Gilad Atzmon Interviewed
The word Zionism is almost meaningless in Israel and within the Israeli discourse it is actually non-existent. Zionism may mean something to the American settlers in the West Bank or the new wave of French immigrants to Israel, but not much more than that, says Gilad Atzmon.
Interviewed by Mary Rizzo
Interviewing Gilad Atzmon is never easy, but always interesting. It’s challenging because when it comes down to it, there is so much material, it has to be drastically reduced to make an interview fill an acceptable, customary length that is palatable to the average reader. It is interesting because he is able to effortlessly and authoritatively address a wide range of topics in an entertaining way. Although a frequent participant on the Peacepalestine blog and regularly published there, the last formal interview I did with him was in April of 2005. A lot has changed since then, both in the world Atzmon comments about, Israel-Palestine (and the activism movements that are born of this issue), and in his own career. Since then, he has released a CD under a pseudonym, recorded his soon-to-be released album with The Orient House Ensemble, composed theatre music and embarked on a multi-media project. As much as I would have liked to share that side of the discussion, this interview doesn’t address the artistic aspects of Gilad Atzmon, but sheds more light on his thoughts about the events that take place in the world we live in.
Mary: For years, regarding Israel-Palestine we’ve heard, One State, Two State, now even Three State Solution. What kind of perspective do you see?
Gilad: It should be clear by now that any discourse of resolution may have very limited relevance with the reality on the ground. Thus, we better leave this issue behind.
Mary: You’ve expressed on many occasions that your primary concern is supporting the liberation of the Palestinian people. The question at this time might get confusing for the public who see Palestinians of the two principle parties of the Unity Government involved in armed clashes of the militia. How can anyone effectively support a group that is itself divided into factions?
Gilad: It’s true that they seem divided and for more than a while we’ve been witnessing an emerging crisis within the Palestinian society as a whole. But, for some time, it’s been clear to me that this very conflict, this factionalism, is something we shouldn’t interfere with. At any rate, it’s nothing that is new. Palestinians are divided by circumstances that are created by a Jewish State and its continuous abuse of human rights and its genocidal approach.
Mary: So Palestinian division is something that we need to view as a more or less ordinary and established condition?
Gilad: It is symptomatic to societies under oppression and the Israeli abuse of human rights is no doubt exceeding anything we may be familiar with. However, first we have to recognise where these divisions are. There are 3 separate and distinct and opposing discourses. We have the Palestinians who possess Israeli citizenship, they fight for equal rights. But then, as soon as they express their totally legitimate demands, they are called traitors and have to run for their lives from the Israelis like in the case of the adorable Knesset Member Azmi Bishara.
The second discourse is formed in the Occupied Territories, with the starved Palestinians in Gaza and those in the West Bank who are slightly better off, demanding an end to occupation. They all are calling for that, and it’s been recently that we on the outside can see that the Palestinians in the OT have been largely divided not about the goal, but about the tactic to be employed achieving the withdrawal of Israel. While the Fatah is willing to negotiate its way through, Hamas leaders largely believe in defiance.
The third group is obviously the Diaspora Palestinians, they demand to return to their lands and homes. Many of them live in refugee camps and we can see that their living conditions are often inhumane.
All three groups have totally legitimate demands, this is clear. Yet, Every Western Palestinian solidarity campaigner who tries to offer help runs into severe danger of supporting one cause but dismissing the two others, that is, if he is even aware of the seriousness of the situation of the others. While fighting for the right of return, which is no doubt the backbone of the Palestinian cause, one may end up dismissing the urgency of worsening starvation in Gaza. Those who fight against occupation and those who are determined to break the siege are at a danger of ignoring the millions of Palestinians who are stranded in camps all over the Middle East. Clearly, the majority of solidarity activists can see truth and urgency in the 3 apparent Palestinian causes. Yet, engagement in one front usually leads to dismissal of the 2 others.
This is why I’ve been suggesting that we divert the focus. Rather than interfering with Palestinian internal debate we have to diagnose the root of the problem. My take on the subject is simple and clear. We have to be in the struggle against their oppressors. It is the Jewish State that has created and maintains the Palestinians in a condition of suffering. It is the Jewish State that employs tactics of divide and rule. It is Israel’s supportive lobbies around the world which we must critically confront. It is Israel and its astonishingly powerful lobbies in Washington and in Europe that are behind the misery in Gaza, rather than inter-Palestinian clashes. There’s no other way around this. You can’t bring about an end to the oppression if you refuse to tangle with the oppressor.
Mary: So what is your role? Is it possible that you do not regard yourself as activist, not even a political artist anymore?
Gilad: When it comes to me, I am engaged in scrutiny of the complexity of the Jewish world. I aim towards understanding the notion of Jewish racial brotherhood. I want to understand the relationships between the Jewish State and the Jewish world, between Israel and Jewry, between Jewishness and Zionism. I want to find out whether there is any real categorical difference between Zionists and ‘Jews Against Zionism’ because as far as I can see, both are racially orientated activities.
Mary: Is the Jewish world directly implicated in the oppression? Wouldn’t it be more direct to deal exclusively with Israel and its supporting States? We all know that sometimes the citizens of a State don’t fully support their leaders, and this is true in the West and elsewhere. Why is Israel different?
