The campaign to silence Gilad Atzmon

Speaking at a panel discussion on “Jewish identity politics” in London last October, shortly after the publication of his book, The Wandering Who?, Gilad Atzmon made this observation:

Identity drifts you far away from what you are.

This is the issue. This is one of the most important [issues raised in the book] — I wouldn’t like to call it a revelation because maybe I’m not the one who brought it up — but people who know who they are, they don’t need identity.

Identity is actually a form of identification.

This book is now endorsed very widely by a lot of people, a lot of Muslims and Muslim converts wrote about it, like the one I have in mind at the moment is Kevin Barrett who wrote, this is the most important text — he is definitely not a Jew, he is a Muslim — he said this is a very important text for me about identity politics. It teaches me how to drift away from this whole restricting discourse into a society where we can celebrate who we are without falling into a kind of methodical discourse that tells us who we should be or what we ought to be.

This merits repetition and reflection: people who know who they are, don’t need identity.

And the converse is also true: people who cling to an identity, don’t know who they are.

For some people, these philosophical observation are not of the slightest interest when articulated by Atzmon for the simple reason that he has been labelled an antisemite. Thus, for someone like Alan Dershowitz, Atzmon is beneath contempt. Instead, Dershowitz shamelessly directs his venom at anyone in a position of influence who dares to suggest that Atzmon’s ideas are worth reflecting upon.

Atzmon is unphased, but he isn’t just getting attacked by Zionists.

“Not only has my latest book, The Wandering Who?, rocked the boat, but it also has managed to unite Alan Dershowitz and Abe Foxman with Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal. That is pretty encouraging: it means that peace may prevail after all.”Gilad Atzmon, March 14, 2012.

The Emergency Committee for Palestine has now spoken:

For many years now, Gilad Atzmon, a musician born in Israel and currently living in the United Kingdom, has taken on the self-appointed task of defining for the Palestinian movement the nature of our struggle, and the philosophy underpinning it. He has done so through his various blogs and Internet outlets, in speeches, and in articles. He is currently on tour in the United States promoting his most recent book, entitled, ‘The Wandering Who.’

The Wandering Who? Gilad AtzmonWith this letter, we call for the disavowal of Atzmon by fellow Palestinian organizers, as well as Palestine solidarity activists, and allies of the Palestinian people, and note the dangers of supporting Atzmon’s political work and writings and providing any platforms for their dissemination. We do so as Palestinian organizers and activists, working across continents, campaigns, and ideological positions.

Atzmon’s politics rest on one main overriding assertion that serves as springboard for vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with his obsession with “Jewishness”. He claims that all Jewish politics is “tribal,” and essentially, Zionist. Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical “Jewish” one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a Jew and also do work in solidarity with Palestine, because to identify as a Jew is to be a Zionist. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon’s argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist.

This statement — part of an open letter titled “Granting No Quarter: A Call for the Disavowal of the Racism and Antisemitism of Gilad Atzmon” — was preceded by a similar denunciation, “Not Quite ‘Ordinary Human Beings’ — Anti-imperialism and the anti-humanist rhetoric of Gilad Atzmon,” written by “some North American anti-imperialists,” and signed by a large number of representatives of the Palestinian solidarity movement.

They say at the end of their statement: “We wish to reiterate that we consider many of those promoting Atzmon’s work to be allies, but would ask that they reconsider their decision to do so. This is not a call for censorship, but for consistency and accountability.”

What is clear is that Atzmon offends, antagonizes and is felt as threatening by a number of anti-Zionists. The group of Palestinian activists who I facetiously labelled the Emergency Committee for Palestine are making a show of solidarity with fellow anti-Zionists. Their move might be well-intentioned, but at the same time it is by its nature, presumptuous, patronizing and authoritarian.

What should follow this disavowal? Should there be a book-burning event in order to protect the minds of those of us who might be so imprudent as to show some curiosity about Atzmon’s ideas?

Statements of disavowal and denunciation, the picketing of Atzmon’s lectures, and a campaign to persuade others not to provide Atzmon with a platform — if this is not an effort at censorship, what would be involved in actually trying to silence Atzmon?

In reality, this is clumsy neo-McCarthyism. It deserves no more respect than the pronouncements of Zionists like Dershowitz who as much as he might profess a belief in the value of free speech will do whatever he can to silence those he opposes.

A year ago, Rabbi Michael Lerner, who had heard the criticisms leveled at Atzmon, did something that few of these critics have the courage to do: he invited the-man-who-should-be-shunned into his home and engaged him in conversation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the whole discussion has been put online, but here’s a snippet that is worth watching — unless of course one wants to follow the advice of the disavowalists.

