The Death of Judeo-Christianity?

 

     I write a regular column on for InFocusNews, a Muslim newspaper in California–but many of you no doubt know that, since you’re been receiving these columns monthly in email format. My column deals with interfaith affairs, and over the years I have especially concentrated on the frightening growth of Islamophobia in the US. Islamophobia has grown so rapidly at least in part because so many Christian evangelicals and conservative Jews have accepted the insane neo-con idea that the dissemination of Islamophobia helps Israel. Of course, the dissemination of religious bigotry can only hurt Israel, and hurts the cause of peace in Israel/Palestine.

      As a heretical/progressive Christian, I am concerned with the continuing degradation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Institutional Christianity has long been a religion of empire, war and oppression—and too many Jewish leaders have now fallen under the influence of the neo-cons in seeking a seat at the table of empire. The entire Judeo-Christian tradition has been so compromised by the aggressive secular idolatry of empire that both faith traditions are increasingly unable to influence thought and behavior in a good way. Now neo-cons once again are intent on dragging the US into war, this time with Iran. They and their rightwing evangelical allies want nothing less than ongoing, unending, worldwide religious war, and they know the right buttons to push to get what they want.

      That’s what my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World is about. The deadlocked yet rapidly escalating crisis in Israel/Palestine didn’t start in 1948—it started sixteen centuries ago, with the rise of Christian anti-Semitism. My book begins with a comprehensive theory of Christian anti-Semitism, and documents the extent to which Zionism internalized the worst and most brutal aspects of right-wing Christianity and European nationalism. It suggests that there is a ‘trauma bond’ at the center of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—but insists also that mainstream Judeo-Christian thinking and institutions are incapable of resolving the hate and violence that arise from it. Thus institutional Christianity and institutional Judaism find it almost impossible to oppose the dangerous growth of Islamophobia in the West, because they are fearful of criticizing those who engage in it, or are psychologically locked into attitudes that justify it.   

      The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World is sweeping, painfully honest, straight-up truth-telling about the religious dynamics that are driving us into a religious war America can’t win and can’t afford. If you would like to look at a review copy of the book, either to comment on or to review, please send an email to me at interfaithfreedom@sbcglobal.net with your physical address. I’ll notify the publicity person at Circle Books and have a copy sent to you.

 

                                  Lawrence Swaim

                                  Executive Director

                                  Interfaith Freedom Foundation

                                  707-965-9687

The Holocaust Still Haunts the World

 

     Reading Marc H. Ellis’ remarkable book Encountering the Jewish Future, I was repeatedly struck by the way that the Holocaust destroyed not just an entire European culture but a unique way of understanding and experiencing God. The Nazi Holocaust convinced surviving Jews that they needed a country of their own, armed and supported by the West. The historic mission of the state of Israel was to create a safe place for the world’s Jews, but clearly that objective has failed—the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, and their continued oppression in Israel/Palestine, makes conflict in the Middle East inevitable.

The Holocaust changed everything within Judaism, as witness the fact that each of the Jewish thinkers Professor Ellis studies—Richard Rubenstein, Elie Wiesel, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas—struggled in different ways with the same problem. Among Jews there was a lacerating but recurring sense that God should have stopped the Holocaust, but didn’t.  How can Jews worship a God who was absent at the hour of the Jewish people’s greatest need?

    For Elie Wiesel, God’s failure to rescue the Jews is a kind of incomprehensible moral failure. (In a play written by Wiesel, for example, God is put on trial.) Yet the absence of God in the gas chambers is balanced off by the founding of the state of Israel, which Wiesel sees as a transcendent miracle. To say that a country is a miracle created by God is very close to saying it is God, or at the very least an extension of God. If so, how can the God that created Israel be the same God that previously abandoned Jews to Hitler? Never mind, Wiesel’s need to identity with Israeli military power is overwhelming; and it clearly serves his purposes to believe that Israel is in some sense divine, or at the very least beyond human criticism.

I believe a great many American Jews fall into that category, however unconsciously. Having lost their connection to God—where was God in the gas chambers?—they have unconsciously replaced God with the worship of the Israeli state, which means internalizing Israel’s increasing racism, apartheid and religious nationalism. If Israel is God, everything it does must be good, even though it may not appear so to the non-believer. For many Jews, the identification with the state of Israel may arise from an unconscious sense that God has vanished, or is mad or morally deranged.

