By Gilad Atzmon
Speech given at University of Denver, 13 April 2007
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For many years I considered America as my promised land. As a young Jazz musician I was pretty convinced that sooner or later I would end up living in NYC. My Jerusalem was Downtown Manhattan and of course my holy scriptures were the old Blue Note vinyls. My Rabbis were named Coltrane, Bird, Miles, Duke, Dizzy, Bill Evans and naturally, there were many others. I was convinced of this reality for a while, and in fact, it took time before I realised that Jazz was far more than mere music. It took a while before I gathered that Jazz was something else, that it was actually a form of resistance. Nowadays I realise that Jazz is no different from Jihad, accordingly, playing Jazz is my personal Jihad. I do grasp that some people in this room may already find my ideas nostalgic, some may even be convinced that I am either totally deluded or just out of my mind. I can live with it. I do realise that ‘things have changed’, they’ve changed for you as much as they’ve changed for me. I do realise that Jazz is not exactly a form of resistance anymore. May I mention that America isn’t my promised land either. In fact, at the time of writing this talk, I wasn’t even sure whether I would be allowed entry into your country. As much as Jazz, the classical music of America, has been a call for freedom, America is not a free place anymore. I often argue that before liberating others, it is the American people who should first liberate themselves. I am pretty sure that sooner or later they will.
Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine
I have been participating in some public debates lately concerning the common denominator between Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m glad to mention that it is rather noticeable that more and more people are now happy to admit what some of us realised years ago. The Palestinians, the Iraqis and the Afghanis are paying a very dear price for the Ziocentric shift within the Anglo-American decision-makers circuit. Seemingly, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are just the aperitif for an endless feast. The Ziocons have some big appetite to satisfy. The same lobbies that led America towards this disastrous invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan are now doing whatever they can to push America towards intervention in Iran and Syria. For those few who still fail to realise it, America has been operating officially as an Israeli mission force. It currently fights the last sovereign pockets of Muslim resistance.
Often enough, the true aim of the Zionist lobbies is concealed. Instead the Zionist lobbies promote some righteous phoney humanitarian alternatives. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), for instance, is aggressively lobbying against human rights abuse in Iran and Darfur. Since human rights issues are really close to my heart, I find myself wondering whether the Jewish organisation shouldn’t rather be concentrating on the colossal war crimes that are daily repeated by Israel in Palestine. Rather occasionally we read about AIPAC equating Iran and Syria with Nazi Germany. Again, someone should remind the Zionist lobbyists that actually it is Israel, the “Jews Only State”, that happens to be the one and only ideological remnant of racist nationalism.
Three weeks ago the Palestine Chronicle made an on-line poll (http://www.palestinechronicle.com/). It asked the following question: ‘Does the Israel Lobby control US policy on the Middle East?’
Needless to mention, no one would even have dared raising such a question five years ago. Now this question is asked repeatedly and as it seems, people aren’t shying off from telling what they really think. 80% said yes, 15% said no, and 4% were not sure. Looking at these results points to the reality many want us to deny. The vast majority of English-speaking Palestinians, Palestinian solidarity campaigners and anti-war activists are now ready to admit that the Israel Lobby controls US policy in the Middle East. We are ready to accept the fact that America operates as an Israeli mission force. America straightens the line with Israeli interests and sacrifices its sons and daughters maintaining Israeli regional hegemony.
But here is an interesting twist. I do not intend to talk to you about Zionised America. I want to believe that the majority of Palestinian supporters and anti-war activists in this room know far more about it than me. I would like to try taking the discussion further. I would like to elaborate on the notion of solidarity and empathy.
Those who are familiar with my writings know that I am not exactly a political scientist. I am not interested in politics and I am even far less interested in politicians who, generally speaking, evoke nothing but a strong sense of repulsion in me.
