The unfortunate division over Gilad Atzmon
Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 01:15PM
[Alison Weir

While people are suffering in Israeli prisons and being killed in Gaza, it is sad to see time and energy expended in a campaign against Israeli author and saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. I respect and like people on both sides of this controversy and am troubled over this distracting and destructive (but, I hope, temporary) split.

I, of course, come down on the side of open discussion, even when the  subject matter is difficult or troubling – in fact, that's probably when it's most needed. I believe in such old fashioned but critical concepts as the free marketplace of ideas, and I oppose censorship and would-be "thought police" telling others what they may or may not do, even when those attempting to do this have created valuable work that I admire.

The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, which sponsored a discussion with Atzmon, has posted the most recent letter against Atzmon, followed by Atzmon's response here.

This recent letter against Atzmon was preceeded by an earlier one, which was posted on this anonymous blog; interestingly, Palestinians seem to have made up an extremely small percentage of its signatories. My guess is that some of the people behind the first letter helped push for the recent attack, though perhaps I'm wrong.

Despite this campaign against Atzmon, many people, including Richard Falk, Samir Abed Rabo, and James Petras, have endorsed Atzmon's book, calling it a "must-read," and many others have spoken up in his defense.

A Palestinian activist sent out an email with the subject header: "Palestinian 'activists' stand on the side of Israel and AIPAC," that reads:

Palestinian "academists / activists" stand on the side of Israel and AIPAC. Willingly or unwillingly, they distort Gilad Atzmon work and thought. They don't seem to have ever listened to his lectures or read his book, "The Wandering Who?" Their vicious attack will not silence or convince this wonderful man to abandon his staunch and effective support of the Palestinian cause. The great musician, a former Israeli Jew, is a humanist and a Palestinian at heart. I am ashamed as a Palestinian. I am greatly honored to have him as a friend.

Rich Siegel has written about the attempted censorship in "Permission to examine 'Jewishness'.

Kevin Barrett has discussed the situation in "Why Hate Gilad Atzmon?" and "Why Hate Gilad Atzmon Pt. 2: “He’s WRONG!” (Or Is He?)"

Oren Ben-Dor has opposed such attempted black-listing of Atzmon for years and in n 2008 wrote "The Silencing of Gilad Atzmon,"explaining why he opposed the campaign against Atzmon. He and a number of other prominent thinkers have refused to sign these letters.

There are numerous commentaries on the British website, such as this, this, and this.

Below is Jeff Blankfort's response, which has circulated widely in emails (with his permission) but that I don't believe is yet posted anywhere. Philip Weiss banned Jeff from commenting on Mondoweiss awhile ago, despite Jeff's important work on Palestine, which predated Weiss's awakening by several decades.

I suspect whoever initiated the list, and it appears that it was Abumimah, was pressed to do so by the Jewish left equivalent of the mainstream Jewish machers who pressure local black leaders to denounce Louis Farrakhan whenever he makes an appearance and has the audacity to speak out Jews and the slave trade which, like Zionist-Nazi collaboration, is a classic Left taboo.

Most of the rest, with the exception of  Joseph Massad, probably signed on because he asked them do so. I would bet that none of them, some of whom are friends of mine, have read or even seen your book. Massad, it should be recalled was the Palestinian professor at Columbia who was targeted by The David Project and accused of harassing Jewish students. He showed that he had learned his lesson by being the very first person to write an article denouncing Mearsheimerand Walt for their LRB article on the Israel Lobby which was lauded and reprinted by Asad Abu Khalil who seems almost as concerned about antisemitism as Abe Foxman.

After I took Massad's article apart, paragraph by paragraph, for Dissident Voice, Henry Herskovitz in Ann Arbor suggested that Massad debate me on the issue when he made a speaking appearance in Michigan. Massad declined, claiming that I was an "antisemite." When I wrote to Massad, asking if he had made such a statement I received no reply which told me all I need to know about him. Abu Khalil would only debate me and Hatem Bazian, one of the signatories to the letter, if we stipulated that The Lobby was the only factor in determining US policy, which of course we wouldn't.

