The Gilad Atzmon Conundrum
Gilad Atzmon and the Conundrum of Neo-Zionist Judeo-phobic Universalism
by Seth Farber
Several weeks ago Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli jazz musician and controversial critic of Israeli policies and "Jewish power" came to the US on a book tour. His tour detonated an explosion of controversy. First, a group of prominent American leftists, mostly Jewish, issued a denunciation. It ought not to have surprised Atzmon. Atzmon's latest book, The Wondering Who, is filled not only with anti-Jewish commentary but jibes at the left, particularly the Jewish left. Atzmon was blind-sided a few days later when a group of prominent Palestinian scholars and activists called for the "disavowal" of Gilad Atzmon's "racism and anti-Semitism."
But who is Gilad Atzmon? Although Atzmon strongly rejects the allegation that he is a racist (he does not believe that Jews are a race, and he seems to be aware that most anthropologists and geneticists have concluded that races do not exist) he repeatedly describes himself as a "proud self hating Jew." But it is "Jewishness" as an ideology that he despises, not the Jew-- just as the evangelical Christian hates the sin but loves the sinner. Atzmon's claim is based on recent scholarly sources that prove that the idea that Jews are a people bound by a common ancestry going back centuries is a myth. It is a moot point whether someone who execrates Jewishness is qualitatively completely different from the old fashioned anti-Semite. After all many of the tropes are the same. Atzmon, for example, has called upon Jews to apologize for killing Christ. But Atzmon is certainly different in some respects. In the first place he is an Israeli Jew-who lives in London , and supports the Palestinians.
Gilad grew up as a faithful Zionist. Like his peers he did not "see" the Palestinians around him. (In those days the Palestinians from the territories still worked in Israel -doing menial labor.) He did not socialize with them. He recollects, "Supremacy was brewed into our souls. We gazed at the world through racist chauvinist binoculars. And we felt no shame about it either" (p.2). He gloried in the military successes of the IDF. But as a young man in the late 1970s he fell in love with jazz. He bought albums of the great jazz musicians and began to play the saxophone. As he listened on his stereo to the music of the great musicians, almost all black, he came to realize that 'the people who excited me most were actually a bunch of black Americans-people who had nothing to do with the Zionist miracle or with my own chauvinist, exclusivist tribe"(p3). By then he was in the Israeli Army but it wasn't long before his "military combatant's enthusiasm" disappeared completely. Instead of fantasizing about "flying choppers behind enemy lines" he was daydreaming about living in New York , London , or Paris and hearing the jazz greats, then still alive, play in person. He transcended his Jewish nationalist identity and saw himself as part of a family of music lovers, admirable people "concerned with beauty and spirit" rather than "land, Mammon and occupation" (p.4).
Yet he was still apolitical. This changed when his unit was sent to Lebanon and he visited an Israeli internment camp. He saw "thousands of inmates behind barbed wire in the open air scorched by the sun." These were Palestinian freedom fighters. "As we continued past the barbed wire I continued gazing at the inmates and arrived at an unbearable truth: I was walking on the other side in Israeli military uniform. The place was a concentration camp. The inmates were the 'Jews' and I was nothing but a 'Nazi'"(p.6). He had picked the right analogy--despite his regrettable conclusion years later that the Jews had provoked the Nazis. After that Atzmon became a vigorous supporter of the Palestinian struggle for liberation-from his new home in London . Evidently he was involved in organizations and gave benefits. It is an inspiring story, and his trajectory from mindless racist and oppressor to anti-Zionist was not one many Israelis made. He deserves credit for his transformation, and his courage-his heroism. He could be an enormous asset to the pro-Palestinian movement, if he acted strategically. In fact if he started, for example, a group of "Israelis against Zionism," he would probably attraction a lot of public Attention and might contribute to considerably to debunking Israeli propaganda. But Gilad would never start such a group. The problem is that after growing up in a profoundly racist society Atzmon has a jaundiced view of all Jews. His depiction of diaspora Jews is virtually delusional and as his critics realized Atzmon never fully repudiated Zionism. As he sees it, the problem is not Zionism, it is Jewishnessor Jewish tribalism. And like a John Bircher hunting for Communists in the McCarthy era, Atzmon finds Jewish tribalists everywhere.
Atzmon's Neo-Zionist Negation of the Diaspora
Atzmon is a genuine (albeit not always consistent) advocate of liberal univeralism and the ideals of the Enlightenment. Perhaps his most persuasive argument is his deconstruction of "identity politics." Atzmon asks, what is it that secular diaspora Jews have in common? Very little , unless they invent or imagine that they are victims of a rising tide of anti-Semitism or substitute "the Holocaust religion" for Judaism which they often do. The Holocaust religion contains priests (Simon Wiesenthal, Elie Wiesel) and prophets (Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, those who warn of the American Judeocide to come).It has commandments and dogmas (e.g."Never Again") and rituals (memorial days, pilgrimages to Auschwitz etc). It has a temple,Yad Vashem, and shrines-Holocaust museums-in capital cities worldwide."(p147-8). Atzmon aptly notes this new religion "could be the most sinister religion known to man." "[I]n the name of Jewish suffering it issues licenses to kill, to flatten, to nuke, to annihilate, to loot, to ethnically cleanse. It has made vengeance into an acceptable Western value"(p.149). The Holocaust religion is now being used as a possible pretext for nuking Iran (p.152). This is Atzmon at his best-and most perceptive. "The Holocaust" (capital "t," capital "h") has been used in that manner as Norman Finklelstein, son of holocaust survivors, has shown in his books. But even here one finds the characteristic flaws in Atzmonism. Atzmon contends, on the basis of no historical evidence, that the holocaust religion is based on what he inventively calls "pre-traumatic stress syndrome" and that it is derived from the Jewish Bible which induced in Jews (thousands of years ago) a fear of Judeocide which engenders an effort to protect the tribe and avoid assimilation. (It is too complex to go into all the details here.)
What is essential to Atzmonism is the contention that tribalism "flourishes in exile" (p. 155-6). The fear of Judeocide and the tribalist effort to avoid assimilation is at the root of "Jewishness" to this day(153-6). This conviction explains Atzmon's contempt for Jewish leftists and Jewish anti-Zionists whom he regards as tribalists in disguise. For Atzmon Jewishness is not a biological or genetic condition but a culturally conditioned state of mind. Revealingly, Atzmon claims that Jewish Marxists and Jewish humanists are afflicted by the exilic tribalist sensibility, even today-but in fact the evidence he presents is vaporous and often seems to me to suggest the opposite conclusion. In fact Atzmonism is in some senses a neo-Zionist "negation of the diaspora"-- a concept central to pre-State ( Israel ) Zionist ideology. This concept meant that the traits of the diaspora Jew (profoundly abnormal in Zionist eyes) must be completely "negated" and transcended so that new Zionist man could be born-so that the Zionist project could be successful. In Atzmon's neo-Zionist negation, the new being is a true universalist--and this time the negation must include Zionism itself which had become contaminated by the "exilic Jewish tradition" so that it remained trapped in the "old European ghetto" (p156).
Universalism or Tribalism
As I will show later virtually everything a Jew does is taken by Atzmon to be a manifestation of tribalism, and thus Atzmon is unable or unwilling to recognize the strong universalist tendency within Judaism (before it was corrupted by the Zionists) and within secular Jewish cultures. The universalist tendency grew strong among Jews in exile, that is among diaspora Jews (those Atzmon egregiously regarded as quintessential tribalists) and it became dominant after the Enlightenment, after the emancipation. Universalism waned, but was not destroyed, only after the birth of the monstrous Zionist State . Atzmon is convinced that most Jewish anti-Zionists are not genuine anti-Zionist universalists (see below), but are really tribalists in disguise. Often the anti-Zionist secular Jew will not even know his or her primary unconscious goal is to preserve the Jewish secular tribe. Atzmon's Judeo-phobia has blinded him to the prevalence of genuine anti-Zionist convictions, and it has apparently blinded his gentile supporters like James Petras whose own writings-continually conflating Zionist power with "Jewish power"-reveal an ugly streak of old fashioned anti-Semitism.
Atzmon lays bares for readers the conundrum of Jewish identity politics. Once Judaism-the religion-- is renounced what is left to unite Jews? Only the victimhood-claim "fuelled by racial orientation and spiced up by such light cultural references such as matza balls and chicken soup"(p. 55). But, pace Atzmon, the universalist ideal is much more prevalent (although without the financial backing of the 1%) among Jews today than the tribalist instinct. The latter was revivified by the holocaust and Zionism and financial success. But among young Jews who have no memory of the German holocaust, Israel has lost its allure-its shameful treatment of Palestinians is an embarrassment to their idealism. So unless Judaism the religion becomes revitalized, the distinctive Jewish identity will eventually fade away-unless humanity dies first in an ecological holocaust. But the Zionist Jewish establishment-and the Christian Zionists (whom Atzmon does not mention) -- will not die. Money and power will sustain them.
