Mary Rizzo interviews Gilad Atzmon
Tangling with the Oppressor -
What really matters is what Palestinians Do
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Interviewing Gilad Atzmon is never easy, but always interesting. It's
challenging because when it comes down to it, there is so much
material, it has to be drastically reduced to make an interview fill
an acceptable, customary length that is palatable to the average
reader. It is interesting because he is able to effortlessly and
authoritatively address a wide range of topics in an entertaining
way. Although a frequent participant on the Peacepalestine blog and
regularly published there, the last formal interview I did with him
was in April of 2005. A lot has changed since then, both in the world
Atzmon comments about, Israel-Palestine (and the activism movements
that are born of this issue), and in his own career. Since then, he
has released a CD under a pseudonym, recorded his soon-to-be released
album with The Orient House Ensemble, composed theatre music and
embarked on a multi-media project. As much as I would have liked to
share that side of the discussion, this interview doesn't address the
artistic aspects of Gilad Atzmon, but sheds more light on his
thoughts about the events that take place in the world we live in.
Mary: For years, regarding Israel-Palestine we've heard, One State,
Two State, now even Three State Solution. What kind of perspective do
Gilad: It should be clear by now that any discourse of resolution may
have very limited relevance with the reality on the ground. Thus, we
better leave this issue behind.
Mary: You've expressed on many occasions that your primary concern is
supporting the liberation of the Palestinian people. The question at
this time might get confusing for the public who see Palestinians of
the two principle parties of the Unity Government involved in armed
clashes of the militia. How can anyone effectively support a group
that is itself divided into factions?
Gilad: It's true that they seem divided and for more than a while
we've been witnessing an emerging crisis within the Palestinian
society as a whole. But, for some time, it's been clear to me that
this very conflict, this factionalism, is something we shouldn't
interfere with. At any rate, it's nothing that is new. Palestinians
are divided by circumstances that are created by a Jewish State and
its continuous abuse of human rights and its genocidal approach.
Mary: So Palestinian division is something that we need to view as a
more or less ordinary and established condition?
Gilad: It is symptomatic to societies under oppression and the
Israeli abuse of human rights is no doubt exceeding anything we may
be familiar with. However, first we have to recognise where these
divisions are. There are 3 separate and distinct and opposing
discourses. We have the Palestinians who possess Israeli citizenship,
they fight for equal rights. But then, as soon as they express their
totally legitimate demands, they are called traitors and have to run
for their lives from the Israelis like in the case of the adorable
Knesset Member Azmi Bishara.
The second discourse is formed in the Occupied Territories, with the
starved Palestinians in Gaza and those in the West Bank who are
slightly better off, demanding an end to occupation. They all are
calling for that, and it's been recently that we on the outside can
see that the Palestinians in the OT have been largely divided not
about the goal, but about the tactic to be employed achieving the
withdrawal of Israel. While the Fatah is willing to negotiate its way
through, Hamas leaders largely believe in defiance.
The third group is obviously the Diaspora Palestinians, they demand
to return to their lands and homes. Many of them live in refugee
camps and we can see that their living conditions are often inhumane.
All three groups have totally legitimate demands, this is clear. Yet,
Every Western Palestinian solidarity campaigner who tries to offer
help runs into severe danger of supporting one cause but dismissing
the two others, that is, if he is even aware of the seriousness of
the situation of the others. While fighting for the right of return,
which is no doubt the backbone of the Palestinian cause, one may end
up dismissing the urgency of worsening starvation in Gaza. Those who
fight against occupation and those who are determined to break the
siege are at a danger of ignoring the millions of Palestinians who
are stranded in camps all over the Middle East. Clearly, the majority
of solidarity activists can see truth and urgency in the 3 apparent
Palestinian causes. Yet, engagement in one front usually leads to
dismissal of the 2 others.
This is why I've been suggesting that we divert the focus. Rather
than interfering with Palestinian internal debate we have to diagnose
the root of the problem. My take on the subject is simple and clear.
We have to be in the struggle against their oppressors. It is the
Jewish State that has created and maintains the Palestinians in a
condition of suffering. It is the Jewish State that employs tactics
of divide and rule. It is Israel's supportive lobbies around the
world which we must critically confront. It is Israel and its
astonishingly powerful lobbies in Washington and in Europe that are
behind the misery in Gaza, rather than inter-Palestinian clashes.
There's no other way around this. You can't bring about an end to the
oppression if you refuse to tangle with the oppressor.
Mary: So what is your role? Is it possible that you do not regard
yourself as activist, not even a political artist anymore?
Gilad: When it comes to me, I am engaged in scrutiny of the
complexity of the Jewish world. I aim towards understanding the
notion of Jewish racial brotherhood. I want to understand the
relationships between the Jewish State and the Jewish world, between
Israel and Jewry, between Jewishness and Zionism. I want to find out
whether there is any real categorical difference between Zionists and
'Jews Against Zionism' because as far as I can see, both are racially
Mary: Is the Jewish world directly implicated in the oppression?
Wouldn't it be more direct to deal exclusively with Israel and its
supporting States? We all know that sometimes the citizens of a State
don't fully support their leaders, and this is true in the West and
elsewhere. Why is Israel different?