At the conclusion of a response he has written to the current round of criticism, Atzmon says: “If my opposition is concerned with my thoughts, it will have to learn to debate. Before we can proceed, I guess, my detractors may have to actually read my book and decide exactly what they are against.”

He says this in full awareness that many of his critics prefer to rely on the judgements of others rather than engage in their own inquiry. This has led to an absurd situation: Atzmon’s lectures are being picketed by individuals who when confronted by him admit that they have not actually read his work, but instead merely rely on damning quotes, cherry-picked by anti-Atzmon activists who seem to welcome neither free speech nor free inquiry.

Free speech is not some fatuous liberty like being able to shop on EBay or dye your hair purple. The reason we have free speech is because in a society governed by the people, no one can be allowed the privilege or assume the power of becoming the guardians of thought. Those who try to limit the free exchange of ideas have a casual and dangerous disregard for the value of political freedom.

No one is being forced to consider what Atzmon has to say — but neither should anyone try and coerce others to refrain from pursuing such an interest.

There is something frankly moronic about any political culture where individuals are encouraged to swallow or reject ideas simply because of the reputation of the source. This is an insult to human intelligence and an invitation to intellectual idleness.

For those with an interest in the dangerous activity of thinking — and in defiance of those who pronounce I should not be providing such a platform — here is a panel discussion on “Jewish identity politics” in which Atzmon was joined last fall by Irving Rappaport (moderator), Glenn Bowman (social anthropologist, University of Kent), Oren Ben-Dor (Reader in the Philosophy of Law, University of Southampton — who remains silent for reasons unknown), and Karl Sabbagh (author, journalist and television producer).

The discussion, followed by questions, runs for one hour forty minutes, divided into ten parts. It’s well worth watching from beginning to end.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

Part Eight

Part Nine

Part Ten

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Comments

  1. dickerson3870 says:

    ALSO: Gilad Atzmon and Rabbi Michael Lerner on KPFA Flashpoints with Dennis Bernstein (39:14) [Uploaded by argusfest on Feb 28, 2012]
    Author and Jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and Rabbi Michael Lerner discuss Israel, Zionism, and Jewish identity politics.
    LINK – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYk2norZ_0o

  2. dickerson3870 says:

    FROM A FILM REVIEW BY GILAD ATZMON, 1/15/10:

    (excepts) I urge every person on this planet to watch Yoav Shamir’s Defamation, a documentary about anti-Semitism. . .
    …He provides us with some intimate footage of Israeli youth being indoctrinated into collective anxiety and total neurosis just before they join the IDF.
    The general image we are left with is no less than grotesque. The film elaborates on the aggressive vulgar orchestrated amplification of fear amongst Israelis and Zionist Jews. “We are raised to believe that we are hated” says an Israeli high school girl on her way to a concentration camp…
    …Shamir provides us with an opportunity to see how badly young Israelis behave once in Poland. You watch their contempt to the local population and disrespect to Polish people and institutes. You can also watch Israelis project their hatred onto others. For some reason they are convinced that everyone out there is as merciless as they happen to be. The Israeli youngsters are saturated with fear, yet, they are having a good time, you can watch them having a party dancing in a bus all the way to a Auschwitz…

    ENTIRE FILM REVIEW – http://www.gilad.co.uk/writings/defamation-must-be-seen-a-film-review-by-gilad-atzmon.html
    “Defamation” can be streamed from Netflix (91 minutes) – http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Defamation/70117001
    “Defamation” is also on YouTube (VIDEO, 1:31:18) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOUlJLrQ3sQ

  3. Glad to see this. I suspect this attack on Atzmon is a combination of professional jealousy and fear that he has crossed a line that will alter the whole Zionist-Jewish narrative. The book is a courageous work and it resonates with truth, regardless of whether you find it enlightening or infuriating. And it is indeed moronic for anyone to try to silence Atzmon for his views, and it is censorship of the worst kind besides. Those who started this smear campaign should be ashamed.

  4. delia ruhe says:

    I’ve read Atzmon’s book — or, more accurately, two-thirds of it before I got pulled away by something else. What I appreciated about it is that he’s completely unaffected by the propaganda that has made the rest of us tiptoe around the question of Jewish identity and Israel. That propaganda — that hasbara — has pretty much stifled plain speaking among all but a few, and Atzmon is one of those few.

