Cutting through the bullshit.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

From Esther to Atzmon

Last weekend’s CounterPunch featured a long ‘Purim Special’ article by Gilad Atzmon entitled ‘From Esther to AIPAC’. Part of the article presents a novel interpretation of the Book of Esther. Novel to me, anyway.

In case your memory needs refreshing, Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, whose realm stretched from India to Ethiopia, after carousing for a week, commanded Queen Vashti to appear before his guests. When she refused, he consulted his advisors who told him that he had to divorce her because if she was not punished, all the women in the kingdom would get uppity ideas. For his new bride, Ahasuerus selected Mordechai’s orphaned cousin Esther (or Haddasah), who he had raised as his own daughter. Meanwhile, the king’s new advisor, Haman, was pissed off that Mordechai refused to prostrate himself and persuaded Ahasuerus to call for all Jews throughout the 127 provinces to be killed on the 13 Adar. Mordechai persuaded Esther to intercede. Meanwhile, Ahasuerus had a touch of insomnia and ordered the chronicles to be read, which reminded him that Mordechai had dobbed in two guys who had plotted against him. The king summoned Haman and asked how he should reward someone who he owed one to. Haman, thinking it was him, said he should get the king’s hand me down splendour and be led around the capital on a fine horse. So he ended up having to dress Mordechai and lead him around on the horse. Anyway, Esther was very ingratiating and prevailed on Ahasuerus to hang Haman on the gallows fifty cubits high that he had prepared for Mordechai. Since the edict to slaughter the Jews couldn’t be rescinded, he issued another edict that the Jews could defend themselves and in the end they massacred 75,000 of their enemies over two days and that’s why we celebrate Purim.

‘The moral of the story is rather clear. If Jews want to survive, they better find infiltrates into the corridors of power,’ Atzmon writes, and that sounds like a plausible enough interpretation to me.

But that’s where we part company. Atzmon takes his insight into the meaning of the Book of Esther further, approvingly citing Dr Rafael Medoff's ‘glaring insight into the internal code of Jewish collective survival dynamics in which the assimilated (Esther) and the observant (Mordechai) are joining forces with clear Judeo centric interests in their minds.’ ‘With Esther, Mordechai and Purim in mind,’ he writes, ‘AIPAC and the notion of 'Jewish power' looks like an embodiment of a deep Biblical and cultural ideology.’ There is something inherent in Jewish religion and Jewish culture that points directly towards AIPAC, which is alleged to exercise considerable control over US foreign policy – ‘Jewish power’ – an allegation Atzmon clearly accepts. At this point, we get our first glimpse of his anti-Semitic agenda.

The claim he makes for his essay is,

I will try to further the search into the notion of Jewishness. I will make an attempt to trace the intellectual, spiritual and mythological collective bond that makes Jewishness into a powerful identity.

The first error he makes, which sets the stage for the balance of the article, is to deny that Jewishness is an ethnic category.

Clearly, Jewishness is neither a racial nor an ethnic category. Though Jewish identity is racially and ethnically orientated, the Jewish people do not form a homogenous group. There is no racial or ethnic continuum.

The ‘homogeneity’, the ‘racial or ethnic continuum’, that he thinks would provide evidence that Jewishness is a racial or ethnic category are transparently biological markers. The fundamental thing about racial and ethnic catagories is that although they rely in some measure on descent, or the perception of descent, they are basically social categories constructed by racism. The markers that racists use to identify a race are arbitrary and may be as varied as skin pigmentation, nose or eye shape, hair colour or texture, religious observance, language, or surname.

Since it is racists who construct racial identities, their definitions are the most relevant. In the case of Jews, some of the racial markers have actually been formally codified in such documents as the 1935 Nazi Nuremburg Laws, which defined Jews in terms of descent from ‘Full-blooded Jewish grandparents’ who ‘are those who belonged to the Jewish religious community,’ and the Israeli Law of Return, for whose purposes, ‘"Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.’

Whatever the marker or markers, they are not applied consistently. The point is that ‘we’ know who ‘they’ are and ‘they’ are inferior, or dangerous, or both. The victims of racism are not inoculated against racist attitudes. In some cases, this can lead to the kind of feelings of inferiority that the Black Consciousness Movement tried to address in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. In others, members of the group may take pride in their ethnic identity, the ‘chosen people’ and the like.

In reality, we will find that Atzmon implicitly assumes the same racial/ethnic definition of what a Jew is as everyone else does.

He starts out by attempting to tease out the ambiguity in terms like Jew, Jewish, and Jewry. There is of course the Jewish religion, Judaism, and its adherents are denoted as Jews and described as Jewish. At the same time, there is the ethnic group, which includes most of those adherents, along with their descendants, whether they participate in Macedonian Orthodox, Buddhist, Wiccan, or indeed Jewish religious traditions, if any.

He correctly rejects the view that

Jewishness may be seen by some as a continuation of Judaism. I would maintain that this is not necessarily the case either.

