|Silvia Cattori: An Interview with Gilad Atzmon|
To Call A Spade A Spade
Gilad Atzmon is an outstandingly charming man. He is often described by music critics as one of the finest contemporary jazz saxophonists. But Atzmon is more than just a musician: for those who follow events in the Middle East, he is considered to be one of the most credible voices amongst Israeli opponents. In the last decade he has relentlessly exposed and denounced barbarian Israeli policies. Just before his departure on a European Spring Tour, “The Tide Has Changed “, with his band the Orient House Ensemble, he spoke to Silvia Cattori.
Silvia Cattori: As a jazz musician, what brought you to use your pen as a weapon against the country where you were born and against your people?
Gilad Atzmon: For many years my music and writings were not integrated at all. I became a musician when I was seventeen and I took it up as a profession when I was twenty four. Though I was not involved with, or interested in politics when I lived in Israel, I was very much against Israel’s imperial wars. I identified somehow with the left, but later, when I started to grasp what the Israeli left was all about, I could not find myself in agreement with anything it claimed to believe in, and that is when I realised the crime that was taking place in Palestine.
For me the Oslo Accord was the end of it because I realised that Israel was not aiming towards reconciliation, or even integration in the region, and that it completely dismissed the Palestinian cause. I understood then that I had to leave Israel. It wasn’t even a political decision — I just didn’t want to be part of the Israeli crime anymore. In 1994 I moved to the UK and I studied philosophy.
In 2001, at the time of the second Intifada, I began to understand that Israel was the ultimate aggressor and was also the biggest threat to world peace. I realised the extent of the involvement and the role of world Jewry as I analysed the relationships between Israel and the Jewish State, between Israel and the Jewish people around the world, and between Jews and Jewishness.
I then realised that the Jewish “left” was not very different at all from the Israeli “left”. I should make it clear here that I differentiate between “Left ideology”— a concept that is inspired by universal ethics and a genuine vision of equality – and the “Jewish Left”, a tendency or grouping that is there solely to maintain tribal interests that have very little, if anything, to do with universalism, tolerance and equality.
Silvia Cattori: Would you argue that there is a discrepancy between Jews and left?
Gilad Atzmon: Not at all. I should explain here that I never talk about Jews as a people. I differentiate between Jews (the people) Judaism (the religion) and Jewishness (the culture). In my work, I am only elaborating on the third category, i.e. Jewishness. Also it should be understood that I differentiate between the tribal “Jewish Left”, and Leftists who simply happen to be Jewish. Indeed, I would be the first to admit that there are many great leftists and humanists who happen to be of Jewish origin. However those Jews who operate under a “Jewish banner” seem to me to be Zionist fig leafs: they are solely there to convey an image of “Jewish pluralism”. In fact, when I grasped the full role of the “Jewish left” I realised that I may end up fighting alone against the strongest power around.
Silvia Cattori: Do you fight alone?
Gilad Atzmon: More or less alone. I like to fight alone; I take responsibility. Along the years, there have been a lot attempts to destroy the few of us who have stood up against Jewish power. I found myself in trouble for supporting people like Israel Shamir and Paul Eisen, for standing up for their right to think freely and to express their opinions and ideas openly. I remember one of those infamous “Jewish Left” activists telling me, “listen Gilad, once you shun Shamir we will let you be”. My answer was simple: I was not about to bargain with intellectual integrity. For me, freedom of speech is an iron rule — I would never silence anyone.
Within the liberation movement and the solidarity movement, I do not actually believe that we have any intellectuals. And why we do not have intellectuals? Because in the name of “Political Correctness”, we have managed to destroy every single English speaking creative mind within our movement.
What we see here may be an endemic problem with “the Left”. To speak in broad (or rather Germanic philosophical) terms, “the Left” is “forgetful of Being” — Instead of understanding what Being in the world is all about, it tries to suggest to us what being in the world ought to be. “The Left” has adopted a preaching mode that has led to a severe form of alienation, and this is probably why “the Left” has failed to come to terms with, fully understand, and grasp the significance and power of Islam. And this is why “the Left” is totally irrelevant to the current revolution in the Middle East. As we know by now, “the Left’s’ tolerance”, somehow evaporates when it comes to Islam and Muslims. I find it very problematic.
Silvia Cattori: Can you explain why the Left is irrelevant?