Atzmon has developed a sophisticated, brilliant and misguided world view. It is a strange amalgam of liberalism and Manichean anti-Jewishness, or what used to be called anti-Semitism. Many of the endorsements for The Wandering Who in the book create the misconception that the book is an attack primarily on the Jewish lobby, not Jewishness itself -they are unintentionally or intentionally misleading.
Atzmonism is a total system. It is edifying to compare Atzmonism to another totalizing perspective, e.g., Marxism. Marxism is an Enlightenment world-view albeit with messianic and romantic overtones. Marx demonstrated that the Enlightenment and humanistic ideals heralded by the bourgeois revolution cannot be realized within the framework of the capitalist system or bourgeois rule, a system of class domination. The capitalist system of production and the ideology which mystifies class domination are the main obstacles to the realization of universalist Enlightenment ideals, to humanity's self-actualization. Atzmon has no truck with Marxism or any left-wing ideologies-to him they are just disguises for Jewish tribalism. Like Marx, Atzmon embraces the ideals of the bourgeois revolution and identifies the obstacle to their realization. As he sees it, the major obstacle to the realization of liberal ideals is Jewishness or what he sometimes calls "Jewish ideology."
Atzmon states however that the enemy is not the Jewish people. It is the ideology, politics and practices of which Jews are the primary hosts or agents. Atzmon argues that the problem is not just Israel and the oppressions of Palestinians, although this was originally the motive for Atzmon's defection from Zionism. The enemy is "an exclusive ideology, a phantasm that has co-opted the West and, at least momentarily, diverted it from his humanist inclinations and Athenian aspirations. To fight a spirit is far more difficult than fighting people." because it exists within. "If we want to fight Jerusalem , we may have to confront the Jerusalem within" (p146). ( Athens stands for universalism and inclusivist ideologies whereas Jerusalem stands for tribalism.) "Jewishness is an ethno-centric ideology driven by exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination toward segregation"(188).
The Anti-Zionist Left Fights Back
Atzmon was in the US just a brief time when the first disavowal appeared. The first declaration was signed primarily by white leftists, mostly Jewish. They wrote, "Attempting to latch onto the just, vital, and growing movement in support of the Palestinian national liberation struggle, Gilad Atzmon is one of a very small and unrepresentative group of writers who have argued (in agreement with many Zionists) that there is no meaningful distinction to be made between Jews in general and Israeli atrocities. According to Atzmon, the latter are simply a manifestation of Jews' historic relationship to gentiles, an authentic expression of an essentially racist, immoral, and anti-human 'Jewish ideology.'"
The authors of the disavowal stated accurately that Azmon regarded Zionism as merely one front in a broader struggle against "Jewish ideology" which is a uniquely evil ideology unlike anything else in human history. This theory actually strengthened Zionism's power by validating its claim to be the authentic representation of Jewish people. The signers of the resolution against Atzmon's ideas criticized those progressives who were promoting Atzmon's work and book tour and noted that Atzmon's views mirrored the racism of Israeli society. They urged progressives to recognize: "Anti-racism is not a liability; on the contrary, it is a principle that makes our movements stronger in the long fight for a better tomorrow." As'ad AbuKhalil, the renowned "AngryArab" blogger was one of many signatories, most of whom were white leftists, many Jewish. It included intellectual luminaries such as Professor Daniel Boyarin, Professor Joel Beinin, Gabriel Ash, Lenni Brenner, Professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and the renowned Israeli critic of Israeli racism Michel Warschawski,
http://threewayfight.blogspot.com/p/atzmon-critique_09.html They cited some of Atzmon's most incendiary quotes. Although most were not from his book, all expressed ideas that could be found in his book. 2
But shortly after this salvo Atzmon received a stronger blow:A group of renowned Palestinintian-Americans, Arab and Muslim-American scholars associated with the US Palestinian Community Network denounced him also. This statement was more eloquent and detailed. Among others this group included Professor Naseer Aruri, the great scholar, Professor Joseph Massad at Columbia University and Omar Barghouti. (http://uspcn.org/2012/03/13/granting-no-quarter-a-call-for-the-disavowal-of-the-racism-nowned "and-antisemitism-of-gilad-atzmon/ )They wrote, "With this letter, we call for the disavowal of Atzmon by fellow Palestinian organizers, as well as Palestine solidarity activists, and allies of the Palestinian people, and note the dangers of supporting Atzmon's political work and writings and providing any platforms for their dissemination. We do so as Palestinian organizers and activists, working across continents, campaigns, and ideological positions."
"Atzmon's politics rest on one main overriding assertion that serves as springboard for vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with his obsession with "Jewishness." He claims that all Jewish politics is 'tribal,' and essentially, Zionist. Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical 'Jewish' one, part and parcel of defining one's self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a Jew and also do work in solidarity with Palestine , because to identify as a Jew is to be a Zionist. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon's argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist."
The letter here is a brilliant exposition of Atzmon's position and its repudiation of prejudice against Jews-or rather "Jewishness"--- is noble, exemplary and in the best tradition of the American left: "Challenging Zionism, including the illegitimate power of institutions that support the oppression of Palestinians, and the illegitimate use of Jewish identities to protect and legitimize oppression, must never become an attack on Jewish identities, nor the demeaning and denial of Jewish histories in all their diversity."
By attributing the oppression of Palestinians to Jewishness rather than Zionism, Atzmon obscures the root of the problem, and the solution. "The goal of the Palestinian people has always been clear: self determination. And we can only exercise that inalienable right through liberation, the return of our refugees (the absolute majority of our people) and achieving equal rights to all through decolonization. As such, we stand with all and any movements that call for justice, human dignity, equality, and social, economic, cultural and political rights." 3
Neither of these letters misrepresented Atzmon's views. Both neglected to note that Atzmon's book had been endorsed
by a number of prominent leftist intellectuals in the US . In spite of my respect for Atzmon as a person (because
of his transformation from Israeli racist to pro-Palestinian supporter) I think these statements were necessary. But the letters should have been worded more diplomatically:
After all many of Atzmon's fans supported him because of his biographical transformation and his music, not because of his ideas.
Atzmon's dedication to Palestinian freedom is rare and honorable--thus the letters should have been written in a more comradely
manner. The first one in particular, although philosophically correct in my opinion, sounded rather too much like the medieval
Church's denunciation of the heretic::"Anethema on him!" .As Occupy Wall Street has argued the left
needs to BECOME the change it wants to see realized in history--it's not enough to have a better understanding than the ruling elite.
Nonetheless however imperfect, the Palestinian letter--perhaps prompted by the first statement made clear that the Palestinians' struggle for
liberation is not motivated by hatred for Jews or Jewishness-as the mainstream press so often implies.
Further it was an exemplary act of solidarity with those diaspora Jews who, contrary to Atzmon,
have greatly strengthened the power of the Palestinian support movement in the US , and in his home country, England .
Atzmon's Blind Spot: European Racism and Zionism
Before examining Atzmonism I want to present a brief anti-Zionist analysis of the formation of Israel . Atzmon is not anti-Zionist-- he blames the anti-Arabism of Israel not on Zionism but on "Jewishness," upon a Jewish tribalism which originated in biblical times. In fact Atzmon states that Zionism originally presented a promise to Jews but this promise was undermined by the ideology of diaspora Jews. But, pace Atzmon, Jews were not tribalists and the Jewish religion, in both its forms-embraced by virtually all Jews-- was at that time anti-Zionist.
He states, "Zionism held out great promise." It could enable the Jew to finally feel at home. "It could convert Jews into Israelites, and identify and fight the Galut, the exilic aspect of the Jewish people and culture" (p.165). But Zionism was doomed to failure Atzmon tell us-if you are going to guess Atzmon will identify the racism inherent in the nature of Zionism you'd be way off. No to the contrary, it is not Zionism in itself that is pernicious in Atzmon's mind, it was Jewish diaspora culture, the "exilic culture" that clung to Zionism and subverted its promise of a "successful homecoming." "In order to live out its promise, Zionism had to liberate itself from Jewish exilic ideology,[my emphasis] and from the Holocaust religion. Yet it has failed to do this. Exilic to the bone Zionism turned to antagonizing the indigenous Palestinians in order to maintain its fetish of Jewish identity"(p.165). Atzmon has turned reality on its head. It's as if he were the lawyer for the Zionist movement trying to get his client off on a lesser charge, by shifting the onus for the crime to an innocent party, the diaspora Jews, a group that was staunchly opposed to Zionism, as Atzmon acknowledges, until the 1930s, well after the Zionist project was underway. But the crime was not a result of the cooptation of Zionism by the insidious diaspora culture but, to the contrary, to Zionism's repudiation of the values of diaspora culture and Zionism's adoption of its own unique brand of racialist ideology, an ideology that was product of 19th century European racialism (which was the basis for the racialism of the Nazis and of the eugenics movement in the US) and more specifically of anti-Semitic ideology.
