on 5 December 2011
In the blurb for Atzmon's The Wandering Who? are listed five professors: William Cook, James Petras and Samir Abed-Rabbo, as well as John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at Chicago University and Richard Falk, Professor of International Law at Princeton. The latter two have probably torpedoed their reputations permanently. The first three had no reputation to lose. It would seem that stupidity can be a useful attribute if you want to be a professor.
Mearsheimer co-authored with Stephen Walt, an article then book `The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy' whose main theme was that the US was acting against its own interests because of the power of the Israel lobby. Mearsheimer was careful not to talk of a Jewish lobby, ascribing most of the Lobby's power to Christian Zionists in the USA. Having written that `Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world.' Mearsheimer has literally shot his bolt.
Richard Falk's endorsement is the most puzzling. He is the UN's Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories, banned by Israel from entering the Gaza Strip. He was a thorn in the side of those who bombed children with white phosphorous and left behind cluster bombs for them to play with. To describe Atzmon's virulently anti-Semitic book, as `a transformative story told with unflinching integrity that all (especially Jews) who care about real peace, as well as their own identity, should not only read, but reflect upon...' shows that Falk has either not read Atzmon's book or that he genuinely doesn't understand that blaming the victims of genocide for their own demise is racist.
Were the Jews of Europe Hated by their Neighbours?
Perhaps Falk and Mearsheimer could set their students the following essay: `why is the following text a classic example of racism and anti-Semitism.' `65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we should be able to ask ... Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their neighbours? Why are the Jews hated in the Middle East... Why did America tighten its immigration laws amid the growing danger to European Jews?' (175-176)
Our good professors might draw their students' attention to the way the Jews of Europe are elided together with the Zionist settlers of Israel, to say nothing of the notion of a single European people. Did the Jews of Poland colonise others' territory? Were the Dutch Jews so hated that the workers of Amsterdam reacted with a 3 day general strike to protest the attacks on them, broken only by fierce military repression and the deportation of the strike leaders to Mauthausen, where they died.
Did the Danes who in October 1943 rescued almost the whole Jewish community, 8,000 people, by transporting them by boat to Sweden, `stand up' against their Jewish neighbours? Or the Bulgarians who refused to allow a single deportation? Or the Albanians? Or the French and Italians, 75% and 85% of whose Jews survived the holocaust, mainly through hiding out with non-Jews?
Atzmon devotes much of his venom to the anti-Zionist Bund, who are `not fundamentally different from Zionism.'  In the 1938 local council elections in Warsaw, they obtained 17 out of 20 seats, compared to just one for the Zionists. Isn't the real comparison between the pogromists the Jews of Russia and Poland faced and the mobs who chant `Death to the Arabs' in Israel?
Marek Edelman, a Bundist and last commander of the Jewish Resistance in the Warsaw ghetto paid tribute to the Palestinian resistance in the second Intifada. [Palestine's partisans, Paul Foot, Guardian, Wednesday 21.8.02.] This was why the Israeli Embassy in Poland didn't even send the lowest clerk to Edelman's funeral in 2009, although the President of Poland found time to attend.
Atzmon's refers to the closing of America's borders as the holocaust approached (in fact it was in 1924). But this wasn't aimed at just the Jews. Is this any different from immigration controls and the deportation of asylum seekers in the West today? Does the US now welcome refugees from persecution?
Atzmon is a good example of `blame the victim' racism. In what way is Atzmon's pretentious work of `philosophy' `transformative' [Falk]? Atzmon does not fish in an empty sea. The reason why his book has achieved a certain resonance has less to do with what he's written and more to do with the wider context.
As most Palestine solidarity activist will confirm, accusations of `anti-Semitism' are standard fare. It is no surprise that some people, rather than challenging the underlying premise, take their accusers at their word. If it is anti-Semitic to support the Palestinians then some people will say that if they have to choose they will bear the cross of anti-Semitism.
