Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Atzmon and left antisemitism: some addenda

I published a longish post the other day about left antisemitism and its critics. I messed up the scheduling of posts over the last few days – mainly because I am not very good at counting – so it got hidden below one of my random bits and bobs posts on Friday evening. This post adds a few links and a few thoughts to my previous post, but if you didn’t catch it read the other one instead of this one. Also, since I wrote this post, I noticed more material, from CIFWatch and others, which I will have to leave for a later post.

Left antisemitism – or right antisemitism?
In the previous post, I questioned the extent to which Alison Weir or John Mearsheimer might be examples of “left antisemitism”, given that they are both right-wing. Subsequently reading Gilad Atzmon’s defence of his position via Andrew Coates and Rosie Bell, it occurs to me that this is true of Atzmon as well. Atzmon says, among other things: “One may wonder how come [Richard] Seymour, an alleged revolutionary radical Marxist, Andy Newman, a mediocre socialist and Neocon pro war [David] Aaronovitch are caught together naked holding ideological hands." "How is it possible that a hard core Zionist and ultra radical leftists are not only employing the same ideological argument but also performing the exact same tactics?... Zionism clearly maintains and sustains its `radical left opposition' and the logos behind such a tactic is simple- `revolutionary' left is totally irrelevant to both the conflict and its resolution.” In Atzmon’s worldview, “the conflict and its resolution”, and specifically the Jewish question, is the central, defining issue next to which everything else is irrelevant. He doesn’t care about revolutionary Marxism, or socialism mediocre or otherwise; he only cares about “the conflict and its resolution”. This totally refutes John Mearsheimer’s ridiculous claim that Atzmon is a “universalist” who “is the kind of person who intensely dislikes nationalism of any sort.” Whereas Richard Seymour’s or Andy Newman’s anti-Zionism proceeds (correctly or otherwise) from left-wing universalist values, Atzmon’s universalist pose proceeds from a particularist obsession with Jews.  So, Atzmon might have vaguely left-wing views on other things, but on his core issue, the Jews, his position is thoroughly right-wing, and the left-right dichotomy on other questions is just an insignificant diversion in his worldview.

Further evidence that he is not a left-wing antisemite comes from his book The Wondering Who, which Mearsheimer claimer to read. Gabriel A at Jews sans Frontieres shows where the book gets its wacko conspiracy theories from: a “writer who advocates something called "ethno-nationalism," published in the holocaust denial publication, The Barnes Review, the brainchild of Willis Carto, an American white-supremacist and a former affiliate of David Duke”. Atzmon, who has been much feted by Duke, belongs to this neo-Nazi swamp much more than he belongs to any anti-Zionist left.

So, to repeat what I said in my last post, Atzmon, like Weir and Mearsheimer, is in no sense an exemplar of left antisemitism. However, this makes the enthusiastic take-up of Atzmon, Weir and Mearsheimer by sections of the left (by the majority of Socialist Unity commenters, by activists in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, by CounterPunch and its acolytes, etc) even more disturbing. What is wrong with leftists that they take these right-wingers seriously when it comes to Israel and the Jews?

Jews san Frontieres
Gabriel’s post at JSF is worth reading, and yet more ammunition against Atzmon (and Mearsheimer). Ash and JSF, as hardcore anti-Zionists, are perfectly entitled to point out that Mearsheimer’s implosion “does not mean that AIPAC is any less nefarious an organization than it was last week”. Indeed, Mearsheimer’s (and Walt’s) endorsement of Atzmon does not by itself invalidate their “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory.

My reader Benjamin takes issue with Ash’s “As the authors of Zero books have noted in their protest letter about Atzmon, it is easy to be fooled by Atzmon's convoluted and pretentious claptrap.” Benjamin asks, “How, exactly, can one be 'fooled' into thinking that the vicious, anti-Jewish dreck the man spews can be anything else -but- anti-Jewish? The only way he could be even more overtly racist would be if he dolled himself up in a white sheet or put on a Reich uniform!” It seems to me, though, that University of Chicago professors and SWP bloggers are capable of quite a high level of stupidity, and we should go easy on them.