Atzmon overlooks the fact that before the Zionists began emigrating to Palestine with its plans of taking the country over, Jews lived in harmony with the native inhabitants. "The original Jewish settlers of Rischon Letzion, Zichron Meir, Rachovos, Ekron etc., lived in harmony amongst under their Arab neighbors. There was never any opposition from the Arab community concerning Jewish immigration or purchase of land. We lived side by side with our Arab neighbors in tranquility. Moreover, the Arab population had genuine respect for their Jewish neighbors and maintained business relationships in a friendly and cordial atmosphere" wrote Rabbi Amron Blau in 1999.4 Rabbi Weiss
told me, "[T]hey lived door by door with their Arab neighbors, they were our best neighbors, and we have people who attest to that constantly, they baby-sat each others children.. They lived together basically, as a whole peacefully. And now all of a sudden the Zionists came.. and they conned a lot of people…" 5
Norman Finkelstein makes clear also how the Zionists ruined the harmonious relationship that existed between Jews and Arabs. As Finkelstein says, "The purchase of the land [by Zionists] was to establish a foothold which would serve as a springboard for the conquest of all Palestine and the conquest of the indigenous population. They purchased land and established the apartheid principle of .employing exclusively Jewish labor with the end of establishing a racially exclusivist state." 6 The Arab population, Finkelstein stated, understood from the start what the goal of Zionism was. It was the Zionist apartheid policies and the Zionist goal that antagonized the Palestinians. The cause of the conflict that ensued was not as Atzmon claimed the result of "the fetish of Jewish identity" fostered by exilic culture, or by anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews who had lived in Palestine for centuries, nor was it the contamination of Zionism by the tribalism of the diaspora. As Finkelstein told me, "A conflict with the indigenous population was built into the premises of Zionism and the only way to resolve that conflict was as Benny Morris said, between expulsion and apartheid." 7
Before looking into the premises of Zionism I want to quote Atzmon again. According to Atzmon it is the tribalism of the diaspora Jews that made it impossible for them to get along with their neighbors. Everywhere Jews go, they are hated. For Atzmon it is tribalism, a culturally inculcated trait (not biologically determined-- he reiterates frequently) of the Jewish people, not Zionism that is the problem. He writes, "65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz I think we should be able to ask why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their neighbors. Why were the Jews hated in the Middle East …" "Why did America tighten its immigration laws amid the growing danger to American Jews"(p175-6)? Does Atzmon think historians have not already asked and answered these questions? The important question for this discussion is why were Jews hated in the Middle East . And the answer is, they were not hated in the Middle East , not before Zionism. They lived in peace and harmony in Islamic countries that were not characterized by the anti-Semitism that existed in the "Christian" countries. 60,000 religious Jews (as most Jews were then) lived in exemplary harmony with their Arab neighbors in Palestine--until the Zionists came with their racist attitude and their determination to set up a settler colony at the expense of the Palestinians.
Atzmon wants to know why the Germans hated the Jews and why the Americans hated the Jews. These questions go beyond the scope of this review. I would just ask Atzmon: Has he ever heard of the American eugenics movement? Does he not know that Jews, particularly Eastern European Jews, were considered an inferior race? Must we then ask: "Why were Jews considered an inferior race?"? "Why were Africans considered inferior?" "Why were they sold into slavery?" Does Atzmon know that Hitler was influenced by American scientific racists? Does he know that 100,000 people -- alleged "mental defectives" (developmentally disabled and mental patients) -- were sterilized in California before WW2? Hitler's sterilization laws were based on California 's. (There were sterilizations in other states also but not in such high numbers.) Immigration restriction in the mid-1920s in the US inc;luded not just Jews-but Italians, Irish etc The illustrious European historian, the late Professor George L. Mosse-a Jew-wrote in his highly classic book Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism: "Racism came to the aid of society's norms of behavior through attempting to legitimize the distinction between normality and abnormality….The stereotype of the outsider filled with lust was a staple of racism, part of the inversion of values said to characterize black or Jew who at one and the same time threatened society and by their very existence confirmed its standards" 8 (Atzmon is familiar with the process of creating and maintaining one's identity by Other-izing fellow human beings -but he never applies it to the Jews and other minorities.) To Jews and blacks were added the insane, homosexuals and habitual criminals who "were seen as sharing the stigma of being unable to control their passions." "Medical theory gave scientific sanction to a subjective stereotype...Health was to be associated with the superior race which could control its sexual passions and which prized so called manly behavior, while inferior races were considered sick and infectious." 9
Zionism was itself a child of European racism. It was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Jews until the Nazis' rise to power in the 1930s-Orthodox, Reform and secular. It was rejected because Jews were not tribalists in the late 19th century, because diaspora culture was not reactionary as Atzmon claimed. In fact diaspora culture(s) possessed the ideological and moral artillery with which to mount an attack on Zionism and racism, in the name of universalism, as I will show. The weakening of these ethical values among many Jews who after the Nazi holocaust uncritically supported Israel was an unfortunate but temporary byproduct of the trauma of the holocaust and of the Zionist's powerful propaganda apparatus, The support for the Zionist state was an unfortunate result both of the holocaust and, as Atzmon demonstrated in some of his most perceptive passages in the book, of the skillful deployment of Holocaust ideology by the Zionist state and its power brokers here in the US.
A Clash of Values-Zionist Hatred for "Ghetto Jews"
Atzmon implies that the Zionist hated the diaspora Jews because they represented decadent Galut values that Zionism had hoped-futilely-- to transcend. Contrary to Atzmon, the problem was not that the Zionist was unable to free himself from the tribalism of exilic culture. Rather the Zionist embraced the values of dominant European culture and thus he despised the the ghetto culture-he hated the unmanly religious Jew with his head always in a book-the Torah. Atzmon, blinded by his own Judeophobia and probably by stereotypes he unconsciously internalized in Israel , fails to recognize these other pre-Zionist (and post-Zionist) diaspora Jewish cultures constituted viable non-Zionist counter-cultures within the European "Christian" countries where Jews lived. These diaspora counter-cultures rejected the secular tribalism of Zionist race-nationalism, and affirmed their own distinctive however imperfect visions of universalism- the legitimacy of which Atzmon at least acknowledges in regard to Orthodox Jews' who he states "are ordered by God to stand as an exemplary model of ethical behavior"(p. 101.)
The attitude of the Zionist towards diaspora Jews could not have been more elitist and morally depraved-from the start. A 1938 speech given by Haim Weizmann was exemplary: " Palestine cannot absorb the Jews of Europe. We want only the best of Jewish youth to come to us. We want only the educated…The other Jews will have to stay where they are…These millions of Jews are dust on the wheels of history and they may have to be blown away. We don't want them pouring into Palestine . We don't want Tel Aviv to become another low grade ghetto"10 Although Atzmon would have no truck with Zionist cruelty, he seems to have been mesmerized unconsciously by his own version of the Zionist image of the Jewish ghetto. There is copious evidence, which space does not permit me to discuss, that Weizmann's speech was not mere sentiment: "The Zionist leadership did its utmost to subordinate rescue efforts to their primary objective": the creation of a new Hebrew people and the establishment of a Jewish state." 11 That is an understatement because it does not mention the Zionist sabotage of efforts to save European Jews, which is discussed in detail elsewhere in Rabkin's book and others. 12
Zionist Race-Nationalism and the Alien Other
Atzmon never examines Zionist ideology- yet it is within Zionism that we find the roots of the Zionists' conflict with Arabs peoples. Finkelstein has presented the clearest and most succinct examination of Zionist philosophy in a book that unfortunately remains unpublished. 13 Finkelstein's work demonstrates that "the premises of Zionism and of liberalism are in fundamental conflict." 14 In fact ironically both Nazi (modern) anti-Semitism and Zionism are rooted in the same reactionary tradition of integral race-nationalism, a variant of European racism. The ideal towards which race-nationalism points is a world comprised of numerous nations, each nation internally homogeneous, each belonging to one different race-nationality. 15 As a form of race-nationalism Zionism held that all Jews, wherever they lived, were united by deep organic bonds, however dissimilar Jews living in different countries might appear to be; thus they constituted a nation. At the same time they were an "alien" element within the European states where they frequently resided; these states did not belong to them, but to the preponderant Christian race(s). The anti-Semites, Zionists concluded, were right about this: Jews did not belong in Europe . Finkelstein sums it up, for Zionism "anti-Semitism is the rational (natural) impulse of a nation state 'infected' by a 'foreign' body or too obtrusive a foreign body." 16 From the Zionist perspective compulsory expulsions of Jews and other minorities are legitimate since the nation belong to the majority race. The remedy for the Jewish predicament followed from its diagnosis: the creation of a Jewish state for the stateless Jews scattered in the diaspora. The Zionist held that Israel was made for all Jews even those who did not intend to live there, and it was not made for its own citizenry which includes a minority of those Arabs who were not expelled during the 1948 war. As the Zionists saw it just as the Jews were a foreign body in Europe, so the Arabs were a foreign body in Israel .