Gilad: This is indeed a set of crucial questions. The first question
to be asked is what is this thing called 'Jewish World'? Is it the
world of all the living Jews? Is there such a world? Is there such a
collective entity? The answer is NO, yet it is symptomatic to Jewish
ethnic politicians to talk in a collective manner, whether it is in
the name of the holocaust, or its victims, the sufferers. As we know,
Sharon informed us after the Jenin massacre that it was done in the
name of the Jews. Did he have the mandate to say it? Not really. As
it seems there is a fairly organised set of Jewish bodies who are
supporting the Jewish State in the name of the Jews, and we also see
far less organised miniature groups who oppose Israel in the name of
the Jews. These two opposing political identities teach us nothing
about the Jewish world, but rather about a Jewish political tendency
to talk in the name of the Jewish people. This probably is one of the
manifestations of Jewish political management within a liberal
I wouldn't be able to assure you that Moshe Cohen from Golders Green
London is supporting the Israeli oppression, yet I can tell you
categorically that Israeli oppression is conducted on behalf of Moshe
Cohen. This leaves us in a very complicated situation. Now, let's
assume that Mr Cohen doesn't agree with Israel. He can then try to
react politically as a Jew, he could easily shout 'not in MY Jewish
name', but this would mean blaming all his brothers for supporting
Israel. This would indeed approve the Israeli claim for acting in the
name of the Jews. The Israeli foreign minister will be able to claim
after the next massacre that it was done in the name of world Jewry
except Mr Cohen from Golders Green. Alternatively, Cohen can as well
shout 'not in OUR Jewish names' but then he would be as guilty, as
much as Israel is guilty, of assuming a Jewish intellectual, ethical
and ideological collective. Thus, I believe that only two
possibilities are left a Jew to oppose Israel politically, either to
act as an ordinary human being rather than as a chosen one, or
alternatively to oppose the Jewish State in the name of Jewish values
and that would mean to suggest a humanist interpretation of Judaism.
This is what Torah Jews manage to do to a certain success.
However, I do believe that since Israel insists upon regarding itself
as the Jewish State, we are entitled to tackle it as a Jewish State.
I believe that if there is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust,
it is the devastating impact of racism and political racism. We have
to fight racism. As it seems there is not a single legitimate
racially exclusive political movement in the West except the Jewish
ones, whether we speak about Zionism or 'Jews against Zionism'. We
have to stand up against any form of a racial segregative formula.
Mary: But if an activist group is organised by race, and here we
could get into a debate as to whether or not Jewishness is a race or
if it is something else, that doesn't mean that it is racist, does
it? That would make all groups that organise on behalf of their race
into racist entities. The civil rights group the NAACP, which
represents American Blacks would get this same label if I'm following
Gilad: Let's divide the answer into two parts. The first question is
whether Jews form a race. The answer is NO, yet Jewish political
activism is by definition racially orientated. Bizarrely enough, it
may be possible that Israel is more open to the idea of Jews being
multi-racial than London Jewish Socialists who celebrate their
Yiddish culture but may have far less in common with an Iraqi Jewish
socialist. The second question is slightly more complicated. Is a
racially orientated liberating activity necessarily a racist cause? I
would say that we should never pass judgment on the oppressed.
However as far as I am aware, not a single liberation and civil
rights movement stopped other ethnic or racial identities from
joining in. We know of many white Americans (many of them Jews) who
joined the civil rights movement. We know of Jews who were active in
the PLO over the years. Yet, I am not aware of many Goyim who joined
Mary: Getting back to the initial part of our discussion, your policy
is to never take sides if the debate or the clash involves only
Gilad: Recognising the historical injustice against the Palestinian
people and watching the escalating Israeli barbarism my moral duty is
clear to me. I just support the Palestinian people and their
different choices even if those are contradicting. Rather than trying
to fit the Palestinian struggle into a decaying 19th century working
class philosophy or any other ideology, I fit myself to their call. I
do regard Palestine and the Palestinians as the avant garde and the
forefront of the battle against modern evil.
Mary: What is modern evil?
Gilad: It is clearly Zionism and the current Zionised Anglo-
Mary: So you don't classify Abbas or Dahlan as traitors of their
people, opportunists or even politically mislead? You abstain from
Gilad: I have seen people within our camp who happen to be judgmental
of Abbas for his recent moves and I can see where they come from. I
can understand the frustration. I myself happen to be angry rather
often, yet, I am the last to be judgemental about any Palestinian
act. My job, or may I suggest, our job is to understand different
modes of thinking amongst those who've been living under occupation
for four decades, those have been dispossessed for sixty years, those
who face the most brutal interpretation of the notion of the Jewish
secular supremacist world view.
My task is to throw light on the situation, to understand the
justifications of various acts, to give reasons, to let reason be. I
am there to remind whoever wants to listen that the Hamas was
democratically elected by the vast majority of the Palestinian people
in the PA, and that means the West Bank as well as Gaza. I am there
to remind my Western listeners that there has never been a
Palestinian dream of two states: CNN is still talking about the
shattered Palestinian dream of the 2 states solution. I am there to
alert my Western listeners that Shalom is not peace and in fact there
is hardly any voice for peace within the Jewish world.
Mary: Would you say that Israelis start to understand that solution
to the conflict may be beyond reach?
Gilad: Israelis do anticipate their doomsday, they are now surrounded
with total defiance. Israel comes to realise its temporality and
Avrum Burg's invaluable interview with Ari Shavit exposes it.
Clearly, there is no room to talk about solutions anymore, the
conflict will mature into a single Palestinian State. And I am rather
delighted about that.
Mary: We'll get back to the implications of Burg in a few minutes,
but you are stating that the Palestinians never had a dream, as the
CNN is putting it, of a Palestinian State alongside an Israeli one,
even though the PLO had endorsed this.
Gilad: First, let's be accurate here, What CNN is referring to is a
dream of a unified Palestinian State of the lands beyond Israel's
1967 borders, yet, looking at the map reveals that there is no such
State, as far as we can see, it is Gaza and the West Bank with a huge
Jewish ghetto in the middle. This is not a unified State. Moreover,
the two State solution has never been a Palestinian dream and will
never be one. It was maybe a possible vision of a settlement, nothing
more than that. And as many of us have been predicting for more than
a decade, it would never work out because it dismisses the
Mary: I imagine that now, after the formation of a "technical
government" headed by Fatah, many activists are relieved that the
economic strangulation against parts of what would be the future
Palestine is being lifted by the unfreezing of some funds. But in
similar way, they are glad Hamas is out of the official picture, that
their warnings against Hamas being in government were fulfilled.
