Interview with Gilad Atzmon: Tangling with the Oppressor

By Marry Rizzo

Gilad Atzmon is a novelist, a philosopher and 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.

Mary: For years, regarding Israel-Palestine we’ve heard, One State, Two State, now even Three State Solution. What kind of perspective do you see?

Gilad: It should be clear by now that any discourse of resolution may have very limited relevance with the reality on the ground. Thus, we better leave this issue behind.

Mary: You’ve expressed on many occasions that your primary concern is supporting the liberation of the Palestinian people. The question at this time might get confusing for the public who see Palestinians of the two principle parties of the Unity Government involved in armed clashes of the militia. How can anyone effectively support a group that is itself divided into factions?

Gilad: It’s true that they seem divided and for more than a while we’ve been witnessing an emerging crisis within the Palestinian society as a whole. But, for some time, it’s been clear to me that this very conflict, this factionalism, is something we shouldn’t interfere with. At any rate, it’s nothing that is new. Palestinians are divided by circumstances that are created by a Jewish State and its continuous abuse of human rights and its genocidal approach.

Mary: So Palestinian division is something that we need to view as a more or less ordinary and established condition?

Gilad: It is symptomatic to societies under oppression and the Israeli abuse of human rights is no doubt exceeding anything we may be familiar with. However, first we have to recognize where these divisions are. There are 3 separate and distinct and opposing discourses. We have the Palestinians who possess Israeli citizenship, they fight for equal rights. But then, as soon as they express their totally legitimate demands, they are called traitors and have to run for their lives from the Israelis like in the case of the adorable Knesset Member Azmi Bishara.

The second discourse is formed in the Occupied Territories, with the starved Palestinians in Gaza and those in the West Bank who are slightly better off, demanding an end to occupation. They all are calling for that, and it’s been recently that we on the outside can see that the Palestinians in the OT have been largely divided not about the goal, but about the tactic to be employed achieving the withdrawal of Israel. While the Fatah is willing to negotiate its way through, Hamas leaders largely believe in defiance.

The third group is obviously the Diaspora Palestinians, they demand to return to their lands and homes. Many of them live in refugee camps and we can see that their living conditions are often inhumane.

All three groups have totally legitimate demands, this is clear. Yet, Every Western Palestinian solidarity campaigner who tries to offer help runs into severe danger of supporting one cause but dismissing the two others, that is, if he is even aware of the seriousness of the situation of the others. While fighting for the right of return, which is no doubt the backbone of the Palestinian cause, one may end up dismissing the urgency of worsening starvation in Gaza. Those who fight against occupation and those who are determined to break the siege are at a danger of ignoring the millions of Palestinians who are stranded in camps all over the Middle East. Clearly, the majority of solidarity activists can see truth and urgency in the three apparent Palestinian causes. Yet, engagement in one front usually leads to dismissal of the 2 others.

This is why I’ve been suggesting that we divert the focus. Rather than interfering with Palestinian internal debate we have to diagnose the root of the problem. My take on the subject is simple and clear. We have to be in the struggle against their oppressors. It is the Israel that has created and maintains the Palestinians in a condition of suffering. It is the Israel that employs tactics of divide and rule. It is Israel’s supportive lobbies around the world which we must critically confront. It is Israel and its astonishingly powerful lobbies in Washington and in Europe that are behind the misery in Gaza, rather than inter-Palestinian clashes. There’s no other way around this. You can’t bring about an end to the oppression if you refuse to tangle with the oppressor.

Mary: So what is your role? Is it possible that you do not regard yourself as activist, not even a political artist anymore?

Gilad: When it comes to me, I am engaged in scrutiny of the complexity of the Jewish world. I aim towards understanding the notion of Jewish racial brotherhood. I want to understand the relationships between the Jewish State and the Jewish world, between Israel and Jewry, between Jewishness and Zionism. I want to find out whether there is any real categorical difference between Zionists and ‘Jews Against Zionism’ because as far as I can see, both are racially orientated activities.

Mary: Is the Jewish world directly implicated in the oppression? Wouldn’t it be more direct to deal exclusively with Israel and its supporting States? We all know that sometimes the citizens of a State don’t fully support their leaders, and this is true in the West and elsewhere. Why is Israel different?

Gilad: This is indeed a set of crucial questions. The first question to be asked is what is this thing called ‘Jewish World’? Is it the world of all the living Jews? Is there such a world? Is there such a collective entity? The answer is no, yet it is symptomatic to Jewish ethnic politicians to talk in a collective manner, whether it is in the name of the holocaust, or its victims, the sufferers. As we know, Sharon informed us after the Jenin massacre that it was done in the name of the Jews. Did he have the mandate to say it? Not really. As it seems there is a fairly organized set of Jewish bodies who are supporting the Jewish State in the name of the Jews, and we also see far less organized miniature groups who oppose Israel in the name of the Jews. These two opposing political identities teach us nothing about the Jewish world, but rather about a Jewish political tendency to talk in the name of the Jewish people. This probably is one of the manifestations of Jewish political management within a liberal democratic environment.