The Zionist political discourse was paralleled by as territorial discourse. The land belonged to the Jewish people. Diaspora Jews were merely "rootless cosmopolitans," as Ben-Gurion put it. Conversely Israel could be developed only by Jews. Ben-Gurion wrote: "[N]o one but a sovereign Jew can... bring forth the full benediction of our Land."l17 On the other hand, the indigenous (Arab) inhabitants of the land of Israel were not intrinsically of it--they did not belong there. 18
The founders of Zionism realized that the creation of a Jewish state required the existence of a Jewish majority in Palestine ; achieving this goal ultimately entailed "transferring" the native inhabitants of Palestine out of and off the land that belonged to the Jews--according to Zionism. Most Zionists realized that the natives would not leave voluntarily. Thus the question of how to most effectively bring about the involuntary "transfer" (or, as we call it today, the ethnic cleansing) of the indigenous Arabs of Palestine became a persistent pre-occupation (and subject of secret private debates) of Zionist leaders-- until the actions of the Israeli Army in the 1948 war solved the problem by effecting the flight of 750,000 Palestinians. By February 1948 Ben-Gurion was looking forward to war with the Arab states as a means of solving the problem of tranfer: "The war will give us the land... The concept of "ours" and "not ours" are peace concepts only, and in war they lose their whole meaning" he wrote privately. 19
The evidence suggests that few Jews within the Zionist movement questioned the morality of the proposed acts of ethnic cleansing. (Those who did were those who be called bi-nationalists today, like Martin Buber.) As a leader of Mapai (Ben -Gurion's party) and the kibbutz movement put it in 1948, "[T]he transfer of Arabs out of the country in my eyes is one of the most just, moral and correct things that can be done." 20 But this is not surprising--after all the Zionists had accepted the anti-Semitic proposals to rid Europe of Jews, until of course it transmogrified under Hitler into genocide. Just as Zionists believed the Jews did not belong in Europe, so the Arabs did not belong in Israel . Despite Palestinians' emotional attachment to their homes they belonged in an Arab country. As a non-Jewish minority they were at best "an excrescence on the body-politic" of the Jewish state.. 21`
An understanding of the Zionist ideology and project clarifies why the indigenous Palestinians were so hostile to the Zionists in Palestine , and would have been so-as Finkelstein has pointed out-- even had the Palestinians been financially compensated. It had nothing to do with alleged anti-Semitism. Nor with Jews' alleged innate tribalism. Zionism was the culprit. As Finkelstein puts it, "[I]t is difficult to imagine any circumstances under which [the Palestians] would have acquiesced to an enterprise that, in spirit and letter, sought to render them strangers in their own land." 22 The Zionists regarded the Palestinian as intruders and treated them as such.
At the time the Zionist image of the Arab --as a stranger in the cherished Jewish state -- had less to do with anti-Arab racism (which was prevalent in all European countries) than it did with the race-nationalism of the Zionist world-view. From the more modern or postmodern perspective the idea of racially purified countries is pernicious even though it does not necessarily imply the division into superior and inferior races. Yet this fear of the Other, the contempt for the outsider, bears within it the seeds for the development of a sensibility that Atzmon aptly calls tribal. But, contrary to Atzmon, there was nothing distinctively Jewish about this tribalism, this Zionist world-view. It was a less malignant (because it eschewed the ideas of superior /inferior races) variant of the biologically racist ideology that became dominant in Europe and America in the 19th century. But of course, as Finkelstein said, a conflict with the indigenous population was built into the premises of Zionism since they were intruding into other people's land, and the only resolution acceptable to the Zionists was ethnic cleansing or apartheid. Both of these methods have since been used and of course a very pernicious and rabid form of racism-as Atzmon notes-- has developed as a result of this situation.
Maxine Rodinson put it in 1973, "Wanting to create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state in Arab Palestine in the 20th Century, could not help but lead to the development (completely normal, sociologically speaking) of a racist state with a racist state of mind, and in the final analysis to a military confrontation between the two ethnic groups." 23 The renowned bi-nationalist leader Rabbi Judah Magnes aptly wrote, "The slogan 'Jewish state'...is equivalent, in effect, to a declaration of war by the Jews on the Arabs." 24
From Atzmon's perspective Zionism was itself based on noble aspirations-it failed only because the Zionist were themselves infected with the tribalism of the diaspora Jews. Atzmon is wrong: Zionism never held any promise-not for an instant-- for Jews or Arabs, except the promise of stealing the Palestinians' land. It was not a continuation of the putative tribalism of diaspora Jews. It was a revolution against Judaism and the diaspora Jewish cultures. It was a Jewish variant of 19th century race nationalism- thus it was a product of this European zeitgeist. Zionist race-nationalism was a form of tribalism. Atzmon fails to appreciate-or even acknowledge-- that the original opposition to the Zionism came from diaspora Jews.
The Hebrew Bible Mixed Legacy: Nationalism or Prophetic Universalism
But Zionism cannot be said to be completely unprecedented within Judaism. In the Jewish religion as in Christianity and other faiths there were competing visions of God and of redemption-an illustration of the conflict between these rival paradigms can be found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The first books in the Old Testament depict a tribal god and a tribal people. As Reform Jew and anti-Zionist Solveig Eggerz puts it, "The book of Deuteronomy features a tribal deity, who is the God of the Exodus, and of the wilderness, depicted in a series of speeches given by Moses in Moab just before his death and on the eve of the Israelite entry into Canaan . The tribal warrior God will stand by the Chosen People in their holy wars against other nations: 'The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little.. But the Lord your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed.' " Deut. 6:21-24. 25
Eggerz describes the dominance of the tribal mentality. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, describes the God of Moses as a "brutal, partial and murderous god: a a god of war who would be known as Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Armies. … He is passionately partisan, has little compassion for anyone but his favorites and is simply a tribal deity." The God of Moses commands the Chosen People to celebrate the superiority of Israel , He excludes all other nations from His love. "When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.. you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire." Deut. 7:1-6. (Ibid) 26 Ironically centuries later, the Exodus narratives in the Bible were a source of comfort and inspiration for African Americans during slavery, and they constituted the paradigm for liberation by liberation theologians. Anglican theologian Reverend Michael Prior notes, "However the real poor of the Exodus narrative… are the ones forgotten in the victory, the Canaanites and others who are pushed aside or exterminated by the religious zeal of the invading Israelites with God on their side." 27
But the Old Testament conception of God as a genocidal and merciless despot was not the only vision of God, nor was the idea of God's exclusive love for Israel the only interpretation of chosenness. Eggerz poignantly describes the paradigm shift that occurred with the writings of the prophets. "The Prophets' unique interpretation of chosenness… led to a change in the basic essence of Judaism..With the help of the Prophets, the Chosen People realized that their obligations might be weightier than their privileges. This change coincided with the transformation of the tribal God of the armies to a universal God of compassion. Thus, the covenant represented responsibilities, not privileges."(Ibid) The formulation in Isaiah is eloquent, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Isaiah 49:6. 28
The Reform Jews in general,before they converted to Zionism in the 1930s,disparaged the first books of the Hebrew Bible whereas rabbinic Jews continued to consecrate the Torah as the most important part of the Hebrew Bible. But all Jews were influenced by the Prophets' universal idea of salvation. In the early 20th century both Reform and Orthodox Jews condemned Zionism in the name of universal redemption. Rabbinic Judaism had undergone a universalizing process as a result of its separation from the Temple cult in Jerusalem , and more broadly of its embrace of diasporic existence. So Atzmon has it backwards: The Zionists were not corrupted by the tribalism of exilic "ghetto" Jews. The Zionists were the tribalists. The diaspora Jews represented the universalizing trend with which Atzmon himself identifies. 29
The Zionist founders of Israel also believed, as we saw above, that the return to Israel must be brought to completion by the process of "the negation of the diaspora," extirpating the diaspora mentality which is an adaptation to the unnatural life in the diaspora and is thus ostensibly characterized by neurosis, by fragmentation and incompletion. In the 1930s Ben-Gurion used to refer to diaspora Jews as "dust"; future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called them "misfits." The negation of the diaspora denigrated thousands of years of Jewish life and culture before the triumph of Zionism. As Israeli author Beit- Hallahmi noted,"The almost total rejection of Diaspora traditions is the cornerstone and capstone of the new Israeli identity, the most tangible product of Zionist ideology." 30
I can't help but wonder if Atzmon's contempt for diaspora Jews is an attitude he failed to transcend when he first repudiated the oppressor sensibility. Atzmon's Judeo-phobia will continue to undermine his own universalism until he has the courage to examine the Zionist ideology itself and stop blaming diaspora Jews for the Zionist's invention, or reinvention, of a tribal God, of nationalism. Let him focus his contempt on the neo-cons and the Zionist Lobby and the Jewish clerical establishment coopted by Israeli power but not upon the multitude of innocent diaspoa Jews-universalists, socialists and Communists and various sort of progressives -- who have dedicated their lives to opposing US imperialism and the racist state of Israel that oppresses the Palestinians in the name of all Jews.
Canon Naim Ateek, an Anglican Palestinian theologian who lives in Palestine ,wrote with profound insight, "The emergence of the Zionist movement in the 20th century is a retrogression of the Jewish community into the history of its very distant past [my emphasis] with its most elementary and primitive forms of the concept of God. Zionism has succeeded in reanimating the nationalist tradition within Judaism." Zionism's inspiration has not been drawn from the later prophets with their emphasis upon the universalism of God "but from those portions of the Hebrew Scriptures that betray a narrow and exclusive concept of a tribal God." 31 According to eminent Israeli historian Schlomo Aveneri, "Zionism was the most fundamental revolution in Jewish life." 32 Again this assessment by a liberal Zionist historian is the opposite of Atzmon's which posits Zionism as a continuation of diaspora ideology. Zionism substituted a secular identity in national terms for the traditional identity in religious terms. Avneri's viewpoint, common among Jewish "New Historians" today, was not what Atzmon would have been indoctrinated to believe in high school in the 1970s-Zionism was then taught to be the culmination of Jewish history, not a revolution against it.33 Atzmon bought it-he never managed to transcend his contempt for the image of the diaspora Jew.
Jewish Opposition to Zionism
One would never guess from Atzmon that the Jews reverted to tribalism not in spite of Zionism but because of Zionism. But from the time of its birth until the ascension of the Nazis, diaspora Jews opposed Zionism fervently, and went along with it only reluctantly after the rise of Nazis. Only in the post WW2 era did Jewish nationalism blossom like a mushroom cloud among diaspora Jews.
Let's take a quick glance at the criticism made of the Zionist project both by rabbinic. Reform and secular Jew. Historian and Orthodox Jew Yakov Rabkin, agrees with Canon Ateek, and claims Zionism "strikes at the heart of messianic redemption," which is what it "means to be a Jew." 34 "Redemption signifies a radical change that brings harmony to all humanity and goes far beyond the strictly Jewish realm" 35[my emphasis]. This conception of universal, indeed cosmic, redemption was deeply rooted in tradition and was not formulated in reaction to the growth of political Zionism. 36 Despite rabbinic Jews' sacralization of the Torah with its tribalist concept of God, the years in exile had led them to develop a profoundly universalist concept of redemption based on the Isaiahic notion of a mission to the nations which was integrally connected to the very fact of diasporic existence. Furthermore the faith in redemption precluded any human effort (other than prayer or spiritual means) to return to Palestine "in order to do so in peace." Rabkin states,"The military conquest of the Holy Land and the ingathering of the Jews there… [is] an act of blasphemy, a usurpation of the divine prerogative, which undermines the Covenant of the children of Israel with God." 37
Samson Raphael Hirsch the founder of the neo-Orthodox movement (which like all Orthodox regards the Bible as the inerrant word of God) rejected Zionism as a crude form of nationalism that valorized violence and undermined the Jewish mission. Hirsch wrote, "Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was willing to give up homeland, fortune, fame and status-all things that people obtain by force-to ensure, in a peaceable way, that the world be governed by justice. The destiny of Abraham's descendants is to proclaim [to the nations] the victory of moral force over armed physical force." Hirsch wrote that Israel must "root out" from itself all traces of worship of physical power, especially "the cult of the hero," "the laurels that the nations in their blind enthusiasm bestow upon murderers." Fortunately for Hirsch he lived in the 19th century, and thus was spared the vision of the Jewish worship of the state, and of American and Israeli Jews bestowing laurels upon the soldiers in the Israeli Army (I.D.F.) who murder Palestinians in the name of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. 38 Fortunately he was spared the sight of the members of the group he founded celebrating the rabid slaughter of innocents thus desecrating the universalist faith of their founder.
The greatest Jewish theologians and philosophers opposed Zionism precisely because of their appreciation of the universalist spiritual potential of diaspora life and the ideas of the mission to the nations. Neo-Kantian philosopher and Jewish theologian Hermann Cohen did most of his writings in the last quarter of the 19th Century; he was the leader of the German Liberal [Reform] Jewish movement and probably the most profound advocate of the notion of the diaspora Jewry's universalist messianic monotheistic mission, as well as passionately anti-Zionist. Cohen wrote that "the world marches toward prophetic messianism, and the realization of Judaism is bound up with the Jewish dispersion among the peoples of the earth. This dispersion is our historical realization: 'to be a light to the nations'… Hence the political nationalism of the Zionists runs definitely counter to the conceptual world of the prophets and must be rejected." Cohen writes prophetically (this was in the late 19th Century): "In the Jewish state we may vanish as the bearer of God's mission." 39 How quaint Cohen's words sound today when virtually all of the Reform Jewish rabbis worship at the altar of the nation-state of Israel . Only in the writings of Jewish theologian Marc Ellis is this idea of the Jewish dispersion given a positive prophetic-missionary interpretation redolent of theologians like Cohen.
Reform Jews' original principles included the rejection of a literal return to Palestine altogether. They argued that the early nationalist period of Judaism was a temporary necessity to prepare Jews for their God-given task of carrying the message of universal justice to all men-Jews were not a nation but a distinctive religious community. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise "the major spokesperson and organizing genius" of the early American Reform movement wrote "the idea of Jews returning to Palestine is not part of our creed. We rather believe that the habitable become one holy land and the human family one chosen people."40 In the Pittsburgh Platform, endorsed by all American Reform congregations in 1885, it stated,"We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine , nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state." 41
Atzmon implies that Jews' desire to perpetuate themselves as a tribe undermined what he took to be the promise of Zionism-that Israel would be a nation like all other nations. But to the contrary, diaspora Jews wanted to belong in their respective countries. In addition to the exalted prophetic and universalist ideals fueling the rejection of Zionism many Jews just wanted to belong, to be accepted. Although they adhered to their own Jewish religious views they vehemently rejected the Zionist vision of the Jews as "alien" elements within the diaspora countries whose true home was Palestine . The Pittsburgh Platform revealed that most Jews saw themselves as American citizens whose religion was Judaism. It was diaspora Jews who rejected tribalism, and thus rejected Zionism. In the diaspora a vigorous universalist religion had developed throughout the 19th century: Reform Judaism. In the 1940s it was spiritually destroyed by Zionism. It never recovered.