Gilad Atzmon: Let us look at the current events in the Arab and Muslim world: where is “the Left”? All those years they were trying to tell us, the “public will rise”, but where is the left now? Is it in Egypt? Is it in Libya or Bahrain? We hear about the Muslim Brotherhood, the middle class, the young Arabs and Muslims – indeed, we are hearing about anything but “the Left”. Did you see any interesting Left wing analysis of the regional emerging Intifada? Not really. Recently, I was searching for an analysis of the Egyptian uprising in a famous Socialist paper. I found one article — I then realised that the words “Islam” and “Muslim” did not appear in the article even once, yet the word “class” appeared no less than nineteen times. What we see here then, is actually an example of the ultimate form of detachment from humanity, humanism and the human condition.
But I take it further: where is ‘the Left’ in Europe? Where is “the Left” in America? Why can’t they stand up for the Muslims? Why can’t they bond with, or make allies with millions of Muslim immigrants, people who also happen to be amongst the new European working class? I will mention here what I consider to be a most crucial insight: It is an idea I borrowed from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan contends that love can be realised as making love to oneself via the other. The “Left solidarity” with Palestine in my opinion can be similarly grasped as making love to ourselves at the expense of the Palestinians. We do not want them to be Muslims. We tell them to be democratic — as long as they don’t vote Hamas. We tell them to be progressive, “like us”. I just can’t make up my mind whether such an attitude is rude, or simply pathetic.
Recently I came across a critical Trotsky-ite take on my work. The argument against me was as follows: “Gilad is wrong because he manages to explain Zionism without colonialism; he explains the holocaust without fascism. He even explains the recession, the global economic disaster, without capitalism.”
I couldn’t agree more. We do not need “working class politics” anymore. The old 19Th century clichés can be dropped — and the sooner the better. In order to explain why our world is falling apart, we just have to be brave enough to say what we think, to admit what we see, to call a spade a spade.
Actually, I would love to see “the Left” resurrecting itself. Yet, for that to happen, it must first remind itself what equality and tolerance really mean, because for “the Left” to be meaningful again, it must first grasp the true meaning of “love your neighbour.”
Silvia Cattori: When we listen to your political comments we forget that you are primarily a musician.
Gilad Atzmon: The truth of the matter is that I am not actually interested in politics — I am not a member of any party and I do not care about, or seek any political power. I am not interested in the binary opposition between “left” and “right,” and I do not care about the banal dichotomy between “progressive” and “reactionary”. And let’s face it from a Marxist point of view I am associated with the most reactionary forces: I support Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and I support Hamas. What do you want more than that! I am the ultimate reactionary being and I am delighted and proud about it all.
Silvia Cattori: You are really a free spirit.
Gilad Atzmon: That is because I am not political. I am an artist and a musician; it is very simple.
Silvia Cattori: We can hardly imagine what would you be if you had stayed in Israel?
Gilad Atzmon: It would be impossible to imagine.
Silvia Cattori: Are you an exception among Israelis?
Gilad Atzmon: It is very interesting; when it comes to the “Jewish left” abroad, I know very few Jews whom I can trust on that level of commitment. They always go along with you, but then as soon as you question the tribal bond and their own role within the “Jewish universe” you will be stabbed in the back. Very rarely does one come across courageous Jews who are willing to engage in deep self-reflection: I refer here to people like Paul Eisen, Jeff Blankfort, Norman Finkelstein, Hajo Meyer and Evelyn Hecht Galinsky. In Israel however, it is different. You have quite a few people who are actually brave beyond belief. They are really putting their life on the line. These are the people who send us information about the army, about military secrets, about war crimes and names of war criminals. So there are quite a few Israelis who are doing incredible work.
Silvia Cattori: Is writing on political matters and composing music a way for you to contribute to a better world and to beauty? Is one inseparable from the other?
Gilad Atzmon: At the moment I am trying to establish a continuum between my music and my writing. I believe that unlike our politicians — whether they are right wing politicians, conservative politicians, left politicians, all of whom are seeking power — artists are searching for beauty. And I believe it is beauty that can unite people.
I will tell you something that I really plan to write about. For many years our so-called “political analysts” have been talking about Israel being a “settler state” and Zionism being a “colonial project”. But what kind of colonialism is it? Is it an accurate comparison?
For if Israel is a “settler state” – then what exactly is its “motherland”? In British and French colonial eras, the settler states maintained a very apparent tie with their “motherland”. In some cases in history the settler state broke from its motherland. Such an event is a rather noticeable one, and the Boston Tea Party is a good example of that. But, as far as we are aware, there is no “Jewish motherland” that is intrinsically linked to the alleged “Jewish settler state”.
The “Jewish people” are largely associated with the “Jewish state”, and yet the “Jewish people” is not exactly a “material” autonomous sovereign entity. Moreover, native Hebraic Israeli Jews are not connected culturally or emotionally to any motherland except their own state.
Silvia Cattori: However, for some of the strongest advocates of the Palestinian rights, such as Ilan Pappe, Israel is a colonial State. They put forward this argument to challenge Israeli policies.
Gilad Atzmon: I am afraid that most activists and academics cannot tell the entire truth on this sensitive matter. Maybe no one can survive telling the truth. Indeed, we are daily terrorised by different measures from the thought police. I am convinced that most of the scholars who insist upon calling Israel a “settler state” are fully aware of the problems entangled with the “colonial paradigm”. They must be aware of the uniqueness of the Zionist project. It is indeed true that Zionism manifests some symptoms that are synonymous with colonialism — however that is not enough: Zionism is inherently a racially oriented “homecoming” project driven by spiritual enthusiasms that are actually phantasmic. It intrinsically lacks many of the “necessary” elements that we understand as comprising colonialism, and cannot be defined in solely materialist terms.
It seems to me that here, we come across a crucial problem of understanding and analysis within our movement, and within Western intellectual discourse in general. Our academics are suppressed, and scholarship is silenced, for within the tyranny of political correctness, our academics are forced to primarily consider the boundaries of the discourse — they first examine carefully what they are allowed to say – and then they fill in the empty spaces, formulating theories or narratives.
This pattern is unfortunately common. Yet, such an approach and method is foreign to my understanding of truth-seeking and true scholarship.
It is crucial to mention at this point that I do not claim to know the truth. I just say what I believe to be the truth. If I am wrong, I welcome people to point it out to me.
It appears to me that “the Left” mislead us and itself by depicting Zionism solely as a colonial project. The “Left” likes the colonial paradigm because it locates Zionism nicely within their ideology. It also leads us to believe that the colonial/post-colonial political model provides some answers and even operative solutions; following the colonial template, we first equate Israel with South Africa, and then we implement a counter-colonial strategy, such as the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).
Yet, whilst I fully support all of those actions, they seem to be in some regards, not entirely effective at all. The BDS has not in fact, led to any metamorphic change within Israeli society. If anything, it has led to further intensified radicalisation within the right in Israel. Why has the BDS not worked yet? The answer is simple: It is because Israel is not at all entirely a colonial entity - as we historically understand that term - and it needs to be understood that its power and ties with the West are maintained by the strongest lobbies around the world.
So, if the Left wants to stop Israel for real, then it must openly question the notion of Jewish Power and its role within Western politics and media. But can the Left do it? I am not so sure.
Let us return now to further comparison of Israel with the colonial model — Israel is also markedly different, for example, from earlier colonial states such as South Africa, because Israel implements genocidal tactics. South Africa was indeed brutal — but it stopped short of throwing white phosphorous on its indigenous population. South Africa was a settler state, and was exploiting its indigenous population: but it wanted to keep them alive and oppressed. The Jewish state, on the other hand — would much prefer to wake up one morning to find out that all the Palestinians had disappeared, because Israel is driven by a Talmudic racist ideology. For those who have not realised it yet, the Zionism that presented itself initially as a secular project was, in fact, a crude attempt to transform the Bible into a land registry document, and an attempt to turn God into a nasty estate agent. It should be understood that Zionism follows a completely different political operative mode to any other settler state, and the colonial paradigm is simply incapable of fully addressing that.
But here is the good news: interestingly enough, it has been artists rather than “intellectuals” who have been brave enough to speak out. At a certain stage they started to equate images of Palestine with those of the Jewish holocaust, and it was artists who were brave enough to juxtapose Palestinian kids with Jewish ones.
Silvia Cattori: Yes, but can we really compare the two?
Gilad Atzmon: Why not? We compare between two ideologies, between two racist ethnocentric precepts. It was the artists who came up with that simple and essential truth. It was the artists who dismantled the colonial paradigm in just a one swift move. Seemingly our artists are well ahead of our “intellectuals”.
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