Gilad: This is indeed a set of crucial questions. The first question to be asked is what is this thing called ‘Jewish World’? Is it the world of all the living Jews? Is there such a world? Is there such a collective entity? The answer is NO, yet it is symptomatic to Jewish ethnic politicians to talk in a collective manner, whether it is in the name of the holocaust, or its victims, the sufferers. As we know, Sharon informed us after the Jenin massacre that it was done in the name of the Jews. Did he have the mandate to say it? Not really. As it seems there is a fairly organised set of Jewish bodies who are supporting the Jewish State in the name of the Jews, and we also see far less organised miniature groups who oppose Israel in the name of the Jews. These two opposing political identities teach us nothing about the Jewish world, but rather about a Jewish political tendency to talk in the name of the Jewish people. This probably is one of the manifestations of Jewish political management within a liberal democratic environment.
I wouldn’t be able to assure you that Moshe Cohen from Golders Green London is supporting the Israeli oppression, yet I can tell you categorically that Israeli oppression is conducted on behalf of Moshe Cohen. This leaves us in a very complicated situation. Now, let’s assume that Mr Cohen doesn’t agree with Israel. He can then try to react politically as a Jew, he could easily shout ‘not in MY Jewish name’, but this would mean blaming all his brothers for supporting Israel. This would indeed approve the Israeli claim for acting in the name of the Jews. The Israeli foreign minister will be able to claim after the next massacre that it was done in the name of world Jewry except Mr Cohen from Golders Green. Alternatively, Cohen can as well shout ‘not in OUR Jewish names’ but then he would be as guilty, as much as Israel is guilty, of assuming a Jewish intellectual, ethical and ideological collective. Thus, I believe that only two possibilities are left a Jew to oppose Israel politically, either to act as an ordinary human being rather than as a chosen one, or alternatively to oppose the Jewish State in the name of Jewish values and that would mean to suggest a humanist interpretation of Judaism. This is what Torah Jews manage to do to a certain success.
However, I do believe that since Israel insists upon regarding itself as the Jewish State, we are entitled to tackle it as a Jewish State. I believe that if there is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it is the devastating impact of racism and political racism. We have to fight racism. As it seems there is not a single legitimate racially exclusive political movement in the West except the Jewish ones, whether we speak about Zionism or ‘Jews against Zionism’. We have to stand up against any form of a racial segregative formula.
Mary: But if an activist group is organised by race, and here we could get into a debate as to whether or not Jewishness is a race or if it is something else, that doesn’t mean that it is racist, does it? That would make all groups that organise on behalf of their race into racist entities. The civil rights group the NAACP, which represents American Blacks would get this same label if I’m following your logic.
Gilad: Let’s divide the answer into two parts. The first question is whether Jews form a race. The answer is NO, yet Jewish political activism is by definition racially orientated. Bizarrely enough, it may be possible that Israel is more open to the idea of Jews being multi-racial than London Jewish Socialists who celebrate their Yiddish culture but may have far less in common with an Iraqi Jewish socialist. The second question is slightly more complicated. Is a racially orientated liberating activity necessarily a racist cause? I would say that we should never pass judgment on the oppressed. However as far as I am aware, not a single liberation and civil rights movement stopped other ethnic or racial identities from joining in. We know of many white Americans (many of them Jews) who joined the civil rights movement. We know of Jews who were active in the PLO over the years. Yet, I am not aware of many Goyim who joined the Bund.
Mary: Getting back to the initial part of our discussion, your policy is to never take sides if the debate or the clash involves only Palestinians?
Gilad: Recognising the historical injustice against the Palestinian people and watching the escalating Israeli barbarism my moral duty is clear to me. I just support the Palestinian people and their different choices even if those are contradicting. Rather than trying to fit the Palestinian struggle into a decaying 19th century working class philosophy or any other ideology, I fit myself to their call. I do regard Palestine and the Palestinians as the avant garde and the forefront of the battle against modern evil.
Mary: What is modern evil?
Gilad: It is clearly Zionism and the current Zionised Anglo-Americanism colonialism.
Mary: So you don’t classify Abbas or Dahlan as traitors of their people, opportunists or even politically mislead? You abstain from criticising them?
Gilad: I have seen people within our camp who happen to be judgmental of Abbas for his recent moves and I can see where they come from. I can understand the frustration. I myself happen to be angry rather often, yet, I am the last to be judgemental about any Palestinian act. My job, or may I suggest, our job is to understand different modes of thinking amongst those who’ve been living under occupation for four decades, those have been dispossessed for sixty years, those who face the most brutal interpretation of the notion of the Jewish secular supremacist world view.
My task is to throw light on the situation, to understand the justifications of various acts, to give reasons, to let reason be. I am there to remind whoever wants to listen that the Hamas was democratically elected by the vast majority of the Palestinian people in the PA, and that means the West Bank as well as Gaza. I am there to remind my Western listeners that there has never been a Palestinian dream of two states: CNN is still talking about the shattered Palestinian dream of the 2 states solution. I am there to alert my Western listeners that Shalom is not peace and in fact there is hardly any voice for peace within the Jewish world.
Mary: Would you say that Israelis start to understand that solution to the conflict may be beyond reach?
Gilad: Israelis do anticipate their doomsday, they are now surrounded with total defiance. Israel comes to realise its temporality and Avrum Burg’s invaluable interview with Ari Shavit exposes it (link). Clearly, there is no room to talk about solutions anymore, the conflict will mature into a single Palestinian State. And I am rather delighted about that.
Mary: We’ll get back to the implications of Burg in a few minutes, but you are stating that the Palestinians never had a dream, as the CNN is putting it, of a Palestinian State alongside an Israeli one, even though the PLO had endorsed this.
Gilad: First, let’s be accurate here, What CNN is referring to is a dream of a unified Palestinian State of the lands beyond Israel’s 1967 borders, yet, looking at the map reveals that there is no such State, as far as we can see, it is Gaza and the West Bank with a huge Jewish ghetto in the middle. This is not a unified State. Moreover, the two State solution has never been a Palestinian dream and will never be one. It was maybe a possible vision of a settlement, nothing more than that. And as many of us have been predicting for more than a decade, it would never work out because it dismisses the Palestinian cause.
