I have transcribed most of the interview, to save others half an hour video watching and chronicle an interesting conversation on the... BBC! I am mostly disenchanted with my UK BBC service, yet this BBC Persia programme is worthwhile. However you deem jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, he is courageous and a recognised profile figure on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
BBC: Are you anti-Semitic?
GA: Not at all. I am interested in Jewish identity politics. How do you define anti-Semitism?!
BBC: I am asking because you are frequently accused of being anti-Semitic.
GA: This is a common tactic used by Zionist and Jewish anti-Zionists to silence opposition to Israel, to Zionism, to Jewish politics, to Jewish power.
BBC: In the conclusion to your book The Wandering Who... it seems you are criticising not only the government; the state, but people because of their religion.
GA: No. I make a clear distinction:
(1) those who identify themselves as Jews because they follow the Torah,
(2) those because they have Jewish ancestry,
(3) and thirdly, those who identify themselves as Jews primarily, a problematic political identity.
Chaim Weizmann, first Israeli President, announced there are no British Jews, American Jews, French Jews. There are only Jews who live in America; live in Britain; live in France. Being a Jew was a primary category. This is the heart of Zionism. On the other hand we have Jewish anti-Zionists who, rather than call themselves anti-Zionists who happen to be Jews, call themselves Jewish anti-Zionists. For them also, being Jewish is a primary category. In my book I try to concentrate on this third category. I try to ask, what does it mean? Most of them are not religious at all. Zionism is not a religious movement; it is a secular movement. According to American historian, Yuri Slezkine, the (Jewish) Bund operating in Eastern Europe as a Marxist apparatus, wasn’t religious, it was a secular, atheist movement and the catalyst in the destruction of the Ukraine people; Stalin’s willing executioners; referred to as Bolsheviks, nothing to do with Judaism.
BBC: If you criticise the Jewish culture, tradition, identity, you are basically for the whole annihilation of the whole of Judaism altogether.
GA: You already contradict yourself. I don’t criticise Jewish tradition. If Jews want to eat chicken soup, I like chicken soup myself, but it (chicken soup) is not a political concept. When it comes to culture, what is it that I criticise? Chosenness; supremacy, the idea that we are the chosen people. In my book I make it clear, that from a religious Jewish perspective, chosenness is a burden; the Jews are demanded to stand as a moral exemplary case.
BBC: According to Muslims, the only people who go to Heaven are the Muslims.
GA: You are missing the point. In Judaism, chosenness is a beautiful thing; Jews are demanded to stand as a moral exemplary case. The problem starts with secularism. It is the second time, third time you try to make me talk about Judaism. My book hardly refers to Judaism and even when I talk about the bible, I show how the bible was misinterpreted by the secularist Zionist movement and I show from a Judaic point of view you can interpret it differently. We are talking about Jewish secularism; enlightenment can be seen as a rise of a secular movement. In the Christian world, the West and European universe, there was an attempt to replace the religion with an anthropocentric philosophy that would locate the human subject as the core of an ethical thinking; we can look into our self and find our ethnicity within our notion of subjectivity. In Judaism it didn’t happen. We had orthodox Jews and at a certain stage, Jews decided they do not need God, there was an opportunity for assimilation and this ethical intensity that we see in the Christian world never happened in Judaism, except one case; early Zionism was the only attempt to erect a Jewish secular civilised world. They said ‘we are not happy when we look in the mirror’; we are bourgeoisie, capitalist, usurers. They were anti-Semitic! They were unhappy with the image of the Jew in European society; they wrote about it, you can look into Herzl, Nordau... they said it is not our fault, it is because we detached from our land; we can change it. Once we move to our land we will become beautiful people; civilised people. Early Zionism was a promise to make the Jew into a wonderful civilised human being. It failed because there were people already living on the land. It became a plunderous movement. If Zionism was the plan to turn the Jew into people like all other people, it was a paradox because all other people do not want to be like all other people.
BBC: Ultimately, what is your mission?
GA: I do not have a political mission; I am not a politician, I am a curious human being.
BBC: You are opposing the existence of Israel basically?
GA: I’m not against the existence of Israel. I’m against the existence of a racially driven expansionist nationalist state at the expense of indigenous Palestinians and threatens the entire region including Iran. Once a day we hear an Israeli threat to Iran; we hear the Jewish lobby in Britain and America is pushing for a war against Iran.
BBC: You are frequently accused, that you deny the Holocaust. Do you?
GA: Have you seen any denial of the Holocaust by me?
BBC: Not by you. But your accusers, this is how they see it.
