Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012, Pages 20-23
Gilad Atzmon and The Wandering Who?
By Norton Mezvinsky
Not content to be merely a successful, world-class jazz musician, Israeli-born Gilad Atzmon has emerged as an extremely controversial critic of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, the Jewish state, Zionism, many forms of anti-Zionism, and what he calls Jewish identity politics. It did not surprise me to learn that Alan Dershowitz and some other Zionist colleagues had severely attacked Atzmon and his ideas. It did surprise me, however, when some Jewish and Palestinian friends of mine, who are outspoken critics of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, counseled me not to meet Atzmon, and thereafter scolded me for agreeing to interview him publicly. These friends, together with others of like opinion, advocated disavowal and boycotting of Atzmon and his ideas.
In contrast, another friend, an Orthodox Hassidic rabbi, a major authority on the Halacha (Judaic religious law) and an advocate of Israel's remaining a Jewish state and not relinquishing any presently held land, urged me to interview Atzmon. My friend and I obviously disagree about Israel and the Palestinians, but we have mutual respect for one another. Regardless of our disagreements, the rabbi spent many hours reading Atzmon's book, The Wandering Who? Although he disliked the book and disagreed with Atzmon's major assertions, he sent me bullet point criticisms and suggested I use them in my interview.
My friends who scolded me and called for disavowal and boycotting of Atzmon and his views often cite the principle of freedom of expression for advocates of their views. To my dismay, however, they refuse to apply the same principle to Atzmon; rather, they call for the opposite treatment. My Orthodox rabbinic friend reacted in a far more enlightened and democratic manner, regardless of his rejection of Atzmon's ideas.
On March 14, 2012 I interviewed Atzmon in Washington at an event arranged and sponsored by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. That interview is available on the magazine's Web site, <www.wrmea.com>. Before the interview, I read The Wandering Who? and many of Atzmon's other writings, and listened to numerous interviews of him, especially those conducted during his recently completed speaking tour in the United States. I additionally read and considered written criticisms of him and his ideas, as well as statements of support and agreement from his admirers. For parts of two days after our interview, Gilad Atzmon and I further discussed his ideas.
I have attempted to put all of this into the context of my nearly six decades of study and active concern with the wide-ranging issues involved here. Hopefully, then, I have a basis for my following comments. Before focusing specifically upon a few of Atzmon's major arguments, however, I want to reflect briefly upon him as a person. I shall also address the most serious allegations made against him by his antagonists.
Gilad Atzmon is a critical and committed secular humanist with firm views, who delights in being provocative. Born into a Jewish family in the state of Israel in 1963, he served in the Israeli army from 1981 to 1984. His transformation began after a 1984 visit to Ansar prison in Lebanon. It was not until the time of the Oslo accords in 1993 that his transformation was completed, when he became convinced that Israel did not want a truly fair, peaceful settlement. Gilad left for England in 1994 and has not returned to Israel since 1996. He has vowed not to return unless and until that state ceases to be an exclusive Jewish state, becomes a true democracy, guarantees equal rights to all its non-Jewish as well as Jewish citizens, allows Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to become citizens with equal rights, and accepts the right of return for Palestinians, displaced since 1948.
Since 1996, Gilad Atzmon has developed his ideas and has been increasingly outspoken. His most recent book The Wandering Who?, published in 2011 and available from the AET Book Club, is to date the most complete expression of his views.
The study of philosophy has greatly influenced Atzmon, most especially the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, which has had a profound effect upon him. Although Heidegger, one of the 20th century's most creative and original philosophers, never claimed that his philosophy was concerned with politics, he and his philosophy became embodied in political considerations. This was due to some extent to the debate over Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi movement. That notwithstanding, it was Heidegger's emphasis upon ontology, the study of being, as best expressed in his great work, Being and Time, that seems most to have affected Atzmon. In some intriguing ways, Heidegger's philosophy had a similar effect upon four different, gifted individuals who came from assimilated Jewish backgrounds and became intellectual giants: Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Hans Jonas and Karl Lowith. Atzmon may not yet be the sophisticated philosopher he strives to be, but he nevertheless expresses some thoughtful and creative ideas that should be seriously considered, regardless of agreement or disagreement.
In addition to his being influenced by Heidegger, Atzmon credits Otto Weininger (1880-1903) for helping him grasp who he is, what he is trying to achieve and why his detractors invest so much effort in trying to thwart him. This was so, even though Atzmon acknowledges and explains that Weininger was an outrageous misogynist and anti-Semite, who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Weininger wrote only one book, Sex and Character, in which he regarded homosexuality and Jewishness as symptoms of society. Unable to cope with his own homosexuality and a myriad of other psychological problems, Weininger committed suicide at age 23. The Weininger influence upon Atzmon is not unique. Regarded as a genius, Weininger and some of his ideas impressed and influenced a variety of intellectually creative people, including the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the prolific writer August Strindberg.
