Book Review; The Wandering Who?

By Gilad Atzmon.

This book is sub-titled ‘A study of Jewish identity politics’, and this is exactly what methodically unfolds throughout the book. With refreshing honesty, Gilad Atzmon, traces his own progress, from birth in a Zionist family, through youthful enthusiasm for Israel, to eventual horror at its brutality. The latter perception arising when in the Israeli army he realised that the Palestinians he witnessed in a Lebanese ‘concentration camp’, were the equivalent of 1940’s Jews and that he and his army comrades were the post-war equivalent of Nazis.  From then on he progressively engaged with the struggle for Palestinian rights and critically with the state of Israel, Zionism and the concept of Jewish-ness. In the book he rejects the biological assertion of Jews as a race or that modern Jews can now be defined by adherence to the religion of Judaism. He, therefore, distinguishes three categories of those who say they are Jews: a) those who follow Judaism; b) those who regard themselves as human beings – who happen to be of Jewish birth; and c) those who put their Jewish-ness over all other traits.  It is the latter, 3rd category Jews, which he argues create the problem for Palestinians and others because those who assign themselves to this ‘political’ category, raise it over and above all others. He convincingly argues that what unites most Jews in the modern era is their ‘identification’ with a separatist, anti-assimilation, re-constructed ideology.  It is, he argues, an ideology of ‘Jewish-ness’.

Thus, he points out that modern Jewish ‘identity’ is a political choice to identify with – “…ideas, narratives, thinking modes, certain world views, perceptions, physical identifiers and so on.“ (p 35).  The concept of Jewish-ness in modern times, he reasons, is therefore, a form of ‘affiliation” which due to its fabulous construction can be “..nothing but a myth or fantasy“.  It is a myth or fantasy-construct which serves to unite those of left, right or centre persuasions.  He notes that this ideology of ‘Jewish-ness’, as with many other ideologies, is a recently (19th century) manufactured one. What Gilad Atzmon made clear to me, during the reading of his book, is that ‘Jewish-ness’ as subscribed to by Zionism and even by anti-Zionist Jews, is an ideology selected and fabricated from a number of overlapping strands. Some strands originating within the original tribal tradition, (ie endogamy, matrilineality, food and body taboos), other strands coming from the later adoption of monotheism, (eg. a mythic ‘saving’ Torah history along with rituals such as circumcision, and celebrations, such as Passover and Purim.) and yet other strands emanating from 19th century nationalist ideas (ie potentially oxymoronic abstractions such as a ‘distinct people’, a discrete ‘nation’ and ‘self-determination‘). Thus, the ideology of ‘Jewish-ness’ is, as he writes, a ‘strange hybrid’ . This suggests to me that the concept of ‘Jewish-ness’ serves as a discrete, club-menu from which selections can be made by a wide range of those who aspire to membership. Those who choose to affiliate can, therefore, select what kind of authenticity they feel comfortable with, from either tribal, religious, secular, nationalist or even semi-humanist sources. He gives the example of so-called ‘left’ secular Jews, who although atheists still carry out celebrations derived from biblical foundations, such as those noted above.

He notes that whilst religious Jews are defined by what they are not (ie not Christians or Muslims etc.) as well as what they are – followers of the Torah/Tanach – secular Jews are only defined by what they are not.  The most important of these seems to be that they are not assimilated with the rest of humanity. This, as Gilad Atzmon argues, leads to a dialectics of negation in relationship to identity and more problematic  – a politics of hate. And he notes;

“Seemingly, the journey between ‘dialectic of negation’ and ‘politics of hate’ is rather short.” (p 65)

In this latter regard, he comments on an interesting twist to the Zionist concept of anti-Semitism. He writes;

“Whilst in the past and ‘anti-Semite’ was someone who hates Jews, nowadays it is the other way around, an anti-Semite is someone the Jews hate“.(p 54)

