I publish below the introduction by Gilad Atzmon to a review of his book The Wandering Who by Norton Mezvinsky, the highly respected Jewish anti-Zionist professor and co-author (with the late Israel Shahak, the celebrated Israeli fighter for Arab rights) of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. The review is critical, and attempts to address various perceived problems with Atzmon’s work, all of which helps advance the cause of rational political debate on the questions Atzmon raises about world politics and the Middle East. Indeed it could be regarded in some ways, not as a demolition of Atzmon’s work by any means, but as a much more challenging criticism from a generally politically fraternal perspective than virtually any other progressive critique, including my own modest effort. Mezvinsky is not a Marxist, but on questions connected with Jews and Judaism he really knows of what he speaks. He is undoubtedly one of the most prominent authorities on this particular subject alive today
Category Archives: anti-semitism
At the time of writing, French police are besieging a gunman in a house in Toulouse, South-West France. The gunman is believed to be an Algerian Al Qa’eda supporter, and to be responsible for the murderous attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse that left three children and a rabbi dead, as well as earlier shootings of members of the French armed forces which killed three men.
One reason why the years-long controversy over Gilad Atzmon has generated such rancour, and why conflicts related to it such as the recent purge of ‘anti-semites’ from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign have been so bitter, is because they threaten to re-open the Jewish question. There was a time when the Jewish question was a matter of considerable debate and public controversy among those seeking greater democracy and social and economic equality. Witness Marx’s celebrated essay The Jewish Question, among many others.
It was of course, also a subject of dispute among those with the opposite aims as well. But since WWII the Jewish question has not really been explored as previously. It is as if the Nazi genocide set a seal on it and made it one of those questions that had been ‘decided’, notwithstanding controversies around Israel which often involved major debates but which were ultimately considered to be something confined to the Middle East region. But now the decline of Israel’s moral authority, and the threat it poses to ‘world peace’, and crucially the nature of its worldwide support, means the Jewish question must be addressed again.
Re-opening it is not something that can be done lightly; the nature of the Jewish people and its historical role is intertwined with some of the most tragic and barbaric events in human history. It contains a number of paradoxes and subtleties and is complex and not easy to analyse. It has also undergone major, arguably fundamental changes since the Second World War, that have mainly been so far analysed almost exclusively through the narrow prism of looking at Israel and Zionism.
I am pleased to concur with comrade David Ellis’ suggestion to publish this worthwhile contribution to the debate about the recent expulsions from PSC from Ruth Tenne of Camden PSC, not least because unfortunately WW does not have comments on its website. Therefore in the interests of the free exchange of ideas it appears here.
Tony Greenstein’s piece, ‘No room for anti-Semites’ (Weekly WorkerJanuary 19), seems to have a lot in common with Tanya Gold’s comments in The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ (‘LSE Nazi games in context, January 16). Gold claims that “Anti-Semitic discourse is now mainstream and to say it all comes from the crimes of the Jewish state feels disingenuous and a denial of the past. Anti-Semitism is too old to sprout anew from nothing.”
Tony, a Palestine Solidarity Campaign member, will by Tania’s definition be regarded as “one of the leftwing anti-Semites [who] despise Israel, but are vocal on the crime of other oppressive countries”. Yet, Tony, like Ms Gold and the pro-Zionist camp, is bent on cleaning out PSC of any alleged holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. He claims: “It would be futile to deny that this has not caused major problems for PSC … Up and down the country, individual branches have experienced problems … In Camden, Gill Kaffash was forced to step down as PSC secretary after her holocaust denial sympathies became clear.”
As I have noted previously, both sides of the acrimonious dispute between the left-wing Jewish trends personified by Gilad Atzmon and Tony Greenstein respectively, have a fundamentally anti-racist thrust. Despite the fact that they spend much of their time virulently slandering each other, they actually agree on a great deal. This is despite the incredibly acrimonious war of words between them whose thrust I will not recap here as there is plenty of material elsewhere that details what is involved.
