The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics
By Gilad Atzmon
Zero Books 2011
Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights
By David Landy
Zed Books 2011
So contested has the issue of antisemitism become and so promiscuously is the term used that it is increasingly difficult tofind clarity amid the fog of frenzied debate. The publication of these two recent books provides a much needed opportunity to map out exactly where the borderline between disillusionment with Israel, anti-Zionism and antisemitism actually lies.
David Landy, an Irish-Jewish academic and Palestinian solidarity activist offers a sympathetic but not uncritical analysis of Jewish pro-Palestinian activism, based on extensive interviews. Through these he demonstrates that ‘Israel critical Jews’, as he calls them, are often motivated by a desire to reclaim their Jewish identity from Zionism, and it is through pro-Palestinian activism that many have actually come closer to their Jewishness. Further, some see themselves as providing a kind of guard against anti-Semitism within the wider pro-Palestinian movement. In these respects, most of Landy’s interviewees refute the criticism often made that Israel critical Jews are cynically ‘using’ their Jewishness.
The book raises complex questions about Jewish activists: Should they concentrate on convincing other Jews and transforming the Jewish community? Should they support groups within Israel itself? Should Jews support the Palestinians as Jews at all? Should Palestinians be the ones to set the agenda for activism? These are difficult questions, and the seriousness and sensitivity with which Landy and his interviewees address them does them credit, even if one disagrees (as I do) with some of the positions they take.
Israel critical Jews are subject to vituperative criticism from other Jews. They are accused of treachery, of being superficial ‘AsAJews’ and — most seriously — of being apologists for antisemitic anti-Zionism. Sometimes these accusations have merit and sometimes they are simply part of a self-perpetuating circle of intra-Jewish conflict. Amid these inflamed passions, the recent controversy over Gilad Atzmon’s now notorious book The Wandering Who? superficially looks like another example of an Israel critical Jew being hung out to dry. In fact, Atzmon is a very different character and much more than a Jewish anti-Zionist.
The Wandering Who? is full of bluster, pompous verbiage and heroic posturing as Atzmon, an acclaimed jazz saxophonist and one of the disillusioned, self-exiled Israelis whose creative cynicism enriches the British cultural scene, seeks to explain his total rejection of Jewish identity. His argument is based upon the premise that Jews fall into three types: ‘those who follow Judaism’, ‘those who regard themselves as human beings who happen to be of Jewish origin’ and ‘those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all of their other traits’. The first two types are ‘harmless and innocent’ but ‘third category’ Jews are the real ‘problem’.
For Atzmon, in the post-emancipation era it is positively archaic and poisonous for Jews to maintain their ‘tribal’, marginal identities. Atzmon claims to be against what he considers the ‘myth’ of identity, and any kind of minority identity politics. We are all nothing more than human beings. While such a monolithic universalism may be oppressive and in any case unachievable, it doesn’t have to be anti-Semitic as any group identity would be invalid. But Atzmon only singles out one other group for his opprobrium — separatist lesbian feminists — and refrains from mentioning any other ethnic, religious or national minority identity as problematic. It seems that it is only Jews that destructively cling on to their identities. By clinging onto Jewish identity, ‘third category’ Jews become part of a global network that ‘is all about commitment, one that pulls more and more Jews into an obscure, dangerous and unethical fellowship’. Zionism is just one part of a ‘unique political identity’ that is responsible for Western expansionism, and even the credit crunch (which Atzmon calls the ‘Ziopunch’). Ultimately, Jews care only for achieving power and dominance, through Zionism and other means.
Atzmon reserves his greatest contempt for secular, left-wing, anti-Zionist Jews. To campaign for universal values while identifying as a Jew is contradictory at best and mendacious at worst. To campaign as a Jew for the Palestinians and against Zionism is to automatically invalidate one’s own argument. Since Jewish identity is the cause of Palestinian oppression, it cannot contribute to Palestinian liberation. Only through the renunciation of Jewish identity can those who are born Jewish bring peace and justice to the world.
Atzmon argues that the politics of anti-Zionist Jews, neo-cons and every other kind of Jew are simply part of one interdependent Jewish political identity, engendered by what Atzmon calls the ‘holocaust religion’. This predates the actual holocaust (which in any case Atzmon appears to be skeptical about, while not actually denying) assuming the latter actually took place and is a religion based upon an imagined fear of gentile hostility designed to perpetuate separation of the Jews from the rest of humanity. The holocaust religion, according to Atzmon, requires Jews to infiltrate all of society and politics. Jewish anti-Zionists and neo-cons alike are simply ensuring that Jews cover all the bases in their quest for political ubiquity.
The book is a peculiar mix of polemic, philosophising and personal narrative which creates a veneer of radicalism and up to date thinking. But, beneath it all, Atzmon is more conventional that he thinks he is. Ultimately, The Wandering Who? boils down to a number of hoary old anti-semitic tropes:
When Jews appear to be assimilating, they are really infiltrating and subverting.
When Jews identify themselves as Jews, they are primitive separatists.
Jews are obsessively concerned with attaining power and influence.
Jews are responsible for the hatred they attract.
The holocaust myth is simply a Jewish strategy to gain power through the world’s guilt. The Wandering Who? is an anti-Semitic book certainly, but is it a dangerous book? So ludicrous are his arguments and so pompous is his tone that it is tempting to dismiss Atzmon as a crank. More genuinely disturbing is the fact that this book was published at all. Zero Books is a small company that has published some excellent quirky philosophy and intellectually rigorous criticism; they should have seen the book for what it was. (The book is endorsed by figures like Richard Falk, John Mearsheimer and Karl Sabbagh who, while strong critics of Israel and Zionism, should have heard alarm bells ringing when they saw the chapter entitled ‘Swindler’s List’). Ironically, it is precisely Atzmon’s Jewish background that gains him this platform, providing an alibi for his antisemitism.
Perhaps Atzmon has done us a service by illustrating exactly where anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism. In fact, anti-Zionist Jews, like Tony Greenstein, are among Atzmon’s most severe critics. Perhaps agreement over Atzmon might even provide the basis for a productive dialogue on antisemitism between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews.
To the extent that Landy’s book is mostly carefully argued and certainly not antisemitic, it is perhaps unfair to compare it to Atzmon’s. But both of them demonstrate the weakness of a certain kind of contemporary Jewish critique of Jewishness: it develops in ignorance of Judaism and the contemporary Jewish world. To give one example of both authors’ ignorance, Landy says that Reform Judaism ‘may be developing into a syncretic Judeo-Christian religion’ and Atzmon doesn’t acknowledge that it even exists in his blanket statement that ‘Judaism is a non-reformable religion’. Atzmon sees the apparent divisions between Jews as irrelevant, and Landy lumps all Zionist Jews into one monolithic bloc. Landy’s caricature of the Jewish community as filled with fervent Zionists who live in denial of the Palestinian plight may not be as antisemitic as Atzmon’s caricature of Jews as a clan of power-crazed paranoids is, but they are both caricatures nonetheless.
It is vital that Jews, Judaism and Jewishness be subjected to critique in order to stay alive and dynamic. There is a long and distinguished history of Jewish heretics and mavericks, from Elisha Ben Abuya, through Spinoza to Walter Benjamin. But the ones who really made a mark were those who were steeped in the traditions they rebelled against. Critiques founded on ignorance and fantasies will always fail.