The Wandering Who? is purportedly about Jewish identity. In reality it is about Atzmon's own confused identity. Is he Jewish, Christian, ex-Jewish or just Artie Fishel, a spoof character and ardent Zionist who is Atzmon's alter ego? What the book doesn't describe, except by way of caricature, is the real identity crisis of today's diaspora Jews. Instead he feasts on a Jewish Chronicle feature on David Rosenberg and Julia Bard and their agonising over whether to have their 2 boys circumcised.
Judging by Atzmon's description of them, one would assume that they were convinced Zionists. In fact they are members of the non-Zionist Jewish Socialists Group. Their dilemma was that of many young Jews - whether it is better to keep the parents quiet and to make a symbolic bow to Judaism. It was a dilemma that I also faced. Circumcision in religious folklore is the covenant between god and man. To Atzmon `It is a peep into the strange and inconsistent world of the Jewish tribal left.... (it) presents Zionism in a new light.' In fact it says nothing about Zionism. It is also practised by Muslims and many non-Jews, including the Royal Family! In focussing on Jewish circumcision Atzmon plumbs the depths of pathological anti-Semitism.
Whether it is the economic crisis `Credit Crunch or Zio Punch' or Swindler's List, which conflates Jewish socialism (the Bund) and confiscation of the assets of the rich, with Israel's theft of Palestinian land, it is the Jews who are responsible. You could be forgiven for thinking that Alan Greenspan and Paul Wolfowitz single handedly brought about the credit crunch in order to enhance the power of Israel and international Jewry.
`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.'
The conflation of [Jewish] socialism and colonialism is merely absurd. Socialism seeks to create a society where there are no poor or wealthy, but that involves the confiscation of the assets of the rich. Colonialism is an extension of that theft. But for Atzmon, `The Judaic God' is an evil deity who, via Moses, leads his people to plunder, robbery and theft. What Moses and Joshua did over 3 millennia ago explains Israel's behaviour today. Given that Britain was the world's largest empire and also a Christian state, one wonders why Atzmon converted to a religion whose god is also evil? God was always on the side of the colonist, whatever their religion. Atzmon's sojourn into `Jewish identity' has a purpose - to portray the Jews of Europe and Israel as one seamless whole.
Identity is not fixed
Atzmon tries to associate his work with the late Israel Shahak, a Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, who personally uncovered the existence of over 300 Arab villages whose remains had been obliterated by the Zionist colonisers. Shahak was a child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Belsen-Bergen concentration camp. Shahak's saying ``The Nazis made me afraid to be a Jew, and the Israelis make me ashamed to be a Jew.' is featured at the beginning of the book. But that wasn't a rejection of being Jewish but a rejection of what Israel was doing in the name of Jews. Shahak was not a Jew-baiter.
Shahak's argument was too sophisticated for Atzmon. He didn't argue that Zionist barbarities were intrinsic to being Jewish, rather that the settlers were using long forgotten passages in the Talmud in order to justify their Judeo-Nazi practices (Leibowitz).
In `Jewish History, Jewish Religion The Weight of Three Thousand Years' Chapter 3 (thanks to Debbie Maccoby for this source) Shahak wrote how
A great deal of nonsense has been written in the attempt to provide a social or mystical interpretation of Jewry or Judaism 'as a whole'. This cannot be done, for the social structure of the Jewish people and the ideological structure of Judaism have changed profoundly through the ages.'
For Shahak, the Jews and Jewish identity have `changed profoundly. If Jewish identity tells us anything it is that there is no one Jewish identity. In the last 150 years Jews have moved from being feudal moneylenders and petty traders to a Jewish proletariat and now a largely professional, middle-class part of the white community. The first questions anyone genuinely interested in Jewish identity would ask would be will the Jewish communities outside Israel survive, what is their material basis, is Zionism or opposition to Israel enough? Atzmon asks none of these questions. It is fortunate that Shahak is now dead because he would have sent Atzmon away with a flea in his ear. Atzmon's absurd statement (Chapter 1) that `Israel and Zionism were just parts of the wider Jewish problem.' completely misunderstands and distorts Shahak's main argument that Zionism has resurrected an old Jewish identity based on classic rabbinical Judaism.