Maybe some think of saving the saveable and letting things in Gaza
run whatever course they may. The West Bank for "Palestine" and Gaza
Gilad: It is rather obvious that many Palestinian solidarity
campaigners happen to associate themselves with the Fatah, with Abbas
and his emergency government. We are living in a world that seemed to
be free at one point. I believe that people should follow their
heart. Yet, I believe that to support Palestine is to respect the
choice of the Palestinian people. That means to congratulate the
Hamas and the people of Gaza for their defiance. The Hamas had
eventually to take position by force. This is really amazing when you
think about it. I am not surprised that Tony Blair, once a war
criminal and now a peace envoy, sanctioned the Hamas, but then, we
better ask ourselves, what did we do to support the legitimate choice
of the Palestinian people?
Mary: Do you think then that this moment is they eye of a hurricane,
or is the division going to take even more dramatic turns?
Gilad: I want to believe that civil war in Gaza is over.
Mary: Hardly a civil war, it can be classified as a preventive
military or paramilitary action that is popular these days in the
Middle East. Hamas took control of the situation before a Fatah coup
that they feared was in the air.
Gilad: But we have to look at it in a bigger picture. We have to
remember that Hamas won the election both in Gaza and the West Bank.
Practically speaking, the current Emergency Government in Ramallah is
actually the one that is involved in an act that is forcefully moving
an elected Government. They do it with the support of the West and
Israel. The current Emergency Government will be operating with
Israeli backing and with the support of the Israeli occupation
forces. In the long run, this may be a kiss of death to the Fatah
movement, a secular agenda that had been leading the Palestinian
struggle for many years. This is a big shame.
Mary: Obviously, you want to combat Israel as it is the cause of the
suffering of so many people. For a while, it seems as if there were
no concrete efforts around to combat Israel, but recently there has
been a growing movement to make a boycott of some sort against Israel
as a means of protest. Do you think it's a good and effective tool
Gilad: Boycott is a real complicated issue. For years we've been
arguing in favour of divestment and boycott. At the time I supported
any form of boycott in Israel, its products and its culture.
There are some elements in the boycott that are obviously very
welcome. For instance, the fact that UK unions are standing up
against Zionist evil is a major shift in the very right direction.
The Boycott is certainly bad news for Israel and this is wonderful
news in itself. Yesterday, I went to a reading of a play, it was
actually a theatrical adaptation my latest book. The producer is
Jewish, and at a certain stage when we were discussing the meaning of
the play he stood up and said. "You see, we had a Jewish State, it is
now sixty years later, and it is a very horrible place, it is so
horrible that it has now been boycotted. And this is there to make us
think, where did it go wrong?" This is the most positive impact of
the boycott. It makes people reflect.
Yet, I have some serious reservations, which I am inclined to mention.
One, I see a tremendous difference between banning an avocado and a
book. I would welcome any form of financial restrictions on Israel
and its supportive bodies yet, I truly believe in freedom of speech
and oppose any form of Maccarthyism or intellectual censorship of any
sort. Thus, interfering with academic freedom isn't exactly something
I can blindly advocate. Unlike some of my best enlightened friends, I
am against any form of gatekeeping or book burning. But it goes
further, I actually want to hear what Israelis and Zionists have to
say. I want to read their books. I want to confront their academics.
If justice is on our side we should be able to confront them.
Mary: Of course, they won't stop writing or proposing their ideas,
and actually, they might become more reactionary in the process.
Gilad: Actually, I do not think that they can become any more
reactionary. The second point is, to impose a boycott is to employ a
boycotter. When it comes to an academic boycott I would expect the
inquisitor in charge to be a scholar of great esteem. This isn't the
case obviously. The reason is simple. As it naturally happens, major
intellectuals are engaged in scholarship rather than in union
politics, working class and proletarian activity. Seemingly, it isn't
the leading minds in British academic life and ethical thinking who
are leading the Boycott. In fact it is the other way around, the
boycott is led by some minor academics with very little to say about
ethics and even less to say about the specific conflict. This fact is
actually repeatedly exposed in televised debates. The anti-Zionist
movement in Britain has yet to find the appropriate eloquent answer
to the Dershowitzes of this world.
Three, when it comes to the Palestinian solidarity discourse I can
identify two modes of discussion: the ethical and political. The
ethical mode is obviously evoked by a natural humanist reaction to
the endless flood of images of Israeli criminal activity. The
political discourse, on the other hand, is pretty much autonomous and
detached from the conflict. It has a lot to do with maintenance of
some particular decaying old-school socialists within the fading
progressive Western discourse. It has very little to do with
Palestine and the transitions within the Palestinian struggle. When
it comes to the current boycott we are unfortunately operating within
a political mode rather than an ethical one. I say unfortunately,
because Palestinian reality is neither an isolated event in history
nor it is isolated in the region. Had the academics been ethically
orientated, they would have to ask themselves what they, their unions
and Universities have been doing to stop the ongoing slaughter in
Iraq. What do they do to oppose the British Government that is
engaged in crimes not different from Israel's? What are the British
academics doing now to stop the British value system from a total
collapse? I am very sad and ashamed to say that as far as State
terrorism is concerned Blair and Olmert are pretty much an equal
match. If this isn't enough, Brown Launch is not very promising
either. Yet, British academics expect the Israelis to do something
they fail to do.
However, as I said before, I am in favour of any form of restrictions
on Israel, on its financial sectors, yet, by behaving politically
while avoiding an ethical debate we are actually losing to the
Israelis and to their lobbies.
