Beauty as a Political Weapon
Three in one: jazzman, writer and activist (a conversation with Gilad Atzmon)
The northbound Spanish highway A7 is usually fluid and easy to drive, but last August 27th it tried my patience, because I was rushing to reach an appointment I scheduled with Gilad Atzmon in the French Pyrenees. The avalanche of cars of returning European vacationers increased the traffic many fold, so instead of arriving at 2:00 pm I shook hands with him only when the sun was already gone. Fortunately, he waited for me.
Born in Israel, Gilad Atzmon was raised as a secular Jew. He served his compulsory military service at the time of the Lebanon war (1982), an event that made him very sceptical about Zionism and Israeli politics. Ten years later he fled his native country with a no-return ticket. In the UK he studied Philosophy but after graduation chose a musical rather than an academic career. He lives in London and considers himself an exile.
Up to the day of our encounter we knew each other just by occasional emails, ever since I started translating into Spanish a bunch of the articles he incessantly produces in his website (www.gilad.co.uk) against the Institutional Apparatuses of the State of Israel. He has always impressed me by the intellectually structured way he criticises what he considers the racist policies of the Zionists and has put his art to the service of a cause: the liberation of the Palestinian people. If I have just mentioned art is because Atzmon, before every other thing in life, is an artist who uses his many instruments (saxophone, clarinet, flute… and laptop) to play music and write books and activist papers. His previous album, EXILE, received the BBC “Best Jazz Album of the Year” Award in 2003 and he has just released a new one, musiK. Both of these have been recorded with his own group, a multiethnic band called The Orient House Ensemble. He has also published two novels, translated into 17 languages all together (A Guide to the Perplexed and My One and Only Love). What follows is part of the long exchange we had until we parted at dawn, when he took the road to Rome and I returned southbound. Sign of the times, our conversation continued later through the chat.
Manuel Talens: Who are you, Mr. Atzmon?
Gilad Atzmon: Good question! I am probably the last to know for sure. I assume that I am a jazz musician which means that I am committed to re-inventing myself. In order to re-invent myself I am primarily engaged with questions concerning myself. A good question to start with is who I might be. A lot of my writings and my criticism of Zionism and global economy is fuelled by my tendency to reflect upon who I am and to revise myself.
MT: Let’s play the analyst and the analysed: I deduce that if you need to re-invent yourself it is because you are not happy with what you are. Tell me please if you have any problem with being a Jew.
GA: I always mention that giving interviews saves me from spending money on shrinks. I think that the need to re-invent oneself is not necessarily an escape. It is rather a search for the real essence. In fact, the process of re-invention draws its power from a clear assault on the ego. You start to play when you stop thinking. Using Lacanian terminology you may say: “You are where you do not think”. It may sound funny, but I do realise now that it is my love for jazz that made me more and more critical of Jewish identity and Zionism. At the age of eighteen, when I was supposed to become a supremacist Judeo-soldier, I fell in love with Coltrane and Bird. It was then when I realised that the culture that inspires me (Afro-American) had nothing to do with the culture I was supposed to be fighting for.
MT: But this does not answer my question, at least not for the purpose I have in mind. Let me remind you that this conversation will initially be aimed at a Gentile Spanish-speaking readership not necessarily informed about the idiosyncrasies of the Jewish people. I need to know if you feel fine under your skin as a Jew – considering the fact that nobody chooses his or her origins -, and I do so because some of my next questions will deal with the touchy issues of anti-Semitism and so-called Jewish self-hatred. I repeat: Have you any problem with being a Jew?
GA: Not at all because I do not consider myself a Jew. That said, I am sympathetic towards religious Jews as much as I am sympathetic towards religious groups or religious belief in general, and yet, I am far less sympathetic towards the secular Jewish identity. I argue that once you strip Jewishness of its spiritual content you are left with mere racism. You see, I am neither a religious Jew nor a secular one. Thus, I cannot regard myself as a Jew.
MT: Well, that was a pretty direct statement I did not anticipate. To tell you the truth, if we accept the semiotic concept which states that language is the inner world we live in, a world which is never neutral and shapes our way of thinking, after seeing and hearing you speak Hebrew with your wife and children I expected you to feel comfortable – although critical, of course – within the linguistic field you grew up with. It should be remembered that Hebrew is not a more or less de-nationalized lingua franca as is English or Spanish, but the resuscitated language of Israeli Jews. So if you were raised as a secular Jew but do not accept being one anymore, what are you now, an acculturated man?
GA: In fact I regard myself as a Hebrew speaking Palestinian. I do speak Hebrew and my homeland is Palestine. Unlike Israel, a racist and nationalist political apparatus, Palestine is a piece of geography. Palestine is authentic and genuine; Israel is artificial and imposed. You see, when I feel homesick, I go to a Lebanese restaurant rather than an Israeli falafel house. And yet, I wouldn’t dare argue that I have managed to assimilate into any national or social group and let me tell you, I am not too concerned about it. My English is broken and my accent reveals my origin within seconds. I have learned to live with it. I was born and raised in a certain place and there is nothing I can do about it. And yet, I do believe that compassion and empathy are universal humanist qualities. For me, to detach oneself from Jewishness is to become a being who feels empathy. This is where I aim and I enjoy the journey.
MT: Now tell me why you argue that secular Jewishness is a mere form of racism. There are so many millions of honest people of Jewish extraction who are not religious at all and nevertheless feel and consider themselves Jews that such an assertion surprises me. Could you explain it? And by the same token do not forget to put in plain words what Zionism is: keep in mind that you are dialoguing with Western Gentiles, whose cultural genes – the so-called memes – are Christian and who quite often feel baffled when confronted with notions such as Zionism, Semitism or their antonyms anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
GA: OK, a clarification is needed here. It is not the Jewish origin that makes one into a racist but rather the endorsement of a Jewish secular identity that “may” do so. As I mentioned before, once you remove the religious content from Jewishness you are left with the concept of Jewish blood. Zionism is in fact a nationalist perception that connotes Jewishness to race rather than to a religious belief. As such, Zionism is the belief that Zion (Palestine) is the national homeland of the Jewish people. This strange belief is basically grounded on a Biblical promise. In other words, the Zionists transform the spiritual text (the Bible) into a mere land registry. But then one may ask, who are the Jewish people? From a Zionist perspective, Jews are those who happen to be racially Jewish. In fact, Zionism predates Nazism. Early Zionists spoke about Jewish blood and racial eugenics when Hitler was still in nappies. The problem is that while Zionism started as a marginal esoteric political movement and was highly criticised by most Jewish ideological and religious schools of thought, it is now touted as the official voice of the Jewish people. I tend to argue that many Jews, and this would include even the so called “Jewish anti-Zionists”, are in fact nothing but crypto-Zionists.
