Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Disavowing Disavowal: In Defense of Gilad Atzmon

I've been on a concert tour in Europe, so far mostly in Great Britain, for the past month or so. There's nothing like being on tour to connect on a personal, face-to-face level with society, or at least the little subsets of society who come to my shows. Being a songwriter who writes songs about the Palestinian struggle, among other subjects, many of my shows around the world are organized by Palestine solidarity activists of one kind or another. Before the tour began I was getting occasional emails from people asking me whether I wanted to add my name to a group denunciation of jazz musician, blogger and author Gilad Atzmon. Denounce him for what, I asked. For being an anti-Semite, they replied. I'd then ask them to send me what he wrote that they found offensive, which they would then do (sometimes accompanied by an introductory essay explaining the distinction between anti-Zionsim and anti-Semitism). I'd then read every word, and each time, I'd fail to find the anti-Semitic bit. Then, ten days into my tour, the US Palestinian Community Network published a "Disavowal of the Racism and Antisemitism of Gilad Atzmon." Several of the signatories include Palestinian intellectuals and activists I know and admire.

Before and especially after their denunciation of Atzmon was published, several of my gigs in England and Scotland have included people handing out printed copies of the disavowal and telling me and other people in no uncertain terms that Atzmon is an anti-Semite, may be a Mossad agent, and may be (or is, depending on who you ask) a holocaust denier. ("Which holocaust" is not an appropriate question, so don't even think about asking. Just the question alone is enough to get you accused of being a denier in some quarters.)

Well, all the attention Atzmon was getting prompted me to fork up $9.99 for my first electronic book (and I'm very thankful that something got me to read a book again, as somehow or other it's been ages). I'm not a scholar, but I am an avid student of history and politics, and I thought Atzmon's book, The Wandering Who?, was a very thought-provoking read. There weren't any particularly new ideas in it, but it was a very well-organized, well-articulated, contemporary and at times, humorous 200-page analysis of Jewish identity.

From the outset, Atzmon makes it clear that his criticism of various aspects of Jewish tribal identity(s) for the past couple millenia is not aimed at the many people who happen to be born Jewish, but to what he identifies as "third category" Jews – Jews who identify primarily as Jewish, first and foremost. Growing up in the New York area with my eyes open and being of Jewish lineage myself, it is not hard to see that this third category exists, and in abundance, so it's also not hard to see why it's such an interesting subject to write a book about.

A cursory glance at history tells me that narrow tribal identity politics usually suck. Whether it's people defining themselves in terms of their nation, their region, their ethnicity, their football team, their religion, if people have convinced themselves that they're better than you, watch out. What Atzmon is doing here is deconstructing (to use a word he probably doesn't like) Jewish identity politics, specifically. He is not analyzing or denouncing tribalism in general, I assume because you gotta stop somewhere, but maybe he has other reasons, like just wanting to stick to the point, or perhaps a little bit of self-preservation.

Why, then, is Atzmon's intellectual exercise here getting both the Anti-Defamation League and even various good activists so riled up? Well, for different reasons, depending on who's feeling riled. In the case of people involved with Palestine solidarity in one form or another, I'd say it is not Atzmon's non-existent hatred of Jews that is the problem here. It is the fact that, in his position as an accomplished jazz musician and writer, he keeps talking about his views and upsetting people who identify with other narratives of Jewish religion, history and identity than Atzmon's. Some of these people he's pissing off include Jews and others who are involved with the movement to boycott Israeli products, etc. Because he's pissing them off, it doesn't really matter whether he's right, he should just shut up and stop rocking the boat, because he's distracting people from the very worthy cause of Palestinian self-determination.

Now there's where I can sympathize with Atzmon's detractors. There is, I'm sure, great strategic value in as united a front as possible. I'm not an organizer – just a musical cheerleader – so I don't know much first-hand about building a solid movement and that sort of thing, and I'm sure it's extremely difficult. I'm also sure it's extremely necessary. But as someone who has been studying history and politics for many decades, I have to say that Atzmon is only saying the things that so many people already know, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise because shunning someone for stating the self-evident is more convenient for the movement in the short-term. If he is to be shunned for being unnecessarily divisive, or for having too dark a sense of humor, or for being overly confrontational or critical, fine, shun away. But if he is to be shunned because he is an anti-Semite, no, that's just nonsense.

I'm not going to lay out Atzmon's whole thing here. If you're curious, read the book – at least read the first two chapters before you decide to join in the shunning. But as a big fan of world history and the similarities and differences between the development of different societies over the millenia, as I was reading his book I kept thinking of other examples of tribal identity politics through the ages. One of the things I love about the US, despite a perennially despicable government committing one holocaust after another – the African holocaust, the Native American holocaust, the Korea holocaust, the Vietnam holocaust, not to mention the German and Japanese holocausts committed by the USAF – and despite all the efforts of racist pricks in power who do their best to maintain all sorts of divisions within American society – in the end, the US is full of hopelessly assimilated mutts like myself. It is, in fact, to no small extent, a melting pot, and although the bigotry that often is one of the factors that leads to assimilation must certainly be condemned, the fact that the country is full of people who, like me, can trace their ancestry to at least a dozen countries, tribes and historic religious affiliations, is a beautiful thing. It leaves many of us, especially those of us living comfortable lives, who are broadly accepted as part of a given society, perplexed by tribalism. For us assimilated types it doesn't come naturally, and if it is to exist it must be very purposefully ingrained. (Which is why the ADL hates Atzmon – he's interfering with the ingraining process with his book.)

I kept wondering, as I was reading Atzmon's book, what would reactions of the general public be like to a similarly critical deconstruction of Catholic religion and tribal identity? I suspect such a book would be taken very differently depending on the locale -- depending on whether you live in a place where Catholics are disproportionately living in poverty or faced with discrimination, or have been in such a position in living memory, such as Northern Ireland, as opposed to places like the US or the other 26 counties of Ireland. For example, I have never met anyone living in Belfast who would refer to themselves as a "recovering Catholic." Despite the efforts of the historically oppressed Catholic community in the northern six counties to distance themselves from the Catholic tribal identity and embrace a more inclusive, Republican identity (Protestants welcome!), the effect of centuries of anti-Catholic discrimination and oppression has left people with a much stronger attachment to their Catholic identity than most Catholics would tend to have in the Republic of Ireland or in the United States, where you will often meet people who, when asked if they grew up in a religious family or some other such question, will define themselves as a "recovering Catholic."

Most people immediately understand what is meant by "recovering Catholic." The emphasis may vary depending on the person and what their experiences were like, but most likely anyone "recovering" from being a Catholic is trying to recover from growing up in an atmosphere where they were led to believe that sex is bad, everyone else who doesn't believe the way we do is going to hell and should therefore be converted to my religion, abortion is a sin, homosexuality is a sin, etc. Yet if someone were to describe themselves as a "recovering Jew," in many cases the room would become uncomfortably quiet, I imagine, as people gradually walk away from the offending party, lest they be accused of anti-Semitism by standing too close. Except in Brooklyn or Tel Aviv, where being Jewish is quite normal and unexotic, and where most people would understand immediately (whether or not they like it) that this person is recovering from growing up in an environment where everyone who wasn't Jewish was a goy and was not to be trusted and was a closet anti-Semite, where you shouldn't marry a goy, where you're always either too Jewish or not Jewish enough, where you're a failure for not being a doctor or a lawyer, where you're part of a Chosen group of people and you're better than others, but don't say that in public or they'll say you poisoned the wells, etc.

Sticking with the Catholic example here, though, reading the "debate" (if you can call attack and counter-attack a debate) between Atzmon's detractors and supporters (some of whom appear to be lunatics), I was thinking about what a friend in West Belfast was telling me about some things that happened back in the day, during the Troubles. The IRA was, like so many movements, full of inevitable contradictions. So much of the Republican movement had a distinctly socialist orientation, and elements of the Republican movement were very critical of the Catholic church presently and historically, including even critical of the church's stance on abortion and many other still-sensitive issues among many people of Catholic origin there and around the world. But much of the IRA's funding came from Irish-American supporters in the US, who were often otherwise fairly conservative politically and socially as well. So the IRA's socialist message and anyone associated with the Republican movement who was speaking out in support of legalizing abortion was seen as an obstacle to the Republican movement, even if many people quietly agreed with the dissenters.

Many people have made relevant comparisons between the global movement in support of Palestinian self-determination and the global movement in support of Irish Republicanism. There are many more relevant comparisons to be made, and I'd venture to say that this is another of them. In both cases, with the various dissenters within the anti-Zionist movement and the Irish Republican movement, I really do sympathize with both the dissenters and the "united front." I understand that strategic unity is vital for any successful movement. But I also understand that honest debate, freedom of expression, and critical analysis of everything – very much including Jewish identity politics – is also vitally important. I hope that a unity of purpose can be maintained even with such substantive differences in our various understandings of reality and history. Moreover, I hope that Atzmon's honest efforts to disentangle the whole question of Jewishness will lead other people from other tribal backgrounds to do more of the same. And I hope that more people will read his book before they feel the need to call him an anti-Semite.


Douglas Carnall, @juliuzbeezer said...

A very sane exposition. Thank you for writing it.

I hadn't come across Atzmon's book, but your point about the political forces that underlie the maintenance and promotion of 'tribal' reflexes is very well made.