Mary: I imagine that now, after the formation of a “technical government” headed by Fatah, many activists are relieved that the economic strangulation against parts of what would be the future Palestine is being lifted by the unfreezing of some funds. But in similar way, they are glad Hamas is out of the official picture, that their warnings against Hamas being in government were fulfilled. Maybe some think of saving the saveable and letting things in Gaza run whatever course they may. The West Bank for “Palestine” and Gaza for “Hamas”.
Gilad: It is rather obvious that many Palestinian solidarity campaigners happen to associate themselves with the Fatah, with Abbas and his emergency government. We are living in a world that seemed to be free at one point. I believe that people should follow their heart. Yet, I believe that to support Palestine is to respect the choice of the Palestinian people. That means to congratulate the Hamas and the people of Gaza for their defiance. The Hamas had eventually to take position by force. This is really amazing when you think about it. I am not surprised that Tony Blair, once a war criminal and now a peace envoy, sanctioned the Hamas, but then, we better ask ourselves, what did we do to support the legitimate choice of the Palestinian people?
Mary: Do you think then that this moment is they eye of a hurricane, or is the division going to take even more dramatic turns?
Gilad: I want to believe that civil war in Gaza is over.
Mary: Hardly a civil war, it can be classified as a preventive military or paramilitary action that is popular these days in the Middle East. Hamas took control of the situation before a Fatah coup that they feared was in the air.
Gilad: But we have to look at it in a bigger picture. We have to remember that Hamas won the election both in Gaza and the West Bank. Practically speaking, the current Emergency Government in Ramallah is actually the one that is involved in an act that is forcefully moving an elected Government. They do it with the support of the West and Israel. The current Emergency Government will be operating with Israeli backing and with the support of the Israeli occupation forces. In the long run, this may be a kiss of death to the Fatah movement, a secular agenda that had been leading the Palestinian struggle for many years. This is a big shame.
Mary: Obviously, you want to combat Israel as it is the cause of the suffering of so many people. For a while, it seems as if there were no concrete efforts around to combat Israel, but recently there has been a growing movement to make a boycott of some sort against Israel as a means of protest. Do you think it’s a good and effective tool for change?
Gilad: Boycott is a real complicated issue. For years we’ve been arguing in favour of divestment and boycott. At the time I supported any form of boycott in Israel, its products and its culture.
There are some elements in the boycott that are obviously very welcome. For instance, the fact that UK unions are standing up against Zionist evil is a major shift in the very right direction. The Boycott is certainly bad news for Israel and this is wonderful news in itself. Yesterday, I went to a reading of a play, it was actually a theatrical adaptation my latest book. The producer is Jewish, and at a certain stage when we were discussing the meaning of the play he stood up and said. “You see, we had a Jewish State, it is now sixty years later, and it is a very horrible place, it is so horrible that it has now been boycotted. And this is there to make us think, where did it go wrong?” This is the most positive impact of the boycott. It makes people reflect.
Yet, I have some serious reservations, which I am inclined to mention.
One, I see a tremendous difference between banning an avocado and a book. I would welcome any form of financial restrictions on Israel and its supportive bodies yet, I truly believe in freedom of speech and oppose any form of Maccarthyism or intellectual censorship of any sort. Thus, interfering with academic freedom isn’t exactly something I can blindly advocate. Unlike some of my best enlightened friends, I am against any form of gatekeeping or book burning. But it goes further, I actually want to hear what Israelis and Zionists have to say. I want to read their books. I want to confront their academics. If justice is on our side we should be able to confront them.
Mary: Of course, they won’t stop writing or proposing their ideas, and actually, they might become more reactionary in the process.
Gilad: Actually, I do not think that they can become any more reactionary. The second point is, to impose a boycott is to employ a boycotter. When it comes to an academic boycott I would expect the inquisitor in charge to be a scholar of great esteem. This isn’t the case obviously. The reason is simple. As it naturally happens, major intellectuals are engaged in scholarship rather than in union politics, working class and proletarian activity. Seemingly, it isn’t the leading minds in British academic life and ethical thinking who are leading the Boycott. In fact it is the other way around, the boycott is led by some minor academics with very little to say about ethics and even less to say about the specific conflict. This fact is actually repeatedly exposed in televised debates. The anti-Zionist movement in Britain has yet to find the appropriate eloquent answer to the Dershowitzes of this world.
Three, when it comes to the Palestinian solidarity discourse I can identify two modes of discussion: the ethical and political. The ethical mode is obviously evoked by a natural humanist reaction to the endless flood of images of Israeli criminal activity. The political discourse, on the other hand, is pretty much autonomous and detached from the conflict. It has a lot to do with maintenance of some particular decaying old-school socialists within the fading progressive Western discourse. It has very little to do with Palestine and the transitions within the Palestinian struggle. When it comes to the current boycott we are unfortunately operating within a political mode rather than an ethical one. I say unfortunately, because Palestinian reality is neither an isolated event in history nor it is isolated in the region. Had the academics been ethically orientated, they would have to ask themselves what they, their unions and Universities have been doing to stop the ongoing slaughter in Iraq. What do they do to oppose the British Government that is engaged in crimes not different from Israel’s? What are the British academics doing now to stop the British value system from a total collapse? I am very sad and ashamed to say that as far as State terrorism is concerned Blair and Olmert are pretty much an equal match. If this isn’t enough, Brown Launch is not very promising either. Yet, British academics expect the Israelis to do something they fail to do.
