Gilad Atzmon is a world renowned saxophonist and musician with a deep political passion for humanist issues and concern for the fate of the Palestinian people. He has written extensively about the issue and been published widely. As a self-exiled, former Jewish Israeli and IDF soldier, Atzmon’s perspective within the raging public discourse on Palestine is relatively unique. His views are bitterly opposed by some among anti-Zionist Jewish groups, who accuse him of anti-Semitism and of being a ‘self-hater’.
Atzmon fiercely resists the charge of anti-Semitism and insists that he is concerned with a proper and thorough examination of the ideology of what it is to be Jewish – in particular about how the notion of the Jews as ‘a chosen people’ has led, as he sees it, inexorably to the rise of Zionism and its present disproportionate influence on world affairs.
Atzmon also takes issue with the Western Left which he believes has failed either to recognize the true extent of Zionist influence (he singles Noam Chomsky out for criticism) and of not understanding how western Marxist/socialist ideologies are incompatible with Islamic societies and therefore can be of no use to them. These and other issues are discussed with him below. There are many things in what Atzmon says below that beg further question and comment but hopefully the exchange has served to illustrate his interpretation of the Palestinian situation and to provide an insight on a less frequently aired or understood perspective.
Miriam Cotton, MediaBite (Ireland)
MC: Following the murder and kidnap of unarmed aid activists in international waters by Israel, General Petraeus has said the situation [in Gaza] is no longer sustainable. Though he was in no sense condemning what Israel had done, do you think there may be a beginning of an end to unconditional US support for Israel?
GA: It is actually the other way around. It is Israel that ditches America. Israeli leadership realises that with America in the background the Jewish state won't be able to pursue its next two lethal plans: Nakaba 2 and dismantling Iranian nuclear capacity. Israel realises that if it wants to maintain its Jews only state as a regional power, it must ethnically cleanse the rest of the Palestinians. Israel is also convinced that its only chance of surviving in the region is if it maintains a nuclear hegemony. The USA makes things difficult for the Jewish State at the moment; it tries to slow Israel down. I believe that it is Israel that is leading the conflict rather than being subject to it.
MC: But surely that assessment overlooks some important factors. Nobody can seriously doubt that the US obsession with the region is entirely to do with oil, gas and geo-strategic matters such as Russian and Chinese proximity to these resources, in particular.
GA: This is a good way to put it. However you may also wonder what American interests are, who defines these interests and who shapes them. As it happens, AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) has been pretty effective in shaping American interests; we also know that the Wolfowitz doctrine made it into Bush’s doctrine. For the last three decades Americans failed to see the clear discrepancy between cheap oil and alliance with Israel. They might start to understand it now.
MC: But the Bush family was/is an oil dynasty too - with ties to as many if not more Arabic vested interests as to the Israelis - there are many more non-AIPAC, US vested interests like these than are in AIPAC. Everything the US has done there since the beginning of its so-called 'war on terror' - and long beforehand - has been aimed at securing the Middle East and about energy and other resources.
GA: This is all true. It is also true that AIPAC won’t necessarily interfere with unrelated political matters unless it involves Zionist, Israeli or Jewish interests. However, the Jewish lobby in America and in the UK has managed to shape the English speaking Empire’s vision of its needs and interests. From an American perspective, instead of admitting that American soldiers were actually sent to fight war for Israel, they were told instead that they were sent to die in the name of moral interventionism and democracy. They were actually told that they were ‘liberating the Iraqi people’. How wonderful! The oil and Israeli interests were presented as side issues. As we know, oil prices didn’t drop after 2003. And yet, Sadam Hussein, the bitterest enemy of Israel was removed. In the long run this plan didn’t work for Israel either. Iran had become the unchallenged Muslim leading power. Inshalah it also becomes a nuclear super power soon. This would obviously deter the Israelis from accomplishing its endless imperial aspirations.
MC: There is no other country in the Middle East in which the US and its allies could position the vast military threat that Israel has been made into if they are to achieve their ambitions for the region. The realisation of Zionist ambitions for Israel was and still is a secondary consideration for the US, despite the relatively powerful Israeli lobby.
