Jews and Their Self-Interest

Gilad.co.uk – June 18, 2011

Over a week ago I emailed to the well- known  blogger  Philip Weiss,  an interesting post written by Nahida (AKA The Exiled Palestinian).

In her article, Jewish Voice For Peace? Really?? , Nahida expresses some sharp criticism of Jewish anti-Zionist groups, forcefully arguing that “Anti-Zionist Jewish organisations are trying to silence Palestine’s supporters, to frame the debate” and to “steer the course of the liberation” of her homeland.

Since Weiss runs the most popular Jewish progressive blog, offering an invaluable source of information regarding Israeli crimes, I thought he might be willing to address Nahida’s criticism, and to discuss it with his many progressive Jewish followers.

Weiss did not post Nahida’s article on his blog, but his discussion with me was brave and honest*, and to a certain extent he affirmed Nahida’s criticism, admitting that it was indeed ‘Jewish self-interest’ that he himself was ‘concerned with’.

Weiss had the following to say on the matter: “I believe all people act out of self-interest. And Jews who define themselves at some level as Jews — like myself for instance — are concerned with a Jewish self-interest. Which in my case is: an end to Zionism.  A theory of political life based on altruism or concern for victims purely is doomed to fail.”

Openly and bluntly, Weiss confirmed what many of us have been saying for a very long time: it is not solely ‘altruism’ or concern for Palestinians victims that motivates some of the most prominent Jewish campaigners and organisations, but it is also, as Weiss freely admits, ‘Jewish self-interest.’  

I confessed to Weiss that I was overwhelmed by his frankness. I think that Weiss may well be the first Jewish activist to admit , or even to define the Judeo-centric impetus behind the Jewish- progressive political discourse.

I decided to press it further, asking Weiss whether he considered himself to be ‘tribal’?

And once again, Weiss’ answer was brave and honest, though he did start to express some frustration. He answered, “Yes I do at some level. And what bugs me about stuff you send me (I guess that Weiss was referring to Nahida’s article) is that I end up in the end inevitably and predictably at some site trashing Jewish religion, to which I have very little connection, though yes I feel some core ‘Id’** and this makes me think in the end, that dialogue with you will not help ME because I am interested in frying different fish. While you seem out rather reductively to prove the degeneracy of a religion which I’m sure is deeply problematic, as Islam is and the Church of Pedophilia…( sic)”

However, I still do not grasp why Weiss thinks that I am interested to reductively ‘prove the degeneracy of a religion’ — I am not really interested in criticising the religion of Judaism, or any other religion for that matter: in fact, I am far more concerned with Jewish secularism and Jewish secular ideology. 

However, it was at that stage that I realised that Weiss was a perfect candidate for an interview.  He certainly embodies the Jewish-progressive school of thought: a unique mixture of righteousness, charming self-love, mixed together with some deep intolerance towards other people’s belief systems.

I went on to ask Weiss: “What does the word ‘Jewish’ mean for you?” 

Weiss was short and precise in his response : “My mother, my father, my grandparents, a family feeling, us-ness, in distinction to the Them.”

I pressed Weiss further , asking him, “this ‘us-ness’ does it really extend beyond family and friends? Do you, for instance, feel ‘us-ness’ with an Iraqi Jew?”, I wondered.

‘I think identity is multi-factorial,’ Weiss replied,   ‘I feel American before I feel Jewish. I think that’s the achievement of my life, to have flipped those identities, and Jewish is second. I see Jewish as this great civilization that I am part of. That transcends borders, and it’s not Zionist. Zionism is like Shabbetai Tzvi,  It’s a big chapter in a long story. Jews will survive this one too. Jews is: a sense of difference, yes, inevitably of elite identity, that’s part of Jewish history and one I struggle with.  Jewish is a Story, a myth…’

I liked the imaginative  and poetic manner in which Weiss referred to his own identity. I appreciated his honesty, and I also accepted what seems to be a possible discrepancy between the universal consciousness and the tribal affiliation.

