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
Tag Archives: racism
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.
Jenny Tonge, the Liberal Democrat peer, has been driven out of the party for her outspoken defence of the Palestinians. She was effectively sacked after speaking at a meeting at Middlesex University, where she was quoted as saying the following:”Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form… Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.”
She allegedly went on to say: “One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough.”
She was immediately denounced by Labour leader Ed Miliband in a tweet where he said: “No place in politics for people who question existence of state of Israel. Nick Clegg must condemn Jenny Tonge’s remark and demand apology”.
Clegg did just what Miliband demanded, but to her great credit she refused to apologise for her opinions. And so the Lib Dems, previously the least Zionist- influenced of the three main parties in British politics, ran up the white flag before the Zionist lobby by purging their most outspoken defender of Palestinian rights.
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.
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.
The Wandering Who?, by Gilad Atzmon, Zero Books 2011, pp202, £8.99 (paperback)
Gilad Atzmon’s first substantive political book has caused a significant public controversy, particularly as it has been published by Zero Books, a well known publisher of what could perhaps be cynically dubbed as radical chic, works by various up-and-coming left-wing intellectuals and thinkers. A number of other authors have protested against its publication, accusing Atzmon of being close to a Nazi and certainly a Holocaust Denier. Aztmon, a very outspoken and passionate opponent of the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, the country of his birth, is one of a small fringe of radicalised pro-Palestinian Israel Jews, who have not only rejected Zionism as a project necessarily involving the expulsion of the native Arab population of Palestine to make way for Jewish settlers, but have also drawn conclusions about the nature of ‘Jewishness’ as an identity. These appear to be a mixture of sometimes useful, sometimes off-the-wall criticisms of the notions of Jewish ‘nationhood’ or identity explicit in Zionism and Atzmon argues, implicit in other Jewish, secular political trends, with much more dubious extrapolations about 19th and 20th Century history, and particularly the persecution and massacre of Jews by Nazi Germany.
A lot of the book consists of re-edits of essays that Atzmon already published either on his website, or various other publications. Many of them contain virulent attacks on the activities of leading American and other Jewish organisations, which he accurately accuses of suppressing even mildly and thoroughly non-radical opposition to pro-Israel US policies. On this he is on strong ground, at least empircally, as one of the most striking things about the US attitude to the Middle East is how easy it is to shut up criticisms of Israel even from thoroughly mainstream US bourgeois politicians. Organisations such as AIPAC have only to click their fingers and Presidents make humiliating U-turns after having made some statement that the Israel lobby deems to be against Israel’s interests. This has at times lead to a peculiar situation when the foriegn policy of the United States, still the most powerful country in the world, appears to many thoroughly respectable bourgeois political observers, let alone anyone to the left of that, to be subservient to that of Israel.
This phenomenon has itself given rise to major controveries in the US and elsewhere, with accusations coming from many, not just the Zionists, that those highlighting the empircal facts about this are in some way speaking of a world Jewish conspiracy. Johm Mearshiemer and Stephen Walt, two prominent, mainstream centre-right academics, made a major contribution to this issue a few years ago with an essay, and then a full-length book, titled ‘the Israel Lobby’ which pointed out that the functioning of pro-Israel, largely Jewish lobbying groups and political action committees like AIPAC, were contrary to US interests in that they stopped full debate about what those interests involve. But this begged the question, how is this possible? Defenders of Israel averred that even to raise this question was tantamount to agreeing with the thesis of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that there is a sinister Jewish conspiracy to control the world. Which of course, was one of the key tenets of the ideology of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, the way they justified to themselves their campaign to exterminate the Jews in the ‘final solution’, the genocide of European Jews during WWII.
This is a political minefield. When one does a serious study of the influence of Jews who with political links to Israel in positions of power in US governments going back decades, you find that it is completely out of proportion to the number of Jews in the American population, which is only around 3%. What inevitably causes concern to many not-particularly radical Americans is not so much that they are Jews, but their ties to Israel. The empirical facts are verifiable; if, as many say, it feeds anti-semitism to even discuss these somewhat unusual figures, the question arises whether it undermines, or in reality helps, anti-semitism to sweep this under the carpet and deny that it is a legitimate subject for discussion. One suspects that the latter may do more to feed conspiracy theories about Jewish influence over the government than the former. Given that one of the basic tenets of democracy is that all government figures and officials, individually and collectively, should be open and accountable about everything that they do and stand for politically. The allegation that to question this disparity, and the reason for it, is in itself racist is likely to fuel resentment and a further rise in conspiracy theories about Jews.