Most importantly, if we decide to go for an academic Boycott, if we
decide to burn books or to silence other people's thoughts, then I
really want to know why do we stop with Israeli academics or
institutes? Shouldn't we really ban any possible contact with any
Zionists, people and institutes who openly support the idea of a
racist State? As you certainly realise, unlike South Africa, Zionism,
the ideological core behind Israel, is a global movement. Shouldn't
we ban as well any form of racially orientated activity? Shouldn't we
stop academic as well as smear campaigner David Hirsh and his
racially orientated cohorts and then later continue with Jewish
Socialists (being a racially oriented 'progressive' group)? Where do
we draw the line? I do not know the answers, instead I believe that
the best way around it is to support freedom of speech categorically,
whether it is David Irving, David Hirsh or even Tony Greenstein.
Mary: OK, so you fully support any kind of instrument that puts
pressure and pulls the economic rug out from under Israel, but you
have some reservations about the academic boycott against Israeli
universities, because of the nature of the boycott being restricting
Gilad: I would even just call it intellectual freedom. I do love
diversity. To impose a single narrative is in itself a Talmudic
approach and I have to resist it. Being trained as a continental
philosopher, I know very well that the proponents of the most
enlightening ideas in the late 19th century and pre WWII 20th century
were not exactly progressive. How to say it, Heidegger was a Nazi at
least for a while and as it seems, both Levinas and Leo Strauss were
courageous enough to admit that the man may be the greatest thinker
of our millennium.
Mary: Well, there will always be individuals who express their
thoughts in one way or another, and in the case of Israel, they could
even seek employment abroad, so intellectual freedom doesn't seem to
be at risk here. But were a boycott of Israeli universities to be
implemented, wouldn't academic freedom in Israel be a small price to
pay if it will be an effective tool to fight Israeli practices? Isn't
there a lot of research and development going on that harms
Palestinians, and wouldn't it be worthwhile to cut the funding off of
this as well?
Gilad: Maybe, I do not know, this is why I kept quiet about the
issue. I do not know the answers and I do not even try to search for
them. I am not a politician nor am I an activist, it isn't my duty to
say, "what next?" I am sharing my concerns with those amongst us who
are willing and capable of free thinking. However, if you ask me for
my final word about boycotts and other revolutionary progressive
initiatives, I would then adopt Ben-Gurion's take on the subject: 'It
doesn't really matter what some British Unionists Say, what really
matters is what Palestinians Do'! I am far more interested in Hamas's
Mary: On the subject of academic freedom, Norman Finkelstein has been
denied tenure at his University, probably for political reasons, and
this might be an argument against mixing politics and scholarship.
What is your view on this?
Gilad: Why do you say 'probably'? Certainly for political reasons.
More than once I have praised Finkelstein and his work for
Palestinian people. I do believe that his contribution is indeed
invaluable. I would even say that Palestinian solidarity would look
very different without him. I try to keep up with Finkelstein and to
read everything he publishes. In most cases I totally agree with him,
in some my disagreement is rather marginal.
Yet, I have a single minor criticism of Finkelstein's attitude rather
than his academic work. If his work has as much academic value as we
all believe it has, then his personal history may not be relevant to
the validity of his argument. Of course, I have no intention of
telling Finkelstein what to do or what to say. Finkelstein, as much
as anyone else, is entitled to argue: "I have the right to speak out
because my parents are survivors," but we have to accept that there
is a down side to it. It simply excludes those who were fortunate
enough not to be sons and daughters of Jewish Holocaust survivors.
Similarly, two months ago I saw Ilan Pappe, whom I highly regard as a
pillar of academic resistance to Zionism, presenting his argument for
the One State Solution. He started his argument by saying: "As a son
of German Holocaust survivors
" Again Pappe, whom I view as a very
important voice, mistakenly and most likely unconsciously, excluded
anyone who failed to be a holocaust victim. I am most certainly sure
that both Finkelstein and Pappe are not intending to exclude anyone,
I just believe that they should be rather careful and avoid using
such argumentation. I am totally convinced that their arguments are
strong enough without bringing their personal history into discussion.
Mary: Some people don't see it that way, some see it as giving more
emotional impact to the message, and therefore, making people more
open to accepting it. They might think, "If sons of Holocaust
survivors are fighting Israel, then it's okay for anyone to do it."
It might open up a gate that was previously considered shut.
Gilad: I totally accept it. I do not dismiss the emotional value as
well as the impact of personal history, but I think that since the
crime is so obvious, it is time to open the discourse and to welcome
any form of ethical and intellectual intervention.
Anyhow, we were talking about academic argumentation. And I believe
that at least academically such tactic is counter-effective. Let's,
for the course of discussion, say that I am unfortunate enough to
suffer of impotency. Clearly, it is beyond doubt that such a
psychological and physical condition would affect or even shape my
vision of reality. Every time I fail in bed, my realisation of the
notion of human suffering may get one step further. I for instance
could legitimately start my next talk about the Israeli Palestinian
conflict by saying: "As an impotent, I can understand Palestinian
suffering, as an impotent I can feel the pain, I can understand what
hope is all about." Clearly, it is my impotence that sets me in an
empathic journey towards others' pain. Yet, in spite of the
legitimacy, in spite of the fact that I evidently celebrate my
symptoms, I fail to establish an academic argument. I reduce ethics
into mere sympathy.
Mary: However, sympathy can lead to empathy and that is a necessary
quality for an activist. He or she has to identify with suffering and
bear witness to it.
Gilad: I accept it, yet I expose its down sides academically and
Mary: But I think that another crucial matter is, one can indeed
refer to a specific personal experience, but in this instance, quite
unlike a personal experience such as impotency, we are dealing with a
vicarious experience, someone else's. It might actually be
misleading, promoting the idea that victimhood gets passed from
generation to generation, and that those who were survivors of the
holocaust survived the worst possible event, making any other
experience pale in comparison. In a way, it discounts the enormity of
human suffering that we know is not limited to the Holocaust alone.