And yet, I really wanted to grasp how Weiss translated his sense of tribalism into a political, or ideological, awareness. I enquired further, to which he responded, ‘I’m against compartmentalized identity but I do think that people are tribal, it’s the nature of the species right now, and the deal is do we call on that or do we try and reduce it? I’m for reducing it but not denying its existence till everyone puts down their shield and that doesn’t seem bloody likely.

I had some “us-ness” from my family, a lot of it, but bridled at it. “Is it good for the Jews?” question bugged the hell out of me. But if Herzl, a Christmas tree Jew like me, was made Jewish by anti Semites, as he was, I was made Jewish by the Neocons. I thought, I’m Jewish too so f**k them with their tribalism.’

You can call it anything you like. you can reduce it to JVP is Jewish, or JVP has multiple dimension. I’m in the multidimensional human camp.  My wife is not a Jew. She uses Ayurvedic typology, Jungian typology and Freudian (psychoanalysis)   to understand people.  She uses Astrology too sometimes. I dip around in all that too and I’m also Jewish and feel a real bond with Jews. Is it Ashkenazi and racist? I’m sure it is at some level. They’re the ones I grew up with. Do I transcend? I hope so.’

That is fairly impressive, I thought to myself : up to that point, Weiss had seemed to be coherent, a healthy amalgam of a self-reflective person who acknowledges his tribalism and roots, yet tries to transcend those aspects.

And yet, I was still slightly confused — I reminded Weiss that only two days earlier he had mentioned in our discussions that Jews like himself  were “ concerned with a Jewish self-interest”. I then asked him whether he approved that Jewish anti-Zionist activism may as well be primarily concerned with Jewish interests?

I guess that at that stage, Weiss started to feel irritated or even trapped, for he somehow turned sour, saying : “Primarily concerned with Jewish interests seems a stupid trap to me.”

But, I reminded Weiss that “self-interest”  and “Jewish self-interest” had been his own words, quoting to him his initial reaction to Nahida’s post  — indeed, Weiss had actually said, “I believe all people act out of self-interest. and Jews ..like myself — are concerned with a Jewish self-interest.”

I suggested to Weiss that I can live with inconsistency — I also offered him the opportunity to feel free to change his words, or amend his narrative to suit his ‘new line’ ( in which he had stated that “primarily concerned with Jewish interests  seems a stupid trap”).

I did feel , however, that Weiss should at least be made aware of the contradictions in his own words: after all, one can either argue that “Jews act out of Jewish self-interest” or, one can contend that to be “primarily concerned with Jewish interests is a stupid trap.”

Yet, one cannot have it both ways, and one cannot hold these two views simultaneously, unless an explanation is offered.

But I guess that I asked for too much :  Weiss didn’t want to address the contradiction, saying, “( I ) Disown none of them,”  explaining to me his opinion that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a little mind.”

At that point, I felt that it would be the right time to disengage, and to leave Weiss alone, just before things got further out of control.

It seems to me that once again, I have failed to converse with a ‘progressive Jew.’  I guess that in spite of the openness Weiss showed initially, he, like mny others,  cannot resolve the tension beyond the universal and the tribal.

And by now, I am increasingly certain that this gap cannot be bridged easily, if at all, for the tribal and universal are like water and oil.

I guess that the difficulties involved in resolving the tension between the universal and the tribal explains why so many progressive Jews prefer to operate in intellectual, ideological and political exclusive ‘Jews only’ cells where these questions are never raised, never asked, and never answered.

*Philip Weiss’ words are published here with his full agreement and concession

 ** Id- a slang name for a Jew, I guess that it comes from Yiddish. A Id-Yid is a Yiddish speaker. 

Source

Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon, a former Israeli soldier now a writer and an award winning Jazz musician resident in London, where he lives in virtual exile

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