Red Scribblings: Political Islam and ‘Jewish identity politics’ – a comparison
The controversy over Gilad Atzmon and his book The Wandering Who, which I recently reviewed on this blog, raises a lot of important questions about history and the politics of the last two centuries. I make no apology for writing about this question again because some of the issues he raises are of great importance to questions relating to war and peace, the nature of contemporary capitalism, national questions and the composition of major classes in society, particularly the capitalist class. All these questions are of central importance to anyone who wants to see capitalism superseded by socialism – they also touch intimately on questions intertwined with the causes of at least one world war in living memory, as well as other traumatic and world historic events including the currents wars and now revolutions shaking the Middle East and neighbouring regions and states. So its pretty important.
Atzmon is not a Marxist thinker, but an idiosyncratic left-wing liberal, born and raised in a racist ethnocracy. His own rejection of a racist upbringing and his privileged birthright as a Jew in a Jewish state, has generated some ferocious rhetoric and not a little incoherence and misunderstanding by friend and foe alike in some cases. But Atzmon’s writings are significant: this is also acknowledged by his enemies, usually rabid Zionists though also a few semi-Bundist socialists who on most issues are on the opposite side of the barricades to the Netan-yahoos. My point here is not to dwell on that conflict, but to acknowledge the significance of his work on ‘Jewish identity’. If it was just, as his enemies proclaim, reheated anti-semitism from the pre-WWII years, Atzmon would be unable to defend himself against a tidal wave of universal opprobrium.
After all, even many on the far right in Western countries are themselves keen to distance themselves from anti-semitism because it is no longer useful to them – anti-Muslim hate is much more de rigeur. So how come, if Atzmon is anti-semitic, is he getting a hearing from many broadly on the left of the political spectrum? It does not make sense. The only explanation for this that his enemies can put forward is to start talking about how the left itself is hostile to people of Jewish origin purely because of that origin. But that is a nonsensical allegation that I will not address here except to note that it is usually the refuge those pushing some kind of racist anti-Arab agenda, or opportunists of various kinds aiming to suck up to people with these kinds of views. And many of those abused in this way by Zionist right-wingers and their gentile reactionary allies are themselves Jewish. No-one of any integrity believes this allegation so I will say no more about it.
Despite his evident differences with Marxism, which he has derided as ‘psuedo-scientific’, Atzmon is putting forward something useful to Marxists in addressing the Jewish question. He puts forward a theory about the politicisation of Jewish identity that basically divides its bearers into three categories. One is a religious identity, that of believing practitioners of Judaism. Two is those who are born Jewish, who may or may not be religious Jews, and who basically regard themselves as citizens of whatever state they reside in, and attach no particular political significance to their Jewish identity. And then there is what Atzmon calls the third category, of those Jews for who being Jewish is a political identity above all, and indeed appears to be the most important aspect of their political persona. He considers the first two ‘categories’ to be basically harmless; the third anything but.
Atzmon states that this ‘third’ category of Jews act as a ‘tribal’ or communalist body, claim to speak for ‘the Jews’ as a whole, and act as a collective in maximising their influence against other national/ethnic communities, particularly Arabs, though not limited to them. Atzmon further states that this ‘third category’ movement, as part of its communal project, acts to ‘infiltrate’ the corridors of power particularly in advanced countries like Europe and America, basically to fight for ‘Jewish’ interests, which today are expressed through the interests of the Israeli state. This latter supposition is the most contentious aspect of Atzmon’s theories and I will put off discussing that until I have examined some of its antecedent arguments.
There is nothing odious or even unusual about the logic Atzmon uses to divide Jews into three categories. A very similar schema can be used to divide up Muslims, and many of Atzmon’s most vehement critics would have no problem in making such distinctions. One could say that a first category Muslim is simply an ordinary believer who is purely religious in motivation and does not concern himself or herself with politics. A second category Muslim is a believer who may well involve themselves in politics in some way, but does not make the Muslim religion or identity the focal point of their political activity. The third category of Muslim would then be a Muslim who is involved in political activity whose central aim is to promote Islam, or the perceived interest of Muslims, as their prime concern and reason for political activity.