But then he asserts that ‘Though Jewishness borrows some fundamental Judaic elements, Jewishness is not Judaism and it is even categorically different from Judaism.’ What he probably means is that Jewishness borrows some of the cultural trappings of Judaism, largely gastronomical in nature. If so, I think he is wrong to describe these as ‘fundamental Judaic elements’. But I certainly agree that Jewish ethnicity is a phenomenon of a different category to the Jewish religion.

Furthermore, as we know, more than a few of those who proudly define themselves as Jews have very little knowledge of Judaism, many of them are atheists, non-religious and even overtly oppose Judaism or any other religion. Many of those Jews who happen to oppose Judaism happen to maintain their Jewish identity and to be extremely proud about it.

This follows directly from the distinction between the religion and the ethnicity and the proclivity I mentioned for members of an ethnic group to accept their identity as a badge of honour. It is an exaggeration to suggest that ethnic Jews oppose Judaism, the religion. Many ethnic Jews actually practice Judaism of some tradition to some extent or other. Among those who reject the Jewish religion outright, the vast majority don’t oppose Judaism because it is Judaism, but because it is a religion.

Atzmon’s next point is most puzzling.

This opposition to Judaism obviously includes Zionism (at least the early version) but it also is the basis of much of Jewish socialist anti-Zionism.

In reality, the vast majority of ethnic Jews who reject the Jewish religion do not reject Zionism and a great many embrace it enthusiastically. And those who reject Zionism do not do so on the grounds that they reject the Jewish religion. Indeed, some, like the Neturei Karta Atzmon is so fond of, reject Zionism on specifically religious grounds.

That socialists, whatever their ethnic background, reject Zionism, has nothing to do with opposing religion in general, or Judaism in particular. Socialists reject racism, nationalism, and other oppressive ideologies and explicitly oppose colonialism and imperialism. Socialism is based on class solidarity, Zionism on ethnic solidarity. It is unthinkable therefore that a principled socialist could embrace the Zionist project. By attributing ‘Jewish socialist anti-Zionism’ to ‘opposition to Judaism’, rather than to the fundamental contradiction between socialism and Zionism, Atzmon provides further evidence that his objective is not to understand Jewishness, but to denigrate Jews.

After dismissing on bogus grounds the possibility that Jewishness could be an ethnicity, Atzmon proceeds to ask ‘whether it is a new form of religion an ideology or if it is just a 'state of mind'’ and concludes that it is all three and it revolves around the Holocaust religion, where ‘the Jew becomes 'the Jews' new God', it is all about the Jew who redeems himself’, the new religion which, he claims, ‘is probably as old as the Jews’.

the Holocaust is actually engraved within the Jewish discourse and spirit. The Holocaust is the essence of the collective Jewish Pre-Traumatic stress disorder and it predates the Shoah. To be a Jew is to see the 'other' as a threat rather than as a brother. To be a Jew is to be on a constant alert. To be a Jew is to internalise the message of the Book of Esther. It is to aim towards the most influential junctions of hegemony. To be a Jew is to collaborate with power.

That’s quite a strong condemnation of all Jews, and note that Atzmon has here reverted to the undefined and rejected ethnic interpretation of Jew. And he doesn’t exclude anyone – if you are a Jew, if you identify as an ethnic Jew, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Zionist, a socialist, or a liberal, you are still implicated in the Church of the Holocaust.

The Jewish follower of the Holocaust religion idealises the condition of his existence. He then sets a framework of a future struggle towards recognition. For the Zionist follower of the new religion, the implications seem to be relatively durable. He is there to 'schlep' the entirety of world Jewry to Zion at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian people. For the Socialist Jew, the project is slightly more complicated. For him redemption means setting a new world order, namely a socialist haven. A world dominated by dogmatic working class politics in which Jews happen to be no more than just one minority amongst many. For the humanist observant, Holocaust religion means that Jews must locate themselves at the forefront of the struggle against racism, oppression and evil in general.

In case that doesn’t provide ample evidence that what we are seeing here is a real, live Jewish anti-Semite,

The Scholars who are engaged in the study of the Holocaust religion… are themselves orthodox observants. Though they may be critical of different aspects of the exploitation of the Holocaust, they all accept the validity of the Nazi Judeocide and its mainstream interpretations and implications…, no one goes as far as revisionism, not a single Holocaust religion scholar dares engage in a dialogue with the so-called 'deniers' to discuss their vision of the events or any other revisionist scholarship.

Now, I agree with Atzmon that it is an entirely unacceptable infringement of freedom of expression to outlaw Holocaust denial. But that is not what he is arguing here. He is insisting that actual scholars engage intellectually with these anti-Semitic, Nazi charlatans.

Back on Planet Earth, there are ethnic Jews who really do suffer from something like ‘Pretraumatic Stress Disorder’. They can magnify anything into the threat of another Holocaust. Suicide bombings, which have claimed less than 1000 Israeli lives – a fraction of the Palestinian lives taken over the same period, are explicitly equated with genocide. Many interpret any suggestion that might erode ‘the Jewish character’ of Israel as support for genocide. In Monday’s NY Times, Stanley Fish [requires Times Select] encapsulated this view, ‘…I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn’t exist, it would attach itself to something else…’

But for one thing, some of these are people who practice Judaism. It is no longer clear whether Atzmon excludes them from the Church of the Holocaust. And for another, antiZionist Jews do not exhibit these symptoms. We call for a democratic secular state throughout Palestine where everyone enjoys equal rights regardless of religion and ethnicity. We call for the Palestinian right of return and an end to the Law of ‘Return’ for ethnic Jews. We are obviously unconcerned about maintaining a Jewish majority. And yet, so saturated is Gilad with anti-Semitic loathing, that he can’t help lumping us all in together, as if he couldn’t tell the difference.

