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Wondering about the Wandering Who

Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who?: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, (John Hunt Publishing 2011) $14.95, 177 pp., Paper. Reviewed by Israel Shamir

Gilad Atzmon is larger than life; no delicate and sensitive artistic soul, he is rather a living volcano, a titan with a Rabelaisian sense of humor and enough energy to power a city. Nights, you will find him entertaining his fans in every corner of the globe with his masterful saxophone playing: tonight in Mexico City, tomorrow night in Sheffield. His days are spent producing a vast quantity of writing and blogging, sending out at least two letters a day to his many readers. His previous book, My One and Only Love, is a very funny novel with more than a touch of the macabre and grotesque. It features a roving Israeli orchestra smuggling Nazis in double bass cases. It also contains kosher pigs, sexy spies, smelly underwear, casual killings, and a row of Israeli national leaders, all with their trousers down.

The best writings of Gilad Atzmon firmly belong to the realm of Israeli literature. His preference for writing in English attennuates his essentially Israeli character, just as Beckett remained a British writer while writing in French. His merciless goading of tender Jewish sentiments recalls the much-loved Israeli playwright, Hanoch Levin; this explains why Atzmon is enjoyed more by his country-mates than by Diaspora Jews. His newest book, The Wandering Who? is a collection of essays that revolve around Jewish-identity politics. This subject (“what does it mean to be a Jew”) holds much fascination to people of Jewish origin. Many contemporary Jewish writers indulge in this sort of reflection, usually slipping into woe and whine mixed with self-adoration, and coated over with treacle and romanticism.


Being no delicate flower (see above), Atzmon delivers robust and forceful opinions with both hands. He regains some of the lost honesty once expressed by free thinkers and Zionists of the fin-de-sičcle. Early Zionists from Nordau to Herzl provided some very frank and critical assessments of Jewish society. Yet even more critical was Otto Weininger (1880 – 1903), the tragic Viennese writer who dared to connect sex and Jews in his great bestseller Sex and Character; he followed up his success by committing suicide at the age of 23. Weininger has long been forgotten in Europe, and yet he holds a fascination for Israelis. A play by prominent Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, Weininger's Night (subtitled “The Soul of a Jew”) was a great hit in 1983; it was responsible for opening up Israeli theatre to the world. It was the first Israeli play ever staged in Moscow’s MXAT theatre (in 1990), directed by talented Gedalia Besser.


Atzmon has a loving and thoughtful essay about him. He provides some valuable insights. He turns Weininger’s “I dislike what I am” into “I dislike what I do”.  Atzmon sees Weininger’s suicide as an impetuous reaction against his womanly/Jewish side. Atzmon sympathizes with Weininger’s feeling that “Jewishness” is somewhat similar to “queerness”, and this provides a key to the book’s understanding. Jewish-identity musings, like gender-identity discussions, tend to fluctuate between the vulgar and the brazen; both can seem boring and repetitious unless the reader is directly involved, and perhaps even then.


The first essay of the collection has the freshness and sincerity of true testimony. The story of a young man trying to break free from his fiercely nationalist non-religious Jewish family background is akin to any man’s escape from stifling gender politics. Imagine a virile young man conceived in vitro and brought up by a sorority of lesbian activists, who has finally come of age and broken out into a rich and satisfying world of natural love. Clearly one might expect and forgive such a young man his unflattering depictions of “dykes” and “butches”, but such transgressions could never be forgiven by the sanctimonious gay activists and PC wardens who decide for us what is permissible and what is not.


This in fact has happened with Atzmon’s book: it has generated a significant amount of heated controversy. This kind of publicity is never bad for book sales. As for the author, he is no shrinking violet and quite up to the task; in fact, he is a pugnacious fellow, able to defend himself and always ready for a good brawl. Many of Atzmon’s critics seem to think that when we talk about Jews we must speak as we do about the dead: say something nice, or don’t say anything at all. And yet who should critique the activities and attitudes of the dead but the living? Banning all outsiders from the debate is a recipe for insipidity.


