Last Thursday’s essay “Why Hate Gilad Atzmon?” has been bouncing around the internet. (The title currently gets 780,000 Google hits).
In that piece I suggested that the anti-Atzmon brigade is defending sacred boundaries against Atzmon’s fearless questioning. The two taboo questions are: Is the whole notion of a Jewish state in Palestine (i.e., Zionism) legitimate and/or feasible? (The obvious answer, of course, is NO.) Second question: To what extent has Jewish identity politics contributed to the disaster of Zionism? (The obvious answer, of course, is “to a considerable extent.”)
“Don’t even go there!” they scream. Atzmon goes there. So they lynch him.
The truth hurts.
That’s my take, anyway. But not everyone agrees with me. I have received quite a few anti-Atzmon emails. They all make the same argument: Atzmon is wrong about X, Y, or Z, and therefore he is dangerous, a racist, a dangerous racist, and so on.
First, I would like to point out to these people that Atzmon has a right to be wrong. Since nobody is arguing that Atzmon is offering wrong facts – just wrong opinions, interpretations and orientations on very complex issues – his critics ought to be working harder to explain why he is wrong, rather than calling him names and organizing boycotts and smear campaigns on the basis of perfectly innocent quotes violently and misleadingly ripped from their contexts.
Second, it isn’t at all clear that Atzmon is wrong. What IS clear is that many of his opponents are.
Take the charge that Atzmon is an “essentialist.”
To call someone an “essentialist” (in the bad sense) is to argue that they prematurely end a discussion by fallaciously citing the “essence” of something.
For example, if someone argued that the reason African-American communities often have high crime rates is that “black people tend to be criminals, that’s just their nature” that person would be making a fallacious argument by falsely impugning an unchangeable “essence” to black people. And that person could plausibly be charged with bigotry. The logical fallacy involved is called “circular reasoning”: Black neighborhoods have higher crime rate, therefore black people are more likely to be criminals, because they’re the ones in the black neighborhoods, where crime rates are higher, ad infinitum. The problem with this argument is that it prematurely ends an inquiry into the real reason why crime rates are what they are; it short-circuits a more thoughtful investigation of the historical and cultural factors that have produced the phenomenon under investigation.
Now if Atzmon were to say “It is just the essence of Jewish nature to be greedy and violent, and that explains the rape of Palestine – end of story, and don’t bore me with historical and cultural explanations,” he would be an essentialist in the bad sense.
But that is not what he says. On the contrary, it is Atzmon who is opening a thoughtful discussion of the historical and cultural factors behind Zionism. And it is his opponents who want to prematurely shut down the inquiry by ruling that discussion off-limits. As Gilad puts it, the two-staters will only go back as far as 1967. One-staters go back to 1948, or maybe the Balfour declaration of 1917. Gilad wants to keep going, right back through the 19th century and beyond.
It is actually his opponents who are the essentialists. They believe that the essence of Jewishness is always either positive or neutral. Any discussion of Jewish culture or identity that brings up anything that is negatively-valued violates their sacred notion of the essence of Jewishness as innocence and victimization. Atzmon wants to talk about empirical historical reality, which bears little resemblance to the essentialist construct. So they shout him down, desperate to end the discussion before it starts. You’d almost think they have something to hide.
Ironically, most of those wailing that Atzmon is slandering the Jews are themselves slandering Atzmon. They call him a racist, with no evidence to back up that charge. (Atzmon’s critique of Jewish identity-politics and Jewish culture in general has absolutely nothing whatsoever do do with race, as he himself always makes abundantly clear, in part by pointing out that Jews are not a race.)
Let’s look at some of the charges against Gilad that have appeared in my in-box. They usually involve taking a quote and lying about it – I mean, misconstruing it.
Atzmon quote: “The remarkable fact is they [ all Jews–not Zionists] don’t understand why the world is beginning to stand against them in the same way they didn’t understand why the Europeans stood against them in the 1930s. Instead of asking why we are hated they continue to toss accusations on others.”
The writer claims that Atzmon is “blaming the Jews for the Holocaust.” That’s just not true. The quote, in its context, doesn’t say that. It addresses an empirical historical reality (Europe in the 1930s, the world today) that is much larger than “the Holocaust.” And once again, Gilad is the honest thinker while his opponents are the essentialists. For the essentialists, the essence of Jewishness is 100% pure victimhood, end of discussion: Not a single Jew on earth – including, for example, the Rothschilds and their big bankster friends who screwed Germany in World War I in exchange for Palestine – bears one iota of responsibility for the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany! (Just like the top neocons, of whom around 90% are Jewish and fanatical Zionists, bear not one iota of responsibility for the 9/11 wars against Israel’s enemies.)
If you are an honest historian and cultural analyst, whenever there is a conflict between two groups, you look at it from the point of view of various parties in both groups, and emerge with a more or less nuanced, multi-viewpoint, holistic picture. Gilad compares this to analyzing the problems that arise in the life of a couple. Should we take the word of one or the other party that he or she is 100% right, and the other 100% wrong? Or should we talk to both parties and try to take both perspectives into consideration?
If you an essentialist/mythologist, nourished on Old Testament exceptionalism and chosen-ness (like Americans in general, not just Jews) you may instead imagine that it is the essence of the good guys in your historical narrative to be good, and the essence of the bad guys to be bad. Jews good, Germans bad; ergo, US and Allies good, Axis bad. End of sacred story.
