Following in the footsteps of Israel Shahak and the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, many humanists have questioned the political ideology stemming from Jewish religion and culture. This is a delicate debate since it can be exploited for anti-Semitic purposes, hence the importance of approaching it rationally. The controversy that surrounded Shahak is blazing again today around Gilad Atzmon, whose last book is disseminated by Voltaire Network. Without taking a position with respect to his arguments, all of which deserve to be presented and discussed, we reaffirm the legitimacy of this debate. From his vantage point, U.S. musician Rich Siegel deplores the witch hunt unleashed against Atzmon, including from unexpected quarters, and all those who take an interest in this issue. He calls for a deeper reflection and mutual respect.
In-fighting is characteristic of progressive movements. On the right things are much easier. They want a “survival-of-the-fittest” society, small government, low taxes, no safety- net, no brown-skinned people crossing our borders, the right to unlimited profits un-hampered by any oversight or regulations, the right to claim foreign natural resources and to take advantage of cheap foreign labor, and when foreign leaders are not easily subjugated, the right to wage war in the name of “freedom” and “liberty” and “democracy” while waving the flag. The program is quite simple and so agreement is easily found.
Problems occur when someone like Sarah Palin is put in a position of high visibility, and has to be coached on information she should have learned in high school, or when they have to decide whether Mormon candidate Mitt Romney qualifies as Christian. But issues like these are relatively manageable, and all they need is a common adversary to embrace unity over their minute differences. For example it’s easy for them to agree that Obama is a Socialist, even though he more closely resembles a Reagan Republican, because he’s a member of the Democratic Party and they want to beat him.
On the left, however, where activists become active because they actually care about humanity and the planet; care about universal values of peace, justice, human rights, environmental sustainability, and the like, all hell breaks loose on a regular basis. This is because there are many varied perceptions as to what qualifies as fair, just, and balanced, and many varied opinions as to how to achieve these things. It often seems that shades of meaning have monumental ramifications, and degrees to the left, in increments, often translate to irreconcilable differences.
I played a concert with saxophonist/author Gilad Atzmon in Geneva, New York last night, a benefit for the Deir Yassin Remembered scholarship fund. (Put into perspective, two Jews playing a concert, unpaid, to raised money to send Palestinian kids to college.) This morning we happened to meet before breakfast in the hallway of our motel. He said, “I have to show you something. You won’t believe this.” We entered his room, he opened his lap-top, and set his browser on a link to a sort of a treatise, a declaration, prepared by Ali Abunimah and signed by various activists, entitled “Palestinian Writers, Activists, Disavow Racism and Anti-Semitism of Gilad Atzmon”.  
What has Gilad Atzmon done to inspire this very extreme action? He has examined, and written about, the issue of “Jewishness”, about HIS “Jewishness”, and about mine.
Why is this objectionable? Some explanation is required. Zionists have long sought to equate Zionism with Judaism. As usual, the right wing has a simplistic ideology: By equating these two “ism’s”, Zionists are able to justify the position that opposition to Zionism means “Anti-Semitism”. Supporters of the liberation of Palestine strenuously object to this, and rightly so. But it seems that many have adopted an equally simplistic view to combat it: Since Zionism and Judaism are NOT the same thing, and since Zionism is the direct cause of the problem, Judaism and Jewish culture are placed out of bounds, taboo, don’t touch them. We don’t want to be called “Anti-Semites”, and we need our Jewish allies in the movement.
The problem with this simplistic view is that it in this case simplicity is not elegant. The reality is that Judaism and Zionism are indeed two different things. But paradoxically, while Judaism specifically forbids Zionism (according to the interpretation I personally accept), Zionism is also clearly rooted in Judaism and in aspects of Jewish culture which are also clearly rooted in Judaism.
It is important to make the distinction between Judaism and Jewish culture because many Jews, and among them many Zionists, are secular and even anti-religious, and yet embrace their Jewish identity as central to who they are. It is also important to make the observation that Jewish religion informs secular Jewish culture, even if unconsciously so. Up until about 1780 there were no secular Jews. There was only Orthodox Judaism, and that influence remains, this even among the significant population who are atheists identifying as Jews and embracing Zionism. I am personally a product of that culture. As both Zionism and Jewish identity are embraced both by large numbers of religious Jews and large numbers of anti-religious Jews, we are left with the problem of what to call their Jewish commonality. Thus “Jewishness”.
