Think Tribal, Speak Universal
by Gilad Atzmon – December 13, 2006
I may as well be the King of The Jews. I have achieved the unachievable, accomplished the impossible. I have managed to unite them all: Right, Left and Centre. The entirety of the primarily-Jewish British political groups: the Zionists the anti-Zionists, Jewish Socialists, Tribal Marxists, The Board of Deputies, Jewish Trotskyites, Jews Sans Frontieres, Jews Avec Frontieres for the first time in history all speak in one single voice. They all repeat exactly the same misquotes. They all hate Gilad Atzmon.
“Pretty impressive,” I think to myself, “I must be doing something right.” Yet, I am slightly confused by my own achievement. When it comes down to it, I’m not the canonical enemy; I am a jazz musician and author. I am not a politician, nor am I a member of any party. I do not present or support any political agenda. I have never been involved in any act of violence (not even as an Israeli soldier) nor have I ever called for violence. I am what some may call an “independent critical thinker”. It is my personal understanding that I choose to share with my readers and listeners. I express my very own reading into events and some speculations regarding the notion of identity. I write about things that I find while looking into myself. This is indeed very dangerous for people who try to promote some collective dogmatic and ethnic tribalism. It is apparently the individual and critical thinker who endangers any form of ideological dogmatism (in general) and Jewish collectivism (in particular).
Surely, the most effective way to confront a thinker is through open intellectual debate. But somehow, this is precisely what those who oppose me refuse to do. Instead, they employ various tactics aimed at silencing me. They are filled with hate. Because, it seems, hate is the name of the game.
I recently came across an interesting insight into the subject of hate and anti-Semitism. It goes like this:
‘While in the past an 'anti-Semite' was someone who hates Jews, nowadays it is the other way around, an anti-Semite is someone the Jews hate.’
The politics of hate can be effective, as well as being vicious. And you’d think tribal Jewish activists would be the first to understand this. We all know that Jews have been suffering hatred and discrimination for centuries. Yet the Jewish ethnic activists seem to have learned hatred from their enemies so much that the secular Jewish political discourse has been totally shaped by it. Moreover, hate has become the main matrix of negation: The Israelis are set to hate the Arabs, the Zionists are there to hate the Goyim (in general), Jews against Zionism hate the Goyim as well as Israel as well as Atzmon (in particular).
But why do they hate so much? The answer is simple. Once Judaism is eliminated, what remains of Jewish identity is pretty threadbare. Once stripped of religious spirituality, all that is left of Jewishness is a template of negation fuelled by racial orientation and spiced up with some light cultural context. Sadly, I have to say that though very many emancipated and assimilated Jews have adopted universal humanist ideas, secular collective Jewish identity has never matured into adopting a universal humanist ideological standpoint or even a philosophical insight. The reasons are simple:
A. Racial or even ethnic orientation cannot form a basis for a universal ethical argument.
B. Chicken soup or Jewish humour (culture) does not make an ideological argument.
It was Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th century Jewish progressive scholar, who coined the famous Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) insight: “Be a Jew at Home and a (cosmopolitan) Man on the Street”. Mendelssohn’s revelation for the modern Jew doesn’t leave much room for doubt. Rather than encouraging the modern Jew to genuinely assimilate into a universal ethos of equality, the Haskalah Jew is destined to live in a dual mode if not practically a state of schizophrenia. He is split between the solitary pleasure of a cosy, homey Jewish identity and the public appearance of the ‘cosmopolitan man’. In fact, it is this duality of tribalism and universalism that is at the very heart of the collective secular Jewish identity.
This duality has never been properly resolved. A few attempts have been made to brush it off but they have all failed. Zionism for instance, offered to abolish the ‘abnormal’ condition of the ‘Jewish Diaspora’, in other words, it suggested that in a ‘Jewish State’ (intended as being for Jews Only) the differences between the ‘home’ and the ‘street’ would disappear. In fact, Zionism was all about the transforming the ‘street’ into the cosy Jewish ‘home’. Though it managed to do this, there is no trace of universalism in either the Zionist’s ‘street’ or in his ‘home’. The state of Beit Hanoun and the carnage Israel left behind in Lebanon last summer doesn’t leave much room for doubt - Israel doesn’t really offer us any lessons in universal cosmopolitanism. Marxism, on the other hand, attempted to make people equal. In other words, it promised to make all ‘homes’ look the same. This idea was very appealing to many European Jews. Marxism was certainly successful for a while but sadly enough, nowadays, it is only consumerism that makes us all look homogenous (iPod, coca-cola, jeans). Clearly, there is not much to celebrate there either.