But as I stated before,for this reason this blog is proud to link both to Gilad Atzmon’s website, and to Tony Greenstein’s blog, as representatives of two different anti-racist, anti-Zionist, Jewish trends.
One interesting, and symptomatic indicator of this is that they are competing to win over the same kind of people. Progressive Jews who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. This recent case is emblematic of this.
On 18 January Gilad Atzmon published a posting titled ‘The Wondering Jesse’ praising a very moving and articulate essay by Jesse Lieberfeld, a young 11th Grade (year) Jewish-American student explaining his move away from Judaism and Zionism in solidarity with the Palestinians, and making very apposite comparisons between their struggle today and the struggle of Black Americans for basic human rights and equality in the civil rights movement a generation ago. Atzmon linked to the original, and recommended it to his readers. The essay jointly won the 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. prize for prose written by a young person – the obvious and powerful echoes and comparisons between such epic past struggles and those of those oppressed by Israel today make it particularly appropriate that he should win such an award for anti-racist writing.
Then on 30th January, the same essay was republished on Tony Greenstein’s blog. What can you say except to welcome this, and say the more the merrier? In neither case is there anything out of place or incongruous about this essay being published, since much of the material published on both sites consists of fervent anti-racist criticism of Zionism and the crimes of Israel.
The following extended comment was put on the Socialist Unity blog in response to their cross-posting an article by Tony Greenstein about the recent Palestine Solidarity Campaign conference, where a number of supporters of some of the kind of views expounded by Gilad Atzmon, were thrown out. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with this subject matter, others who may not are encouraged to read earlier articles on this question, particularly my review of Gilad Atzmon’s book ‘The Wandering Who’ from last year.
The problem is with this is that these people are not Nazis at all.
In fact most of them are Jewish themselves. And even when they are not, the people they look to for inspiration, are.
They actually represent an important non-European, Middle Eastern, view on the Jewish question. These kind of views, even if false, are widely held in the Middle East and just hammering them at a conference in the UK won’t do you much good.
The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections, and the high vote the Salafists got also, mean such people are going to be anything but isolated.
It is particularly symptomatic that Harpal Brar and his organisation, who can hardly be accused of being soft on or sympathetic to Nazism (!!!), can see this. They are not often right, indeed they are often wacky third-worldists, but on this position their insights from a non-Eurocentric position stood them in good stead. Even a stopped clock is sometimes correct.
From a non-European perspective this looks like Western-centred arrogance. European Jews and Brits lecturing non-European Jews about not being soft on the Arabs and their terrible anti-Jewish prejudices.
The Atzmonites are not entirely wrong either. Insofar as they are sceptical about the Holocaust, which some are more than others, they are of course wrong as the Brarites also noted.
But some of the other things they say about the Israel lobby in the West are much closer to reality. Atzmon’s division of Jews into different categories based on the embrace or otherwise of identity politics is not ‘anti-semitic’ at all, but almost exactly analogous to a pretty mainstream understanding of the (in some ways) similar phenonemon of political Islam. (See my article on Political Islam and ‘Jewish Identity Politics’)
Another point, being as these people are not fascists or Nazis, but mainly Jews and other sincere Palestinian supporters.
Is it only being badly wrong on the Jewish Holocaust that is grounds for chucking people out of the Palestine movement, or is it the same for other similar events as well? Like the Armenian genocide? Note that the French bourgeoisie is just in the process of banning denial of this event also.
Is anyone who supports the Turkish government’s views on this to be chucked out and shunned? Or is the Jewish genocide ‘special’, despite the disclaimers?
Because if people take this to its logical conclusion, they are going to have rather a hard time not just with many Palestinians – particularly Hamas supporters – and some of their Jewish supporters. But a big problem with many other Arabs, not to mention Turks as well. Given as the Turkish government has quite a lot of authority among those oppressed by Israel at the moment, this is not smart.