GA: I am not so sure at all. I actually think that the Zionist Lobby has managed to destroy the American empire. I argue that the Credit Crunch is in fact a Zio-Punch. I argue that Greenspan created an economy boom to divert attention from Wolfowitz’ wars. The Zionists in fact have managed to bring down every super power they cling to. Britain, France and now America. You have to allow yourself to admit that the ‘War on Terror’ was actually a Zionist led war against Islam, a battle that was there to serve Israeli interests.
MC: Israel has been funded and encouraged to develop a nuclear arsenal of several hundred warheads, while the Iranians who do not even have one, but who control a lot of oil, are deemed to be a threat to world peace. Frankly, in these circumstances the Iranians and others would be justified in thinking they need some means of defending themselves against the only real threat at present- and against those who are in fact being the most provocative as well as doing the vast majority of the killing: US-Israel.
MC: Britain and America don't fight any wars that they don't want to fight - not even justifiable wars, unless there is a percentage in it for them.
GA: Are you sure about this, or is that something we all prefer to believe? As it happens both in Britain and America the political parties are funded heavily by Jewish pro Israeli lobbies. Haim Saban, the multi-billionaire Israeli fund raiser for the American Democratic Party said last year that the best way to influence America is through political funding, the media and think tanks. There you go. Even the vision of ‘American interests’ can be no more than false interests when they have been manipulated into an alignment with what are really Israeli interests. At the end of the day, it is far cheaper to by a western politician than buying a tank. It is far cheaper to recruit a ‘new friend of Israel’ than flying an F15 for one hour.
MC: Israel is essentially a creation of the British and other European powers - and the oil was firmly at the front of their minds even way back then.
GA: This is another myth that people like Chomsky want us to believe in. In fact the Balfour Declaration was there to pull America into the war. It was there to push Jewish German and Russian bankers to change their allegiance from Germany to Britain so they could fund the new American war. Amos Alon presents an embarrassing chapter in Jewish history in his monumental book The Pity of It All. In fact it worked for the British. Two months after the Declaration, America was in the war. This wasn’t about oil. It was another war funded by a Jewish political lobby.
MC: As with many other violent regimes that the US has propped up, the US doesn't care one jot what Israel gets up to with its own people so long as the commercial plan is proceeding towards its goal. The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is just one of the incidental costs that has to be paid to keep the US's bulldog in the region onside. Official US and UK statements after the attack on the aid flotilla were deplorable, with Obama for example declaring the deaths merely 'regrettable'. This was a clear signal to Turkey: do that again and this is what we will give you. Get in line.
GA: America is talking in many voices at the moment. It is confused or may even be lost in terms of foreign policy. Partially because there is a conflict between the American interests and the lobbies that gave the democrats the keys to the white house, namely AIPAC.
MC: US-Israel can no longer get away so easily as it once did with propagandising the Palestinians’ cause as a nation consisting entirely of terrorists nor cover up the increasingly blatant horrors that are being visited on them. What General Petraeus was signaling, it seems, is that a new strategy is needed - one that is less horrifying to world opinion so that they can all get on with business without attracting so much negative attention to the details.
GA: I think that General Petraeus together with his military advisers are realising that America is about to lose its grip in the Arab and Muslim world. At the end of the day, if I need your oil, I had better make friends with you rather than being caught in bed with your biggest enemy.
MC: They obviously didn’t feel that way about Iraq. They have secured what they wanted there so far and next up is Iran. At the same time, it's clear that the US has created a monster, Israel, in the Middle East that will prove much more difficult to rein in than was wanted or even envisaged in some respects.
GA: I agree with most of what you say. However, contemporary liberal democracy decisions are made by elected politicians that are bought by different kinds of ‘friends of Israel’. In America it is AIPAC and major Jewish fund-raisers such as Haim Saban whom I mentioned before, in Britain we had Lord ‘cash machine’ Levy and now the CFI (Conservative Friends of Israel). These pressure groups and individuals are there to suppress ethical reaction within the political system and beyond. However, following the last massacres in Gaza and on the Mavi Marmara, we saw a tidal wave of mass resentment towards Israel and its supportive Jewish lobbies. This is something that could lead eventually towards a cosmic shift also within politics.