Many of Atzmon’s critics would have no problem in dividing Muslims up in this way and would of course have a ready-made term available to describe the ‘third category’ of Muslims. Such people they tend to call ‘political Islamists’. This is uncontroversial among liberals and the left: while there are wide differences on how to relate to those who are politically active as Muslims, with some writing off all such people as irremediably reactionary while others adopting a more nuanced position, there is little dispute about the existence of political Islam, and therefore three basic categories of Muslim identity. No one on the left goes around denouncing anyone who recognises the mere existence of political Islam as a distinct category as racist or Islamophobic.
When it comes to making such distinctions among Jews, however, the reaction from both progressive and right-wing Jewish activists and their cheerleaders on the gentile left is quite hysterical. Thus the campaign against Atzmon, recently taken up in an unsuccessful attempt at banning his music by the Zionist-influenced ‘anti-fascist’ campaigning group ‘Hope Not Hate’ and the Zionist anti-Muslim hate site Harry’s Place. No one with any sense on the left expects much from these people, who spend more time witch-hunting anti-imperialists and anti-war activists particularly from the Middle East than any purely nominal ‘anti-fascism’. But more serious people on the left have also reacted with horror to Atzmon’s making such distinctions among Jews.
Jewish and Islamist politics – parallels and differences
There are some important differences between Jewish politics and Political Islam that make such a comparison not as straightforward as all that. One important one is that there is no significant secular form of political Muslim communalism. Because Islam is a pan-national religion that is the majority in a range of countries from Morocco to Indonesia, those secular forms of politics that have evolved tend to be based on one or another form of nationalism – Arab nationalism, nationalist politics in Pakistan (initially defined against India), Indonesian nationalism, etc. Pan-Islamic politics is most definitely not secular, but aims to appeal to people of disparate nations on the basis of loyalty to Islam. This is most definitely not parallel to Jewish politics.
Jewish politics as a form of communalism is mainly secular and largely the creation of atheists. The reasons for this are complex and go back into history. Abram Leon, the Trotskyist who authored The Jewish Question during the Second World War (before being himself murdered in the holocaust), provided the framework for much of this understanding, describing the Jews as having been a class of pre-capitalist traders in feudal society, a people-class who performed a necessary economic function and whose religion and identity became adapted to reflect their social role. For Leon, the reason for the Jews’ survival as a distinct religious community was linked to that economic role. With the advent of the capitalist mode of production, growing up within feudal society and eventually overturning it, that role became obsolete.
The result was a pretty complex evolution for the Jews, they became hated competitors for the emerging bourgeoisie, having had a monopoly position in the role of financiers and merchants under feudalism. At the same time, Jewish merchants did make careers for themselves under the new mode of production and became sometimes a target of social discontent that the bourgeoisie managed quite skilfully to steer away from itself towards ‘Jewish’ capital. But in any case, the medieval religious form of the Jewish religion was obsolete and in no shape to drive the former people-class forward in a new world.
The threat of disintegration, assimilation, and the obsolescence of the old Judaism led to the emergence of reform Judaism as the capitalist mode of production fully emerged in the 19th Century, and at the same time, even more strikingly, a movement to define the Jews as a people in secular terms, as described recently by Tel Aviv Professor Shlomo Sand in his remarkable study The Invention of the Jewish People. The most obvious manifestation of this was Zionism, in terms of the project to completely re-create the Jews as a fully-fledged nation with its own territory.
The real point of all this being that unlike with Islam, where specifically Muslim communalist politics takes a form that is overtly, sometimes fanatically religious in ideology, the opposite is true with Judaism. Specifically Jewish politics has not, for the reasons sketched out above, been generally religious, but secular. Indeed religious trends, with some more recent and derivative exceptions in Israel itself, have been generally less inclined to communalism than the secularists.
