(A talk given at the ‘Palestine, Israel, Germany- The Boundaries of Open Discussion Conference’, Freiburg 11th September 2011)
by Gilad Atzmon
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
I will begin my talk with an unusual confession. Though I was born in Israel, in the first thirty years of my life I did not know much about the Nakba, the brutal and racially driven ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in 1948 by the newly born Israeli State. My peers and myself knew about a single massacre, namely, Deir Yassin but we were not at all familiar with the vast scale of atrocities committed by our grandparents. We believed that the Palestinians had voluntarily fled. We were told that they had run away and we did not find any reason to doubt that this had indeed been the case.
Let me tell you that in all my years in Israel, I have never heard the word Nakba spoken. This may sound pathetic, or even absurd to you — but what about you? Shouldn’t you also ask yourself — when was the first time you heard the word Nakba? Perhaps you can also try to recall when this word settled comfortably into your lexicon. Let me help you here — I have carried out a little research amongst my European and American Palestinian solidarity friends, and most of them had only heard the word Nakba for the first time, just a few short years ago, whilst others admitted that they had only started to use the word themselves three or four years ago.
But isn’t that a slightly strange state of affairs? After all, the Nakba took place more than six decades ago. How is it that only recently it found its way into our symbolic order?
The answer is, in some respects, quite a straightforward one: to be in the world means to be subject to changes and transformations. It entails grasping and reassessing the past through different present realisations. History is shaped and re-shaped as we proceed in time. Accordingly, we seem to understand the Palestinian expulsion and plight through our current understanding of Israeli brutality: In the light of the destruction Israel left behind in Lebanon in 2006, followed by our witnessing of the genocidal crimes performed in Gaza in ‘Operation Cast Lead’, and observing the footage of the IDF execution of peace activists on the Mavi Marmara — we have subsequently, managed to amend our picture of the scale of the 1948 Palestinian tragedy. As we grasp more fully what the Israelis are capable of — we are also able to re-construct our vision of Israel’s ‘original sin’ i.e. the Nakba. We are able to empathize more deeply with the expelled Palestinians of 1948 via our current evolving comprehension of Israel, the Israeli, ‘Israeli-ness’, Jewish nationalism, global Zionism, and the relentless Israeli lobby.
The meaning and significance of it becomes clearer — the past is far from being a precisely sealed off set of events with a fixed meaning, pre-decided for us by a fixed viewpoint and then closed off from further debate. Instead, our understanding of the past is shaped and transformed, constantly, as we progress and grow in knowledge and experience. And, as much as our current reality is shaped by our world vision — our past too, is shaped, re-shaped, viewed and re-viewed by the narratives we happen to follow at any given time.
This is the true meaning of ‘being in time’; this is the essence of temporality, and this is what historical thinking is all about. People possess the capacity to ‘think historically’– to be transformed by the past — but also to allow the past to be constantly shaped, and re-shaped, as they proceed towards the unknown.
Deir Yassin Remembered
But here is an interesting set of historical anecdotes that deserve our attention: Indeed, one may be left perplexed on learning that — just three years after the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 — the newly-formed Jewish state ethnically cleansed the vast majority of the indigenous population of Palestine (1948). Just five years after the defeat of Nazism — the Jewish state brought to life racially-discriminatory return laws in order to prevent the 1948 Palestinian refugees from coming back to their cities, villages, fields and orchards. These laws, still in place today, were not categorically different from the notorious Nuremberg race Laws. One may also be totally perplexed to find out that Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, is located on the confiscated land of a Palestinian village Ein Karem, next door to Deir Yassin, which is probably the ultimate symbol of the Palestinian Shoa.
One may wonder what is the root cause of this unique institutional lack of compassion that has been exhibited and maintained by Israel and Israelis for decades. One might expect that Jews, having been victims of oppression and discrimination themselves, would locate themselves at the forefront of the battle against evil and racism. One might expect the victims of discrimination to resist inflicting pain on others.
Yet, some deeper and far more general questions come to mind here — how is it that the Jewish political and ideological discourse fails so badly to draw the obvious and necessary moral lessons from history and Jewish history in particular? How is it that in spite of ‘Jewish history’ appearing to be an endless tale of Jewish suffering, the Jewish State is so blind to the suffering it inflicts on others?
On the face of it, what we see here is a form of alienation from historical thinking. Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has noted that Rabbinical Judaism could be realised as an attempt to replace historical thinking: instead of history, the Torah provided Rabbinical Judaism with a spiritually-driven plot. It conveyed an image of purpose and fate. However, things changed in the 19th century. Due to the rapid emancipation of European Jewry together with the rise of nationalism and the spirit of Enlightenment, assimilated European Jews felt bound to redefine their beginnings in secular, national and rational terms. This is when Jews ‘invented’ themselves as ‘people’ and as a ‘class’: like other European nations, Jews felt the urge to posses a coherent narrative about themselves and their history.
Inventing history is not a crime – people and nations often do it. Yet, in spite of the rapid process of assimilation, Jewish secular ideology and politics failed to encompass the real meaning of historical thought and historical understanding. Indeed, the assimilated secular Jew was very successful in dropping God and other religious identifiers. And yet, at least politically, the assimilated Jew failed to replace divinity with an alternative Jewish anthropocentric secular ethical and metaphysical realisation.
Temporality and Alienation
I only recently understood that the ‘Jewish Identity political discourse’ is not only foreign to history; not only is it actually antagonistic towards historical thinking, but it is also detached from the notion of temporality.
Temporality is inherent to the human condition: ‘To be’ is ‘to be in time’. Whether we like it or not, we are doomed to be hung between the past that is drifting away into the void, and the unknown that proceeds towards us from the future.
Through the present, the so-called ‘here and now’, we meditate on that which has passed away. Occasionally we hope for forgiveness; and sometimes we are cheered by a pleasing memory. At other times we become angry with ourselves for not having reacted appropriately at some moment in our past. And from time to time we may recall a sensation of love.
In the present we can also envisage the future, and in the awareness of that presence we may sense the fear of the unknown. But we can also experience waves of happiness and optimism when the future seems to smile at us.
More often than not, we draw lessons from the past. But far more crucially important and interesting perhaps, is the idea that an imaginary future can easily re-write, or even re shape the past.
I will try to elucidate this subtle idea through a simple and hypothetical yet horrifying war scenario:
For instance, we can easily envisage a horrific situation in which an Israeli so-called ‘pre-emptive’ attack on Iran could escalate into a disastrous nuclear conflict, in which tens of millions of people in the Middle East and Europe would perish.
I would guess that amongst the few survivors of such a nightmarish imaginary scenario, some may be bold enough to say what they ‘really think’ of the Jewish state and its inherent murderous tendencies.
The above is obviously a horrific fictional scenario, and by no means a wishful one, yet such a vision of a ‘possible’ horrendous development should restrain Israeli or Zionist aggression towards Iran.
But as we know, this hardly happens — Israeli officials threaten to flatten and nuke Iran all too often.
Seemingly, Israelis and Zionists around the world fail to see their own actions within a historical perspective or context. They fail to look at their actions in terms of their consequences. From an ethical perspective, the above ‘imaginary’ scenario could or should prevent Israel from even contemplating any attack on Iran. Yet, what we see in practice is the complete opposite: Israel wouldn’t miss an opportunity to threaten Iran.
My explanation is simple. The Jewish political and ideological discourse is foreign to the notion of temporality. Israel is blind to the consequences of its actions; it only thinks of its actions in terms of short-term pragmatism. Within the Jewish political discourse the time arrow is a one-way road. It goes forward, yet it never turns the other way. There is never an attempt to revise the past in the light of a possible future. Instead of temporality, Israel thinks in terms of an extended present.
But Israel is just part of the problem. The Jewish lobby is also blinded to the immanent disaster it brings on Diaspora Jews. Like Israel, the lobby only thinks in terms of short term gain. It seeks more and more power. It never looks back , and neither does it regret.
To sum up, the notion of temporality is the ability to accept that the past is ‘elastic’. The notion of temporality allows the time arrow to move in both directions. From the past, forward, but also, from the (imaginary) future, backward. Temporality allows the past to be shaped and revised in the light of a search for meaning. History, and historical thinking, are the capacity to re-think the past. Ethics is bounded with temporality, for ethics is the ability to judge and reflect on issues that transcend beyond the ‘here and now’. To think ethically is to produce a principled judgment that stands the test of time.
Looking at the Past
To a significant extent then, the ability to revise one’s perspective on, and understanding of the past, is the true essence of historical thinking — it allows us to reshape our comprehension of the past through an awareness of an imaginary future perspective, and vice versa. To think historically becomes a meaningful event once our past experience allows us to foresee a better future.
Revisionism then, is imbued in the deepest possible understanding of temporality, and therefore inherent to humanity and humanism. And it is obvious that those who oppose proper and open historical debate are operating not only against the foundations of humanism, but also against ethics.
And yet, in Israel some lawmakers insist that commemoration and historical debate of the Nakba should become illegal. And, interestingly enough, Jewish anti Zionists also oppose any attempt to deconstruct or revise Jewish past. I, for instance, have been criticised recently for being an ‘anti Semite’ for suggesting that Zionism is not colonialism. In case you do not know, this conference was under severe pressure mounted by some leading Jewish anti Zionists who insisted on preventing any discussion about the history of Jewish suffering.