MC: A different question - in the Irish version of the Sunday Times on the 6th of June there was an extraordinary article by one of Ireland's foremost journalists, Matt Cooper, which was headlined 'Israel presents a test of diplomatic skills', I kid you not. Cooper begins the piece by acknowledging the atrocity committed by Israel on the Mavi Marmara but subsequently works his way around to recommending what he calls a 'nuanced' way forward that is devoid of morality or of even basic humanity. The murders and all the previous Israeli slaughters that he has just condemned are benched - presumably in the interest of what he calls 'balanced' opinion later on in the same piece. 'Diplomacy' and Ireland’s ‘economic interests’ are invoked so as to finesse the horrific truths of what is really happening to the Palestinians out of the equation or at least into the margins. We are invited to understand the feelings of successive Israeli governments and by implication to compromise with their murderous intransigence after all. He rehearses the same jaded myth that Israel is surrounded by hostility, while ignoring the terror that it has since its incarnation routinely threatened and inflicted on its neighbours and on the Palestinians with all the might of the US military at its disposal - and says nothing at all of the huge cache of nuclear weapons which it has threatened to use against Iran, which has no nuclear weapons.
GA: It is indeed very interesting. Today we learned that Israel insists to probe its own crime. This is maybe the latest phase in Israeli manifested lunacy, arrogance or ignorance. The murderer tells the authorities, it is ok I can look into my own acts, leave it with me. ‘My parents and my cousin can review my acts.’ This is indeed a way to challenge world diplomacy. Will Israel get away with it this time? I hope not. But if it does, it is there to prove to us all again that kosher lobbies are corrupting our ethical perspectives. Considering the fatal danger of a total war invoked by Israel, our leaders do not have much time at their disposal. Israel is the ultimate danger to world peace. It must be confronted with the ultimate measures now.
MC: I don't agree that any sort of preemptive physical attack on Israel would be justified, if that is what you are referring to.
GA: I obviously do not refer to violence here but to some extreme measures of economic embargo, sanctions and cultural boycotts.
MC: To get back to the media, I'm asking what you think about the role the mainstream media has played in promoting the Israeli perspective. Senior journalists throughout the West especially, mostly talk in a register of language and from within a frame of reference that is essentially back to front on this and many other issues: the victims of outrageous Israeli aggression and illegality are described as terrorists for resisting while the most outrageous pronouncements and behaviours are 'nuanced' into an Orwellian inversion of meaning and truth – Matt Cooper-style. Unprovoked aggression is redefined as defensive action to protect ‘economic interests’ above all.
GA: As I mentioned before, Haim Saban states that influence is achieved through ‘political funding, media and think tanks’. You are concerned with media and ideology here. There is no doubt that in the English speaking empire we are facing a battle against a foreign ideology that was very successful in defining our needs, desires and notion of justice. It was also very successful in setting our notion of fear and terror. The neo-cons that were spreading the deceitful ideology of ‘moral interventionism’ via politics and media were largely Zionists with leftist roots. It is actually this ideology that signifies the horrifying shift of Zionism from the limited discourse of ‘promised land’ into global politics - namely ‘promised planet’.
You may want to ask yourself why their ideology was successful for a while, why did we let these people drag us into an illegal war and make us complicit in the murder of more than one million Iraqis. You may want to ask yourself how did the Wolfowitz Doctrine make it into American policy? I guess that ‘moral interventionism’ and ‘war against terror’ look nice on paper. It means that ‘we’ are kosher and the ‘other’ is evil. It took the West and humanity some time to realise that, in fact, we were serving an evil ideology and Zionist interests. It may also take us some time to realise that it is us who have become the darkest force around.
MC: Would you agree, that the complicit mainstream media narrative – which, as Chomsky has so clearly identified always runs in tandem with powerful economic perspectives - has been more powerful on Israel's behalf than ten AIPACs could ever have been?
GA: Not at all because as Saban makes it plainly clear, there is a continuum between the fund raiser, the think tank and the media. In terms of British politics there is an obvious ideological continuum between the Political Friend of Israel (Lord cash machine Levy) the advocates for the war within the media (Aaronovitch, Cohen) and the British neo-con think tank ( Euston Manifesto ).
MC: One of the major reasons the mainstream orthodoxy is being challenged now is because of the advent of the far more democratic, alternative media?