In one of my latest papers (www.gilad.co.uk/html%20files/3rd.html) I contend that those who call themselves Jews could be divided into three main categories: 1. Those who follow Judaism; 2. Those who regard themselves as human beings that happen to be of Jewish origin; and 3. Those who put their Jewishness over and above all of their other traits. Obviously, I have no problems with the two first categories, but the 3rd one is rather problematic. The 3rd category Jew is for instance: a Jew who lives in America (rather than an American who happens to be of Jewish descent), a Jew who plays the saxophone (rather than a saxophonist who happens to be Jewish), a Jewish anti-Zionist (rather than an anti-Zionist who happens to be Jewish). For the 3rd category Jew, the racial belonging is a primary quality and this is, in fact, the very essence of Zionism. Thus, to be born a Jew is innocent indeed, but to be a Jew isn’t necessarily innocent. It all depends on the category one happens to endorse. Unless one falls into the first 2 categories, one isn’t necessarily innocent.
MT: Excuse my doggedness, but I want you to be extremely precise. To me this “one isn’t necessarily innocent” you have just mentioned suggests that it is still possible to belong to the 3rd category without being a racist. Is that what you mean?
GA: This is just because I am really trying to be polite.
MT: I insist: Are you ready to accept that these Jewish anti-Zionists who according to you are nothing but crypto-Zionists could still be wonderful human beings, not racists after all?
GA: You see, we are all “racially aware” but then being a “racist” is a different condition altogether. I will be very clear about the subject. To be a secular Jew and yet to make your Jewishness into a primary quality is a clear manifestation of a racist tendency. Many amongst the anti-Zionist Jews are simply unaware of the problems entangled with their racial approach. This is the reason why I have attempted to dialogue with them and try to push them towards a further realisation of their mistaken racial agenda. I call them to leave behind their racially exclusive anti-Zionist approach and to join a universal call instead. Needless to say, many Jews realise it by themselves. I argue that if Zionism is categorically wrong, then to those fighting it, one’s racial or ethnic belonging is irrelevant.
MT: So if I understand it correctly, the targets of your rhetorical bullets are just some Jewish individuals (more specifically some Jewish individuals belonging to the 3rd category), not the Jewish people as a group.
GA: The answer is yes. I do not present an inclusive group critique because Jews are neither a group nor a “people”. And still, it is very important to mention that the 3rd category isn’t just a bunch of sporadic individuals. Practically speaking, the 3rd category forms a very solid identity with a clear global agenda. I argue as well that within the 3rd category you will find political polarity and even metaphysical opposition. You will find there hardcore Zionist settlers from Brooklyn as well as a revolutionary Jewish Marxist from London. We cannot criticise Jews as a group because Jews do not form a folk, a racial continuity or even an ethnic or cultural entity. The cultural differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are evidential but it goes further. Anthropologists will tell us that Jews are not a race: in fact, genetic studies have shown recently that while Sephardic Jews and Palestinians share a common Canaanite origin, Ashkenazis, or at least the vast majority of them, have nothing to do with Canaan…
MT: Excuse me, but some readers could get lost if you do not go back to basics and explain the difference between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews.
GA: Traditionally speaking, Sephardic Jews (Sephardi means Spain in Hebrew) are associated with what is labelled as oriental origin (Middle East, Mediterranean, Balkan, Arabia, etc.). The term Ashkenazi refers largely to Jews of European descent. But it is slightly more complicated again, as many of us know, the Ashkenazi Jews are in fact Khazarians. Their ancestors converted to Judaism around the 9th century. That fact is pretty embarrassing for the Zionists because if this is the case, then for most Ashkenazi Jews “home” means the land of the old Khazar kingdom (somewhere between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea). Their geographical origins have nothing to do with Palestine whatsoever. This is by the way a very interesting question in itself. I tend to believe that all Ashkenazis are Khazarians. A while agoMarcel Charbonnier sent me a piece he himself translated about the origin of Yiddish. According to this very detailed academic piece Yiddish is actually grammatically structured as Khazarian. But we really don’t want to go there and I am far from being an expert.
MT: Just out of curiosity, are you of Ashkenazi extraction?
GA: My father is no doubt an Ashkenazi Jew. So I am probably of Khazarian extraction.
MT: Alright, please continue.
GA: And yet, although Jews do not form a race, the 3rd category Jews are racially motivated. It is the racial motivation which I stand against. As you know, being so familiar with my writings, I am the last one to judge people because of their racial belonging, in fact I am totally against such an approach. There is not even a single racial reference in any of my critical writings. In practice my criticism of Jews and Jewishness is focussed on the 3rd category “identity”. As you may realise, the majority of Jewish people are flirting with the 3rd category philosophy. Zionists are obviously found to be in the very core of the supremacist perception and the “Jewish anti-Zionists” are somehow just a bit further down the road.
MT: I am glad you clarified that notion, because from my puzzled Gentile perspective it is highly intriguing to watch that you, Gilad Atzmon – a human being who happens to be of Jewish extraction according to your own words, who confesses his sympathy towards religious Jews, and who abhors racism – are bitterly accused by Zionists and some out-and-out defenders of Israel of being a racist, an anti-Semite, and a self-hating Jew. Does it make any sense? Aren’t we just facing a propaganda war which uses the word “racist” deliberately deprived of its original semantic meaning?
GA: For sure, it is deliberate and very cleverly done. Contemporary Jewish identity consists of three main elements: religious, nationalist and racist. Zionists are interested in keeping those 3 elements as blurred as possible, something that is in fact an intellectual fraud. Once you attack their nationalist politics they would accuse you of being a racist, once you attack their racist tendencies they would claim that it is all the outcome of their innocent religion. My 3rd category model is there to suggest a platform of attacking Zionism as well as Jewishness for being a clannish, exclusive and supremacist world view.
MT: Now two quiz questions to settle this issue and definitely position yourself. Please answer just yes or no. Are you an anti-Semite?
GA: No, for sure not. I argue that once Israel established itself explicitly as the state of the Jewish people, and did so at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians, any act of war against Jews can be comprehended in terms of “political struggle”. This is not to say that such an act is legitimate.
MT: Are you an anti-Zionist?
GA: Yes, absolutely. But then I tend to extend the definition of Zionism. For me, every 3rd category Jew is either a Zionist or a crypto-Zionist, no matter what his claims to the contrary may be. Clearly my stand is a serious challenge of the Jewish identity. I have seen many things written about me and yet I have never come across a sufficient counter argument. I start to wonder whether there is any argument as such. If there isn’t, it is more than likely that I won’t have much more to say about the subject anymore. I may start to write about flowers and birds.
MT: While doing research about you for this interview I came across an incredible Zionist website which shows what they call a shit list (Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening List (http://masada2000.org/list-A.html), in fact a public blacklist of “enemies”. Of course you are included on it with a long tirade. Many of the opinions expressed there are quite offensive and probably subject to legal action, but putting aside the moral implications carried by these malicious inventories or the physical danger they impose on the lives of so many people, what I want to stress now is that you are in the company of several persons we Gentiles highly respect: Woody Allen, Noam Chomsky, Nadine Gordimer, Naomi Klein or even the extraordinary poet and humanist Natan Zach. Do you have any comments about it?