GA: It is the same as anti-Semitism. The most significant and crucial event of the 20th century, WWII, and the genocide that took place within this historical event, must be treated as an historical event. I don’t accept that there are historical events that should be excluded from free discourse. I do not accept the genocide of the Jews in WWII is a sacred event. I do not accept the notion of primacy of Jewish suffering. I do not accept the Israeli government does not allow us to talk about the Nakba. History becomes a meaningful event once it can be revisited; when we look at the past and manage to produce an ethical judgement that allows us to think of a better future. Locking millions of Palestinians into open air prisons is wrong. How is it possible that 3 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinian people? It repeated the Nazi crime.
BBC: You are suggesting what happened to the Jews is the fault of their own.
GA: This is not what I am suggesting, but it is what the early Zionists were saying: ’we have a problem, the gentiles are correct.’ The Brits and the Americans demolished Dresden and never looked into it properly and continued with the same kind of crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and now the threat in Iran, Syria and Libya. It’s not just Jews. Every person, you and me, we have to look in the mirror. If you are chosen, you are less likely to look in the mirror, because you are better than anyone else. It is not a secret that the English speaking empire is also exceptionalist. This is why there is Neo-conservatism; the bond between Jewish identity politics and American exceptionalism. I am the one talking about it.
BBC: You argue in favour of the Palestinian state.
GA: I also support the cause of the Israeli people to live as equal people with equal civil rights.
BBC: You support one state as against the two state solution. So, in a sense you are harming the Palestinians because even the hardliners in Palestine have become pragmatic and accept the two state solution. The one state solution is an impossible dream.
GA: Israel and Palestine are at the moment one state: natural borders; the sea, the Jordan River, the Galilee, one sewage system, one electric grid, 972 is the predial-code... all it needs is the notion to accept equal rights. Maybe you are anti-Semitic because you believe that Jews cannot accept the notion of equal rights. You may be right. I believe it can happen. I support one state from an ethical point of view. I’m not an activist, not a politician; don’t believe it will happen by resolution. It will happen by the facts on the ground.
BBC: Basically, what you are saying, the Palestinians from their expulsion should come back to Israel and as one nation alongside Jews, Christians and whatever, elect their government. Is this what you are saying?
GA: This is the exact Zionist dream: to be people like other people. We in Britain, live in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society... I came to this country, within 7 years I became a citizen, you are a citizen I guess and you know that your rights are similar to other people born in this country. So why is it difficult for you to accept Israel or Palestine can be transformed into such a sovereign entity; accept liberal democracy for real? You are right because you understand it won’t be easy for the Jews to accept it so this is why I wrote my book. i was brave enough or stupid enough to take such a risk to explain to you and other people why it is so difficult for the Jews who identify as a third category. Some of the people who support my book are leading Jewish intellectuals.
BBC: Do you think the Israeli people will ever accept your argument?
GA: I’m not trying to lead a political movement. I’m a philosopher. My job is to ask questions.
BBC: When you talk about Israel, AIPAC, the Jewish lobby... you face difficulties and self censorship, but your book, your work, says the opposite. Have you ever self censored yourself?
GA: I prevail despite the pressure and it must be a miracle or something else... I survive because I’m not teaching in a university on a regular basis. I’m a musician. The pressure to stop me was enormous. If I wouldn’t face opposition it would mean I’m talking rubbish. I’m already reaching for new enemies.
BBC: You’re writing a new book.
GA: Yes. I’M extending the battle.
BBC: In 1982 when you were visiting the Palestinian camps, you came across the music of Charlie Parker which inspired you to take up the saxophone...
GA: Just before I joined the Israeli army I became aware of jazz music.
BBC: It is remarkable music that you have... do you try to convey a message?
GA: I’m swinging on this topic. Jewish music is all about suffering and coming back to ’our homeland’, I believed that if I transformed it into Arabic music, Palestinian music, I would be able to convey a message to the Israelis - there is no such thing as primacy of Jewish suffering. Other people also suffer, especially Palestinians because of the Jewish nationalist project. It made me a very successful musician. I’m working with Palestinian, Iranian musicians... there are no borders. I also work with Israelis. Every possible measure to stop Israeli barbarism is legitimate, however, when it comes to boycott freedom of speech, academic freedom, art... I’m very troubled with it. Freedom of expression is our most precious right. I want Israeli propaganda agents to come here and say what they have to say; this is how we can debate. I didn’t visit Israel for almost 20 years now.
BBC: Do you consider yourself a Jew?
GA: Definitely not. It has nothing to do with religion.
BBC: Your Grandfather was a charismatic, poetic, veteran, Zionist terrorist.. yet you are not a Jew anymore.
GA: I realised that to be a Jew, you either believe in the Torah or become an ordinary human being. I decided to be an ordinary human being; I degraded myself and now I’m like yourself.
BBC Persia - AUGUST 3, 2013
Vidéo (Youtube) by BBC Persia, August 1, 2013: