Interviewed by Lasse Wilhelmson, January 2006
Gilad Atzmon was born in Israel and grew up in a secular Jewish home. He did his military service during the war on Lebanon in 1982, which became the turning point that made him sceptical of Zionism and Israel’s politics. Ten years later he emigrated to London with a one-way ticket. After finishing his philosophy studies, he chose music over an academic carrier. His album Exile was awarded BBC’s “Best Jazz Album of the Year.” His own multicultural group is called The Orient House Ensemble. Atzmon has written two books which together have been translated into 17 languages (A Guide to the Perplexed and My One and Only Love) and a number of articles that openly criticise Zionism and “Jewish identity” from an ideological and philosophical perspective. Atzmon’s books, articles and music are available on his website http://www.gilad.co.uk
Lasse Wilhelmson: Why did you leave Israel and will you ever return?
Gilad Atzmon: I eventually managed to realise that living in Israel as a Hebraic subject means nothing but taking part in the colonisation of Palestine. I decided not to be a colonialist. I do not have any plans to come back.
LW: Not even if the Jewish state is dismantled and replaced by a democracy for all its citizens?
GA: This would be a major progress and yet, I do not see the Israeli Jews moving towards such a solution. And besides, I am not a Jew but rather a Hebrew speaking Palestinian.
LW: How would you describe yourself? Who is Gilad Atzmon?
GA: I am a jazz musician, I aim to reinvent myself on a daily basis. Obviously this is a big task and I fail most of the time. Anyhow, the fact that I am a jazz musician means as well that I do not take any political assumption very seriously.
LW: Not even the good ones? And what about your own assumptions?
GA: How would I know what good assumptions are? I obviously spend most of my time criticising and revising my own assumptions. I think that this is what `thinking’ is all about, any other forms of thinking should be titled as acceptance or even approval.
LW: What is it that you want to achieve with your music and your writing, and how do these two different art forms affect each other?
GA: I do believe that beauty can make a change or at least introduce one. In my previous album Exile I tried to expose the hypocritical nature of Jewish and Israeli culture and mindset. I tried to once again raise the question: `how come yesterday’s sufferers have turned into today’s oppressors?’. In my writings I do very much the same, I try to deconstruct the Zio thinking mode as well as Western righteous discourse.
LW: And what about those who think your kind of beauty is ugly?
GA: I think that I should have been more accurate, I don’t claim to produce beauty, I aim towards beauty. I do my very best, whether my music is great or not is down to others to judge. Some people love my music, some don’t. It is pretty natural. Astonishingly enough, some of those who really hate me still insist that I can play the saxophone. I would expect them to say about me: not only is he an idiot, he can’t even play the sax.
LW: Well, I thought about the beauty also of your writings…
GA: As far as my writings are concerned, I would divide them into two categories: the fictional and the critical. The fictional is very much like music or any other form of art, it is significant as long as it is aesthetically stimulating. My critical writings are there to provoke some thoughts. Beauty is only secondary here, at least from my point of view.
LW: You appear to be a very controversial person, who leaves no one unaffected. Why is that?
GA: Interesting! I think that I always start by ridiculing myself. In my first and second book I did deconstruct my own identity, an ex Zio male. Apparently, by doing that I touched a Jewish nerve. I learn to live with it, they rather prefer to crucify me. This was always their method, nothing changed.
LW: So, those who accuse you of being a “self-hater” are in a way right?
GA: It took me some time to acknowledge it. It was only after re-visiting Weininger’s Sex and Character I realised that this is the hidden secret behind Jewish dissident writing.
LW: Could you please elaborate on that a bit more?
GA: “People love in others the qualities they would like to have but do not actually have in any great degree. So we hate in others only what we do not wish to be, and what notwithstanding we are in part. We hate only qualities to which we approximate, but which we recognise first in other persons… Thus, the fact is explained that the bitterest anti-Semites are to be found amongst the Jews themselves” (Weininger, Sex and Character, p. 304).