However, as I said before, I am in favour of any form of restrictions on Israel, on its financial sectors, yet, by behaving politically while avoiding an ethical debate we are actually losing to the Israelis and to their lobbies.
Most importantly, if we decide to go for an academic Boycott, if we decide to burn books or to silence other people’s thoughts, then I really want to know why do we stop with Israeli academics or institutes? Shouldn’t we really ban any possible contact with any Zionists, people and institutes who openly support the idea of a racist State? As you certainly realise, unlike South Africa, Zionism, the ideological core behind Israel, is a global movement. Shouldn’t we ban as well any form of racially orientated activity? Shouldn’t we stop academic as well as smear campaigner David Hirsh and his racially orientated cohorts and then later continue with Jewish Socialists (being a racially oriented ‘progressive’ group)? Where do we draw the line? I do not know the answers, instead I believe that the best way around it is to support freedom of speech categorically, whether it is David Irving, David Hirsh or even Tony Greenstein.
Mary: OK, so you fully support any kind of instrument that puts pressure and pulls the economic rug out from under Israel, but you have some reservations about the academic boycott against Israeli universities, because of the nature of the boycott being restricting academic freedom.
Gilad: I would even just call it intellectual freedom. I do love diversity. To impose a single narrative is in itself a Talmudic approach and I have to resist it. Being trained as a continental philosopher, I know very well that the proponents of the most enlightening ideas in the late 19th century and pre WWII 20th century were not exactly progressive. How to say it, Heidegger was a Nazi at least for a while and as it seems, both Levinas and Leo Strauss were courageous enough to admit that the man may be the greatest thinker of our millennium.
Mary: Well, there will always be individuals who express their thoughts in one way or another, and in the case of Israel, they could even seek employment abroad, so intellectual freedom doesn’t seem to be at risk here. But were a boycott of Israeli universities to be implemented, wouldn’t academic freedom in Israel be a small price to pay if it will be an effective tool to fight Israeli practices? Isn’t there a lot of research and development going on that harms Palestinians, and wouldn’t it be worthwhile to cut the funding off of this as well?
Gilad: Maybe, I do not know, this is why I kept quiet about the issue. I do not know the answers and I do not even try to search for them. I am not a politician nor am I an activist, it isn’t my duty to say, “what next?” I am sharing my concerns with those amongst us who are willing and capable of free thinking. However, if you ask me for my final word about boycotts and other revolutionary progressive initiatives, I would then adopt Ben-Gurion’s take on the subject: ‘It doesn’t really matter what some British Unionists Say, what really matters is what Palestinians Do’! I am far more interested in Hamas’s belligerence.
Mary: On the subject of academic freedom, Norman Finkelstein has been denied tenure at his University, probably for political reasons, and this might be an argument against mixing politics and scholarship. What is your view on this?
Gilad: Why do you say ‘probably’? Certainly for political reasons. More than once I have praised Finkelstein and his work for Palestinian people. I do believe that his contribution is indeed invaluable. I would even say that Palestinian solidarity would look very different without him. I try to keep up with Finkelstein and to read everything he publishes. In most cases I totally agree with him, in some my disagreement is rather marginal.
Yet, I have a single minor criticism of Finkelstein’s attitude rather than his academic work. If his work has as much academic value as we all believe it has, then his personal history may not be relevant to the validity of his argument. Of course, I have no intention of telling Finkelstein what to do or what to say. Finkelstein, as much as anyone else, is entitled to argue: “I have the right to speak out because my parents are survivors,” but we have to accept that there is a down side to it. It simply excludes those who were fortunate enough not to be sons and daughters of Jewish Holocaust survivors.
Similarly, two months ago I saw Ilan Pappe, whom I highly regard as a pillar of academic resistance to Zionism, presenting his argument for the One State Solution. He started his argument by saying: “As a son of German Holocaust survivors…” Again Pappe, whom I view as a very important voice, mistakenly and most likely unconsciously, excluded anyone who failed to be a holocaust victim. I am most certainly sure that both Finkelstein and Pappe are not intending to exclude anyone, I just believe that they should be rather careful and avoid using such argumentation. I am totally convinced that their arguments are strong enough without bringing their personal history into discussion.
Mary: Some people don’t see it that way, some see it as giving more emotional impact to the message, and therefore, making people more open to accepting it. They might think, “If sons of Holocaust survivors are fighting Israel, then it’s okay for anyone to do it.” It might open up a gate that was previously considered shut.
Gilad: I totally accept it. I do not dismiss the emotional value as well as the impact of personal history, but I think that since the crime is so obvious, it is time to open the discourse and to welcome any form of ethical and intellectual intervention.
Anyhow, we were talking about academic argumentation. And I believe that at least academically such tactic is counter-effective. Let’s, for the course of discussion, say that I am unfortunate enough to suffer of impotency. Clearly, it is beyond doubt that such a psychological and physical condition would affect or even shape my vision of reality. Every time I fail in bed, my realisation of the notion of human suffering may get one step further. I for instance could legitimately start my next talk about the Israeli Palestinian conflict by saying: “As an impotent, I can understand Palestinian suffering, as an impotent I can feel the pain, I can understand what hope is all about.” Clearly, it is my impotence that sets me in an empathic journey towards others’ pain. Yet, in spite of the legitimacy, in spite of the fact that I evidently celebrate my symptoms, I fail to establish an academic argument. I reduce ethics into mere sympathy.
Mary: However, sympathy can lead to empathy and that is a necessary quality for an activist. He or she has to identify with suffering and bear witness to it.
Gilad: I accept it, yet I expose its down sides academically and exclusively.