Gilad Atzmon, emphatically rules out the racist notions of a Jewish conspiracy, and instead points to the decentralised nature of the widespread movement of Zionism and its ‘support for Israel’ along with the open promotion of its intentions. He writes; “It has no head but a lot of hands“ (p 76). It becomes clear that Zionism, as with other political ideologies, such as ‘communism’, ‘fascism‘ or ‘neo-liberalism‘, leads the adherents of these ideologies to raise their chosen goals and purposes above all other human concerns and pursue them ruthlessly. It is a given in such ideologically derived separatist movements, that the ethics developed there, relate directly to the perceived interests of the movement, rather than the human community as a whole. Using extracts, from early Zionist authors (Herzl, Weizman, Jabotinsky, Borochov) and later ones (Ostrovsky, Lapid) he establishes that this elevation of difference and fear of assimilation, is no individual quirk, but a central part of the ideology of Jewish-ness as prescribed by Zionism. He adds that the aim of separatist ideas and exclusionary practices is to create barriers between groups of human beings. He thus defines Zionism in much broader terms than simply the defence of Israel as an exclusively Jewish State. He describes Zionism at the international and global level – as a ‘tribal Jewish preservation project aimed at the prevention of assimilation.’ (p 70)

Within the book, he notes a further complication with the ideology of Jewish-ness in that some adherents ‘think tribal, but speak universal’. This often makes it difficult to recognise what is actually taking place or where its advocates are coming from. It is a phenomena which he suggests, frequently manifests itself in either conscious deceit or an element of schizophrenia.  Quoting Jewish authors such as Frommer, Borochov and Nordau, he notes these early Zionists expressed disagreeable opinions of their fellow Jews in such terms as ‘caricatures‘, ‘neurotic‘, ‘grabbing‘, ‘insecure and ‘ridiculous’. Therefore the original project, advocated by the early champions of secular or political Zionism, (Herzl and those above, etc.) was to create the conditions (a state of their own) which would overcome these problems and make them a people like any other. This was however, was something which could not happen, for at least two reasons. First because all other ‘peoples’ and ‘nations’ are actually ‘mixed‘! Second because its achievement was at the expense of the country of Palestine, via the 1948 Nakba and the continuous Zionist war to be rid of the physical existence of  Palestinians since. He astutely observes that;

“To abandon religion doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a humanist and secularisation doesn’t imply universalism or any other ethical stand.“ (p 71)

In this one short sentence Gilad Atzmon puts his finger on a crucially important point which sums up all the religious and non-religious strands of 19th, 20th and 21st century socio-political movements – including the brutal Zionist movement. Even those who have left God behind for secularised politics, left, right and centre, have frequently only substituted another form of ’higher-power’ separatist ideology above the rest of humanity. ’Fascist’ (elevates, elite, authoritarian rule), ’Bolshevik/Stalinist’ (elevates the ‘Party‘ above all else), ’Liberal Democratic’ (elevates the ‘Free Market’ above society) or Zionist (elevates ‘Jewish-ness’ survival above all else).  Neither adherence to God or abandoning the mystical being has produced a consistent humanist and ethical economics, social life or form of politics. In this general ‘exclusivist’ context he notes that his right-wing Zionist grandfather saw the inconsistencies in the concept of ‘Jewish Socialism‘ and the reader is reminded by the author, of Lenin‘s fierce opposition to the purpose and programme of the Jewish Bund.  He further makes the following perceptive analogy that; ‘tribalism and universalism are like oil and water, they don’t mix well.’ (p 78)  In exploring why some activists insist on promoting their separatist identity before what they oppose, he notes the absence of any other such ethnic activist identifiers, never having heard of;

 ‘Aryan Palestinian Solidarity’, ‘Aryan for Peace’ group or even Caucasian Anti-War campaigners.” (p 62)

