Politics of Jewish identity By NEIL BERRY

Gilad Atzmon probes the dilemmas Zionism has created for its adherents


A fervent friend of the State of Israel, Britain's Education Secretary Michael Gove last week wrote to primary schools in the north London boroughs of Haringey and Islington strongly urging them not to participate in human rights workshops that were to form part of the first Tottenham Palestine Literary Festival.

Reacting to concerns raised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Gove evidently concluded that participants in the festival, organized by the Haringey branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, were liable to subject children to anti-Israel propaganda. That the festival's participants included the Jewish fugitive from Nazi Germany, Hanna Braun, and the respected British Jewish poet and broadcaster, Michael Rosen, apparently weighed with him not at all. 

Not that Zionists are ever likely to view the Palestine Solidarity Campaign with equanimity, no matter how many Jews join its ranks or how impressive their moral credentials might appear. Indeed, in Zionist eyes, Jews who support to it are merely providing evidence that they belong to that basest of categories, the “self-hating Jew.”  

What would have been the alarm of the Board of Deputies if the participants in the Tottenham Palestine Literary Festival had included Gilad Atzmon, the expatriate Israeli jazz musician and writer who positively flaunts his identity as a self-hating Jew and who has just published a powerful new book, The Wandering Who?, which anatomizes attitudes of Jews toward themselves and their fellow human beings.

Given his pariah status in British Jewish circles, it was predictable that the leading organ of British Zionism, the weekly paper, the Jewish Chronicle, would be less than welcoming toward Atzmon's latest polemic. Stressing its author's notoriety, the paper was quick to note that his book has been endorsed by the US political scientist John Mearsheimer, himself a prominent figure in Zionist demonology on account of his co-authorship (with Stephen Walt) of the book, The Israel Lobby, which became a best-seller in the US in 2007. Without pausing to consider the rationale for his endorsement, the Chronicle insinuated that Mearsheimer was manifesting afresh his own anti-Semitism.

If all this is worth spelling out, it is because Michael Gove's intervention over Tottenham's Palestine Literary Festival and the Jewish Chronicle's smear tactics with regard to Atzmon and Mearsheimer are indicative of the belligerently unilateralist stance that is increasingly being struck by the Zionist establishment. Sparing themselves the effort of actually engaging with Israel's critics, Zionists are simply branding them peddlers of poison, Jew-hating extremists civilized opinion cannot begin to countenance.

Subtitled A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, Atzmon's book probes the dilemmas Zionism has implanted in Jewish minds, with consequences injurious to Jews and non-Jews alike. Brought up to believe that Palestinians willingly left their homes when Israel was created in 1948, Atzmon evokes his own inner conflicts, his costly personal struggle to slough off his Zionist conditioning. Imbued with the Zionist faith that he belonged to the chosen race, he undertook military service in the Israeli Defense Force but was ultimately appalled to discover that he was involved in the merciless subjugation of Arab people. What liberated him from Zionism was music, his emergence as a jazz musician with human sympathies that far transcended his own tribe.

Atzmon's argument is that Jewish tribalism and Judaism's boasted concern with universal justice are irreconcilable; he is scathing about Jews — he instances “Jewish socialists” — who even when identifying with an inclusive cosmopolitan movement feel impelled to proclaim their moral and racial separateness. What has made him particularly reviled is his determination to lay bare the geopolitical ramifications of the vexed question of Jewish identity. He regards Zionism as a unique global movement founded on a spurious sense of racial solidarity among Jews who, despite being scattered across the world, obsessively prioritize their Jewishness and get drawn into an “obscure and dangerous ethical fellowship.’ Echoing Mearsheimer and Walt, he maintains that US foreign policy has been largely dictated by diaspora Zionists preoccupied with the security not of the US but of Israel.


Washington Zionists, he contends, advocated an aggressive US foreign policy in Muslim lands that may have benefited Israel but that has brought financial ruin to the nation whose interests they purport to serve. John Mearsheimer endorsed Atzmon's book because he shares its author's sense that world Zionism has exploited the identity crisis besetting many Western Jews at a time when secularism and assimilation are eroding old Jewish communities. From this point of view, strident championship of Israel and the quasi-religious cult of the Nazi Holocaust can be seen as cynical attempts by Zionism to turn to advantage Jewish anxieties about the threat of collective extinction. The trouble is that far from being a panacea for Jewish identity problems this concerted tribalism is serving only to exacerbate them — even as it contributes hugely to the perpetuation of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and to endless regional instability in the Middle East.

Relishing his reputation as a firebrand, Atzmon has made little effort to endear himself to bien pensant opinion, Jewish or otherwise. Yet fair-minded readers are bound to acknowledge that, for all its palpable eagerness to outrage conventional pieties, The Wandering Who? raises questions of signal importance. As it happens, in the very month that his book was published, the Jewish Chronicle carried a voluminous round-table discussion involving prominent British Jews and much concerned with the politics of Jewish identity. Touching upon the ethical and emotional challenges that Israel, a state that purports to act in the name of all Jews, poses for the Jewish diaspora, it was a discussion which will have been read by few outside Jewish circles yet which cried out for a wider audience. 

Gilad Atzmon is often accused of reviving old anti-Semitic canards about international Jewish conspiracies. In truth, if there is a Jewish conspiracy, it is the conspiracy of silence the Zionist establishment seeks to enforce regarding Jewish issues that affect everyone.

 You can now order the book on Amazon.com  or Amazon.co.uk