Mary: But I think that another crucial matter is, one can indeed refer to a specific personal experience, but in this instance, quite unlike a personal experience such as impotency, we are dealing with a vicarious experience, someone else’s. It might actually be misleading, promoting the idea that victimhood gets passed from generation to generation, and that those who were survivors of the holocaust survived the worst possible event, making any other experience pale in comparison. In a way, it discounts the enormity of human suffering that we know is not limited to the Holocaust alone.
Gilad: In fact, regarding the argument of a vicarious experience, second-hand trauma, we could easily refine the impotency model. Let us assume for a second that my sexual performance is actually absolutely perfect but it was really my grandfather who was impotent. I can always argue that it was my grandfather’s misery and my grandmother’s frustration that shaped my father’s reality. It is my father’s fears that made me sleepless, and it is these fears that made me into a victim that should receive a constant free supply of Viagra and beyond. I am sorry to say it, listening to people who are my generation talking to me about themselves being Holocaust victims sounds sick and pathetic to me. I feel sorry for them and sorry for those who take them seriously.
And regarding the personal testimony matter, we have to remember that a rational argument should be applicable and valid regardless of the origin or the personal circumstances of its proponent. Newton’s Physics goes beyond gender, race or ethnicity. Scientific laws are supposed to be intelligible regardless of the family history of the ones who bring it to the world. Objects are falling at a certain speed whether your parents were in Auschwitz or in Deir Yassin. This quality of free rational thinking is something we have managed to lose as far as the academic world is concerned. We are witnessing a rapid deterioration in Western reasoning capacity. We are subject to this immense political correcting of the academic world. My advice to academic contributors to the solidarity discourse is to stand out and speak their hearts. To operate as genuine human beings, as proper authentic ethical thinkers rather than corrected politicians who need to send their ancestors back to Auschwitz in order to secure a green light to say what they believe in.
Mary: Back in 2005, you seemed to believe that Amir Peretz’s victory as leader of Israel’s Labor Party was nothing short of a revolution. Yet, he has turned out to be, at least when one thinks about the bloodbaths endured by Palestinians and Lebanese residents and citizens, a major disaster. Why did he fail so miserably?
Gilad: There was good reason to believe in Peretz, that he was different. He was neither part of the Military Junta nor a member of the Ashkenazi elite. Peretz’s election slogan was very simple: ‘once we address our social problems we will be ready to talk peace with our neighbors’. Indeed, Israeli isn’t ready to discuss peace, neither to its neighbour nor to itself. Peretz was sincere enough to admit it. Yet, he wasn’t modest enough to insist upon taking a socially orientated ministry. He insisted upon becoming the security minister, something that would qualify him as the future Prime Minister. The end of the story is known. Lacking the necessary military background, the man and his PM over-reacted to a simple kidnap operation and ended up in a total military defeat to a miniature paramilitary organisation. It is beyond doubt that once Peretz took his seat at the defense ministry, he refrained from acting as an Arab Jew, instead he followed the Zionist traditional Ashkeno-Centric world view of the Iron Wall. He let the Army escalate a minor border event into a war. However, I still want to believe that eventually, after all the belligerent Baraks and Netanyahus, a true and genuine second or even third generation Arab Jew Israeli may come to reflect about the peaceful conditions Jews enjoyed in Arab countries. At the end of the day, anti-Semitism and endless conflicts belong to the history of European Jews, it is something European Jews brought to the region. It has nothing to do with Arab Jews and their history.
Moreover, I still want to believe that if there is chance of a true willingness for peace within Israeli society, it will have something to do with the realisation of the largely oppressed Arab Jews in Israel that their true brothers in the region are the oppressed Palestinians. Such an act would shatter once and for all the Ashkenazi political hegemony in the Israeli realm.
Mary: You’re very heavily involved with “political scuffles”, people who attack you politically as well as insisting that your influence could damage “honest and principled activists”, just to take a recent quote by a blogger who focuses on Jewish identity issues and ties that in to his protest against Zionism. It’s normal and natural to be attacked by Zionists, but why are attacks from these anti-Zionist quarters so virulent?
Gilad: Let us first try to be precise, as it seems now, those who indeed attack me are five Bundists, socialist Jews, people who may have been an important voice at a certain stage but had gradually become a burden or even white noise. They indeed exhaust all their energy fighting me and other free thinkers, they run motions, dedicate blogs but they had been defeated time after time. But I cannot complain, their attack contributed a lot to the circulation of my thoughts. They as well helped me refine my view of Zionism and Jewish modern identity.
As you know, I am not a politician, I have never been one and I do not have any plans to become one. Being involved with Palestinian discourse for a decade I have come across the most enlightening people. None of them were politicians or politically orientated activists. In fact they were always attacked by politicians and largely by this miniature group of people who for some odd reason regard themselves as ‘Progressive’ Jews. It took me some time before I realised that Progressive Jews are manifestly seeking hegemony within the Palestinian solidarity discourse. They insist that the case of Israel must be realised solely via the very limited materialist spectrum. They love working class politics.
Mary: Well, you will have to admit, in the West, most of the supporters of Palestinians approach it from a leftist point of view, just as in the Arab world it would be an issue of Arab liberation. It might be unavoidable to treat it in the ways we do, we can’t create activists from a vacuum.
Gilad: I do not agree. It is rather obvious to me and I see it in my concerts night after night all over the world. The vast majority of Western people are devastated by Israeli brutality. The support of Palestine is a natural ethical reaction. Yet, when ordinary people follow their hearts and join the solidarity movement, this is where rather often they meet a bunch of decaying non dialectical socialists who insist upon telling them how to think and what to say according to some pre-WWII text books. This fact alone explains why there are hardly any Palestinians in the Solidarity movement and why this movement doesn’t expand into a mass movement.