Gilad: In fact, regarding the argument of a vicarious experience,
second-hand trauma, we could easily refine the impotency model. Let
us assume for a second that my sexual performance is actually
absolutely perfect but it was really my grandfather who was impotent.
I can always argue that it was my grandfather's misery and my
grandmother's frustration that shaped my father's reality. It is my
father's fears that made me sleepless, and it is these fears that
made me into a victim that should receive a constant free supply of
Viagra and beyond. I am sorry to say it, listening to people who are
my generation talking to me about themselves being Holocaust victims
sounds sick and pathetic to me. I feel sorry for them and sorry for
those who take them seriously.
And regarding the personal testimony matter, we have to remember that
a rational argument should be applicable and valid regardless of the
origin or the personal circumstances of its proponent. Newton's
Physics goes beyond gender, race or ethnicity. Scientific laws are
supposed to be intelligible regardless of the family history of the
ones who bring it to the world. Objects are falling at a certain
speed whether your parents were in Auschwitz or in Deir Yassin. This
quality of free rational thinking is something we have managed to
lose as far as the academic world is concerned. We are witnessing a
rapid deterioration in Western reasoning capacity. We are subject to
this immense political correcting of the academic world. My advice to
academic contributors to the solidarity discourse is to stand out and
speak their hearts. To operate as genuine human beings, as proper
authentic ethical thinkers rather than corrected politicians who need
to send their ancestors back to Auschwitz in order to secure a green
light to say what they believe in.
Mary: Back in 2005, you seemed to believe that Amir Peretz's victory
as leader of Israel's Labor Party was nothing short of a revolution.
Yet, he has turned out to be, at least when one thinks about the
bloodbaths endured by Palestinians and Lebanese residents and
citizens, a major disaster. Why did he fail so miserably?
Gilad: There was good reason to believe in Peretz, that he was
different. He was neither part of the Military Junta nor a member of
the Ashkenazi elite. Peretz's election slogan was very simple: 'once
we address our social problems we will be ready to talk peace with
our neighbors'. Indeed, Israeli isn't ready to discuss peace, neither
to its neighbour nor to itself. Peretz was sincere enough to admit
it. Yet, he wasn't modest enough to insist upon taking a socially
orientated ministry. He insisted upon becoming the security minister,
something that would qualify him as the future Prime Minister. The
end of the story is known. Lacking the necessary military background,
the man and his PM over-reacted to a simple kidnap operation and
ended up in a total military defeat to a miniature paramilitary
organisation. It is beyond doubt that once Peretz took his seat at
the defense ministry, he refrained from acting as an Arab Jew,
instead he followed the Zionist traditional Ashkeno-Centric world
view of the Iron Wall. He let the Army escalate a minor border event
into a war. However, I still want to believe that eventually, after
all the belligerent Baraks and Netanyahus, a true and genuine second
or even third generation Arab Jew Israeli may come to reflect about
the peaceful conditions Jews enjoyed in Arab countries. At the end of
the day, anti-Semitism and endless conflicts belong to the history of
European Jews, it is something European Jews brought to the region.
It has nothing to do with Arab Jews and their history.
Moreover, I still want to believe that if there is chance of a true
willingness for peace within Israeli society, it will have something
to do with the realisation of the largely oppressed Arab Jews in
Israel that their true brothers in the region are the oppressed
Palestinians. Such an act would shatter once and for all the
Ashkenazi political hegemony in the Israeli realm.
Mary: You're very heavily involved with "political scuffles", people
who attack you politically as well as insisting that your influence
could damage "honest and principled activists", just to take a recent
quote by a blogger who focuses on Jewish identity issues and ties
that in to his protest against Zionism. It's normal and natural to be
attacked by Zionists, but why are attacks from these anti-Zionist
quarters so virulent?
Gilad: Let us first try to be precise, as it seems now, those who
indeed attack me are five Bundists, socialist Jews, people who may
have been an important voice at a certain stage but had gradually
become a burden or even white noise. They indeed exhaust all their
energy fighting me and other free thinkers, they run motions,
dedicate blogs but they had been defeated time after time. But I
cannot complain, their attack contributed a lot to the circulation of
my thoughts. They as well helped me refine my view of Zionism and
Jewish modern identity.
As you know, I am not a politician, I have never been one and I do
not have any plans to become one. Being involved with Palestinian
discourse for a decade I have come across the most enlightening
people. None of them were politicians or politically orientated
activists. In fact they were always attacked by politicians and
largely by this miniature group of people who for some odd reason
regard themselves as 'Progressive' Jews. It took me some time before
I realised that Progressive Jews are manifestly seeking hegemony
within the Palestinian solidarity discourse. They insist that the
case of Israel must be realised solely via the very limited
materialist spectrum. They love working class politics.
Mary: Well, you will have to admit, in the West, most of the
supporters of Palestinians approach it from a leftist point of view,
just as in the Arab world it would be an issue of Arab liberation. It
might be unavoidable to treat it in the ways we do, we can't create
activists from a vacuum.
Gilad: I do not agree. It is rather obvious to me and I see it in my
concerts night after night all over the world. The vast majority of
Western people are devastated by Israeli brutality. The support of
Palestine is a natural ethical reaction. Yet, when ordinary people
follow their hearts and join the solidarity movement, this is where
rather often they meet a bunch of decaying non dialectical socialists
who insist upon telling them how to think and what to say according
to some pre-WWII text books. This fact alone explains why there are
hardly any Palestinians in the Solidarity movement and why this
movement doesn't expand into a mass movement.
Mary: Would you argue that socialist thinking is dead?
