Jews & Their Self Interest-An Interview with Philip Weiss

by Gilad Atzmon


Over a week ago I emailed to the well- known  blogger  Philip Weiss,  an interesting post written by Nahida (AKA The Exiled Palestinian).

In her article, Jewish Voice For Peace? Really?? , Nahida expresses some sharp criticism of Jewish anti-Zionist groups, forcefully arguing that “Anti-Zionist Jewish organisations are trying to silence Palestine’s supporters, to frame the debate” and to “steer the course of the liberation” of her homeland.

Since Weiss runs the most popular Jewish progressive blog, offering an invaluable source of information regarding Israeli crimes, I thought he might be willing to address Nahida’s criticism, and to discuss it with his many progressive Jewish followers.

Weiss did not post Nahida’s article on his blog, but his discussion with me was brave and honest*, and to a certain extent he affirmed Nahida’s criticism, admitting that it was indeed ‘Jewish self-interest’ that he himself was ‘concerned with’.

Weiss had the following to say on the matter: “I believe all people act out of self-interest. And Jews who define themselves at some level as Jews — like myself for instance — are concerned with a Jewish self-interest. Which in my case is: an end to Zionism.  A theory of political life based on altruism or concern for victims purely is doomed to fail.”

Openly and bluntly, Weiss confirmed what many of us have been saying for a very long time: it is not solely ‘altruism’ or concern for Palestinians victims that motivates some of the most prominent Jewish campaigners and organisations, but it is also, as Weiss freely admits, ‘Jewish self-interest.’

I confessed to Weiss that I was overwhelmed by his frankness. I think that Weiss may well be the first Jewish activist to admit , or even to define the Judeo-centric impetus behind the Jewish- progressive political discourse.

I decided to press it further, asking Weiss whether he considered himself to be ‘tribal’?

And once again, Weiss’ answer was brave and honest, though he did start to express some frustration. He answered, “Yes I do at some level. And what bugs me about stuff you send me (I guess that Weiss was referring to Nahida’s article) is that I end up in the end inevitably and predictably at some site trashing Jewish religion, to which I have very little connection, though yes I feel some core ‘Id’** and this makes me think in the end, that dialogue with you will not help ME because I am interested in frying different fish. While you seem out rather reductively to prove the degeneracy of a religion which I’m sure is deeply problematic, as Islam is and the Church of Pedophilia…( sic)”

However, I still do not grasp why Weiss thinks that I am interested to reductively ‘prove the degeneracy of a religion’ — I am not really interested in criticising the religion of Judaism, or any other religion for that matter: in fact, I am far more concerned with Jewish secularism and Jewish secular ideology.

However, it was at that stage that I realised that Weiss was a perfect candidate for an interview.  He certainly embodies the Jewish-progressive school of thought: a unique mixture of righteousness, charming self-love, mixed together with some deep intolerance towards other people’s belief systems.

I went on to ask Weiss: “What does the word ‘Jewish’ mean for you?”

Weiss was short and precise in his response : “My mother, my father, my grandparents, a family feeling, us-ness, in distinction to the Them.”

I pressed Weiss further , asking him, “this ‘us-ness’ does it really extend beyond family and friends? Do you, for instance, feel ‘us-ness’ with an Iraqi Jew?”, I wondered.

‘I think identity is multi-factorial,’ Weiss replied,   ‘I feel American before I feel Jewish. I think that’s the achievement of my life, to have flipped those identities, and Jewish is second. I see Jewish as this great civilization that I am part of. That transcends borders, and it’s not Zionist. Zionism is like Shabbetai Tzvi,  It’s a big chapter in a long story. Jews will survive this one too. Jews is: a sense of difference, yes, inevitably of elite identity, that’s part of Jewish history and one I struggle with.  Jewish is a Story, a myth…’

I liked the imaginative  and poetic manner in which Weiss referred to his own identity. I appreciated his honesty, and I also accepted what seems to be a possible discrepancy between the universal consciousness and the tribal affiliation.

And yet, I really wanted to grasp how Weiss translated his sense of tribalism into a political, or ideological, awareness. I enquired further, to which he responded, ‘I’m against compartmentalized identity but I do think that people are tribal, it’s the nature of the species right now, and the deal is do we call on that or do we try and reduce it? I’m for reducing it but not denying its existence till everyone puts down their shield and that doesn’t seem bloody likely.

I had some “us-ness” from my family, a lot of it, but bridled at it. “Is it good for the Jews?” question bugged the hell out of me. But if Herzl, a Christmas tree Jew like me, was made Jewish by anti Semites, as he was, I was made Jewish by the Neocons. I thought, I’m Jewish too so f**k them with their tribalism.’

You can call it anything you like. you can reduce it to JVP is Jewish, or JVP has multiple dimension. I’m in the multidimensional human camp.  My wife is not a Jew. She uses Ayurvedic typology, Jungian typology and Freudian (psychoanalysis)   to understand people.  She uses Astrology too sometimes. I dip around in all that too and I’m also Jewish and feel a real bond with Jews. Is it Ashkenazi and racist? I’m sure it is at some level. They’re the ones I grew up with. Do I transcend? I hope so.’

That is fairly impressive, I thought to myself : up to that point, Weiss had seemed to be coherent, a healthy amalgam of a self-reflective person who acknowledges his tribalism and roots, yet tries to transcend those aspects.

And yet, I was still slightly confused — I reminded Weiss that only two days earlier he had mentioned in our discussions that Jews like himself  were “ concerned with a Jewish self-interest”. I then asked him whether he approved that Jewish anti-Zionist activism may as well be primarily concerned with Jewish interests?

I guess that at that stage, Weiss started to feel irritated or even trapped, for he somehow turned sour, saying : “Primarily concerned with Jewish interests seems a stupid trap to me.”

But, I reminded Weiss that “self-interest”  and “Jewish self-interest” had been his own words, quoting to him his initial reaction to Nahida’s post  — indeed, Weiss had actually said, “I believe all people act out of self-interest. and Jews myself — are concerned with a Jewish self-interest.”

I suggested to Weiss that I can live with inconsistency — I also offered him the opportunity to feel free to change his words, or amend his narrative to suit his ‘new line’ ( in which he had stated that “primarily concerned with Jewish interests  seems a stupid trap”).

I did feel , however, that Weiss should at least be made aware of the contradictions in his own words: after all, one can either argue that “Jews act out of Jewish self-interest” or, one can contend that to be “primarily concerned with Jewish interests is a stupid trap.”

Yet, one cannot have it both ways, and one cannot hold these two views simultaneously, unless an explanation is offered.

But I guess that I asked for too much :  Weiss didn’t want to address the contradiction, saying, “( I ) Disown none of them,” explaining to me his opinion that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a little mind.”

At that point, I felt that it would be the right time to disengage, and to leave Weiss alone, just before things got further out of control.

It seems to me that once again, I have failed to converse with a ‘progressive Jew.’  I guess that in spite of the openness Weiss showed initially, he, like mny others,  cannot resolve the tension beyond the universal and the tribal.

And by now, I am increasingly certain that this gap cannot be bridged easily, if at all, for the tribal and universal are like water and oil.

I guess that the difficulties involved in resolving the tension between the universal and the tribal explains why so many progressive Jews prefer to operate in intellectual, ideological and political exclusive ‘Jews only’ cells where these questions are never raised, never asked, and never answered.


*Philip Weiss’ words are published here with his full agreement and concession

** Id- a slang name for a Jew, I guess that it comes from Yiddish. A Id-Yid is a Yiddish speaker.

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9 Responses to "Jews & Their Self Interest-An Interview with Philip Weiss"

  1. AR  June 20, 2011 at 9:46 am

    If she opposes Jews steering the movement, then she should stop whining and do something about it, don’t you think? But something tells me she won’t do a damn thing.

    The fact is (and that’s the saddest thing) those Jews have become the face of the solidarity movement. Remove them from the steering positions and who are you gonna end up with?

    I will baldly add that those Jews gave the solidarity movement all the legitimacy it needs, because it’s justifiable for Jews to delegitimize Israel but when non Jews do the same they are being referred to as anti-Semitics.

  2. Gilad Atzmon  June 20, 2011 at 1:16 am

    It is a good question indeed.
    I think that there is no doubt that progressive Jews had a significant role at a certain stage. The issue that Nahida raises in her article is different. she seems to oppose Jews steering the movement. I hope you can see the difference..

  3. Gilad Atzmon  June 20, 2011 at 1:12 am

    the truth of the matter is that there is no such a thing as ‘Jewish progressive values’
    There is not a single Jewish secular text that teaches ‘Jewish progressive values’. When ‘progressive’
    Jews talk in the name of ‘their Jewish progressive values’ they are either lying or deluding themselves.

