Calling Out the Tribalists

Gilad Atzmon captures the essence of his book, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, on the first page of his foreword.  The book is about the conundrums of Jewish identity—what is it; why is it special, if it is in fact special; why do the rest of us so often celebrate it; what does the fixation on it mean for Israel and for its neighbors?  He wastes no time getting to the core of the issue—which is the politics these identity issues create.  On page 1, he cites his own very rightwing grandfather, who he says knew perfectly well that “tribalism can never live in peace with humanism and universalism.”  His grandfather was an unapologetic tribal Jewish nationalist, as were virtually all of the early Zionists in Israel, and none of them had any truck with humanism or universalist notions of coexistence with Arabs or Jewish-Palestinian equality in Palestine.

It is Zionism’s tribal exclusivism that has killed Palestinian aspirations to freedom and a national identity.  And it is the widespread liberal Jewish—and Western—failure from the beginning to recognize the realities of Zionism that has silenced the Palestinian voice for 60-plus years and prevented any just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  As a self-defined Jewish state, Israel is by definition non-democratic and tribal and, whether innocently or not, its supporters have been perpetuating its exclusivist, anti-universalist mandate since the days, well before 1948, when Zionists conceived the notion of dispossessing and dispersing the Palestinians so that Jews could have exclusive access to Palestine, and then carried through with this massive injustice.

Atzmon—a born-and-bred Israeli, now an expatriate, a citizen of the UK, and a renowned jazz musician—describes his own journey from tribalism to universalism by describing how his emerging devotion to jazz and his connection to music lovers gradually superseded his Jewish nationalism.  It was because of
his love of music, he realized, which linked him to people “concerned with beauty and spirit rather than land, mammon and occupation” that he ceased being a Zionist nationalist.  “It was probably then and there,” he says, “that I left Chosen-ness behind to become an ordinary human being.”

He was still a teenager.  Only later, after military service and more years of music, did Atzmon learn the facts of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians and come to understand something about the Palestinians and what Zionism meant for them.  After a struggle to understand the “elusive Oriental sound” of Arab music, he learned finally to listen.  “[I]t is listening,” he writes, “that stands at the core of deep comprehension.  Ethical behaviour comes into play when the eyes are shut and the echoes of conscience can form a tune within one’s soul.  To empathise is to accept the primacy of the ear.”

Atzmon’s statement about having left chosenness behind and become an ordinary (and empathetic)
human being speaks volumes not just about his own awakening, but about the very essence of Zionism—and also the continued ignorance of most of the Western world about Zionism’s fundamental objectives.  Few Israelis and few Israeli supporters anywhere in the world focus on or have any real understanding that Zionism is an ideology whose basic value is promoting the superiority of Jews and Jewishness and that it is thus irreconcilable with universalist concepts of human rights, equality, and democracy.  Zionism has from the beginning elevated Jewishness above all as “the fundamental characteristic of one’s being,” as Atzmon says, and as the basis for its national claims.  Atzmon cites Chaim Weizmann and other early Zionist leaders who pronounced that Jewishness is a “primary quality”: “there are no English, French, German or American Jews,” Weizmann said, “but only Jews living in England, France, Germany or America.”

There was never any expectation among the early Zionists that Jews in Palestine would have to accommodate Palestine’s native population.  Thus does Zionism have no concern or sense of remorse for having imposed a Jewish state on a land that was until 1948 home to a Palestinian Arab people.  And thus has the world come to accept that Jewish ascendancy in this land that was formerly non-Jewish is the natural order of things.  In the wake of the Holocaust and the perception that Jews needed a refuge from persecution, the displacement of Palestine’s natural inhabitants came to be seen—and is still seen—as entirely acceptable.  The human, humanitarian consequences of this philosophy for Palestinians have long since been forgotten, and the world ignores that this injustice in the name of Jewish chosenness was Zionism’s goal from the start.

Atzmon sets out his argument by clearly defining the ways in which Jews self-identify.  He puts forth three categories: those who follow Judaism as a religious and ethical belief system; those who regard themselves primarily as human beings who happen to be of Jewish origin, for whom Jewishness is secondary; and those who turn the two identifiers, human being and Jew, around and, a la Chaim Weizmann, place their Jewishness above all other traits.  Those in this third category feel a loyalty to and solidarity with the tribe over any other identity.

Atzmon has no argument with those in the first two categories.  It is the third category and what he sees as “the Jewish ideological inclination toward sameness” that raise his ire.  Noting that early Zionism rejected the Diaspora and tried to gather the exiles into Israel, he says that with the rise of the right since 1967 and the glorification of the Israeli settler who is reclaiming “Greater Israel,” there has been a bonding between Eretz Yisrael, the so-called whole land of Israel, and the Diaspora that has united most of world Jewry behind Zionism and has had the effect of uniting Jews against the world, setting them “apart from their surrounding social reality.”  Jews have again become members of a separate tribe.