GA: I am very happy and honoured to be listed in such company. Furthermore I think that the shit list is a wonderful showcase of the tactics used by the contemporary 3rd category identity. But then the absurdity is that some of the Jewish leftist activists who happen to be listed on it are themselves fully engaged in producing similar lists of their adversaries. My advice to them is to leave behind the Kosher philosophy and to join the local and global Palestinian solidarity movement.
MT: I permit myself to explain for the readers the Hebrew word kosher. In fact, kosher refers to Jewish dietary laws, it determines what is right and what is wrong, what is in and what is out. It originally means genuine, connotes everything that refers to the requirements of the Jewish law for the preparation of food, but also it is used as synonymous of Jewishness. Let’s continue:
Louis Althusser coined the concept of “Institutional Apparatuses of the State”, meaning that any state, as opposed to the people at large, always imposes and perpetuates particular class interests through repressive instruments specifically created to that effect, i.e. the police, the laws, the right to resort to violence or even to kill, and so on. Tell me first if you agree with this Marxist notion and, if you do, apply it to the State of Israel and elaborate about where you think the centre of Zionist politics is located.
GA: Again, things are slightly more complicated when it comes to Israel and Jewishness. Clearly, I do agree with Althusser. In practice, Israel is a political tool that is there to serve and support the hegemony of the Ashkenazi elite. This may change in the near future. Once Sephardic Jews realise that their historic bonds with their Arab neighbours were shattered by the Ashkenazi expansionist philosophy, Israel may turn into one Palestine.
Now to the other part of your question, I do not know where the centre of Zionist politics is. Is it in Sharon’s cabinet? Is it in Wall Street? Is the whole neocon business just another Zionist pragmatic global practice? But I do not think that it is that important. I prefer to look at Zionism in terms of a “network operation” in which each operating member is fully aware of his role, and his alone. If this is the case, then Israel and Zionism should be seen as a particular colonialist apparatus within a far greater global movement.
MT: Now that you have mentioned globalisation tell me your opinion of the close, almost marital ties of the State of Israel with the US imperial agenda and do not forget to analyse from your own perspective the role played in those ties by the institutional left of Israel.
GA: Originally, Israel was there to serve Anglo-American globalised interests. Obviously, this isn’t the case anymore. America is now fighting (very unsuccessfully) the last pockets of Arab resistance (to Zionist colonialism). Regarding the Israeli left’s role within this global murderous affair I suggest that we should be rather careful. Traditionally, the Israeli left was associated with the American Democratic Party. In the 1980s the Likud founded a very strong bond with the radical right Republicans. This partnership is so strong now that America is willing to send its soldiers to die for Israeli strategic interests (i.e., Iraq invasion). If you insist upon talking about the Israeli institutional left, I will have to assure you that in fact the Israeli left is merely a verbal entity. There is nothing behind it. The reason is very simple. If Israel is the state of the Jewish people then any leftist thinking within such a political nationalist environment must be realised in terms of “Jewish National Socialism” (I am sure that it rings a bell). Saying that, there are some very few leftists in Palestine who happen to be Jewish by origin. As we know, they would never define themselves as Israelis or left Zionists but rather as “Hebrew speaking Palestinians”, “Palestinian Jews” or something of that sort.
MT: You have been accused of many things on the net, but perhaps the two more serious charges are Holocaust denial and incitement to synagogue burning, both things punishable by law. What do you say about it?
GA: I think that you said it yourself. Although those accusations are punishable by law, I have never been asked to visit a police station… Obviously, those are empty accusations that are there to serve a specific political cause mainly within the 3rd category community. In case you are interested, there is a partial list of lies concerning me, followed by my replies to them: (www.gilad.co.uk/html%20files/1001lies.html).
But then you may expect me to be more specific. While the accusation about incitement to synagogue burning is an outrageous lie, my take on the Holocaust is rather complicated. I do not deny the Holocaust or the Nazi Judeocide. But I just insist that both the Holocaust and World War II should be treated as an historical event rather than as a religious myth. The story of World War II and the Holocaust is full of discrepancies and contradictions. Major questions are left unanswered. Why did the Americans not bomb Auschwitz? Why did they wait until June 1944 before raiding the beaches of Normandy? Wasn’t it just because Stalin was advancing into central Europe? Why did the Allies bomb German cities rather than logistic facilities and key military targets? Wasn’t it just because they didn’t want to distract Hitler’s army from fighting Stalin? Why did the Americans nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Wasn’t it because the Reds just declared war against Japan and could interfere with them in the Pacific? Clearly, an historical scrutiny of World War II would reveal the fact that from an Anglo-American perspective, Stalin was the real enemy rather than Hitler. The Holocaust narrative is there to hide this rather convincing yet alarming interpretation.
The most crucial question here is why we are not allowed to treat that very historical chapter applying academic methods. The answer is very simple. The Holocaust is now regarded by most Jews and Anglo-Americans as the new Western religion.
MT: You mean a dogma, a principle considered indisputable?
GA: Yes, but the Holocaust is more than just mere religious dogma. What makes religion into a unique set of beliefs is the acceptance of a non-realistic tale. The belief is the outcome of a blind acceptance of the supernatural narrative. The strength of the Holocaust religion is due to the non-realistic character of its tale. The Holocaust narrative is structured as a horrifying dream: It is a metamorphic story of man who is transformed into an industrial killing machine. But then, even if we accept the Holocaust as the new Anglo-American Liberal Democratic religion we must allow people to be atheists. Somehow we are far less sympathetic to those who fail to believe in the Holocaust religion. In some countries it has even entered the Criminal Code, a fact that reinforces the strong political intention of this dogma artificially sacred from above: not believing in the Holocaust is today a criminal offence.
MT: You know, I am familiar with criminalisation of disbelief. The Catholic Church is full of curious dogma, i.e., the Holy Trinity or Mary’s virginity in spite of maternity, and a few centuries ago you could be burned in the stake if you did not believe them.
GA: Yeah. The more fantastic the narrative is, the stronger your belief is proved to be. The truth value of the event is irrelevant as much as nobody really cares about verifying whether or not Mary was a virgin or if the Biblical event of Moses and the burning bush constitutes a real historical fact. To believe is to blindly accept. And yet, religion has always a purpose: the Holocaust religion is there to stand at the very core of the liberal democratic discourse. It is there to maintain the bond between Zionist colonialism and Western expansionism. In other words, the validity of the Holocaust as an historical event loses its relevance. This is exactly where I interfere. I am not an historian and I am not going to engage myself with the historical question of whether there were 6 million or 2.5 million Jewish victims. I argue that this arithmetical question is irrelevant, not to say stupid, because murder is always murder whether you kill one or many. I would maintain instead that even if they were “just” a few thousand Jews or Gypsies who were murdered because of their ethnic origin or impure blood this is tragic enough to establish a major traumatic historical chapter. And yet the question remains, what transforms an historical narrative into a religion?
