by Francis Clark-Lowes
On 7th February 2012 Ben Mullins, Brenda Brown, Francis Clark-Lowes, Penny and Jim Porter and Valerie Phillips (Phil) gathered in Brighton, UK, to discuss the Foreword and Chapter 1 of The Wandering Who? (Winchester and Washington DC, Zero Books, 2011).
According to your point of view, this work is either ‘a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world’ (John J. Meersheimer, review quoted at the beginning of the book) or ‘On Jewish identity Atzmon has nothing new to say’ (Tony Greenstein)
Before we started to look at the book, we had a discussion about how our meetings would be organised and what our purpose would be. There was some difference between those who simply wanted to study the text and those who believed our aim should be to draw conclusions about campaigning. We resolved this by agreeing that everyone should take what they wanted from the meetings, but that our focus should initially be on the ideas expressed in the book.
We will be meeting monthly for a year, looking at a couple of sections of the text each time, facilitated in rotation by one of the group. Participants are asked to read the relevant chapters for the next meeting in advance, so that we can concentrate on a couple of key elements at the meetings without them being taken out of context.
This time we started on the phrase: ‘… tribalism can never live in peace with humanism and universalism’ (p. 1). There was some discomfort with this polarity, dualism, dichotomy or whatever else you might call it. Are universalism and humanism as identities entirely credible, and is tribalism necessarily a bad thing? Phil had spent some time in Namibia where she had seen the beneficial side of tribalism. Indeed we wondered if Jewish tribalism was necessarily a problem? We would be returning to this subject as it was clearly central to Atzmon’s view of the world.
‘I didn’t see the Palestinians around me’ (p. 2). This referred to Atzmon’s upbringing in Israel, and led us to discuss the whole nature of exclusion as a psychological phenomenon. We wondered, for example, whether the colonial type of mentality is essentially different from, say, ignoring beggars in the streets of Brighton. Perhaps the question was one of degree rather than of categorical difference. We all agreed that it was particularly pronounced in Israel, and that for Zionism to work it needed to be.
‘… the people who excited me most were actually a bunch of black Americans – people who had nothing to do with the Zionist miracle or with my own chauvinist, exclusivist tribe’ (p. 3). We reflected on crossing cultural boundaries, what enabled it, and why it was rare, at least in the case of primary identities like nationality and religion. Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (London, Routledge, 1936) was mentioned because it dealt specifically with this subject. Most people, according to Mannheim, are trapped within the identity provided by their own cultural group. It is only people who somehow don’t fit who are able to cross cultural boundaries. As a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who settled in London, this was, of course, his own case.
‘… the binary opposition Jew/Nazi was in itself a result of my Judeo-centric indoctrination’ (p. 6). We were agreed that no group had a monopoly on good or evil, humanism or inhumanity.
‘I grasped that Israel and Zionism were just parts of the wider Jewish problem … hardly any commentator is courageous enough to wonder what the word Jew stands for … a taboo within Western discourse’ (p. 15). Received wisdom has it, of course, that a clear distinction can be made between the terms Zionist and Jew. This led us into a discussion about whether generalisations about groups, especially negative generalisations, can be justified. The view was expressed that generalisation is a crucial element of thinking.
Lastly we considered Atzmon’s division of Jews into three categories: religious Jews, accidental Jews (by birth) and ideological Jews, and his view that only the last was a problem. We wondered whether it was so easy to distinguish these categories, and whether categories one and two didn’t also lend their support, often unconsciously, to Jewish ideology.
Not surprisingly with a group of people keen to engage in discussion, we hadn’t covered the whole of the two sections of writing we set out to study. Nor did we reach any very firm conclusions; rather we raised a number of pertinent questions. In other words, Atzmon’s ideas were put on the table and looked at critically in preparation for our further meetings. All members of the group have been consulted in preparing this report, and the same procedure will be followed with future reports which will again be posted on this site.