Anti-Semitism in anti-Zionist garb
Tony Greenstein reviews Gilad Atzmon 'The wandering who?' Zero Books, 2011, pp203,
In the blurb for Atzmon’s The wandering who? are listed five professors: William Cook, James Petras and Samir Abed-Rabbo, as well as John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at Chicago University, and Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton. The first three had no reputation to lose. The latter two have probably torpedoed their reputations permanently. It would seem that stupidity can be a useful attribute if you want to be a professor.
Perhaps Falk and Mearsheimer could set their students the following essay: “Why is the following a classic example of racism and anti-Semitism? ‘Sixty-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz we should be able to ask … Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their neighbours? Why are the Jews hated in the Middle East … Why did America tighten its immigration laws amid the growing danger to European Jews?’” (pp175-176).
Our good professors might draw their students’ attention to the way the Jews of Europe are elided together with the Zionist settlers of Israel, to say nothing of the notion of a single European people. Jews are one seamless whole. But did Poland’s Jews colonise another land? Were the Dutch Jews so hated that the workers of Amsterdam reacted with a three-day general strike to protest the attacks on them, broken only by fierce military repression and the deportation of the strike leaders to Mauthausen, where they died?
Did the Danes who in October 1943 rescued almost the whole Jewish community - 8,000 people - by transporting them by boat to Sweden, “stand up” against their Jewish neighbours? Or the Bulgarians, who refused to allow a single deportation from Old Bulgaria? Or the Albanians? Or the French and Italians, 75% and 85% of whose Jews survived the holocaust, mainly through hiding out with non-Jews?
Atzmon directs much of his venom against the anti-Zionist Bund, who are “not fundamentally different from Zionism” (p122). If by that he means both were Jewish movements, then he is correct. But they were also political antagonists. The Bund believed in fighting where Jews were, not escaping to colonise someone else’s land. In the 1938 local council elections in Warsaw, the Bund obtained 17 out of 20 seats, compared to just one for the Zionists. The obvious comparison is between the pogromists of Russia and Poland and the mobs who chant “Death to the Arabs” in Israel.
Marek Edelman, a Bundist and commander of the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, was different enough from a Zionist to pay tribute to the Palestinian resistance in the second Intifada. That was why the Israeli embassy in Poland did not even send the lowest clerk to Edelman’s funeral in 2009, although the president of Poland found time to attend.
Atzmon demonstrates his anti-communist (and anti-Semitic) credentials when he writes: “The Jewish nationalist would rob Palestine in the name of the right of self-determination; the Jewish progressive is there to rob the ruling class and even international capital in the name of world working class revolution.”
All Jews are thieves and Jewish socialists’ desire to abolish the capitalist class and deprive them of their plunder is equated to the theft of Palestinian land by Zionism. Presumably non-Jewish socialists believe in enriching those who are already rich! Another example of Atzmon’s myopia and racism is his reference to the closing of America’s borders, as the holocaust approached (in fact it was 1924). But this was not aimed at just the Jews. How is this any different from immigration controls and the deportation of asylum-seekers in the west today? Does the US now welcome non-Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution?
Atzmon blames the victim for racism. This is anything but “transformative” (Falk). However, Atzmon does not fish in an empty sea. This book has achieved a certain resonance because of the wider context. Accusations that they are ‘anti-Semitic’ are standard fare for anti-Zionists and Palestine solidarity activists and many people, rather than challenging the underlying premise, take their accusers at their word. If told it is anti-Semitic to support the Palestinians, then there are those who accept that allegation as a price worth paying. In other words, Zionism forces people into adopting an anti-Semitic outlook.
The wandering who? is purportedly about Jewish identity. In reality it is about Atzmon’s own identity crisis. Is he Jewish, Christian, ex-Jewish or just Artie Fishel, a spoof character and ardent Zionist who is Atzmon’s alter ego? What the book does not even understand, let alone recognise, except by way of caricature, is the real identity crisis of today’s diaspora Jews.