    It is hardly surprising that Jews as a group are going through an identity crisis. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of exploiting your grandmother’s Auschwitz experience. Besides, Jew-as-eternal-victim outrageously obscures the significant contributions Jews have made to Western civilization.

    It’s also hardly surprising that Jews tend to practise a very sophisticated kind of identity politics. After all, it was the Jews’ earliest ancestors who invented identity politics. A diverse bunch of refugees living in the Samarian hills chose to unite under the sign of One God, since everyone else in the known world worshiped many. The entire bible is the story of how the leaders tried (and failed) to keep the people united under that sign — their “stars and stripes,” as it were.

    Finally, Jews are by history and geography a highly diverse group, and the split is especially stark between diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews. The former are nourished by their fantasies of Israel, the latter by their day-to-day experience of it. Jews in ever greater numbers are starting to understand that maybe Israel cannot be “the homeland of all the Jews.” Eighty percent of diaspora Jews make up the silent majority. We think they don’t speak out because they don’t want to wash dirty Jewish linen in public. But maybe they just don’t give a damn about Israel because it’s a foreign country that everybody is blaming them for.

  5. “We don’t do enough shaming in our society!”

    In the first instance, the notion of assigning academic scarlet letters to John Mearsheimer and Richard Falk, at the instigation of the notorious plagiarizer and fantasist Alan Dershowitz, is simply risible. The charge of plagiarism is comprehensively documented by Norman Finkelstein in his book “Beyond Chutzpah”. Yet here the man is given a very comfortable media platform by Fox News from which to sling mud at three authors whose published musings, whatever one thinks of them, at least share the merit of being their own. Such are the mysteries of free speech.

    As to Gilad Atzmon, campaigns to reduce him to the status of antisemitic monster or, alternately, menace to the struggle for Palestinian rights, are equally misguided. He is plainly a thoughtful, intelligent artist who incorporates vigorous polemical activity into his efforts at communication. This is a man whose social upbringing was steeped in practices and values he came to find heartless, disgusting and- yes, Alan Dershowitz- deeply shameful. The blind, bullying, bigoted, self-righteous mentality of Zionist triumphalism has in large part called forth Atzmon’s own counterprovocations. The difference between the two viewpoints is that in the case of Zionism, the intellectual goal must be to direct human thought towards an embrace of institutionalized inequality, whereas Atzmon’s responses are meant to challenge such assumptions and to play a role in opening public discourse beyond the present narrowly measured scope.

    Included in this posting, two statements from Atzmon seem especially worthy of attention. The first is, “People who know who they are, don’t need identity.” As someone living in a country (Ireland) in which discourse is so frequently stunted by exactly the sort of “identity politics” to which he refers, it was not difficult for me to recognize the truth of this observation, and to appreciate the journey that went into the discovery.

    The second statement had to do with the necessity for listening, as Atzmon pointed out in his remarks in the home of Rabbi Lerner. While this utterance may seem so axiomatic as to court banality, it constitutes a serious reflection from the life of a musician. The polyphonic beauty- even, sometimes, the required ugliness- generated by a collection of people and instruments is achieved precisely by listening. You can’t play if you don’t listen- nothing makes sense. The analogy of a musical group is not the worst model that could be applied to the process of working through philosophical differences- listening fully and accurately to the views of others.

    In dismissing Atzmon as merely “some obscure saxophonist”, Alan Dershowitz demonstrates several layers of ignorance simultaneously, beginning with the importance of the musical process as it relates to other discourses. In conveying his disdain (incomprehension, really) not just for Atzmon but for the saxophone itself, Dershowitz manages to evoke the aggressive philistine spirit that never quite went out of style with the passing of Joe McCarthy. To expect from him any appreciation of the instrument, its leading exponents (Gilad Atzmon is certainly one) or the many forms of music to which it is a vital contributor, would be to wish for a greater transformation than that undergone by a certain Israeli-born critic of his country’s ideology.

    But then I doubt if “the best-known criminal lawyer in the world” has ever played a tune on any instrument but the cash register.

  6. Gilad Atzmon says:

    Hello there, thanks for your attention. It is pretty obvious that we are winning here. The old Marxist secularist discourse is falling apart and the few who uphold these views are in a state of panic. They would do much better revising their ideas and categories rather than fighting me..

  7. Colm O' Toole says:

    As a “Marxist secularist”, albeit not an old one since I’m in my twenties, I disagree with Gilad’s racial-centric approach to Israel/Palestine. The discourse should address the problem at hand which is Israeli colonialism and American imperialism.