Mary: Would you argue that socialist thinking is dead?
Gilad: Not at all, I am in total favour of a dynamic dialectical socialist worldview. A week ago I played in huge solidarity event in Germany put together by the Communist party. It was a gathering event of artists from all over the world. It was a solidarity event with refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kurds, Iranians. In a few days I will perform at Marxism 2007, again as far as I can tell, the Socialist Worker’s Party in the UK tries to move forward with the flood of events. They understand that Working Class is a dynamic notion. They understand that if there is a working class in Britain, this notion has changed radically in the last 30 years.
However, we can’t choose who is claiming to be on the side of the Palestinians, and if people whose interpretation of reality is only understood from the viewpoint of working class politics, I am obviously convinced that they are totally deluded as to the interpretation of the Middle East problem. They make the reality fit the worldview they have rather than adapting their view to reality. They are entitled to do so as long as they do not try to silence other people’s views. Israel regards itself as a Jewish State and in order to understand the scope of its activity we have to understand what Jewishness stands for. What racial brotherhood is all about. Moreover, the industrial revolution is yet to make it to Gaza, hence, Marxist ideas have never become overwhelmingly popular amongst the Palestinian people. However, I wouldn’t resist a limited colonial interpretation of the conflict but the insistence to limit the discourse to working class interpretation is moronic and somehow emblematic to these five ‘Progressive’ Jewish activists.
Mary: But basically you disagree with their view that bringing about a kind of secular socialism for Palestinians and Israelis will resolve the problem of oppression.
Gilad: Have you ever tried to talk ‘socialism’ to a Palestinian? I actually tried. They usually tend to laugh or just lose interest. Marx, or shall we rather say Marxism, has nothing to do with their reality. However, I believe that by now, after 110 years of Zionism, 60 years of the Nakba, 40 years of occupation, our beloved Socialists, Marxists, Mazpenists, Bundist ‘Progressive Jews’ and the Jewish Socialists had enough time to resolve the conflict and liberate us all by turning the entire region into a red haven. May I reveal for the first time that as an 18-year-old red activist, while being an IDF soldier, I was affiliated with some radical anarchist groups in Israel. Like the rest of my comrades, I was convinced that sooner or later ‘Arab and Israeli working class would unite against the bourgeoisie Zionist colonial evil’. It took a few years before I opened my eyes to the astonishing fact that there was no ‘Jewish working class’ and Palestinians refused to fit into the Eurocentric class model. That was when I realised that I was left with no other option but shelving my red shirt at least momentarily.
Mary: That’s pretty interesting, both the fact of the activism of your youth and that you claim that there is no Jewish working class. But, as to socialist ideas having no truck with Palestinians, I would think that the case of the FPLP in some small way contradicts this, even though, they are a different breed of socialists, basically a nationalist movement with progressive ideas.
Gilad: Indeed, and even they disappeared. Moreover, from time to time I meet the odd Palestinian Matzpenists, mainly in Europe. I do not try to argue that Palestinian Marxists are non-existent, I just come to acknowledge the clear fact that their voice is as less than marginal. This is not a criticism but rather an observation.
Mary: But, back to where we were, you are saying that the Western progressives’ activism is stuck in a vision of reality that never was: the belief that if class issues are addressed, the rest will be resolvable, but the reason of oppression in Israel has never been class, but rather a question of race, is it not?
Gilad: Race may sound a bit abstract. Let’s call it racial brotherhood, cultural supremacist views, blood orientation and so on. Anyhow, the problem with the Jewish activists who attack me is actually centred on the fact that my views sit outside their narrow political thinking. I am focused on ethical thinking. My criticism of Israel as a racially orientated paradigm actually exposes as well the sickening aspect of Jewish socialism. The argument is so easy. If you are a socialist, you are my comrade and I do not care whether you are a Jew, a Muslim, Black or Buddhist. Yet, our progressive Jews insist to import their exclusive blood system into the progressive discourse. By doing so they located themselves within the Zionist discourse, like Zionists, they say we are ‘people like other people’ yet we are ‘slightly different’.
I will admit that I initially I took these people seriously, these progressive Jewish left activists, but then I have learned that when it comes to being morally pure, the most vocal protester against me, the one who was obsessively trying to teach me ethics, actually has a list of acts of petty criminal activity under his belt. I wouldn’t hold his past against him, yet, I cannot let a shoplifter teach me or anyone else morality. As if this is not enough, he and his friends were banned from different academic institutes for being anti-Semitic. With all due respect, I cannot let such a person call me an anti Semite. Another anti-Atzmon ‘progressive’ smear activist happened to run a Jews only blog where attacks against me are pretty constant. He can make any kind of blog he wants, but it’s pretty clear that progressive Jews are always operating in racially orientated cells, and I am free to feel that his blog is exclusivist and will remain that way. It’s the nature of the club. Not ‘many’ Abeds and Mohammeds are registered with the Jews against Zionism group, and I don’t see any articles about Palestinians on that blog either. It’s obviously a second-rate issue to the Jewish progressive identity.
Mary: Well, two little-known activists in Great Britain shouldn’t be such a threat. Why do you respond to their provocations and why not simply just ignore them?
Gilad: Actually, I wouldn’t necessarily blame them for provoking me, it is more likely that I actually provoke them, I expose their fallacy. At a certain stage, and not that long ago, I realised that these Bundists embody the essence of the Jewish secular tragedy. They are the epitome of the emancipated Jewish emptiness. On the one hand they failed to make it into the universalist discourse. On the other hand they are left detached from their own cultural heritage. In their misery they praise their Yiddish culture without understanding the role of this language and without even speaking the language. These Bundists embody the collapse of Jewish progressive cosmopolitanism. It would be impossible to understand where Zionism came from without confronting this unique bizarre identity. For me, monitoring them is no different from visiting the safari of rare animals.