In pursuing and developing a possible locus of the common identity which unites Jewish Zionists and Jewish anti-Zionists he quotes from the book ‘My Life’ by Golda Meir, the ultra-Zionist Prime Minister of Israel in the 1970’s who declared;

“To me being Jewish means and has always meant being proud to be part of a people that has maintained its distinct identity for more than 2000 years, with all the pain and torment that has been inflicted upon it.” (quoted on p 75)

The notable emphasis placed here by Golda Meir is on the pride of being – ‘part of a ‘people that has maintained its distinct identity’. Such ‘Jewish-ness’ sentiments still exist despite the fact that as the historian Shlomo Sand and others before him have repeatedly identified, this ’distinct identity’ is actually a mythic invention. Most of those claiming Jewish-ness have no common or shared religious, biological, ethnic or geographical origin. Gilad Atzmon also comments on how prominent the ‘holocaust’ features in Zionist discourse, which is deliberately used to reinforce a symptom of ‘fear anticipation’ or what he terms a ‘Pre-Traumatic stress Syndrome’ (p 129). That is to say stress induced about an imagined possible future trauma, rather than the direct experience of an actual one as defined in the term Post-Traumatic Syndrome.

Although the author Norman Finkelstein has categorised the ‘Holocaust’ as an industry, constructed predominantly for political and economic gain, Gilad Atzmon notes that it has also become something of a surrogate religion. He points out that it has its own ’priests’, ‘prophets’ ‘rituals’, commandments, places of pilgrimage, unchallengeable dogmas and ’Anti-Christ’ like heretics.  In this way he argues, ‘holocaust religion’ perpetuates three things. First, the ideological assertion of a genocidal Judeophobic tendency among all non-Jews as contained in the book of Esther (ie kill all Jews allegedly suggested by Haman in exilic Persia) and Exodus (ie kill all male Jews allegedly suggested by Pharaoh in exilic Egypt).  The second thing it perpetuates is a culture of ’fear’ which also helps maintain a negative opinion of non-Jews – the Goyim. The third thing it perpetuates is the above noted characteristic of ‘a politics of ’hate’ directed against anyone who challenges some or all of the Jewish-ness ideology.

Interestingly, in a chapter entitled ‘Eretz Yisrael vs. Galut‘, Gilad Atzmon notes that modern young secular Israelis are not necessarily Zionist. He comments that the new generation of Israelis “are concerned largely with personal survival“ not with pursuing the expensive, expansionist, Zionist dream. Written before the recent massive youth demonstrations centred in Tel Aviv over jobs, housing and food prices, the accuracy of this assessment is indicative of the authors carefully studied approach. Towards the end of the book, he logically concludes that;

“..Israel is the Jewish state and Jewish-ness is an ethno-centric ideology driven by exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination toward segregation. For Israel and Israelis to become people like other people, all traces of Jewish ideological superiority must be eliminated first.” (p 188.)

To sum up then. This is a very perceptive and instructive book. It explores in considerable detail the ‘connective tissues’ which attach individuals to the ideology of Jewish-ness, irrespective of their lack of; a) affiliation to the religion of Judaism, b) any trace of Hebrew biological ancestry; or c) any support for Zionist genocidal extremes. The author has written his critique of the ideology of Jewish-ness, with a keenness of mind and in a generous spirit. Throughout the book, he has combined rigorous criticism with a consistent humanity. This talented author and brilliant musician stands head and shoulders above many, if not all, of his dwindling number of detractors. Their Zionist hatred of him must also be tinged with – not a little envy – at his intellectual and musical abilities to which they cannot ever hope to aspire, let alone match. Yet generously, Mr Atzmon concludes this important volume with a sincere acknowledgement to the most vociferous of his sectarian detractors. He writes;

“I cannot let this opportunity pass without thanking from the bottom of my heart my half the dozen Jewish Marxist detractors who have been stalking me and my music career day and night for years, without whom I would never have grasped the real depth of tribal ferocity.” (p 191)

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