This paradox makes the Jewish question quite difficult to get a handle on, and more to the point is that in criticising Jewish communal politics one appears to be specifically attacking the secular and apparently modernising trend among this people, which is the opposite of the way such matters are usually approached. But the reason for this is that the Jews are not a nation, and the attempt to re-create them as such could only have reactionary results. As we see today with the anti-democratic monstrosity that is Israel, the ethnocratic tyranny, created through the dispossession of another people, that threatens the peoples of the Middle East with a nuclear holocaust.
So that is where Gilad Atzmon is fundamentally correct. In differentiating between the three ‘categories’ of Jews, and focussing his attack only on the third ‘category’, he is making an important contribution to the understanding not only of the Jewish question, but of the world we live in today.
The conclusion he derives from this, about the alleged proclivity of bearers of the ‘third category’ Jewish identity to infiltrate the corridors of power, is what has led to the controversy about his alleged ‘anti-semitism’. He writes in his book about the Book of Esther in the Hebrew bible as a blueprint for this, the story of a Jewish woman who married the king of Persia without her Jewish origin being known and was supposedly able to avert a genocide of the Jews through her influence at court. The story, as Atzmon points out, is almost certainly fictional, but he sees it as a paradigm of not only the tactics of Israel’s supporters today in seeking through lobbying to promote Israeli interests, most notably in the US, but also of similar tactics by ‘third category’ Jews throughout the whole period since the birth of the concept of the Jews as a putative nation in the 19th Century.
“Justifying” or explaining?
In a particularly sharp way, Atzmon pointed out in 2009 some of the likely consequences of Israel’s unremitting and brazen brutality against the Palestinians and other surrounding peoples in terms of re-generating hatred of Jews:
“Hitler was indeed defeated, Jews are now more than welcome in Germany and in Europe, yet, the Jewish state and the sons of Israel are at least as unpopular in the Middle East as their grandparents were in Europe just six decades ago. Seemingly, it is the personification of WW2 and the Holocaust that blinded the Israelis and their supporters from internalising the real meaning of the conditions and the events that led towards their destruction in the first place. Would the Zionists understand the real meaning of their Holocaust, the contemporary Israelite may be able to prevent the destruction that may be awaiting them in the future.” (Saying No to the Hunters of Goliath)
This article and this passage in particular produced a pretty hysterical reaction, not just from Zionists (which is to be expected), but also from many on the Jewish left. Tony Greenstein, for instance, accused Atzmon of ‘justifying the holocaust’ with this passage.
The hysteria involved in this accusation is obvious with a little sober reflection. First of all, if Atzmon was indeed ‘justifying the holocaust’ he really must be more Nazi than any other neo-Nazis. For of course, the tactic of neo-Nazis such as David Irving and Richard Verrall, when confronted with the utterly despicable act of racist mass murder that was the holocaust, is not to brazenly justify it and say that the victims got what they deserved. Such a position would be complete political suicide for anyone who came out with such hate-filled invective. Rather, the tactic of neo-Nazis is to deny that there was any genocide, and to look for some means to cast doubt on it.
Atzmon is also, falsely accused of holocaust-denial by some of the same people. But no one seems to notice that the two accusations contradict each other. To justify the holocaust you have to acknowledge that there actually was a holocaust. Conversely, if you regard (or claim to regard) the holocaust as a piece of fiction, it is not possible to ‘justify’ it – justifying a fiction (real or alleged) is an impossible, chimerical task!
So why the hysterical response to this stern warning to the Israelis about the likely consequences of their brutality? The hysteria is prompted in reality by the implication in the above passage that there may have been something in the conduct of powerful Jews prior to the Nazi genocide that contributed to the Jews being hated enough in Europe for a genocidal backlash to happen. This appears to be what Atzmon believes. Is this true? I do not profess at this point to definitively know. It is however possible. And more to the point, this is a legitimate subject for political debate, there is nothing ‘racist’ in raising it. A simple analogy with the present day will be sufficient to indictate why asking this question is not racist.