I found this interesting, the opening of Gabriel’s post: “Of course Atzmon is antisemitic. I think a lot of people who steered clear of him, including yours truly, have been loath to say that because of the way this accusation has been weaponized by Zionists, and the desire not to give them any credibility. But that kind of circumlocution quite often has a price. Had people been less circumspect, the implosion of Mearsheimer might not have happened.” This a courageously honest statement by Gabriel, and it should be remembered that some of Atzmon’s most consistent critics have been the most hardcore of anti-Zionists, such as Greenstein and Rance’s Jews Against Zionism group. It should also be remembered that Richard Seymour saw through Atzmon when the SWP was actively promoting him.

On the other hand, I think the idea of “Zionists” “weaponizing” antisemitism is deeply problematic. (JSF’s Levi9909 took a similar line in my comment thread, accusing Sarah AB of weaponizing, or at least instrumentalising, racism for racist reasons: “You don't seem to find racism repugnant. Rather you seem to instrumentalise antisemitism and the allegation of antisemitism in the service of your support for zionism and the State of Israel. That is, you condemn one form of racism because you support another form.”) Even if it were true that “Zionists” do “weaponize” antisemitism (and there are instances of this I could point to) and even if you accepted that Zionism is a form of racism (I don’t, but some of my best friends do), it seems to me that anti-Zionists like JSF and Jon Wight only take the most irrefutable accusations of the most extreme and absurd antisemitism with any kind of good faith. Their default position is that accusations of antisemitism are false accusations, and that making them is “weaponizing” done for malignant (“nefarious”) reasons by an almost mythical “Zionist” beast. For instance, taking Sarah AB as an example of this evil “Zionism” requires quite a tendentious reading of her blog posts and comments.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism
On the other hand, some Zionists mirror the JSF position, and see all anti-Zionism as bad faith antisemitism. On Twitter, CIFWatch said my post failed to understand the antisemitism of all anti-Zionism. I completely disagree. I’ve stated this before but it seems to me that anti-Zionism that also takes a consistent opposition to all nationalisms (including Palestinian nationalism) is not antisemitic; Jewish religious anti-Zionism such as that of the Satmer Hasidim is not antisemitic; Jewish anti-Zionism which rejects the Zionist solution to the questions of Jewish survival and continuity (such as the position of the Jewish Socialist Group or others in the tradition of the Bund, folkism and other diasporist traditions) is not antisemitic; anti-Zionism from the perspective of Israeli citizens (Jewish or Arab) who want to see Israel as a democratic state for all its citizens (rather than a Jewish state) is not antisemitic; finally anti-Zionism which sees Zionism as a form of imperialism and takes a consistent opposition to all imperialisms without singling out Zionism as unique is wrong-headed, but not in itself antisemitic. All of these forms of anti-Zionism can be used as fig-leaves for antisemitism or be used to feed antisemitism, but they are not themselves antisemitic. If we assume that all anti-Zionism is antisemitic, we devalue the word antisemitic. (I think this devaluing happens with all forms of racism (including Islamophobia), as various factions are incredibly quick to yell racist... But that’s an argument for another time.)

However, there is an enormous gap between seeing antisemitism when it isn’t there to “weaponizing” antisemitism to justify oppression. To say these Zionist and anti-Zionist positions mirror each other is not to say that they are morally equivalent. Different racisms should not be placed in zero sum competition with each other, and a priori ignoring accusations of racism because someone has previously “weaponized” such accusations can never be good practice for the anti-racist left. A genuinely anti-racist left would always take accusations of racism seriously.