It is the secular Jewish Zionists who profess universalist values while existing in solidarity with the Jewish tribe—who seem to straddle the second and third categories but give far too much primacy to their Jewishness to fit easily into the category of “ordinary human being”—who particularly irk Atzmon.  It is these people, Atzmon believes, who by continuing to identify primarily as Jews, even when professing to be anti-Zionist, actually enable worldwide Zionism to maintain its power and its role as the voice of world Jewry.  They actually embody, he contends, a continuum between hardcore rightwing Zionism and Jewish anti-Zionism, ultimately totally undermining the impact and significance of their anti-Zionism.

To illustrate his case, he cites the example of a Jewish couple in London profiled in a local Jewish paper, who are described as socialists who belong to no synagogue, do not believe in God, and are “antagonistic towards Zionism.”  Yet they “feel passionately” about Jewish history, have strong Jewish connections in their social lives, helped form a specifically Jewish socialist organization, love Hebrew and Yiddish culture, hold a Seder at Passover, and have circumcised and bar mitzvahed their sons.  They “want to remain Jewish,” according to the article, and “prove that there is a way of being Jewish that doesn’t involve saying prayers to a God you don’t believe in.”  They clearly want acceptance inside the Jewish community, whose preservation is vitally important to them; they are concerned to prevent Jewish assimilation.  (This couple identifies their Jewishness as ethnic.  Atzmon—along with Israeli historian Shlomo Sand whose 2009 book The Invention of the Jewish People argued that Jews are not a unique nation, only a religion—challenge the existence of a Jewish ethnicity, on strong historical and evidentiary grounds.)

Atzmon’s point is that, whether the identification is secular and ethnic or religious, the need to identify primarily as Jewish is tribal and anti-universalist and essentially negates any pretense of anti-Zionism.  “Why don’t they just ‘get on’ with their ‘socialist agenda’ and join the human family as ordinary people?” he wonders.  Many people around the world have left their faith and ceased believing in God, but they exist in multi-cultural, multi-faith societies and do not insist on being identified first as Catholics, Hindus, or Muslims or on socializing primarily with their own co-religionists or on forming organizations exclusive to their ethnicity or religious preference.  His objection is to Jews who profess to be anti-Zionist but form what he calls “ethnocentric, separatist, peace-loving” organizations of Jews: Jews for Peace, Jews for Justice in Palestine, “Jews for this and Jews for that.”  This kind of “exclusive, ethnocentric Jewish discourse” is not something one sees from Germans or Aryans or Caucasians, he points out wryly.

Whether or not they realize that they are actually pushing Zionism, Atzmon says, they ultimately carry out a Zionist agenda by being so tribally focused.  The result continues to be—as Atzmon himself and many other non-tribal anti-Zionists have sadly discovered—that those who criticize Zionism for its fundamental objectives and for what it has done to the Palestinian nation are frequently vilified as anti-Semitic.  Solidarity with Jews tends to create—even in Jewish anti-Zionists, whom he calls “Jewish ethnic campaigners”—solidarity against anyone identified, however baselessly, as an enemy of the Jews.  In this loose, emotional world of tribal loyalty, because Israel is “the Jewish state,” critics of Zionism can easily be made out to be “enemies of the Jewish people.”

There is much more in this rich book.  Although it is not a scholarly book, it is deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking.  It is impossible to capture all its nuances without reading it carefully, and perhaps more than once.  Atzmon describes how Zionism has accrued its global political and financial power.  He also discusses at length, and quite perceptively, the role of the Holocaust in unifying Jews throughout the world, in inducing a “dialectic of fear” that governs the Jewish political and ideological mindset, and in leading to a trauma that he terms “Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, in which stress and emotional terror result from fear of an imaginary episode, such as a supposed attack by Iran, that might occur in an imaginary future—something in this case that grows out of the real horror of the Holocaust but that is manipulated to unite Jews and becomes a part of Jewish identity.

It goes without saying that this book will be extremely controversial, indeed already has become controversial.  But the truth often is.  The tribal anti-Zionists whose principal concern is “what’s good for the Jews” have attacked Atzmon—generally not for what he says in the book but for what they claim he said in past writings (all of which claims are refuted precisely by this book).  But Atzmon’s analysis is exactly on point, and it cannot be dismissed simply because the mirror it holds up to Zionists and “Jewish ethnic campaigners” is undoubtedly uncomfortable for them to look at.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and the author of several books on the Palestinian situation, including Palestine in Pieces, co-authored with her late husband Bill Christison. She can be reached at