Shahak mapped the contours of change. Atzmon focuses on a fixed, unchanging and essentialist notion of Jewish identity. It matters not whether he defines race by reference to biology, religion, spirit, behaviour, culture. Racism takes many forms. For example his definition of Zionism as a `global network with no head, it is a spirit - spirit, unfortunately, cannot be defeated.'  could be the words of Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, and Theodor Fritsche.
When Atzmon writes that `It is more than likely that `Jews' do not have a centre or headquarters... that they aren't aware of their particular role within the entire system, the way an organ is not aware of its role within the complexity of the organism.' who can doubt that Atzmon's `organismus' is the old world Jewish conspiracy?
As Gabriel Ash explains `Substituting "Jewish ideology" for "the Jewish spirit and Jewish consciousness" is the only thing that makes Atzmon's take on Jewishness "ground breaking." Everything else is derivative.'
One explanation for Atzmon's politics lies with his leftist hating, Irgun loving grandfather. Atzmon has married the hostility of his revisionist Zionist background to the left with the anti-Semitic contempt that Zionism reserves for Jews outside Israel (`Negation of the Diaspora'):
When Atzmon proclaims that `Zionism is not a colonial movement with an interest in Palestine, ... To be a Zionist means to accept that, more than anything else, one is primarily a Jew.'  he is advocating that supporters of the Palestinians should abandon any anti-Zionist analysis. The real target should be those who control Israel - the world Jewish communities. Atzmon argues that there is no such thing as Zionism inside Israel, it's a Diaspora Jewish obsession. What is needed is not BDS (which Atzmon has never supported) but a campaign against your local Jewish community! Instead of picketing Ahava or disrupting the Jerusalem Quartet, we should demonstrate outside a Jewish kindergarten.
Perhaps the only concession to the truth in the entire book is when Atzmon declares that `At a certain stage, around 2005, I thought to myself that I might be King of The Jews.'  One suspects that Atzmon is just another in a long line of false Messiahs.
Atzmon justifies his anti-Semitism by noting that `Early Zionist ideologists were pretty outspoken when it came to the `Diaspora' Jewry.'  He cites Hashomer Hatzair's description of Jews as `a caricature of a normal, natural human being, both physically and spiritually' and Ber Borochov, founder of `Marxist' Zionism: `The enterprising spirit of the Jew is irrepressible. He refuses to remain a proletarian.'
Atzmon believes that `Emancipated Jews are identified by negation - they are defined by the many things they are not.' This is a familiar Zionist theme. But it is untrue. Jewish anti-Zionists are not merely defined by that which they oppose but also by a long tradition of Jewish opposition to racism and fascism.
Atzmon's hero is Otto Weininger, about whom Hitler apparently remarked that he was the only good Jew, which is why he went and killed himself. A racist and misogynist, Weininger `helped me grasp who I am, or rather who I may be'. There is a lot of truth in this! There is a turgid passage about what percentage there is of the masculine and feminine in an individual. The analogy is with the percentage of Jewishness in someone. His conclusions? `With contempt, I am actually elaborating on the Jew in me.' 
The chapter `Truth, History & Integrity' is named after an essay of the same name. But he omits 3 paragraphs including the statement that `if the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war? Why didn't the Jews wait for their Red liberators'? Likewise in `Esther to Aipac' he omits the sentence that `no one goes as far as revisionism, not a single Holocaust religion scholar dares engage in a dialogue with the so-called `deniers' to discuss their vision of the events or any other revisionist scholarship.' But Atzmon still can't resist a nod in the direction of holocaust denial. He writes that:
`65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must be entitled to start asking questions. We should ask for historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws.'