Causes of Islamophobia
Take the question of Islamophobia today. It is self-evident that fighting Islamophobia is the duty of every decent socialist and anti-imperialist. Those supposedly on the left who fuel it, the likes of the Alliance for Workers Liberty or the even more loathsome elements around Harry’s Place, cannot be regarded as comrades or progressives at all. But it is not enough to condemn Islamophobes when analysing the causes of Islamophobia.
The fact is that some reactionary elements among Muslims also bear responsibility for promoting Islamophobia. Atrocities like the 9/11 attacks, 7/7, the Bali bombing, the attacks in Africa and Spain, etc have fuelled Islamophobia, and provided much ammunition to Islamophobes. Indeed, the most nihilistic elements among Islamists quite deliberately fuel Islamophobia and calculate that they will benefit from it.
The classic recent example of this is the activities of Al Mujaharoun, the group around Anjem Choudhury which plays a cat-and-mouse game with British governments determined to stamp it out by repeatedly dissolving in the face of a ban and re-forming under different names. Its organisation of a demonstration in Luton in March 2009 excoriating dead British soldiers as scum and psycho-killers who allegedly deserved to die and ‘burn in hell’ was a provocation aimed at provoking Islamophobia. It had the desired effect, as it crystallised for the first time a specifically Islamophobic fascist group in Britain – the English Defence League was formed directly as a result of this provocation.
It is not in the slightest bit racist to say that. Nor is it incompatible with the fight against Islamophobia. What is however characteristic of Islamophobia is to equate all Muslims, or even all political Islamists, with the like of Al Qaeda or Al Mujaharoun. Some political Islamists have played a progressive role in the struggle against Islamophobia. One example springs to mind immediately – the role of the Muslim Association of Britain, which has links with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in being one of the three organisations that came together to form the mass anti-war movement that shook Tony Blair’s warmongering government and mobilised two million people in the massive anti-war demonstration of February 15th 2003. The fraternal links that this forged between Muslims and non-Muslims in opposing the war has limited the growth of Islamophobia even to this day – things would likely be a lot worse were it not for what happened during this period. Those on the left who tried to abort this progressive collaboration, and baldly equated the MAB with Al Qaeda etc, played an utterly reactionary role.
Jewish communal politics and anti-semitism
Going back to the issue of Jewish communal politics, Atzmon is on strong ground when he attacks the various rabid Zionist neocons, or the likes of Lord Levy in the Blairised Labour Party, as partisans of Jewish communalism in promoting what appear to be Israeli interests in the British or US governments. If this is what these people are doing, and they are pretty brazen about it, how is it racist to point this out? The question of why they are able to get away with this is a different question, and Atzmon’s non-Marxism and hostility to what he calls ‘psuedo-scientific materialism’ means he gives emphasis to the subjective aims and objectives of these communalist Jewish politicians, and not to the material interests of the bulk of the non-Jewish Western ruling classes which give them that latitude. But nevertheless to attack such people for promoting ‘Jewish’ interests is no more racist than to accuse Al Qaeda of promoting antagonism between Muslims and non-Muslims.
So, were there elements of Jewish communal politics that existed prior to the holocaust, and prior to the formation of the state of Israel for that matter, that helped create the climate of hatred of Jews that made the holocaust possible politically? From my understanding, and by an analogy with the present day situation of Islamophobia, there may have been such things. But they were subordinate and subsidiary to the overriding factors that drove anti-semitism in the pre-WWII period. Just as today, while some elements of political Islam bear responsibility for the growth of Islamophobia, it is fundamentally driven by imperialist and Zionist interests in the domination of the Middle East.
