Letter to Gilad Atzmon
Gilad, you asked for a chance to respond to Max Blumenthal’s accusation that your views are anti-Semitic. I promised to read some of your work and then reply. I’ve now read enough to give an answer.
First let me make a few things clear about my point of view.
I think any state based on religion or ethnicity is racist and inherently anti-democratic. Israel fits that bill, as do others.
I think the occupation of the West bank and siege of Gaza is illegal. In the brutal wars against the Palestinian people, Israel has committed countless war crimes.
If this was 1948, I would be opposed to the establishment of the State of Israel. A democratic, secular, inclusive state where everyone who was living on the territory of Palestine could become a citizen is what should have been created.
That is what should happen now. If Palestinians vote for a two-state solution that is their right, but it’s also their right to demand one-person one vote and thus transform the current Israeli state into a truly democratic one.
Now, let’s turn to your thesis.
I do not think that Zionism grows out of “Jewish ideology”. In fact, I reject the concept that there is something one can call a generic Jew or a Jewish ideology.
In your book The Wandering Who, you define Jewish ideology as someone who politically identifies as a Jew, “Jewishness is an ethno-centric ideology driven by exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination toward segregation”.
In Israel, where national character and Jewish identity merge given the ethnic/religious basis of the state, this argument may have some merit, but it has nothing to do with the national and class ideology of thousands of Jews around the world who have little to no affinity with Israel and do not begin their political equation with “what’s good for the Jews”.
I’m not suggesting there are no such Jews, probably a majority at least when it comes to support for Israel. As odious as this is, this type of chauvinism is nothing unique, whether it’s Aryan, Han, Japanese, Russian, Saudi or American. Many nationalist cultures consider themselves to be “chosen” and “exceptional”.
Polling shows younger generations of American Jews are increasingly more distanced from feelings of affinity with Israel. Of course, they may adopt the religion or ideology of Americanism in its place (an ideology, in spite of its crimes, you seem to have no problem with as it’s not Jewish).
The point is that the internalization of racism is not inherent in identifying ones cultural and ethnic roots as being Jewish, and to do so, is nothing uniquely Jewish.
Just as it is pointless talking about a generic Catholic without taking into consideration country of origin, national psychology, and most importantly class – it’s meaningless talking about a generic Jew.
There are Catholics whose politics begin with “what’s good for the Catholics” . . . mostly to be found in the Vatican, but not exclusively. There are many Muslims who say the same about Islam.
But millions of people identify as Catholics and Muslims who do not start their political equation from identity politics. There is no “Catholic ideology or Muslim ideology” above national and class interest. The world view of a Sri Lankan catholic peasant has far more in common with an Indian Hindu peasant than with a Brazilian catholic finance capitalist. That’s not to say there are no instances of tribalism that influence sections of the population, but again, nothing uniquely Jewish about it.
There is no generic Jew.
A Canadian of Jewish Ashkenazi East European origin, who has no religious beliefs but identifies as a cultural Jew, opposes the Israeli occupation, has some nostalgic feelings about grandparents who spoke Yiddish and made chicken soup on Fridays, and most importantly understands that the Nazis made no differentiation between believers and non-believers when they knocked down the door . . . has far more in common, shares more of a world view with a progressive Muslim Canadian, than with an Israeli Jew who is dripping with racist hatred for Palestinians.
Hitler and the Zionists created a vision of a generic Jew with a metaphysical identity, transmitted by blood or the product of a Jewish soul. The Zionists concocted that this “identity” necessarily leads to support for the State of Israel. That’s why they promoted Hebrew as a modern language and virtually suppressed Yiddish – to invent an identity out of time and place.
Your thesis is the same as the Zionists. Your “Jewish ideology” exists only in abstract form and you also conclude it necessarily leads to support for Zionism. Unless a Jew renounces being a Jew, as you have, they must believe in “exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination toward segregation” . . . in one form or the other. Your definition transcends nation and class, because for you, the Jewish identity trumps all other factors.
You write on the comments section of TRNN, “My scholarship is not concerned with Judaism (the religion) nor am I referring to Jews (the people). I am critical of Jewish Identity politics and Jewish ideology. I elaborate on Jewish-ness and Jewish culture as opposed to Judaism. Race, genetics or biology have never been part of my study. If anything, I am critical largely of Jewish secular politics and culture rather than the Jewish religion.”