But God did not commit the evils of the Holocaust. Those evils were committed by European Christians, who have a long history of committing just such outrages against European Jews. Indeed, the only reason it had not been done by Christians long before was because in previous centuries they lacked the technology to carry it out. The Holocaust was the culmination of sixteen centuries of horrific persecution of Jews by Christians in Europe—Christendom’s leaders were only too willing to turn their backs on the Jews when the mobs were incited to commit pogroms against Jews. Furthermore, it often happened that those same Christian sovereigns, Popes and Protestant Christians alike, often incited the anti-Semitic fervor, hoping to distract attention from their own sins and depredations against the common people.

So why cannot Elie Wiesel articulate this simple truth? Because he became the pet and celebrity of the primarily Christian political Establishment, which rewarded him well for his role, actually passing a resolution in Congress demanding that he receive a Nobel Prize. In a celebrity culture such as ours, Wiesel seemed well cast to play the role of an elder statesman of human rights: a gaunt but tragic face, a serious demeanor, and a certain overly-praised but still impressive literary skill. Furthermore Wiesel could be counted on to play a reliable ideological role on behalf of the American powers-that-be, by deflecting any real discussion of human rights: he would never criticize the many brutalities associated with American imperialism, for example, and he would reliably denounce reports of Israel’s human rights violations as lies motivated by anti-Semitism.

Most importantly of all, he could be depended on to never very seriously criticize Christian beliefs and behavior, and would never point out that the Holocaust was carried out entirely by Christians, and that the Holocaust was furthermore the horrifying outcome of sixteen centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

That is too bad, because Christianity needs such a candid analysis. The Protestants of Germany made a beginning with their “Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt” of October 19, 1945, beginning with these somber words: “Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and cultures…” But this promising beginning was not followed up, because it quickly became obvious that the long history of anti-Semitism in European Christianity was connected to a key aspect of Christian theology. The concept of substitutionary atonement—the idea that Jesus’ violent crucifixion redeemed the world’s sins–is a central Christian belief, and is also deeply connected to Christian anti-Semitism. If publicly torturing a man to death could redeem the world, then there is clearly something good and redemptive and transcendent about violence in general—which is why there were so often outbursts of anti-Semitic violence around Easter Week, when references and images of Jesus’ crucifixion were widely disseminated.

If Christians took responsibility for the Holocaust, however retroactively, it would become clearer that it was not God’s malevolence or deliberate absence that caused the Holocaust, but the misuse of religion by European Christians. To come clean about this would be good for Christians, and also for Judaism. Christians could at last re-evaluate the idea of redemptive violence, to which successive generations of Christians have been addicted. Then perhaps Christians could see Jesus as he really was—a prophetic Jew in the great Abrahamic tradition, a prophet who is important because of his teachings, not because the world’s sin was redeemed by some form of human sacrifice.  As a heretical/progressive Christian, I believe that Christianity must face and defeat the idea of atonement through violence—just as Christians should also take responsibility for their long history of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust. (Christians also need to confront today’s rampant Christian Zionism, whose adherents often appear to believe that any conflict that kills Muslims must be the will of God, and likewise redemptive.)

Considering what has happened to Jews in Europe, there is nothing wrong with Jews getting and maintaining power. But in Israel/Palestine, power is not based on justice, but on race and religion. No amount of Jewish suffering justifies making Palestinians suffer—indeed, the Israeli state is not an alternative to the Holocaust, but replicates the same negative behaviors that originally caused it. Many Jewish progressives now understand that the existence of a Jewish state is an historic opportunity to stand up for universal human rights in Israel/Palestine—but that means opposing the current behavior and beliefs of the Israeli political class, because uncritically worshiping a state is a deeply perverse and damaging form of idolatry. Perhaps such perceptions will be the beginning of reform within American Judaism, and Christianity as well. What the entire Abrahamic family needs now is a covenant between God and believers to deconstruct and defeat the misuse of religion.

Watch for Lawrence Swaim’s The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the New World which will be published this summer on June 27.