The reason ethnic Jews, whether observant or not, insist on identifying as Jewish in the absence of a real and present threat of antisemtism, is that Israel claims to act on behalf of all Jews. Even some of those Jews and non Jews who for some reason endorse a Jewish state in Palestine, like Jimmy Carter, are appalled at Israel’s continuing human rights atrocities. The Zionist claim gives all the Jews Israel purports to benefit - all ethnic Jews – the right and the obligation to speak out and say, ‘Not in my name, you don’t!’ It is that, not tribalism, not ‘Holocaust religion’, not fear of the other, or ‘pretraumatic stress disorder’, or an exile mentality that leads Jews to identify as such.


  1. Ernie, while I can't disagree with anything you say, I see Atzmon entirely as a crypto-Zionist.
    To explain: See the comments for that article particularly those by "the Talmudist".
    Atzmon's analysis of Jewishness-Judaism-whatever acts as a validator for "the Talmudist".
    Another words, if Atzmon can analyse the "Jewish essence" the way he does, than "the Talmudist"'s analysis of Islam is equally valid.
    But everything Atzmon says about Jews could be re-interpreted as a love letter to "Jewishness"! After all, what is he saying? That Jews have survived persecution with an enhanced group identity, and have developed sophisticated techniques for surviving, or indeed prevailing in a hostile world? Is that so bad?
    But once he opens the door to an analysis on that (very stupid, if you ask me) level, he opens the door to analysing Arabs (or whoever) the same way. Hence, "the Talmudist."
    That, clumsily put,(I freely admit) is how I see Atzmon. It's the old schoolyard taunt, just inverted: "I know you are, but what am I" becomes "I know I am, but what are you?"
    By reducing "jewishness" (or whatever term he uses) to a matter of stereotypes and ridiculous historical "essences" None of them truly damning, just insultingly put, but actually ambivalent he allows anyone to reduce everyone else concerned to the same level. Given the circumstances, who ends up hurt? Not the Jews.
    I mean, effective networking under existential threat, or female circumcision, portrayed as brutally as possible; which is going to revolt more people?
    Gilad is a crypto-Zionist par excellence.

  2. Mooser, Hey! Welcome to the Bureau!

    The article this post was about was on Counterpunch, which unfortunately has no comment facility. Presumably it was crossposted elsewhere and I think I found it through a link on Jews sans frontieres. But it would have been good if you’d provided the link. Anyway, I can’t believe you made me go over there and read all that crap! Actually, now that I think of it, it’s not the first time you’ve sent me on a wild goose chase! I’ll try to remember next time.

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree that your argument is clumsily constructed and I don’t think that’s really fair. But let me see if I can figure it out.

    You are calling Atzmon a crypto-Zionist. You donlt define the term, but I gather you mean someone who supports a Jewish state in Palestine but pretends not to. Indeed, perhaps someone who pretends not to with a view to surreptitiously garnering support?

    I think the central evidence for this assertion is that you reckon he constructs an ‘essence’ of Jewishness and while denigrating it, actually presents it as justifiable, if not actually noble – ‘effective networking under existential threat’. You also argue that by assigning an essence to Jews, he opens the door to similar racist stereotypes of Arabs or, presumably, anyone.

    Now I don’t want to get too involved in debating this position because I’m not that confident that it’s the one you’re actually arguing and I prefer to leave the straw men for Atzmon. But…

    Atzmon claims that Jewishness is something other than an ethnic category. As far as I can tell, from something he said in private correspondence, he definitely uses a category of ‘Jew by birth’, or what I would call an ethnic Jew, but denies that that’s what it is.

    The question then arises, if the Jewish ‘essence’ applies to people of Jewish ethnicity, what does that have to do with Zionism? He seems to argue, and I find his prose and his ideas quite obscure, that identifying as an ethnic Jew automatically means you align with Zionism, even if you explicitly oppose it. But that’s his argument, not mine by any means, and I’d be surprised if you endorsed it. So I’m not sure how it comes to be an argument for Zionism?

    I agree that the essentialism you mention is there and that it’s racist and that it provides an opening for other racist ideas.

    Anyhow, I’d be interested in whether I’ve understood you correctly and all like that.

  3. Sorry about the lack of proper links, Ernie. I'll try to be more fastidious about those things.

    Of course, you reduced my arguement to a few better choosen words and entirely correct, too.

    I don't know if Atzmon is aware of what he does, I couldn't say. I just see the results.

    As I have said before, Atzmon takes the characteristics he sees in Israelis and Zionists and calls these "Jewish" (or whatever term he uses at the time) They are not.

    Thanks for responding Ernie, it is much appreciated.