I will try to suggest an answer: the Palestinians, for instance, are the last victims of Hitler. The fact that they have been living in refugee camps for almost 6 decades is the direct outcome of the Nazi Judeocide, because Zionism established the State of Israel in their land as a consequence of the Holocaust. Thus, I would argue that the history of World War II belongs to the Palestinians as much as it belongs to the Jews or to anyone else. But this is exactly where the problem starts. Once the Holocaust becomes a religion it ceases to be an historical chapter. The Jews are supposed to be the ultimate victims and the Palestinians are just second rate victims, namely the “victims of the victims”. Once the Holocaust becomes a religion, no one else is allowed in. I do tend to believe that the official Holocaust narrative was actually created by the victorious Anglo-Americans. And it is there to serve their very purpose. I agree with many historians in that the Jewish industrial victim ritual started after 1967 and that the masters decided that the Holocaust should be there to serve Western expansionism.
MT: And what about Hitler?
GA: By no means this is to say that Hitler was innocent. Hitler was beyond doubt a merciless murderer but he wasn’t alone. I do tend to pool a major blame on the Anglo-Americans. Seemingly, the very people who flattened Dresden and Hamburg happened to liquidate the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not surprisingly, the very same people who left 2 million dead in Vietnam are those who have been devastating Latin America for the last 6 decades. Surprisingly enough, the very same people who helped the Israelis to lock 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza are those who now destroy Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit. And if this is not enough, they are the same people who did not rush to help the poor blacks of New Orleans just 2 weeks ago. America is no doubt bad news. But to be honest, it isn’t even news anymore. Shortly speaking, if we aim for a better world we rather must rewrite the story of the 20th century. We rather should point out that this slaughter in the name of “freedom” and “democracy” must be stopped. It is our duty to look into our own history and to be active in revising it. It is our duty to make sure that historical rethinking (revisionism) finds its way into the centre of our Left discourse. I argue that the official story of World War II is there to hide some major crimes of an astonishing scale. Hitler was defeated 60 years ago. America won that bloody war but it has never stopped throwing bombs on innocent civilians since then. In order to liberate ourselves we must rearrange the 20th century and the sooner the better. And if the Holocaust is now officially an ex-historical event, if it is a mere religion, I then insist to be allowed to treat it theologically. By the way, this is exactly what I am doing.
MT: What is your ideal agenda for a just settlement of the apparently never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
GA: Only one answer is possible, namely the One State Solution. As you may know, I do not believe in a peaceful solution, i.e., peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Such a solution would fail to address the Palestinian cause, namely ‘the right of return”. But in fact, it is far deeper. The notion of peace is totally foreign to the Hebraic psyche. Sharon said recently that Israel wants peace (shalom) but it insists upon “determining its terms and conditions”. Clearly, for Sharon peace is a pragmatic decision, it is the product of burgeoning rather than an endorsement of the concept of compassion and reconciliation. Sharon’s statement reveals a major Judeo/Christian cultural clash. Basically, the difference between Jews and Christians could be summarized into one sentence: Christians are Jews who love their neighbours. Whether this is the case or not is a big question. And yet, one thing is clear, Western thinking values compassion and love of the Other, this is the reason that Jews could never merge en mass into the Western cultural environment. Jewishness is a celebration of negation. Jews (especially Ashkenazi ones) always locked themselves behind ghetto walls. Not surprisingly, they apply now the very same wall tactics in Israel. This kind of an isolationist identity can never endorse real peace.
Even within working class political circles Jews adopted some separatist cells (such as the Bund within the Soviet and other Jewish leftist exclusive organisations). Thus, a peaceful solution is inconceivable. Therefore, in order to achieve any form of reconciliation between the two peoples, first the Hebrew identity must be defeated and it will be defeated mainly by itself. We have to help the Israelis to de-Zionise themselves. Eventually when that happens we must make sure not to forget to de-Zionise ourselves… I am referring here mainly to Blair’s Britain and America. I would say that the de-Zionising of Palestine is a key element in the process of our global liberation.
MT: The isolationist identity you just described reminded me of the wall they have built in Israel, but the official excuse for it is to defend themselves from terrorism.
GA: To call terrorism an act of “freedom fighting” is in itself symptomatic to the new Zio-led Western discourse. This applies obviously to Israel but as well to Americans and British. Clearly Iraqis are entitled to fight the foreign invasion forces as much as Palestinians are morally entitled to fight to free their land.
MT: Now that you have mentioned the struggle for liberation, what is your opinion about the ethical aspects of the creation of Israel in 1948 by the UN on a piece of land which was already dwelled by Palestinians? And about the further expulsion of some 750,000 of these?
GA: The creation of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from their land raises a further question. How come the Jews managed to commit such an atrocity on such a scale just three years after the end of World War II? This is a very important question and I am afraid that no one has managed to come with a clear answer yet. I can think of two possible suggestions: 1) The Hebraic men and women are far from being empathising human beings. For them the pain of others is meaningless. This could be the outcome of the Judaic supremacist code. It may also explain the fact that after 60 years of Israeli oppression, not even one single Zionist call is voiced there to express any form of regret for that original sin mentioned above. 2) The Hebraic men and women of 1948 were far from being traumatised Jews. In other words, for them the Holocaust wasn’t yet a major event. As we learn these days from Segev and Finkelstein, it took many years for Jews to internalise and to shape the collective Holocaust narrative, not to say the trauma. Seemingly, the 1948 Sabra (the native Israeli) was full of contempt towards the Diaspora Jew. The Palestinians helped the Sabra redeem himself from the humiliation imposed by the weak and hopeless image of the defenceless Diaspora Jew. This psychological pattern is fundamental for the understanding of Israeli politics. Killing Arabs always unites the Israelis behind their leaders.
MT: During the last few years the Spanish mainstream media have highly publicised the Barenboim-Said experience of creating what they call a musical instrument of peace, The West Eastern Divan Orchestra, integrated by young Israeli and Palestinian musicians and based in Seville. Although I am not at all against anything that could bring social harmony to any place, it strikes me that while Barenboim conducts his pupils in European auditoriums before amazed audiences, in Gaza or Tel Aviv bombs continue to explode. Somehow it reminds me of the old Catholic Church’s insistence upon sending missionaries to do charity work (and that is fine, because nowadays they do a great job which otherwise nobody would do) yet not confronting the real heart of the problem: the world’s political and economic injustice, and even less the people responsible of such injustice. Don’t you think that these attitudes naively divert attention to the anecdotic and do nothing more than maintain the status quo? What is your opinion of Barenboim’s work as a “missionary” of peace from within Zionism?
GA: I agree with you to a certain extent, and if this is not enough, more than often I criticise Barenboim for being a Zionist and for spreading the Zionist message. And yet, I think that Barenboim is doing a great job. First, he crosses the divide. Second, he gives young musicians in the region an opportunity to work with the ultimate musical genius (Barenboim himself). But most importantly, Barenboim manages to annoy Israelis and to expose their reactionary attitude. Just think about Barenboim becoming a persona non grata simply for performing Wagner in Jerusalem, isn’t it wonderful? I do think that Barenboim manages to throw light on the most pathetic corners of the Jewish psyche. Thus, I would have to maintain that taking all those different aspects of Barenboim’s activity into account, the man is more than a positive contribution to the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Trying to address your point, clearly Barenboim cannot stop the Israelis from dropping bombs. To be Israeli is to engage in murderous negation. For Israelis and to a certain extent, for the post-Talmudic Jew, to Be is to Hate. Once the Israelis stop dropping bombs and hating the world around them, they won’t be Israelis anymore, they would become “Hebrew speaking Palestinians”. Let me assure you, this is something that will happen by itself, it is an inevitable demographic shift. We, the supporters of Palestine, have only one duty. To help the Palestinians survive the next 20 years. We must stop the ethnic cleansing that is already largely in progress. We must bring hope to the Palestinian street. Our duty is to expose the Israelis and their Zionist agenda. We can put pressure on their society and politicians as well. This is what Barenboim is doing. The man delivers hope through beauty just because beauty is his weapon and I think that he uses it rather effectively.
It isn’t that easy to be a Jew and to help the Palestinians, once you do that you fall instantly into the Zionist trap, you become a righteous Jew. Being a Jew you are always in a unique double bind, you can only win. You see, being a Jew is a major complexity: if you are in favour of Palestinian rights you actually prove that Jews are “great humanists”. If you are against the Palestinians, it isn’t really because you are evil but rather because you are a “hopeless victim of two millennia of endless persecution and you just want to live in “(fucking) peace in your (fucking) historic homeland”. As you can see, once you agree to act under a Jewish banner, you let Zionism win. Whatever you decide to do approves the Zionist call, you are either a victim or an angel. As you know, I do suffer a lot of flak just for exposing this very complexity. This is the reason that I myself escaped the totality of the Jewish identity. I am an ex-Jew. My actual kindness or evilness has nothing to do with any form of grouping but with myself (me, myself and I). And yet, I am not in a position to call anyone to join this category. I can just suggest to Barenboim and others that this may be a very interesting route to consider.
MT: Before moving to the topic of Gilad Atzmon as a musician and a writer let me remind you that Noam Chomsky, a man whom I suppose you respect, has said that debating about the One State Solution is something “completely abstract, and has no relation to anything even imaginable today” (www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5240). Is it worthwhile to persist in such a way?
GA: This is exactly the reason why I am very suspicious of late Chomsky. As we all know he defines himself as a Zionist. Though I admire him for his past activity, I would argue that Chomsky’s take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lost its relevance ages ago.
Now to the point: Not only the One State Solution is not abstract at all, Sharon in his recent left Zionist turn has been clever enough to realise the concrete upcoming demographic disaster due to the fact that Jews are no longer the majority in the Israeli-controlled areas. This is the philosophy behind the recent Gaza pullout. The Israelis know that the days of the “Jewish State” are numbered. The fact that Chomsky fails to see that is rather concerning. You see, it is very interesting: while right wing Zionists lean towards a One State Solution, the so-called left wing Zionists endorse a radical nationalistic concept of two states.
MT: I did not know Ariel Sharon was a leftie. Please explain your last sentence.
GA: To start with, Sharon was raised at the heart of agricultural Labour Zionism but we may leave personal history aside for a moment. There are two major ideological political streams within the Zionist movement: The doves (leftists) and the hawks (right wingers). The doves believe that the Jews are entitled to a national homeland at the expense of the Palestinians. Historically speaking it was the doves who ethnically cleaned 85% of the Palestinian people in 1948. Once the doves managed to create a reasonable Lebensraum for the Jewish people they were happy to “compromise” with the Palestinians. Oslo is the materialisation of the Zionist dove philosophy. Peres and Rabin came to the Palestinians and “generously” offered them these humiliating terms and conditions: “We (the Israelis) will live on the lands and in the houses you left behind in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, etc. And you (the Palestinians) will stay in your refugee camps in the desert or even in the Diaspora”. As we can see, the doves always search for a means of compromise. The concept of a two state solution is a classic dove tactic. It completely dismisses the Palestinian cause (i.e., the right of return). Clearly, the doves do not want to live amongst Arabs, they prefer to erect a European style Jewish ghetto in Palestine. For those who do not remember, the idea of an apartheid wall was originally initiated by Haim Ramon, another famous Labour dove.
The hawks’ philosophy is slightly different. For a hawk it is the land itself that is important. It is the holy “Eretz Yisrael” – the Land of Israel according to the Bible – that he or she would fight for. The hawk insists upon redeeming every piece of land of “greater Israel”. The hawk is not ready to compromise. The hawk would insist that the right for Zion is Biblically grounded. For the hawk there is no real difference between Tel Aviv, Gaza or the West Bank. This is the very reason why the hawk Zionist paradigm later matured into what is now known as “messianic Zionism” (the settler movement). Seemingly, the contemporary hawk would obey a Rabbi rather than a secular politician. The hawk’s logic is simple and coherent: If Eretz Yisrael is indeed a divine concept, let it be handled by a religious messianic man rather than by an atheist Jew.
Throughout his entire political and military career Sharon, a brutal war criminal, was flirting with the hawk philosophy. For years he was acting as the political messenger of the settler movement. But then, things changed recently. Seemingly, Sharon changed his spots. The Gaza pullout is in fact a political U-turn for Sharon. He is now back with his real peers, the Labour doves. Sharon realised lately that running a Jewish state with a vast majority of Palestinians is doomed to failure. This is the logic behind the Gaza pullout. He simply found a way to get rid of 1.3 million Palestinians and to gain another 5-7 years in the colossal demographic pipeline. Why did he change his mind? Because for Sharon Eretz Yisrael is not as holy as he made us believe. Sharon, the ultimate Zionist hawk became a dove. Not only is he a dove, his entire political career is now saved by the official dove Shimon Peres, always enthusiastic about joining Sharon’s cabinet.
The moral of this political saga is rather clear; leaving the settler movement aside, in Israel political ideology means very little. Left has nothing to do with left and right is right as long as it is practical.
MT: Excuse my next question, but I find it rather strange that you do not attribute any positive quality to Israeli society.
GA: Why do you say so? I think that more than anything else, Israel is there to present the world with the ultimate embodiment of non-ethical thinking and inhuman behaviour.
MT: I could agree with you in that a democracy which just serves the Jews but not the rest of the population living within its boundaries is a somehow crippled democracy…
GA: It is far worse. It is a democracy that is there to serve world Jewry, not only its Jewish inhabitants but rather Jews all over the world. Azmi Bishara, a brave and adorable Palestinian academic as well as a Member of the Israeli Knesset, has launched a campaign, namely “a state of its citizens”, which opposes such a logic. According to Bishara, Israel must become a democracy of its citizens rather than a mere colony of world Jewry. In the Jewish state, an American Jew from Brooklyn has more rights than a Palestinian born in East Jerusalem. There you go, this is the reality of “Jewish Democracy”.
