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Interview with Greenstein on Atzmon

(this was supposed to be a podcast, but the buzz on line made it unbearable to listen to, so I wrote it out.) - Stanley Heller April 1, 2012

I interviewed Tony Greenstein who is in Brighton in the UK. Greenstein is in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods. We're going to be talking about a very divise fellow, Gilad Atzmon. Atzmon is an Israeli citizen who was born a Jew, but who has renounced being a Jew and has been writing some blistering comments about Jews or "Jewishness" as he calls it. Greenstein who is a British Jew is perhaps Atzmon's most outspoken opponent.

My questions/comments are in normal type. Greenstein's responses are in boldface.

Tony, could you summarize some of your activism on behalf of Palestinian rights?

I've written extensively. I've spoken. I've been at demonstrations. I helped found the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. I participated in the disruption of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in London a few months ago, before that the Jerusalem Quartet so I'm an activist, a political writer

I want to start off with a statement made by a group of Palestinian activists disavowing Atzmon. It's highly unusual for activists to denounce someone who says he's on their side and here I'll read a few sentences (the complete statement is here).

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."

It's signed by over 20 Palestinians including Ali Abunimah, Omar Barghouti, Naseer Aruri and others. What do you think of the statement?

I completely agree with it. I think Atzmon is an extremely divisive figure. Atzmon basically sees Zionism as trans-historical and therein lies the problem. There is no straight line you can draw between the Bible, between Moses, between classical Judaism and Israel today and Zionism. Zionism arose in the late 19th century not in the first century. What Zionism did in Palestine has unique characteristics like all such settler states, but what Zionism did was essentially did was no different from the barbarities of imperialism generally. If you say that Israel is unique in what it does, when it was bombarding Gaza killing 1,400 people, Sri Lanka was attacking(?) the Tamils killing 20,000 people. The barbarity of imperialism has never known any bonds, Perhaps one should say with him talking about this inherent Jewishness what he's trying to do is turn the movement towards anti-Jewish racism, anti-Semitism

Like you Atzmon lives in the UK. How long have you been aware of his writings?

Since 2005 when we organized a picket of the Socialist Workers Party bookshop in London when they invited Atzmon to a group of members and they had been inviting Atzmon to their conferences "Marxism 2006, 7" etc. They have now woken up, thank goodness. I have on and off critiqued him fairly constantly because anti-Semitism is a danger. It's not a danger so much to the Jews for their isn't a social basis for anti-Semitism today. It's a marginal prejuddice nowadays. It plays into the hands of Zionist hands. The Zionists say, "If you support the Palestinians, if you oppose Zionsim you are anti-Semitic. You are trying to repeat the Holocaust." Atzmon says, "Yea, fine, I agree. That's what I'm doing anyway."

So that's why I oppose him primarily.

Now he has a new book out, "The Wondering Who" which if you look at its blurb has the support of a number of decent people. How do you account for that?

Well, I don't know how decent they are. I think someone like professor Cook has flirted with the far right for some time. Certainly I was surprised by Richard Falk. All I can say is that he simply has lost it and discredited himself. As for John Mearschimer I never agreed with his thesis anyway, but he did along with Steve Walt distinguish themselves from those who hate Jews as Jews. He had a legitimate argument of foreign policy interests. I don't happen to agree with them. I think they are wrong, but nonetheless it wasn't anti-Semitic although that's what they were accuse of. Today by endorsing Atzmon they have done exactly that. They have justified they are worst critics, like Dershowitz. They are stupid.

Atzmon says he is just following the tradition of Israel Shahak, an Israeli Jew who was the head of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights.

(Greenstein interrupts my question with laughter.) Shahak was an extremely brave survivor of the Holocaust. He was a former professor of Organic Chemistry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Til the end of his days he fought against Zionism primarily. He was often exasperated by the Palestinians. He supported them nontheless. He dissected Zionism. He critiqed it. He looked at the religious aspect, the foundations of some of the things in the Talmud and some of the history of Jews, but he never said for one minute that you can somehow define Jews as having some kind of essential characteristics... (garbled) The Jewish religion today is being used to justify barbarity. He's showing where it comes from There is a link now, because they revived the worst aspects of Judaism. The problem is Atzmon does not really understand that. I'll quote from Shahak's " Jewish History, Jewish Religion, , the Weight of 3000 Years" In chapter 3 he speaks of how a great deal of nonsense has been written in the attempt to provide a social of mystical interpretation of Jewry or "Judaism as a whole" It cannot be done because the social structure of the Jewish people and the ideological structure of Judaism have changed profoundly through the ages. Now Shahak wasn't a Marxist, but that could have come from a Marxist. He saw how things changed, become opposites, become entangled and Zionism ...(garbled) It's very different from saying that Jews have inherent characteristics that determines how Israel behaves. That's why Atzmon denies that Israel is a colonial state, a settler colonial state. Because if you say that it means Israel is one of a group. For Atzmon Israel is somehow unique, worse even that the Nazis.

I have one more question. Some people say this argument with Atzmon is all a waste of time. Palestinians are suffering miserably so we should just let anyone who has something to say on their behalf to go ahead and say it.

So maybe we should welcome into our ranks any old white supremacist who also wants to "support" Palestinians. Some support we're better off without to be quite honest. I don't think Atzmon offers anything. Yes, the Palestinians are suffering. No one needs to be told, but we shouldn't counterpose ..... because Zionism is above all a political movement. It has a large group of people who justify what they do and to attack those who don't support them The idea that you should give hostages to fortune, to play into their hands is absurd. On the contrary we should be saying quite clearly that Zionist use of the term anti-Semitism and their use of the Holocaust actually diminishes the meaning of those terms. That's the problem. The people now become so immune to allegations of anti-Semitism that people like Atzmon can get their way. That is a problem. You don't overcome it by adopting racism. Because of all the Palestinian struggle is an anti-racist struggle

much more from Tony Greenstein about Atzmon. Click here

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