Gilad: Not at all, I am in total favour of a dynamic dialectical
socialist worldview. A week ago I played in huge solidarity event in
Germany put together by the Communist party. It was a gathering event
of artists from all over the world. It was a solidarity event with
refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kurds, Iranians. In a few
days I will perform at Marxism 2007, again as far as I can tell, the
Socialist Worker's Party in the UK tries to move forward with the
flood of events. They understand that Working Class is a dynamic
notion. They understand that if there is a working class in Britain,
this notion has changed radically in the last 30 years.
However, we can't choose who is claiming to be on the side of the
Palestinians, and if people whose interpretation of reality is only
understood from the viewpoint of working class politics, I am
obviously convinced that they are totally deluded as to the
interpretation of the Middle East problem. They make the reality fit
the worldview they have rather than adapting their view to reality.
They are entitled to do so as long as they do not try to silence
other people's views. Israel regards itself as a Jewish State and in
order to understand the scope of its activity we have to understand
what Jewishness stands for. What racial brotherhood is all about.
Moreover, the industrial revolution is yet to make it to Gaza, hence,
Marxist ideas have never become overwhelmingly popular amongst the
Palestinian people. However, I wouldn't resist a limited colonial
interpretation of the conflict but the insistence to limit the
discourse to working class interpretation is moronic and somehow
emblematic to these five 'Progressive' Jewish activists.
Mary: But basically you disagree with their view that bringing about
a kind of secular socialism for Palestinians and Israelis will
resolve the problem of oppression.
Gilad: Have you ever tried to talk 'socialism' to a Palestinian? I
actually tried. They usually tend to laugh or just lose interest.
Marx, or shall we rather say Marxism, has nothing to do with their
reality. However, I believe that by now, after 110 years of Zionism,
60 years of the Nakba, 40 years of occupation, our beloved
Socialists, Marxists, Mazpenists, Bundist 'Progressive Jews' and the
Jewish Socialists had enough time to resolve the conflict and
liberate us all by turning the entire region into a red haven. May I
reveal for the first time that as an 18-year-old red activist, while
being an IDF soldier, I was affiliated with some radical anarchist
groups in Israel. Like the rest of my comrades, I was convinced that
sooner or later 'Arab and Israeli working class would unite against
the bourgeoisie Zionist colonial evil'. It took a few years before I
opened my eyes to the astonishing fact that there was no 'Jewish
working class' and Palestinians refused to fit into the Eurocentric
class model. That was when I realised that I was left with no other
option but shelving my red shirt at least momentarily.
Mary: That's pretty interesting, both the fact of the activism of
your youth and that you claim that there is no Jewish working class.
But, as to socialist ideas having no truck with Palestinians, I would
think that the case of the FPLP in some small way contradicts this,
even though, they are a different breed of socialists, basically a
nationalist movement with progressive ideas.
Gilad: Indeed, and even they disappeared. Moreover, from time to time
I meet the odd Palestinian Matzpenists, mainly in Europe. I do not
try to argue that Palestinian Marxists are non-existent, I just come
to acknowledge the clear fact that their voice is as less than
marginal. This is not a criticism but rather an observation.
Mary: But, back to where we were, you are saying that the Western
progressives' activism is stuck in a vision of reality that never
was: the belief that if class issues are addressed, the rest will be
resolvable, but the reason of oppression in Israel has never been
class, but rather a question of race, is it not?
Gilad: Race may sound a bit abstract. Let's call it racial
brotherhood, cultural supremacist views, blood orientation and so on.
Anyhow, the problem with the Jewish activists who attack me is
actually centred on the fact that my views sit outside their narrow
political thinking. I am focused on ethical thinking. My criticism of
Israel as a racially orientated paradigm actually exposes as well the
sickening aspect of Jewish socialism. The argument is so easy. If you
are a socialist, you are my comrade and I do not care whether you are
a Jew, a Muslim, Black or Buddhist. Yet, our progressive Jews insist
to import their exclusive blood system into the progressive
discourse. By doing so they located themselves within the Zionist
discourse, like Zionists, they say we are 'people like other people'
yet we are 'slightly different'.
I will admit that I initially I took these people seriously, these
progressive Jewish left activists, but then I have learned that when
it comes to being morally pure, the most vocal protester against me,
the one who was obsessively trying to teach me ethics, actually has a
list of acts of petty criminal activity under his belt. I wouldn't
hold his past against him, yet, I cannot let a shoplifter teach me or
anyone else morality. As if this is not enough, he and his friends
were banned from different academic institutes for being anti-
Semitic. With all due respect, I cannot let such a person call me an
anti Semite. Another anti-Atzmon 'progressive' smear activist
happened to run a Jews only blog where attacks against me are pretty
constant. He can make any kind of blog he wants, but it's pretty
clear that progressive Jews are always operating in racially
orientated cells, and I am free to feel that his blog is exclusivist
and will remain that way. It's the nature of the club. Not 'many'
Abeds and Mohammeds are registered with the Jews against Zionism
group, and I don't see any articles about Palestinians on that blog
either. It's obviously a second-rate issue to the Jewish progressive
Mary: Well, two little-known activists in Great Britain shouldn't be
such a threat. Why do you respond to their provocations and why not
simply just ignore them?
Gilad: Actually, I wouldn't necessarily blame them for provoking me,
it is more likely that I actually provoke them, I expose their
fallacy. At a certain stage, and not that long ago, I realised that
these Bundists embody the essence of the Jewish secular tragedy. They
are the epitome of the emancipated Jewish emptiness. On the one hand
they failed to make it into the universalist discourse. On the other
hand they are left detached from their own cultural heritage. In
their misery they praise their Yiddish culture without understanding
the role of this language and without even speaking the language.