Don’t kid yourself that these people are ‘isolated’. The Brarities are not stupid when it comes to non-European politics, their stance says otherwise. This is another example of the British left shooting itself in the foot.
The controversy over Gilad Atzmon and his book The Wandering Who, which I recently reviewed on this blog, raises a lot of important questions about history and the politics of the last two centuries. I make no apology for writing about this question again because some of the issues he raises are of great importance to questions relating to war and peace, the nature of contemporary capitalism, national questions and the composition of major classes in society, particularly the capitalist class. All these questions are of central importance to anyone who wants to see capitalism superseded by socialism – they also touch intimately on questions intertwined with the causes of at least one world war in living memory, as well as other traumatic and world historic events including the currents wars and now revolutions shaking the Middle East and neighbouring regions and states. So its pretty important.
Atzmon is not a Marxist thinker, but an idiosyncratic left-wing liberal, born and raised in a racist ethnocracy. His own rejection of a racist upbringing and his privileged birthright as a Jew in a Jewish state, has generated some ferocious rhetoric and not a little incoherence and misunderstanding by friend and foe alike in some cases. But Atzmon’s writings are significant: this is also acknowledged by his enemies, usually rabid Zionists though also a few semi-Bundist socialists who on most issues are on the opposite side of the barricades to the Netan-yahoos. My point here is not to dwell on that conflict, but to acknowledge the significance of his work on ‘Jewish identity’. If it was just, as his enemies proclaim, reheated anti-semitism from the pre-WWII years, Atzmon would be unable to defend himself against a tidal wave of universal opprobrium.
Arthur Balfour, Joseph Stalin, Richard Nixon – partners of Zionism
As a post-script to the discussion on the Jewish question earlier, I said that I would comment on the link Israel Shamir posted to his article ‘Prince Charming’, on the three major alliances that Zionists made with more powerful forces in the 20th Century, with British imperialism (which gave birth to the Balfour Declaration), with Stalinist Russia (which armed the Zionist forces in Israel’s 1948-9 War of Independence), and with US imperialism, the latter of course continuing to this day.
Israel Shamir’s understanding of the reason for all three of these alliances is fundamentally the same: that clever Jewish ideologues exploited the anti-semitic beliefs and paranoia about Jewish power that were widespread among ruling circles in all three states. Because of this fear of the Jews and their legendary power, they were compelled to comply with the wishes of the Zionists. Shamir therefore extends the reasoning of Israeli revisionist historian Tom Segev, in his very fine book One Palestine Complete, that the fundamental reason the British colonial power granted the Balfour declaration was a superstitious belief in the power of the Jews, and a desire to ingratiate. Apparently Stalin had similar motives in his own short-lived alliance with the Zionists during the later stages of WWII, and it also apparently explains the preponderant influence of the Israeli-Jewish lobby in the US today.
“This belief is the most common one in the US, as well. American politicians support Israel because they share the opinion of Lloyd George and Herzl. They also respect the condition demanded by heirs of Jacob Schiff and never, but never mention the dreadful words, “Jewish power”. In the world free of taboos, a new Henry Miller can’t shock his readers referring to sex, but to the Jews and their unseen might. Is it only a perception? Perhaps. But the American traditional elites pay for it a real double price: they send their folks to fight a third war within the last hundred years for somebody’s else perceived interests, and their positions at the top table disappear daily. This perception bleeds Iraq and Palestine, sends money to Israel, distorts the public discourse. Not in vain, Mark Twain used to say, a perception is almost as good as a real thing.”
There is a real problem with this ‘perception as reality’ thesis, though. It assumes astounding ignorance and a superstitious inability to count the true relation of forces by groups of people who had the ruthlessness to conquer and maintain great empires. They did so by ruthlessly evaluting the strengths, weaknesses, relative power and potential resistance of numerous peoples around the world, in order to subdue them. It always was a fact that the Jews were a tiny minority of the world’s population, and also a tiny minority of the populations of the advanced countries in Europe and the US.
