This appeared, in slightly different form, in The Forward on March, 30th, 2017.
The email was a blatant appeal to my ego. The subject line said “Speaking Engagement,” and the writer, who I didn’t know, was inviting me to speak about whatever I wanted to — wow! — on a New York City panel celebrating the release of a new book by “internationally acclaimed British jazz saxophonist, philosopher and author…Gilad Atzmon.” They were inviting me, Atzmon’s volunteer publicist said,” because of my “honest and thoughtful perspective” which would be “valuable” on the panel.
I hadn’t heard of Atzmon before, but the panel was scheduled at the hip Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village. The vague synopsis the publicist sent for his new book, Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto, simply suggested that “much of humanity has been reduced to serve the interests of big money and oligarchy” and claimed that “Left and Right have become indistinguishable and meaningless.”
But there it was, at the bottom, the following curious phrase: “a tale of the decisive victory of one elite.” Gilad Atzmon, said the press release, “has managed to dissect the ethos, strategy and culture that are driving this invincible elite.”
Googling, I discovered that Atzmon, born in Israel, identifies himself as “a proud self-hating Jew.” American white nationalist Greg Johnson, an admirer, calls him a “self-exterminating Jew.” Since 2000, Atzmon has been spewing out viciously anti-Semitic writings with statements like “we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously” and “with Fagan and Shylock in mind, Israeli barbarism and organ trafficking seem to be just other events in an endless hellish continuum.” Then there was this: “It took me years to accept that that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any sense… We should… ask why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did the European people stand up against their next-door neighbors?… What is the holocaust religion there to conceal?”
I can’t recall any other “offer” of a speaking engagement that has ever made me feel such an intense mix of emotions. I’m a Jewish writer, a lesbian, a progressive who has written for The Nation and used to be a Village Voice columnist. I knew that the racist right, both in this country and around the world, had become increasingly brazen. But had they become so brazen that they thought a Jewish lesbian leftist would rally to their side? Or were they just trying to dupe me? I felt horror, anger, disgust; and I felt queasy.
But I also felt an overwhelming anxiety about why Atzmon’s backers thought I in particular would speak on a panel promoting him. Did something in my writing make them think I’d be sympathetic? As a reporter, I’ve written about the antigay Christian right many times. And I have, in fact, tried to “understand” them. Why would anyone spend their time trying to take rights away from another group of people? I spent a good portion of my work life trying to find out. Did I go too far trying to “understand,” and was this why a man who’d said “the [Nazi] death marches were actually humane” thought I’d be on his panel?
I have wanted to understand what makes far-right bigots tick, but I never wanted to support their mission. I finally realized that the primary reason Atzmon’s backers had approached me was not because of anything I’d written, but because obfuscating, and deliberately obscuring hateful premises behind seemingly genuine critiques of real-world oppression, are a fundamental part of the white supremacist and anti-Semitic projects. Gilad Atzmon may have begun as a progressive critic of Israel, but he metamorphosed into a misogynist, antigay Jew-hater, and he has made a career out of confusing the two stances.
It is symptomatic of our weird political moment, when white nationalists and Sebastian Gorka hold power in the White House, that progressive Jewish writers should be approached to legitimize a man who said “the Jewish tribal mindset” “sets Jews aside of humanity.” When white nationalism and anti-Semitism are being discussed as mere “political ideologies” equivalent to any other, when millions voted for Trump because they believed his lie that he would fight the rich for them, we need renewed political clarity in our country more than we need air and water.
The dangers of such obfuscation are getting clearer by the moment. The “progressive” former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, whom the Green party ran for president in 2008, has written the introduction to Atzmon’s book, and radical Jewish lawyer Stanley Cohen has apparently agreed to be on his April 30 panel at Theater 80. In a sense, it’s of a piece with Atzmon’s perennial ability to get some on the left (Richard Falk, James Petras, the journal Counterpunch) to endorse or publish his work. But the willingness of some so-called progressives to support blatant anti-Semitism is oddly mirrored by the right’s increasingly successful use of the tropes of class oppression against Jews, African-Americans, and immigrants. When Atzmon argues that “the Jewish elite” are destroying “working people,” when Donald Trump complains that an elite has let “radical Islamic terrorists enter the country by the thousands” in order to “disenfranchise our working class,” it’s time for all of us to be utterly and completely clear about our politics, exactly what we’re saying and what it means.
In this time of great danger to the poor, to people of color, and to Jews, it is time to unite the entire country behind its real needs, and to revive the slogan of Occupy: We are the 99%. No population is the enemy; the problem is not a person or persons, not even the 1%. The problem is the exponential rate at which economic inequality is growing, and an overall system that is not meeting most of our needs. The more we identify the problem as systemic, and not caused by an amorphous “them” that is exploiting “us,” the more strength we will have to fight Gilad Atzmon, Donald Trump, and anti-Semites everywhere.