On the religious end of the spectrum, we find Orthodox Jewish Zionist rabbis and Orthodox Jewish Anti-Zionist rabbis, both groups spending much of their lives in study of Jewish holy books, and both groups, when they are not studying, pointing their fingers at each other and shouting “Torah Ignoramus!” This is a debate that the uninitiated are not permitted to enter, and initiation consists of life-long dedication to study of Jewish holy texts. There is no choice but to allow them this ongoing fight.
On the secular end of the spectrum are less religious Jews, members of Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues who may or may not be atheists, members of atheist synagogues- yes you read that right- there are “Humanist” synagogues that hold “services” to serve their “Jewishness” rather than God, and finally many Jews who are not members of synagogues at all. Many secular Jews are strongly Zionist and place a very high value on their Jewish identity. So, there is a wide variety of religious belief and observance among Jews, and yet what they all have in common is the valuing of Jewish identity- of “Jewishness”. The difference between the religious and the secular is that the religious understand the origin of the components of cultural Jewishness, and the secular most often do not.
When I was seven years old a little girl in my 2nd grade class told me, “My daddy said you killed Jesus.” I told her I had never killed anyone. I was upset enough about this accusation that I told my parents about it, and they were duly horrified. For many years I attributed this to “classic Anti-Semitism”. I had experienced the misfortune, at a very tender age, of having been victimized with this horrible accusation, which has been leveled against Jews since the dawn of Christianity.
So imagine my astonishment when, many years later, in 2006, I read about Swedish peace-worker Tove Johansson’s experience. She was escorting Palestinian school-children past crowds of hostile Jewish settlers in Hebron, when the settlers began chanting “We killed Jesus, we’ll kill you, too.” They smashed a bottle over her face, causing severe injuries. There are also various other accounts of Jewish settlers proudly taking responsibility for the murder of Jesus, something that I had always assumed was a false accusation, leading me to investigate. I found in the writing of Jewish-Israeli scholar Israel Shahak that there is actually a Talmudic mandate for this claim. I also found that while it seems that relatively few Jews are aware of Shahak’s writing, many of those who are hate him passionately, although none have ever presented me with an actual argument confronting his claims.
I came to support the Palestinian cause after first having come to an awareness of some dramatic problems in the Jewish culture in which I was raised. I grew up in a Reform synagogue where many atheist Jews, and some who had religious beliefs, attended to affirm their Jewish identity, to raise their children with Jewish identity, and to support Israel. I was presented with the idea that it was a privilege to be a member of a universally despised people, who were hated for no reason at all, and who were more intelligent and moral than others. And I was told that Israel had never harmed anyone, that the Arabs just hated Jews for no reason, just like everyone hates Jews for no reason.
Having come to believe in God as a young adult, I had to go back to re-examine the Judaism, or more accurately, the “Jewishness” I was raised with, and clearly identified idolatry: the worship of the twin idols of Jewish identity and Israel. And I began to move away from what I identified as the Jewish identity cult. Even with that awareness, I was so completely indoctrinated in Zionist propaganda, that I did not question the things that I had been told. For example, I did not question the story of Jews who wanted to be friendly neighbors to the Arabs, and of Arab leaders who, in 1948, made radio broadcasts of orders for their people to get out temporarily, while they intended to drive the Jews into the sea. Why should we let them return when they wanted to annihilate us like Hitler?
I understand that Jewish activists for Palestine come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and that there are those who do not have the same needs as I do. I know there are those who would like to support Palestine while embracing their Jewish identity and some who additionally wish to embrace Jewish religion at various levels of observance. But that’s not me, and I will not allow Ali Abunimah and a list of bullies to tell me that I have no right to intellectual inquiry into my religion and culture. Of course, their objections are targeted at Gilad Atzmon, not me. But when they say it about him, they are, by extension, saying it about me, and those like me- those of us who have to struggle to come to terms with having been lied to all our lives.
When I finally came to understand the depth of the criminality of Zionism, and I came to that realization in my middle age, my response was not, “Oh my God, let’s fix this while we protect Judaism and Jewish identity from those who would like to make a connection.” Not at all. My response was a more natural and obvious one: “Oh my God! What kind of sickness do I come from?” I have the right to ask that question, and to search for answers. I have the right to talk to the seven year old victim of “Anti-Semitism” who still lives inside me, and help him to understand his experience.