GA: I don’t think so. It is challenged because there is a growing fatigue for Zionist politics, a growing realisation that tribal politics left a deadly stain on British and American foreign affairs. Also, following the second Lebanon war, the Gaza massacre and the latest assault on the Mavi Marmara, there is a greater realisation that Israel is a murderous state driven by morbid enthusiasm. But there is another reason that must be stated. For very many years, the Left blocked any attempt of elaboration on global Zionism and Jewish power. As it happens, aside from the recent weakening of the Zionist cause, the Left lost power within the solidarity discourse. To a certain extent the two political phenomena are linked. As we know, The Left has unfortunately failed to garner the emerging power of Islam and its immense power within the discourse of liberation.
As a result, the Left has been left behind. It is pretty much irrelevant to the discourse. For the Left to bounce back it must learn to think ethically and make a political bond with Islamic movements and migrant communities in the West.
MC: There are a number of things in what you are saying that I would challenge. Firstly, and ironically, somewhat like the Zionists themselves, you place them front and centre of everything that is happening. To disregard the motives and influence of the many other non-Zionist groups who are equally involved with them is similar to the disregard the Zionists show for others.
GA: There is actually again a continuum that you fail to detect between the sense of chosensess that is inherent to Zionism and any other Jewish political discourse and the Zionist political practice which is relentlessly exercised around the world. Zionists do not try to control everything, I guess that they do not care much about tobacco for the time being (this is probably why we cannot smoke freely anymore) but they do care about Western foreign affairs and would use any possible means to shape them. Look at the pressure Zionist groups mount on the American administration with regard to Turkey, Iran, sanctions, attacking the Mavi Marmara and so on.
MC: Not to defend what the US/UK/EU are doing, but to define their role as you do is almost to infantilise them - it is seriously to underestimate how powerful, dangerous and manipulative they are in their own right.
GA: To be honest, they are not as clever as people seem to think.
MC: Nobody sensible thinks they are being clever about any of this, but that they are capable of uncontrolled greed backed up with equally uncontrolled violence.
GA: Actually Israeli violence is far from being ‘uncontrolled’. It is deadly and premeditated. This is the true notion of Israel’s power of deterrence. Back to your question. In fact they do it all in the open. David Miliband, who is also listed as an Israeli propaganda author, was acting against British universal jurisdiction just to allow Israeli war criminals to visit the UK. How do you explain it? Was it very clever of him? Was it very clever of David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen to advocate an illegal war while being also Jewish Chronicle (a UK Zionist outlet) writers? Was it a clever move to support a war that led to 1.5 million dead Iraqis? Is it very clever of Haim Saban to tell the American people ‘we the Jews influence your life through political funding, media, and think tanks’? The answer is no, it is not clever at all. It is an infantile arrogance that is inherent to the chauvinist identity. The success of the Zionist agenda so far has a lot to do with the fact that they operate within tolerant discourses and people like yourself and Chomsky would go out of your way to defend them with foggy ideology. Unfortunately, this ideology doesn’t hold water anymore. As you may know Chomsky is totally discredited. His lame argument against Walt and Mearsheimer, which is similar to yours, puts a big question mark over his entire life time project. This may be a shame but the good news is that the resentment towards Zionism, Israel and relentless Jewish lobbying is becoming a mass phenomenon. It exceeds the political discourse. It is a spirit, it is public and it is refreshing. This may be good news because we always wanted to be there, the only concern is that no one really controls it anymore.
MC: Where have these questions implied a defense of Zionists or Zionism? Merely to say that they are not alone in this or that they do not control what is happening in the Middle East on their own is in no way a defense either of their ideology or of their actions.
GA: To start with it is not a personal debate but and ideological one. However, I guess that failing to confront extensive Jewish lobbying is to provide Zionism with a body shield. You are talking about other American interests. What is so unique about AIPAC, David Miliband and CFI is the fact that right out in the open they promote the interests of a foreign government. Would a Muslim lobby get away with it? Could Iran or Pakistan get away with it? Would Chomsky rush to defend them as well? I really wonder.
MC: Chomsky has been a forthright critic of Israel's - was only recently prevented by the Israeli government from attending an engagement. He has made some puzzling statements but again, I think you ignore overwhelming evidence that contradicts what you say about him.
GA: I have a lot of respect for what Chomsky did along the years. However, as American activist Jeff Blankfort pointed out recently, Chomsky has been dismissing the power of the pro-Israel lobby. He opposed the BDS movement and made some efforts to “dissuade people from using the term ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel's control over Palestinian society”. Chomsky also opposes the Palestinian right of return and a one-state solution. Chomsky is in fact a liberal Zionist as well as a kibbutz enthusiast. This is enough to explain why his voice has been pushed to the margin within the Palestinian solidarity discourse. Considering his contribution on other fields of thought, it is a shame indeed.
MC: There is a lot that could and should be said in response to that but this discussion is not about Chomsky. AIPAC may be feted in Washington and London for now but it will go the way of all those who collaborate with the US in due course. As has been noted many times, US foreign policy makers think nothing of caricaturing former friends as villains when they stop being useful. The Israel-as-lone-defender-of-democracy-in- the-Middle-East myth has been forcefully sold for a long time, it's true, but seldom if ever have the economic and strategic spoils of war been so great.
GA: Why was it useful? Is it because it is true? Not really. Israel has never been a democracy - it is a racially exclusive society that managed to set up a ‘Jews only democracy’. Americans are clever enough to understand it. They went through a civil rights struggle not that long ago and in fact they still do. The deceitful image of Jewish democracy was there to create a phantasmic continuum between the USA and the Jewish State. It is obviously far more complicated to explain to the masses how exactly supporting a hawkish Jewish state in a sea of oil would make oil cheaper.
MC: Isn’t your fundamental mistake in this respect that you are confusing or ignoring much of the quite independent and equally violent avarice of the other vested interests with the extent of AIPAC’s influence, which everyone knows is undoubtedly strong.
GA: With due respect and without claiming to be free of errors, I do not think that you are pointing to any mistake in my reading of the situation. If anything, all I can see is you being reluctant to admit that we had been pulled by an extensive institutional and very dangerous lobby for more than a while. In fact, I know that you and others are holding this position because you want to believe that you are true humanists. I respect it. Indeed one of the most crucial questions we have to confront here is how to say what we think about Israel and its Jewish lobbies and still be humanists. I believe that the answer is to admit that we are confronted with an ideology that dismisses our notion of humanism, kindness and compassion. To a certain degree we are confronted here with a deep challenge: ‘how shall we perform kindness to the unkind.
This is why it is so important for me to maintain that the massacre on the Mavi Marmara was no less than killing Christ again. Regardless of the historicity of Jesus and regardless of the fact that there is NO continuum between the ancient Israelites and the contemporary Israelis, we see here a broad daylight assault on goodness and kindness. This deadly attempt was supported by the Israeli people, it was committed by their popular army and it is still supported by world Jewry except some sporadic Jews such as the Torah Jews who oppose it and obviously are highly respected for it. How do we confront it? Call for what it is. This must be our approach because as far as I can see, the Israelis and their lobbyists interpret your silence or reluctance to use the right language as weakness. If we want to help Israelis we may as well make it clear to them that we actually see through them.
MC: It is important to understand Zionist ideology and to challenge and expose what is inhumane in it. Mainstream western media has been criminally complicit in its refusal to do that. But if the Zionists never existed, the US and its EU allies would be in the Middle East right now, or at some other time, doing exactly what they are doing - as they have done for centuries in many other parts of the world that the Zionists had nothing to do with. Also there are many Jewish people in Israel who have been courageously protesting the treatment of the Palestinians by their own government for a long time and who were very vocal after the Mavi Marmara.
GA: “Many” is just slightly over the top. A Palestinian spokeswomen in London was asked in the late 1990’s what she thought of all those ‘good Jews’, those who support the Palestinians. Her answer was shockingly simple yet revealing. She said, “I admire all these beautiful and kind people, all fifteen of them”. In fact I follow their discourse and I cannot count more than eight of them. I am far from being impressed by the ‘Jews for this’ and ‘Jews for that’. I regard it as a Zionist fig leaf operation. Especially when it comes from Marxist Jews. If they are indeed Marxist, why don’t they just join the working class and fight Zionism along side the rest of us?
I will now go back to your question. What would have happened if Israel didn’t exist? Since we are dealing here with a hypothetical assumption you may have to agree that USA/UK/EU could have also used very different tactics. Britain and America in the past used diplomacy also. If you read the history of Zionism, from the very beginning Herzl was capitalizing on super- power interests in the region. This is even before oil was an issue. So you can equally argue that the way things evolved was inevitable due to the nature of Zionist political philosophy of bonding with influential powers. Israel Shahak would argue that this is the heritage of the Talmud. I argue that this is the exact meaning of the Biblical Story of Esther. In my paper From Purim to AIPAC I explore the continuum between the Bible and contemporary Jewish political lobbying.