It is within the failure of these two competing grand ideologies that the matrix of negation marched triumphantly back. Clearly, the search for a contemporary collective secular Jewish identity is a perplexing endeavour. Just as in Mendelssohn’s time, it aims at integrating the opposing categories of tribalism with universalism. But this can never be achieved, and this is exactly where hate politics starts to play its part. If you don’t know who you are, just find yourself an enemy. In other words, ‘tell me who you hate and I will tell you who you are.’
It occurred to me a while ago that if all tribal Jewish activists see me as a threat, surely they must perceive in me some kernel of truth. I realised that there must be something about my ideas that shakes everything they believe in. Indeed, it doesn’t take a genius to understand what that thing is. I have managed to expose the Mendelssohnian clash at the very heart of contemporary Jewish secular identity in general, and in tribal Jewish left activism in particular.
Mendelssohn must have understood the intrinsic clash between the ‘cosmopolitan man’ and the ‘Jewish home’. He must have realised that universalism and tribalism are opposing categories. Being trained as a rabbi, Mendelssohn offered a pragmatic and practical solution - but this solution led to false and deceptive behaviour. Either you pretend to be a cosmopolitan while in the ‘street’ or you lie to your God at ‘home’. This behavioural code, though being very pragmatic, happens to be non-ethical by definition. It is based on deception: both self-deception and deceiving the other. As we know, it was Mendelssohn’s insight that was the cause of many Germanic Jews eventually converting to Christianity or just departing from any connection with Jewish collectivism, Jewish life or culture. True humanists would be apt to disengage from a non-genuine lifestyle. Ethically, at least, Mendelssohn’s middle way between orthodoxy and modernity failed to provide an answer.
Surprisingly enough, the primarily-Jewish left activist falls straight into Mendelssohn’s trap. He tries desperately to bridge the gap between tribal commitment and the universal call and, like Mendelssohn, he is doomed to failure. Indeed, in the early days of the Palestinian solidarity movement the primarily-Jewish peace activism was of immense importance. It was actually Jewish humanists who were the first to speak out for the Palestinians when the world out there was still immersed in the Zionist narrative. But things have now changed. Once Hamas was democratically elected, it was the Jewish tribal peace activist who was the first to show dissatisfaction on many a progessive discussion group. Obviously Hamas doesn’t fit into the Jewish Socialist vision for the region. In other words, tribal Jewish humanists’ support for the Palestinians is tilted by self-centric concerns.
I do know what Judaism stands for. I can easily follow and support the Torah Jews’ argument against Zionism. Also, in my concerts and readings I meet very many Jews who put aside any tribal orientation to join the emerging Palestinian solidarity movement. I admire them and I respect their courage. Indeed, I fail to understand the Jewish tribal peace activism.
Monitoring tribal Jewish left activism for more than a few years, I have managed to expose some major categorical flaws. If the left is a ‘progressive’ endeavour aiming at a universal message that goes beyond race and ethnicity, then applying tribal and clannish banners is nothing but ‘reactionary’ attitude. The introduction of racial orientation into the Socialist discourse reduces Socialism into a light form of marginal politics and sometimes even, a bitter manifestation of national socialism. This complexity is far from being new. Lenin was already concerned with this issue in 1903.
However, I must admit that I am not concerned at all with the healthiness of the Socialist or Marxist discourse. I am engaged here solely in the deconstruction of a political standpoint and in scrutinising its rhetoric. Rather than saving the Marxist philosophy, I care for the people of Beit Hanoun, Jenin, Ramallah and Nablus. I devote my energy to support the Palestinian people who are bombed and starved by a State that happens to be ‘the Jewish State’. My message is clear. A crime of immense proportions is taking place in Palestine. As far as the humanist argument is concerned, Palestinians are the priority. If the crime against the Palestinians is a crime against humanity, we had better fight it collectively as human beings rather than as isolated formations of ethnically and racially segregated groups. The task ahead is complicated enough. Tribal Judeo-centric issues to do with anti-Semitism may be important to some. However, I maintain that they are secondary as far as Palestine solidarity is concerned. In other words, when you speak universal you may as well mean it for a change.
Last updated 14/12/2006