A powerful critic of Zionism was Mennonite (Radical Reformation) Christian theologian John Howard Yoder. Yoder argued that the Zionist triumph constituted the fall of Judaism--it represented Jews' acceptance of the Constantinian option. Yoder finds in the prophet Jeremiah an affirmation of the Diasporic mission and vision. Jeremiah tells the people Israel , "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters . . . But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." Jeremiah 29:5-7. The real mission of Jews, according to Jeremiah, is not to reconquer Israel by force but to settle into Babylon and seek to establish a righteous social order. Yoder affirms, "[T]he Jews of the Diaspora were for over a millennium the closest thing to the ethic of Jesus existing anywhere in Christendom." 42 Zionism, as Yoder saw it, was form of assimilationism-- assimilation to the state, to military power, to secularism-- and to Western colonialism, he might have added. Ultimately, Zionism is an assimilation to "Christianity" in its dominant Constantinian form! It is in fact the substitution of the values of Constantine (the Roman Empire who made "Christianity" of the sword his ruling ideology) for those of Jeremiah and the Jewish diaspora. Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild wrote,"[W]hatever.. theologians.... may say about Jewish theory with respect to violence, one thing I think is absolutely indisputable: namely, that two thousand years of actual Jewish history.. is quite unqualifiedly de facto the most extraordinary exemplification of persistent practiced pacifism in the history of the human race." 43
While the contention that Jews were pacifists was an overstatement it was not totally without foundation. Professor Daniel Boyarin's studies of Talmudic culture, provide edification. Boyarin writes that "we see at the foundation of the rabbinic value system the obverse of the 'manly' Roman values in the Masada foundation myth of Jewish heroism....The Babylonian Talmud's Rabbi Yohanan prefers life and the possibility to serve God through the study of Torah over everything else...While the Josephan zealots proved themselves 'real men' by preferring death at their own hands to slavery, the Rabbis prefer slavery to death." Rabbinic culture did not romanticize killing or "death with honor. " The sacralization of death was an ideal of European culture- the culture which Zionists envied and emulated. 44
Furthermore rabbinic Jews did in fact place their trust in God, as Yoder argues. They adopted the Jeremiac option. They did not dream of political sovereignty, but developed a more Godly orientation. Boyarin demonstrates that rabbinic culture defined "ideal men as gentle, peaceful and nurturing" and that Jews tended to look down on those features that "in European society defined a man as manly: physical strength, martial activity and aggressiveness, and contempt for and fear of the female body." 45 Since diaspora Jews were not seeking power, since they valued "the Book" (the Torah) and study more than any other activity, Boyarin argues, the traits they developed were effeminate by the standards of the dominant culture -- yet values that were adaptive in a religious counter-culture, be it rabbinic or monastic, would seemed aberrant to the wider culture based on power-wielding and idolatry of the state.
In Zionism the archetypal role model is transformed from the Torah scholar, the man of meekness and piety (weakness in Zionist eyes) into the Israeli soldier, the armored sabra (soldier) strong and "manly" enough to kill the "Canaanites," male or female or child and reconquer the promised land. 46 Today "Israeli toughness and military prowess have become the model for right-wingers, machos and Rambos around the world. Israelis are admired because they are good fighters, and because, as such, they are very unlike Jews." 47 In every aspect, despite its reputation, Zionism was not a assertion of the Jewish ethos, but its repudiation--an assimilation to the values of Christendom. Not of Christ, the gentle Prince of peace, but of Christendom, that is Christianity after it became the religion of the Roman empire .
We have seen how in numerous ways Zionism was the reversal of the values of Jewish people, of a counter-culture that existed on the margins of European culture. The anti-Semitic stereotypes were at best crude distortions, yet because in many ways Jews did deviate from the dominant values, just as Jesus did, they became objects of persecution, just as other minorities did in Christendom. But it was not "Jewishness" either in its rabbinic, Reform or secular forms that led to the monstrosity that is Israel today. It was the Zionist revolution against Judaism, against "Jewishness."
Why does Atzmon fail to see any of this? One can only speculate. My guess is that although Atzmon freed himself from the prejudice against Arabs, he had internalized the Israeli contempt for the diaspora Jew. He admits, that "[f]or the new Israelite, the Galut (Diaspora) has negative connotations. It is associated with ghettos, shame and persecution" (p. 98). Second, Atzmon's Judeo-phobia was an over- reaction to the rabid racism and hypocrisy of the society in which he grew up-- it led him to distrust all Jews, everything Jewish. Although Atzmon admits the possibility that Jews can in theory overcome the Jewishness-by which he means racism, tribalism-- inside them, every time he depicts a Jew in his book who seems to be anti-Zionist it turns out-according to Atzmon-- that the anti-Zionism is just a façade behind which lurks the Jewish tribalist.
The Zionist Establishment and the Conflict within the Jewish Community
Before I demonstrate the depth of Atzmon's Judeo-phobia the question must be asked: Did Zionism destroy the universalist strivings within the diaspora Jewish community?. This is a vast topic that is beyond the scope of this essay. Briefly Zionism did have an adverse effect on diaspora Jews. But this may be an instantiation of a greater law that has nothing to do with Jewish tribalism: Power corrupts. As Jews became more successful financially and politically in America after WW2, the ideal values that gripped them after the Enlightenment, partially lost its force over the Jewish community, particularly over 1%. There was also the adverse effect of the holocaust-and of the holocaust religion which the Zionists exploited. But the prophetic yearning for justice among Jews was by no means extinguished. The problem is the Jewish establishment, including its religious leadership, no longer played the same liberal role. It is today largely a reactionary force. Two tendencies were at war within the Jew community, within the Jewish collective soul-the idolatry of the State versus the prophetic commitment to universal justice.
The anti-Zionist Jews were converted to Zionism by "the Holocaust." Zionist leaders were very clever and manipulative. How they got Truman to approve of the establishment of Israel cannot be discussed here. But the Israeli propaganda machine coopted most Jews, even those who were still anti-Zionists when Israel was established. When the Israeli state was first formed there were outstanding Jewish intellectuals who denounced the whole venture, including Hannah Arendt in Commentary in its liberal days. Reform Judaism was destroyed by the foundation of Israel . It became the religion of the golden calf-the calf was Israel . In 1970 Nathan Glazer said " Israel is the Jewish religion for American Jews. 48 Beit-Hallamhi notes the irony: American Jews tend to be liberal or progressive, intellectual, non-athletic. "It is an identification with the opposite, with the strong physical Israelis who act against all the liberal values American Jews hold so dear." US Jews "admire the strong Israelis very much like the WASP jet pilot." Thus liberal Jews who oppose nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants (this was written in 1992) and complain about white racism "will not be disturbed by Israeli violence towards Palestinians or Israeli nuclear weapons." 49 When Jimmy Carter wrote a book about Israeli apartheid virtually all Jews were enraged. (This is changing today-but look how long it has taken.)
Atzmon's book insightfully discusses how holocaust ideology is used to desensitize Jews to the abuse of Palestinians. But actually Atzmon says little about the double standards of liberal diaspora Jews-the exemption they make for Israel . How could he? In his mind diaspora Jews have only one standard.
Their liberalism is not constricted by Israel ; it has always been just a façade --to disguise their tribalism: “Although very many emancipated and assimilated Jews have adopted universal humanist ideals … secular collective Jewish identity has never matured into adopting a universal humanist ideological standpoints” (p.55). Yes, but let's be more specific. One obstacle has been Jews unwillingness to shed their illusions about However the empirical data confirms that despite the ethical set-back described above there is a greater percentage of American Jews who have adopted a universalist standpoint than any other white ethnic group in America . Although Israel has had a corrupting influence, the main moral stumbling block for Jews, as for all Americans, is not Israel but trust in the America corporate state.
American Jewish liberalism and radicalism is anchored in the diaspora tradition.
Atzmon's insistence that Jews are a tribalistic people reluctant to assimilate is based upon the Zionist archetype of the Jew-as perpetual stranger. It's sheer Zionist fantasy belied by the high intermarriage rates in America (50% at present among Jews) and the evident social integration of Jews into diaspora societies. Jews are not tribalistic-- they are virtually completely assimilated. The bonds of ethnic solidarity that neo-cons and liberal Zionists felt with their fellow Jews in Israel is based largely on the mystique described above, and on opportunism, not tribalism. As far as the primacy of ethnic kinship per se it's an old Judeophobic myth: "Jews all stick together." They don't. If Norman Finkelstein fell on hard times and was begging in the street for change he would not get a dime from Alan Dershowitz (although he might get a kick in the face) or from Martin Peretz or Abe Foxman or Bill Kristol or anyone in the Poderetz family. Chomsky might get some change-but no more than the "shvartze" beggar. The neo-con or the liberal uber-Zionist is the broker for the powerful state of Israel ; in this lies his status, wealth and power-and his adoration for Israel .