MC: At the crudest level of all, Israel may have 500 nukes courtesy of the US, but the US arsenal and its overall military capability is many multiples of Israel’s. No contest.
GA: This is pretty irrelevant, I am afraid. America is or at least was a super power. It was engaged in a cold war. This may explain rather than justify why it has so many bombs. However Israel engaged in a territorial battle with its so called ‘enemies’. One must wonder why it needs atomic bombs at all. If Israel cares about Sderot and Ashkelon as much as it says, it would never nuke Gaza. The answer is pretty devastating. Israel possesses all those bombs because it insists on keeping the rest of the world in a constant threat. In case anyone fails to see it, the rest of the world is what we call humanity. And this is the crux of the matter. We are dealing here with a lethal collective that is driven by deadly psychosis against humanity and humanism.
MC: The Zionists have no monopoly on deadly psychosis towards other groups of people. The native American Indians have told the world a thing or two about the centuries-long psychosis of the Christian settlers there - the misery that led to mass suicides among many other horrors. It's surely fundamentally anti humanist – racist/discriminatory even - to single any one group of people out as being uniquely evil?
GA: To start with we both agree that the Zionists didn’t invent evil. In fact Zionism is an attempt to exercise some colonial barbarism in a world that has moved on from that kind of political philosophy. In short Zionists are guilty of committing colonial crimes 100 years too late. However, you make one crucial mistake here. You say “It's surely fundamentally anti humanist to single any one group of people out as being uniquely evil.” You maybe right, but Zionism is not at all a group of people, it is actually an ideology. In fact it is a racist, anti humanist ideology that must be confronted. Similarly, those who follow this ideology are succumbing to an inhuman philosophy and must be exposed, named and shamed. As you will notice in my writing, I never criticize Jews as Jews or Judaism as a religion. I concentrate on Jewish ideology, namely Jewishness that has a very particular supremacist interpretation of the Judaic core. In my writing I have managed to trace Jewishness in every modern Jewish political setting whether it is right wing Zionism, the pseudo- socialist Bund or the radical Matzpen. However, I must mention that Torah Jews are free of that fault. They draw their inspiration from the Torah and present a very unique form of tribal humanism.
MC: You say the left has failed to embrace the 'emerging power of Islam'. Left wing groups within Islam itself do not seem to be meeting with a good reception by and large.
GA: I don’t understand what you mean by Left groups within Islam. Islam is in itself a philosophy that promotes equality; it doesn’t need Left ideology and cannot integrate such an atheist precept. I guess that what you are referring to is Left groups within the Arab or Muslim world. Indeed, the entire left philosophy is Euro-centric and related to the industrial revolution. These ideas are completely irrelevant to the Near East and its understanding of struggle for liberation.
MC: Outside of Islam, the left can only offer solidarity and encouragement.
GA: I guess that what you are taking about is producing badges, scarves and caps with Palestinian flags. This is indeed nice. I always quote Lacan in that reference. Lacan says that making love is in practice making love to yourself through the other. In that sense, the Left’s notion of solidarity is in practice ‘making love to yourself at the expense of the oppressed’. I am not impressed with this concept at all.
MC: That may be true of certain types of activism but it is unfair to caricature much Left solidarity with the Palestinians like that. The Freedom Flotilla was about a lot more than producing badges and scarves. There are many journalists and activists who have made serious and effective efforts to support the Palestinians from within the left – some who have even given their lives to keeping up vital communication. And besides, the badges and scarves have served a purpose too by making sure we are not allowed to forget.
GA: As it happens I was in Athens and in Nicosia when the Flotilla left. I was working closely with the Freedom Mission, I gave talks and interviews. I was also in touch with activists in Istanbul. I can tell you that the Freedom Mission to Gaza is indeed a very refreshing move within the solidarity movement. The so-called Leftists within this movement certainly are not frightened by Islam or Hamas. They certainly respect the Palestinian democratic choice. I admire them for that and wish I could have been with them on board.