Atzmon waded into this minefield a few years ago with an essay titled ‘The Protocols of the Elders of London’ (2005). In it he stated some basic facts about this disparity and concluded:
“We have to ask ourselves what motivates American Jews to gain such political power. Is it a genuine care for American interests? …. Since America currently enjoys the status of the world’s only super power and since all the Jews listed above declare themselves as devoted Zionists,we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously. American Jewry makes any debate on whether the ‘Protocols of the elder of Zion’ are an authentic document or rather a forgery irrelevant. American Jews do try to control the world, by proxy. So far they are doing pretty well for themselves at least. Whether the Americans enjoy the deterioration of their state’s affairs will no doubt be revealed soon.”
Petrol on the flames. Atzmon was little known outside Jazz at the time, but he gained notoriety for this and other remarks in the same vein. He gained the enmity of Zionists, that is a given. He also made enemies of leftist Jews who are principled opponents of Israel and Zionism, for his attacks on Jewish identity, and a prolonged and very bitter conflict with them has ensued, with them more or less treating him a far-right, dangerous anti-semite. Yet there are several things about this that do not add up when people say that he is a racist or far right figure.
Most of all there is his musical involvement. His music is a true melange of Jewish, Arab and black American Jazz, which many who most admire the capacity of musical innovation to break down barriers would probably get very enthused about. I certainly appreciate such things, and appreciate his work. Some have compared him to Richard Wagner, but this seems incongruous, as Wagner was a very important and innovative figure on the mainstream of German art and culture, but despite a brief revolutionary period in his youth, he was not exactly known for creating a melange of many different ethnic styles and influences in his music. If he had done this, he would not have become such a major cultural and artistic influence on German nationalists (and worse).
Atzmon is a Jewish heretic, the very opposite of this. His heresy, however, is not directed against the Jewish religion, about which he does not really have that much critical to say. His attack is rather against secular ‘Jewishness’ which he sees as a basically racist and supremacist ideology. In other words, being Jewish can be justified logically if someone believes in Judaism, but Jewishness makes no sense in the absence of God. Jewishness is thus an artificial attempt to make a quasi-national identity out of a religious tradition, and since it is not based on any distinct territory and cannot therefore play the role that many other territorially-based national identities have played – in absorbing newcomers to the territory, assimilating them and thus renewing the ‘nation’ with ‘new blood’ (so to speak) – it must therefore have a very narrow and restrictive ‘ethnic’ basis. It cannot but be tribal and racist in conception, even though for Atzmon the Jews’ belief that they are a racial or ethnic group is also false.
That appears to be one of his key arguments, and this dovetails very well with more coherent innovators who attempt to deal with the Jewish question such as Shlomo Sand, the Tel Aviv history professor who wrote The Invention of the Jewish People’ (2010). But whereas Sands produces much historical evidence to argue that the Jewish ‘national’ identity, that was the basis not only for Zionism but other forms of quasi-nationalism such as Bundism, was purely an invention of ideologues imitating the more growing and successful forms of European nationalism in particular, Atzmon goes further.
And this is where allegations of anti-semitism find purchase. Because Atzmon’s concept of Jewish ‘identity’ appears to ascribe almost demonic powers to the bearers of this secular Jewish identity. Certainly the power to exert influence, way out of proportion to their numbers, over the government of the United States. How does the mere possession of a racist Jewish identity allow the American Jews (or even Zionists) to try to control the world, and to exert such an influence over the US as a superpower? What is the secret that is lodged within the secular Jewish identity that enables them to do that? Is it the racism and chauvinism that is allegedly lodged within that identity that gives them such powers? If it is, then surely it is something very dangerous that could potentially be detected, isolated and imitated by any other racist or chauvinist movement elsewhere in the world to allow them to exert such apparent control over the ruling class of a much larger and more powerful nation. Remember that the Jewish population in the US is less than 3%. How on earth do they do it?
