Last weekend, the small English city of Reading (population 156,000; Jewish population 355) was the site of a book promotion event by Israeli-born jazz musician and longtime anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon. After the venue ignored complaints from the local rabbi and local councillors, the event was protested by Reading Labour councillors and members of Reading’s Jewish congregation.
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The protestors pointed out that Atzmon is a well-documented Holocaust denier and racist. The Community Security Trust (which monitors threats to the U.K.’s Jews) described his previous book as "quite probably the most anti-Semitic book published in this country in recent years." That book argued that Jewishness (and not Zionism) is pernicious and that Hitler will be vindicated by history.
At an event at Exeter University, Atzmon was reported as saying "Hitler was right" and "anti-Semitism doesn’t exist." On his blog and Twitter account, Atzmon recently blamed West London’s tragic Grenfell Tower fire on the Jews; his tweet was headed with the neo-Nazi catchphrase, "The Goyim Know". In an interview this summer, he declared "the music industry is largely an extended Jewish syndicate."
His social media accounts in recent weeks have seen him retweeting and chatting with explicit Holocaust deniers. His most recent book, which he was promoting in Reading, is an attack on the "tribal" nature of Jewish and "Jerusalemite" thinking, and is based on the work of the (Nazi) philosopher Heidegger.
It is no surprise, then, that his writings are widely circulated on far right websites, such Veterans Today or ex-KKK leader David Duke’s site. Or that he should be widely condemned by Jews and anti-racists.
A socialist writer in The Guardian has described his writing as "a wild conspiracy argument, dripping with contempt for Jews". A group of left-wing authors told their publisher, who also published one of Atzmon’s books, that "The thrust of Atzmon’s work is to normalise and legitimise anti-Semitism." The U.S. Palestinian Community Network has published a letter signed by several Palestinian activists condemning him for his Holocaust denial and antisemitism, while another letter by several prominent anti-Zionist activists makes similar points. The UK's Palestine Solidarity Campaign has disassociated itself from him.
No surprise, either, that his speaking gigs would be picketed by Jews and anti-racists, or that venues where he's due to speak decline to host him on learning of his views.
In recent months, his appearance at the Vienna jazz festival was cancelled when the city council, the festival’s main funder, saw that his views were at odds with their charter against racism. In May, arts venues in Newcastle and Edinburgh pulled out of hosting promotional events for the book.
No blame should be attached to these venues for taking bookings; his reputation is not big enough for his racism to be wide public knowledge. They did the right thing, though, in swiftly admitted their mistake on learning about his views.
But Reading RISC, the publicly-funded solidarity centre which hosted his most recent event, and Albion Beatnik Books in Oxford, which hosted one of his summer speaking engagements, took the opposite approach: refusing to respond to critics, they doubled down and defended their decisions.
They can't use a defense of ignorance. A simple Google search provides more than enough background on their speaker. And when the venues were directly confronted on Twitter by anti-racist campaigners, RISC responded by blocking and Albion Beatnik by mocking them.
Are these venues run by rabid Holocaust deniers? That seems unlikely. So why do apparently progressive people ignore Jews’ and anti-racists’ complaints about Atzmon’s anti-Semitism?
It seems to me that the explanation lies in a culture of ignoring anti-Semitism which has built up among many left-leaning people in Britain.
Since the start of the Second Intifada, which trigged a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.K., debates over anti-Jewish racism have been overdetermined by the tense politics of Israel/Palestine, and overwhelmed by the difficulty of drawing clear lines between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
The intensity of feeling generated by the conflict – for most British Jews, to whom Israel is central to their Jewish identity, however critical they may be of Israeli government policy; and for many on the left, to whom Israel has become the moral cause of our time, akin to apartheid in the 1980s or the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s – means talking about anti-Semitism rapidly escalates into re-enacting the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Supporters of Israel are quick to see anti-Semitism behind every criticism of the Jewish state, but anti-Zionists feel free to ignore any charge of anti-Semitism as being made in bad faith in order to prevent legitimate criticism. Instead of the reflex to believe the victim with which the left rightly responds to allegations of other forms of racism and oppression, many on the left have built up a reflex of denial when it comes to anti-Semitism.
Since 2015, under veteran Palestine solidarity campaigner Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, which has created a sharp divide on the left, these arguments have become even harder, as many of Corbyn’s acolytes see accusations of anti-Semitism on the left as being "weaponized" by Corbyn’s opponents. While the right has indeed eagerly seized on every instance of left-wing Judeophobia to demonize the entire left, too many on the left take this as licence to dismiss Jewish concerns as "smears".
For too many, no amount of evidence is enough to count when anti-Semitism is found, as with Gilad Atzmon, in the most flimsy of guises of anti-Zionism.
Atzmon has long since stopped regarding himself as Jewish. He infamously tweeted: "I am not a Jew anymore. I indeed despise the Jew in me (whatever is left)." But his Jewish background makes it easier to dismiss charges against him. And this is useful for white supremacists such as David Duke, who use the likes of Atzmon as both alibi for and gateway drug to their hardcore racism.
As New York-based writer Arwa Mahdawi noted recently, "Far-right parties have realized that strategically dangling a few gay people acts as a sort of fundamentalist Febreze that dilutes the stench of their hatred." Similarly, apparently Jewish anti-Semites such as Atzmon – even if they are on record as despising their own Jewishness – serve to throw progressives off the scent when it comes to Jew-hate and Holocaust denial.
Ben Gidley is a Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, and author (with Keith Kahn-Harris) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today and editor (with James Renton) of Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story? Twitter: @bengidley