 

 

 

Religious Right, Neo-Cons, Gang Up On Progressive Jew

 

This blog speaks to concerns that I raise in my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, which is coming soon to Amazon.com and a bookstore near you. “The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not mainly about politics, nor religion, nor even geo-politics. It is about pathology. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into active psychological pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities.”   One is always astonished at the extent to which conservative Christian, neo-cons and the Israel Lobby will go to censor and destroy progressive Jews who have the courage to support Palestinian human rights. This hurts academic freedom, it hurts the US and the Palestinians, and ultimately hurts Israel as well.

Lawrence Swaim — 17 June 2012

The old story of Christian anti-Semitism has never quite gone away, and has now come roaring back in academia in a new but still despicable form. In a new configuration of political forces, rightwing Christian evangelicals (or rightwing Catholics) cooperate with rightwing neo-cons and the Israel Lobby to attack progressive Jews, deny them tenure, and drive them from their jobs. The recent campaign against Marc H. Ellis at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, is sadly typical. The object, of course, is to completely silence anyone in academia who is capable of making the slightest squeak of protest against the “special relationship” of the US and Israel, as well as the latest depredations of the rightwing Likud government in Israel/Palestine. Since Professor Ellis has a liberationist approach to Jewish theology, and has criticized both the government of Israel and its US proxies in the Israel Lobby, he is a huge target both of the neo-cons and the Republican Party generally.

Marc H. Ellis is the University Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, which is a Baptist center of higher learning in Texas. That by itself seems like a handful; but it is my pleasure to report that during his previous thirteen years at Baylor, former BU Presidents were protective of Ellis, regarding him as a kind of house radical who added leavening to the bread of evangelical Christianity. But the Religious Right does not usually take such a generous view of political and religious heretics, so things quickly changed when a new University President for BU arrived in 2011—the new boss being none other than the hated and feared Judge Kenneth Winston “Ken” Starr, the same Ken Starr who was the Special Prosecutor of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

He was, people will remember, originally hired in that decade to facilitate the so-called Whitewater Investigation of Bill and Hilary Clinton; but when he could find nothing wrong, he simply used one investigation to open another, going on countless such fishing expeditions until he became aware of Bill Clinton’s wandering eye. As a result of information he was able to leverage from a previous case, Judge Ken Starr eventually kidnapped Monica Lewinsky, held her against her will in a hotel room, and interrogated her until she confessed to consensual sexual acts with President Bill Clinton, including performing fellatio several times on the President in an area adjacent to the Oval Office.

Starr then collected every salacious detail he could find and then published them for the whole world to read in his 336-page Starr Report, the investigation costing the American public some $40 million. The Report included graphic descriptions of sexual acts, including the fact that once, while Monica was performing fellatio on the President, he slipped a cigar into her vaginal tract. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!” shrieked the newspaper cartoonists; reputable daily journalism waxed agog over the nature and disposition of the President’s penis. Starr’s fellow evangelicals in the Republican Party moaned and shook their heads in mock horror, all the while enjoying every salacious detail.

In so doing, Starr was engaging in a specifically American activity that has been around since at least the 17th-century Puritans held forth in Massachusetts: in a highly public and sometimes hysterical frenzy, a virtuous (and usually religious) authority figure denounces as the work of Satan some particular act or variety of sin—almost invariably sexual—lingering at length on the hideous details and the seductive nature of the sexual sins involved. (For a good modern example, see Rev. Jimmy Swaggart’s long, tearful, and occasionally slobbering public confession of his interactions with street prostitutes.) This alarming activity might be called ‘puritanical pornography,’ since the goal is so clearly to entertain and titillate the sexually repressed with details of sins uncounted, while at the same time enjoying the satisfaction of denouncing them. (Some effort is made to present the gratuitous recounting of sexual details as educational, but few are fooled by this.)

It was not long after Judge Starr arrived at Baylor University that he began the work of trying to sack Professor Marc H. Ellis. According to his attorney, Ellis tried to intervene in a dispute between a former “close friend” and a student organization; this backfired, and the former friend then filed charges of “abuse of authority” on March 4. According to a letter from the American Association of University Professors, this original dispute was settled; but using it as a pretext, Starr began to investigate every other aspect of Ellis’ life. It became known (because it was probably leaked) that the complaint had a sexual component—but that could well refer to something that happened long ago. (Baylor’s policy on sexual misconduct includes “fornication,” which could include any consensual sexual act outside of marriage.)