I do believe that since Israel insists upon regarding itself as the Jewish State, we are entitled to tackle it as a Jewish State. I believe that if there is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it is the devastating impact of racism and political racism. We have to fight racism. As it seems there is not a single legitimate racially exclusive political movement in the West except the Jewish ones, whether we speak about Zionism or ‘Jews against Zionism’. We have to stand up against any form of a racial segregative formula.

Mary: Getting back to the initial part of our discussion, your policy is to never take sides if the debate or the clash involves only Palestinians?

Gilad: Recognizing the historical injustice against the Palestinian people and watching the escalating Israeli barbarism my moral duty is clear to me. I just support the Palestinian people and their different choices even if those are contradicting. Rather than trying to fit the Palestinian struggle into a decaying 19th century working class philosophy or any other ideology, I fit myself to their call. I do regard Palestine and the Palestinians as the avant garde and the forefront of the battle against modern evil.

Mary: What is modern evil?

Gilad: It is clearly Zionism and the current Zionised Anglo-American colonialism.

Mary: So you don’t classify Abbas or Dahlan as traitors of their people, opportunists or even politically mislead? You abstain from criticizing them?

Gilad: I have seen people within our camp who happen to be judgmental of Abbas for his recent moves and I can see where they come from. I can understand the frustration. I myself happen to be angry rather often, yet, I am the last to be judgmental about any Palestinian act. My job, or may I suggest, our job is to understand different modes of thinking amongst those who’ve been living under occupation for four decades, those have been dispossessed for sixty years, those who face the most brutal interpretation of the notion of the Jewish secular supremacist world view.

My task is to throw light on the situation, to understand the justifications of various acts, to give reasons, to let reason be. I am there to remind whoever wants to listen that the Hamas was democratically elected by the vast majority of the Palestinian people in the PA, and that means the West Bank as well as Gaza. I am there to remind my Western listeners that there has never been a Palestinian dream of two states: CNN is still talking about the shattered Palestinian dream of the 2 states solution.
Mary: Would you say that Israelis start to understand that solution to the conflict may be beyond reach?

Gilad: Israelis do anticipate their doomsday, they are now surrounded with total defiance. Israel comes to realize its temporality and Avrum Burg’s invaluable interview with Ari Shavit exposes it. Clearly, there is no room to talk about solutions anymore, the conflict will mature into a single Palestinian State. And I am rather delighted about that.

Mary: We’ll get back to the implications of Burg in a few minutes, but you are stating that the Palestinians never had a dream, as the CNN is putting it, of a Palestinian State alongside an Israeli one, even though the PLO had endorsed this.

Gilad: First, let’s be accurate here, What CNN is referring to is a dream of a unified Palestinian State of the lands beyond Israel’s 1967 borders, yet, looking at the map reveals that there is no such State, as far as we can see, it is Gaza and the West Bank with a huge Jewish ghetto in the middle. This is not a unified State. Moreover, the two State solution has never been a Palestinian dream and will never be one. It was maybe a possible vision of a settlement, nothing more than that. And as many of us have been predicting for more than a decade, it would never work out because it dismisses the Palestinian cause.

Mary: I imagine that now, after the formation of a “technical government” headed by Fatah, many activists are relieved that the economic strangulation against parts of what would be the future Palestine is being lifted by the unfreezing of some funds. But in similar way, they are glad Hamas is out of the official picture, that their warnings against Hamas being in government were fulfilled. Maybe some think of saving the saveable and letting things in Gaza run whatever course they may. The West Bank for “Palestine” and Gaza for “Hamas”.

Gilad: It is rather obvious that many Palestinian solidarity campaigners happen to associate themselves with the Fatah, with Abbas and his emergency government. We are living in a world that seemed to be free at one point. I believe that people should follow their heart. Yet, I believe that to support Palestine is to respect the choice of the Palestinian people. That means to congratulate the Hamas and the people of Gaza for their defiance. The Hamas had eventually to take position by force. This is really amazing when you think about it. I am not surprised that Tony Blair, once a war criminal and now a peace envoy, sanctioned the Hamas, but then, we better ask ourselves, what did we do to support the legitimate choice of the Palestinian people?

Mary: Do you think then that this moment is they eye of a hurricane, or is the division going to take even more dramatic turns?

Gilad: I want to believe that civil war in Gaza is over.

Mary: Hardly a civil war, it can be classified as a preventive military or paramilitary action that is popular these days in the Middle East. Hamas took control of the situation before a Fatah coup that they feared was in the air.

