Thoughts After Interviewing Gilad Atzmon: March 13, 2012, Geneva New York
by Pat Carmeli
From the wrath expressed by many in the solidarity movement at the mere mention of his name, I was expecting to dislike Gilad Atzmon or at least feel I would have to challenge much of his comments during our upcoming interview. Since my local group, CNY Working for a Just Peace in Palestine & Israel was first approached about sponsoring his concert in Geneva, NY, I’d done the crash course in Atzmon including reading his statements, the heated words of his detractors, and his new book The Wandering Who…(Zero Books, 2011). The man I found was pretty much a kindred spirit but with an exception: Although I often fail at it, I try to support anyone involved in the fight for Palestinian human rights and leave my harshest criticism for the “other side”. Atzmon seems very adept at getting under the skin of our friends.
Explaining his awakening to the “Palestinian diaspora” while a member of the Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon, you could see the pain written on his face. Having been raised in a middle-class working family in Israel on the values of respect for others – values he felt his country shared – the shock of a new understanding was palpable. Gilad relayed seeing the inhumane treatment of injured Lebanese and Syrians by some Israeli soldiers. Once, he saw small concrete cubes out in the burning mid-day sun. He questioned the Israeli guard saying “How could you keep dogs in this weather?” When the guard answered that these were for Palestinian POWs to be kept in solitary confinement, he eventually had to ask himself, “What kind of people are we?” Gradually he decided to leave the land of his birth to settle in Europe and vowed not to return until Israel became a “land for all its’ people”. He now resides in London and tours on concert with his saxophone.
“I’m a free-thinker”, claims Atzmon. He is not and never was a member of any organized solidarity or activist group. For this reason, when I asked if he considers himself an activist, he responded in the negative. Yet he certainly is an activist. Through his writings and the talks he gives at his concerts, he reaches out, educates, and effects thought on issues of Zionism, what he calls “Jewishness”, and most importantly the injustice in Palestine. He considers himself a humanist who strives to encompass all in the debate, valuing his “brothers and sisters” all of whom are worthy of our consideration, including Israeli Independents, Right-wing ideologues, leftists, progressives, Marxists, Zionists, and even those considered anti-Semites. He sees Zionism as mere racist philosophy while also lamenting the loss of the spirit of the early Zionists characterized by Eastern European immigrants to Palestine, armed with pick and shovel, farming the land until they realized the Palestinians could do the work cheaper.
I understood from Gilad Atzmon that he finds injustice unacceptable and the forces that unite in strength to maintain the status quo, worth evaluating and rebuking. Specifically American Jewish organizations like the AIPAC lobby (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) wield unrelenting influence on the US and foreign governments. Atzmon sees the conditions that exist here in the United States as similar to Germany in the years before the rise of the Nazi regime. He warns that the Jews seem to invite catastrophe throughout history. Remarks like this provoke the ire of his dissenters. He sees it as speaking the truth.
Upon the conclusion of our hour-long interview, I was convinced that Gilad Atzmon’s heart is in the right place. Like many of us involved in this struggle, we come to it with our own set of experiences and scars forming our opinions. Atzmon’s journeys and his quest for an answer to “Who are we?” has caused him to evaluate the motives of many Jews involved in the struggle for peace and justice in Palestine and seems to challenge them if they have a Jewish interest. In a recent interview with the founder of the popular Mondoweisssite, Atzmon seemed to revel in a “gotcha moment” when Phil Weiss said he approaches the conflict with a Jewish perspective. Having stood side-by-side with Weiss (most recently at the Occupy AIPAC conference in DC March/2012) and with so many other Jews both in Israel and at protests in the United States, I see them as stalwart advocates for Palestinian human rights. More importantly, most Palestinians themselves welcome Jewish advocacy. I do, however, agree with Atzmon’s criticism of Jewish Zionist groups who appear to want to formulate their own version of Justice from a pro-Israel stance. However, even J Street has some merit, in my opinion, if it can siphon support away from AIPAC.
Atzmon refuses to be stifled, and this has led to his being thoroughly ostracized by many, now including some powerful Palestinian voices in the solidarity movement. The day after this interview was conducted, a letter was issued spearheaded by Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada and signed by other prominent activists, denouncing Atzmon’s writings and ideology. The letter criticizes Gilad for taking on the “self-appointed task of defining for the Palestinian movement the nature of our struggle”. But Atzmon prides himself on the fact that he only speaks for himself.
I feel Atzmon is misunderstood. Many of his critics, including members of my own peace and justice group, express virulent dissatisfaction with him while confessing that they have read little of his own writings, but much of his critics’. More accurate than any article written on the subject of Atzmon or letter to disavow him is to hear directly from the source. An edited version of my interview is found here. His anger at the “lie” he was brought up with is evident and maybe misdirected at those he should recognize as brothers and sisters in common struggle. But debate and freedom of thought and speech is something to be celebrated, not hampered. Gilad does not stand alone in needing a lesson on how to play nicely with others. We could all use a refresher course.