Those who doubt that Atzmon is anti-Semitic should ponder his statement that `If there are some remote patches of humanism in Jewish culture, these are certainly far from being universal.'  Likewise his statement that `Jewish ideology and political discourse openly opposes revision and revisionism.'  But there is no such thing as `Jewish ideology'. Jews support many different ideologies. It is often remarked that there are more Jews in Parliament than their percentage of the total population would merit, but at the time of the Gaza invasion, it was a Jewish MP Gerald Kaufman who made by far the most effective speech comparing his grandmother, who the Nazis murdered in her bed, with Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.
It would appear that Atzmon started out young. At high school he `wondered out loud how the teacher could know that these accusations of Jews making Matza out of young Goyim's blood were indeed empty or groundless.'  Like his friend Israel Shamir, he is attracted to medieval anti-Semitism. On Jewish identity Atzmon has nothing to say.
on 1 December 2011
This is book has been widely accused of antisemitism and I concur, but that is the least of its problem. It is a concoction of non-sense, non-sequiturs, ignorance and empty pretense, as I will show with a detailed example. Only one, unfortunately, because explicating fallacies takes a lot more effort than making them.
From page 81:
"What Zionists think of themselves is not very interesting; far more intriguing is the duality referred to above, the chasm between who they think they are and what they actually are, between self-image and public image, consciousness and unconsciousness. Unconsciousness, says Lacan, is the `discourse of the other', which is very much the male fear of impotence. Rather than the anxiety induced by the fear of being caught malfunctioning, it is the fear of being known as dysfunctional. The real terror here is the unbearable threat that the fiasco may become public knowledge."
Well, later on Atzmon chides Israelis for not reading Lacan. Maybe he is projecting, maybe he should take his own advice and actually read what he claims to have read and use as theory.
Lacan does not use the terms `unconsciousness' and `consciousness' Atzmon attributes him. He uses `the unconscious' and `the subject.' Since the unconscious is Freud's (and Lacan's) central theoretical concept, mangling it is the equivalent of referring to Einstein's "theory of relatives," or the centrality of "classic struggle" in Marxism. Nor did Lacan say that unconsciousness is "the discourse of the other." He said that "the unconscious is the discourse of the Other." Capitalization is important, since `Other' and `other' are in fact opposing concepts for Lacan. The other (uncapitalized) is the object of desire and stands in an imaginary relation with the ego. This fundamentally narcissistic relation is that which Lacan identifies in the act of gazing at oneself in the mirror. The narcissistic relation interrupts the other relation, that between the subject and the Other. The Other (capitalized) is the symbolic order, language and the primary law of signification and desire, which constitutes the subject and is inaccessible to it. Atzmon attributes to Lacan almost the precise opposite of Lacan's concept of the unconscious.
Therefore, "the unconscious is the discourse of the Other" refers to the unconscious as that which is both at the core of subjectivity and related to as alien and inaccessible to it, being the external and constitutive symbolic order of language. By no stretch of interpretation can it mean `what CNN and Press TV say about me that I don't know', which is how Atzmon uses the term `unconsciousness.'
Lacan's writings can be dauntingly complex. One could argue they are useless, and I will respectfully disagree. But Atzmon claims Lacan is important and uses him to sound "intellectual", when he not only doesn't understand his ideas, but didn't even bother to read him at the most elementary level. This is intellectual imposture and contempt for the readers (unfortunately, it appears that the contempt is justified, a book gets the readers it deserve).
But let's examine the "theory" on its own merit. How can "unconsciousness" be "the male fear of impotence"? Isn't unconsciousness supposed to be, well, unconscious? Are men not aware that they'd rather not be impotent? Are they not aware of being impotent when they are? And how can one seriously argue that fear of impotence is only due to concern for what other people think? these are baseless, patently false assertions.
Armed with this fake Lacanian cant, Atzmon uses "unconsciousness" to explain both why Israel barred journalists from Gaza during operation Cast Lead and why Israel sought to hide the incompetence of its army during the war of Lebanon in 2006.
