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19 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Neither one thing nor the other, 24 Nov 2011
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This review is from: The Wandering Who?: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics (Paperback)
I thought I had already reviewed this book, but apparently my review got stuck in the ether. This book has important things to say. Furthermore, it has quite a few epiphanic moments where ideas and facts come together in bright flashes.

It also suffers, in my view, from two failings in Mr. Atzmon's writing style, one of which can be forgiven by the fact that he didn't begin to live in an English-speaking country until he was in his twenties. That is, his English is sometimes awkward, even occasionally very awkward; more often than awkward, it is a wild mixture of high and low styles, academic jargon, slang, and puns. It's an exuberant style, to be sure, but sophomoric. The other failing, which shows up in the first, is his frequent resorting to Big Name intellectuals for support. Half of a university Philosophy syllabus gets mentioned -- the half that is most difficult to understand. I am a fairly well educated person (Yale & Univ of Chicago), and I actually studied much of the stuff that Atzmon refers to -- but I take no pleasure in it now. It's the sort of thing that is better absorbed and understood than quoted, where it may sound ostentatious or arrogant, or both. The mere mention of Heidegger causes me to fall into a trance. Fortunately, Heidegger isn't necessary to Atzmon's arguments. Unfortunately, he gets trotted out anyway. Same for lots of folks that one might well have done without -- Jacque Lacan, among them. But while these cameo appearances are irritations -- and suggest that Mr Atzmon may from time to time truly believe, as he sometimes says, that he is "just a jazz musician," and therefore in need of extra artillery -- they do not make this book valueless. Far from it. They make it harder to read than it should be, and will in some degree limit its readership. But they do not reduce its importance.

One thing is clear from reading the book, even reading just the opening of it: this is not a book about Judaism, a religion; it is also not a book about people who follow that religion in any of its forms. It is a book about the sorts of tribalism and self-identification that contributes to absurdities of exceptionalism and racism and that underpin the formation and expansion of the modern State of Israel and its sense of "right." To oversimplify his argument, it is Mr Atzmon's view that the modern state of Israel is a scam, a conjurer's trick -- unjustified and duplicitous. He looks at modern Israel from all sorts of angles -- and pulls the rug out from most if not all the assumptions and arguments generally used to support it. In each case, what he says is that Israel isn't special. What he points out is that specialness was used to justify its formation and is still used to further its influence with much larger, richer, and more important nations. (Who, in fact, can seriously argue otherwise?) If Israel isn't special, then Israelis aren't special. Their claims are not special. They occupy no moral highground. They have no rights greater or lesser than the rights of others. And, therefore, they ought not to receive special treatment or dispensation. All this makes simple sense, and none of it is anti-Semitism.

It may or may not be true, but it certainly isn't racist to say that Israelis are racist. It isn't anti-Semitic to say that Israel has stolen the lands of the Arab peoples who were there prior to 1948 -- and it doesn't matter whether one calls them Palestinians, Arabs, or subjects of the Ottoman empire. Theft doesn't depend on the identity of the victim, or on the identity of the perpetrator. Theft depends only on a taking by someone of something to which he has no proper legal claim. The only question here has to do with "proper legal claim." Everything else is a red herring. Atzmon argues that there is no proper legal claim. He also deflates arguments that appear to substitute for a proper legal claim. This is analysis, not ranting. It is based on the logical presentation of discreet ideas and facts, and by its nature it cannot be anti-Semitic so long as the logic is proper and the ideas and facts are genuine. If that is so, then the conclusions will be irrefutable, and all the mumbo jumbo intoned to the contrary is no more relevant than saying the earth and all the creatures in it were made by God in six days. They weren't. Those who believe they were are entitled to believe it, but they are not entitled to participate in any argument worthy of the name. It isn't anti-Semitic to say that modern Israel has no real connection to ancient Israel other than the misfortunate to overlap with it on maps. It isn't anti-Semitic to say that modern Israel is a highly manipulative place that is capable of and willing to bring about regional (and perhaps larger) wars, more or less just because it can. All these things may or may not be true, but none of them is anti-Semitic. It sounds as though those who claim Atzmon is an anti-Semite and his book anti-Semitic are simply trying to prevent those who minds are still open and willing to absorb new points of view from discovering ideas and arguments they had not previously considered. It's a shame if the book-burners ever again succeed.
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