and a consensus that he has no place in the Palestinian solidarity movement, does not in any way justify denying him, or attempting to deny him, freedom of speech or association, and freedom of the press in the larger society. Some in Britain have called for a boycott of Atzmon’s publisher. It so happens that my book, The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World will be published in June by the same publishing consortium that published Zero books, Atzmon’s publisher; and I am proud that it is, for it gives me the opportunity to defy, at its very outset, what would be a wildly undemocratic and unacceptable call for the boycott of a book publisher. Freedom of the press cannot be compromised, abridged or questioned—no, never, regardless of the reasons—and certainly those that seek to do so will receive from me the uphill fight of their lives, that much I sincerely promise them.
Atzmon’s ideas, although toxic and wrong on both moral and tactical grounds, should be debated and defeated on the battlefield of free speech and advocacy in the wider society, and not suppressed—because if they are, they will surely recur in even less attractive ways at a later date. And because they have a dangerous aspect to them, they must be openly engaged, not shoved below decks as cultural contraband.
Exploring the internet, and communicating with those in Britain and the US who have a stake in maintaining a free marketplace of idea, it becomes clear that a few have become so focused on Gilad Atzmon—and have gotten pulled so far into the web of his deception and aggression—that they have gone too far in opposing him. A consensus for keeping Atzmon out of the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine was inevitable, not because people wished to exclude him, but because his behavior left them no choice. But now this understandable consensus has progressed, for some, into an obsession.
Now they spend their time blacklisting him, even blacklisting in some cases his friends and associates, spending a great deal of time searching for various strategies to deny him access to media, or even to prevent him from performing his music. His right, and the right of his defenders, to media outlets such as “Counterpunch,” a site featuring some of the most challenging writing in the American muck-racking tradition, has recently come under attack. Why? Because it publishes people such as Gilad Atzmon and his defenders. But of course it does! That is the job of “Counterpunch,” that’s what it does, it publishes those people whose ideas generate controversies that affect the rest of us, but that others are too afraid to confront directly. So the attack on “Counterpunch” is launched!
Well, let me remind these individuals that when one disagrees with a writer (as I often do with “Counterpunch” contributors) one devotes oneself to writing better books or essays than the one that originally offended, containing better ideas, expressed with a greater felicity, and perhaps even more wisdom. In other words, instead of silencing our ideological enemies, we use their mistaken ideas as the taking-off point for our own moral correctives. That, friends, if what democracy is all about, isn’t it? I didn’t invent this idea: you will find it in its most convincing form in the writing of John Stuart Mill, whose clean prose and vehemently democratic sensibilities I recommend to those who would deny anyone, including Gilad Atzmon or his defenders, a media or publishing platform.
The idea of boycotting Atzmon’s publisher is reprehensible from the outset. Certain writers published by Zero books circulated a statement disagreeing with Atzmon—but never, so far as I remember, recommending a boycott. And Zero and Circle books, both imprints of the larger publishing consortium, have published some of the most challenging books on the market today. Sadly, some in Britain who have a weakness for personal vendettas now engage in vilifying everybody who has the temerity to publish Atzmon, as well as writing letters to the Guardian complaining that music reviews of Atzmon’s latest performances are not complete because they do not contain denunciations of his political ideas! Likewise this same group allegedly follows him around London demanding the proprietors of nightclubs cancel performances of Atzmon and his sidemen. I could go on and on, but the worst aspect of it is that it is highly organized, it is fanatical, and it perfectly mimics the blacklisting behavior of the Israel Lobby in both US and Britain.
In the US, I am quite concerned with a review of musician Rich Siegel’s latest CD was “withdrawn,” along with an extraordinarily obsequious apology of the reviewer to “our Jewish friends” (but which Jewish friends?), quite possibly because Siegel used Atzmon as a sideman once or twice, or because Siegel has also written, in a way that I experience as candid and informative, about the disappointment he felt toward his Jewish community being less than honest with him about Israel. Siegel does not proselytize others, does not recommend that others adopt his beliefs. But any thoughtful writing about Israel/Palestine (or perhaps any association with Gilad Atzmon) is enough to consign one to a blacklisted state—and with this recent demonizing of people simply because they play music with Gilad Atzmon the blacklisting has already reached an advanced state in the US, enough that any connection to Atzmon evidently puts one beyond the pale.