MC: To return to the Left and Islam, however justified Iran may be to perceive Israel as the real Middle Eastern threat; trade unionists are having a pretty hard time in Iran right now, for example. What is it that you think the left can or should be doing?
GA: To start with I do not talk about the Left in Iran, Iraq or Palestine. I am talking about the Left here, in Europe. The first thing to do is to accept the notion of otherness. For instance: to stand up for Hamas as a democratically elected body; to stand up for Hezbullah which presents Israel with fierce resistance; to support an Iranian nuclear project as a necessary defensive means; to support the Muslim right to love their Allah and to fight for freedom in his name. These things are rather basic and elementary. The left must also realise that Muslim migrant communities in the West are the first sufferers of cultural, social, racial and political oppression. If the Left wants to maintain ideological and ethical relevance it must join forces with these ethnic groups. It is also possible that the Western Left has already missed the train; this would mean that it belongs to history.
MC: I really cannot agree with some of what you say here. The Left is generally very aware of the need to respect cultural differences in Islam and has done more than any political grouping on either the centre or right to forge links and to challenge the discrimination suffered by migrant groups. As with Christianity, Judaism and other religions Islam has its faults.
GA: If this is the case, how do you explain the fact that the Left was so slow to accept Hamas? How many leftists support the Iraqi resistance? And what about the Taliban? Do you support any of those? I cannot agree with your statement about Islam and other religions.. You are here employing a typical liberal supremacist approach. You set yourself in an imaginary elitist position above and beyond your subject of criticism. If you want to criticize a body of thought you can only do it by means of deconstruction, by tracing inconsistency within. In order to do it you must first achieve a reasonable familiarity. This is by the way, what I try to do with Zionism and Jewish identity. I am obviously familiar enough to deconstruct different form of Jewish discourses. I am less familiar with the Judaic discourse and leave it out.
MC: There is nothing supremacist in the question – I explicitly say that all religions have their faults – but let me be clearer: women and homosexuals have been oppressed by most if not all religions to a greater or lesser extent. To criticize Islam for the same oppression in no way implies either that the problem is unique to it or that matters are perfect elsewhere.
GA: Miriam you are implying here that while Christianity and Jewish identity ‘moved on’, Islam was ‘left behind’. To be honest with you, I must admit that the dichotomy between the ‘Progressive’ and the ‘Reactionary’ is another symptom of Judaic binary opposition within the left discourse. Progressiveness is just another word for Choseness.
MC: Oppression is oppression the same as occupation is occupation.
GA: I obviously do not agree. Oppression is very complicated to define. Occupation, on the other hand, can be defined in positive terms such as territorial and legal.
MC: There is still much oppression of women and of homosexuals which cannot be explained away as mere cultural difference. Criticisng these things should not be a cultural taboo any more than criticising Zionism should be an anti-Semitic taboo.
GA: Sorry, I do not agree with you at all. There is a clear differentiation between the liberal Western discourse that celebrates individualism and the Eastern tribal discourse that values family, the community and culture. You tend to believe that you uphold some higher ethical system that allows you to pass judgment on other cultural assets that are foreign to you. You are obviously not alone. This is the nature of popular culture within the post Enlightenment discourse. I would argue instead that true tolerance is the capacity to accept even when you fail to understand. I myself obviously treat women and gays with total respect and fight for their equality within my environment. However, rather than criticising certain Islamic cultures I try to grasp its political and religious attitude towards different groups. I suggest everyone who claims to care about solidarity should do the same.
But before we move on, please let me address your last point.
As long as you argue that ‘X attitude towards Y is oppressive from a liberal perspective’, you may be correct, your argument could be valid and consistent. However, once you claim that ‘X attitude towards Y is oppressive categorically’ you produce an argument that is no different from a Neocon or moral interventionist. You basically claim to be better and more ethical than X.
These Issues are not simple. I can provide a solution but I guess that I have managed to formulate the complexity.
MC: How then is this different to your intolerance for what Zionists too would argue is their culture and belief in choseness and all that that has led to?
GA: This is very simple indeed. Zionist crimes are committed on the expense of others.
MC: You say you are a humanist. There is no humanist argument to justify the mutilation of girls’ genitalia and the lifelong misery that it causes to women.
