Pro-Palestinian friends had repeatedly warned me: Gilad Atzmon is anti-Semitic, he is bad for the Palestinian cause, he may even work for Israel. I must have a contrarian turn of mind, because that kind of talk never stopped me from regularly reading his blog (quite the opposite) with a mixture of fascination and amusement. It struck me that an Israeli Jew living in the U.K., a voluntary exile, who is accused of anti-Semitism, among others by pro-Palestinian Jews and Palestinian militants, and whose conferences draw protesting demonstrations from “anti-racist” organizations, was at the very least an interesting curiosity. Moreover, having myself “escaped” from the religion in which I was forced to grow up (Catholicism), I have an instinctive sympathy for all those who break, often brutally, with the myths and constraints of their childhood. Atzmon’s themes, the politics of identity and memory, are at the very heart of our contemporary social debates. It ought to be possible to listen to a truly politically incorrect viewpoint on these issues, that of someone who defines himself as a “proud self-hating Jew.”
But coming from a non-Jew like me, isn’t there something suspect, or downright unhealthy, in such an interest? When Atzmon’s editor asked me to write the preface to the French edition of The Wandering Who?, I told myself that this would be an opportunity to answer that question and, above all, to explain why Atzmon should be heard and discussed.
It is ever so easy to “demonstrate” the alleged anti-Semitism of Atzmon. Frequently, including at the very start of his book, Atzmon makes a distinction between three meanings of the word “Jewish.” It can apply to persons who adhere to the Jewish religion, with whom he has no quarrel; to people of Jewish origin, with whom he has also no problem; and, finally, to what he calls the third category, that is, those who, without being particularly religious, constantly stress their Jewish “identity” and set it before and above their simple membership in the human race. It suffices thereupon to interpret in the first sense (people of Jewish origin) the word “Jewish” when Atzmon uses it in the third sense, in a style that is often extremely polemical, to “prove” that he is anti-Semitic.
However, when a French essayist, Bernard-Henri Lévy, uses all his immense influence to push his country into a war against Libya and then declares afterward that he did so “as a Jew” and “faithful” to his name – which is not exactly a rational argument, but are wars ever waged for rational reasons? – people who are not of Jewish origin should at least be allowed to wonder about that Jewish identity in whose name they are dragged into a war which, whatever one may think about it, was clearly not a war of self-defense for France.
Is it legitimate to criticize Jews in the sense of Atzmon’s third category? To start with, it is obvious that each individual has a perfect right to “feel” a sense of belonging to a group of which he or she is proud, or which he or she thinks contributes something important to the idea the person has of himself or herself, whether Jewish, Breton, French, Catholic, Black, Muslim, etc. Since all these identities stem from the hazards of birth, such feelings of pride are irrational, but who would try to force human beings to be rational?
The problem arises when these identities acquire a privileged political status, exactly as when religions acquire such a status. When a community, grouped around its “identity,” demands certain rights – or compensations, or privileges – others who do not share that identity should be allowed to challenge the justification of those claims. Just as when a religion seeks to impose its own morality on society as a whole. Identity politics is to be found among blacks, Muslims, women, etc. One may even suggest that politics today is more and more reduced to a conflict between identities, socioeconomic questions having been relegated to the management of nonelected experts. But there is also a Jewish identity politics, whose implications go far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and which affects, among other things, freedom of expression or relations with Muslims.
But whereas identity demands, especially by Muslims, are regularly attacked in public, the great merit of Atzmon is to recognize the existence of Jewish identity politics and to criticize it – something practically nobody else dares to do.
The way to put an end to identity politics would no doubt be to extend the concept of secularism to the separation of identity from the state, as well as the separation of sacred things, such as memory, from the state and even from politics. Each individual should be able to define the group to which he or she belongs and the events considered important or sacred in history. But the state and all its public institutions, such as schools and universities, should be strictly neutral in regard to these choices. In a secular democracy, politics should deal with the collective management of the civitas, with laws and regulations, with social and economic measures, but not with what citizens should think (unless the idea is to move toward what everyone claims to disapprove of, that is, totalitarianism). In a period marked by proliferation of memorial laws, when individuals are dragged into court for insults or offenses against some group in particular, or for denying certain historical facts, and when a clumsy expression can let loose a deluge of protests usually followed by public apologies (in other periods, they were called “confessions” or “self-criticisms”), the least one can say is that such a modest proposal risks appearing as revolutionary as well as utopian.
But if everyone should be able to enjoy his or her favorite identity, it should also be possible for persons who have been raised in a given identity or religion to break with it, to rebel against it, and to criticize it, so that to speak “from inside.” There is no lack of writers of Catholic, Muslim, French, German origin, among others, who become hypercritical of the culture they were born into. Generally, they are considered free thinkers. But not when they are of Jewish origin like Atzmon. No doubt that he is obsessed by Jewish identity and his criticism of it; he is often excessive, provocative, even irritating. But on what basis is it unacceptable for a Jew to be hypercritical of his culture, and why can’t he be excessive, provocative, irritating? I know from personal experience that Atzmon is far from being unique among Jews, even if he is rare in saying publicly what he thinks. Isn’t it a subtle form of anti-Semitism to prohibit a Jew from rebelling against his origins, when that type of rebellion is accepted and even respected in the case of someone of another origin?