Divide to rule is the oldest trick in the political book. Let's not fall for it.

Wishing you well as you tour,


Darth Blender said...

Yeah, because promoting holocaust denial = defending the right of women over their bodies.

How come I didn't figure that one before?

Here's an alternative explanation. Those who signed these statements actually have principles.

Those who believe that one must be Jewish or pressured by Jews to despise antisemitism reveal something about themselves.

Trever Frever said...

I'd have to agree with Darth - the opposition to Gilad started growing when he passed around some Holocaust denial propaganda from Paul Eisen in 2004, and it's still something he refuses to back away from.

Atzmon wants people to believe he's being attacked for his anti-Zionism. But ask him whether there were gas chambers at Auschwitz, and you won't get a yes. You'll get a jazz improvisation about everything under the sun, but you won't get Atzmon to say yes.

David, try it. Read up a little bit on Holocaust denial, ask Atzmon his own positions, and then note the similarities.

Hints said...

What a shame you miss the point completely, David. I suggest you reread the statements made by anti-zionists and Palestinians again, and reflect on their words. Then read Atzmon's ridiculous response to the Palestinian statement where he clearly illustrates that his framing of the Palestinian struggle and conditions is in conflict with theirs, in fact Atzmon shares the zionist view that Israel is *not* committing the crimes against humanity of colonialism or apartheid. .

Then recall that it is Palestinians who define the extent of their struggle, and who, along with the UNHRC, South African Human Sciences Research Council, ICAHD and many notable human rights activists, accuse Israel of these heinous crimes against humanity. Yet Atzmon would disappear Israel's crimes. Whose side is he on, again?

Seductive though his words may be for some, especially to white supremacists whose trademark is making generalisations about Jews, Atzmon does not know what is best for Palestinians. He does not speak for them. He may not define their struggle, which unlike Atzmon would have it, is not with the Jewish people, Jewish culture or Judaism. Nor, with his shallow generalisations and interminable narcissistic pronouncements, does he speak about and for all Jews. Again, this is what zionists claim to do.

kersplebedeb said...

i am sorry to see that you either misunderstood, or choose to misconstrue, the statements regarding Atzmon. This is not a matter of a brave freethinker vs. well-meaning activists who want to hush up a controversy for the greater good. Regardless of where you fall on the question of antisemitism, that is clearly not what was going on.

Rather, this is a case of a person spreading racist theories about Jews, and some Palestinians and others saying that such racism is not acceptable. Atzmon is not simply someone questioning his background or identity, he is someone telling us - people interested in opposing oppression - that Jews play a uniquely evil role throughout human history, that this is intrinsic to Jewish identity, and that Zionism is merely the latest symptom of this.

Claiming that you have read The Wandering Who and did not get that out of it would be a valid argument if not for the fact that Atzmon has maintained a blog for years where he posts his essays, and the statement you were approached with contained several quotes along with links to the original essays so that you could see that they are not taken out of context. Atzmon's response to this statement and these quotes was not to claim that he had been misquoted, but to defiantly assert that he stands by them all.

Again, i am sorry that you either misunderstood or choose to misrepresent the purpose of our statement, which was not to hush up a controversy but rather to take a stand against racism. How would you suggest we respond when we see people we respect organizing events that promote racist (or homophobic, or sexist, or zionist) ideas?

Aaron Aarons said...

Hints writes:
"Atzmon shares the zionist view that Israel is *not* committing the crimes against humanity of colonialism or apartheid."
"Then recall that it is Palestinians who define the extent of their struggle, and who, along with the UNHRC, South African Human Sciences Research Council, ICAHD and many notable human rights activists, accuse Israel of these heinous crimes against humanity. Yet Atzmon would disappear Israel's crimes."

It is absurd to claim that, because Atzmon argues for a different conceptual analysis of Israel's crimes against the Palestinians, he is somehow "disappear[ing]" those crimes! And I say this although I do, unlike Atzmon, believe that "settler colonialism" and 'apartheid' are accurate, if incomplete, characterizations of Israeli practice.

Moreover, what does it mean to say, "it is Palestinians who define the extent of their struggle"? Do only Palestinians have a right to analyze, critique and struggle against Zionism? And if the majority of Palestinians were to follow the path of the corrupt 'Palestinian Authority' and accept, under any conditions that might arise, the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, would the rest of humanity be required to accept it?

Unknown said...

Thank you for this article.
It is very unfortunate that the facts of the Holocaust are still being denied and if you are up on them and know there were no Gas chambers your voice is automaticlly stilled or ignored.
American history with all of its warts is now an open book, but the histories of our world wars, if broached, makes you a racist, anti-semetic or a Nazi.