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Iconoclasm And Politics – A Response To Friendly Criticism

10 Oct

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.

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