These Bundists embody the collapse of Jewish progressive
cosmopolitanism. It would be impossible to understand where Zionism
came from without confronting this unique bizarre identity. For me,
monitoring them is no different from visiting the safari of rare
As we know, the Bund doesn't exist anymore, it was actually defeated
in WWII. As far as Jewish people are concerned, Zionism won the
Jewish street. Monitoring the UK cell and their activity explains to
me what Zionism was there to repair. They are microcosms of Jewish
extreme wrong thinking. In my eyes they are actually far worse than
Mary: Don't you think that this is an exaggeration?
Gilad: Actually, I am totally convinced about that. One of the most
decent beings amongst them is the award-winning poet Michael Rosen.
Rosen publicly defines himself as: a 'Socialist', a 'secular Jew', a
'progressive man'. Recently I found out that Rosen has been
expressing himself pretty eloquently in support of the Boycott.
Nothing is obviously wrong with that, but then to my great
astonishment, I found out that the same Rosen, the one who calls to
Boycott Israel, was as well taking part in a notorious right wing
London Jewish Book Week as a family entertainer. For those who do not
understand yet, the Jewish Book Week is supported by the Israeli
Embassy and the rabid Zionist organisation UJIA, an organisation that
currently sets gala tours for the 60th anniversary of the Israeli
State. Looking at it from a progressive point of view, I cannot make
up my mind whether Rosen's behaviour is treason or just total
hypocrisy. When we asked Rosen how come, how is it that he, of all
people, a boycott enthusiast, ended up participating in a Zionist
event, he was stupid enough to admit that he gave it some real
thought, "I had my doubts about appearing at JBW and so I asked all
sorts of people whose opinions I trust whether they thought it was a
good idea or not." Rosen, the one who calls to boycott Israeli
academics ended up in bed with the Israeli Embassy.
Mary: Not that I'm familiar with Rosen's writing
Gilad: Good point, there is no writing. There is no contemporary body
of work, no critical or political body of writing. Along with him,
there are just some forum comments, really only concerned with
stopping the Palestinian discourse becoming what he and his friends
call anti-Semitic. To a certain extent they operate as an ADL mole
within the Palestinian solidarity discourse. In short we are facing
here an unacceptable level of hypocrisy and ignorance on the verge of
Mary: In some of your writings you defined these folks as crypto-
Zionists and Third Category Jews.
Gilad: I am afraid that my argument is now even more conclusive. When
a Marxist politician is found lying, we are entitled to call him a
Marxist liar. When a Republican politician is found spying for the
enemy we are entitled to call him a 'Republican spy'. Yet, when a
Boycott campaigner who insists to act politically under the 'Jewish'
banner (as a Jewish Socialist, or a Jew against Zionism, etc.) is
found in bed with some ultra-Zionist institutes, we must refrain from
calling him a Jewish hypocrite. Here is the trick. Jewish progressive
ethnic campaigners are interested in a singular one-sided discourse.
They are happy to act as 'Jews' but refuse to be criticised as Jews.
When they act politically they say we are 'people like other people'
but when you criticise them politically they hide behind their racial
identity. Whether this is funny or revolting is a matter of taste.
However, this is a complete repetition of the Zionist tactic. In
other words, we are entitled to conclude that Jewish Socialists and
any form of Jewish exclusive activism is nothing but another form of
Thanks to these so-called 'Progressive Jews' I have understood the
validity of the criticism of Jewish cosmopolitanism, the bizarre
notion of peoplehood devoid of soil. I realised why these few
Bundists could never establish a true authentic solidarity with the
Palestinian struggle. The Palestinian cause is primarily about soil.
Cosmopolitans may be able to recognise Palestinian misery, yet they
cannot identify with the yearning to their land. While Bundists talk
about their peoplehood, Palestinians do not need to talk about
peoplehood, they do not have to invent or reinvent their culture.
Like Germans, French and Albanians, they simply live through their
culture. Unlike Zionists and Bundists included, who aim to be 'people
like other people', Palestinians are there to start with. They are
'people like other people'. They do not have to aim towards cultural
renaissance. People who are culturally orientated can simply
transcend themselves beyond the awareness of their culture. They are
moulded and transfixed by their by their own soil, cuisine, language
and landscape. They live their culture and move it forwards by the
means of creation.
This is why Zionism with its Hebrew revival may have been more
successful than the Bund. Rosen and his ilk are telling us about
their unique Jewish culture, about their Yiddish, yet, they don't
even speak the language. Their creativity within their own culture is
zilch. They don't write Yiddish books, they don't read Yiddish
papers, they don't have Yiddish Rock & Roll they do not translate
anything into Yiddish. And there is very little to translate from
Yiddish anyway. They are basically spreading some ghetto nostalgic
nonsense, they basically bullshit for the sake of bullshitting. And
as I said many times before, they have the full right to do so, yet,
I am there to remind them that chicken soup is neither a political
argument, nor it is a moral stand.
Mary: So, as long as you continue to criticise your detractors and
present the inconsistencies of their reasoning, they will continue to
run smear campaigns against you, call you an anti-Semite and try
persuade people from hosting you at political and public events. As
long as they keep doing that, you will continue to have reason to
criticise their logic. Kind of a vicious circle. Is there going to be
an end to it?
Gilad: Seemingly, in spite of all the smears, I survive. In fact I
won in every battle I decided to take on. As it seems, by fighting me
they have managed to annihilate themselves. Every time, they raise
their head I learn more about the level of Jewish ideological secular
delusion. It will be very boring when they raise their white flag,
but this will never happen. In spite of them being humiliated at the
PSC AGM recently, in spite of bandleader being exposed as a convicted
criminal, in spite of Rosen's shameful crypto-Zionist behaviour, they
never surrender. Only people with dignity can admit defeat, and
dignity is exactly what they lack. People who lie to themselves so
extensively find it far easier to lie to others.