Pre-war anti-semitism was above all a counter-revolutionary paranoia and demonology, emanating from the ruling classes of capitalist Europe which was shaken by the spectre of Communism and the Russian revolution. Unable to admit, even to themselves, that the economic system from which they drew their wealth and privileges was disfunctional and provoking legitimate social protest and the possibility of revolution, they looked for a demonic force as the culprit instead.
The prominence of Jews, driven by their oppression under Tsarism, in the Russian Revolution, and the prominence of emancipated Jews in the earlier bourgeois revolutions in Europe, which the bourgeoisie was always ambivalent about because of the risk that mobilising the masses posed to all privilege, even that of the bourgeoisie itself, as it benefited from a revolution that made it the ruling class, led it to see revolution as a demonic, harmful thing. Which of course must be the work of a demonic, ‘alien’ force. The Jews being the most obviously visible ‘alien’ force involved in revolutions became the demon of the revolution in the eyes of the bourgeoisie.
That was the primary cause of pre-war anti-semitism. But the ruling class is not omnipotent. It does not just click its fingers and get the masses thinking the way it wants. In order to get the lower orders thinking the way it wants, it needs suitable propaganda, that is effective. It is a fact that, as a result of the legacy of the origins of the Jews as a financial-trading ‘people class’ in the medieval period, they are overrepresented among powerful bankers and the like. This was just as true in pre-war period as it is today.
Take a look at some examples: Goldman Sachs. This US investment bank is, as is well known, very conspicuously Jewish owned. It has interests in Israel, but it is hardly Israeli or particularly bound to Israel. Its interests are far wider that that, in fact world-wide. It is almost a century older than Israel, and as solidly American as the Ford Motor Company. Its world-wide interests, its ruthlessness and its profit-gouging proclivities have gained it the nickname of the Vampire Squid.
In the current Euro-crisis, close associates of this predatory investment bank have recently been appointed to head the European Central Bank, and as Prime Ministers of Italy and Greece without popular election, a development that has fuelled fears of an anti-democratic takeover of European politics by banking interests led by Goldman Sachs. This kind of role, and the perceptions it generates, are not of course confined to Goldman Sachs. The Rothschild family, based mainly in Europe, has a similar reputation itself going back centuries.
In the pre-WWII context, were these Jewish-owned financial organisations involved in promoting specifically Jewish communal politics or just pure-ruthless money-making? It is not really completely clear; there are some grounds for suspicion of this particularly in terms of funding of the early Zionist movement and the colonisation of Palestine, but nothing conclusive. But here is the point: the over-representation of Jews in finance and banking related companies etc, which is quite marked, itself cannot but fuel suspicions of clannishness, self-interest and mutual aid based on communal lines. Because of the power that such over-representation gives, it can easily be perceived as an aggressive act even if that perception is not given more credence by visible self-interested behaviour. And of course, that the latter never happened is hard to believe, particularly given the influence of Zionism whose strategy was always oriented to the recruitment of powerful people to its cause.
This is in some ways deeply unfortunate, a product of the one-sided development of a culture derived from the Jews’ past as a people-class. That as may be, but that over-representation is a material factor fuelling such suspicions and allowing ideologues an open goal in inciting hostility to specifically Jewish capital instead of capital as a whole. Combined with the bourgeois class-based paranoia about Jewish radicalism, this is certainly enough to explain the potency and appeal of pre-war anti-semitism and why it was able to reach genocidal proportions in a major capitalist crisis.
The chief driving force of this was the latter bourgeois paranoia, and thus Atzmon is almost certainly wrong in extrapolating from today’s widespread anger at Israel back in time to the pre-WWII period. However, the analysis I am putting forward here derives in large measure from a Marxist analysis of the class consciousness, or ‘false consciousness’, of the bourgeoisie, and it is hardly surprising that someone who rejects Marxism would not concur with it.
The perception of the Jews as a threat to the capitalist order is no more. The conservative, counter-revolutionary evolution of Israel has largely put paid to that idea. Israel is now one of the key props of worldwide capitalist reaction. What exists today is a different combination of factors, the same over-representation of Jews in the sphere of finance-capital, this time combined with the activities of those who seek influence to promote Israeli state interests.