MT: The usual tale is that Jews enjoy all the advantages usually allowed by Western societies, i.e., freedom of speech and dissent…
GA: The freedom of speech is there to portray an image of pluralism. And besides, this fake pluralism applies solely to Jews. Somehow, it never applies to Palestinian academics, artists or politicians.
MT: Never? But you just mentioned the dissenting stand of Palestinian Israeli Azmi Bishara…
GA: Azmi Bishara is now stripped of his parliamentary immunity just for being who he is (an Arab) and saying what he is saying. I really think that that says it all.
MT: But from the outside we Gentiles see that verbal opposition is tolerated and the so-called “traitors” can live and work within Israel without being jailed…
GA: My friend, do you know how many Palestinians are jailed at this very moment in Israel’s various concentration camps and ordinary jails? OK, let me say it, Zionists are far from being stupid. Did you know that the Israeli government runs an institute that is taking care of translating the so called “left” Hebrew literature into foreign languages? In fact it is Amos Oz and Edgar Keret that they spread around. This must sound bizarre to you: an Israeli right wing government is engaged in translating and promoting “leftist” writers. You see, they do it in order to establish a fake image of a “peace seeking Jewish state”. Not that Oz and Keret have anything to do with ideological left thinking. They are just typical Zionist doves. But somehow they are promoted by the right wing Israeli establishment. Apparently, Jewish hawks do realise that the Zionist endeavour benefits from the image of the righteous Jew. As I said before, Zionists are far from being stupid, they even benefit from my call for their disintegration. 3rd category right wing Jews are always very quick in offering the list of the dozen “good Jews”. When you attack Jewish power they will always remind you of the humanist Jews, you will then hear about Chomsky, Finkelstein, Leibovitch. I assume that my name might appear somewhere down the line. You see, Zionism benefits from its Jewish opponents. It is a major challenge to tackle and this is another reason for me never to act as an ex-Israeli or even as an ex-Jew.
MT: Let’s talk about terrorism on both sides. Try to forget your opinion about Israel and think only as a human being.
GA: This might be too much of a challenge [He smiles].
MT: How would you feel if you were an Arab and Israeli soldiers with orders from their superiors to shoot to kill slaughtered your son during a raid? How would you feel if your daughter was blown up in a bus by a Palestinian suicide bomber?
GA: With all due respect, I don’t want to get into “victim politics”. It is rather clear how horrible circumstances as such must be and yet, I think that we must learn to differentiate between personal grief and rational criticism. I have been living in the UK for over 10 years. I do raise my two kids here in bombarded London. And in spite of all that, I am fully aware that it is Mr. Blair who consciously turns my kids, myself and the entire British society into hostages of his poor, not to say criminal, decision making. I must tell you that the majority of British people and that includes the PM’s wife, realised immediately after the July 7th bombing that it was Blair’s doomed policies that brought those bloody bombs upon us. What I am trying to say is that people are capable of differentiating between the personal pain and the reason which led to them being attacked.
It isn’t coincidence that Zionists try to blur the distinction between the personal grief and the rational discourse. In order to maintain Jewish trauma the pain must suppress any possible reason. Reason is there to produce an explanatory argument. You see, once the Zionist realises the reasoning behind Jewish suffering, Jews would stop being victims and they would then become ordinary empathising and responsible human beings. As long as pain stands in the core of the Jewish discourse, the Holocaust is a never ending story with interchangeable protagonists: Once it was Hitler, then it became Stalin, Nasser, Arafat, Saddam and so on. As soon as you draw a demarcation line between pain and reasoning you then start to search for the causality. You look at your grief in terms of cause and effect. You then may ask whether it is a coincidence that all those major disasters happen to Jews. Is it a coincidence that so many young Palestinians give up on the hope for a better life? If you ask me, these are the elementary questions Israelis must ask themselves following a suicide attack. Somehow, they fail to do so. Once they start engaging themselves with those questions they won’t be Israelis anymore. To de-Zionise the Israeli is to introduce reason into the trauma.
MT: Would you return to live in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv if they were part of a new state constitutionally stripped of any ethnic references?
GA: I don’t know about living there but I may consider a visit or even to play a concert.
MT: Permit me to summarize what I deduce from your previous statements: you are just a human being who happened to be born to Jewish parents but consider that Jewishness is just an irrelevant aspect of your persona, not the principal notion that drives your life.
GA: You see, this is slightly more than I said. I assume that it isn’t a coincidence that I am concerned with Jewishness. I am not acting as a Jew or under any Jewish banner. Anyhow, please continue.
MT: You are sympathetic to religious persons, Jews among them. You are not an anti-Semite but rather an anti-Zionist (not to confound both concepts). You combat Zionism as a racially-based ideology which isolates its members and controls a state based upon racial premises. You defend the liberation of the Palestinian people, the right of return of the Palestinians who were expelled from their land after the foundation of the State of Israel and endorse the creation of a new state, Palestine, where both peoples would live without any reference to their ethnic origin. You are convinced that Zionism is an integral part of Western colonialism and imperialism. Am I right?
MT: At the same time you are an artist who has to earn his bread and butter everyday, and we all know that in the world we live “art” is controlled by capital (i.e., record companies, editors, gallery owners, and so on), which means that any artist who fights the very foundation of Western capitalism and who is always swimming against the tide of the dominant political agenda becomes instantly a pariah. Do you have any professional problems due to the fact that your art is an aesthetic weapon of mass destruction aimed at the “unique thinking” of the current neoliberal democracies?
GA: For sure, I could be far more successful once I choose to be silent. But then, let me assure you no one chooses to become a jazz performer because of the money. We do it because of the love of music and its spiritual content. I love jazz and my music benefits from my social commitment, at least that’s what I think at the moment.
MT: I only know your last two records, EXILE and musiK. From the first cut of EXILE I was impressed by both the sensuality of your sound and the occasional violent squalls, either playing the clarinet or the saxophone. You mentioned above that Coltrane and Bird (Charlie Parker) changed your life and in fact your phrasing shows the influence of both. What is jazz for you?
GA: Jazz is freedom in its making. It is both a call for liberation as well as a challenge of one’s personal boundaries. Playing jazz is the aim to free oneself while knowing that this will never happen.
MT: Your answer has rung a bell in my memory. Have you read the short story “The Pursuer”?
MT: Never heard about it?
MT: It is about Charlie Parker, although its fictional character is called Johnny, an artist in pursuit of art. I highly recommend it to you, I am sure you will love it. “The Pursuer” is the English translation from “El perseguidor”, and its author, the Argentinian Julio Cortázar, was one of the best short story writers of all time. But let’s continue with your poetics of music. A few years ago I translated a brilliant paper you wrote about jazz as a revolutionary activity. Could you repeat here some of the ideas you developed on it?