In a manner spookily similar to his behavior while Independent Counsel under President Clinton, Starr used the investigation of a single incident as an opening to investigate every other relationship Ellis had ever had. Starr’s proxies were soon calling up anyone who had ever had a conversation with Ellis, asking if they knew of other examples of his “misuse of authority.” (This included cold calls to people who had signed a petition supporting Ellis.) At one point Starr asked Ellis to resign, offering him hush money if he’d leave quietly; but Ellis declined.

A growing number of American progressives saw what was underway, and a sizable group (including Rosemary Ruether, Cornel West and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) have come together to support him. Ken Starr is a man who has no conception of discretion–or even of propriety–except to use or outrage them for political purposes; he is an administrator who thinks it exceedingly clever to ramble through the grandstands at Baylor University football games loudly shaking down rich alumni for pet projects. (In his first year he raised $35 million.) His sermons at Chapel are, predictably, lugubrious exercises in evangelical Christian self-congratulation and barely-repressed aggression. Thus he will probably use his position to expose to the maximum every dark corner of Professor Ellis’ private life, for all the loathly and sadistic reasons that religious fanatics do such things.

There are three reasons why the charges against Ellis are bad news. One is that punishing people for criticizing Israel violates the conventions of free speech and scholarship that academia is supposed to protect. The second is that charges of sexual misconduct, to have resonance and support in society at large, must be punished equitably. Once such sensitive charges become politicized, and the punishment of them becomes excessive, administrative rules regarding sexual misconduct are compromised, and women’s rights are set back.

The third reason is the University’s official policy at Baylor University, that incidents of sexual misconduct are to be treated in a “redemptive manner” with “constructive forgiveness” when appropriate and possible. But some sinners (the Christian evangelical ones) are historically seen as more deserving of redemption than others (the non-Christian evangelical ones), because no hint of a redemptive settlement (one that doesn’t involve firing a progressive Jew who criticizes the Israeli state) has been put on the table by Judge Starr himself.

Instead there has been a single-minded desire to humiliate Ellis publicly and cause him to resign, using some of the same over-the-top tactics that the Starr first practiced on Bill Clinton. Therefore Professor Marc H. Ellis has made a complaint under the appropriate civil rights statute—correctly, I think—alleging antisemitism on the part of Starr and Baylor University. (In a typical Starr gambit, his office denied any knowledge of Ellis’ EEOC complaint.)  But won’t the fabled ‘organized Jewish community’ come rushing to Professor Ellis’ assistance as he twists slowly in the wind? Isn’t the Anti-Defamation League, for example, supposed to help Jews who are denied due process and whose civil rights are violated?

Sadly, in 2012 such help is available only to Jews who have the right political line on Israel—those who have the wrong politics on Israel need not apply. The history of such leaders as Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman who have colluded with conservative Christians to crush dissenting Jews who criticize Israel is quite long, their cooperation with the Catholic hierarchy to deny tenure and get rid of Norman G. Finkelstein at DePaul University being only one well-publicized and recent example.

 

Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.  The Interfaith Freedom Foundation is a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. Most of its advocacy has been for Sikhs and Muslims. 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 interfaithfreedom@sbcglobal.net.

    Watch for Lawrence Swaim’s book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World.

 

 

America and the New Islamists

 

This blog speaks to concerns that I raise in my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, which is coming soon to Amazon.com and a bookstore near you. “The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not mainly about politics, nor religion, nor even geo-politics. It is about pathology. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into active psychological pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities.”  The neo-cons and the US Israel Lobby will apply powerful pressure to keep the US from paying attention to the people who won the elections in Tunisia and Eygpt. But that would be disastrous for American interests–and in the long run, destructive to Israel as well.

Lawrence Swaim — 23 May 2012 

     The US gave nominal support to the Arab Spring, because it was part of a worldwide movement that the US wanted to influence. But who exactly would the new voters in the Arabic-speaking countries vote for? Not for Islamists, pundits in the US repeatedly insisted. According to them, the Arab Spring was a revolution of media geeks, twitter-fixated Facebook users using the latest social media—and to give credit where credit is due, there’s no doubt that the twitterati, as some have rather patronizingly called them, were indeed the vanguard of the democratic revolution. It was these brave and disaffected young women and men using non-violent but highly original tactics from Gene Sharp’s seminal book “From Dictatorship to Revolution” that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and then proceeded to take down Mubarak in Egypt.

But when Tunisians and Egyptians actually marked their secret ballots in the voting booths, the winners were those very same Islamists that weren’t supposed to have a chance. Thus we are at an interesting moment in American foreign policy, since in the US “Islamist” has been a synonym for everything diabolical and nightmarish in the American imagination—after all, it was not so long ago that American diplomats won’t supposed to even meet with them. Islamists were only acceptable to the extent that they could be covertly funded to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or perhaps used to agitate against secular nationalists—Islamists were, in other words, to be used in an imperial game of divide and conquer, but weren’t people you would actually treat as equals.

Americans typically associate Islamism with Iran, where religion is ensconced in the state. But the new Islamists of Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt are in a completely different league, because they operate in democracies driven by a separation of political powers.  They have created a dynamic new form of political Islam expressing itself through electoral parties in multi-party democracies, ensuring the peaceful transfer of power through recurring elections. They are Islamist, but adapted to the social needs of Muslim-majority countries at this particular historical moment. What this means, pragmatically, is that when people elect an Islamic party to office, they can turn that same party out of office at the next election if they feel it hasn’t performed well.

Interestingly, these popular parties are not only in a position to initiate domestic reforms, but have also offered dynamic leadership of issues deeply felt by Muslims around the world. Nobody personifies this better than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the 25th Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey. The former semi-pro footballer leads the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic party that holds a strong majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly. The AKP, while conservative on social issues, has supported broadly-defined social justice issues. Erdoğan’s party brought inflation under control and reduced interest rates, raised per capita incomes, gave supremacy of the European Court of Human Rights over Turkish courts, brought more women into the Assembly than before, and struck down many restrictions on freedom of the press. He also negotiated an end to the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

But it was Erdoğan’s leadership on the world stage that has inspired Muslims most, such as when he confronted Israel’s Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in 2009. The session was moderated by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius—who, like most housebroken US journalists, well understood that part of his job is to defer to the Israelis. He allowed Peres to loudly and provocatively defend Israel’s role in the Gaza conflict for 25 minutes, but didn’t even allow Erdoğan the nominal 12-15 minutes he was supposed to have to defend the Palestinians. Furthermore, some of the Europeans present applauded Peres’ defense of the massacre in which 1300 people in Gaza died.

“I find it very sad that people applaud what you have said because you know how to kill people,” Erdoğan maintained. As the moderator tried to silence him, Erdoğan rose to full height. “I do not think I will be coming back to Davos after this because you do not let me speak!” Erdoğan shouted before marching off the stage. Erdoğan’s gutsy rejection of European hypocrisy resonated with Muslims around the world. The way Erdoğan was treated seemed to many—and not only Muslims—to be simply one more instance in which defenders of Israel are given respect and preference in the West, while advocacy for Palestinians is silenced.

There was even more Muslim support for Erdoğan’s next bold move, which was sponsorship of a “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” of Turkish ships with humanitarian supplies for the people of Gaza. Since they were in international waters when the Israelis proposed to board the ships, 40 activists on the Mavi Marmara resisted. Nine passengers were killed, and a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation found that six were victims of “summary execution” by the Israeli commandos. Erdoğan broke off relations with the Israelis and ended all diplomatic and military agreements with them.

Thus when Erdoğan made his first diplomatic visit to Egypt on 12 September 2011, Egyptians were ecstatic. Even though he arrived at midnight, thousands of Egyptians turned out waving Egyptian flags. He was publicly honored by many organizations, including by the Egyptian Revolutionary Youth Union, which was pivotal in calling out the first big demonstration on January 25, 2011. At least one of the newly licensed Islamic parties (the Islamist Wasat Party) cites Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan as what they would like to see in Egypt.