But I guess that it is pretty clear by now that my philosophical outlook is not very flattering to Jewish political and ideological discourse. Yet, the truth must be spoken: Jewish political discourse openly opposes any form of revisionism. Jewish politics is there to fix and cement a narrative and terminology.
Though the Zionist ideology presents itself as a historical narrative, it took me many years to grasp that Zionism, Jewish identity politics and ideology were actually crude, blunt assaults on history, the notion of history and temporality. Zionism, in fact, only mimics an historical discourse. In practice, Zionism like other forms of Jewish political discourse, defies any form of historical discussion. Thus, those who follow the Zionist and Jewish political ideologies are doomed to drift away from humanism, humanity and ethical conduct. Such an explanation may throw light on Israeli criminal conduct and Jewish institutional support for Israel.
Self-Reflection Is Overdue
Inventing a past, as Shlomo Sand suggests, is not the most worrying issue when it comes to Israel and Zionism. People and nations do tend to invent their past.
However, celebrating one’s phantasmic past at the expense of others is obviously a concerning ethical issue. But in the case of Israel the problem goes deeper. It is the attempt to seal the yesterdays that led to the collective ethical collapse of Israel and its supporting crowd.
However, as much as I enjoy bashing Israel and Zionism, I will also have to ask you to self-reflect. Sadly enough, Israel is not alone. As tragic as it appears to be, America and Britain also managed to willingly give up on temporality. It is the lack of true historical discourse that stopped Britain and America from understanding their future, present and past. As in the case of Jewish ‘history’, American and British politicians insist on a banal, binary and simplistic historic tale regarding WWII, The Cold War, Islam, and the events of 9/11. Tragically, the criminal Anglo-American genocide in Iraq and Afghanistan, AKA ‘The War against Terror’, is a continuation of our self-inflicted blindness. Since Britain and America failed to grasp the necessary message from the massacres in Hamburg and Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there was nothing that could stop English-speaking imperialism from committing similar crimes in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
And what about you, my dearest Germans. What about your past? Are you free to look into your past and to re-shape your understanding of it as you move along? I don’t think so. Your history, or at least some chapters of it, are sealed by some draconian laws. Consequently, your younger generation do not attempt to grasp the true ethical meaning of the holocaust. Clearly, Germans do not understand that the Palestinians are actually the last victims of Hitler, for without Hitler, there wouldn’t be a Jewish State. Your young generations fail to see that the Palestinians are certainly victims of a Nazi-like ideology, which is both racist and expansionist. Let me also advise you, if any of you feel guilty about anything to do with your past, it should be the Palestinians whom you should care for. The fact that Germany is detached from its past clearly explains German political complicity in the Zionist crime. It certainly explains why your government provides Israel with a nuclear submarine every so often. But it also explains why you may remain silent when you find out that Yad Vashem is built on Palestinian land stolen in 1948.
But it isn’t just Israel, Zionism, Britain, America and Germany. Let us look at ourselves, the supporters of Justice in Palestine. Even within our movement, we have some destructive elements who insist that we shouldn’t dare to touch our past: in the last month, Café Palestine Freiburg and the organizer of this conference were subjected to relentless attack by some established elements within the Jewish ‘anti’ Zionist movement. They were demanding that the conference should drop me because I am a ‘holocaust denier’. Needless to say, I have never denied the Holocaust or any other historical chapter. I also find the notion of ‘holocaust denial’ to be meaningless, and on the verge of idiotic.
However, I do indeed insist, as I did here today, that history must remain an open discourse, subject to changes and revision, I oppose any attempt to seal the past, whether it is the Nakba, Holocaust, the Holodomor or the Armenian genocide. I am convinced that an organic and ‘elastic’ understanding of the past is the true essence of a humanist discourse, universalism and ethics.
I clearly don’t know how to save Israel from itself, I do not know how to liberate Jewish anti Zionists from their Judeo centric ideology; but as far as America, Britain, Germany, the West, and us here today are concerned, all we have to do is to revert to our precious values of openness.
We must drift away from a restrictive, monolithic Jerusalem, and reinstate the ethical spirit of pluralist Athens
Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli-born British jazz saxophonist, novelist, political activist and writer.
Atzmon’s album Exile was BBC jazz album of the year in 2003. Playing over 100 dates a year, he has been called “surely the hardest-gigging man in British jazz.” His albums, of which he has recorded nine to date, often explore the music of the Middle East and political themes. He has described himself as a “devoted political artist.” He supports the Palestinian right of return and the one-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His criticisms of Zionism, Jewish identity, and Judaism, as well as his controversial views on The Holocaust and Jewish history have led to allegations of antisemitism from both Zionists and anti-Zionists. A profile in The Guardian in 2009 which described Atzmon as “one of London’s finest saxophonists” stated: “It is Atzmon’s blunt anti-Zionism rather than his music that has given him an international profile, particularly in the Arab world, where his essays are widely read.”