GA: I argued there that jazz, at its very best, is in fact an anti-American revolutionary art form. Evidently, jazz artists – and I refer mainly to the bop and post bop performers – were highly involved in the black civil rights struggle from the late 1940s until the late 1960s. Jazz was then a call for freedom and was in itself an exercise in freedom. It was then when jazz was emotive, meaningful music.
While In Europe jazz became extremely popular after the war, in America jazz giants were still banned from entering some clubs and concert halls via the front doors. Being the only original art form to come out of the US, jazz became a symbol of American racism and oppression.
In the late 1960s, the American elite realised that jazz may be useful as a propaganda vehicle. It was then when it became the official “voice of America”. It was also that moment when jazz stopped being a revolutionary art form. It was then when black Americans were shipped en masse to die for American global interests in Vietnam.
The story of jazz is the story of American abuse of its black population. Bush’s astonishing negligence in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina just emphasizes this very argument. New Orleans, a major jazz capital, was left there to be drowned together with its poor black inhabitants. Seemingly, America didn’t learn a thing. A nation that is engaged in the daily killing of other nations will eventually turn its sword against its own people.
MT: I will give you four names, two jazzmen and two rockers: Bird, Chet Baker, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Do they inspire you?
GA: For sure. Bird was the man who made me into a jazz lover, Chet taught me what love is all about, Hendrix is existential, and Morrison… I should probably give him more time.
MT: I will summarize in a few words what I remember of your previous album, EXILE. It starts quite impressively with “Dal’Ouna On The Return”, a dialogue between your clarinet and the voice of Palestinian singer Reem Kelani over an lengthy bass sostenuto background. Pure beauty. According to the notes included in the album, the second song, “Al-Quds”, is an Israeli tune very popular among Jews during the Six Day War, although there is a trick on it: its Hebrew lyrics have been changed to an Arabic poem which expresses the Palestinian longing for their lost homeland. The political intention cannot be more explicit: all deprived peoples harbour equal sentiments and during the last 60 years Palestinians are living exactly the same torment that Jews suffered along two millennia.
“Ouz” tells the story of insensitive Zionist settlers who gladly colonise Palestinian land previously confiscated. But the cut I most vividly recall is “Exile”, a traditional Ladino instrumental, and so not because of my love for Ladinos (Jews of Spanish descent who have obstinately maintained Spanish as a language during the four Centuries since the genocidal Catholic Kings deported them), but due to the rhythm applied to the melody by your drummer Asaf Sirkis, which is exactly the same rhythm of the religious processions which take place during the Easter Holy Week in my native Andalusia. Somehow “Exile” took me to my infancy. Every time I listened to it I thought how right had been the historian Américo Castro when he wrote that we Spaniards are a mixture of Christians, Moorish and Jews! Any comments to add?
GA: Just to say that your poetic outlook over my work really touched my heart and I really mean it. Clearly I am far more fascinated with Ladino culture than with Klezmer, an Ashkenazi cultural robbery of some east European and Gypsy music. Although I mastered Klezmer, I would never record it. Unlike the gentle and soulful Ladino music, Klezmer is always too loud, clumsily played and lacks any aesthetic finesse. Saying all that, there is one astonishing musician who manages to transform Klezmer into an art form, I am obviously referring here to the Argentinian born clarinet maestro Giora Feidman. Musically speaking, Klezmer is basically Gypsy music played horribly bad. It is so bad that it made it into a style. Ladino, on the other hand, is a poetic and authentic expression. If you really want to treat yourself with the beauty of Jewish culture, do yourself a favour, just pass near to a Sephardic synagogue on Atonement Day and listen to the old Andalusian music. It is nothing but sheer beauty.
MT: Are you familiar with flamenco?
GA: For sure.
MT: Does it inspire you?
GA: It doesn’t stand in the core of my inspiration but let me tell you that for me music isn’t divided into boxes anymore. Music is just music. Those boxes: Flamenco, Jazz, Pop, Tango, Drum ‘n’ Bass, World, Latin, Rock and so on are there to serve the music industry. It is there to provide an image of manifold.
MT: musiK, your last album, includes a slow tango (“Joven, hermosa y triste”, obviously sung in Spanish by the Argentinian Guillermo Rozenthuler, I guess another human being who happened to have Jewish parents)…
GA: For sure, all the Jews I successfully communicate with and happen to love are falling into the 1st and 2nd categories.
MT: …then a curious medley (“Re-arranging the 20th Century”, with a tribute to Charlie Parker, featuring Robert Wyatt) and an impressive instrumental piece, “Liberating the American People”). Its conception is more universal than the previous album and to me it confirms that your political and artistic evolution is leading you to a more global understanding of the local problems. If on top of that, we consider the sleeve notes you write about the connotation of the word musiK (with uppercase K instead of a c) as music devoid of its market value, the leftie political intention of the final artefact is quite evident, but I have some doubts when I face another cut, the jazz version of the German song “Lili Marleen”, which was quite popular during World War II among both Nazi and Allied soldiers. Could you elaborate both on the meaning of MusiK and the insertion on it of “Lili Marleen”?
GA: musiK, contrary to musiC, is the search for beauty. While musiK refers to continental aesthetics, musiC refers to the Anglo-American commoditisation of beauty and the reduction of aesthetics into mere fashion. “K” stands for beauty and “C” stands for capitalistic greed. This distinction is sharply manifested in the difference between Kultur and Culture. If you don’t mind me being rude I would suggest that whereas “K” stands for Kant (Emmanuel), “C” stands for the “c**t” Milton Friedman.
You ask about “Lili Marleen”, and I will tell you the truth. It isn’t a great song and yet it made people stop shooting. I have tried it for 3 years. I am far from being successful but I keep trying.
MT: Have you ever played in Latin America?
GA: Yes, in Argentina and Uruguay. Love it. I would easily move. As you may know, tango is my biggest love.
MT: I have mentioned Latin America because as the backyard of the empire its people have suffered Washington’s policies for more than a century and maybe that’s the reason why the majority of Latin Americans “understand” the torment of Palestinians and are in favour of their cause against Israel. There is a parallel as well between the contrasting positions of Latin-American governments and their citizens with regard to Palestinians and Cubans, because governments have a tendency to be politically correct and show a lot of restraint whereas it is hard to find poor Latin Americans at the street level – the vast majority of the Southern Cone population – who do not admire the courage of these two peoples, so distant in terms of culture and history and so close in terms of resistance. Would you like to play your musiK in Cuba?
GA: Yes, of course.
MT: For sure you would also fall in love with Caribbean salsa.
GA: True, before the Orient House Ensemble became a success story I made my living playing salsa and touring with different Cuban bands.
MT: Let’s talk a bit about your books. How did you decide to become a novelist?