Atzmon is dismissive of Marxism. He has spent years studying Philosophy at post-graduate level, and is able to give a pretty good account of the innovations of Kant, Wittgenstein et al. At one point in his book he dismisses Marxist historical materialism as ‘psuedo-scientific’. But he cannot explain this logical problem, and does not even try. Marxism can however, explain it. It is not that difficult. The US ruling class, which is overwhelmingly European derived and non-Jewish, though with a minority Jewish component, is committed, in its overwhelming majority, to a strategic military and political alliance with Israel. Its purpose in doing so is to divide and render powerless the Arab population as much as possible, and thus make easier US and allied control of the world’s most important strategic energy resources.
However, the American ruling class is also aware that this is a policy with risks. One day it might blow up in its face. Despite its best efforts, and that of Israel, one day there might be a unified Arab and Middle Eastern revolution. Or some other unforeseen development that is just as serious for the US. If that happens, it will need someone to blame. And this is where a kind of ruling class version of ‘affirmative action’ for devoutly pro-US, pro-Israel Jews, comes in. They are very useful as long as things are seen to be going well in the Middle East for the US. They will be even more useful – as scapegoats – if something goes wrong. Its a win-win scenario for the US ruling class – a bit like an insurance policy. And of course, as long as things are judged to be going OK, the Jewish beneficiaries of this ethnic/ideological selection can be given a lot of leeway to sit on and shut up discordant voices even among the mainstream. It just means that there is more that they can be blamed for if things go wrong. But in materialist terms, it is the wealth and power of the US ruling class, still the most powerful on the planet, that weighs most heavily here. Not the various Jewish neocon ideologues it considers so useful at this point. Atzmon, with his philosophical penchant for heavyweight, usually idealist bourgeois philosophers, is blind to this obvious materialist analysis.
Atzmon is self-evidently not motivated by racism. The allegation does not make sense, he describes himself as a ‘proud, self-hating Jew’. Elswhere he has decribed himself as a ‘Hebrew-speaking Palestinian’ and an ‘ex-Jew’. If he were a racist/essentialist, he would not believe in the possibility of renouncing Jewishness, which is what he continually urges those who in his terms adhere to a ‘tribal Jewish identity’ to do. He advocates assimilation, not persecution, let alone genocide. The idea that there is anything racist about advocating voluntary assimilation is something that could only occur to seperatists, such as Zionists, and those on the left who tail them. Which is not to say that some of Atzmon’s ill-judged, provocative rhetoric does not raise some understandable suspicions about him. That is one of his worst blunders.
And in fact, he manages in his book to score some telling points even against left-wing or revolutionary socialist activists who define themselves politically as being Jewish. He cites a well-known case of a socialist, atheist Jewish couple who insisted on having their baby son circumcised despite their non-belief in Judaism as a religion – because they wanted to been seen as a ‘legitimate’ part of the Jewish community. This is indeed incongruous – one cannot imagine a publicly atheist couple of Christian background insisting on having their child baptised. And circumcision is rather more drastic – and permanent – than being dunked in a font. We are talking of a communal identity that is not national in any meaningful sense, but is linked to religion even when there is no belief, contrary to the norms of most actual nations, even initially very religious ones, where the decline of religious belief tends to simply mean the decline of religious practices.
More to the point is his defence of the Palestinians against his own government and people, and his identification with them. This takes considerable courage, to defy the society in which one is born and defend a persecuted people. Indeed Atzmon goes further in identifying himself as a ‘Hebrew-speaking Palestinian’. Atzmon speaks eloquently of his disgust at finding himself, as a military bandsman, expected to play for Israeli soldiers guarding Arabs who had been incarcerated in a camp during the 1982 Lebanon invasion. His realisation that Israel was running concentration camps played a major role in driving him away from his Zionist upbringing and into an emotional, though not always coherent, rejection of the racism of the society in which he was born. Any decent socialist or even liberal person must empathise with this.
On the other hand, there is his scepticism about the Nazi genocide. His remarks about this have been contradictory and hard to pin down. Probably the explanation is he has not fully made up his mind about it. He has been repeatedly accused of holocaust denial, usually by the Jewish left that he excoriates, somewhat unconvincingly, as being crypto-zionist (though among the Jewish leftists that are attacking him are some of the most outspoken anti-Zionists, hated for it by Israel supporters, that you will find anywhere). He has vehemently denied that he rejects the historical reality of the Nazi genocide. But at the same time he has made statements that imply that he considers that it may have been exaggerated, that he is sceptical of the existence of gas chambers, that many people died from disease and shooting, not from industrialised killing in death factories like Auschwitz. He talks at length about what he calls the ‘Holocaust religion’ in Israel, and even goes so far as to say in his book that the Holocaust has replaced Judaism as the religion of the Jews.
