The Brighton-based ‘Wandering Who? Reading Group’ met for the third time on Wednesday 11th April, this time in a tower block with a fantastic, if dizzying, view over Brighton & Hove. We were considering Chapters 4 and 5 of Gilad Atmon’s book, ‘The Sabra, the Settler and the Disapora Jew’, and ‘Fagin vs. Einstein’ respectively.
Atzmon makes an interesting distinction between the Sabra, a native born Israeli whose ideal is to be tough outside and tender inside, and the Settler, who dispenses with any idea of compassion. The Sabra ‘can ethnically cleanse the entire Palestinian nation on Friday and then attend a “Peace Now” demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening.’ In this he is the negation of the soft Diaspora Jew. While he resembles a German soldier in certain respects, ‘he is loose, he likes to walk in Biblical sandals …’ Atzmon objects that this constructed identity is fundamentally inauthentic, while that of the Settler, however much we may dislike it, is authentic. The West-Bank settler, who arose after the 1967, ‘doesn’t shoot and sob; he is driven by conviction.’ Whereas the Sabra negated the Diaspora Jew, the Settler negates the Goy.
Chapter 4 (like Chapter 5) is so full of philosophical ideas which are difficult to evaluate that we were left struggling. What did ‘negation,’ ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ mean in this context? Nevertheless, on reflection we were able to see that Herzl’s ideal Jew was a ‘negation’, at least, of the ghetto Jew, and perhaps that negation grew with time to include all non-Israeli Jews.
(It should be noted at this point that at least one of our number was unhappy with the use of the word ‘Diaspora’, since this implied a certain view of history which had been well and truly debunked, first by Arthur Koestler and more recently by Shlomo Sand. In other words, the idea that the Jews were expelled by the Romans from Palestine, and then spread all over the world doesn’t stand up to historical investigation. The concept of the Diaspora is, rather, a mythical construction which serves Zionism’s interests.)
It was also possible to see how killing people one day and being warm-hearted and peace-loving on another is inauthentic. Perhaps the problem here is simply that we are not Israelis, and we therefore have some difficulty getting inside the Israeli psyche. On the other hand, this phenomenon is hardly limited to Israelis. At the end of the war Harold Macmillan was involved in the Keelhaul operation which required the deportation of 70,000 POWs to the Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia, as as result of which large numbers of them were killed. And yet a more avuncular figure it is difficult to imagine. Was he an inauthentic character too?
We were also unsure whether we agreed that there was a clear distinction between earlier settlers and those after 1967. Were those Jewish women settlers of the thirties who would gun down Palestinians just because they were attempting to return to their land, any better than the post-1967 settlers? There was, however, no doubt that Israel had largely abandoned its earlier socialist (albeit ethnocentric) ideas, and was less ambiguous in pursuit of its aims.
In Chapter 5 Atzmon reiterates his oft-stated objection to groups which specifically link their Jewishness to various forms of activism; so there are ‘Jews for Peace, Jews for Justice, Jews for Jesus and so on.’ The Jewish connection is supposed to give such groups a special status, according to Atzmon. Yet he points out the anomaly that while Jews themselves make much use of the Jewish signifier (as he calls it), others who do so get into big trouble unless they are praising Jews for their particular talents and virtues. Here is how he illustrates this phenomenon:
‘… most Jews are not that concerned when being associated collectively with some great minds, adorable violin players or conductors … but you may get into some serious trouble once you mention the following list of real and fictional characters: Bernie Madoff, Fagin, Wolfowitz, Lord Levy, Shylock, Alan Greenspan, Netanyahu and Nathan Rothschild [in the context of their Jewishness].’
This was indeed a phenomenon which our group had encountered, especially in relation to ‘Holocaust’ memorialisation and Jewish studies. When combined with serious sanctions against anyone who spoke critically of Jews collectively, it resulted in a distortion of political and social thought of which almost everyone in our society is consciously, or at least unconsciously, aware.
We didn’t get as far as discussing Atzmon’s attitude to Anthony Julius’s article ‘Trials of the Diaspora,’ which is a pity, because it contains a strong argument against anti-Zionism. If we don’t take it up at the beginning of our next meeting, to which Atzmon is invited, we will no doubt encounter it again in our discussions. Fundamentally it says: ‘We’re only doing what everyone else does, or has done in the past’.
As always, this report has been approved by those attending the meeting.