RAISE YOUR BANNERS is a festival of political song in Bradford, partly funded by a public body, the Arts Council. It has been going for sixteen years.
GILAD ATZMON is an Israeli-born jazz musician increasingly prominent (in the UK at least) in the last few years for his bizarre politics, and in particular his vitriolic hatred for Jews and his “iconoclastic” insistence on questioning everything we know about the Holocaust. A group of radical writers including the SWP’s Richard Seymour recently argued that “The thrust of Atzmon’s work is to normalise and legitimise anti-Semitism”. Trade unionist and Socialist Unity blogger Andy Newman accused him in the Guardian of “a wild conspiracy argument, dripping with contempt for Jews”. Cristina Odone has said his recent book “splutters with anti-Jewish sentiment”. The Community SecurityTrust, the organisation dedicated to combating antisemitism, says that “he has been condemned as antisemitic by Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionists as well as mainstream Jewish organisations. This is not simply a case of harsh disagreements over Israeli policy. If somebody else made similar comments about Muslim identity, or black British identity, they would be generally condemned as Islamophobic or racist. We see no reason why Gilad Atzmon should be treated any differently... Anybody considering giving Gilad Atzmon a platform to spread these views, needs to ask themselves whether they want to help facilitate the spread of anti-Jewish hostility in this country.”
Gilad Atzmon is a man who finds throwing Jews into the sea amusing. He is a man who thinks that eventually some “brave people will say that Hitler was right after all”, that it might actually be the case that medieval Jews murdered gentile children for their blood, that Jews in America are “the enemy within”. He is a man who uses BNP websites as a source for information. He is a man who thinks the Nazi death marches were “actually humane”.
Hot from speaking at Exeter University (where, apparently, he said “Hitler was right” and “anti-Semitism doesn’t exist”*), Atzmon is due to appear at Raise Your Banners on Friday. Raise Your Banners has received complaints from supporters of the event going since April 2011, including the Jewish Socialist Group, Bradford Trades Council and Hope Not Hate. Bradford TC said: “"There is no way that Atzmon should play. The evidence against him is overwhelming. We are appalled at this decision and believe that this is a serious point of principle. Bradford TUC has long been at the fore of the anti-fascist movement in the area and it is in this tradition that we demand the withdrawal of Atzmon’s invitation."
In response, the festival’s secretary made this oblique comment: “we have discussed the matter with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and are satisfied that PSC have no boycott of Gilad Atzmon or events that he is involved in.” That reflects badly on the PSC, but is about as relevant as the price of fish. The director, Ludi Simpson, has said: “We do not believe the claims of anti-semitism. If we did believe them then we would not have invited him. All our artists have signed up to our equal-opportunities policy. Our audience would not tolerate racist behaviour.” Presumably, if Nick Griffin signed an equal opps statement, you could invite him. Or you could actually read Atzmon’s words and realise that the “claims” of antisemitism are quite easy to believe. They also concede that "Gilad Atzmon’s philosophical and political writings stir up... a strong reaction from their main target the Israeli government." In fact, the Israeli government is probably not that interested in this small fry, and this claim only works by ignoring the persistent criticisms of Atzmon by Zionism's harshest UK critics, such as Jews Against Zionism.
The Arts Council has stood by the festival, arguing that Atzmon was participating in the event “as a musician and not in his capacity as a political writer”. As Waterloo Sunset notes, this is a disingenuous response: “As is clear from their own description, RYB does not separate music and politics in the way the Arts Council suggests. Atzmon is there as a political figure- the remit of the festival means he couldn’t be anything else.” The Arts Council also says it doesn’t want to "restrict an artist from expressing their views" and it believes in funding events and artists that show "a diverse view of world society". Presumably we can look forward to their funding of Skrewdriver concerts next, or hosting lectures by author Anders Breivik, because why restrict their diverse views?
SARAH GILLESPIE is a Brockley-based singer-songwriter with a gorgeous voice, also playing at the festival alongside Atzmon. I wrote this about her last year, giving some examples of her own straying into dodgy territory. She has also been (along with Atzmon and Ernst Zundel) thanked by Paul Eisen in his text “My life as a Holocaust denier” for standing by him.
More recently, she has written a “defence” of Atzmon, circulating widely on the internet on Holocaust denial and 9/11 Truther sites, far right and white supremacist sites, as well as fringe leftist sites. Her defence claims that Atzmon is “on an intellectual quest for truth”, a familiar trope among Holocaust deniers.
