Gilad Atzmon, antisemitism and the left | Andy Newman

The Palestinian cause is hindered, not helped, when the left fails to notice or confront anti-semitism

A letter was published in response to this article on 26 September 2011: "Antisemitism and the left – some facts"

Gilad Atzmon is a world renowned jazz musician, and a former soldier in the Israeli army, so his advocacy of the Palestinian cause is guaranteed to draw attention. Indeed, a small leftwing publisher, Zero Books, has commissioned Atzmon to write a book on the Jews as part of an otherwise entirely credible series by respected left figures such as Richard Seymour, Nina Power and Laurie Penny.

The trouble is that Atzmon has often argued that the Zionist oppression of the Palestinians is attributable not to the bellicose politics of the Israeli state, but to Jewish lobbies and Jewish power. Atzmon's antisemitic writings include, for example, a 2009 article – Tribal Marxism for Dummies – in which he explains that while "Marxism is a universal paradigm, its Jewish version is very different. It is there to mould Marxist dialectic into a Jewish subservient precept". Atzmon argues that it is merely a "Judeo-centric pseudo intellectual setting which aims at political power" and that "Jewish Marxism is there to … stop scrutiny of Jewish power and Jewish lobbying".

This is a wild conspiracy argument, dripping with contempt for Jews. Sadly, Atzmon's status as a celebrity advocate of the Palestinian cause means that he has been feted by some on the left. The Socialist Workers party, for example, used to invite him to attend their public events, and Indymedia has robustly defended Atzmon, even banning people who object to him.

Sadly, the left does not have an unblemished record on opposing antisemitism. In 2009, for example, the respected American leftist publication Counterpunch published an article by Alison Weir of the organisation If Americans Knew defending the unsubstantiated and implausible claims made by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet about Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinians in Gaza to harvest their organs.

Weir implied, with no evidence, that Israel is at the centre of international organ smuggling. She then explicitly argued that the medieval "blood libel" – that Jews kill Christian children – has a basis in fact. Elsewhere, more than 3 million people have watched on YouTube the antisemitic film Zeitgeist: the Movie, despite its recycling of paranoia about a Jewish plot for world domination.

Sometimes well-meaning people fail to recognise antisemitism when they encounter it, because they are not attuned to the linguistic codes in which it is expressed, or are unaware of the cultural themes of anti-Judaic prejudice being drawn upon. Anti-Judaic bigotry predates modern racism, and is embedded in our culture. In pre-capitalist Europe Christians were prohibited from usury – lending money for interest. Medieval Jewry thus played a social role as financiers. The enduring negative stereotype of Jews as "greedy" therefore derived from medieval opposition to finance capital. As Martin Luther wrote in 1543: "[The Jews] let us work in the sweat of our brow to earn money and property while they sit behind the stove, idle away the time, fart, and roast pears … with their accursed usury they hold us and our property captive. … Thus they are our masters and we are their servants, with our property, our sweat, and our labour."

Luther may have little direct influence on modern antisemitism, but the identification of Jews as trying to control the world through money still has widespread currency, and informs the idea of a "Jewish lobby" that dictates American support for Israel.

The 19th century saw anti-Judaic feeling given a gloss of pseudo-science, with the birth of modern racialised antisemitism. This made an important difference because it created a racial category for the Jews. Whereas medieval anti-Judaism had regarded Jewishness as a question of faith, and therefore believed that Jews stopped being Jews if they accepted Christ, in the 19th century Jews came to be seen as aliens in Europe.

The Jews have always regarded themselves as a nation without a home, and it should come as no surprise that in response to such antisemitism Jewish political nationalism arose across Europe in the 19th century, or that Zionism then gave expression to the aspiration for a Jewish nation state. The actually existing Israel is founded upon displacement of another people, and there will never be peace and security until the Palestinians achieve justice. However, the cause of the Palestinians is hindered, not helped, by association with antisemitism.

It is incumbent upon the left and the Palestinian solidarity movement to both be aware of the conscious effort of far-right antisemites to infiltrate the movement, and to vigorously oppose and exclude antisemites. We would not hesitate to condemn racists, homophobes or sexists, and must be equally robust in opposing anti-Jewish hate-speech.

• Comments on this article are set to remain open for 24 hours from the time of publication but may be closed overnight


Andy Newman

The GuardianTramp

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