It is true that for the American liberal Zionist or neo-con, and even for many ordinary Jews, Israel has a religious allure and numinousity as any idol does, but its allure would fade quickly if it lost its Army. And its chutzpah. Furthermore it has lost its allure in the last 10 years among Jews under 40 revolted by its shameful treatment of Palestinians. Norman Finkelstein stated in an interview in 2007, "In 1967 Podhoretz publishes his famous memoir called Making It. It's how he succeeded and made it in American life. He was a young man and the editor of Commentary Magazine. You read that book, his celebrated memoir written two months before the June 1967 war, there is exactly one half of one sentence in the whole book on Israel. People like Podhoretz, Midge Decter, all the neo-cons...I have gone through the whole literature on the topic and have read it quite carefully. Before June 1967, they didn't give a 'hoot' about Israel . Israel never comes up in any of their memoirs, in any of the histories of the period. They become pro-Israel when Israel is useful to them in their pursuit of power and fortune in the United States . Elliott Abrams is as committed to Israel as his father-in-law, Norman Podhoretz, was committed to Israel : When it is convenient and when it is useful." 50
The fact overlooked by Atzmon is that although the Lobby successfully gained
the support of many Jews, it never completely overcame the growing chasm between the
Jewish masses--in particular the younger Jews-- and the wealthy elite who controlled and subsidized
the Zionist lobby. The construct of "Jewish tribalism" obscures the class factors that are integral to
the understanding of the power of Zionism both in the US and in Israel . While the Jewish elite-the1%--
cares about nothing but money and power, the majority of diasporic Jews still has a strong sense of justice.
(These considerations do not hold in Israel which is pervasively racist.)
Progressive Jews and the Movements for Social Justice
The universalist prophetic tendencies in American Jews has been so well documented, it seems otiose to describe them. No one who has participated in the left in America in the 20th Century could possibly be unaware of this fact, although evidently some of Atzmon's gentile leftist fans would prefer to forget this. There are extenuating circumstances for Atzmon's Judeo-phobic ideas-for the biographical reasons I explained above. But the omissions in Atzmon's book must be mentioned here. Anyone who knows the history of American Jews would be tempted to speculate that a Judeo-phobic censor scrubbed Atzmon's book to remove any trace of evidence of American Jewish activism on behalf of racial and social justice throughout the 20th century. Beit-Hallahmi aptly writes, "The record of Jewish involvement in radical movements is astonishing. Jews have been overrepresented in every left-wing group in the modern world, from 19th century Russia to the African National Congress of South Africa. Even in Arab countries like Iraq and Egypt Jews were founders and leaders of Communist parties." 51
Beit-Hallahmi is eloquent and accurate, "From the mid 19th century to the 1990s, Jewish revolutionaries have embodied a tradition of a search for redemption based on total freedom from conventional wisdom. They were always ready to challenge and question. Jewish radicals refused to limit their concerns to their own tribe. Theirs' was a grander purer dream. Salvation not just for Jews but for the whole of humanity and that would eliminate the ills of the Jewish condition once and for all." 52
Jewish membership in socialist and Communist parties in the diaspora has been "remarkable." In the US 50% of the membership of the Communist Party between 1930-1950 were Jewish." (While the members of this organization were duped by Stalin, membership in these organizations demonstrated a strong commitment to universalist ideals.) Jews made up 2/3rds of the Freedom Riders in the South in 1961and 1/2 to 2/3s of the volunteers in the Mississippi Summer of 1964. 53 During the movement against the war in Vietnam on colleges around the country an extraordinarily large percentage of the leadership were Jews. Yet Jews were only 3% of the American population. The attraction of radicalism for Jews is said to be its universalism. Beit-Hallahmi claims this universalism was based on the yearning for a solution to the Jewish problem. But this is not persuasive. Jews' attraction to radicalism and universal ideals of justice has been as great in America throughout the 1960s to the present as in previous eras yet there is no appreciable Jewish problem today-other than Zionism. Furthermore the progressive Jews I know are concerned about the "Palestinian problem"-the persecution of Palestinians by Israel and by Zionist Jews. Jews' marginal position historically may very well have explained their attraction to revolutionary movements a century ago, but it has endured. It is interesting that secular Jews found themselves drawn to movements that promised universal salvation, just as messianic Judaism did. It is as if the prophetic ideals still exerted unconscious influence upon the collective imagination of American Jews.
Atzmon does not see the universalist tendencies among diaspora Jews because he is blinded by the Judeo-phobia he developed living in the most racist society in the world.
Let's look at some of the ways Atzmon whites-out the image of universalist Jews. As I stated before, his stereotype of tribalist diaspora Jew is so highly emotionally charged that he is unable to see beyond it to the real live Jew standing before him. Joel Kovel suggests a simple test for diagnosing the malady of anti-Semitism. Is the statement about Jews concrete or is it a proposition about the underlying essence of Jewishness? "Do we encounter Jews as pasteboard figures carrying about some sign of Jewishness-avariciousness, cunning etc-- and essentially standing in for that"? 54 For Atzmon the diaspora Jew is in fact a pasteboard figure who stands in for tribalism.
Some of Atzmon's assertions are so egregiously false that I wonder did not any of his editors or readers or endorsers ever tell him he was mistaken?! Atzmon makes Americans Jews look as bad as Israeli Jews-like a group of reactionary bigots who detest anyone who isn't a Jew. It is deeply troubling to me that some gentile leftists seem to believe this. A year ago I would have said anti-Semitism is a fabrication of the Zionist lobby but some eminent gentile leftists' unqualified praise of Atzmon's work has persuaded me that anti-Semitism does exist-not so much among our Arab and Muslim comrades but among some non-Jewish leftists-James Petras being the most egregious example. 55 I have never encountered it among any New York leftists.
According to Atzmon, "the left along with the entire discourse of multiculturalism collapsed after the events of September 11, 2001." "There was a lack of empathy with Arabs and Muslims amongst so called progressive liberals" (p.92). Where does Atzmoin get his facts? And why do his leftist publishers and readers not correct him? Just the opposite happened in America . Shortly after the "attack" the left immediately galvanized. An ad hoc meeting called on the spur of the moment in mid-town Manhattan (which I attended) drew a couple thousand people. We immediately voted to oppose a war, and we immediately pledged our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters whom we knew would be scapegoated. This group later became United for Peace and Justice which was directed by long time peace activist and Jewish atheist, Leslie Cagan. The left was determined to try to prevent Bush from going to war with Afghanistan . (No one anticipated Iraq at that time.) Those factions of the left that were not Troyskyist or Maoist (who oppose any reliance upon the bourgeois state) argued that the attack on WTC was not a war but a criminal action and therefore the US should collaborate with other countries including Muslim countries through police actions to apprehend the criminals who were responsible. Within a few months at least half of us on the left believed that 9/11 was assisted if not initiated by elements within the Bush Administration and US internal security agencies.
According to Atzmon Jews on the right, left and center began to advocate for the extension of the "War against Terror" against Iran , Islam and beyond. "Though Jews are divided among themselves on many issues, they are somehow united in fighting those who they collectively identify as their enemies" (p102)." Atzmon could not be more wrong -- again. Progressive Jews were not united with conservative Jews. From the moment Bush began planning to bomb Afghanistan we were organizing against it. We were alienated from almost all Americans who at this point were behind Bush. We were united with other progressives, including our Muslim comrades, in fighting those whom we identified as our collective enemy. Not Iran , not Iraq , not Libya but the Bush Administration, the American ruling class and the American state. By the time Bush was ready to bomb Iraq the liberals had joined the progressives. The idea that leftist American Jews supported war against Israel's "enemies" is delusional. While only a minority of Jews were active in the anti-war movement, like other New Yorkers they came out in droves to protest against Bush's war against Iraq . (This was part of the millions-strong day of international protest against the war that was described in The New York Times as evidence that international public opinion was a "new world power.") Even my 80 year old liberal Jewish parents (with strong Zionist sympathies) came out to march to stop Bush's war on Iraq . Atzmon's thesis that Jews supported the war on Iraq and that Jewishness is the primary obstacle to universalism rests upon a plethora of false factoids.
For those who have any doubts they can check numerous surveys. For example the American
Jewish Committee's annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, released Dec. 21, 2005 found that 70
percent of U.S. Jews disapproved of the Iraq war, with 28 percent backing it. Sixty percent of respondents
said they did not support America 's handling of the war on terror, while 36 percent approve. "Even on the eve
of the war, fewer American Jews than other Americans were supportive of the prospect of going to war with Iraq ,"
said David Harris, the AJ Committee's executive director. "As American public support has declined since 2003,
Jewish support has been declining in step, but because it began at a lower level, it continues to remain at
a lower level of support than other Americans." 56 This is no surprise to any American leftists-except Judeo-phobes. It is always like this.
Despite Jews' double standard on Israel they have always been in the forefront of movements opposing US wars.
I could give many more examples but spaces does not permit. Also I will omit discussion of metaphysical inconsistencies, I critiqued in a previous paper I wrote on Atzmon, "The New Pro-Palestinian Jews -- Beyond Tikkun and Atzmon." 57 (For example although Atzmon makes a strong plea for universalism he also contradicts himself by insisting that any authentic identity is impossible to achieve due to existential considerations, p34-7.)
