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Surviving the Board of Deputies

What Do Ken Livingstone and a Fictional Character Named Artie Fishel Have in Common

by GILAD ATZMON

Created by saxophonist, composer and author GILAD ATZMON, Artie Fishel is a fictional satirical character, conceived as the first artificial Zionist who, despite the best efforts of the radical lobbying group The Board of Deputies of British Jews and enormous political pressure brought to bear on the Pizza Express group, made his London debut at the prestigious Pizza On The Park jazz club in Knightsbridge last week with a four night residency that began on Wednesday 18th of October.

The idea behind Artie Fishel took some time to evolve. Originally, I planned on creating an online chat box featuring an artificial Zionist. I thought that we could all benefit from a proper chat with a proper articulate Zionist. A man who understands Israeli wisdom and can morally defend the merciless tendency entangled with Jewish Nationalism.

However being primarily a musician, it didn’t take long before I envisaged a musical image of the man who would stand at the centre of the project. I created an imaginary character, Artie Fishel, a man who is convinced that Jazz has nothing to do with America or Africa. For Artie, Jazz is Jewish and it was born in the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe. For Artie, Jazz must end its Diaspora and find its way back to its homeland.

Artie is indeed a funny bloke – he is far from being violent; in fact he loves peace, he loves his people, his people love him, but more than anything, he really loves himself. Artie is predominantly an entertainer. A Zionist Jew may see a reflection in Artie, others may see him as a glimpse into the Israeli and Zionist mindset, others may just laugh. Throughout the production process, my band, my management and I worked very hard to remove any traces of elements that might be considered offensive. We thought that Artie must stand out as a perfect example of cultural resistance without challenging the boundaries of legitimacy. We are very happy and proud of our final product, GILAD ATZMON Presents: Artie Fishel and The Promised Band.

But, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a self-proclaimed representative of British Jewry, decided to kill Artie before he was even born. A week prior to our launch concerts at the prestigious London’s Pizza On The Park I learnt that Pizza Express’s Head Office had been subject to some heavy pressure. They were blitzed by ‘alleged customers’ who expressed outrage that Pizza Express "could give a stage to GILAD ATZMON, a ‘racist’, an ‘anti-Semite’ and a ‘Holocaust Denier’." The orchestrated campaigners, as I learned, spoke as a single voice. Though I have written hundreds of pages of articles about Israel, Palestine and Jewish identity, the ‘alleged customers’ all seemed to be quoting from the same four quotes. Passages that were either re-worded or taken out of context, and they even put the words of others saw into in my mouth.

Pizza Express did what they had to do; it took its time and evaluated the accusations. Yet, despite enormous pressure decided that the performance would go ahead as scheduled.

A spokesperson for Pizza On The Park said: " GILAD ATZMON has been hired for his musical talents as an internationally recognized, respected and award-winning saxophonist and composer and who has performed to audiences all over the world as well as London’s premiere jazz venues. His performances at Pizza On The Park have attracted great interest." Indeed representatives of Pizza Express also attended the opening night and failed to find any reason that my shows should be cancelled.

Yet, Pizza Express was not alone. On Friday, five days ahead of Artie’s debut concert, both The Guardian Guide and The Independent Information chose ‘ GILAD ATZMON Presents: Artie Fishel and The Promised Band’ as amongst the recommended jazz concerts of the week. I assume that for those making the decisions at Pizza Express this can only have helped convince them that my concerts should go ahead. Surely if I were indeed a racist, as the BOD outrageously argues, the British national press would refrain from promoting me in a positive way and endorsing either me or my latest project. During the days leading to the concert, BBC Radio 3 and London Metro joined in. In fact, I have never received so much support in such a short time for any of my previous albums or acts.

This was far too much for the BOD. Unwisely, rather than surrendering their case and admitting that they may have been mistaken, they decided to escalate the battle. The Zionist Federation was pulled in. Together they moved towards moderate verbal violence. Telephone calls to the Pizza became rather abusive and a picket was planned in front of the venue. Pizza Express was left with no other choice than to hire bouncers to protect its customers from Zionist zeal. Surely, this doesn’t seem to be the kind of behaviour that might give a shining image to those who operate in the name of Jews.

I am here to confess that at that stage I was rather embarrassed about the entire saga. At the end of the day, Pizza Express has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I felt guilty as well for the young telephone woman at the venue reservation desk who was forced to endure daily dozens of the ugliest vulgar manifestations of Zionist verbal brutality. When I entered the venue on Wednesday I felt pretty apologetic, but to my great surprise, the entire staff were on my side. In fact neither the band nor I can recall any warmer welcome at a music venue. The staff went out of its way to look after us and to make us feel at home.

On the opening night of our four night run at Pizza On The Park we noticed more than a few Israelis and some other people that didn’t look to us like our usual followers. Despite being unsettled we didn’t make any changes to our show, we just got on with it. Both sets went smoothly and there was zero interference. By the end of the first set I felt more at ease, and I realised that the Israelis in the audience were having good time; many of them bought the album and some even asked for a personal dedication. However once we had finished the concert I learned from an Al Jazeera producer who was there to cover the event that a confused Evening Standard journalist had approached him at the end of the set wondering what was going on. Apparently, the BOD approached local and national media promising a performance of a ‘Holocaust Denier’ or at least a ‘racist’ warmonger. The Evening Standard journalist was confused, he just couldn’t find anything to write about. There was no story, just a satirical show. Clearly, the BOD got themselves caught in their own embarrassing trap. In the same week as their most recent victim the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone won his appeal against suspension for what was claimed to be a ‘Nazi’ slur, they failed in the attempts to have the quality press slander me.

Indeed, on Friday morning The Guardian reviewed my new album favourably as did London’s Evening Standard, indeed the Standard’s reviewer noted the ‘Jewish’ humour behind the project. By then it was clear that the infamous BOD failed to provide the British Media with a new slander. Totally humiliated, the only outlet left for the BOD smear was the Jerusalem Post, an English language ultra-rightwing Israeli paper.

But the fiasco for them didn’t end just there; on Friday the 21st a senior member of the Labour Government attended our performance. As if this was not enough, we now happen to be getting some great, encouraging support from young members of the Jewish community. A young Jewish promoter who saw Artie Fishel in action this week insists upon putting a big concert of Artie Fishel in Golders Green (the London Jewish Shtetl). Another young conservative Jew who attended our concert decided to organise a discussion of my ideas. This event is already scheduled for mid November.

Artie Fishel was there to launch a debate, to let people look into Zionism and culture from a different perspective. He’s there to let Jews look at themselves with no fear and to let others look into Zionism and cultural colonialism without losing their dignity. The BOD insisted upon silencing Artie, his creator and the message: at least momentarily, their campaign hasn’t been very successful.

GILAD ATZMON was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of two novels: A Guide to the Perplexed and the recently released My One and Only Love. Atzmon is also one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. His recent CD, Exile, was named the year’s best jazz CD by the BBC. He now lives in London and can be reached at: atz@onetel.net.uk