GA: I have never decided to become a novelist. As it happened, I was writing my first book for friends and close relatives. I wrote the first two or three chapters and I sent it to Yaron Stavi, my bass player for the last 14 years. He loved it; in fact it was his approval that kept me writing for a while. Then I had an accident: at the time my manuscript was more or less finished my desk computer’s hard disk died on me. My book’s file was irrecoverable. I thought that it might have been be a “sign”. Consequently, I gave up on the idea of becoming a writer. It all happened in 1994, when I was attending PhD studies in the UK.
In 2000 I was asked by a Lebanese academic to present a paper about my views of Israel and Jewishness. I went back to my very old laptop and was shocked to find an almost finished file of the book. I started to read it and found it compelling. I then sent it to a publisher in Israel and offered to cover the costs of printing. After less than a day, the publisher called me and told me that I could save my money, because they loved the manuscript and were willing to publish it. As you can see, I became a writer though I have never decided to become one.
I do not see myself as a writer and I don’t even understand what I write about. I usually understand my books 2-3 years after publication. Only recently I managed to understand my latest published book (My One and Only Love). I now realise that this book is a deconstruction of the notion of Jewish trauma or even trauma in general. I do understand now that my book is all about the clear fact that the trauma predates the traumatic event. The Holocaust trauma predates the Holocaust as much as the rape trauma predates the actual rape. In short, the “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) predates the traumatic event. As bizarre as it may sound, I do realise it now but I didn’t realise it while writing a book just about that. Seemingly, books are a free play lead by the author’s unconsciousness.
MT: Well, let me tell you that Gabriel García Márquez said once that true novelists only write one book even if they publish many, meaning that the different plots chosen are variations of a “unique plot” deeply rooted in the unconscious which haunts them, and that in fact they do not have even the chance to choose but are chosen instead by this unique plot. I am happy you agree with this psychoanalytic approach which helps us to differentiate a novelist who writes what he cannot avoid from a best-sellerist who writes anything that fills his pocket.
GA: Yeah. In a way I feel as if my books do write themselves. I feel the same about my music. I am kind of a catalyst, a physical extension of a person who I fail to know. The less I consciously interfere in my literature or my music, the better it is. I do believe that musiK and literature produces itself when the ego dies. Obviously it isn’t that easy to suppress one’s ego. Moreover, Pop Art is all about ego and egotism. This is the reason that literature, poetry and musiK are defeated within the liberal democratic cultural arena.
MT: Why did you use for your first novel the same title as the capital work of Maimonides, A Guide to Perplexed?
GA: To me Maimonides stands in the very core of Jewish supremacist ideology and hatred towards the Other. If to quote the great Israel Shahak: “Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah [is] replete not only with the most offensive precepts against all Gentiles but also with explicit attacks on Christianity and on Jesus”.
Moses Maimonides is considered the greatest codifier and philosopher in Jewish history. Let us read what the great rabbi has to say about Gentiles, Christians and dissident Jews.
In Mishneh Torah Maimonides teaches us that “if we see an idolater (Gentile) being swept away or drowning in the river, we should not help him. If we see that his life is in danger, we should not save him.” (Moznaim Publishing Corporation, Brooklyn, New York, 1990, Chapter 10, English Translation, p. 184). But it isn’t only the Gentile who must be punished: “It is a mitzvah [religious duty]”, says Maimonides, “to eradicate Jewish traitors, minnim, and apikorsim, and to cause them to descend to the pit of destruction, since they cause difficulty to the Jews and sway the people away from God, as did Jesus of Nazareth and his students, and Tzadok, Baithos, and their students. May the name of the wicked rot.”
Maimonides is a pure message of hate, and yet, this message is securely settled in the very core of Jewish philosophy. Ten years ago when I wrote my book I aimed to criticise Maimonides. Originally I planned to name my novel Guide to the Perplexed, a Revised Version. But then, upon second thought, I realised that the only way for Jews to move forwards towards a notion of universal humanism is to delete Maimonides and to eradicate his outrageous preaching. I was sure that within days after publication of my Guide, Maimonides’ books would disappear. I was convinced as well that my novel would make it into the Bible. Apparently, I was wrong, it took less than two weeks before my book was actually banned in Israel. By the way, this is when I realised that I should no longer waste my energy on Hebraic Israelis. Rather than talking to Israelis, I talk to the world about Israelis. As you may know, it is now impossible to find my Guide to the Perplexed in Hebrew but you can find it in many other languages. I am very happy about that.
MT: When I started reading what I knew it was your first novel I was instantly surprised by your sense of humour and extraordinary wit. In fact, and only taking the comparison so far, it reminded me of another equally brilliant first novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, written by another shit list’s lucky inhabitant, Mordecai Richer. Do you agree in that humour is just a façade which hides sadness and that the people who have suffered are the most humourous?
GA: I don’t know. Again I refuse to see myself as a sufferer. And yet, counting on my experience I would say that the most entertaining people around me are manic-depressive. Anyhow, I am not. Fighting evil turns me on and laughter is one of my weapons.
MT: Where do you think it leads a left wing political commitment taken to the ultimate consequences when any concession to the right is ruled out?
GA: My dear friend, I am very sorry to tell you that the right will not be defeated, cannot be defeated. But then the left cannot be defeated either.
My philosophical view on the subject is pretty simple: While right ideological thinking is concerned with the question of “what man is?” left critical scholarship is set to answer the question “what man ought to be”. In other words, “right” is existential and “left” is normative. The human tragedy is due to the restricting human condition, neither the existential nor the normative can be fully comprehended. The existential is too close to be fully realised and the normative is phantasmatic: it is an ideology structured in the shape of a dream. The tragedy of the human condition is that it is locked in between the existential and the normative.
You see, the normative (left) and the existential (right) aren’t opposing factors but rather complementary human qualities. But it goes even deeper. Humanism and compassion can be realised both in existential terms as well as in normative ones. Goodness, thus, does not belong to the left nor to the right. Goodness belongs to mankind and yet mankind is lost in a search for a unifying bond.
As you may know, I am not a politician and I do not have any intentions to become one. I am an artist and my only duty is to surf above the discourse and try to integrate these two elementary human faculties. I struggle to merge the “being” with the “fantasy”. My duty is merely to make sure that musiK wins and Kultur prevails. I am here to fight Zionism and America and beauty is my weapon. It may sound silly, but this is my war, it is a war I love to fight and, let me tell you, I win every night.
MT: My pleasure, Mr. Atzmon.
GA: [He smiles].
* Manuel Talens is a Spanish novelist, translator and columnist (www.manueltalens.com).
The first installment of this two-part interview appeared originally under the title “La belleza como arma política” in the current issue (No. 202, December 2005) of the Mexican monthly magazine Memoria (http://www.memoria.com.mx/).
Translated into English by the author and revised by Mary Rizzo (http://peacepalestine.blogspot.com).
This interview also appears in Spanish on Rebelión (http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=24333)
French translation by Marcel Charbonnier (http://www.quibla.net/alire/gilad3.htm)
Italian translation by Miguel Martínez (http://www.kelebekler.com/occ/talens.htm)
All translations on Copyleft by Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity (firstname.lastname@example.org).