Your writing is so self-contradictory that I’m sure you can find a quote that will deal with all criticisms, even if your statements are opposed to each other.
You write in your email to me and elsewhere, “Zionism is a dynamic continuation of Jewish-ness: it (Zionism) is racist, exclusive, supremacist and self- centered, yet it is not Judaic. It has very little to do with Judaism. It may be messianic in a territorial sense, yet it lacks the Judaic divinity. In fact, in this sense, Zionism opposes Judaism. (The Wandering Who footnote 46, P’197)
Further down you write “In short, it is actually impossible not to see the continuum between Deuteronomy 6:10 and the crime against the Palestinian people that is committed by the Jewish State in the name of the Jewish people”.
So Jewish ideology is not Judaic, but its roots are to be found in a continuum from Deuteronomy 6:10.
You claim this is an attack on an ideology, not Jews themselves, but I think it’s mental gymnastics. Certainly you admit to hating your own “Jewish ideology”, and when you assert that all those who ascribe to a Jewish identity necessarily have this ideology – it amounts to the same thing.
One could say, as the Catholic Church does, they don’t hate homosexuals, only their behavior, but it is completely disingenuous. Just as the Church is homophobic, your position is anti-Jewish.
Anti-Semitic because even though technically Semites include those from the region, since the late 19th century the term has been used to mean hatred of Jews. So I think Max Blumenthal’s charge is justified.
Do I believe you hate all Jews? No. But your theory leads to that.
I think you are rejecting a vicious form of racism that permeates Israeli society. For that I applaud you. It’s not easy to break with the pressure put on Israelis to fit the mold and give up any independent thinking.
This racism does express itself amongst some people of Jewish origin in North America and elsewhere, who as a result of experiencing the WWII genocide, or in a desperate search for meaning in their lives, or to create business alliances or advance their careers, have latched on to a fictitious poisonous brew cooked up by Zionist leaders to win support for the occupation.
But there are people who identify as Jews around the world, who reject all of this and share most, if not all, of the positions of the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Your “Jewish ideology” also has nothing to do with the brave Israeli Jews who put their lives and freedom on the line working in the solidarity movement, or refuse to join the armed forces, and other forms of resistance. Most of them could leave but choose to stay and fight. They don’t have to renounce their identity as a Jew to denounce the racist nature of the state and call for an end to the occupation.
You have many critics who are activists and Jews in the Palestinian solidarity movement. You seem to have special venom for them, denouncing them as just another form of Zionist ideologues.
But you have also been denounced by leading Palestinians. In a statement of which you must be aware, signed by twenty-three Palestinian activists, it says: “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”. I don’t think these leading Palestinian activists can be accused of basing their critique of you on their “Jewish ideology”.
I’m going to post this letter in the comments section under the Blumenthal interview. As far as you answering Max goes, or responding to this letter, you are free to write a response and have it posted there. But I will not interview you about these issues.
I believe your theories have no historical or factual basis. I share the view that your theories serve Zionist propaganda and divide the solidarity movement. I concur that your thesis is anti-Semitic at its core. I don’t think a debate about these issues is called for or serves any kind of useful intellectual endeavor. I will not get into a drawn out back and forth with you on this.
While I appreciate much of your critique of the Israeli state, your theoretical work on the roots of Zionism is just not a serious analysis.
Your hatred for all things politically left, especially Jewish and left, is superficial and banal. I quote your email to me, “Sadly we have to admit that hate-ridden plunder of other people’s possessions made it into the Jewish political discourse both on the left and right. The Jewish nationalist would rob Palestine in the name of the right of self-determination, the Jewish progressive is there to rob the ruling class and even international capital in the name of world working class revolution. I better stay out of it. “
It’s beyond me how you can’t see that the Israeli state is a product and significant piece of the system of international capital, something you seem anxious to defend from “Progressive Jewish robbers”. Here you reveal your ideological roots as a defender of the “ruling class”.
Your grandfather would have been proud; you describe him in your book as a “. . . veteran Zionist terrorist. A former prominent commander in the right-wing Irgun terror organization”. You write, “More than anything, though, my grandfather hated Jewish leftists”.
When you equate the militarist Zionist state’s occupation of Palestinian lands with those who want a more equitable society, and call them all plunderers who share this “Jewish ideology” – then you also hate Jewish leftists “more than anything”. You hate them more than Zionism and building a united front against it.