Though they have managed to silence some of the most important
contributor to the Israeli Palestinian discourse they have totally
failed with me. There are two secrets here, which I am happy to share.
One: Rather than talking to Jews, I am talking about Jews and the
subject I am interested in is basically Jewishness. Many of my
readers and supporters are actually orthodox Jews, assimilated Jews
and ex-Jews. But it obviously goes far beyond Jews. Since more than a
few scholars identify the current emerging global conflict with some
extensive Zionist lobbying in America, the questions to do with the
Jewish issue are becoming more and more relevant and popular. A while
ago I have taken the risk of saying what I believe to be the truth
and as it seems, people around do appreciate my truth-seeking
endeavour. Some Jews called me an anti-Semite, some Elder Londoners
picketed my readings, it didn't stop me and it didn't stop anyone
from booking me again. Quite the opposite, it made me far more
popular than I have ever wanted to be.
Two: I do not join any organisation or organised religion. I do not
let politicians into my world. Generally speaking, I despise any form
of political activity and activism in general. I believe in ethical
orientation. I keep independent. At the end of the day I am primarily
an artist and light cultural terrorist.
Mary: A recent interview with Avrum Burg has caused a great amount of
interest. I know you were particularly surprised by it, and said it
contained "cosmic changes". At the risk of having to revise your
views once time has passed and things turn out to be less cosmic than
we hope, could you elaborate on how this interview affected you?
Gilad: To a certain extent, Burg didn't come with a major
intellectual or ideological revelation. Yet, Avrum Burg, isn't really
an ordinary man, he isn't exactly a Palestinian solidarity
campaigner. Quite the opposite, Burg has been for years the ultimate
epitome of Israeliness and the mainstream Israeli political
establishment. He was the great hope of the Labor Party's Young
Guard. After that the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Speaker of the
Knesset, a candidate for the Labor leadership.
We must remember that as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Burg was
Mr Aliyah (Jews moving to Israel). Now he changed his mind, he is Mr
Yerida (Jews moving out of Israel). When a man with such a political
history stands up and suggests Israelis to apply for foreign
passports and leave the country ASAP, when a man of such an
intellectual capacity admits that "Israel is Fascist" we must confess
that a change of spirit is noticed in the air.
For us, the fact that Israel is indeed Fascist may not be such a
revelation, we know for years that Israeli legislation is racially
orientated. We know that Burg's old Israeli Labor Party has always
been dedicated to the belief in socialism of one race (National
Socialism). However, Burg was the one who stood up and confronted the
Israelis with their bitter reality. He basically tells the Israelis,
'We aren't any better than Hitler'. And this is a revelation!!!
But it gets deeper, Burg is there to say: "Of the three identities
that form me - human, Jewish and Israeli - I feel that the Israeli
element deprives the other two." As an observant Jew, Burg actually
admits that Israeliness opposes humanism and Judaism. This may not be
new to many of us, but no one has ever had the guts to say just that
to the Israelis (maybe except me but I am just a saxophonist).
However, Burg manages to throw some interesting light onto the notion
of Zionism and Israeliness. In the interview he says "I am a human
being, I am a Jew and I am an Israeli. Zionism was an instrument to
move me from the Jewish state of being to the Israeli state of being.
I think it was Ben-Gurion who said that the Zionist movement was the
scaffolding to build the home, and that after the State's
establishment, it should be dismantled."
This is certainly a major and crucial point. As it seems, Zionism
doesn't mean a thing for the contemporary Jew born in Israel. Zionism
is a Diaspora-orientated notion. Zionism is there to differentiate
between Abe Foxman and Roland Rance. Both are Jews, both operate in
racially segregated political cells, yet, one is a Zionist the other
is a Jewish Anti-Zionist (big deal). When it comes to Israelis who
were born in Israel, the idea of a Jewish State isn't something to
celebrate. For Israelis, a Jewish State it isn't something you have
to aim towards or ideologically endorse. Being an Israeli means being
a Jew and living in a Jews-only State. When I joined the IDF 25 years
ago, I did it because this was the only available interpretation of
my Jewishness. I was a Jew living in the Jewish State and joining the
Jews' army was the natural outcome.
The word Zionism is almost meaningless in Israel and within the
Israeli discourse it is actually non-existent. Zionism may mean
something to the American settlers in the West Bank or the new wave
of French immigrants to Israel, but not much more than that. If this
indeed the case, we may as well internalise the fact that anti-
Zionist campaigning is hardly affective in the case of Israel. As
much as Israelis do not regard themselves as Zionists, they are
hardly affected by anti-Zionism.
Mary: Although if this is the state of affairs, is Burg really
addressing people outside of Israel, in his urging that the Zionist
structure be dismantled? Are we again at a Nemo propheta in patria
Gilad: I don't know the answer. I was pretty surprised that Burg's
ideas were not highly circulated. I do not know a thing about
circulation of thought in Jewish circles. I can see that even in
Israel his ideas were attracting some attention but not enough. At
the end of the day, in order to maintain the Israeli murderous
policies, a collective blindness is elementary. My interest in Burg
is totally intellectual, I do not know if he has any significant
political power anymore, I guess he doesn't. Yet his ideas will echo
for a while and even more than a while.
Gilad Atzmon is a musician-composer. He is particularly well-known
both for his fiction and his political analysis which is widely
published. His sites are Gilad Atzmon and Artie Fishel and the
Mary Rizzo is a translator, art restorer and especially Pro-
Palestinian activist who runs the blog Peacepalestine. She is a
founding member of Tlaxcala, a vibrant network of (proudly) radical
activist translators that publishes a wide range of articles by anti-
imperialist writers and thinkers from around the world in a dozen
languages. This interview will be available in other languages on
Tlaxcala in the near future.
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