It is simply a fact that the Jewish population world-wide is less than 20 million, in a world of approximately 7 billion people. That is, one Jew exists for every 350 non-Jews. Even before the Nazi genocide wiped out several million Jews in the second world war, the comparable populations were not that different. One assumes that the British colonial bourgeoisie, the Soviet bureaucracy of Stalin’s day, and the US bourgeoisie today, were acquainted with these figures and can do elementary maths. Then it is simply incredibly naive to believe that they can be conned by a mere perception of power of a very thin layer of the population into doing its bidding.
It is equally impossible to believe that such ruthless ruling classes or layers, all of which have records of the most barbaric treatment of entire civilian populations, from the British Empire’s crimes in Ireland and India, to Stalin’s deportation to labour camps of millions and exiling of the entire Chechen and Tatar peoples, to the US’ atrocities against populations ranging from Native Americans to blacks to Vietnamese, could be guilt-tripped into acting against their own interests by stories of past Jewish suffering. They really don’t give a damn about anyone’s suffering and never have. So why should they suddenly make an exception when Jews are involved? It does not make any sense; this too is a naive illusion (not particularly Shamir’s, but a variant on the same idea that others hold to).
No, the only explanation for the tolerance of the Israel-Jewish lobby in the US is that a majority of the ruling capitalist establishment considers them to be playing a useful role in American interests. A strategy that aims to change the mind of the US bourgeoisie in this regard could eventually succeed, for the simple reason that no configuration of forces lasts forever and nothing is more sacred to the bourgeoisie than the ‘national interest’. But only a major shift in world politics and world relations of forces would be likely to produce such a change of mind.
The British considered a Zionist outpost to be a useful possibility in the days of Balfour; as Ronald Storrs, the British Governor of Palestine, stated in the 1920s, they were looking for a ‘loyal little Jewish Ulster’ in the Middle East, modelled on the original one in the North of Ireland. On this they were naive, their naivety undoubtedly a product of their greed however, not realising that as the Zionist movement grew in influence and numbers in Palestine it would rapidly outgrow the ‘Ulster’ role the British ruling class had marked out for it and come into conflict with the British themselves.
Stalin’s alliance with the Zionists was a classic Stalinist zig-zag, of the type his regime became renowned for in the 1930s as it went from the Stalin-Laval pact (France) of 1934 to the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939-41 to the ‘Big Three’ (Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin) alliance of 1941-45. With the hostile turn of the British and Americans to the USSR signalled with Churchill’s Fulton, Missouri speech in 1946 (“an Iron Curtain has descended over Europe”), Stalin desperately cast around for possible allies to put pressure on the allies to be more reasonable. The Zionists, with their sometime ‘socialist’ rhetoric seemed a reasonable bet to the Stalinists at that point, as did many other nationalists before and since. No one ever accused Stalin of being strategically far-sighted!
And as to the US, they were originally quite suspicious of Israel precisely because of its Soviet connections. That began to change in 1956, with the Suez war when Israel allied itself with Britain and France in an act of armed aggression against Egypt that the US regarded as an outrageous act of the old colonial British and French against US hegemony. Israel got itself noticed in 1956 and showed both its military power and that it had broken from its initial Soviet support, as the US and USSR united to denounce the three-power attack in the UN. This gave birth to a period of friendly, but cautious relations between the US and Israel, as the two prospective strategic partners sounded each other out for reliability and the sustainability of an allliance.
The strategic alliance between the US and Israel was not fully sealed until after Israel ‘proved itself’ in 1967, humiliating Arab states that were by then sufficiently acting as Soviet-armed ‘client states’ for the war to be seen by the US ruling class as a kind of proxy war with the USSR, which Israel won hands down. In 1967 Israel’s weaponry was mainly French, acquired during the previous period, but after 1967 it got everything it wanted and more from the United States. The Nixon administration from 1968 onwards was the prime architect of this new alliance.