Atzmon not only rejects the Jewish state and condemns Israeli oppression of the Palestinians; he also attacks what he calls Jewish identity politics. In doing so, he generalizes, adds some specific criticisms, suggests far-reaching analogies and inserts some psychological analysis. He focuses primarily on individuals and groups in one of his three designated categories of Jews. The Jews in that category, he maintains, put their Jewishness over and above all their other traits. These Jews include both Zionists and self-declared, secular anti-Zionists. From Atzmon's perspective these Jews are tribal. Within this context Atzmon criticizes many aspects of Jewish cultural history and Jewish exclusive political activism.
Atzmon's critique of Jewish identity politics may itself have been sufficient to disturb some Jews, Palestinians and others in or associated with the Palestine solidarity movement. Atzmon has seemingly provoked increased hostility by disagreeing with and rejecting the basic, leftist anti-Zionist argument: namely, that Zionism is a settler-colonial project and movement, similar to movements in many other parts of the world that attempt to displace indigenous people and build new European societies on their lands. Atzmon additionally argues to the dismay of many that Israel is not an apartheid state but is instead a state with a unique, racially driven, expansionist philosophy that seeks to cleanse itself of Palestinians.
There can be no reasonable doubt that Atzmon's views are provocative. They can be legitimately questioned and reasonably opposed. It is, however, unfortunate that some antagonists have called Atzmon's views anti-Semitic and have alleged that he is an anti-Semite. That allegation is untrue! As already stated, such an allegation, coming from the likes of Alan Dershowitz and/or his extreme Zionist colleagues, is not surprising. More unfortunate is that a significant number of people who are actively involved in the struggle against the Zionist character and oppressive actions of the state of Israel have made this same false allegation.
To reiterate, questioning and/or disagreeing fully or in part with Atzmon's views is legitimate. Labeling his views anti-Semitic, however, is incorrect. Criticizing certain members and certain cultural aspects of the group is allowable and often warranted. A Jewish tradition of internal criticism has existed for at least two centuries, and probably for longer.
I take the liberty to interject a personal reference here. In our book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Israel Shahak and I are severely critical of individual Orthodox Jews, rabbis and groups, as well as of certain aspects of traditional Judaism. At the congregation I attend regularly in New York City, moreover, I often refer to what I consider to be negative theological positions in some of the religious emphasis of my congregation's Lubavitch Hassidic tradition. (This is in contrast to the positive theological positions in Lubavitch theology.) While the rabbi, numerous members of the congregation, as well as others firmly disagree with me in regard to what I criticize, they nevertheless do not consider me or my views to be anti-Semitic. We discuss our disagreements in a friendly manner and respect one another. We do not disavow or boycott each other. Again, this is in keeping with certain Jewish traditions.
In The Wandering Who? Atzmon, as previously mentioned, divides Jews into three categories: "1) Those who follow Judaism. 2) Those who regard themselves as human beings that happen to be of Jewish origin. 3) Those who put their Jewishness over and above all their other traits." Atzmon's negative criticism is directed against those in the third category. There is no general condemnation of Jews here. This is not anti-Semitism.
Some of Atzmon's detractors allege that his views must be anti-Semitic, because hardcore anti-Semites utilize his criticism of Jews and Jewish culture in their depictions of Jews generally. Hardcore anti-Semites often use anti-Zionist criticisms of the state of Israel to forge unwarranted anti-Semitic depictions of Jews. For pro-Palestinian activists to use this same technique against Atzmon is shameful.
Another serious allegation is that Gilad Atzmon is a Holocaust denier. That is nonsense, and as such deserves little discussion. Atzmon not only acknowledges the Holocaust; he emphasizes its effect upon him personally and upon Jews in general. He discusses varied reactions to it. He emphasizes the development—unfortunate from his perspective—of a Holocaust religion. He opposes, as do many others, the use of the Holocaust in attempts to garner political and economic support for the state of Israel. This is not Holocaust denial.