It would be nice if there was such a statement denouncing those in the movement who dismiss the power of the Jewish establishment over US Middle East policy but then they would be subject to charges of "antisemism" themselves, which most of them seem to greatly fear. So it goes.

A partial list of those sponsoring Atzmon's talks and his remaining events can be seen here.

I hope anyone who is interested will attend these events, and I hope that all of us will continue our urgent work to bring justice and peace. Today a boy in Gaza died from his wounds and Israeli jet fighters pounded Gaza City's men, women, and children. We need to join together to expose and stop this carnage.

Update on Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 08:07AM by Registered Commenter[Alison Weir

Following are three additional pieces on Atzmon. Anyone interested in this controversy should read them.

Cynthia McKinney Interviews Gilad Atzmon about Israel, Zionism, and Jewish Identity Politics

Cynthia McKinney: I had the great fortune to meet Gilad Atzmon IN PERSON in Atlanta!  He came, he spoke, he played.  It was marvelous.

I actually interviewed him for Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox radio program... the flesh, Gilad is charming and thought-provoking.  He said nothing that was offensive to me and nothing that I heard him say resembles what I read about him.

.....I know what it is like to be maligned.  For serious values to be twisted and chewed and mangled into distortions beyond recognition.  And although he would never admit it, I’m sure these attacks hurt him immensely.  I wish there were something I could do about that, but we all are so hurt.  Don’t retreat.  Hold my hand and we will walk with Gilad through this difficult time for us all.

An analysis on the attack against Atzmon, by Roger Tucker

.....Not only have the Zionists colonized Palestine and subjected them to a permanent campaign of genocide, but as anyone who has been paying attention knows, they have colonized the Western democracies, turning them into obedient puppets. Now it appears that they have also colonized the Palestine Solidarity movement. At the end of this essay are links to a number of responses supporting Atzmon and what he stands for......

In Defense of Gilad Atzmon By Jean Bricmont (originally published by CounterPunch)

.....Atzmon’s themes, the politics of identity and memory, are at the very heart of our contemporary social debates....


Update on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 at 05:56AM by Registered Commenter[Alison Weir

A thoughtful, painfully compelling piece on the attacks against Gilad Atzmon: "Me, Gilad Atzmon and the ‘Truth’ - by Roy Bard, Sept. 26, 2013.

Update on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 at 07:06AM by Registered Commenter[Alison Weir

I became curious about the organization Aish ever when I stumled across it while researching my piece on the Weider History Group's censorship, and awhile ago I subscribed to the Aish feed.

Today I was amazed to read an article that I found astoundingly supremacist; yet, the author probably feels he is being wonderfully tolerant and sensitive.  In many ways I find it a very sad piece.

The article reveals an outlook that I feel very few non-Jews are aware of (until I began working on Israel-Palestine, I certainly had no have no ideas of this), but that Atzmon, Eisen, and Shamir take on. Perhaps that's why there is such an effort to prevent people from reading their commentaries for themselves -- and now some of these attackers are also attacking those who of us who have stood against the witch hunt, such as Richard Falk, Greta Berlin, Roy Bard, Mazin Qumsiyeh, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, etc.

Below is the article from the Aish website that was proudly announced in its daily feed:

The Often Invisible Non-Jews

The Often Invisible Non-Jews

Acknowledging the gentiles who keep our synagogues running.

by Dr. Simon Yisrael Feuerman

A few weeks ago I went back to a shul I hadn’t visited since I was small. Who would still be there after 40 years, I wondered? Quite a few people, as it happened, but one man in particular stood out: someone who was a constant in the shul all those years before, someone I would see all the time as a boy, even though I didn’t really see him at all. At the time, I never even knew his name. He was the custodian, and he lived in the shul.

As a very short, quiet, unassuming Hispanic man, Mr. Roetta – that, I only now found out, is his name – might have gone entirely unnoticed except for his dog, a German shepherd he kept chained on the roof, where he barked furiously. I remember coming to the shul for the evening service and seeing the dog at the edge of the roof, howling at the sky.

It was odd to have a German shepherd at a shul where many of the members were survivors; the rabbi himself, a famous Polish refugee, came to London via Vienna on the eve of the war and survived the blitz before he came to this congregation in Queens. But no one in the shul ever said a thing about the dog – or about Mr. Roetta; it was as if they weren’t even there.