Rather than politics per se, it is humanity and the notion of humanism that I am interested in. Often I find myself wondering what being in the world may entail. And I better admit it; I am puzzled by the fact that as a society, as a collective bunch of individuals, we have managed to continuously fail to act for the people of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. I think that this very collective failure is in itself an alarming message. Thus, rather than looking into the crimes committed by Blair, Bush and the Ziocons, I am becoming gradually interested in the general Western apathy. To be more precise, I would argue that the common denominator between Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is our collective indifference to a crime that is committed on our behalf and in our names.
As some of us may remember, in the days leading to the doomed illegal invasion of Iraq, the anti-war movement was extremely successful in mobilizing millions of people into protest. We saw them in every capital. They were calling Blair and Bush to withdraw their military plans. Millions of people questioned the sickening Anglo-American intelligence hoax. We could all see through the lies, we could all foresee the emerging crime, we were outraged, and we were convinced that we were doing the right thing. Yet, strangely enough, just four years later, with hundreds of thousands dead, with millions of casualties, with many millions of displaced people, when it is clear that everything went as wrong as it possibly could, when it is openly established that “the danger of Iraq’s WMDs” was nothing but a lie, not very many care about it all anymore. Now when the grim prophecy turns into reality of genocide with no end, we are collectively sinking into apathy. What are the logos behind this collective indifference, why did we lose interest? Why don’t we fight? Why aren’t we a mass movement?
I am not so sure whether I have the exact answers at my disposal, yet, I may be able to throw some light on the issue.
I am inclined to admit that the notion of Cultural Clash has indeed some deep meanings especially when it comes to the discourse of solidarity. Naturally, we tend to expect the subject of our solidarity to endorse our views while dumping his own. As much as Blair and Bush insist upon democratising the Muslim world, we, the so-called left humanists have our own various agendas for the region and its people. In Europe some archaic Marxists are convinced that ‘working class politics’ is the only viable outlook of the conflict and its solution. Some other deluded socialists and egalitarians are talking about liberating the Muslims of their religious traits. The cosmopolitans within the solidarity movement would suggest to Palestinians that nationalism and national identity belongs to the past. Noticeably, many of us love Muslim and Arabs as long as they act as white, post-enlightenment Europeans. In other words, we love Muslims as long as they stop being Muslims.
For those who fail to realise, I may as well mentioned that ‘working class politics’ has nothing to do with Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan. For those who fail to see the obvious truth, I may as well mention that the industrial revolution has never made it to Gaza. Furthermore, the landslide victory of the Hamas proves beyond doubt that Palestinians are not exactly on the verge of dropping Islam. The million Shias that protested in Najaf last Monday were not exactly secular Arabs either. It is crucial to mention that the Palestinian struggle is a national struggle. The million Iraqi Shias who followed their Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr last Monday were overtly burning American flags while raising their own Iraqi ones as high as they could. In other words, we have good reason to believe that they may hold a consistent and genuine nationalist vision of their conflict and its resolution. Again, to expect Palestinians or Iraqis to become secular, cosmopolitan and working class ideologists is to expect Arabs and Muslims to act as European Marxists. It has noting to do with solidarity; it is actually nothing but projection. We project our solipsistic worldviews on others.
In Lacanian terminology, love means loving oneself through the other. At large, our notion of solidarity is not much different: we run a constant risk of performing solidarity with ourselves through the suffering of Palestinians and Iraqis. We are at risk of using Palestinians and Iraqis as an approval of our greatness. Alternatively I would suggest that to support the other means to accept otherness, to accept that which you may never grasp. To accept otherness is to let in the unknown and the unfamiliar. To support Palestine is to back the Hamas and to support Iraq is to back the Iraqi resistance and liberation struggle. Simply speaking, to show solidarity is to support and accept other people and their will.