    The most embarrassing issue here is that Early Zionism was the only attempt to erect a body of Jewish humanist ethical thought, but as we know, it failed completely. Zionism and the Jewish State are the ultimate embodiment of racist ugliness.

  4. Gilad Atzmon  June 20, 2011 at 1:04 am

    Hi Nahida, it is indeed very problematic.
    I think that we have to differentiate between dialectic tension and contradiction.
    It is clear to me that Weiss is troubled with his identity and this is, actually, the positive aspect of his political identity and thinking. He was brave enough to say say something not a single ‘progressive’ Jew has been willing to admit…. It is all about Jews and loyalty to the Jews.

    I guess that the dialogue with progressive Jews couldn’t lead anywhere. It is not a coincidence that the great Jews who contributed to humanity and humanism (Jesus, Spinoza, Marx, Simone Weill and others) were self-haters.

    The inherent self-love is indeed an obstacle.

  5. nahida  June 19, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest One of All?

    What does it mean to be a secular Jew?

    In this interview, Gilad Atzmon with his inquisitive mind and searching soul, gives us an insightful view to the secular Jewish identity by peeking through into the mind of a secular Jewish progressive:

    Tribalism, Jewish Self-interest, Us-ness, Distinction to them, Sense of Difference, and an Elite Identity

    These are the words of the progressive secular anti-zionist Jew, Philip Weiss describing what it means to be Jewish to him

    Such views of someone who consider himself a member of a tribe with a distinctive elite identity, whose main concern is the self-interest of the tribe, who views the world as us vs them,I wonde how is it different from the racist, exclusionist, supremacist ideology, those ultra-orthodox who believe in the chosen-ness, the distinction and the superiority of the Jews over all others??

  6. PeaceMonger  June 18, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    In *The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State* (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999), Benjamin Ginsberg makes the case that American Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement and civil liberties organizations is driven, in no small part, by Jewish self-interest as opposed to ‘Jewish progressive values’.

  7. AR  June 18, 2011 at 11:20 am

    These Jews & Their Self Interest obviously care more about cleaning their conscience (if they have any left)than they do concerning themselves for the Palestinian cause, but answer this question if you may: How much progress the solidarity movement or whatever it’s called would have achieved without those self-righteous progressive Jews delegitimizing Israel on a daily basis?

  8. who+dares+wings  June 18, 2011 at 9:03 am

    We’ve crossed the Rubicon of communitarian population replacement and métissage in the West. Your well intentioned and well written proposal for brave cliché shattering at this time is just looking at the flames in the rear view mirror.

  9. Art  June 18, 2011 at 8:28 am

    This type of discussions always reminds me of Armenians and their similarities and salient differences with the Judaics. They too are a small ethnic group with a long history. Their home land being adjacent to large and powerful empires has been constantly ravaged and forced them to split up and melt into nations around and beyond the ME and the western world. They too have this indomitable commitment to safeguard their identity where ever and what ever their numbers are. And here are the differences. They have never been thrown out of any country in the last three thousand years. There is no documented case any community, being moslem, Christian, Buddhist, Hinduist, Zoroasterian, … that expresses unhappiness for hosting them. In any nation, they score among the better educated and respected minorities that constantly thrive in positive cultural activities. In times of war and national calamities, instead of being among the first to pack and leave they behave just like the natives (despite of not being required, untold number of Armenian Iranians volunteered and gave their lives fighting Iraq for eight years).
    What gives?!
    I do not think keeping your ethnic identity is the deciding factor here. I welcome this type of discussions, but we need to move on into other fields of possibilities instead of kicking the same dead horse because it is a familiar theme and people will sympathize and entertain the idea. Fields like religious identity crisis. That the 95% of Judaics are converts, but to a religion that does not recognize conversion and looks upon them as heretics. “Chosen” means chosen by God. “Convert” means chosen by human. Humans who play god, and thus heretics. Fields like ethnic identity crisis. Converts are off springs of Attila’s invasion into Europe who did not bring their women along. Are they Caucasians or Hunnic?
    Is it possible that these identity crises contribute to a subliminal aggressive mentality as a preemptive posturing vis-a-vis hosting nations and cultures? Is the fact that Judaism by definition not being offered to humanity beyond the original chosens is not a religion, based on definitions of all other ‘religions’ and more of an exclusive cult ideology? Does that automatically create a rift and a sense of hostility with outsiders?
    I would very much like to see ‘braveness’ in shattering thru the cliché themes, certainly not watching skillful tennis players who strive to keep the ball within a designated box.

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