A good week for the anti-racist left?
I started my first post by quoting Reuben at the Third Estate, who said it was a good week for the anti-racist left, because of the Zero Books authors’ statement and Andy Newman’s Guardian article. So, was last week a good week? Yes, because a mainstream socialist blogger was unambiguous in calling out left antisemitism in a mainstream liberal outlet, while some influential far left bloggers made a clear public statement about the issue. But mainly no, because the opportunity was then given by a mainstream liberal outlet to publicise a defence of the blood libel and for Gilad Atzmon to engage in further dishonest self-publicity. And also no, because Zero Books remains unmoved, and have probably even established themselves as free speech heroes for many pseudo-radicals.  


Sarah AB said...

Andy – I didn’t reply to Levi’s point that I used antisemitism for instrumentalist reasons because it didn’t seem something one could usefully argue against except to say ‘oh no I don’t’. Also, as I think there is some significant (but quite complex) intersection between antizionism and antisemitism, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t, I didn’t feel there was much point carrying on that discussion.

But your reference to his comment here made me reflect that I can in fact link to things I’ve written which try to distinguish between antizionism and antisemitism. See for example the final part of this post.


Also here I assert that many pro-Palestinians and boycotters would find Atzmon quite unacceptable.


Some people set the bar lower (or differently) than me when it comes to a/s, some higher. Those who set it higher do so in different ways, for different reasons, and when someone who sets it higher (like Andy Newman does, I would say) still clearly speaks out against it, and argues with other commenters in a very forthright way, it seems right to acknowledge that.

I think generally the rather more Israel-friendly blogs (like HP and Shiraz)



have done the right thing in approving those who set the bar higher but are sound on Atzmon. On the whole, such bloggers, including me here


don’t accuse them of having cynical motives, or grumble that they aren’t going far enough, that they haven’t transformed into Zionists as well. This is rather different from, say, Hadar Sela, who said Newman was ‘trying to recreate the smoke screen between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which Atzmon destroyed.’ Hadar Sela seems to set the bar pretty low when it comes to antisemitism – which doesn’t mean she isn’t sincere.

I certainly don’t want to get in the way of Palestinian activists who are genuinely concerned about antisemitism and want to make that clear. There was someone called Rachel who fell into that category in the SU thread about Atzmon, for example.

Benjamin H. said...

Thank you for the blurb. And speaking of Atzmon, I finally remember what made the endorsement of him by Mearsheimer sound odd to me: How did Mearsheimer hear about Atzmon without hearing his noxious views on Jews and Israel? The man is nowhere near famous, is a (relatively) small-time musician, and Zero books is a small British publisher.

The entire thing just strikes me oddly.

Rosie said...

@Benjamin H - yeah, I wonder about that. Atzmon is better known in the UK than the USA, but known as either a saxophonist or, in a small political circle, for his views on Jews and his association with the SWP. Getting the blurb from Mearsheimer was a bit of a coup for Zero Books.

I don't really know how these things work. Someone like Mearsheimer must get books sent to him by publishers on topics they think he will be interested in. This time he chose to endorse one. Maybe he chucks his blurbs around carelessly?

The Contentious Centrist said...

Mearsheimer must have developed an interest in Atzmon's views whwn the latter was quoted by Turkish PM Erdogan in his famous tantrum attack on Peres in Davos Economic summit in 2009:

"Erdogan: Excuse me. First, excuse me, do NOT interrupt me! First, The Old Testament says in the 6th commandment: You shall not kill! But there is murder here. Second, this is also very interesting. Gilad Atzmon, a Jew himself, says: Israeli barbarity is far beyond even ordinary cruelty."

Maybe he mistook him for a "Righteous Jew" based on this quote alone and decided to provide that blurb without any further investigation.

Benjamin H. said...

That raises even -more- questions. Why would a major political figue like Erdogan even know about Atzmon? Why would he quote the quasi-Nazi? I mean... eesh. There's something wrong with the world when the leader of a nation decides to quote a sick attention whore like Atzmon. Of course, seeing as how both of them deny a genocide, they're probably perfect for each other.