One of the most important questions raised by Atzmon’s writings is whether what he says is good or bad for the Palestinians (which is separate from the question of whether what he says is true or false). A sizable fraction of the Palestine solidarity movement seems to think that it is bad and tries to distance itself as far as possible from this “dubious character.” In my opinion, this is a huge mistake, which reflects a more basic error. This movement often gives the impression that its “solidarity” with Palestine takes place above all over there and requires more and more missions, trips, dialogues, reports, and even sometimes “peace processes.” But the plain facts of the matter are that the Israelis do not want to make the concessions that would be needed to live in peace and that a main reason for that attitude is that they think they can enjoy Western support ad vitam aeternam. Therefore, it is precisely this support that the solidarity movement should attack as its priority. Another frequent error is to think that this support is due to economic or strategic considerations. But, at least today, Israel is of no use to Western interests. It turns the Muslim world against us, doesn’t bring in a single drop of oil, and pushes the United States into a war with Iran that the Americans clearly don’t want. The reasons for this support are obvious enough: constant pressure from Zionist organizations on intellectuals, journalists and politicians by endlessly manipulating the accusation of anti-Semitism and the climate of guilt and repentance (for the Holocaust) kept on artificial life support, in large part by those same organizations. As a result, the main task of the Palestine solidarity movement should be to allow free speech about Palestine, but also to denounce the pressure and intimidation by various lobbies. Which is what Atzmon does. Far from rejecting him, the solidarity movement should make it a priority to defend the possibility of reading and listening to him, even if one is not in total agreement with what he says.
By his all-out attack on Jewish “tribalism,” Atzmon’s essential contribution to solidarity with Palestine is to help non-Jews realize that they are not always in the wrong when conflicts with Jewish organizations arise. The day when non-Jews free themselves from the mixture of fear and internalization of guilt that currently paralyses them, unconditional support for Israel will collapse.
However, if it is normal and even noble for Atzmon to give priority to attacking the identity of his origins, he seems to overrate the particularity of its characteristics. Feelings of superiority and the will to dominate exist in many peoples and groups, throughout history. As the American pacifist A.J. Muste remarked, the problem of all wars is the winner: victory has taught him that violence pays. One generally finds more human feelings among the defeated – the Germans and Japanese after 1945, or the French after the loss of their colonial empire. But Israel’s military superiority – as well as the impunity, which certain representatives of the Jewish community assume they have when they defame whomever they please – only reinforces the attitudes denounced by Atzmon, but which are not necessarily specifically “Jewish.” They are, unfortunately, the universal human traits of people who feel themselves in a position of strength. Actually, the greatest service that non-Jews could perform for the Jewish community would be to resist pressures instead of giving in, as they usually do.
Finally, what about authentic anti-Semitism? Doesn’t what Atzmon (or I) say encourage it, and isn’t it necessary to combat that evil? Before answering, let’s see what that “combat” means in practice. In France, there is a law against questioning the existence of facts relating to the persecution of the Jews during the Second World War (but not of facts relating to any other historical event). People are prosecuted for calling for boycott of Israel (but not of any other country). Shows or writings which hurt the feelings of all sorts of people are countless, and it is banal to insult things that are sacred to Muslims or Christians, but only those considered anti-Semitic are regularly canceled. It is risky to mention publicly the pro-Israeli lobby. During a French radio broadcast on that subject, John Mearsheimer recalled that the late historian Tony Judt had warned him that France would be the hardest country for him to speak in, which at first Mearsheimer didn’t believe but later found out was true.
It seems to me that if one is democratic, as most claim to be, the first thing to do is to call for equality, in principle, for all human beings, at least concerning the right to express oneself. But that is not the case concerning Israel and organized Jewish communities. It is impossible to combat the division of society into rival communities if there is no such equality.
In regard to accusations of anti-Semitism, a democratic approach should be based on three principles:
The term “anti-Semitism” should be defined clearly enough to allow for criticism. For example, if what is meant by anti-Semitic is to “defend the freedom of expression for Holocaust revisionists,” or to “challenge Israel’s right to exist” (as a Jewish state, denying the right of return of Palestinians), it should be replied that the issue is not anti-Semitism but freedom of speech or international law.
- Accusations should be based on what was actually written and not on rumors or interpretations.
- Persons accused should be allowed to defend themselves, which is particularly difficult before the court of public opinion, unless one manages to cultivate a healthy skepticism as to that sort of accusation, which Atzmon’s writings encourage.
That said, it is probable that genuine anti-Semitism (understood as general hostility toward persons of Jewish origin) is growing, and to a disturbing extent. But that rise of anti-Semitism is due primarily to the incredible arrogance of Israeli policy, to the behavior of its supporters in France, to their suicidal determination to impose on the French people both a policy that they don’t want and a de facto censorship which prevents them from protesting. The way “combating anti-Semitism” is actually carried out at present – even with the best intentions in the world – only provoked by any kind of censorship and, in this case, increases anti-Semitism. Really combating anti-Semitism requires giving up the way the “fight against anti-Semitism” is waged, through intimidation and censorship. Those who fail to understand that should reflect a bit more on the history of “real existing socialism” and of Catholicism in its heyday.
Counterpunch print edition.
Jean Bricmont teaches physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. This text is adapted from the preface to La parabole d’Esther (Editions Demi-Lune 2012), the French edition of Atzmon’s book, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics.