Culture, Identity, Israel

"The Wandering Who?" Gilad Atzmon and Jewish Identity

This s a guest post by independent filmmaker Eli Ungar-Sargon. His first feature-length film, Cut, is about circumcision and Jewish identity. He is currently in post-production on his second feature length film, A People Without a Land.
When Gilad Atzmon blew through Los Angeles to promote his latest book The Wandering Who?, I knew nothing about him. As I sat down to hear him speak I was handed a flyer by a nervous looking young woman. The flyer declared: “LEVANTINE CENTER HOSTS ANTI-SEMITE” and it furnished a series of Atzmon quotes to support its aspersion. The young woman and knit yarmulka-clad man who were handing these flyers out were politely asked to leave and they did so without protest. As I listened to Atzmon first speak and then perform a few musical numbers on his saxophone, it occurred to me that antisemite or not, I was genuinely interested in what this man had to say.
The Wandering Who? seeks to answer the seemingly simple question: “What do people mean when they call themselves Jews?” Near the beginning of the book, Atzmon makes a foundational tripartite distinction between three kinds of Jews. In the first category are people who follow the Jewish religion. The second contain those who were accidentally born to Jewish parents, but see themselves as human beings. And the third category is “Those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all of their other traits.”
The obvious problem with these categories is that real Jewish people seldom fall into only one of them. I know as many religious Jews who fall into categories 1 and 2 as I do secular Jews who fall into categories 2 and 3. Do their identities contain logical contradictions? Surely they do. But these contradictions do not emerge as a consequence of their Jewish-ness, rather they come from the nature of identity itself. To his credit, Atzmon points out that similar contradictions emerge within feminist and gay identity politics and it could be argued that his categorical distinctions are there for conceptual clarity. Nevertheless, Atzmon includes both ardent Zionists and self-identified Jewish Leftists in his third category, arguing that they belong to the same identity continuum:

“If we redefine Zionism as a modern form of Jewish activism that aims to halt assimilation, we can then reassess all Jewish tribal activity as an internal debate within a diverse Zionist political movement…The Israel lobby and the Alan Dershowitzes of the world are the voices of Zionism; the third-category socialists are there to stop proud, self-hating Jews from blowing the whistle.”

There’s a sense in which he’s on to something here. It is true that many Jewish Zionists and Jewish leftists place their identity at the center of their activism. And in so far as no one has yet articulated a coherent and substantive post-religious Jewish identity, this emphasis contains contradictions for secular Jews. But accepting this premise is a far cry from accepting that Leftist Jews put their Jewishness above all of their other traits. Predictably, this part of Atzmon’s argument attracted vehement attacks from prominent liberal Jews. What was not so predictable, was that the US Palestinian Community Network would write a letter condemning Atzmon as an antisemite. In their statement, which was signed by a who’s who list of Palestinian activists, the USPCN stated:

“Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical “Jewish” one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a Jew and also do work in solidarity with Palestine, because to identify as a Jew is to be a Zionist. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon’s argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist.”

This statement is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates a level of discipline among the Palestinian Solidarity Movement that is encouraging. Second, it demonstrates that signatories like Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti, are not the antisemites that their opponents claim them to be. But the letter also proffers an interpretation of Atzmon’s position. And as much as I appreciate the motivation behind the statement, I think that the USPCN misinterprets Atzmon on this point. He doesn’t argue that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist. This is an oversimplification of his position. Atzmon argues that neither the Jewish Zionists, nor the Jewish anti-Zionists, have solved the “Jewish problem”. And until the Jewish problem is solved, they are all essentially playing the same Jewish identity game. The issue is not that Atzmon conflates Zionism with Judaism. The issue is Atzmon’s understanding of “the Jewish problem.”
The Jewish problem for Atzmon is that of Athens vs. Jerusalem and Gilad Atzmon is on Team Athens. In his worldview, there are only two legitimate ways to be Jewish: You can either be a religious Jew and a Jerusalemite, or you can be an accidental Jew and a whistle-blowing Athenian. The problem is that this is a caricature of both Jewish history and Jewish identity. The Jewish tradition is full of conflicting voices on the issue of universalism vs. particularism and Jewish history can, from a certain perspective, be seen as a tug of war between these two poles.
I sympathize with Gilad Atzmon. I really do. We both come from an oppressive and nationalistic culture in which particularism always seems to trump universalism. We also both found refuge in art. But here we part ways. One of the key lessons that I learned from immersing myself in the world of art was that the only way to really achieve universal expression is to speak boldly from your own particular experience. In a way, I believe that this book is Atzmon’s attempt to do just that. In what is perhaps the most insightful passage, he resurrects the long forgotten Otto Weininger to shed light on his own identity issues. Weininger was a 19th century German-Jewish thinker who wrote a controversial bestselling book called Sex and Character. He hated both women and Jews, but one of the key concepts in his book is that we can only understand in the other that which exists in ourselves. Armed with this insight, Atzmon writes:

“I am not looking at the Jews, or at Jewish identity, I am looking at Israelis. I am actually looking in the mirror. With contempt, I am actually elaborating on the Jew in me.”