Back in the 80’s in an interview on the American television show 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace confronted Meir Kahane, the infamous Brooklyn rabbi, now deceased, who became an Israeli Knesset member and an advocate for the expulsion of all Arabs from all of historic Palestine (both “Israeli Arabs” and Arabs living in the occupied territories), about a law he proposed.
Wallace : “You proposed a law for the Knesset to pass against Arabs that’s really astonishingly identical to the Nuremberg laws of the Nazis under Adolf Hitler.”
Kahane: “Mr. Wallace, one of the problems of Jews is that they wouldn’t know a Jewish concept if they tripped over one. I merely quoted from the Talmud. Most Jews think Judaism is Thomas Jefferson. It’s not.”
I was raised in a “Jewishness” which presumed to be something very different from what it was. And in that pretense it had me donating to plant trees in Israel, and receiving Israel bonds as bar mitzvah presents. It had me joining Zionist youth groups and becoming president of one, and it had me living and working in Israel during my 20’s, all while believing a system of lies. I have the right to examine the cult that lied to me, the cult that I have survived and left.
I think I speak for everyone who supports the Palestinian cause, including both Atzmon and his detractors alike, when I say that I believe that the first priority for all of us is to stop Zionists from killing the next Palestinian child. How to accomplish this? I think if any of us knew, we would lie, steal, cheat, do whatever it might take. But we don’t know. Does placing limits on parameters of acceptable ideology help to accomplish this goal? Does censorship, censure, expulsion, ex-communication? These are the things that this edict against Atzmon is attempting to accomplish. Does it actually accomplish anything or is it just divisive? Are the Zionists enjoying watching a split among the pro-Palestine camp?
Clearly requiring certain parameters is reasonable. For example, there are those who sympathize with both the cause of white supremacy and with the Palestinian cause. Those people would do the most good for Palestine by staying as far away from the cause as possible, and they should be shunned and avoided. But that’s not who Atzmon is, or who I am. There is no racism here. There is simply examination of the religion and culture that produced Zionism.
Abunimah puts words in Atzmon’s mouth:
“…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.”
I fail to see how this attitude can be attributed to Atzmon when he openly speaks of the Neturei Karta Orthodox Anti-Zionist Jews. But again, a simplistic interpretation would be lacking. The fact of the existence of Anti-Zionist Jews should not be taken as evidence that Zionism is not connected with Judaism, Jewish culture, or “Jewishness”. The Neturei Karta also believe in exile from this land and return to it, just not at the present time under present circumstances.
I understand that from the Palestinian point of view, many consider inquiry into “Jewishness” superfluous. They just want Zionism to end, and this is reasonable. But why won’t it end? The UN passed Resolution 194 64 years ago, and re-ratified it numerous times. Why have the refugees not been allowed back? There have been various “peace processes”. Why is there no peace? American administrations have been pressuring to end settlement expansion for decades. Why are settlements still expanding? What is behind the almost super-human capacity for Zionist belligerence? for Zionist disingenuousness? Why is it that the world governments look the other way and pretend it isn’t going on? And how is it possible that America is fighting wars for Israel? How is it possible that for all of my life I’ve been listening to my people whine over the holocaust while failing to admit that any crimes were committed in Palestine? How deep is a cult that was able to hide from me, one of its children, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine for most of my life?
For those who want to insist that Zionism is some bizarre aberration that grew out of an otherwise healthy Jewish culture and religion, that’s fine for them. Having been lied to all my life, I wanted to know what Kahane meant when he sneered at me and told me I wouldn’t know a Jewish idea if I tripped over it. And now I know. Certainly I have the right to free inquiry, and to the expression of ideas, and so does Gilad Atzmon.
If there are those who dislike Atzmon’s ideas, they are free to write their own and express disagreement. They are free to state that Atzmon does not represent them. But to organize a list of those who agree to disavow him is disgraceful, and in my opinion does not serve the cause. There should be a retraction and an apology.
Erich Siegel and Dave Lippman discuss their personal experience and views
“Gilad Atzmon talks about his latest book “The Wandering Who?”, by Silvia Cattori, Voltaire Network, 30 September 2011.