GA: How do you know? Can’t you see that in order to make such a statement valid you have to set yourself beyond and above the human discourse? However, I obviously understand your point of view from a Western perspective. I am very suspicious of any call for moral interventionism. And just let me correct you. I do not carry the humanist flag. I am looking for the notion of humanism. As far as I can tell it is a dynamic notion. Like ethics it must be reshaped and revised all the time.
MC: I realise that not all Muslims endorse FGM. But these things are as sick as each other. Again, there are comparable evils in most if not all religions, societies and cultures – this is not to single Islam out.
GA: I am happy that you mentioned it because as far as I am aware, and I am not exactly an expert on the subject, FGM is not at all prescribed by Islam. However, just to mention that I do not remember coming across Left or Liberal criticism of similar Jewish ancient blood ritual that involves blood sucking and chopping of male infant sexual organ (Brit Mila). As it happens Jewish parents, both secular religious let a Rabbi circumcise and suck the blood of their sons when they are just 8 days old. How do you explain the fact that such a barbarian ritual takes place in our midst? Why doesn’t it provoke outrage? Why you yourself do not protest against it?
MC: It is not possible for a genuine humanist to look the other way wherever inhumanity is occurring, whoever is responsible for it. You are applying a double standard in this, I think. You defend FGM on cultural grounds but describe a comparable Jewish ritual as barbaric.
GA: It is rather obvious that when I refer to a Jewish blood ritual, I am criticising it from a western point of view by means of deconstruction. I live in the West, I tend to understand western ideology and culture and I am capable of pointing to a clear discrepancy between the human rights of a child and blood ritual. However, I am far less convinced that Western liberals possess the capacity to pass an ethical judgment regarding cultures that are remote to Western values and way of life. And yet one question remains – why is the liberal mind so concerned with FGM that is carried out in Africa, and not all troubled by a similar Jewish blood ritual that is practiced in our midst.
MC: To move on to the next question, however. That Muslims – or anyone anywhere - should be free to fight for freedom from violent invasion and occupation is axiomatic for most people, though not for pacifists of course. Invoking God for the purpose has never been anything other than a disaster, has it?
GA: Really? Here is where you tend to express your intolerance towards other’s belief. The greatest symphonies and architecture were actually created in the context of a dialogue with God. Islamic resistance that defeats Israel and Western imperialism whether it is in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza or South Lebanon is inspired by Allah. Why are you so disrespectful to God? In fact, I believe that you are failing to detect the importance of Islam within the context of Arabic and international resistance. It is peculiar but tragically rather common amongst leftists. As I said earlier on, this explains why left lost its relevance.
MC: There are a lot of unfounded assumptions in what you say but we will have to leave it there. This has been an interesting debate. We will have to agree to differ on a number of things. Thank you for the conversation.
GA: I too enjoyed it enormously and I really hope that the difference between us will lead to a further debate and many more realizations.
Gilad Atzmon (Hebrew: גלעד עצמון, born June 9, 1963) is a jazz musician, author and anti-Zionist activist who was born in Israel and currently lives in London.
"Anti-Semite is an empty signifier, no one actually can be an Anti-Semite and this includes me of course. In short, you are either a racist - which I am not - or have an ideological disagreement with Zionism... which I have."He was born a secular Israeli Jew in Tel Aviv, and trained at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. His service in the Israeli military convinced him Israel had become a militarized state controlled by religious extremists. In 1994, Atzmon emigrated from Israel to London, where he studied philosophy. Atzmon is an anti-Zionist who critiques Jewish identity issues and supports the Palestinian Right of Return as well as the establishment of a single state in Israel/Palestine. He is a signatory to the "Palestinians are the Priority Petition" which states “full and unconditional support of the Palestinian people is a condition sine qua non for activists to adopt.
by Gilad Atzmon Atzmon tries to lift the Palestinian Discourse where Wittgenstein left it… 1 “What can be said at all can be said...
by Gilad Atzmon Once again America has proven that it can bring a change about. In fact, I would not count on Obama himself to bring a real...
by Gilad Atzmon Waltz With Bashir is a breath-taking new Israeli film, an animated documentary directed by Ari Folman. In ...
by Gilad Atzmon In spite of the fact that I monitor Israeli press and Jewish activism on a daily basis, I must admit that almost once a day I...
by Gilad Atzmon Recently I have been corresponding with Sid Shniad (1), a founding member of Canadian Independent Jewish Voice (Canadian IJV) (2)....
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