Of course, the largest Islamist group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, which quickly moved to set up its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Interestingly, its Vice-President, Rafik Habib, is a Christian. (The Party is based on Islamic law, but set up to appeal to a much wider constituency than would normally support the Brothers.) The Party has pointedly made it clear that it will be open to all Egyptians who accept its political program, including Christians—which could mean that it may be more likely to accept electoral and legislative coalition with non-Salifi parties than Salifi ones.

The An-Nahdah party in Tunisia, another Islamist party with a modern democratic orientation, is similar. In the run-up to the Tunisian election it promised to support women’s rights and respect Tunisia’s strong tradition of secularism. An-Nahdah, like many of the Islamist parties in Egypt, also compared itself to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, committed to democracy and social justice but essentially pragmatic. “It will be a broad national government,” promised Said Ferjani, from An-Nahdah’s political bureau.

These dynamic Islamists have battled their way through mainly non-violent revolutions to stand for election, and have won the day. Once in power, they have often shown more willingness than some secular parties to protect the values of electoral democracy. Their parties seamlessly combine democratic values at their best, with Islam at its most pragmatic. But have not Muslim thinkers been telling the West that this is possible for decades? The real question is not about Islam, but about the West. Will America recognize the legitimacy of democracy in Muslim-majority countries by respecting the Islamists elected by the voters? There will be strong pressure from the neo-cons and the Israel Lobby not to talk to the new post-Arab Spring Islamists. But the old imperial game of talking democracy while imposing tyrants is over in the Middle East. If America really supports democracy, it must respect the concerns of the Arab majority by listening to the people they elected.

    Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.  The Interfaith Freedom Foundation is a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. Most of its advocacy has been for Sikhs and Muslims. 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 interfaithfreedom@sbcglobal.net.

    Watch for Lawrence Swaim’s book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World.

 

Iran, the Israel Lobby, and the Kennan Connection

This blog speaks to concerns that I raise in my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, which is coming soon to Amazon.com and a bookstore near you. “The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not mainly about politics, nor religion, nor even geo-politics. It is about pathology. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into active psychological pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities.”  One good example of that is the way that Israeli PM Netanyahu is trying to drag the US into a war with Iran. 

Lawrence Swaim: 15 May 2012             

Some important publications are currently celebrating the career and ideas of George Kennan, the Cold War guru responsible for the policy of containment against the Soviet Union. That’s partly because a good book or two about Kennan have come out over the last couple of years; but there’s a less literary subtext to the current Kennan-mania. It was Kennan, you see, that convinced the US political class after the Second World War that America could defeat the Soviet Union politically, without going to war. Now that the neo-cons are promoting war with Iran, cooler heads in the Obama camp will argue for containment of Iran, rather than war. So the Kennan back story is being punched up preparatory to making their case.

If you thought the neo-cons would go away after lying to start a near-genocidal war in Iraq, think again. The neo-cons don’t just have influence over foreign policy in the Republican Party—they’re in charge of it. The Republican base responds to macho toughness, the more patriarchal the better. The neo-cons are the most warlike, aggressive-sounding bunch in town, so they win the most points. And they are AIPAC and the Israel Lobby writ large, AIPAC being the organization that currently runs the biggest pay-to-play ATM for campaign “bundling”—that is, legal bribery—for uncritical Israel supporters in Congress.

So the Republicans are going to spend the rest of the Presidential campaign arguing for war against Iran, with the Democrats making the case for “containment.” Both sides are already staking out their positions. Lobby spokespersons want the US to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, or at least to give Israel the green light to do it. Liberals, centrists and realists oppose such a course, since they know what a disaster this would be for American interests—therefore arguing for containment of Iran rather than an unprovoked attack. One big issue is whether the US will let the Israelis use the air space over Iraq, which the US controls. Of course, the Israel Lobby and its AIPAC-connected US politicians are starting not-so-subtly to threaten that Israel will attack anyway, thus forcing Obama’s approval once the planes are launched—and since the Israelis would use the bunker-busters given to Israel by the US, the Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority worlds will inevitably see it as a joint attack.

The realists in government and the State Department know very well that Netanyahu is deceitful, and that at this point in history the Israeli political class is led mainly by extremists. But unlike the Cold War, US realists aren’t trying to contain only one country—they’re trying to contain two belligerent nations, Iran and Israel. Iran may be moving toward operations on US soil, such as the belated attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. Israel’s PM Netanyahu, on the other hand, already exerts maximum influence over US foreign policy in the Middle East through its American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) campaign largesse, which openly facilitates Israeli interests rather than American ones, the logical outcome of an electoral system set up like a casino rather than a public service for popular representation.

Thus Israeli PM “Bibi” Netanyahu can use his paid-up pawns in Congress to triangulate the Obama administration in a dizzying variety of ways. In domestic US affairs, he can threaten to intervene in the upcoming election against Obama if he doesn’t give Israel the green light to use Iraqi air space. Internationally, he can threaten unilateral war against Iran if Europe isn’t nice to him. And he can threaten action against the Palestinians to get his way both in Europe and in the US. It has become painfully clear that his ultimate goal is the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the remaining 22 percent of Mandate Palestine, either all at once, or slowly, by making life so miserable they’ll move away.

Of course, the Israel Lobby doesn’t consider the incredible human cost of an attack against Iran, or how harmful it would be to the US, because religious nationalists simply aren’t able to consider the suffering they cause—remember, they believe they’re acting out the interests of God, history or some other transcendent abstraction. It’s clear, however, that an attack on Iran will cause the Middle East to explode, and there would be devastating attacks against American embassies around the world—and in the Arabic-speaking regions the people might not even let diplomatic relations with the US to continue at all.

Remember, please—or take note, if you didn’t already know—that one of the great resentments that generated the Arab Spring was that the US paid billions to tyrants in that region, specifically so they would make nice to the Israelis, repressing their own people in the process. If Netanyahu uses an Iran attack or some artificial crisis involving Iran to annex parts of the West Bank, there will almost certainly be another war in the Middle East. And that might not be all—Israel’s much-anticipated attack on Iran might be the onset of the religious war between Islam and the West that we are all trying to prevent, but which Netanyahu and the neo-cons seem anxious to provoke.

In such an event, the hard right in the US would roll out their endgame gambit for the total destruction of religious liberty in the US—internment of Muslims during wartime, identity cards, the whole business. At last Michelle Malkin would have the concentration camps for Muslims that she loves to talk about—and even if she doesn’t get the internment camps right away, she’ll be able to mainstream her arguments for them. That’s the neo-con strategy: to use the trauma of war or threats of war to mainstream hitherto unthinkable arguments. It’s Shock Capitalism, as Naomi Klein would have it, but with the neo-cons manufacturing the artificial crises and using the resulting shock to push through their anti-democratic programs.

The potential harm of an attack on Iran is so severe that it’s no wonder that US progressives support containment of Iran as opposed to war against it. But there’s a third position that nobody is discussing that should be raised. Why should Israel have nuclear weapons, and Iran shouldn’t? It doesn’t make sense to people in the Middle East, and to be sure it is flagrantly unfair. This third position, for a nuclear weapon-free Middle East, needs to be articulated. The Israel Lobby has already targeted this idea as being politically incorrect, so if you raise it in media interviews MSM media people will often studiously pretend they don’t hear the question. But the idea will never get traction unless people stubbornly and repeatedly keep raising it.

One big argument for a nuclear weapon-free Middle East is that in this part of the world, nuclear weapons don’t provide security but actually encourage disruption and chaos. If nuclear weapons provided security, Netanyahu would have long ago negotiated with the Palestinians and a Palestinian state would have come into being—but the presence of weapons of mass destruction make him more arrogant and unyielding, not less. Why should he give the Palestinians anything when he has enough firepower to kill all the Arabs in the Middle East? Netanyahu uses his weapons of mass destruction to give Israel impunity for the apartheid system he is building. As long as he has that much firepower, Netanyahu has no reason not to keep building new settlements and sabotaging the two-state peace process.

In 1947 George Kennan subjected the Soviets to a scathing psycho-historical analysis, arguing that their foreign policy was driven by deficits in their society. The Soviet Union, he wrote, believed that “no opposition to them can be officially recognized as having any merit or justification whatsoever.” Opposition came only come from those with an ulterior motive. And since the political class lived to wield power, “it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.”