It is that seminal event that sealed an alliance between Israel and the US that is just as important to the US bourgeoisie as its alliance with its NATO partners in Europe. Israel is seen as dependable, militarily reliable, and ultimately in a world war scenario among its most reliable allies. It is an advanced capitalist country, the only one in its region, albeit one that because of its geographical position needs a large subsidy.
It also by its very existence on stolen land acts as a lightning rod for Arab discontent and helps keep the Arabs divided and therefore helps in an indirect way in maintaining US domination over the oil-rich Arab regions. True, in some intra-regional conflicts its peculiarities make it less than useful because of Arab antipathy to its military forces when some finesse is needed, but that is seen by the US as a necessary price to pay for its other advantages.
Ultimately if US interests came to involve the need to blow up the Middle East to stop other forces getting their hands on it to the detriment of US interests, Israel would be willing to do it for Uncle Sam. Israel alone could be trusted to do it even if it mean sacrificing itself in a thermonuclear Masada. Fundamentally this is an alliance at the level of world war, which is why Israel has hundreds of nukes and the blessing of Uncle Sam for that.
That strategic imperative is what is behind the US/Israel relationship, which gives Israel a degree of power and its supporters in the US a great deal of latitude in dealing with Israel’s opponents and critics. Israel Shamir’s idea that it is in some way a result of bourgeois belief in myths or ‘perceptions’ about the power of Jews in the world is child-like and naive. The capitalists are not stupid enough to believe nonsense like that, that is only for the masses to believe along with the bogeyman and the tooth-fairy!
Tony Greenstein’s extended comment criticising my review of Gilad Atzmon’s new book The Wandering Who is indicative of a political method that can only lead to a ‘dialogue of the deaf’. It is a characteristic flaw of the fragmented far left that in political disputes someone is quoted out of context in such a way as to distort the meaning of their views, and a whole extended narrative is concocted to attack the falsified or caricatured version. This is not a good method, it not only actually leaves one’s interlocutor’s real views untouched, but it also makes the exchange impossible to follow to the uninitiated layperson.
Such practices make the left a laughing stock. In this case, however, there is an additional element of communalism in that Atzmon is being ‘punished’ by left-wing members of his own Jewish community not merely for being right or wrong about something, but also for speaking ‘against’ his own people. The peculiar ferocity of the attack not only on Atzmon, but also on anyone who disagrees with these people’s most extreme characterisations, is shown by the contribution of another Jewish leftist, Evildoer, who baldly admits he does not seek a rational discussion at all with leftists who disagree with him about Atzmon.
Roo’s comment on my review of “The Wandering Who?” by Gilad Atzmon offers an opportunity to expand on a few points that may be of interest to readers.
Roo writes about some of Gilad Atzmon’s critics on the anti-Zionist left:
“I believe he [GA - redscribe] has been genuinely surprised to find that in reality their anti-zionism is so thin that they act in concert with rabid zionists trying desperately to suppress criticism of Israel and its lobbies.”
I think you are right to an extent, he may have been surprised and probably he has reason to be. I am not uncritical of these people over the Gilad Atzmon issue either. I think there has been a failure of analysis and a strange inability to understand where he and others like him are coming from (i.e. the Israeli context, which is Middle Eastern, not European). Some European (and American, I suppose) leftists can see the argument when it is pointed out that many Arabs, for instance, do not see the Second World War through European eyes and do not have the slightest inclination to feel ‘guilty’ about it. When someone like Gilad Atzmon comes along, however, they have a strange problem in applying that same logic where it is equally appropriate.
What GA does not appear to understand,though, is the different impact that some of the issues he raises have in Europe, as opposed to the Middle East. Israeli Jews have been pretty firmly in control there for a couple of generations, and act as an oppressor people, but the oppression of the Jews in Europe is a living memory not only for older Jews, but also huge numbers of non-Jews who fought or were alive during the Second World War. As well as many who have been involved in struggles against post-war neo-Nazi groups in Europe. As recently as the 1990s, relatively large neo-Nazi movements were still making anti-Jewish hatred a major theme of their propaganda. It’s only really since 9/11 that neo-Nazis have made the switch from hatred of Jews to hatred of Muslims and come to see Israel as an ally.