The fact is that the universalist tendencies are so strong among American Jews- with the except of Zionists, who have the backing of the wealthiest and most powerful Jews-that only Atzmon's strong Judeo-phobia prevents him from recognizing it. For many years Jews were led astray by the holocaust and Israel , weakening their univeralism. American Jews' most shameful moment came in the years after 1967 when they failed to protest the Occupation. While Jews had been leaders in the 60s' anti-war movement and in the forefront of mass protests against apartheid in South Africa , they were silent about Israel . Jews were not alone.
Edward Said said in 1978 that it's one of "the most frightening, cultural episodes" of the century, "this almost total silence about Zionist treatment of the native Palestinians." "Any self-respecting intellectual is willing today to say something about human rights abuse in Argentina , Chile or South Africa …. Yet when irrefutable evidence of Israeli preventive detention, torture, population transfer, and deportation of the Arabs is presented, virtually nothing is said." 58 Thankfully things have changed-although the public criticism has done nothing to alleviate the plight of Palestinians.
In the last decade particularly, during the Bush Administration, America Jews began to see-finally--that they had been deceived by Israel . An increasing number of Jews began to protest and support the Palestinian cause. Others' disillusionment was registered in opinion surveys. While most people, in accord with common sense, regard an "anti-Zionist Jew" as anti-Zionist, Gilad Atzmon believes anti-Zionist Jews are really aiding the cause of Zionism. They are "third category Jews." Third category Jews are secular Jews who view Jewishness "as the key element and fundamental characteristic of one's being"(Atzmon, p.l7) According to Atzmon, Zionism is not merely the colonization of Palestine . It is really "a modern form of activism that aims to halt assimilation"(p.76). Progressive Jews are part of this "grand tribal project" (p.76). "Zionism is a Jewish global movement that has as its aim the prevention of assimilation. It is there to stop the disappearance of world Jewry"(p.70). But if that is all it is, what threat would it be? Once you take away Judaism the religion, what's left? Matza balls and chicken soup, Atzmon tells us. So where is the threat in a bunch of bunch of people getting together to eat matza ball soup on Passover? Atzmon demonstrates that Jewishness without Judaism is mostly ludicrous. It is only dangerous when it is combined with Zionism. The progressive Jewish couple Atzmon presents in his book are comical-they are no threat to humanity. There are many different ethnic groups in America . They don't constitute a threat to universalism. Overeaters Anonymous is no threat to universalism. It is American "patriotism" (i.e. support for US military state) and U.S. corporate imperial capitalism and Zionism in the traditional sense of the maintenance of a garrison apartheid Jewish state in Palestine and in the Mideast that constitutes the threat to the Palestinians and to other Islamic people-and to the survival of humanity..
And although Atzmon implies Jewish anti-Zionist groups really aid the Zionist cause in Israel he is completely wrong. The Zionist Lobby in America knows that representing Israel as a "Jewish" cause is the most effective way of building support for its policies. They regard anti-Zionist Jewish groups as particularly threatening to the Zionist project. That is why they continually denounce critics of Israel as "self-hating Jews" and it is why progressive Jews formed Jewish anti-Zionist groups. We did not do this because we are tribalists, nor because we shun and fear the goyim. Nor because we only want to associate with other Jews. Nor because we want to make sure Jews don't marry goyim.
(None of my girlfriends have even been Jewish.) What century is Atzmon living in? Or what country? Atzmon can't seem to understand: American Jews are not Israeli Jews.
I want to conclude with a revealing story Atzmon tells. Atzmon was giving a speech in Colorado .
During Q and A a middle aged man stood up to ask a question. But first he introduced himself: "I am a citizen of the
world, a cosmopolitan and an atheist. I would like to ask you something, Mr Atzmon" (p103). I imagine he
expected Atzmon would be impressed with his introduction, pleased to meet a fellow universaIist. But right away
Gilad's Jew-dar went into operation, and Gilad asked the man politely if he was a Jew. The man admitted he was a
Jew and Gilad explained how he knew-- that those who introduce themselves as "citizens of the world" tend to be
"assimilated Jews of a progressive persuasion." He then explained to the man that in effect his Jewishness prevented
him from being an authentic cosmopolitan: "Whenever I come across people who introduce themselves as citizens of the
world they somehow always happen to be assimilated Jews who identify politically as progressive cosmopolitans….
Somehow non-Jews [who give up their religion] do not need to hide behind some vague abstract banner or righteous
value system. But what was your question?" (Evidently Atzmon was also annoyed that the man looked down on "patriotism.")
After Atzmon's speech the man had forgotten his question which Atzmon took as proof that the man did not have a question,
that he only wanted to "tell his neighbors and friends… what a great human being
he was" (p.104). It seemed obvious to me that the man felt too humiliated by Gilad to continue.
Gilad cannot seem to find any Jews who are not tribalists beneath the facade. There was no reason to
doubt the citizen of the world was not what he claimed to be.But of course he was a Jew. Although in theory
Gilad believes the Jew is able to transcend tribalism,
in the real world he can't seem to find any who do. To make it worse the noble universalism
that inspires Atzmon is continually menaced by those pesky liberal Jews who insist on viewing
themselves as "citizens of the world."
Seth Farber, Ph.D. is an author and psychologist. His new book is The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement. His work is described on his website www.sethHfarber.com, or see
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1.Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who, ( Hants , U.K. :Zero Books, 1970.
2. Letter on Glad Atzmon http://threewayfight.blogspot.com/p/atzmon-critique_09.html, accessed May 2012).
3. (http://uspcn.org/2012/03/13/granting-no-quarter-a-call-for-the-disavowal-of-the-racism-nowned "and-antisemitism-of-gilad-atzmon, accessed May 2012).
4. (http://www.jewsagainstzionism.com/rabbi_quotes/blauCallJerusalem.cfm, accessed May 2012)
5.Yakov Rabkin, A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism ( London :Zed Books, 2006), pp.,200-1.
6. Seth Farber, Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers:Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel ( Monroe , Maine : Common Courage Press, 2005) pp.113-4.
8. George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solutiona: A History of European Racism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), p.xiv.
10. Rabkin, p.180.
12. Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1998) and resources in Farber, 2005.
13. Norman Finkelstein, From the Jewish Question to the Jewish State: An Essay on the Theory of Zionism, unpublished dissertation, 1988.
14. Farber, p.137.
15. Ibid, pp137-8.
20. Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948, (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1992),p.180.
23. Ibid, p.142.
24. Ibid, p.141.
25. .Solveig Eggerz, American Council of Judaism, Newsletter, Winter, 1998, www.acjna.org/acjna/articles_detail.aspx?id=109, accessed May, 2012).
27. Michael Prior, The Bible and Colonialism ( Shettfield , U.K. : Shettfield Academic Press) p.281.
28. Eggerz, ibid.
29.Rosemary Reuther, The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict ( Minneapolis :Fortress Press, 2002).\\
30. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins:Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1993), p.120.
31.Naim Ateek, Justice and Only Justice, (Maryknoll, N.Y:Orbis Books, 1989) p.101.
34. Ibid, p.15.
36. Rabkin, pp.74-81.
37. Ibid, p.77.\
39. Ibid, p.233.
41. Pittsburgh Platform (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0016_0_15835.html, accessed May, 2012).
42. John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, ( Grand Rapids , Michigan : Wm Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p.81.
43.Farber, pp. 237-8.
44. Ibid, p.238.
45, Daniel Boyarin ,Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p.78.
46. Farber, 238.
47. Beit-Hallahmi, pp.135-6.
49. Ibid, p.196.
50. Feb 8, 2007, The Debate between Norman Finkelstein and James Petras,
(http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=11&ar=978 ) accessed may, 2012.
51. Beit-Hallahmi, p.31.
52. Ibid, p.30.
53. Ibid, pp.31-2.
54. Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism ( London :Pluto Press, 2007), p.236.
55. "Anti-Semitism and the Israel Lobby" (April, 2008, Red Pepper http://www.redpepper.org.uk/Anti-semitism-and-the-Israel-lobby/, accessed May 2012).
56. Jewish News of Greater Phoenix Poll: Jews against Iraq war. Dec 23, 2012 (http://www.jewishaz.com/issues/story.mv?051223+poll , accessed May 2012)
57. "The New Pro-Palestinian Jews -- Beyond Tikkun and Atzmon"
(http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/26272, accessed May 2012).
58. Farber, Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers, p.35
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