Gilad: But we have to look at it in a bigger picture. We have to remember that Hamas won the election both in Gaza and the West Bank. Practically speaking, the current Emergency Government in Ramallah is actually the one that is involved in an act that is forcefully moving an elected Government. They do it with the support of the West and Israel. The current Emergency Government will be operating with Israeli backing and with the support of the Israeli occupation forces. In the long run, this may be a kiss of death to the Fatah movement, a secular agenda that had been leading the Palestinian struggle for many years. This is a big shame.

Mary: A recent interview with Avrum Burg has caused a great amount of interest. I know you were particularly surprised by it, and said it contained “cosmic changes”. At the risk of having to revise your views once time has passed and things turn out to be less cosmic than we hope, could you elaborate on how this interview affected you?

Gilad: To a certain extent, Burg didn’t come with a major intellectual or ideological revelation. Yet, Avrum Burg, isn’t really an ordinary man, he isn’t exactly a Palestinian solidarity campaigner. Quite the opposite, Burg has been for years the ultimate epitome of Israeliness and the mainstream Israeli political establishment. He was the great hope of the Labor Party’s Young Guard. After that the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Speaker of the Knesset, a candidate for the Labor leadership.

We must remember that as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Burg was Mr Aliyah (Jews moving to Israel). Now he changed his mind, he is Mr Yerida (Jews moving out of Israel). When a man with such a political history stands up and suggests Israelis to apply for foreign passports and leave the country ASAP, when a man of such an intellectual capacity admits that “Israel is Fascist” we must confess that a change of spirit is noticed in the air.

For us, the fact that Israel is indeed Fascist may not be such a revelation, we know for years that Israeli legislation is racially orientated. We know that Burg’s old Israeli Labor Party has always been dedicated to the belief in socialism of one race (National Socialism). However, Burg was the one who stood up and confronted the Israelis with their bitter reality. He basically tells the Israelis, ‘We aren’t any better than Hitler’. And this is a revelation!!!

But it gets deeper, Burg is there to say: “Of the three identities that form me – human, Jewish and Israeli – I feel that the Israeli element deprives the other two." As an observant Jew, Burg actually admits that Israeliness opposes humanism and Judaism. This may not be new to many of us, but no one has ever had the guts to say just that to the Israelis (maybe except me but I am just a saxophonist).

However, Burg manages to throw some interesting light onto the notion of Zionism and Israeliness. In the interview he says "I am a human being, I am a Jew and I am an Israeli. Zionism was an instrument to move me from the Jewish state of being to the Israeli state of being. I think it was Ben-Gurion who said that the Zionist movement was the scaffolding to build the home, and that after the State’s establishment, it should be dismantled."

This is certainly a major and crucial point. As it seems, Zionism doesn’t mean a thing for the contemporary Jew born in Israel. Zionism is a Diaspora-orientated notion. Zionism is there to differentiate between Abe Foxman and Roland Rance. Both are Jews, both operate in racially segregated political cells, yet, one is a Zionist the other is a Jewish Anti-Zionist. When it comes to Israelis who were born in Israel, the idea of a Jewish State isn’t something to celebrate. For Israelis, a Jewish State it isn’t something you have to aim towards or ideologically endorse. Being an Israeli means being a Jew and living in a Jews-only State. When I joined the IDF 25 years ago, I did it because this was the only available interpretation of my Jewishness. I was a Jew living in the Jewish State and joining the Jews’ army was the natural outcome.

The word Zionism is almost meaningless in Israel and within the Israeli discourse it is actually non-existent. Zionism may mean something to the American settlers in the West Bank or the new wave of French immigrants to Israel, but not much more than that. If this indeed the case, we may as well internalise the fact that anti-Zionist campaigning is hardly affective in the case of Israel. As much as Israelis do not regard themselves as Zionists, they are hardly affected by anti-Zionism.

Mary: Although if this is the state of affairs, is Burg really addressing people outside of Israel, in his urging that the Zionist structure be dismantled? Are we again at a Nemo propheta in patria situation?

Gilad: I don’t know the answer. I was pretty surprised that Burg’s ideas were not highly circulated. I do not know a thing about circulation of thought in Jewish circles. I can see that even in Israel his ideas were attracting some attention but not enough. At the end of the day, in order to maintain the Israeli murderous policies, a collective blindness is elementary. My interest in Burg is totally intellectual, I do not know if he has any significant political power anymore, I guess he doesn’t. Yet his ideas will echo for a while and even more than a while.

-Mary Rizzo is a translator, art restorer and especially Pro-Palestinian activist; she runs the blog Peacepalestine. The complete version of this interview is available here.

-Gilad Atzmon’s website is He can be reached at:

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