And yet, Atzmon is no outsider. An (ex-) Israeli, he has some first-hand knowledge, and he introduces us to a long obscured side of Jewishness, just as Jean Genet once reminded us about the backside of queerness. In Genet’s oevre we see the gender-confused men who are not saintly martyrs on their way to Auschwitz, but brutal criminals who kill and betray their friends in the hellish darkness of a jail. Though art is perhaps a better mode for such delivery.


One of his problems is that the Jewish subject is over-explored, and one treads on the footsteps of predecessors, even if one does not give them credit. The most interesting essay in the book contains Atzmon’s reflections on an essay by Milton Friedman. Friedman was curious as to why so many Jews had abandoned their historically Left-leaning socialist ways. To avoid the conclusion that Jews used to love Justice and Mercy, and now they have traded it for Power, Friedman instead posits that Jews are most naturally creatures of the Right. Friedman declares that while pure capitalism is the environment in which Jews thrive best, for one hundred years Jews were kept out of right-wing politics because the Right stood with the Church; the Left, anti-clerical and atheist, accepted them as they were. It was only after the Right was separated from the Church that Jews began to stream back into right-wing movements, and they ended up wholeheartedly embracing capitalism of the most brutal kind. This is a valuable observation, something that has yet to be learned by leftist philosemites like Seumas Milne, and by the Christian Right. The mass participation of Jews in a movement has a price, and this price is the rejection of the Christian Church.


Atzmon rejects Friedman’s conclusions: he would rather walk us through all the hypocrisies of the Jewish Left, as though a change in leadership would solve the problem. This attitude is very common among educated Israelis who have lived through the great betrayal of humanism by the left-wing parties, climaxing with labour leader Ehud Barak carrying water for Sharon and Netanyahu. Since the destruction of the Israeli Left can be directly attributed to these “traitors to the cause”, Atzmon might be forgiven for thinking that but for a crisis in leadership the Left would be still ruling the roost.


Atzmon gets carried away by his own rhetoric when he proclaims that the Jewish Left wants to seize assets of the rich just because Jews do not respect Goyim property rights. This is plainly not true: radical leftists everywhere call for the expropriation of all banks, Jewish or otherwise, and Jewish leftists are no different in this aspect. Jews are the wealthiest minority in the world; they have the most to lose in a leftist revolution. It’s apparent to everyone except Atzmon that the Jewish move to the Right is as natural as bacon.


With zeal of a born-again Christian, Atzmon offers not the smallest fig leaf of hope for good-hearted Jews. If a Jew supports the Left, he is doing it because he wants to rob wealthy Goys with Talmudic impunity. If a Jew supports the Right, it is because he wants to steal land. If a Jew supports Palestine, he is doing it in order to take over the Palestinian movement. This is a bridge too far. This sort of self-criticism should be reserved for confession. Not all Jews are that self-serving. Yes, there are hopeless wretches like Tony Greenstein and Roland Rance, leftist British Jews whose main participation in the Palestinian struggle is constrained to battling phantom antisemitism and Holocaust rhetoric, but not all Atzmon’s adversaries are paper tigers.


However, as Atzmon wrote in his essay on Weininger, one condemns one’s own faults, so perhaps this is a form of his contrition.


Atzmon is tough on Jewish tribalism, no endearing feature to be sure, but something not all rare in the Middle East. Jews are not any more tribalist than are Armenians, and no more nationalist than Georgians. This clannishness may be less common in British/American culture, but the tribal setup of immigrant croups is well known even there. Jewish success in the US and the UK cannot be explained by expounding upon Jewish insularity; a better explanation is traditional Jewish fidelity to power.


We could do with less psychologism and Portnoy’s complaints. Discussion of English or American identity and mentality does not lead to better understanding of British and American imperial policies. Likewise, policies of the World Jewry are very relevant for us, while Jewish mental attitudes are not. Who cares what Jews feel towards their neighbours? We care what the Jews do. Instead of dealing with bees, we need to know of swarms, and this is what Atzmon fails to deliver, because this brave man gets cold feet.


Atzmon is least convincing and most dull when he pedantically constructs his castle of exceptions and explanations intended to ward off the inevitable accusations of ‘hate’ and ‘racism’. He declares his preference for “accidental Jews”, i.e. people who are Jews by accident of birth. This alibi is designed to fortify his position against attack. It is as if Nietzsche added to his famous dictum (“You are going to women? Do not forget the whip!”) a caveat “but beware some women are able to use the whip, too”. An allegoric poetic quality of writing has been ruined, and now nobody is happy. We admire Atzmon’s fierce and fearless qualities, and it’s kind of a let-down when he chooses to be prudent now and then.


One can point out several errors of fact in his book. For instance, he claims that Jews did not write any histories until the 19th century. This is not true: Abraham Zacuto produced his History of the Jews (“Sefer Yohassin”) in the last decades of the 15th century, and this book is available on Amazon. Still he builds some castles on this factual error, and they collapse like straw houses.


However, Atzmon’s greatest fault is narcissism, or perhaps it is a myopic solipsism. Atzmon remains locked in the very Jewish dichotomy of Jews vs. Gentiles. He does not seem to appreciate the marvellous variety of the Gentiles; he cannot recognize that the Nations of the Earth are quite different from each other. The British are not the same as the Palestinians, nor are they as French as France. And yet for Atzmon, they are all one happy crowd without specific features. In vain shall we seek to learn what are the qualities of the Palestinians that have attracted him (except perhaps the ability to make good hummus). The one all-redeeming quality that they all share is that they are not Jewish. For this reason he suggests that Jews fully adapt to the modern, generic, global cosmopolitan monoculture of multiculturalism. This is absolutely unnecessary. While we applaud acculturation, Jews should adopt the culture of the land they inhabit, become one with the folk they live with. There is no shortcut to universality. I would like to read about Atzmon hanging out with average Brits, Scouses, and Brummies, or about his adventures with Palestinian shepherds, but they are not to be found: in a diverse world, he sees only Jews.


Another problem is the absence of God. Indeed, all discourse on Jews sine God is quite useless. I am aware that in the modern British climate, if Atzmon were to publish his thoughts on God and Jews, he would not find a publisher. You may use every obscenity, but you should not mention Christ. And yet Jews are first of all a religious community; a valid analysis of Jewish identity must take religion into account. Atzmon purposely adds a disclaimer declaring he will not criticise Judaism, but this simply ducks the issue.


He does give himself permission to use the Bible against them, but his literal readings are too primitive for the sophisticated readers of the 21st century. One can’t quote bloody stories of the Conquest of Canaan from the Book of Joshua like one quotes the admissions of a criminal. So many wonderful minds have discussed these tales, from St Jerome to Edward Said, and all of them had more valuable thoughts than Atzmon has to share. Indeed, when God says: you will inherit houses you did not build and vineyards you did not plant, Atzmon says: “that’s why the Jews seized Palestine!” This is trite. We live in houses we did not build, most especially in the houses of our bodies, built by God. We enjoy many wonderful things we did not produce. For instance, we enjoy Atzmon’s saxophone, though we didn’t built it. God’s grace gave us these things. This Biblical verse reminds us all that we receive a lot of undeserved things, and that we should all work harder to justify God’s trust in us.


The bottom line is that identity musings are dry and boring stuff; Atzmon is actually a much better writer than one would conclude from reading this book. He wanted to get it off his chest. Fine! Now let us see more of his witty novels.


P.S. Naturally I side with Atzmon in his polemics against his numerous detractors, but their arguments are so senile that it would be a waste of reader’s time to dwell time and time again on the endless and fruitless assertions of ‘hate’ and ‘self-hate’. What we do is soul-searching, not hate. Non-Jews have become so over-sensitised to allegations of race hatred that they swarm with the rest even when it’s an honest discussion between Jews.

Israel Shamir

This review was published in the December 2011 issue of Culture Wars.