George Polley: The Wandering Who-Book Review
Gilad Atzmon’s transformation from a typical Jewish Israeli kid to someone who began questioning the Israeli narrative began when he heard Charlie (“Bird”) Parker with Strings on a late night jazz program. “I was totally knocked down. The music was more organic, poetic, sentimental and wilder than anything I had ever heard before.” Parker was the beginning of Atzmon’s journey away from being a believer in the Zionist ideology and his “chauvinist, exclusivist tribe” to being one of its staunchest critics. What completed the change in his life was a visit to Ansar as a young Israeli soldier. Ansar was “a notorious Israeli internment camp in South Lebanon” in 1981 during the first Israel-Lebanon war. “I studied the detainees,” he writes; “They looked very different to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The ones I saw in Ansar were angry. They were not defeated, they were freedom fighters and they were numerous. As we continued past the barbed wire I continued gazing at the inmates, and arrived at an unbearable truth: I was walking on the other side, in Israeli military uniform, and I was nothing but a ‘Nazi’.” (page 6)
What a shocker for this grandson of a former prominent commander in the right-wing Irgun terror organization, raised on the notion of Jewish righteousness and Arab duplicity, to finally awaken to the truth about his country. “At the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I saw that Israeli ‘peacemaking’ was nothing but spin. Its purpose ... was to further secure the existence of the Jewish State at the expense of the Palestinians. For most Israelis, shalom doesn’t mean ‘peace’, it means security, and for Jews only.” Moving to London, he began work on a Master’s Degree in philosophy at the University of Essex, began his career as a jazz musician, and began digging deeply into modern Israel’s character for answers to his questions about its origins, its inhuman treatment of Palestine’s Arabs, and its contemptuous regard for international law.
Central to Atzmon’s discourse is a discussion of what the word “Jew” stands for, a question that seems to him to be “taboo within Western discourse”. It is clear why. Begin to ask the question, and you are likely to get yourself accused of being an anti-Semite. And this is exactly what has happened to Atzmon. Though he presents a harsh criticism of Jewish politics and identity, there is not “a single reference to Jews as ethnicity or race” anywhere in the book. “In my writing, I differentiate between Jews (the people), Judaism (the religion) and Jewish-ness (The ideology).” If you’re “searching for blood or race-related interpretation of Zionism (you) will have to look for it in someone else’s book.” It certainly is not present here.
In Chapter One, Atzmon asks two simple-but-significant questions: Who are the Jews, and what do people mean who call themselves Jews? (page 16). “As far as self-perception (my emphasis) is concerned, those who call themselves Jews (can) be divided into three main categories: (1) Those who follow Judaism; (2) Those who regard themselves as human beings who happen to be of Jewish origin; and (3) Those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all other traits” (page 16).
Atzmon points out that it is this third category that is the core of Zionist ideology and the major cause of modern Israel’s problems. “You may be a Jew who dwells in England, a Jew who plays the violin or even a Jew against Zionism, but above all else you are a Jew” (page 17). Jewish-ness is “the fundamental characteristic of one’s being,” that stops “the Jew from assimilating or disappearing into the crowd.” “The Jew would always remain an alien” (page 17), one of the Chosen Ones in a sea of goyim, a people who must have their own homeland in which they can dwell in peace. It is from those who put their Jewish-ness before all else that Israel’s most enthusiastic supporters (like AIPAC, the America Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and spies (like Jonathan Pollard) come. In Israeli parlance, Jewish-ness is more than a tribal identifier, it is a political commitment (p. 20) that Atzmon calls “third category brotherhood” (p. 21). The Zionist movement’s greatest strength has been transforming “the Jewish tribal mode into a collective functioning system” (p. 21) that vigorously attacks all who stand in its way.
According to Zionist dogma, the Jews are the descendants of Israel’s original Jewish population exiled from their ancient homeland through conquest. But are they “one people”, the descendants of a common ancestor? Apparently not, as Israeli historian Shlomo Sand shows in his book The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009), a book that I have read and reviewed. As Atzmon explains on page 135, in the 19th century “intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany ... took upon themselves the task of inventing a people ‘retrospectively’ out of a thirst to create a Jewish people” (p. 135), thus creating a raison d’etre for the creation of the modern Jewish State. Yet as Sand convincingly shows, the “Jewish people” are a conglomeration of peoples, the descendants of converts to Judaism, not an ancient people long separated from their homeland. What Atzmon does here with Sand’s help is pull the rug out from under the modern Jewish State by showing that the preamble to Israel’s Declaration of Independence -- "After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom" -- is based on “mythistory”, not fact. Little wonder why Atzmon’s book has created a loud outcry about Atzmon’s book from Israel’s most ardent supporters.
Gilad Atzmon wrote his book out of a desire to probe deeply into the country in which he was born and raised. It is also a journey of self-examination and awakening. Why does Israel act the way it does? Why has it always treated Palestine’s Arabs with such contempt? Why are its laws written to benefit only its Jewish citizens, relegating all others to second class citizenship? Why does it engage in acts that are commonly viewed as barbaric and reminiscent of the behavior’s of Hitler’s SS and Gestapo? Why does it view itself as always needing security while denying the Palestinian people and its Arab neighbors that right? Why is it so blind to the reaction its behaviors cause?
Atzmon’s discovery and questioning reminds me of my own awakening when, back in the summer of 1954, my best friend Claude explained to me what it meant to grow up African-American (the term used back then was American Negro) in my home town Seattle, Washington. I was devastated. It still brings tears to my eyes. How could anyone treat my friend like that -- so damage his feeling of self-worth and value? How could I be so totally unaware this was happening to people in my home town? The experience was transformational, totally changing my thinking on the subject of race.
The Wandering Who? is a valuable contribution to understanding how tribalistic thinking leads to narrow-mindedness and barbarism. Is his book controversial? Of course. A book that asks the kinds of questions Atzmon asks about Israel and its behavior is automatically labeled controversial by Israel’s apologists. Reading them is like listening to a group of abusive men loudly proclaim their innocence by finger-pointing at their accusers. I’m much more apt to listen to their accusers than I would if they’d shut up. But they don’t. A recent rant by Alan Dershowitz is a wonderful example of what I mean: http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/97030/atzmon-wandering-who-anti-semitism-israel .