As we know, the Bund doesn’t exist anymore, it was actually defeated in WWII. As far as Jewish people are concerned, Zionism won the Jewish street. Monitoring the UK cell and their activity explains to me what Zionism was there to repair. They are microcosms of Jewish extreme wrong thinking. In my eyes they are actually far worse than proper Zionists.
Mary: Don’t you think that this is an exaggeration?
Gilad: Actually, I am totally convinced about that. One of the most decent beings amongst them is the award-winning poet Michael Rosen. Rosen publicly defines himself as: a ‘Socialist’, a ‘secular Jew’, a ‘progressive man’. Recently I found out that Rosen has been expressing himself pretty eloquently in support of the Boycott. Nothing is obviously wrong with that, but then to my great astonishment, I found out that the same Rosen, the one who calls to Boycott Israel, was as well taking part in a notorious right wing London Jewish Book Week as a family entertainer. For those who do not understand yet, the Jewish Book Week is supported by the Israeli Embassy and the rabid Zionist organisation UJIA, an organisation that currently sets gala tours for the 60th anniversary of the Israeli State. Looking at it from a progressive point of view, I cannot make up my mind whether Rosen’s behaviour is treason or just total hypocrisy. When we asked Rosen how come, how is it that he, of all people, a boycott enthusiast, ended up participating in a Zionist event, he was stupid enough to admit that he gave it some real thought, “I had my doubts about appearing at JBW and so I asked all sorts of people whose opinions I trust whether they thought it was a good idea or not.” Rosen, the one who calls to boycott Israeli academics ended up in bed with the Israeli Embassy.
Mary: Not that I’m familiar with Rosen’s writing…
Gilad: Good point, there is no writing. There is no contemporary body of work, no critical or political body of writing. Along with him, there are just some forum comments, really only concerned with stopping the Palestinian discourse becoming what he and his friends call anti-Semitic. To a certain extent they operate as an ADL mole within the Palestinian solidarity discourse. In short we are facing here an unacceptable level of hypocrisy and ignorance on the verge of complete betrayal.
Mary: In some of your writings you defined these folks as crypto-Zionists and Third Category Jews.
Gilad: I am afraid that my argument is now even more conclusive. When a Marxist politician is found lying, we are entitled to call him a Marxist liar. When a Republican politician is found spying for the enemy we are entitled to call him a `Republican spy’. Yet, when a Boycott campaigner who insists to act politically under the ‘Jewish’ banner (as a Jewish Socialist, or a Jew against Zionism, etc.) is found in bed with some ultra-Zionist institutes, we must refrain from calling him a Jewish hypocrite. Here is the trick. Jewish progressive ethnic campaigners are interested in a singular one-sided discourse. They are happy to act as ‘Jews’ but refuse to be criticised as Jews. When they act politically they say we are ‘people like other people’ but when you criticise them politically they hide behind their racial identity. Whether this is funny or revolting is a matter of taste. However, this is a complete repetition of the Zionist tactic. In other words, we are entitled to conclude that Jewish Socialists and any form of Jewish exclusive activism is nothing but another form of Zionism.
Thanks to these so-called ‘Progressive Jews’ I have understood the validity of the criticism of Jewish cosmopolitanism, the bizarre notion of peoplehood devoid of soil. I realised why these few Bundists could never establish a true authentic solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian cause is primarily about soil. Cosmopolitans may be able to recognise Palestinian misery, yet they cannot identify with the yearning to their land. While Bundists talk about their peoplehood, Palestinians do not need to talk about peoplehood, they do not have to invent or reinvent their culture. Like Germans, French and Albanians, they simply live through their culture. Unlike Zionists and Bundists included, who aim to be ‘people like other people’, Palestinians are there to start with. They are ‘people like other people’. They do not have to aim towards cultural renaissance. People who are culturally orientated can simply transcend themselves beyond the awareness of their culture. They are moulded and transfixed by their by their own soil, cuisine, language and landscape. They live their culture and move it forwards by the means of creation.
This is why Zionism with its Hebrew revival may have been more successful than the Bund. Rosen and his ilk are telling us about their unique Jewish culture, about their Yiddish, yet, they don’t even speak the language. Their creativity within their own culture is zilch. They don’t write Yiddish books, they don’t read Yiddish papers, they don’t have Yiddish Rock & Roll they do not translate anything into Yiddish. And there is very little to translate from Yiddish anyway. They are basically spreading some ghetto nostalgic nonsense, they basically bullshit for the sake of bullshitting. And as I said many times before, they have the full right to do so, yet, I am there to remind them that chicken soup is neither a political argument, nor it is a moral stand.
Mary: So, as long as you continue to criticise your detractors and present the inconsistencies of their reasoning, they will continue to run smear campaigns against you, call you an anti-Semite and try persuade people from hosting you at political and public events. As long as they keep doing that, you will continue to have reason to criticise their logic. Kind of a vicious circle. Is there going to be an end to it?
Gilad: Seemingly, in spite of all the smears, I survive. In fact I won in every battle I decided to take on. As it seems, by fighting me they have managed to annihilate themselves. Every time, they raise their head I learn more about the level of Jewish ideological secular delusion. It will be very boring when they raise their white flag, but this will never happen. In spite of them being humiliated at the PSC AGM recently, in spite of bandleader being exposed as a convicted criminal, in spite of Rosen’s shameful crypto-Zionist behaviour, they never surrender. Only people with dignity can admit defeat, and dignity is exactly what they lack. People who lie to themselves so extensively find it far easier to lie to others.
