Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Spinoza for our time?

Nothing pleases the British "Guardian" like offering its pages as arena for another round of boxing match among sweaty Jews. And if blood shows up, the more the better. Why exert ourselves, when they are doing all the heavy lifting for us? We can watch and remain cool, unruffled, and so... English ...

The kerfuffle was showcased on the pages of the Guardian almost a year ago, but has been revived due to this interview with Atzmon, on the pages of.. what else? Morning Star , self-designated as Britain's only socialist daily.

(Aside: I warn the reader that the denouement is not easily accessible to the uninitiated in the ways British intellectuals debate with each other. Very few have the clear-eyed, principled, articulate and markedly nonabrasive way of engagement of Norm Geras. But still the issues are of burning importance to yours truly, which is why I make the effort, not always successful, of following these debates. There is always something new to learn, no matter how thick and impenetrable is this intellectual maze.)

So Atzmon is quoted as saying:

"I know deep inside me that the Hebraic identity is the most radical version of the idea of Jewish supremacy, which is a curse for Palestine, a curse for Jews and a curse for the world. It is a major destructive force,"

And David Hirsh says of him:

"Gilad Atzmon is a former Israeli paratrooper, a well-known jazz saxophonist, a campaigner for Palestinian rights and someone who is comfortable employing openly anti-Jewish rhetoric. He has repeated the old libel that "the Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus". He is critical of those who compare the current Israeli regime with Nazi Germany, on the basis that Israel is a more radical evil. ... Atzmon has been outed as an anti-semite in the jazz world, notably by musicians David Adler and Jim Denham.

So, what's the big deal? I consider this Atzmon is an anti-semitic crank; hardly unusual, is it?"

As usual with the way my attention works, I'm struck by marginal details in the discourse and wonder what they can mean. In this case, my curiosity is whetted by the way the two contenders are described:

Atzmon, who is dubbed an "Israeli jazz musician" in the introductory paragraph by the Guardian's editor, responds by calling Hirsh "an ultra Zionist academic".

I'm mulling over the epithets:

"The Israeli jazz musician"?

"David Hirsh an ultra-Zionist academic,"?

I wonder what is more hurtful, for Atzmon to be called "Israeli" or for David Hirsh to be called "Ultra Zionist"?

This is not a sarcastic comment. Atzmon's aim is to put as much water between himself and Israel and Jews. Yet here he is, being referred to as "Israeli" by the very people whose favour he seeks to curry so desperately. How can he re-assert this but through "damning" Hirsh as an Ultra-Zionist? The more he seeks to distance himself, the more shackled he is to his former identity, by the very people he wishes to join. He is their token "good" Jew, and it is only this circumstance that renders him useful to the Guardian and the Morning Star. How pathetic, to be appreciated for the very feature which you wish to discard from your life!

As for David Hirsh being an "ultra Zionist": obviously Atzmon is not reading Hirsh's comments about Israel, such as:

"Israel has been occupying and settling Palestinian land for forty years; and that is only possible with a regime of daily violence and racist humiliation. The Israelis too, it seems, found ways to ape the behaviour of the traditional English gentleman."

No "ultra Zionist" or even just a lukewarm Zionist would accuse Israel of conducting racist humiliation against the Palestinians.

So what could be the reason for Atzmon's hyperlinguistic denunciation but a desperate plea to be accepted by the likes of the Guardianistas as one of their very own? And how painful must it be to be doing all this and still be considered merely an "Israeli" Jew speaking of other Jews?

Indeed he hates himself, much like Quasimodo hates himself, and the crippling ugliness he perceives in himself has to do with his Jewish blood. He has been contaminated with the virus of antisemitism. While I have no sympathy for antisemites, I do feel great sadness for Atzmon. Antisemitic he may be, but he is suffering terribly. And it's this very suffering that is being exploited by the Guardian with their usual cynicism.

I recently began re-reading Hannah Ardent' writings. It's been a while since I read her. She was much interested in the condition of the pariah-Jew. Her tone, when she speaks of these issues is almost perpetually ironic, which some have mistaken for lack of feeling towards Jews. I think I understand her need to create an ironic distance; it's the only way one can discuss these unimaginable sufferings without lurching into bathetic language.

Why am I bringing Arendt up at this time? Because of something she says in a famous interview with Gunter Gaus on German TV, 1964:

" pays dearly for freedom. The specifically Jewish humanity signified by [Jewish] worldlessness was something very beautiful... it was something very beautiful , this sundering aside of all social connections, the complete open-mindedness and absence of prejudice that i experienced... Of course a great deal was lost with the passing of all that. One pays for liberation. I once said in my Lessing speech. . .

Gaus: Hamburg in 1959 . . .

Arendt: Yes, there I said that "this humanity... has never yet survived the hour of liberation, of freedom, by so much as minute" You see, that has also happened to us.

Gaus: You wouldn't like to undo it?

Arendt: No. I know that one has to pay a price for freedom. But I cannot say that I like to pay."

(From: "What Remains? The language remains...")

Arendt articulates clearly what seems to be at the root of Atzmon's and maybe even Hirsh's angst. That there is a trade off between liberation from persecution and oppression, and gaining self-dependent power. The beauty, the virtue, that lie in the oppressed condition, is lost, when emancipation takes place and especially so when that liberation has to be preserved by aggressive power. Arendt has seen enough of the poison of antisemitism to appreciate the need for Jewish nationalism, even if she mourns the loss of something morally meaningful that can only accrue to the state of absolute exile and powerlessness.

Atzmon likened himself to Jesus and Spinoza. He perceives of them as ultimate martyrs who detached themselves from Judaism in order to be better human beings. He thinks he will be a better human being if he shuns his Jewish roots. He can neither accept the loss of the tragic beauty of Diaspora Judaism nor the humanity of Israeli self-interest. In this he is neither like Spinoza nor like Jesus. Jesus was essentially a reformer, which means that he remained attached to his Jewish identity. Spinoza may have detached himself physically from the Jewish community, but he never discarded his Jewishness nor did he join any other community, ideology or religion. He always lived in proximity to the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, and resisted any temptation to be converted. Unlike Atzmon, who seems to be pleading for someone to adopt him.

A very sad spectacle.


At 8:40 PM EST, Blogger Jim Denham said...

Atzmon is a talented (but not particularly outstanding) post-bop saxist. Chris Searle's grovelling in the 'Star' is disappointing, coming as it does from someone who is usually quite astute on both musical and political matters. Atzmon's self-hatred and anti-semitism, together with his preposterous (and easily dismissed) denial of the American roots of jazz, makes him a pitiful and despicable figure.
I suspect that he's a convert to Christianity: one of his few political supporters outside of the semites of the PSC and "Respect", is a Brummie C of E vicar of my aquiantance, who claims that "Gilad's very spiritual, you know".


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