Two different things have to be separated here. One is the historical events of the Nazi genocide. Numerous testimonies, from Germans, from British, American and Russian, Polish and other East European, and of course Jewish sources exist that narrate in great detail the extermination of millions of European Jews, along with Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, socialists and others. Then there is the Israeli version, in which the other victims somehow seem to disappear – Jews only tend to feature – and the overwhelming message is that this is inevitable while Jews are not compacted together in their own state, and that therefore everything must be done to ensure the ‘security’ of Israel, particularly its ‘security’ against the Palestinians who were expelled from its territory and the satisfaction of whose elementary demand for justice and equality means that Israel cannot continue to exist as an exclusive Jewish state.
It is perfectly comprehensible that a radicalised fringe of Israel Jews, subjected to the latter narrative for the whole of their lives and seeing through the grotesque cynicism and racism behind it, should not see much difference between the former historical truth and the latter cynically modified version. It may be comprehensible, but it is still a very damaging blunder. Atzmon cannot be accused of seeking the line of least resistance, and that is a good thing when seeking to face down Zionist witchhunters and bully-boys. But with this blunder, he has made adversaries of people who should be allies, and caused no end of confusion and rancour. Atzmon’s monumental blunder is actually the product of seeing everything through an Israeli-centric set of blinkers, which he would do well to throw away if he is fuffill his proclaimed ambition to join with the rest of humanity in a struggle for liberation, not least the liberation of Israel’s victims.
On the other hand, many of Atzmon’s most vehement critics, on the Western and/or Jewish/diaspora left, have their own Western-centric blinkers which prevent them from analysing why it is that a fringe of radicalised Jews, mainly of Israeli origin are inclined to at least be sceptical and question the historical truth of the Nazi genocide. There is also a strange element of guilty liberalism from those who can comprehend why many Arabs may be susceptible to demonology about Jews, in whose name the Israeli state oppresses them, but when a minority of alientated, radicalised Israeli Jews express similar views and suspicions, suddenly start growling about how they have become neo-Nazis etc. It actually shows a curious lack of empathy to be unable to comprehend this, which must in fact be political in origin, and be derived from an element of liberalism, western-centric arrogance and even some element of disapora Jewish communalism in some cases. In any case, some of Atzmon’s most outspoken critics are just as politically foolish as Atzmon himself.
So there is some useful and interesting stuff in this book, but mixed up with paranoid nonsense that indeed could be useful to genuine anti-semites – if such creatures were politically active and had real purchase today. Fortunately they don’t, at least not in the advanced capitalist countries of the West. Anti-semitism does have a purchase in the former Eastern bloc, but this is something that is likely to dissipate, not because of any benevolence of the body politic in Eastern Europe, but simply because it is a left-over paranoia from a different historical epoch. The identification of Jews with revolution and later communism- which was the basis for the classic racist anti-semitism that characterised the 19th and early 20th centuries – has long since ceased to have any even tenuous connection with reality. Latent, long-standing prejudices from previous times were driven underground under Stalinism, but paradoxically because of that being pushed down, they were preserved in the depths, only to re-emerge with the collapse of the Stalinist regimes.
And of course, there is the question of anti-semitism in the Arab and Muslim world, which is more or less a product of impotent rage at the Zionist colonisation project, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, not to mention the potent Israeli nuclear threat to the Middle East region. That a radicalised element of Israeli Jews, such as Atzmon, is prepared to stand up to Zionism to the point of identifying with the Palestinians is to be welcomed. That some of them are not immune from the kind of demonology about Jews that prevails in the Arab world is unfortunate, but hardly a big surprise given that they are subject to similar pressures, on taking the side of the Arabs, as the Arabs themselves and some will react in the way that quite a few Arabs do.
This can only be resolved by debate and discussion, which may at times be hard, but which must not involve demonisation of people whose basic tendency is to side with the oppressed against the oppressor, even if they do make rather large blunders. This review, which does not pull any punches in terms of criticism, will hopefully contribute to that process and help promote the discussion that is necessary.