It probably less true in the US, but even there Jews have in the past been major targets of nativist fascist groups, not just Nazis, but also the KKK. The Klan became a mass movement in the 1920s not just on the basis of racism against blacks, but also anti-semitism. It’s really only since 1967 that there has been a major incorporation of Jews into the mainstream of bourgeois politics in the US as a right-wing force. Prior to that they were often seen as a liberal or left-wing inclined layer, which was in part the basis for anti-semitism.
I actually don’t believe that any people in this world is intrinsically progressive or reactionary. History is very complex and knows all kinds of reversals of fortune. This conception, of whole peoples being either ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’ is more widely held than you might think. In the past, for entirely understandable reasons, Jews were often viewed as a progressive people by many on the left. Even in the early period of Israel that was a common view.
It’s not inconsistent with that anti-essentialist approach to note that in an earlier period, because of historically evolved circumstances, Jews, because of their history as a trans-national community who were highly cultured and subject to persecution and thereby radicalisation, played a progressive role in revolutionary movements. Some of that was separatist or semi-separatist, such as the Bund. But many more were militantly and genuinely internationalist and universalist, including people like Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Joffe, Radek, Zinoviev, Kamenev and many others.
In my view the historic role that Hitler played was in wiping out the overwhelming bulk of this progressive tradition among Jews. And scaring the hell out of many more, producing de-radicalisation, and a shift to increasingly right-wing politics, through the medium of the Zionist movement and Israel. But this internationalist tradition among Jews did not simply disappear, it was rather re-directed into a kind of right-wing psuedo-internationalism whose real purpose is promoting the interests of Israel as the Jewish state. They bear a similar relationship to the old Jewish internationalism as the psuedo-internationalism of Stalin did to the original goals of the Communist International. That is, not internationalist at all, but promotes the aims of a national state – whether Israel or Russia. But without the ‘socialist’ verbiage you have something far worse and simply capitalist.
Roo also writes:
” In Australia I have noted the efforts of the zionist lobby to herd the possible straying of left activists, intellectuals and academics into Jewish groups which ‘encourage’ and ‘allow’ mild criticism of some details of Israeli policy and actions.”
This does sound like a description of the Zionist left. If that is what you are referring to I would not disagree. But some of the most outspoken opponents of Gilad Atzmon here are also some of the most outspoken critics of Zionism also. To the point that their exchanges, apart from mutual accusations of Zionism from both sides (and Nazi sympathy from one side), they also have something of the flavour of a competition as to who can be the most macho and outspoken anti-Zionists.
They have also succeeded in winning over the Socialist Workers Party, which originally provided Gilad Atzmon with a political platform. Now it is true that they now have a different central leadership, there has been a split and some of the leading figures from a few years ago are now in a different grouping. But nevertheless the SWP are hardly soft on Zionism, being known for instance for the slogan “we are all Hizbullah” during the 2006 Lebanon war. A slogan that might not be wisest in the world, but hardly likely to be raised by people who are soft on Zionism!
Being an iconoclast can be very good of course, but it can be better directed. Ingenuity and flair in smashing the sacred symbols and ideologicial fetishes of the enemy is excellent, but a degree of care is necessary with Israel. For one reason only – because the reversal of the fortunes of the Jews, from oppressed people in Europe to racist oppressor people in the Middle East (and with international help) is so recent. There is a real danger that in carelessly smashing the sacred icons of the Zionists you also hurt your own cause and help the Zionists by mistakenly attacking and misconstruing things that are not their property, but the common property of progressive humanity that they have mendaciously distorted and tried to appropriate, but did not invent. I’m sure you know what I mean, I will not repeat the points I made in my review but they are clear anyway.