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.