In contrast to the pre-war situation, when you had a combination of this over-representation with the bourgeoisie’s fantasy about Jews as a revolutionary infestation infecting an otherwise conservative working class population, today you have two real factors in combination – the same over-representation with the existence and activities of the Zionist lobby. These are ample grounds to characterise this combination as a real, dangerous communalist, counter-revolutionary phenomenon, not the kind of phantasm that was the basis for pre-war anti-semitism. There is nothing racist or wrong in pointing out the over-representation of Jews who rabidly support Israel and its crimes in positions of power and influence in Western societies, in pointing to the sinister and anti-democratic significance of this and demanding that this be reversed.
However, its significance should not be exaggerated - it still exists basically by permission of the non-Jewish ruling classes of the advanced Western countries, who could brush if off very easily if they were minded to do so. For their own reasons of class interest, they are not so minded. Because of the previous history of racist anti-semitism, this issue is capable of generating considerable misunderstanding. It has to be theorised very clearly in order to avoid an escalating series of misunderstandings and confrontations with honest people who are hostile to Israel and its crimes, but fear anti-semitism also.
Progressive or reactionary?
One manifestation of Islamophobia, as I pointed out earlier, is the equation of all forms of political Islam as utterly reactionary. I think an analogous error is possible with ‘third category Jews’ as Atzmon so defines them, and one legitimate criticism of Atzmon is that he sometimes makes this error. Recently he has taken to using the insulting designation ‘AZZ’ in referring to those anti-Zionist Jewish activists who denounce him as an anti-semite. ‘AZZ’ being a abbreviation for ‘Anti-Zionist Zionists’.
In its own way, this is as absurd as the Tony Greenstein self-contradictory accusation that Atzmon ‘justifies’ the holocaust while simultaneously ‘denying’ it (see earlier). When self-contradictory accusations are levelled in the course of a political feud, it is always a sign that something has gone wrong with the reasoning of the person levelling them. One is either a Zionist, i.e. a supporter of the Zionist project of Israel, or one is not. One cannot be both, they are mutually exclusive. This tortured formulation is a sign that Atzmon has lost sight of the fact that there are different trends among the ‘third category Jews’ as he (correctly) characterises them, just as there are differences between political Islamists.
The proportions are different between the progressive and reactionary components among political Islamists and political or ‘third category’ Jews. Because many of those who gravitate towards political Islam are driven there as a reaction to imperialist oppression and the apparent failure of secular and leftist alternatives. Whereas because Israel is an oppressor state, based on the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs, and its overseas supporters act as auxiliaries of that oppression, the bulk of ‘third category Jews’ are reactionaries. But because there is a real history of oppression also among Jews, and a real tradition of struggle against that, there is also a minority trend among the ‘third category’ that are progressive anti-Zionists. Hence such formations as ‘Jews Against Zionism’, ‘Jews for Justice for the Palestinians’, etc.
Actually, if you look at the material produced by Atzmon, and many of his ‘AZZ’ critics, and remove the material that relates to their internecine conflict, you will find that there is much in common between them. Much of their material denouncing the Israeli state is very similar in its outspokenness and potency, which is why on several occasions I have noticed perceptive Zionist reactionaries, commenting on their in-house propaganda and discussion sites (such as Harry’s Place) note this and express the hope that these two trends will tear each other to pieces.
At the moment this complex issue is causing deep divisions among partisans of the Palestinians, and a great deal of confusion and rancour, to the benefit only of Zionists. Yet the differences are real and important, and cannot be simply wished away. The only way they can be overcome is through a process of discussion and clarification, as calmly and rationally as possible. In that spirit, this blog links to both anti-racist, anti-Zionist trends, to Gilad Atzmon’s website and Tony Greenstein’s blog. Hopefully this article will contribute to that process and bring some light to the debate.