Atzmon addresses in The Wandering Who?, as previously mentioned, important issues that deserve careful consideration by everyone—Jews, Palestinians and others—who are concerned with the interrelated topics of Zionism, the Jewish state, Palestinian oppression and Jews. Jewish identity politics, as coined by Atzmon, may or may not be the best term to use as the contextual framework for discussion of these issues. But Atzmon is not the first person to draw attention to them. Many of his interpretations and explanations can be challenged—thus the need for and value of further discussion. With this in mind, and realizing that many more questions can be raised about what Atzmon has presented, I offer the following five comments:
1) The three main categories of Jews mentioned in The Wandering Who?, and cited above, are somewhat ambiguous and overly limiting. The first category, allegedly comprising Jews who follow Judaism, is unclear. Atzmon neither mentions nor discusses the various branches and/or different theological interpretations of Judaism. Some members in some of the groups, who presumably fall into this category, do not believe that people in other groups, also presumably in this category, are true believers in Judaism. A number of American Jews maintain memberships in various synagogues within different branches of Judaism and in reality are not religious believers. Other Jews, who attend synagogue, are not sure they believe in Judaism.
The second category, allegedly consisting of Jews who regard themselves as human beings who happen to be of Jewish origin, is even more confusing. Do not Jews in Atzmon's other two categories consider themselves human beings of Jewish origin?
Atzmon's third category, consisting of those who put their Jewishness over and above all other traits, also is unclear. Jews differ in their understanding and definition of Jewishness. What about Jews who sincerely believe that they put what they understand to be their Jewish traits on the same level as their other human traits? Atzmon directs his criticism at Jews in this category. His generalizations about them may not be valid. We are most likely unable to determine who most of these Jews are. Atzmon may think he knows who all these Jews are, but the rest of us may not. The bottom line here is that it is difficult, indeed impossible, to fit an indeterminate number of Jews into Atzmon's designated categories of Jewish identity.
2) As a follow-up to the above comment, it appears that at times Atzmon, with insufficient empirical evidence, over-generalizes about Jews from many perspectives and about how the Zionist apparatus works in the United States. What Paul Wolfowitz, Milton Friedman and a few others did or observed, for example, does not necessarily prove the totality of what Atzmon infers. Additionally, Atzmon, in a creative but not necessarily compelling way, attempts to use analogy to illustrate a Jewish continuum for a more than two-millennia time period that has allegedly helped Zionists do their work in the 20th and 21st centuries. His most striking attempted use of analogy is related to the suggestion about what Queen Esther did in the story of the Jewish festival of Purim. Her lobbying of King Ahasuerus in order to save the Jews and kill their enemies allegedly taught Zionist lobbyists in Washington how to influence the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1940s and how to influence later administrations as well. It may be an understatement to say that such an analogy is a stretch.
3) In The Wandering Who?, Atzmon describes Zionism as largely a Jewish diaspora discourse that is of little concern to Israeli Jews. Yet, he also criticizes and condemns the Zionism of Israel's character and its manifestations, which not only affect but also oppress the indigenous Palestinian population. Atzmon also writes that Israel should be de-Zionized. There appears to be a contradiction here.
4) In his book Atzmon maintains that he is not criticizing Judaism, the religion, but is rather confronting the Judaic code. He thereafter refers to the "Judaic God, as portrayed by Moses" to be an evil deity who leads his people to plunder, rob and commit theft. Atzmon also cites other biblical passages calling for theft, murder and plunder. He calls this Judaic law and makes an analogy to how the current state of Israel is oppressing Palestinians.
Despite his statement to the contrary, however, Atzmon does indeed seem to be criticizing Judaism. By emphasizing Judaic law, Atzmon is referring to a cornerstone of traditional Judaism. In that regard, however, he is off-base, because he neglects to use rabbinical interpretation of the biblical text in this instance. Rabbinic interpretation, which is essential in determining what traditional Judaism is, actually tempers what Atzmon here cites from the biblical text.
If Atzmon is actually commenting upon Judaism in his book, he needs to refer to the prophets, who envisioned peace, harmony and universal humanitarianism. In addition, he needs to discuss Reform Judaism, which presents an interpretation, and perhaps a theology, distinct from and different than traditional Judaism.
5) Atzmon praises and relies heavily upon Shlomo Sand's recent book, The Invention of The Jewish People (available from the AET Book Club).There Sand, a history professor at the Tel-Aviv University, negates the idea that Jews ever existed as a nation or race or had a common origin. The idea of a people came late, he argues, probably in the 19th century, and was a made-up notion. Sand denies the Jewish exile and accepts the argument about the Khazars put by Arthur Koestler is his book The Thirteenth Tribe. Although Sand mostly repeats some points made by others in the late 19th and 20th centuries, he does present some additional insights and contributes a well put-together case.