Unfortunately, Atzmon’s inner Jew is little more than a Jewish supremacist. He was not raised on the complexities of the Talmud or the Midrash and nothing makes this clearer than his uninformed use of Biblical stories to support his superficial critique of the Jewish religion. Like many secular Israelis, Atzmon seems totally ignorant of the dynamic interplay between the Oral and Written traditions and completely unaware of the sophistication of Rabbinic hermeneutics. In contrast to Atzmon, my own early exposure to the Jewish Tradition, has allowed me to forge a space between Athens and Jerusalem that defies his categories. As it happens, I feel most Jewish when I place my humanity above my Jewish identity leshem shamayim, or for the right reasons.
Is Gilad Atzmon an antisemite? There are passages in this book which definitely qualify in my mind as antisemitic, but this is not cause for hysteria. I understand and appreciate why the USPCN distanced themselves from Atzmon, but in general, I’m not a big fan of policing discourse. This is a conversation that Jews desperately need to have and while I strongly disagree with Atzmon’s ideas, I think his questions are valid. As a suspiciously Athenian sounding Rabbi once said: “Who is wise? He who learns from all men.”

5 thoughts on “"The Wandering Who?" Gilad Atzmon and Jewish Identity

  1. I’m not sure you understand the difference between “policing discourse” and “freedom of association.” That it is possible, by working very hard and being very very charitable, to empathize with the cul de sac that you describe at Atzmon’s predicament, and even feel sorry for him, doesn’t mean that this should be done as part of a struggle to liberate the Palestinian people, a struggle that, like all just struggles, is a magnet for opportunists. Some of us have bigger fish to fry.

  2. Excellent analysis. Instead of knee jerk reactionism, an attempt to understand a complex and imperfect individual.

  3. I think its important to understand the context in which these accusations of antisemitism are occurring. In particular, it needs to be understood that Atzmon has a long history of attacking Jewish leftists (including anti-zionists) and has even gone so far as to defend the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Some sort say he has even flirted with Holocaust denial. People of conscience should have nothing to do with this man.
    see the following links for more info:

  4. Very interesting and enlightening review. I guess that you missed a few points though… The book doesn’t criticise Judaism, it actually explores the Zionist misinterpretation of the OT.
    The references to Biblical plunder (in the context of home coming) suggests how misleading the interpretation and why.
    The book explores contemporary J identity rather than Judaism, However, I make it clear more than once that Judaism offers a coherent and consistent moral Jewish existence..

  5. The Groucho Marxist-I fully understand the distinction and I sympathize with the motivations behind the USPCN’s letter. Indeed, I too am trying to fry the bigger fish in my film work. None of that detracts from the fact that this is an important internal Jewish conversation that is long overdue.
    JG- Thanks. I was trying to deal with the ideas. I leave it to others to talk about the man.
    Greg-I agree that it is important to talk about the context in which these accusations are occurring, but that was not the purpose of this piece.
    Gilad Atzmon-If your intention was to only criticize Jewish-ness as you claim, you were very sloppy about it in the book. Perhaps you can explain the following passage:
    “The dialectic of fear has dominated the Jewish existence and mindset far longer than we are ready to admit. For while Jewish ethnic leaders have exploited it politically since the early days of emancipation, it is much older than modern Jewish history. In fact, it is the heritage of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), there to induce in Jews a pre-traumatic state…It was the Bible that originally set the Jews in a state of Pre-TSS and initiated the fear of Judeocide, the Bible that paints the Jewish universe as a disaster waiting to happen.”
    To my ears, this sounds like a critique of the Jewish religion not a critique of a “Zionist misinterpretation of the OT.” It is, as I mentioned in my piece, uninformed and superficial. For two millennia, Jewish thinkers have created intricate exegesis on these stories-and there is what to criticize. But you can’t expect us to take your criticism seriously when you ignore everything but the OT.

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