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Gilad Atzmon and the Problem of Jerks in your Movement

Alyssa Goldstein
March 18, 2012

[caption id=“attachment_9541” align=“alignleft” width=“300”] Gilad Atzmon[/caption]

by Alyssa Goldstein

A few days ago, the U.S. Palestinian Community network published a letter signed by a number of prominent Palestinian authors, intellectuals and activists (including Ali Abunimah, Nadia Hijab, and Omar Barghouti) calling for the disavowal of Gilad Atzmon for his anti-semitism. The letter states that

Atzmon’s politics rest on one main overriding assertion that serves as springboard for vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with his obsession with “Jewishness.” He claims that all Jewish politics is “tribal,” and essentially, Zionist. Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical “Jewish” one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, 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. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon’s argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist.

. . . We reaffirm that there is no room...for any attacks on our Jewish allies, Jews, or Judaism; nor denying the Holocaust; nor allying in any way shape or form with any conspiracy theories, far-right, orientalist, and racist arguments, associations and entities. Challenging Zionism, including the illegitimate power of institutions that support the oppression of Palestinians, and the illegitimate use of Jewish identities to protect and legitimize oppression, must never become an attack on Jewish identities, nor the demeaning and denial of Jewish histories in all their diversity.

Atzmon (who I hadn’t heard about much until recently) is an Israeli jazz musician who is known more for his critiques of Zionism and Judaism than his music. He’s said things like “I’m anti-Jewish, not anti-Jews” and “we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously,” and that Jews are inherently intolerant. His essay “On Anti-Semitism” claims that the Jews did indeed kill Jesus, and that there is no such thing as anti-Semitism in the world any more — only political reactions to Zionism. A follow-up statement, signed by even more people, has a long list of some of the terrible things Atzmon has said, including this one which I think that Jewish Currents readers would especially enjoy:

“Sadly, we have to admit that hate-ridden plunder of other people’s possessions made it into the Jewish political discourse both on the left and right. 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.”

Yeah, you damned Jewish reds, I don’t know how you managed to BE the ruling class and ROB the ruling class at the same time, but I guess that just goes to show how Jews are so crafty!

Now, Atzmon and his defenders have claimed that he’s been consistently taken out of context and that there’s nothing bigoted about his statements. Well, there is absolutely no context in which any of the above statements would ever be acceptable. I think that the people who drafted and signed these letters made the right choice--both morally and politically. This kind of choice is always a fraught one. All of us in activist communities will find ourselves in this situation at one time or another. I remember the time I had to go around campus taking down signs that another activist had posted that called West Bank settlements “Jew race colonies” — lest the backlash undo all the work the rest of us had been trying to accomplish. (To be clear, it is the phrase “Jew race” and not the word “colonies” which I objected to — “colony” is an accurate and acceptable term to describe Israeli settlements.)

Of course, there’s always the big questions: when do you decide to condemn someone working for the same cause as you because of their anti-semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism etc? Who gets to make those decisions? Now in the case of the anti-Zionist movement, you have people who are more clearly leaders than you do in say, the Occupy movement. However, even Abunimah and the other signatories to the statement don’t actually have the authority to kick Atzmon out of any movement (nor should they). They can only call on others not to give him a platform. The Occupy movement can arguably do even less about the guy who shows up in Zucotti park with a sign about Jewish bankers. They can send other people to stand next to the guy with other signs decrying him, but they certainly can’t make him leave the park.

In regards to the first question: I wish I could just leave it at “you know it when you see it” or provide some kind of easy formula that would always work, but unfortunately I can’t. And since I’m someone who tends to hold off on having an opinion until I can have a very strong one, so I’m just going to go ahead and say I’m leaving this open on purpose so we can all have a nice discussion in the comments section.

For what it’s worth (and here’s where I sound wishy-washy), I think it really depends on the context and on the intentions of the person. If they are someone who says oppressive things because they are unaware of it, and are apologetic rather than belligerent and defensive when this is pointed out to them, then that’s one story. However, if you end up using all of your activist energies doing damage control for someone who obviously does not care about the harm they do, then it’s probably worth it to distance yourself from that person. People who claim to be part of a movement for justice while crapping all over everyone else’s movements for justice are . . . well, I have a few choice words for them that I won’t publish.

So readers: have you ever been in a situation like this in your activist community? What did you do about it?