Gilad Atzmon and Jewishness

Last week, Mikey invited me for a drink with Gilad Atzmon.

Mikey’s thoughts on Gilad and his worldview follow, below.

Gilad was, I have to say, utterly charming and a delightful drinking companion. He arrived with a copy of his album “Exile” and his new work, Artie Fishel and the Promised Band. On the way home in the taxi, we played the first of the two albums. My taxi driver thought it excellent, and so did I.

Artie Fishel, I liked less. It is, essentially, a comedy album which spoof a jewish jazz musician, who is obsessed with his ethnicity. It could be funnier. I suggested to Gilad that Artie was essentially him: a proposition with which he agreed.

Is Gilad Atzmon a racist? Not in the narrow sense of being preoccupied by genetic differences between people, certainly. He is rather, I think, a ‘cultural essentialist’: if such a term exists. He and I talked about the distinction he draws between those cultures which are grounded in the “soil”, and which are “authentic”, with those which are not. Hence, muslim, arab and Palestinian cultures pass the authenticity test, while “jewishness” is not, and is accordingly pernicious. There is something of “blood and soil” theorising about Atzmon’s worldview: minus the “blood”, that is. Redemption, for Atzmon, is possible for jews who abandon “jewishness”.

We discussed the distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” cultures. I talked about the late 19th century English folk song movement, which sought to preserve and resuscitate the vanishing musical culture of the common people: untainted by popular culture. The genesis of the movement was, in part, an answer to those who claimed that England was a land without its own music, and who feared that national culture was being swept away by fancy German and Italian imports. Its irony was that, when folk song collectors cornered 70 year old blokes and asked them to sing the “traditional” songs of their youth, they tended to offer up popular ballads about fighting Napoleon, that they’d remembered from the theatres and music halls of their youth. There may be an authentic culture in societies which are static, and where social and geographical movement is rare. But the truth is that most cultures reinvent themselves every few generations. This was the lesson of the English folksong revival. This is evidently true of “jewishness”, and it is equally true of muslim and arab identities: and for similar reasons.

It goes without saying that Gilad Atzmon has a somewhat eccentric way of viewing the world. It owes something, as we know, to the writings of “Israel Shamir” and Paul Eisen, although he holds Heidegger in high regard. He categorically does not regard himself as a Marxist. I think that most people would regard these views as typical of a particular strand of anti-semitic far right thinking.

Mikey summarises Atzmon’s politics well:

Gilad Atzmon, who defines himself as an “ex-Jew” and an “ex-Israeli” has become fascinated with the term “Jewishness.” He believes “Jewishness is an ideology.” But what does the term “Jewishness” actually mean? For want of a better definition, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “Jewishness” as either “The religious system of the Jews; Judaism” or “Jewish quality or character.” According to Atzmon who has been using the term, Jewishness encompasses “the ideological mindset and the cultural framework.” Atzmon’s friend Paul Eisen who believes “the evidence for the use of homicidal gas-chambers [at Auschwitz] is not good at all. The evidence against it is much, much stronger.” adds that in his view “An ideological Jew is someone who … sees him or herself guided ethically by their Jewishness. More specifically it is also is someone whose ethical decisions are made according to what is ‘good for the Jews’.”

Many people have called Atzmon an antisemite and a racist, but Atzmon does not like these accusations. He insists that he differentiates between “Judaism (the religion), Jews (the people) and Jewishness (the ideology).” He explicitly states “I firmly refrain from referring to racial or ethnic categories.” He believes “Jewish groups in the left and in the right” have obscured “the demarcation between Judaism, Jews and Jewishness” and by doing so “Israel is safe from criticism.” Consequently Atzmon does not want to attack “Judaism” or “Jews” but it is open season for him to attack “Jewishness” since if Jewishness is an ideology, then according to Atzmon, “it cannot just position itself beyond criticism.” It is essentially this “Jewishness” that Atzmon has a real problem with. He states “It is not the Jews and it is not Judaism that are to be blamed here, but it is not Zionism either. Jewishness is actually a deeper concept than mere Zionism.” He argues “Jewish Ideology is totally self- centred” where “the Jew becomes the subject of belief, the Jew believes in himself.” For Atzmon Jewishness is a “a collective continuum grounded on a fantasy of horror” and “the materialisation of politics of fear into a pragmatic agenda.”

What Atzmon does not seem to do is to differentiate his view of Jewishness from that of Zionism. Consequently anyone who he believes exhibits Jewishness is either a Zionist or a “crypto-Zionist.” For a Jew to believe that antisemitism may be important is a clear indication of this “Jewishness.” It does not seem to matter whether or not that Jew defines themselves as an anti-Zionist Jew or a Zionist Jew and we therefore get from Atzmon the ludicrous accusation that Tony Greenstein, a well known anti-Zionist Jewish activist from the group Jews Against Zionism (JAZ), is a “crypto-Zionist.” Indeed, it would appear that you do not even have to be Jewish to accused of exhibiting Jewishness. The mere fact that the non-Jewish Sue Blackwell may consult with “Jewish friends” in the anti-Zionist movement and support the activities of JAZ gets her to be lumped in the same bracket. Atzmon stated quite clearly referring to the views of himself and Mary Rizzo, someone who he is politically close to “We identify Zionism with Jewishness. We identify JAZ tactics with Zionism.” What Atzmon has actually done is to change the definition of Zionism. The term is normally defined along the following lines: “the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.” But this is not good enough for Atzmon as he regards Zionism as “a tribal Jewish preservation project” or “a Jewish global movement which has as its aim the prevention of assimilation.” By redefining words to suit your purpose you could argue just about anything and this is what Atzmon has freely done.

By Atzmon’s way of thinking, it is not sufficient to attack Zionism, one must also explore this notion of Jewishness which also needs to be attacked. Atzmon therefore argues Jewishness “is an ideology that has maintained ethnic cleansing policies for six decades.”

Now Atzmon has looked back into religious texts and makes the astonishing conclusion “To be a Jew is to collaborate with power.” And whilst according to Atzmon, “Zionism religiously presents itself as a devoted servant of larger colonial forces” what is really occurring is that “Zionist lobbies control American foreign politics” and that “Zionists have taken over America.” But as Atzmon identifies Zionism with Jewishness, the logical conclusion of this is that Atzmon must believe that Jewishness has taken over America. Oliver Kamm highlighted Atzmon changed this wording “American Jews do try to control the world” in one of his Internet articles from 2003 to this wording “American Jews (in fact Zionists) do control the world” by 2006. Given the way Atzmon conflates Jewishness with Zionism, Atzmon must believe Jewishness controls the world. If all this sounds like it comes straight out of the antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that influenced Adolf Hitler and modern day neo-Nazis, it does, but Atzmon does not care that it is a forgery because as far as he is concerned it is a fact either American Jews or Zionists are controlling the world.

These ramblings of Atzmon seem to me to represent a rather personal response to his own ethnicity.. Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish year when Jews do not work and fast for approximately 25 hours. Atzmon reminds me of the Jewish school boy who takes a day off school on Yom Kippur to stand outside his synagogue eating a ham sandwich whilst laughing at all the other Jews who pay more attention to their religion. The Jewish school boy who could not care less about the religion would just go to school on that day like any other day. If Atzmon was standing outside a synagogue, I would be less concerned about him eating a ham sandwich than him carrying a box of matches, as according to a report in The Observer Atzmon believes burning down a synagogue is a “rational act.” Atzmon may call himself an “ex-Jew” but by continuing to write such articles, it appears that he either cannot or does not want to escape from his own Jewishness. If Atzmon does exhibit Jewishness then Atzmon by his own definition would be a Zionist or a crypto-Zionist. Given his views, this seems absurd. Maybe the Socialist Workers Party who support Atzmon can enlighten us?

Gilad Atzmon regards himself as both a musician and a philosopher. As a philosopher, I find his politics very dodgy indeed. But loads of people have odd and distasteful ideas. I’ve always felt very equivocal about the notion that “if you have a racist friend now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end”. Most sensible people would rather stick around and argue with their friends than send them to Coventry.

But Gilad Atzmon is not a close friend who I need to save from his racism. He is simply a musician. The fact that a musician is an inventive and accomplished saxophonist does not mean that his views are any more profound or worthy of attention than those of your gran, a taxi driver, or a bloke you met down the pub. Musicians do sometimes deliver themselves of nasty views. Remember Eric Clapton and his endorsement of Enoch Powell? Or, more ambiguously, David Bowie’s Nazi salute, or the controversy over Morrissey’s Bengali in Platforms?

So what? Somebody who takes their political views from a musician is a fool.

The difference, of course, is that Atzmon has been given a platform to perform and proselytize by the Socialist Workers’ Party: a grouping which has traditionally posed as an anti-racist organisation. And the best that the Socialist Workers Party can say about him is this:

The SWP does not believe that Gilad Atzmon is a Holocaust denier or racist. However, while defending Gilad’s right to play and speak on public platforms that in no way means we endorse all of Gilad’s views. We think that some of the formulations on his website might encourage his readers to feel that he is blurring the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti Zionism. In fact we have publicly challenged and argued against those of his ideas we disagree with.

We do not believe that Gilad should be “banned” from performing or speaking. “No Platform” is a principle that the left has always reserved for fascists and organised racists. Where other disagreements occur, the left, with the same vigour, has defended the right to freedom of speech, debate and the clash of ideas.

The problem with the second paragraph of the statement is that the Socialist Workers Party is not well known for providing platforms for those whose politics are abhorrent to them. They are better known as disrupters, rather than promoters, of public debate with far right wingers. One of their traditional arguments has been that, by providing platforms for racists, they assist them in organising and promulgating their views. Gilad Atzmon is not an “organised racist”, in the sense that he does lead a political movement. He is, however, certainly a widely read writer, whose essays are translated into a large number of languages.

Nevertheless, I doubt I’d have any particular interest in his work, were it not for the fact that he is championed by the Socialist Workers’ Party.

Why the Socialist Workers’ Party decided to act as a midwife to a particularly pernicious form of hostile cultural essentialising about jews is a connected question. Given their support for movements in the arab and muslim world which entertain thematically similar, and rather more lethal, views about jews, I doubt they’ve any real interest in combatting it.

Indeed, I suspect they welcome it.