Instead he dwells on a Jewish Chronicle feature on David Rosenberg and Julia Bard of the non-Zionist Jewish Socialists Group and their agonising over whether to have their two boys circumcised. To Atzmon this is “a peep into the strange and inconsistent world of the Jewish tribal left ... [it] presents Zionism in a new light.” In fact it says nothing about Zionism, but everything about Atzmon. Circumcision is also practised by Muslims. One assumes that there are not too many Muslim Zionists! Atzmon’s reduction of Jewish identity to circumcision is probably more worthy of psycho-analysis.
If you read Atzmon’s ‘Credit crunch or rather Zio punch’ or Diana Henriques’ Swindler’s list, you could be forgiven for thinking that Alan Greenspan and Paul Wolfowitz single-handedly brought about the credit crunch in order to enhance the power of Israel and international Jewry. This type of crude anti-Semitism has no popular purchase. Its only effect is to discredit the Palestine solidarity movement by virtue of Atzmon’s association with it.
According to Atzmon, “the Judaic god” is an evil deity who leads his people to plunder, robbery and theft. What Moses and Joshua did over three millennia ago explains Israel’s behaviour today. Given that Britain was the world’s largest empire and also a Christian state, one wonders why Atzmon converted to a religion whose god is also evil? God was always on the side of the colonist, whatever their religion.
Atzmon associates his work with the late Israel Shahak, a professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, who personally uncovered the remains of over 300 Arab villages which had been razed to the ground. Shahak was a child survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and Belsen-Bergen. Shahak’s saying, “The Nazis made me afraid to be a Jew, and the Israelis make me ashamed to be a Jew”, is featured at the beginning of the book. But that was not a rejection of being Jewish, but a rejection of what Israel was doing in the Jews’ name. Atzmon is not above juvenile name-dropping, but Shahak’s argument is too sophisticated for him. Shahak did not argue that Zionist barbarities were intrinsic to being Jewish: rather that the settlers were using long forgotten passages in the Talmud in order to justify their Judeo-Nazi practices.
In his Jewish history, Jewish religion: the weight of three thousand years chapter 3, Shahak wrote: “A great deal of nonsense has been written in the attempt to provide a social or mystical interpretation of Jewry or Judaism ‘as a whole’. This cannot be done, for the social structure of the Jewish people and the ideological structure of Judaism have changed profoundly through the ages.” For Shahak, the Jews and Jewish identity have “changed profoundly”. There is no one Jewish identity. But for Atzmon there is no change. The 1st Zionist Congress of 1897 was held in Basel, Switzerland rather than Munich, Germany because of the objection of the latter’s Jewish community. It is not something that easily fits into Atzmon’s narrative.
The first questions anyone genuinely interested in Jewish identity would ask would be: Will Jewish communities outside Israel survive? What is their material basis? Is Zionism or opposition to Israel enough? Atzmon asks none of these questions. If Shahak was still alive he would have sent Atzmon away with a flea in his ear. Atzmon’s absurd statement (chapter 1) that “Israel and Zionism were just parts of the wider Jewish problem” completely misunderstands and distorts Shahak’s main argument that Zionism has resurrected an old Jewish identity based on classic rabbinical Judaism.
Atzmon focuses on an unchanging and essentialist notion of Jewish identity. It matters not whether he defines race by reference to biology, culture or ideology. Racism takes many forms. His definition of Zionism as a “global network with no head - it is a spirit ...” could be the words of Nazi anti-Semites Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg or Theodor Fritsch (p88).
When Atzmon writes that “It is more than likely that ‘Jews’ do not have a centre or headquarters … that they aren’t aware of their particular role within the entire system, the way an organ is not aware of its role within the complexity of the organism”, who can doubt that Atzmon’s ‘organismus’ is the old world Jewish conspiracy?
As Gabriel Ash explains, “Substituting ‘Jewish ideology’ for ‘the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness’ is the only thing that makes Atzmon’s take on Jewishness ‘ground-breaking’. Everything else is derivative.”
