Categorized | Literature

Review of Gilad Atzmon’s book, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politic

The dysfunctional ideology of Jewishness

By Mazin Qumsiyeh

Palestinian academic Mazin Qumsiyeh argues that Gilad Atzmon’s book The Wandering Who? provides invaluable insight into the ideology of Jewishness – crucial for understanding Israeli behaviour and the conflict in the Middle East – and urges people to engage with the ideas laid out in the book rather than dismiss it or seek to censor it.

About nine years ago I entertained the notion of writing a book on “group identities” so that I can explain the concepts that cause a lot of society’s the ills.

Both World War I and World War II emanated from interpretations of nationalism (a group identity), and the conflict in Palestine mostly emanates from another group identity called Zionism. The horrors of the Crusaders came from the group identity of Christendom. Nowadays, there is an issue with notions of “Islamism”,(political Islam) of the Osama Bin Laden variety. I am still exploring and reading on this issue from different authors and thus was intrigued to read the book by Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, that addresses this concept within Jewish communities.

Atzmon concludes from personal experience that he does not like Jewish group identity politics or any other form of what he calls “marginal group identity”. He starts by explaining his own upbringing as a third-generation Israeli whose grandfather was a member of the underground terror organization, the Irgun Gang, and how, through jazz music and a questioning mind, he “left chosenness behind to become an ordinary human being”.

Jews – people, religion and ideology

Atzmon is accused by many to be a “self-hating Jew” and an “anti-Semite”. To the former label he admits but he strongly objects to the second label. His book represents in many ways a clarification of why he believes the way he does. He says (page 15) that he makes a distinction between Jews (the people), Judaism (the religion), and Jewishness (the ideology). He has no problem with the first two but strongly argues against that third. He uses quotes to show that those who believe in this ideology put Jewishness above all other attributes. Thus, he understands Chaim Weizmann’s statement that “there are no English, French, German or American Jews, but only Jews living in England, France, Germany or America”. This third category (the ideology of Jewishness) that Weizmann belongs to, even when overlapping with the first (Jews as a people) or second category (Judaism) tends, according to Atzmon, to overwhelm all other and represent a strong marginal politics.

Using these definitions, Atzmon explains how and why Jewish identity politics was critical in the decision to go to war in Iraq, in the spying on the US by Jonathan Pollard, in the neo-conservative ideologies of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and even in economic decisions of Alan Greenspan. He makes clear that he does not see these things as Jewish conspiracies but merely independent actions based on a set of political/ideological discourse (Jewish identity politics).

My thought is that individual readers should not judge this on the basis of hearsay but should base their judgements on their own reading of the book. If one is persuaded by Atzmon’s analysis, then one could reach the radical conclusion that he makes, which is that “one can hardly endorse a universal philosophy while being identified politically as a Jew”. (page 39)

Zionism as “tribal Jewish preservation project”

According to Atzmon, the problems with marginal identity politics such as that of “Jewishness” and its alter-ego, Zionism, is that it is defined by negation: “The political Jew is always against something or set apart from something else. This is far from being an ideal recipe for a peaceful, ethical life driven by reconciliation and harmony.” (page 48)

But Atzmon goes further and here I believe is where his thesis draws the wrath of some in the establishment and overtly sensitive crowds: Zionism is a “tribal Jewish preservation project” and

within the Zionist framework, the Israelis colonize Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora is there to mobilize lobbies by recruiting international support. The neocons transform the American army into an Israeli mission force. Anti-Zionists of Jewish descent (and this may even include proud self-haters such as myself) are there to portray an image of ideological plurality and ethical concern. (page 70)

And in the secular Jewish political discourse, there is no need for God: political Jews are taught to value the Jewish collective and inflict damage on others in the name of this collective, according to Atzmon.

“…it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being ‘caught out’ as such.”

Gilad Atzmon

Many things he says do make sense even if we may quibble with other things. In explaining “pre-traumatic stress syndrome” he says that Jews are taught to anticipate negative things and that in this regard those who actually experienced the negative things (e.g. holocaust survivors) seem more rational and far less hateful of the other than the Jews who do not experience those directly. The latter may even invent events to justify their perpetual fear and hatred. I mulled on this as I thought of all the Zionists who lied, cheated, pressured, cajoled and threatened us and our friends and employers, and I contrasted those with fellow human beings who happen to have a Jewish background (including many holocaust survivors) who stood with us in fighting for human rights. He explained to me that in this area his study and personal experience were the most significant in his controversial findings.