Although understandably impressed by what Sand wrote, Atzmon probably should have included in The Wandering Who? some references to the learned, scholarly refutations of Sand's book by numerous scholars and scientists in many fields of study. These refutations contain impressive historical and scientific evidence. Referring to much of that evidence, Israel Bartal, dean of the humanities faculty at the Hebrew University and the author of the book, Cossak and Bedouin: Sand and People in Jewish Nationalism, wrote a devastating response to Sand's book in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in July of 2008.
Numerous additional comments could be made about Gilad Atzmon's ideas and the total substance of The Wandering Who?. Perhaps it is enough and best to suggest again that Atzmon is creative and provocative. His book deserves a careful reading. He and his ideas should be engaged.
Norton Mezvinsky is a Distinguished Connecticut State University Professor of History (emeritus). In addition to his other published writings, he co-authored with Israel Shahak the book Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (available from the AET Book Club).
When Harvie Branscomb, organizer of the recent North American book tour by jazz saxophonist/anti-Zionist writer Gilad Atzmon, called to ask for help setting up Washington, DC events we were unenthusiastic. “We have a tiny staff; we’re broke,” this reporter told him—but more importantly, “This magazine tries to report on events held by other organizations in order to help readers see what others are doing and provide solidarity. We’re not equipped to organize grassroots events ourselves.”
But when we heard no one else was lining up to host Atzmon, we realized we had to help, because audiences in Washington, DC need to hear views from everyone, not just the usual policy pundits.
The first challenge we faced was finding a venue. A few of the many universities or locations we approached initially agreed but then, due to pressure from students, donors or others, reneged. One school quadrupled the room rate when they learned more about the proposed event.
It was the churches that came through. They withstood the pressure—and there was pressure—because as Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational Church explained when he welcomed visitors on March 11, “We have an open pulpit policy.” This church is open to ideas, he said. Its members “agree, disagree and wrestle with life’s biggest questions in a spirit of love.”
Atzmon played his sax with Plymouth’s music director Maceo Kemp and a marvelous band he’d assembled, and the audience was treated to a first-class performance. Atzmon then related the story of his journey from Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, whose grandfather was a “right-wing terrorist,” to his life-changing discovery of American jazz, to his present position as an outspoken anti-Zionist philosopher/writer. (Intrigued? Read The Wandering Who?: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, available from the AET Book Club.)
Atzmon described his shock in learning that it was non-Jews—African Americans, in fact—who had created the most beautiful music he’d ever heard. Growing up in a country which treats Jews from African nations badly (they can die for Israel in the army but they can’t donate blood), Atzmon said he couldn’t wait to go to New York or London to play jazz.
But first he had to finish his stint in the IDF. When he visited Ansar prison camp in southern Lebanon in 1984, he recalled seeing Palestinian prisoners held without charges, in 90 degree heat surrounded by barbed wire. He also noticed small concrete cubes, which he assumed were dog kennels, but was informed that they were used to put Palestinians in solitary confinement. “They [Palestinian prisoners] were the Jews and I was the Nazi,” Atzmon said, and it was then he knew he could not stay in Israel, where “Jews, who had endured so much suffering, were inflicting such pain on others.”
Atzmon was the featured “Monthly Master” at DC Jazz Jam later that evening in Dahlak Restaurant and watching him connect with his audience and other musicians was a treat.
The night before Prof. Norton Mezvinsky’s March 14 interview with Atzmon at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church (watch a video of the excellent event, including former White House reporter Helen Thomas asking Atzmon the first question from the audience, at <www.wrmea.com>) a controversy shook up our plans for a thought-provoking event. Ali Abunimah and 21 other respected Palestinian writers and activists issued a statement calling for “The Disavowal of the Racism and Antisemitism of Gilad Atzmon.” Puzzled, and probably deeply hurt, Atzmon penned a thoughtful response. (The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, sent both statements to thousands of readers on our “Action Alert” list.) Hours after Professor Mezvinsky’s interview concluded, there was a sea change in the blogosphere—Atzmon received a barrage of encouragement from his supporters and won scores of new visitors to his Web site, <www.gilad.co.uk>.
Atzmon spent his final day in Washington, DC, holding interviews and speaking with Occupy DC protesters and others at Peace House.
While he was in the U.S., Atzmon shook up friends and foes alike, and started a conversation which must continue. We learned that in addition to Zionists who are quick to label anyone who disagrees with them anti-Semitic or racist, there are also well-meaning, self-appointed, pro-peace gatekeepers who don’t want to allow others to speak. But to achieve true lasting peace, and uphold the values of a free society, we need to hear every voice. This, after all, has been the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,’s goal for the past 30 years.
—Delinda C. Hanley