Atzmon has married the hostility of his revisionist Zionist grandfather to the left with the anti-Semitic contempt that Zionism reserves for Jews outside Israel.
Atzmon proclaims: “Zionism is not a colonial movement with an interest in Palestine … To be a Zionist means to accept that, more than anything else, one is primarily a Jew” (p21). Here he acts as mirror to the Zionist image. According to him, the real target should be those who control Israel - Jewish communities outside Israel. Atzmon denies that Zionism exists inside Israel - it’s a diaspora phenomenon. What is needed is not boycott, divestment and sanctions (which Atzmon has never supported), but a campaign against your local Jewish community! Instead of picketing Ahava, the Israeli cosmetics company, we should demonstrate outside a Jewish kindergarten.
Perhaps the only concession to the truth in the entire book is when Atzmon declares: “At a certain stage, around 2005, I thought to myself that I might be King of the Jews” (p54). Atzmon is just another in a long line of false messiahs.
Atzmon justifies his anti-Semitism by noting that “Early Zionist ideologists were pretty outspoken when it came to the ‘diaspora’ Jewry” (p58). He cites Hashomer Hatzair’sdescription of Jews as “a caricature of a normal, natural human being”. But that is precisely what he pretends not to understand. Anti-Semitism created the Zionist movement, which in turn adopted the outlook and internalised the ideology of its creator.
Atzmon believes that “Emancipated Jews are identified by negation - they are defined by the many things they are not.” This is a familiar Zionist theme. But it is untrue. Jewish anti-Zionists are not merely defined by that which they oppose, but also by a long tradition of Jewish opposition to racism and fascism.
Atzmon’s thesis is that Zionism was not a settler-colonial movement born in the age of colonialism and that Zionism’s adoption of the idea of Jewish nationhood was justified. What is clear from this is that Atzmon has retained intact the Zionist outlook of his relatives. He may indeed be outraged by the consequences of Zionism, but politically he has never broken from it.
Atzmon’s hero is Otto Weininger, about whom Hitler apparently remarked that he was the only good Jew, which is why he killed himself. A racist and misogynist, Weininger “helped me grasp who I am, or rather who I may be” (p90). There is a turgid passage about what percentage there is of the masculine and feminine in an individual. The analogy is with the percentage of Jewishness in someone. His conclusions? “With contempt, I am actually elaborating on the Jew in me” (p94). And therein lies the real problem.
The chapter ‘Truth, history and integrity’is named after an essay of the same name. But he omits three paragraphs from the original, including the statement, “… if the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war?”But Atzmon still cannot resist a nod in the direction of holocaust denial. He writes: “Sixty-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must be entitled to start asking questions. We should ask for historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws” (p175).
Those who doubt that Atzmon is anti-Semitic should ponder his statement, “If there are some remote patches of humanism in Jewish culture, these are certainly far from being universal” (p113). Like his friend, Israel Shamir, Atzmon is attracted to medieval anti-Semitism. On Jewish identity today Atzmon has nothing to say.
Koshering the boycott
A book which has not received the publicity given to The wondering who? - or the praise of professors - is David Landy’s Jewish identity and Palestinian rights. Landy’s purpose is to examine how a global movement of Israel-critical Jews came about and the tension between Jewish identity and Palestinian rights. It has to be said at the outset that Landy has only scratched the surface of the second objective, though he gives a good description of the first.
People forget that 30-40 years ago, Jewish anti-Zionists were found almost exclusively in organisations of the far left. People like Tony Cliff of the International Socialists, who were themselves uninvolved in Palestine solidarity and rarely spoke about it. When I became an anti-Zionist there was no-one with whom I could identify. Today there are thousands of Jews who, to a greater or less extent, oppose Zionism.