She has in the past accused the BBC of being biased towards Israel because its Director General had a Jewish wife (“the man is far from ‘impartial’. His Jewish wife, the scholar Jane Blumfeild, hails from an American family that attends Yeshivas.”). Despite this, she was invited on to the BBC, appearing on Andrew Marr’s “Start the Week” on Radio 4 yesterday, along with Paul Kominsky of The Promise, to discuss art and politics.
THE STRAWBERRY THIEVES are another Southeast London group booked at the festival, a socialist choir led by John Hamilton, based in Telegraph Hill (that’s the posh northwestern corner of Greater Brockley). Hamilton
The Strawberry Thieves’ songbook is on-line. One of its songs, “War Crimes” [pdf], describes Israel "as a state made for the chosen few, where lives of Palestinian folk are worth much less than lives of Jews". Commenting on this sort of language, a Guardian editor recently wrote “‘Chosenness’, in Jewish theology, tends to refer to the sense in which Jews are ‘burdened’ by religious responsibilities; it has never meant that the Jews are better than anyone else. Historically it has been antisemites, not Jews, who have read ‘chosen’ as code for Jewish supremacism.” Here’s how the Thieves describe their contribution to the festival: “We will be singing in the choirs concert on Saturday afternoon in the cathedral and running a workshop on Saturday morning, 10-11am on countering Zionist propaganda in song!”
TAKE ACTION! I think it is outrageous that Raise Your Banners has invited Gilad Atzmon to perform, not as a musician but as a political figure. They claim that they want to promote a “diversity of views”, but I notice that they have not this year or in any previous year invited White Power skinhead bands, for example, or Ulster Unionist pipe bands, or even Tory folk musicians. Would they invite homophobic and misogynistic rappers, for example, because they had also written excellent left-wing songs? Would they invite a fine socialist songwriter who had a track record of anti-black racism? It seems to me there are a number of ways we can take action.
- Put pressure on the organisers. Express your disgust that the festival is inviting a racist performer. Sam Jackson is the event secretary who put out the odd PSC statement. Ludi Simpson is variously described as treasurer, director and organiser of the Atzmon bit. (Is that the same Ludi Simpson who does excellent statistical research at Manchester University? If so, his research skills have failed him here, as googling Gilad Atzmon would be enough to put anyone sensible off.) Contact details are here (the phone number is 07530 243874), and you can also follow the festival on Facebook or Twitter.
- Put pressure on the Arts Council. It seems to me that at a time when public money is so tightly rationed, it gives a lot of ammunition to the enemy of arts funding that they are spending taxpayers’ money on a festival that hosts a known racist. How would they feel if their budget went towards someone like David Irving or David Duke as to show "a diverse view of world society", because that’s basically what they are doing.
- Put pressure on the Co-op, who are also a funder according to the website. I am a member, and I don’t like this use of Co-operative funds. Website here.
- Put pressure on the venue. In this case, that’s the Church of England!
A HnH commenter writes: “This event happens at Bradford Cathedral (01274 777720). You need to speak to diocesan Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines, and if that doesn't work, make a direct appeal to the Church of England hierarchy. Giving a forthright anti-semite permission to play his concert at a cathedral would make disastrous headlines for the Church of England, if the media were to get hold of it. http://www.visitbradford.com/thedms.asp?dms=13&feature=1256&venue=1570382UPDATE: Apparently, due to poor ticket sales, the venue has shifted from the Cathedral to the smaller Kala Sangan, also funded by the Arts Council. You can follow them on Twitter too, by the way. And, in an outbreak of sensibleness, the Dean of Bradford has come out against Atzmon.
- Ask other performers to pull out if Atzmon is not dis-invited. Apart from Martin Carthy, Peggy Seeger and Roy Bailey, I haven’t heard of many of the performers, but they’re listed here: John Tams and Barry Coope, Ewan McLennan and Robb Johnson, Amsterdam, Seize the Day and the Hall Brothers, Tina McKevitt and Matt Hegarty. (The great violinist Omar Puente has pulled out: I can't find information about why, but I’d like to think it is because he prefers not to share a stage with a racist.) These performers might be swayed by Richard Seymour’s letter to Zer0 Books.
- Urge your union branch to follow Bradford TUC in condemning the event.
- Consider picketing or even disrupting the event. Everybody Hates a Tourist has a post about the event, and urges anyone interested in taking action to get in touch with him.
*Some audio of Atzmon’s Exeter speech here – I haven’t listened to it.
**Hamilton says this is not true - see here.
Further reading: CST: “Gilad Atzmon: what you see is what you get”; Yaniv Halily “The protocols of Gilad Atzmon”.
Previously: Left antisemitism and its rejection; Atzmonism; Addenda.
All my Atzmon posts.