But somehow, instead of doing just that, in most cases we happen to transform our subject of solidarity into a fetish. We self indulge with peace ideologies at the expense of other people’s pain. We instrumentally use the cry of the other as a reassurance of our own goodness. This may explain why so many of us have lost interest in Iraq and Palestine. If all we are interested in is just making love to ourselves, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria are more than replaceable. As it happens, once in a while we may show up in mass demonstrations and then just fade away into apathy for a decade or so.
We Get Away with It
Why do we fade away? Because we get away with it. Legally speaking, America and Britain are responsible for the colossal carnage in Iraq. Bearing in mind the fact that America and Britain are democracies and adding the embarrassing fact that the people of these two ‘great democracies’ have re-elected war criminals, leaves no other option but admitting a collective guilt. To a certain extent, every American and British citizen is liable for the crimes in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Yet this state of criminality means very little to most of us. Americans and Brits at least for the time being simply get away with it.
America has lost 3,000 of its sons and daughters in the Iraqi war. As much as I feel sorry for those who lost their beloved, for a superpower the size of America, such a scale of loss is nothing but a negligible casualty rate. In comparison, on D-Day, America lost more or less the same number of combatants in a few hours. In modern warfare, superpowers are mainly engaged in killing innocent people from afar. America doesn’t risk its soldiers. It doesn’t provide occupied Iraq and Afghanistan with even elementary security. Seemingly, the American Generals realise that this would cost lives of their troops. How come the Americans fail to provide security? They simply get away with it. Why are we sinking into apathy? More or less because of the same reason, we get away with it.
A Bridge too Far
As I am getting to the end of my talk, I may conclude that supporting Muslims and Jihad is probably a bridge too far for most Westerners. The typical Westerner doesn’t know how to bridge the gap between ‘materialism’ and ‘Jihad’ or between ‘self-loving’ and ‘martyrdom’. We happen to regard our lives as a precious gift with an immense value. We submitted to the post-enlightenment notion of individuality and individualism. Succumbing to the school of orthodox rationalism we believe in the ultimate power of reason. We adore science and admire technology. We are libidinally aroused by electronic gadgets.
Seemingly, spirit and beauty means very little to us unless attached to a commodity. In our Americanised reality, existence means market value. Yet, spirit of resistance and beauty are invaluable. I may suggest that we will never be able to fully understand what the Palestinian and Iraqi struggle means to its people unless we liberate ourselves from our narrow material vision of reality. We can never grasp people who sacrifice the ultimate unless we acknowledge that there is far more to life than just life. We can never understand Iraqi insurgency and the Palestinian liberation struggle unless we try to understand what soil may mean to people who refuse to get drunk on Coca-Cola.
The search for the meaning of solidarity is a personal issue. I believe that the meaning of solidarity is probably a very dynamic notion. I am starting to realise that within the current structure of affairs, the left who was pretty effective in mobilizing anti-imperial campaigns for years, may not provide anything for Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. The left, being a rational, post-enlightenment outlook, has its problem to solve with Islam and religious devotion. I hope that I am wrong here. I can see some isolated islands of left dialectic thinkers are ready to acknowledge that Muslim resistance may as well convey an alternative vision of reality and resistance.
I can speak for myself. For me, Jihad and Jazz are very similar forms of commitment. For me, the generations of Black Americans who sacrificed everything for the sake of beauty and resistance were actually engaged in a holy war. For me it was Bird, Max Roach, Dizzy, Coltrane and others who went far beyond the American dream of materialism and market value. Jazz was their voice of freedom. Jazz was their call for a change. Jazz was an ideology, a spirit, and a way of living as well as dying. To be a Jazz musician is to fight for beauty, to create and recreate, to construct and deconstruct, to question while knowing that answers may not be available for a while. To play Jazz is to get lost deliberately. To play Jazz is to leave the self behind.
-Gilad Atzmon is an internationally acclaimed jazz musician whose CD Exile was selected by the BBC in 2003 as Album of the Year. He was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and is now living in self-exile in the UK. Visit his web site at: www.gilad.co.uk. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org