"At the time of the 2006 Lebanon war, the Israelis' `discourse of the other' encompassed CNN, Sky TV, BBC and the West in general....this gulf between the confident Israeli self-image and the total contempt of the other is exactly where the neurosis of Yehoshua, Oz, Grossman and the majority of Israelis came into play."
"Two and half years after its military flop in Lebanon, Israel found itself once again in the midst of a second disastrous war that it had launched.This was Operation Cast Lead (2008), a total war against the people of Gaza and their democratically-elected leadership, Hamas. Along the campaign,Israel attempted to implement the lesson of the 2006 war. I think, probably optimistically, that by then, somebody at the state hasbara bureau must have read Lacan. The Israelis would try to save themselves from fully grasping who they are and what they do by blocking out every possible mirror.Consequently the IDF barred all foreign media from entering Gaza..."
"it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being `caught out' as such"
Note also that Atzmon claims that Israelis are both trying to hide from themselves their unethical behavior (which implies a recognition of the value that they transgressed, otherwise why hide it from themselves), and that they are only concerned about not getting caught (in which case, they should have no psychological incentive to not be aware of what they did.)
Both these mutually exclusive mental states are supposed to resemble "the male fear of impotence." Try to work this through for yourself!
To add the last "evidence" above, Atzmon misreads a Coen Brothers' film, A Serious Man, arguing that
"In the dream, Larry is confronted with his guilt through his Goy neighbour. Rather than the fear of being unethical, it is the fear of being caught out as unethical that torments Larry. It is the `discourse of the other' (the gun-toting neighbour) that introduces Larry unconsciously to a sense of guilt. I link this back to the case of Israel: it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being `caught out' as such."
If you've seen A Serious Man (highly recommended) you know this is twisted. Larry is deeply concerned about his guilt or lack thereof, not at all about how others see him. But let's put that aside, as most readers probably did not see the film, and focus on the conclusion and how it is used.
How does Atzmon justify using an insight from the film (in which nothing is said about Israel) and applying it to Israel?
"...A Serious Man delivers a clear message regarding Israel and Zionism, for Israel is the Jewish state and, despite the Zionist promise to build a civilised nation, it functions as a Jewish ghetto, subject to all the symptoms of abnormality conveyed by the Coens."
In other words, the word 'Jewish' applies to both Larry's social world, and to Israel (a Jewish state), that is all. If Israel is a Jewish state, then a meaning gleaned from any work of art about Jews applies to Israel. For example, since Woody Allen has affairs with young girls in his films, then we could say that Israeli culture is particularly pedophilic. That is the level of Atzmon's logic. If Jewish food is salty, that Israel, being the Jewish state, is also salty.
If these are not enough holes in the argument, consider that all this pyrotechnics is used to explain why Israel barred journalists from Gaza. As if other states, when they commit massacres, invite the international press to watch. Do we really need fake psychoanalysis and lousy film criticism to explain the tendency of governments to commit their crimes away from the camera?
Returning to antisemitism, note that Atzmon argues here that Jews obey laws only out of fear of being caught (implying that non-Jews are the other way, endowed with an internalized moral outlook). This racist generalization about Jews is made on the basis of a film and a vivid imagination. There is also complete ignorance of sociology: there are many studies on why people obey the law, and it certainly true that both internalized values and fear of consequences play a role for all people, and the exact mix differs according to so many variables. The idea that the divide line is between Jews and non Jews is both racist and objectively false.
This is just one example. The book has no substance, not in (twisted) facts, not in (fake, misunderstood) theory, not in (cockamamie) interpretation. It is indeed a testimony to Atzmon's inner life and obsessions, his "journey" from the racism of his Irgun terrorist grandfather to the antisemitism of a section of the loony white nationalist far-right. If that journey is of interest, than you should definitely read it.
The book is promoted by people who are eager to suspense their disbelief and ignore the trashiness for the sake of getting their prejudices confirmed.
If you want a book that trades in prejudice about Jews, at least find one that is moderately coherent.