Atzmon argues rather convincingly that “it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being ‘caught out’ as such”. (page. 84) This phobia, according to Atzmon, explains the amount of death and destruction that Israel sows in its surroundings in an attempt to resolve or at least distract from this inner conflict between the tribal and the universal. But this only adds to the phobia for to Atzmon “the more they insist on loving themselves for who they think they are, the more they loath themselves for what they have become”. (page 86) He claims that that leaves three escape routes: total segregation, return to orthodoxy (religion) and flight from “Jewishness” (an option he had chosen).

Memes seeping into common discourse

I see in Atzmon writings a number of memes that are seeping into common discourse. A meme is a persuasive idea that spreads in a population like a useful gene spreads in a population. Some of those memes include:

  • The now well-established fact that Jews are not a racial group but an ideological-religious belief that spread many centuries ago among people of diverse backgrounds (this meme came from studies of the Khazars and others by authors like Arthur Koestler, Kevin Alan Brooks, Shlomo Sand and now Atzmon);
  • The idea of a conflict between chauvinistic nationalism and universal humanism;
  • The weird mixture of religious heritage/belief and tribal notions in Jewish political discourse;
  • The distorted use of archeological and other studies to support the political ideology of a connection between the Jews of today and the Israelites of the Bible; and
  • The use of the ideology of suffering as a quasi-religious belief that is no longer subject to normal historical examinations (and in fact shielded from such historical examination by laws).

In some places, one could argue that Atzmon goes too far in his conclusions or does not delve as deep as he could have in the nuances of identity politics. For example, he argues that those who identify themselves as politically Jewish but anti-Zionist serve the same goal as Zionist Jews by keeping the debate “within the family”. (page 102). In another chapter (Chapter 19), Atzmon analyses the Book of Esther and its associated Purim holiday in a political modern context to argue that the lessons drawn from the modern emphasis on the Book of Esther (which does not mention God) is the need for Jews to rely on themselves and to get to positions of power in goyim (gentile) societies to further their own future. While that interpretation explains the Zionist lobbies in Western countries, some people who are not tribal in their thinking may draw other lessons from the Book of Esther or at least downplay it and emphasize other parts of the Torah.

In another place Atzmon questions the sincerity of a Zionist who was part of the group that collaborated with Hitler and who later reported to Lenni Brenner (a historian of the Nazi-Zionist collaboration) that they were wrong and that he is now an American with American loyalties. Atzmon thinks that this relates to the old edict “of being a Jew at home, and a gentile in the streets” (Moses Mendelssohn’s “Haskala Mantra”).

One could quibble with some of these notions, connections and conclusions. However, Atzmon’s opinions should be respected even if some of them are based on subjective judgments about other individuals’ emotions and motivations. That is because many of his opinions are also shaped by personal experiences.

Other parts of the book are intimate and personal and I do not see how Atzmon’s detractors can challenge him on that. For example, I fully agree with him that “fighting racism for real primarily entails opposing the racist within”. (p. 95) Each of us must fight the demons within before we challenge the demons without. I found these sections of the book, which discuss Atzmon’s own reflections on his past and evolution of his thinking, to be the most fascinating and informative.

As for the other (related) themes and notions presented in this fascinating book, I think this is a very important dialogue to have even if some of us may disagree with some interpretations.

The 130 years of Zionist colonization have devastated a native society and culture, resulting in seven million refugees of a total of 11 million (the rest left in shrinking “people warehouses”). Further, after several wars and countless lives destroyed, it is definitely time to discuss in more detail the motives and the psychology behind Zionism.

The attempt to censor and shut down this debate is backfiring. More and more people are spreading memes that challenge the tribalism that lead to conflicts and war. People can choose to dismiss these things and avoid the dialogue, or they can engage in it. I think it is far more constructive to engage in it than to dismiss it out of hand.

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