    I don’t care that the Israelis are Jewish just like I don’t care that the Unionists in Northern Ireland were Protestant. For me it is completely meaningless and all that matters is that Colonialists are attempting to settle on land that is not theres and expel the native population.

    Who cares about “Jewish Identity” in such a universal struggle? Whether it is French soldiers in Algeria, or British soldiers in Kenya, or American soldiers in Iraq or Israeli soldiers in Palestine is of no differeance or importance.

    Finally on his repeated attacks on Marxism as an extension of Jewish tribal identity I would point out that while many of leading Marxist figures in history were Jewish (ie most of the Frankfurt school, Sartre, Milliband) almost all of them renounced religion in all forms and took a universalist view on humanity. There is nothing tribal about “Workers of the World Unite”.

  8. Colm — I’ll pick out one of the points you make — not really for your benefit, since you seem to be stuck in transmission mode with no means to receive, but rather for those who have an interest in exploring some of Atzmon’s observations.

    Who cares about “Jewish Identity” in such a universal struggle? Whether it is French soldiers in Algeria, or British soldiers in Kenya, or American soldiers in Iraq or Israeli soldiers in Palestine is of no difference or importance.

    Obviously Jewish identity can be of little interest to someone who identifies himself as a Marxist secularist (are there any Marxists who are not secularists?), but the colonialist parallels you note are worth drilling into a bit.

    Soldiers from France in Algeria, soldiers from Britain in Kenya, soldiers from the US in Iraq, and soldiers from Israel in Palestine — which of those is the odd one out?

    No need to answer Colm because you already said that from your point of view they are all the same, but for those who don’t have an anti-imperialist axe to grind, it would be immediately obvious that Israeli soldiers in Palestine is the odd one out.

    Firstly, this case begs for clarification about which territory is being referred to as Palestine. Just the occupied West Bank or the whole of historical Palestine? If it’s the latter, then the soldiers didn’t come from somewhere else. Most of them were born in the land they occupy. If it’s the former then the soldiers came from next door — a bit like British troops in Northern Ireland, although in that analogy to parallel the Protestants with the Israeli settlers would be a bit of a stretch since the Protestant colonists started their settling a few centuries ago. Whichever it is with Israel, we’re not talking about a colonial power and its control of a colony in the same sense that Kenya was a British colony or Algeria a French colony.

    Three years ago, Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser made what might sound like a neo-colonial statement: “We want to relieve ourselves of the burden of the Palestinian populations – not territories. It is territory we want to preserve, but populations we want to rid ourselves of.”

    But consider again the colonial examples you cite: Algeria, Kenya, and Iraq. In none of these cases did the colonial powers want or have any use for the land without the people. In colonial imperialism, the native populations were not merely tolerated — they were regarded as indispensable resources who would serve as labor extracting resources. The colonists wanted the land and the people and the non-native colonizing populations generally didn’t expand beyond a size necessary for administration and military control.

    If one wants to look for colonial parallels to Israel, then the most obvious one would have to be America itself — another land with no people for people with no land. It’s no wonder that the colonists here latched on to ideas of this being a promised land and that they were creating a new Jerusalem. While Bantustans is a favored term for describing the areas to which Palestinians are being confined, the trajectory points towards the creation of 21st century reservations.

    Which brings back the issue of Jewish identity. In Israel, as in America, the settlers (including those who have settled the West Bank and those who created Israel) had multiple and conflicting explanations about what they were doing — some seeing it as an exercise in nation-building and others as the response to a divine command. So at a time when the demand “recognize the Jewish state” has become so deeply embedded in political discourse, it’s very important that this phrase “Jewish state” is deconstructed and we start to ask: in a Jewish state, what does “Jewish” mean?

    Israel is clearly conflicted about its Jewish identity. The majority of its population identify themselves as secular Jews yet there is no such thing as a civic marriage. While “all” Jews have the right to “return” to Israel, there is a lot of debate about who should have the authority to determine who is or is not a “Jew.”

    A growing and politically extremely influential minority see themselves as the most religiously observant Jews yet reject the idea of a secular Jewish state.

    Meanwhile, the most politically powerful elements in the diaspora believe that it is their duty to defend Israel as a Jewish state and yet overwhelmingly these elements are made up of secular Jews.

    Israel’s identity and Jewish identity are profoundly intertwined and the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be determined as much by ideas that are being clung onto by people in Brooklyn, Washington, and Miami as it is by actions taken in Jerusalem and Ramallah. If you don’t care about Jewish identity, you should.