Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who?
A Study of
Jewish Identity Politics
Reviewed by Mazin Qumsiyeh
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, Monday, May 7, 2012
Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics (Ropley,
Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2011). Pp.177. Paperback. ISBN-13: 9781846948756.
Review by Mazin Qumsiyeh
Copy Right: Holy Land Studies, May 2012, Vol.
11, No. 1 : pp. 99-101
About nine years ago, I entertained the notion
of writing a book on “group identities” so that I can understand these
concepts that cause a lot of the ills of society. Both WWI and WWII 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. There
is an issue now with the notions of (Political) “Islamism" ala Osama Bin
Laden. I am still exploring and reading on this issue from different authors
and thus was intrigued to read the book by Gilad Atzmon that addresses this
concept within Jewish communities.
Atzmon concluded from personal
experience that he does not like Jewish group identity politics and any
other form of what he calls “marginal group identity”. Atzmon 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 via Jazz (and a questioning mind) he “left Chosen-ness behind
to become an ordinary human being”.
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 (p. 15) that he
distinguishes Jews (the people), Judaism (the religion), and Jewish-ness
(the ideology). He has no problem with the first two but strongly argues
against that third. He puts quotes that show that those who believe in this
ideology put Jewish-ness 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 that Weizmann belongs to even when overlapping with the
first or second category, tends to according to Atzmon, overwhelm all other
and represent a strong marginal politics.
Using these definitions,
Atzmon proceed to explain how and why this belief (identity politics of
Jewish-ness) was critical in the error of going to war on Iraq, in the
spying by Jonathan Pollard, in the neoconservative 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 (the Jewish identity politics). My thought
is that individual readers should not judge this based on hearsay but should
do it for themselves by reading the book. If one gets convinced by Atzmon’s
analysis, one could get to the radical conclusion that he makes that “one
can hardly endorse a universal philosophy while being identified politically
as a Jew” (p. 39).
According to Atzmon, the problems with marginal
identity politics such as those of “Jewish-ness” and its alter-ego Zionism
is that they are 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.”
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 mobilise 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.”(p. 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 to others in the name of this collective
according to Atzmon.
Many things he says do make sense even if we may
quibble with other things. In explaining “pre-traumatic stress syndrome” he
explains that any 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 did not experience those directly. The latter may even
invent events to justify the perpetual fear and hatred. I thought of this as
I thought of all the Zionists who lied, cheated, pressured, cajoled,
threatened us and our friends and employers and 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 of 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”
(p. 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.” (p. 86). He claims that that leaves
three escape routes: total segregation, return to orthodoxy (religion), and
flight from “Jewish-ness” (an option he had chosen).
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 background (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 mix
of religious heritage/belief with tribal notions in Jewish political
-The distorted recruitment of archeological and other studies
to support the political ideology of a connection between Jews of today and
Israelites of the bible
-The recruitment 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 via
In some places, one could argue that Atzmon goes too far in his
conclusions or does not delve as deep as possible 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” (p. 102). In another chapter (Chapter
19), Atzmon analyzes 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 impact 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..
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. Atzmon's opinions
are to 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
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 resulted in devastation of a native society and culture
resulting in 7 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 dialog or can engage in it. I think it is
far more constructive to engage in it than to dismiss it out of hand.
*Committee for Solidarity with Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Jails and
Popular Resistance committees in the Bethlehem area invite you to join us to
stand in solidarity with Palestinian and Arab political Prisoners who are
engaged in a hunger strike.
Where: South Entrance of Al-Khader
Village, Al-Nashash near Hwy 60
When: Friday 4 May 2012, 2 PM
Why: Because the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails are political
prisoners who deserve protection and fair treatment in accordance with the 4
th Geneva Convention.
*Inspiring Video*: Flagwoman protester raises
Palestinian flag on Israeli military vehicle outside Ofer prison (she and
other friends of ours are attacked and pepper-sprayed)
This Week in Palestine" is in my humble opinion the best magazine in
Palestine. Evey issue has a theme. This month it is the Nakba
but it is with a positive spin, celebrating our resilience ansd success as a
people despite the persistent efforts at ethnic cleansing over the past
64 years. Take time to browse the articles available on the internet
*A pattern repeats itself:* Israeli forces kill and injure civilians.
Media attention forces the Israeli authorities to start an investigation.