He’s 92. The dog is long gone, but he is still cleaning up around here.

But even after 40 years, I recognized him immediately. He strode upright across the room with a strength that bespoke a man much younger and began setting up the kiddush. “He’s 92,” someone in shul told me. “The dog is long gone, but he is still cleaning up around here, mopping the floors in the bathroom and in the halls. In winter he is in front at first light with the snow blower.” Concealed in his small frame was a certain will, even an enthusiasm for manual labor, somewhat foreign to my Polish-Jewish bones.

A memory came back to me when I saw Mr. Roetta: Yom Kippur 40 years ago, almost to the day – Oct. 6, 1973. It was 3:00 in the afternoon, the sun was past its height, and the rabbi, in his holy garments, abruptly stopped the services. He klopped on the prayer stand: “There are reports of heavy fighting in the Sinai and the Golan; there are serious casualties.” How had he known? No one could have been listening to the radio or television on the holiest day of the year. It was a large shul and there was a silence I will never forget for all my life. One had to presume Mr. Roetta had informed the rabbi – and indirectly, the whole congregation–that “we” had been attacked. He had always been devoted to the rabbi and the shul. He still is.

It got me to thinking about the various people in the shuls that I have been, custodians and others, many of them not of the tribe, but somehow by virtue of their devotion to their jobs and to their synagogues, partially of the faith.

Popeye and the Bais Medrash

When I was a young man, I would spend summers at Camp Morris, the storied, summertime Catskills home of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. One year in late spring when I was in 10th grade, lightning struck the main building of the camp that housed the bais medrash and the dining room. The 100-year-old wooden structure burned to the ground in minutes.

A swift campaign was launched to rebuild in time for summer. Funds were raised, and miraculously, a new building was completed in less than two months. At the entrance to the new bais medrash was a plaque with the names of the major donors. Alongside the usual Jewish names you might expect was the name Patrick Henry. Campers stared in disbelief: Who was Patrick Henry?

We thought it must have been some kind of joke, but Patrick Henry was one of the janitors in the yeshiva. He was the closest living thing to the cartoon character of Popeye anyone will ever see in this lifetime. He smoked a corncob pipe, had maritime tattoos (anchors!) on his hand, and looked like he had been a deckhand on a whaling ship off Nantucket in the year 1840. He bumped his gums when he ate, because he’d lost most of his teeth. He must have been around 70 when he first came to the yeshiva. Yet there he was, bent but not weak, washing the bathroom floors and the hallways and ladling out the green peas and mashed potatoes on the chow line at lunchtime.

“Pat,” one of the rabbis told us (no one knew his last name), “emptied his life savings and gave it to us.”

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We were shocked. Here, a man who we thought of as nothing more than a drunken sailor, gave all his money to build a bais medrash.

We were shocked. Here, a man who we thought of as nothing more than a drunken sailor, gave all his money to build a bais medrash – a place to study Talmud day and night, a place we assumed he could not begin to identify with. One of my cynical friends quipped: “A goy – a shikker – what do you expect? What else he is going to do with his money?” My rebbe gave him a sharp, shaming look and scolded: “You think he had nothing better to do than to give it to us? It was an act of tzidkus – righteousness. Here, a man of 75 cleans up the kitchen and the hallways without a krechtz to anyone and on top of it all, he gives his money. Only a fool could make light of him.”

Every synagogue, yeshiva, and Jewish institution has people like Mr. Roetta and Pat the janitor: non-Jews who toil in the Jewish world without ever becoming fully part of it. They are often invisible – we see them, but we don’t see them, as though we can never imagine them beyond their silent supporting roles. The fact is that they have always been part of our culture, the hewers of wood and the carriers of water going back to the days of the Temple. Even if they are not fully part of the Jewish world, neither are they fully separate. As we start a New Year and begin the Torah anew, we might take a new look at those who help us and the debt we owe them, the non-Jews without whom the Jewish world could not function.

A version of this article originally appeared in Tablet magazine.