Clearly, some Jews are opposing what they despise within themselves. This tendency is often called anti-Semitism. But Weininger is taking it further. As we all know Jews are not alone. Some non-Jews find the Jewish tendencies within themselves: “even Richard Wagner, the Bitterest anti-Semite cannot be held free of accretion of Jewishness even in his art” (Weininger, p. 305). Thus, I would allow myself to argue that for Weininger, Jewishness isn’t a racial category at all. It is clearly a mindset which some of us possess and a very few of us try to oppose. In other words, the Jewish self-hating is so crucial in the development of critical thinking.
LW: And what is this “Jewish mindset” all about?
GA: I think that if we are really looking for one word I would suggest supremacy. Supremacy is obviously the outcome of a misinterpretation of the Judaic notion of chosenness. While Orthodox Jews regard being chosen as a moral duty, the more secularised forms of Judaism tend to regard chosenness as an inborn gift.
LW: Of all your writings, which one has caused the biggest excitement and why?
GA: Hard to say. Probably the one about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I argue there that with the current state of Jewish (political and economical) power, the debate concerning the truthfulness of the protocols is meaningless. I think that I may suffer as well because I refuse to denounce Israel Shamir and Paul Eisen. I find them both intellectually crucial and genuine voices. Current Jewish left politics is mainly concerned with putting people in the right boxes. Boxing and demarcation is indeed a Talmudic intellectual obsession. It is all about the definition of the Kosher and the taref. Unfortunately, I find it rather boring. I just can’t join in. Not only do I argue that Shamir and Eisen are Kosher, I insist that their critical spirit is the ultimate embodiment of the Judaic tradition of critical thinking.
LW: There is another taboo, the one about the Holocaust. What is your opinion on that?
GA: This seems to be my next war, it is a very complicated subject. I am just completing a very long text about the subject. First, I do not buy the official H narrative, it is full of discrepancies. Second, I am totally convinced that it isn’t a Zio narrative. I pool a major blame on the Anglo Americans. I think that the H has become the essence of post war liberal democratic nonsense. As you know the title of my last album is musiK RE-ARRANGING THE 20th CENTURY….
LW: So the post war imperialists created the H narrative to be able to use Zionism ideologically and the Jews as a scapegoat?
GA: In fact it is more complicated. It is the use of personal narrative that is crucial for the liberal democrat discourse. Allocating the singular subject in the midst of liberal discourse. Basically it is Auschwitz that allows the Anglo American to kill in the name of democracy.
LW: Many would probably find it strange that anti-Zionist Jews have demonstrated against you when you’ve lectured, even though you consider yourself an anti-Zionist and call for equal rights for all in Israel/Palestine. How do you explain this?
GA: You know Lasse, I thought about it lately. I am not so sure whether I am an `anti-Zionist’ anymore, to be an anti-Zionist is to give Zionism too much credit. Zionism, like racism, is basically a human weakness. It isn’t right to an `anti human-weakness’. In the first half of the 20th century Zionism was a marginal movement amongst Jews, now this weakness became the voice of Jewish people. Indeed this is rather alarming.
Anyhow, to your question, the answer is pretty simple. I argue that people who act politically under the Jewish banner are basically Zionists. They obviously oppose me because I exposed this very flaw in their worldview.
I argue as well that if Zionism is indeed as bad as they admit than we should rather oppose it as human beings rather than as Jews.
LW: Even ALL of those who call themselves Jews against Zionism and alike?
GA: Actually I have no problem with Jewish Orthodox rejection of Zionism. As long as one fights Zionism with Judaism, one’s Jewishness is essential and makes sense.
LW: And what about the Marxist Jews against Zionism?