Though they have managed to silence some of the most important contributor to the Israeli Palestinian discourse they have totally failed with me. There are two secrets here, which I am happy to share.
One: Rather than talking to Jews, I am talking about Jews and the subject I am interested in is basically Jewishness. Many of my readers and supporters are actually orthodox Jews, assimilated Jews and ex-Jews. But it obviously goes far beyond Jews. Since more than a few scholars identify the current emerging global conflict with some extensive Zionist lobbying in America, the questions to do with the Jewish issue are becoming more and more relevant and popular. A while ago I have taken the risk of saying what I believe to be the truth and as it seems, people around do appreciate my truth-seeking endeavour. Some Jews called me an anti-Semite, some Elder Londoners picketed my readings, it didn’t stop me and it didn’t stop anyone from booking me again. Quite the opposite, it made me far more popular than I have ever wanted to be.
Two: I do not join any organisation or organised religion. I do not let politicians into my world. Generally speaking, I despise any form of political activity and activism in general. I believe in ethical orientation. I keep independent. At the end of the day I am primarily an artist and light cultural terrorist.
Mary: A recent interview with Avrum Burg has caused a great amount of interest. I know you were particularly surprised by it, and said it contained “cosmic changes”. At the risk of having to revise your views once time has passed and things turn out to be less cosmic than we hope, could you elaborate on how this interview affected you?
Gilad: To a certain extent, Burg didn’t come with a major intellectual or ideological revelation. Yet, Avrum Burg, isn’t really an ordinary man, he isn’t exactly a Palestinian solidarity campaigner. Quite the opposite, Burg has been for years the ultimate epitome of Israeliness and the mainstream Israeli political establishment. He was the great hope of the Labor Party’s Young Guard. After that the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Speaker of the Knesset, a candidate for the Labor leadership.
We must remember that as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Burg was Mr Aliyah (Jews moving to Israel). Now he changed his mind, he is Mr Yerida (Jews moving out of Israel). When a man with such a political history stands up and suggests Israelis to apply for foreign passports and leave the country ASAP, when a man of such an intellectual capacity admits that “Israel is Fascist” we must confess that a change of spirit is noticed in the air.
For us, the fact that Israel is indeed Fascist may not be such a revelation, we know for years that Israeli legislation is racially orientated. We know that Burg’s old Israeli Labor Party has always been dedicated to the belief in socialism of one race (National Socialism). However, Burg was the one who stood up and confronted the Israelis with their bitter reality. He basically tells the Israelis, ‘We aren’t any better than Hitler’. And this is a revelation!!!
But it gets deeper, Burg is there to say: “Of the three identities that form me – human, Jewish and Israeli – I feel that the Israeli element deprives the other two.” As an observant Jew, Burg actually admits that Israeliness opposes humanism and Judaism. This may not be new to many of us, but no one has ever had the guts to say just that to the Israelis (maybe except me but I am just a saxophonist).
However, Burg manages to throw some interesting light onto the notion of Zionism and Israeliness. In the interview he says “I am a human being, I am a Jew and I am an Israeli. Zionism was an instrument to move me from the Jewish state of being to the Israeli state of being. I think it was Ben-Gurion who said that the Zionist movement was the scaffolding to build the home, and that after the State’s establishment, it should be dismantled.”
This is certainly a major and crucial point. As it seems, Zionism doesn’t mean a thing for the contemporary Jew born in Israel. Zionism is a Diaspora-orientated notion. Zionism is there to differentiate between Abe Foxman and Roland Rance. Both are Jews, both operate in racially segregated political cells, yet, one is a Zionist the other is a Jewish Anti-Zionist (big deal). When it comes to Israelis who were born in Israel, the idea of a Jewish State isn’t something to celebrate. For Israelis, a Jewish State it isn’t something you have to aim towards or ideologically endorse. Being an Israeli means being a Jew and living in a Jews-only State. When I joined the IDF 25 years ago, I did it because this was the only available interpretation of my Jewishness. I was a Jew living in the Jewish State and joining the Jews’ army was the natural outcome.
The word Zionism is almost meaningless in Israel and within the Israeli discourse it is actually non-existent. Zionism may mean something to the American settlers in the West Bank or the new wave of French immigrants to Israel, but not much more than that. If this indeed the case, we may as well internalise the fact that anti-Zionist campaigning is hardly affective in the case of Israel. As much as Israelis do not regard themselves as Zionists, they are hardly affected by anti-Zionism.
Mary: Although if this is the state of affairs, is Burg really addressing people outside of Israel, in his urging that the Zionist structure be dismantled? Are we again at a Nemo propheta in patria situation?
Gilad: I don’t know the answer. I was pretty surprised that Burg’s ideas were not highly circulated. I do not know a thing about circulation of thought in Jewish circles. I can see that even in Israel his ideas were attracting some attention but not enough. At the end of the day, in order to maintain the Israeli murderous policies, a collective blindness is elementary. My interest in Burg is totally intellectual, I do not know if he has any significant political power anymore, I guess he doesn’t. Yet his ideas will echo for a while and even more than a while.
Gilad Atzmon is a musician-composer. He is particularly well-known both for his fiction and his political analysis which is widely published. His sites are Gilad.co.uk and ArtieFishel.com.
Mary Rizzo is a translator, art restorer and especially Pro-Palestinian activist who runs the blog PeacePalestine (where this interview was originally published). She is a founding member of Tlaxcala, a vibrant network of activist translators that publishes a wide range of articles by anti-imperialist writers and thinkers from around the world in a dozen languages. Visit her blog at http://peacepalestine.blogspot.com
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