Update on Thursday, January 9, 2014 at 02:43PM by Registered Commenter[Alison Weir

I was looking into the upcoming Jerusalem Post conference about Israel, and stumbled across the following article. It's interesting to see the Jewish Journal pondering the type of question that Atzmon takes on:


December 31, 2013

‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish problem


Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is nauseating, pornographic and soul-crushing — and you have to see it.

You have to see it, because you — meaning society, Jews, all of us as individuals — have to face the questions it raises about money, wealth and morality. 

Director Martin Scorsese is taking some heat for depicting Jordan Belfort as a likable rogue. Yes, Belfort lies, steals and snorts avalanches of coke off naked tushees, but he loves his dad, has a great run and, after all, he’s Leonardo DiCaprio.  A generation of young men will now flock to Wall Street aping Belfort, just as a generation of drug dealers took their cues from Al Pacino in “Scarface.”  

I don’t blame Scorsese. His genius is to examine society’s most grievous sins through its most colorful practitioners. True, he doesn’t show the effects of Belfort’s crimes on their victims — the families wrecked by financial loss and legal troubles, the people who fell for the cons and paid with their nest eggs. Then again, the movie is told entirely from Belfort’s point of view, and Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter probably assumed Belfort has never spent two seconds thinking about the human suffering he caused — unless it was his own.

[Related: DiCaprio defends ‘Wolf of Wall Street’]

But I do regret that Scorsese chose not to deal with the fact that Jordan Belfort is Jewish. Although some of the characters in “Wolf,” like Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, are clearly portrayed as Jews, even to the point of wearing chai necklaces around their coke-frosted necks, Belfort, with his Anglo looks and Frenchy name, is left to be simply American. I get it: To do otherwise might give the movie a whiff of anti-Semitic caricature. Scorsese feels much safer depicting the Italian-ness of his violent mobsters than the Jewishness of his greedy con men.

But, just between us, let’s talk about Belfort-the-Jew — let’s go there. In the movie, you never really understand how someone so gifted can be so morally unmoored. But in his memoir, upon which the movie is based, whenever Belfort refers to his Jewish roots, the diagnosis becomes more apparent. 

He is a kid from Long Island. His dad, Max, grew up “in the old Jewish Bronx, in the smoldering economic ashes of the Great Depression.” Belfort didn’t grow up poor by any means, he just wasn’t rich enough. The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.” 

Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come….”

It’s not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn’t join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others.   

Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is an extreme example. These are guys who feel they have nothing, they are nothing, so they will do anything to acquire everything. They cross a pretty clear line and just keep going.

The question that gnaws at me is whether there’s something amiss in the vast gray area that leads right up to that line. Are the Belforts and Madoffs unnatural mutations, or are they inevitable outgrowths of attitudes that have taken root in our communities? We don’t, as a community, like to talk about money and wealth and how to acquire it and how to spend it. A Madoff affair happens — a crime that devastates thousands of people, businesses and philanthropies, many of them in the heart of the Jewish community — and we hardly speak about it anymore.  

These days, we are deep in the pit arguing over the American Studies Association’s (ASA) boycott of Israeli academics and whether Jewish students at Swarthmore College’s Hillel should open their doors to anti-Zionist speakers. We have devoted so many smart words and fiery sermons to these issues, you’d think the entire Jewish future depended upon them. Never mind that there are bridge clubs bigger than the ASA, and that the State of Israel, with its history, power and genius, may just survive the withering onslaught of a panel discussion in suburban Pennsylvania. The Jewish world never lacks for turbulent conversations. My only concern is whether they’re the right ones. Talking about Israel is easy — talking about money is uncomfortable.

But these are the conversations we need to be having. What’s the right way to make money? How much is enough? How much must we share, and with whom? We are blessed to be living at a time of unparalleled Jewish power and wealth, and it makes us so uneasy, we prefer to talk about everything but. We have benefited from an economic and political structure that is becoming less and less just. We are enjoying unprecedented wealth as millions struggle on minimum wages, facing hunger, unemployment, benefit cuts, homelessness. We look to our rabbis and institutions for guidance, but too many of them are afraid to upset the wealthy donors upon whom they are dependent. So we talk instead about Israel, about Swarthmore, and our communities become breeding grounds for the next Madoff, the next Belfort.

That’s not a movie. That’s a shame. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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