One of my regular correspondents, David Adler in New York, is a writer on jazz. In the October edition of JazzTimes magazine, he has a thoughtful piece – which may be read here - on the curious case of the jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon.
Though born in Israel and a former IDF reservist, Atzmon holds unmistakably antisemitic views, which David nicely summarises in his article (as well as referring graciously to my own efforts to expose Atzmon’s bigotry for what it is). Atzmon explicitly maintains that the notorious Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion accurately depicts the state of modern America. Why this is worth raising in a periodical about music is an issue that David addresses:
Writing recently in Slate about Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lee Siegel drew a useful distinction between political and “politicized” art. The former, he argued, tends to highlight the ambiguous and the unresolved, while the latter “invokes political categories [and] stays imprisoned within them….”
Atzmon’s work is nothing if not politicized, and that is his right. But critics also have a right to respond as they see fit. On that score, one would hope for a bit more tough-minded skepticism.
I will defend strongly the independence of aesthetic criteria from political ones, but Atzmon invites us to judge him according to the latter. That’s part of the act. As a Socialist Workers’ Party reviewer wrote in the organisation’s monthly journal, Socialist Review, last April:
Atzmon proudly describes himself as a political artist, and he leaves you in no doubt where his sympathies lie. Born in 1963 and raised as a secular Jew, he left his native Israel in disgust at the repression of the Palestinian people. He concludes his sleevenotes on Musik by declaring, 'Sooner or later musik will free itself and so will the Palestinian people,' and he closed the set of his recent London dates with a poignant ballad entitled 'Jenin'. Elsewhere he and his band, the Orient House Ensemble, mesmerise the crowd with a beautiful track entitled 'Liberating the American People'. Another song is dedicated to Ken Livingstone who he describes, wrongly but understandably, as 'the only brave man in western politics.' Meanwhile the world's most powerful politician and his beloved sidekick are satirised as 'two old hookers', Georgina and Antonella, who have presumably prostituted themselves to the major multinational powers.
Indeed, Atzmon leaves you in no doubt where his sympathies lie: they are with the racist Right. For example, he proudly parades his association with, and admiration for, Israel Shamir, who praises the neo-Nazi National Alliance as an ally in the struggle against Zionism. David Adler does a public service in making these connections better-known among jazz aficionados, who have thus far apparently been willing to accept Atzmon as nothing more a dissenting political voice.
Not being a follower of jazz myself, I’ll concentrate on the political aspects of Atzmon’s following. It is no surprise that the Socialist Workers’ Party (the controlling organisation behind the Respect ‘coalition’) should find Atzmon so powerful a moral witness. The theoretical grounds for the party’s embrace of the racist Right were laid out with commendable frankness by party ideologue Sabby Sagall three years ago in Socialist Review. Affecting to demonstrate that to be anti-Zionist was not to be antisemitic, Sagall (by his lights) accomplished that task by the simple expedient of defining antisemitism out of existence. Consider this masterpiece of semantic legerdemain (emphasis added):
Today anti-Semitism in the Arab countries must be distinguished from its western European counterpart. Insofar as the Israeli leadership claims to speak for all Jews, and the majority unfortunately accept the claim, anti-Zionism tends to appear as anti-Semitism. Only when a majority of Jews speak out against Israel will that 'anti-Semitism' be defeated. In western Europe, however, there is a resurgence of the genuine article, associated with the rise of fascist parties across Europe.
In short, only explicitly fascist organisations can be considered anti-Jewish. In the Arab world the same phenomenon requires scare quotes around it, for it merely “tends to appears as” antisemitism rather than being the genuine article. Similarly the antisemite Gilad Atzmon, if he is guilty of anything, merely exhibits a lack of clarity in the dissemination of his ideas. See this repulsive apologia the SWP issued when it found itself criticised for inviting Atzmon to speak, for the second year running, at its annual Marxism event. The strongest criticism the party can come up with is the weaselly evasion that “some of the formulations on [Atzmon’s] website might encourage his readers to feel that he is blurring the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti Zionism” – in other words, the fault lies with the reader’s misapprehension of what the SWP lauds as ‘fearless tirades against Zionism’.
But Atzmon makes perfectly clear what his target is: the Jews, especially but not only in the United States, who conspire to control the international order, as described in the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. His place in the SWP’s pantheon of progressive thinkers matches that of his friend Israel Shamir in the propaganda of the British National Party. (I won’t give a link for this, but if you consult the BNP web site you will find Shamir’s anti-Jewish writings and speeches promoted in the same way as Atzmon’s antisemitic poison is commended by the SWP.)
Regular readers are entitled to feel irked by tedious repetition of this point, but here it is once more. When I describe the controlling organisation behind the Respect ‘coalition’ in the UK as a fascist, racist and antisemitic organisation I am not using the terms metaphorically, and I do not mean merely that Respect/SWP is ‘as bad as’ the BNP. I mean that ideologically Respect/SWP is the same thing as the BNP.