Oddly, aspects of this insightful analysis of Soviet psychology could similarly apply today to Israel. Israel has failed in its historical mission to provide a safe haven for Jews; its cruel dispossession and continuing oppression of the Palestinians make endless conflict inevitable. As quality-of-life issues escalate within Israel, it channels more and more of its frustration into organized aggression against the Palestinians, and against real and imagined enemies elsewhere in the world. As George Kennan observed regarding the Soviets, they couldn’t tolerate criticism because their dream of a Workers’ Paradise hadn’t panned out. Likewise, the vaunted Zionist dream is turning out to be a nightmare. What to do? You start blaming everybody else, picking fights with everybody and trying to control what everybody else thinks and feels.

So the Israel Lobby starts pushing for the US to attack Iran. And the Democrats reply with the George Kennan formula, which is for containment and not war. But it was precisely because of that anticipated liberal response that the American Israel Public Affairs Council legislation H. Res. 568 was being introduced this week in the House of Representatives. According to journalist M.J. Rosenberg, the resolution being introduced “was the centerpiece of AIPAC’s recent conference.” Mr. Rosenberg reports that on the last day of the conference some 13,000 AIPAC delegates (that’s right, you read correctly–13,000) were dispatched to Capital Hill “with instructions to tell the senators and representatives whom they met that supporting this resolution was number one on AIPAC’s election year agenda.”

That resolution is about Iran, or course. And there is one part of the resolution that is especially interesting. It specifically states its “opposition to any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” Get that? It opposes any policy that would rely “on containment as an option” in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.  It’s war or nothing, according to AIPAC.

The liberal Dems will continue to promote the George Kennan option of containment rather than open conflict. But that will not be enough for AIPAC, the neo-cons and the rest of the Israel Lobby. They want war, they want it now, and they want to fight the Iranians right down to the last American. I can tell you what the Republicans will do. They will support war against Iran, and oppose the policy of containment as the policy of cowards, even as their advisers tell them that it’s all rhetoric, it’s all a political game, and that they really don’t have to fight Iran once they get into office.

I can also tell you what the liberal Dems are going to say, as the election gets closer. They’re going to tell AIPAC’s boss Netanyahu that sanctions go beyond mere containment, that it’s a really robust approach that, when used with diplomacy, can produce real results. And I think they’ll probably be right when they say that–sanctions really do go beyond containment. But why do the Democrats have to explain themselves to AIPAC, anyway? Because if they don’t come hat in hand to AIPAC, “Bibi” Netanyahu might cut off their money next year–and with all the corporate bucks going to the Republicans, that’s a losing proposition for a Democrat.

They’re playing with fire, all of them.

What’s best–I mean really best–for the US in the Middle East? Peace, of course; but nobody is openly advocating it, since our foreign policy establishment evidently exists mainly to protect the interests of the current Israeli government in the Middle East. And American interests are not always the same as Israel’s. So how do we get our government to consider American interests? Perhaps by publicly insisting that America’s best interests are also humanity’s best interests–peace and universal human rights. It certainly doesn’t consist of fighting a war we can neither win nor afford, on behalf of a arrogant client state in which human rights exist, all too often, only for those with the right religion.

 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. Most of its advocacy has been for Sikhs and Muslims. 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 interfaithfreedom@sbcglobal.net.


Deconstructing Gilad Atzmon: the Golem in the Mirror

This blog is about my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, which is coming out in July, 2012 — in other words, this summer. It is about the dangers of a worldwide religious war between Islam and the West, sparked by the intransigence of the Netanyahu regime in Israel and renewed conflict in Israel/Palestine. This book attempts to unravel the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a different way that anything you’re likely to have read before. Check it out: “The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not mainly about politics, nor religion, nor even geo-politics. It is about pathology. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into acute psychological pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities.” 
     Everything about Israel/Palestine is tinged with madness.
     Read the piece below and tell me if it isn’t so.
     (For more information about the present writer, see the ABOUT page.)

 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.    

                                                              2.

 

     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 interfaithfreedom@sbcglobal.net.