GA: They are either bad news or just slightly idiotic. If they are indeed truly Marxists then they are supposed to endorse working class politics… in other words, they are supposed to be atheists, they are supposed to abandon their ethnic or racial origin or at least not to capitalise on it… We should ask ourselves how come Marxist Jews are adopting such a racially oriented political argumentation. The answer is simple, they are either `national socialists’ i.e. Zionists, or simply ignorant (in most cases they are both). In a few debates I had with those strange Marxists through the years I have come across two unique arguments:
1. It is Hitler rather than Moses who made us into Jews. This argument is obviously silly: a) Hitler has been dead for more than six decades; b) the Marxist Jew admits being a non-authentic being, it isn’t he who is Jewish, it is a title that is imposed on him by the Other.
2. Jewishness is a cultural heritage (the Bund). I would then ask what is the Jewish cultural heritage, once you filter out the religious content you are left with chicken soup and a few dirty jokes. My answer is pretty simple: yes indeed, chicken soup is a cultural asset and yet it is far from being a political argument. For instance supporting the Palestinian resistance in the name of chicken soup is far from being a winning political argument.
LW: The rumour is that you are now a Christian. Would this make you a Christian Jew?
GA: I don’t know what Christian Jew means. I am not a Jew, I am an ex-Jew. I was born a Jew but I left it behind. Being raised as a secular Jew in Israel, I am familiar with the Judeo-centric worldview and I am good in criticising it. Anyhow, re my Christian faith: yes, I am fascinated by Christ’s lesson. I am slightly less overwhelmed by the Church. So I follow Christ in my very own way.
LW: What is your view on the political situation in today’s Israel? Is it possible to change Israel from the inside, or is the first step to put an end to the support from the U.S. and the Diaspora Jews?
GA: Very complicated question. Israel is a divided society. I do not see much chance for a change as long as the Euro-centric Ashkenazi Jewish philosophy is defining the political tone. The Ashkenazi philosophy, both religious and secular, is supremacist to the bone. On the other hand, I tend to believe that the Arab Jews who happen to be the majority of Israeli Jews will eventually make peace with their Arab brothers sooner or later. I tend to believe that Amir Peretz is the first crack in the Ashkenazi hegemony. Days will tell whether I am right…
LW: How do you get in touch with “The Human” nerve in the Israeli colonialist mindset?
GA: I am not so sure whether I understood the question.
LW: Well, frankly, how do you change the Jewish colonialists?
GA: You don’t, you let them be defeated by their own doomed philosophy. The big problem is that their philosophy is now the voice of the west.
LW: Which of your articles would you recommend to someone who has never heard of you?
GA: Probably the interview with Manuel Talens and the The 3rd Category and the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, it was translated recently into Swedish.
LW: I thought you disliked being placed in boxes, and now you recommend your article on “the 3rd category” Jew? Isn’t that boxing?
GA: Good one. To start with I am not putting people in boxes, I deal with categories, but your question is in place. This is exactly were I need Weininger on my side. It is exactly the Jew in me that is destructive to the Jewish and Zionist cause. In general, the list of great Jews that we all love so much or just love to love includes Christ, Marx, Spinoza, Adorno, etc. They are all doing the same thing: They apply their Jewish humanitarian insight against their Jewish heritage. Christ may have invented it, Marx wrote about it in The Jewish Question and Adorno exposed the Judeo-centric cultural industry. My method is similar, I tell my ex brothers, `you like to put people into boxes (self-hating, anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, etc.)’, fine with me, let’s see what happens when we put you into boxes. Basically I use the Zio tactics against the Zios. And again in this paper I was boxing like a proper Jew. There is an old saying: `you can get the man out of Israel but you can’t get Israel out of the man’. I certainly left Israel physically yet, I am properly trained in Israeli, Zionist and Jewish thinking methods.
LW: When will we see you in Sweden?
GA: Once I am invited I will be delighted to perform there.
LW: Both as a musician and a writer?
GA: For sure.
LW: Thank you Gilad!
GA: My entire pleasure. Peace
Lasse Wilhelmson lives in Stockholm, Sweden and lived in Israel for a couple of years in the early 1960’s.