Why have so many Jews fallen out of love with Israel? Primarily they resent being told that Israel’s eternal wars are ‘on their behalf’. Imperialism has always cloaked its economic interests and ambitions behind a veneer of humanitarianism. We have seen that in Libya. Similarly the war in Iraq was for democracy. The very last thing one could expect from imperialism is honesty, an admission that we must attack Iran because we wish to control its oil resources! Far better to hide behind the Jews and the holocaust, and in that sense the holocaust has been transformed ideologically into something that happened only to Jews. Israel is sold as a guarantee against a repetition of the holocaust and so all the imperialist bloodsuckers are concerned about ‘anti-Semitism’ and the holocaust. Many Jews have begun to smell a rat. The young especially have begun to rebel. According to Landy, for every 10-year drop in age, there is a decline by 5% in support among Jews for Israel (p82).
As he notes, the Lebanon war of 1982 was the beginning of Jewish stirrings (p5) and this has been enhanced in particular by the attack and siege of Gaza (p65), with the obvious comparison being made between Jewish persecution by the Nazis and in particular the Warsaw ghetto. Landy states that it is with good reason that Zionists such as Anthony Julius are devoting much time and energy into ‘proving’ how Jews who oppose Israel are helping anti-Semitism.
A major problem with Landy’s book is that it is overlain by sociological jargon and concepts. One gets the feeling that the content is being forced into a narrow academic template, the effect of which is to restrict its ambit. It is difficult to know whether it is an academic or popular audience that the book is aimed at. Landy is right to focus on the problems inherent in Jewish group relations with Palestinians, but his picture is often too subjective and anecdotal rather than analytic. What governs Jewish diaspora and Palestinian relations primarily is the weakness of the latter and that is why some Palestinians have been attracted to Atzmon’s superficial nonsense. It is a short cut, or so they think, to liberation.
Landy excludes from his definition of “Israel-critical Jews” those like the Israeli NGO, Peace Now, whose main purpose is to attack the solidarity movement. At the time of the Lebanon war in 1982 we had the foreign emissaries of Peace Now leading the defence of Israel on British campuses. The capital gained from the 400,000-strong demonstration against the massacres in Sabra and Chatilla was spent on supporting the very state and its policies that led to the massacres.
Landy argues that building up a positive Jewish identity is necessary to counter Zionist attacks. To some extent this may be true, but it runs the risk of becoming self-indulgent and navel-gazing. One of the good things about groups like Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods is precisely that we are defined primarily by our activity, not by sterile consciousness-raising. A positive Jewish identity must be based on what we do, not just what we say.
Landy talks about “identity contestation”, but this is problematic. Zionism provides an identity, albeit one which is estranged from society. The identity of those opposed to the mainstream narrative is, by definition, going to have to focus on the victims of the majority Jewish identity, and therein lies the problem. Landy writes: “Diaspora is more than a territorial condition; it is an ideological construct.” But this begs more questions than it answers. Leaving aside that there is no one Jewish community, the question remains, what is the content of this ideological construct? How are the contradictions between the Zionist claim of one Jewish people and the reality of Jewish communities with interests counterposed to Israel to be resolved? The ideal Zionist solution would be the abolition of the Jewish Diaspora. That is part of the reason why there has been such a furore over the hastily withdrawn adverts in the United States which implied that expatriate Israelis would lose their sense of identity and forsake Chanukah for Christmas, if they did not return to Israel.
There are estimated to be one million Israelis who choose to live anywhere but the Jewish state and most European Israelis have taken the precaution of obtaining a second passport. The Jewish community in Britain is elderly and shrinking. Zionism is not a material basis for a continued Jewish existence outside Israel. In particular there has been a collapse in what was known as ‘central orthodoxy’ around the United Synagogue. Both secular Jewry and the ultra-orthodox sectors have grown. Landy notes that a 1997 survey of British Jews found that Zionism had become increasingly irrelevant to Jews - witness the low numbers of Jews who attended the Zionist Federation Trafalgar Square demonstration in support of the Gaza attack. Most Jews chose not to celebrate the use of white phosphorous against a civilian population (p78-79).
Despite Zionist hectoring, the fact is that historically anti-Semitism has been at an all-time low. There is no sign, despite the efforts of Atzmon, that people are inclined to blame the Jews, a small but affluent part of the majority white population, for the economic crisis of capitalism. It is because of the decline of anti-Semitism that Jews are rapidly and freely assimilating to the majority non-Jewish population. More than 50% of Jews today are ‘marrying out’ (p81).