Evildoer said...

Of course, imperial weaponization of antisemitism is deeply problematic. Go tell that the Abraham Foxman and Rabbi Hier. Any student of imperialism knows that empires routinely use "minority rights" as a way to attack their targets and advance their encroachment. Western imperialism uses Jewish identity the same way it uses feminism, the rights of Christians, Kurds, etc., LGBT rights, and everything else they can. Jews are weaponized in the same way as any other group that the empire can come to its rescue. It's a bit stronger because of the specificity of WW-II, but it is basically a tried and true method. Empires play minorities, allegedly out of genuine humanitarian concern, and that always creates hostility and sectarian strife, and sometimes it even lays the ground for genocide as it did in Rwanda.

Of course, in every minority there are opportunists who see the alliance with imperialism as their way to the top. We see that with the wretched Iranian Royalists, with the various Syrian stooges who are calling for a US invasion, and the Jewish leadership which sold its soul to the empire is not unique.

It is so difficult to see because Jews have been so thoroughly whitened, which was easy both because they have white skin and because they hailed mostly from Europe, that most Jews can't even look at themselves and draw comparisons between themselves and other minorities. "why me, like a Kurd, like a Tootsie? How dare you!" Their leadership, and the supporting choir, like you, cry forever "we are victims. we are victims" but refuses to see itself as anything other than the natural allies of white power. You sleep in the bad you make.

bob said...

Evil- Sorry for the slow moderation. I completely disagree with the whole premise of your argument, about "empire" and "imperialism". To conflate different sorts of imperialism in this way and to conflate them with various other geopolitical forms is completely useless analysis in my view.

It is of course true that some imperialisms and colonialisms have used "minority rights", women's rights, etc in reprehensible ways. But you seem to imply that compromises all those rights and we should forget them. We should be unconditional in defending minority rights, gay rights, women's rights - regardless of who else advocates for them. It doesn't matter whether that creates strife and hostility from those who would deny these rights, the local elites and patriarchs. Fuck them. The genocide is not the fault of the advocacy of the minority rights - that's like saying multiculturalism (which promotes minority rights here) is responsible for backlash racist attacks and should therefore be abandoned.

I also don't go along with the implication that Iran's theocracy and Syria's military dictatorship should be protected from "imperialism", or that dissidents in those regimes are imperial pawns, royalist stooges and so on.

As for the Jews who've "sold their souls", the connection between what you're talking about and any kind of material base in "empire" seems ludicrously far-fetched and tendentious, and you seem to sweep an awful lot of Jews into these hateful categories, in a rather worrying way.

In particular, there seems to be a lot of slippage between "the Jews" in Israel and "the Jews" in the diaspora, a blurring that you have previously claimed is antisemitic when Zionists make it.

You also seem to accept the reality of race. You say "the Jews" were easily whitened partly because "they have white skin". But the white skin is in the eye of the beholder; they were not seen as white in America or Britain in the 19th century, as any number of documentary sources shows; it was the whitening which made them have white skin, not the other way round. Race is not in our skin or blood, but in the imagination of racists. But which Jews are you talking about, who "hailed from Europe"? The majority of Jews a century ago lived in Europe, but a very, very large minority lived in Asia and Africa. There was nothing inherent in Jews to make them "sell their soul", and to suggest so is a little worrying.

It is true that in the age of whitening, Jews in countries like Britain and America, like other minorities, did their best not identify or be identified as minorities. In places like the Ottoman empire, they didn't really have any illusions, and knew they like Alevis or Armenians. But now Jews in Britain and America are probably more likely than not to understand themselves as an ethnic minority, otherwise they wouldn't be worried about antisemitism! You can't blame them both for not thinking they;re like Tutsis AND for thinking they're victims. Which do you want? It seems they;re damned if they do and damned if they don;t.

When you anti-Zionists feed antisemitic myths by saying the sorts of things you say here, you help to make the bed we have to lie in...