Years later the case dies out quietly and no one is punished. The
"international community" espeially the US governement provides a diplomatic
cover and scuttles any international investigations.
Is it any wonder that Israel continues to get away with it after nearly
100,000 Palestinian civilians killed via Israeli actions over the past 64
years? Is it any wonder that International law will not be enforced when it
comes to the continuing ethnic cleansing and refusal to allow nearly 7
million refugees and displaced their right to choose to go back to their
homes and lands? In the latest atrocity and after over three years,
the Israeli military closed the "investigation" into the murder on 5 January
2009 of 21 members of the Samouni family. The apartheid soldiers had ordered
the family into the house that they then bombed and that they then
investigated and found themselves innocent.
*Book* *Review by Mazin Qumsiyeh.* Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who? A
Study of Jewish Identity Politics (Ropley, Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2011).
Pp.177. Paperback. ISBN-13: 9781846948756.
Holy Land Studies (cpyrighted
material), May 2012, Vol. 11, No. 1 : pp.
Tuesday 1 May 2012 is celebrated as May Day or Workers Day around the
world. On this date we all recall the struggle of workers against the
greed of corporations. It is this greed by the elites that also led to
wars, colonialism, occupation, and repression in indigenous communities from
Vietnam to Iraq to Palestine to Columbia. Around the world, the
billionaires get richer while the poor people get poorer. The Palestinian
holocaust like the previous holocausts of Blacks (tens of millions killed in
the slave trade), native Americans (perhaps as many as 100 million), Jews,
Gypsies, Armenians, and others. These actions benefitted the rich who
got richer. The history of collaboration of Zionists with the Nazi
regime is now well established as is the fact that Zionism was simply the
other side of the coin of racism. More than half of the world
billionaires are Zionists who are shameless in their support of the
apartheid state of Israel in its attempted genocide of the Palestinians.
530 Towns and villages were depopulated thanks to numerous massacres
committed against the native Palestinians in the past 64 years. 7
million Palestinians are refugees or displaced people. Thousands
languish as political prisoners in Israeli jails. Those political
prisoners are now engaged in a hunger strike and have called for making 1
May 2012 a day of strikes and actions to highlight the Palestinian struggle.
Whether the thousands of Palestinians in the small prisons or the millions
of us languishing in large prisons like Gaza or Bethlehem, we say it is time
for all of us to stand together.
Doing action in the direction for peace and justice is liberating to
Consider suing Israel for genocide
Action 1: Sign the The Peoples Charter to Create a Nonviolent World':
Europe’s airlines enforce Israeli travel ban on activists hoping to
repair Palestinian schools
Israel (the supposed democracy) prevents its own citizens from simply
holding signs with the names of the ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages
on the so called "Independence day" of apartheid Israel
(Hebrew including amazing video of brave citizens standing up to fascist
Action 2: Call Airlines to stop being sub-contractors to Israeli
Action 3: Jewish voice for peace asking you to sign in support of 60
minutes for doing a story on Palestinian Christians that actually asked us
Christians to speak! I signed.
See also "Palestinian Christians respond to Israeli ambassador Lies"
and "Israel’s not-so-stellar record on treatment of Christians"
I wrote this letter to the NY Times public editor (Ombudsperson), Art
(212)556-7652 and as a letter to the editor
consider doing the same.
*To the editor (for publication)***
*Why does the New York Times allow itself to be a vehicle for
distributing lies and hatred? The "public service" message from Mr.
Horowitz published in the NY Times is precisely that. It claims that
those who called for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against South
Africa under apartheid and now call for similar nonviolent tactics against
Israeli apartheid are "anti-Semites" and worse even as promoters of
*This is utter lies and defamation of decent people who act on their
conscience to try to influence the Israeli government and elites in the same
manner we succeeded in influencing the apartheid system of South Africa.
I do know that such shrill attacks will not deter those who act on their
conscience. More and more Israelis and Internationals are finally saying
enough is enough of these tactics of intimidation and McCarthyism.
[Below is one such voice from an Israeli Dorothy Naor which I urge you to
solicit from her as an op-ed piece]. ***
*We, Palestinian Christians have also issued a call for BDS in the spirit
of truth (kairospalestine.ps). Humanity will not be silenced by the tactics
of those who support racism and apartheid.***
*Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD***
*Professor, Bethlehem University***
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