Unless people regain some perspective about this matter, one that supports the rights of all in the wider society, I have no doubt that it will get worse. We have the idiotic, but entirely predictable, spectacle of the Israel Lobby cooperating with progressive Jews and Palestinian-solidarity activists in developing a blacklist, when both sides should be looking for ways to open up the debate! (Which debate includes, I say again, denouncing those ideas you despise and creating better ones.) This comes at a time when Peter Beinart has just published his challenging book about the crisis within Zionism, when M.J. Rosenburg has started up his new blog and website; and we are also privileged to enjoy the spectacular justice-oriented journalism of such up-and-coming youngsters such as Max Blumenthal and Alex Kane. (Not to mention the fact that BDS is gathering momentum in both Israel and the West.)
But no, I am not at all surprised about the frenzy about Atzmon. He is a madman, but in many ways he is the least of the mad. A kind of madness entered this world after the Holocaust, and it is not yet through with us. With the single exception of the brief Stuttgart Declaration of the German Lutherans, there was no real attempt by the Christian leaders in the West to deconstruct the reasons for sixteen centuries of violent, obsessive anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. When the survivors of the Holocaust left Europe for the Middle East, they may have made the worst mistake any persecuted people ever made, because their leaders were intent on dispossessing the indigenous people of Mandate Palestine; and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians made permanent war with their neighbors inevitable. Yet the Jews that founded Israel did not leave Europe for their health—they left because after all those centuries in Europe, Christians had committed the worst genocide in history against them. In the systemic evil of Israeli apartheid and militarism is compacted a history of evil that began sixteen centuries ago in the maelstrom of Christian anti-Semitism, which now reaches a terrifying climax in the Middle East.
In The Death of Judeo-Christianity, I show what many know but few will deal with directly, how the failures of Christianity created the political base for Zionism, and further compounded its mistakes once the Zionists started making a state. What has happened in Israel/Palestine, with all its attendant problems, could have happened to any group of people intent on creating a theocracy. Indeed, the Punjabi-speaking Sikhs dodged a bullet when their attempt in the 1980s to create a state failed—had they succeeded, we would today be reading daily reports of the ongoing wars in the heartland of India. Theocracies don’t work in the 21st century, except to make more religious nationalism; which is to say, to make more violence and insanity.
A kind of mental disorientation entered the world with the Holocaust, greatly enhanced by the decision of the Israeli political class and its proxies in the US to keep the trauma alive, in order to suppress criticism of Israel and to justify new crimes. People like Gilad Atzmon are only the surface symptom of an underlying madness. Israel/Palestine isn’t about politics or religion—it isn’t even about geo-politics. It is about pathology. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into active pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities. At bottom the most volatile and most psychopathic among these people will accept nothing less than an apocalyptic religious war to punish the world for allowing the Holocaust to happen.
The national-religious settlers in the hills of the West Bank envision the rapture of killing Muslims; the Christian evangelicals that support them fantasize a New Jerusalem in which God will kill all Jews who won’t accept Jesus, thereby finishing off what the Nazis started at the Wannsee Conference. Extremists on both sides, banded together to defend the grisly deceit they call Judeo-Christianity, work together for an apocalyptic religious war between Islam and the West, starting, they tell us, with the destruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Is Gilad Atzmon mad? Yes, but his japery is but symptomatic of a larger and more frightening madness. Gilad Atzmon is the madman at the edge of town, the drunk in the abandoned furnace, the wild man who periodically staggers out of the primeval forest deep to howl at the moon; he is, in short, an unlicensed fool, a clown prince and a certifiable madman. He is also an authentic trickster, a genuine but also (the anthropologists always forget to mention this) a rather dangerous archetype that you would do well to avoid. He is quite mad, I say again; and if you are inexperienced enough to let him into your organization, he will wreck it. So keep him out of the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine, not because you want to, but because you must.
But having done that, for God’s sake let him play his horn and devise his meshuggeneh theories in peace. Yes, he’s crazy; but no crazier than the time and place that made him: no crazier than Israel’s war in Lebanon in which he was forced to serve: no crazier, even, than many of his critics. That is finally what probably spooks a great many people about him—in his antics he acts out the childlike, self-destructive pathologies of Israel itself, a country that says it longs for peace but instead makes war. There will be more like Atzmon, both Palestinians and Jews, wounded and slightly sinister souls, many of whom won’t have anything like Atzmon’s musical talent. Atzmon can at least make music; he can bring beauty into the world with his horn. I agree with his critics about the toxicity of his ideas; but his best music often speaks, I must say, with more felicity than his critics, the present writer included.
Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. He writes for InFocus News, the nation’s largest Muslim newspaper; Swaim’s column is about interfaith affairs in the US. The Interfaith Freedom Foundation is a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. It operates solely on grants and donations from supporters. The Foundation can be contacted at P. O. Box 6862, Napa CA 94581. Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.