Whereas Jews were historically seen as being on the left, Zionism acted to pull them rightwards. Landy describes how American Jews were asked to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door. But today there is a simmering revolt in the USA. Jewish Voices for Peace, which after Gaza began to adopt boycott, divestment and sanctions policies, has over 100,000 supporters. Even more radical groups have split off and thrived (p107).
Landy shows how Jews have played an effective and important part in “koshering the boycott”. In the University and College Union, Jewish lecturers have been to the fore in arguing to cut the links between British and Israeli universities. In other unions Jewish activists have played a key role and the Zionists have complained long and hard about this. It is what Landy calls “strategic Jewishness” (p140). It is no accident that the main target of Atzmon is Jewish anti-Zionism. The question is why this ex-Israeli should be so focussed.
Landy also focuses on the breakaway, as he sees it, from Jews for Justice for Palestinians, which is not an anti-Zionist group, to Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods. In fact many members of J-Big are also members of JfJfP and equally a number of J-Big members, including myself, have never been in JfJfP.
The kind of hysteria that Zionists routinely indulge in has, ironically, been helpful in a way, because it has become clear to many that it is all but impossible to argue rationally with these people. When Melanie Phillips described the liberal Independent Jewish Voices, at its formation in 2007, as “Jews for Genocide”, no-one could take her seriously. IJV’s first public meeting in Hampstead town hall was packed to the rafters and the mood was decidedly critical of Israel. Because if there is one thing Zionism hates it is debate or discussion. Indeed it spends much of its time opposing such debate and the increasingly fractious arguments within the Zionist movement, reflect that fear. We had the spectacle recently of Danny Sheldon of the thoroughly bourgeois Union of Jewish Students accusing the most prominent leader of British Zionism, Jonathan Hoffman, of openly demonstrating alongside the English Defence League, which he had. Sheldon was forced to retract, but the damage was done by that time. Along with this is the abuse and physical violence that Palestine solidarity supporters meet from Zionist supporters, who nonetheless profess their love of peace!
Landy addresses the question of what motivates Jewish activists. That some are more concerned with the reactions of fellow Jews and oppose boycott because it is not seen as being helpful is undisputed. JfJfP’s leadership was long been of the opinion that to support boycott will cut them off from other Jews (p152-60). Atzmon, of course, says that this proves that Jews are fighting their own battles at the expense of Palestinians. Contrary to his expectation, Landy found that Jews opposed to boycott were no closer to Israel politically than supporters (p162). But Jewish groups opposed to boycott or ambivalent on it (like JfJfP) often felt that their work should be primarily with Israeli dissidents rather than Palestine solidarity groups, though again this has slowly changed (pp175, 199).
Part of the problem, as Landy admits, is that there is no Palestinian equivalent to the African National Congress. What he terms “distant issue movements” have to relate to particular Palestinian villages or individuals. Landy also explores the idea of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans”, but I am not persuaded as to its validity, or whether it applies to particular socio-economic groups regardless of ethnicity. Likewise the comparison of Jews in the Palestine solidarity field to white South Africans is also of limited utility.
Landy’s book is the first attempt to detail the modern phenomenon of Jewish activism which is opposed to Zionism and Israeli practices. It is not a comprehensive book, nor is it meant to be. It raises interesting and useful examples of both Jewish participation in the movement and the problems that this can bring. Unlike the destructive, racist tome of Atzmon, Landy’s book, despite its sociological mystification, will be part of the process whereby Jews with conflicting identities and loyalties can resolve these conflicts whilst living the life of “the Jew as pariah” (Hannah Arendt).
1. P Foot, ‘Palestine’s partisans’ The Guardian August 21 2002.
3. Thanks to Debbie Maccoby for pointing me to this source.
5. See http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2011/12/netanyahu-forced-to-withdraw-racist.html.