In a small corner of the already small radical publishing industry, the circulation of radical gestures and Badiou citations (just why is he so big, anyway?) has been interrupted by a big old falling out. Zero Books, who publish concise and terribly modish nuggets of punk cultural theory (we’ve reviewed their material here, here and here), have brought all manner of fire and brimstone raining down on their heads by putting out a short volume by Gilad Atzmon.
Atzmon is a most peculiar individual. In wider society, he is best known as a prodigiously talented and inventive jazz musician, an able performer on saxophone, clarinet and God knows what else. Among the leftists of this scepter’d isle, however, he is one of two things: either a brave and outspoken critic of Israeli policy, or an anti-Semitic pseudo-scholar. The more familiar people become with his frankly batty views on Jewish identity, the more they tend towards the latter perspective. That is fair enough, because it’s true.
Atzmon has a perfunctory get-out-of-jail-free card in his own personal background as a Jewish Israeli-born man, an apostate in self-imposed exile from the machinations of Zionism he so (quite sincerely) despises. Patience is running out, however; his insistence that ‘Jewish anti-zionism’ is a contradiction in terms, and consequent alienation of those many Jews who resist the political blackmail of Zionist interests, has cut him off from some of the most cutting critics of those interests. His view that Marxism is an expression of “a form of supremacy that adopts the Judaic binary template” is hardly calculated to win him many friends among the self-declared Marxists who make up the most dedicated fighters for Palestinian solidarity; or, indeed, anybody with enough historical nous to identify a pretty well-storied anti-Semitic myth (communism is a trick by the Jews to…do whatever it is that Jews do).
Unsurprisingly, then, his appearance on the Zero catalogue provoked, if not a storm of controversy, at least a squall; not the least concerned were those whose names have already been on the front of Zero editions, in that slightly naff typeface they love so much. A goodly number of these people signed an open letter in protest, including Richard Seymour (‘lenin’ of the reasonably-diverting Lenin’s Tomb blog, and Socialist Workers Party member), Laurie Penny (the leftish feminist blogger propelled to North London legend status by last year’s student protests) and the eminently-readable Owen Hatherley (architectural and cultural critic who writes at the excellently-named Nasty, Brutalist and Short). Seymour’s blog carries the statement, which makes the perfectly reasonable assertion that Atzmon’s ramblings are very slightly repackaged versions of every anti-Semitic canard you care to name (Jewish bankers, Jewish communists, and the assertion that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whether or not it was forged, has effectively come true). Others – including Tony Greenstein, who has exposed Atzmon on his blog and in the Weekly Worker with admirable tenacity – have pointed out very sensibly that this kind of indictment of Jewish tribal identity is simply the mirror image of Zionism, which was in the first place an internalisation of anti-Semitic notions that the Jews were an alien element in the countries where they lived.
Zero are standing by their man – for now, at least. The first musical entry on a youtube search for Gilad Atzmon is a fifteen minute performance at the SWP’s annual Cultures of Resistance gig in 2006; now, with another five years of Jew-baiting under Atzmon’s belt, that dalliance is passed over in SWP politics in embarrassed silence. One should hope that the good people at Zero will undergo a similar transformation, but you never know. Atzmon’s writings are built around maintaining a certain level of semi-plausible deniability; he is not racist because Jews are not a race, and so forth (as opposed to his intellectual idol Israel Shamir, who is now an open holocaust denier).
Yet was this kind of error inevitable? In a sense, Atzmon not only mirrors Zionist ideology, but also the philosophical spectacles of contemporary theory. He hedges his statements in such a way that they are barely politically actionable; he can be an abstruse scholar to one audience and a nudge-wink ally to the likes of Shamir. The drift of his thought (better: ideology) is clearly against the grain of the rank and file left-academics that keep Zero in copy, but the nature of their project is itself hedged away from politics; the problem with running a broad church is that agents of Satan find it easier to slip in and take a pew.
Atzmon has more than enough outlets for his crypto-racist gibberings already; it is a serious mistake for Zero to put him in print. It is their choice whether they want to be an interesting and provocative publisher, or simply an outlet for any old crank who places himself outside the political mainstream.