This is the essentialist myth that Americans and Westerners have accepted in place of real history. And it is this myth, more than any other, that is responsible for what William Blum calls “the American holocaust”: The massacre of uncounted millions, and the ruined lives of uncounted tens of millions more, by the CIA, the US military, and their allies since World War II. Taken together with Zionist atrocities against Palestine and their spill-over into widespread Middle East violence, and the WWII atrocities of the Allies against people in the Axis countries, and it should be clear to any sane and moderately well-informed person that the “good guys” who won World War II have committed vastly more mass-murder, vastly more atrocities, vastly greater crimes against the human body and spirit than the Nazis ever did. In short, as Philip K. Dick suggested in The Man in the High Castle, it was the real “Nazis” who WON World War II. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
But – as is commonly said in reference to the “good Germans” under Hitler – it is so much easier to just pretend it isn’t happening, and go along with the essentialist, exceptionalist assumption that your people are the good guys. And when someone like Niemoller or Atzmon comes along to challenge you, shout him down without giving him a fair hearing.
The confused individual who falsely charges Atzmon with blaming Jews for the Holocaust also calls Atzmon a racist:
“This is the essence of racism. Not that Jews like many before them have become corrupted by power. But that there is something pathological about Jewish culture–it must be their culture since he repudiates genetic explanations–that led them to become Zionists.”
Sorry, that is NOT “the essence of racism.” Racism offers biological explanations. Cultural explanations are THE OPPOSITE of racism!
Calling Atzmon “a racist” when you don’t even know what racism is…well, to say that this is inviting a defamation lawsuit is putting it mildly.
This person is trying to rule out any kind of investigation of cultural factors that led Jews to become Zionists. This is idiotic on its face. So in an attempt to prevent anyone, himself included, from actually thinking, he starts in with the mendacious insults: “Racist! Anti-Semite!”
Let’s get this straight: Nobody in his or her right mind has ever tried to prevent any discussion or investigation of cultural factors in history. Was there something in Protestant culture that led to the Industrial Revolution? Max Weber says yes – and he doesn’t give a good goddamn whether you feel he’s insulting Protestants (or Catholics) by investigating their respective cultures. Is there something in the culture of Muslim Saudi elites that is contributing to religious tensions in the region? Hell, yes – their hypocritical tolerance of wildly un-Islamic behavior for themselves, while imposing harsh restrictions on others. Is there something in Muslim culture that has slowed “economic progress” in Islamic countries? Sure, there are plenty of things, ranging from stopping to pray five times a day, to prohibitions against any kind of dealing involving interest, to culturally-accepted nepotism, to cultural preferences for working as an independent operator rather than a member of a corporate team.
Atzmon’s critics are wildly irrational in calling him a racist, and claiming that nobody should ever investigate cultural forces in history (the bread and butter of cultural historians). The dozens of people signing a statement to this effect – a statement containing blatantly false and defamatory assertions about Atzmon – might as well be signing a statement reading “I am an ignorant idiot.”
What these folks should be doing is reading Atzmon’s work carefully and holistically, and then, if they find that Atzmon is mistaken in his analysis of the way Jewish identity politics is a factor in Zionism, they should correct him. For once we’ve admitted that cultural critique is perfectly legitimate, we must add that not all cultural critiques are equal: It can be done badly, or well. Sure, some of Gilad’s statements about Jewish identity politics are tendentious or overly broad. And since his main focus is explaining the horrors of Zionism, he naturally talks more about negative cultural tropes than positive ones. (Personally I think that the positives in Jewish culture outweigh the negatives; but the positives, such as humor, education, bagels with lox and cream cheese and a thin slice of onion, etc. don’t explain what’s been done to Palestine.)
The irrational Atzmon critic continues:
As long as Zionism is conveyed as a colonial project, Jews, as a people, should be seen as ordinary people. They are no different from the French and the English, they just happen to run their deadly colonial project in a different time.”
Obviously this cannot be taken at face value. The French and the English are not identical, nor were their colonial projects. One thing I learned from postgraduate work in African Studies is that the French and English colonial projects differed wildly in accordance with the very different cultural peculiarities of the two nations. For example: The French, holding a monolithically statist and egalitarian ideology in keeping with their culture, did their best to grant the natives the status of honorary Frenchmen; and being slightly less racist than the British, they were more likely to intermarry with the colonized peoples.
So what is this dramatic, doth-protest-too-much insistence that “the Jews are ordinary people, just like the French and British” trying to hide?
The answer comes in the same sentence: The “deadly colonial project” of the Jews is happening at a “different time” from that of the French and English.
Let’s be specific: All other colonial projects – especially settler-colonial projects – are dead. They have passed on, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet their Maker; stiff, bereft of life, they rest in peace. If the Israelis hadn’t nailed Occupied Palestine to its perch, they would all be pushing up daisies.
The age of colonialism ended in about 1960; the process mostly happened within a few years, and was essentially complete within three decades. South Africa, the second-to-last settler colony, officially decolonized itself around 1990.
So what is it about Israel that allows it to persist as a fanatical, murderous settler-colony, vastly nastier than apartheid South Africa or French Algeria, in a post-colonial world?
Gilad Atzmon says that to answer that question, we need to take a very close, critical look at Jewish culture in general and Jewish identity politics in particular.
If there is a reasonable argument to the contrary, I would like to hear it.
But I don’t think there is.
I think it will be people following the trail Gilad blazed – people who discover that the persistence of a very peculiar and very nasty settler-colony in Palestine is largely due to the peculiarities of Jewish identity politics – who will, by ripping the mask off Zionism to show what it really is, shame the world in general and the Jewish community in particular into shutting down their settler colony in Occupied Palestine.
Currently, the sacred taboos and one-sided myths that surround this issue are protecting Zionism. Blast those taboos to smithereens, and the Wall will come down.
Like Joshua at the battle of Jerico, Gilad is heroically blasting the Wall – the wall that stops us from thinking as well as the Apartheid Wall in Occupied Palestine – with his saxophone as well as his pen.
One day the Wall will crumble.
And Gilad will be playing at the celebration.
Hope to see you there.