Thursday, March 15, 2012

Those With Privilege Have the Greater Responsibility

For the past forty eight hours, I have been monitoring social media with growing concern and disgust. There are various aspects to this concern and I will in this post not go into the historical/political/ideological debates about the wrong and rights of Zionism and Israel but focus on the issues that have been raised in the past couple of days. Gilad Atzmon has been on a book tour for his book, The Wandering Who, in America.

Now I think a full disclosure is merited. I have some personal investment here as I was labelled as "anti-Semite, Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer" a few months ago, simply for reading the author I am about discuss here. As a brown woman, without an EU citizenship, and living in Europe, I find threats by the Zionist lobby to denounce me as anti-Semite (the holy cow of the western world) more than a little disturbing; these have potentially serious social, political and professional consequences, especially as I have little recourse or opportunity for self-defense.. My crime, or perhaps the better Biblical word is sin, some months ago, was (in case you are wondering) simply to keep an open mind while reading Gilad Atzmon's book (and reviewing it). Also, an aggravating factor may have been that I supported the principles of freedom of speech to be applied regarding the author and the book (In simpler words: disagree with it if you wish, but damn well read it first!)

The hate mail and threats I received from the Zionist lobby for simply reading Atzmon's book were hateful and threatening enough for me to perhaps naively assume that, in contrast, those who actually support Atzmon would perhaps have a comparatively humanist attitude towards the Palestinians.

Sadly I am beginning to think that I was wrong.

As Atzmon has been on a book tour in US, the public Zionist opposition to him has grown. He has been accused of the same sins that I listed above: anti-Semite, Nazi sympathizer (or outright Nazi) and Holocaust denier. These are the same three labels that used and abused in most of western Europe and north America to shut down debate about Israel and any critique of its policies. I do believe that these labels and intimidating tactics need to be unbundled, critiqued and questioned so that they are not abused and misused.  This is especially the case for those who choose to take an anti-Zionist stance as they are most vulnerable to the subtle but devastating forms of censorship that 'the enlightened West' chooses to practice. Moreover, this same censorship takes on an overt and explicitly threatening form when those critiquing Israel are often framed as 'the enemy' based on the fallacious reasoning and attribution of race, ethnicity, and religion.

This final category is also often composed people with precarious situations who choose for moral or ideological reasons to take a stance that is unacceptable and very risky. They choose to go against western political orthodoxy on Israel despite explicit and clear personal risks.

Here I use myself as an example: as a brown woman who is not a citizen of any western nation, my position is precarious at best in the western world.  Regardless of the hyperbole put out by western governments, I am here at the indulgence of the countries where I choose to live: regardless of my professional independence, my economic status, educational achievements, I am susceptible to legal and social forces. So for example, the risk that the my host state can choose to expel me (or worse) is ever present. In recent times, and given the European Union's lack of willingness to abide agreements made with large corporations (far more powerful than I shall ever be), or indeed apply its own avowed principles of human and civil rights as well as criminal laws in any equal fashion, merely adds to my vulnerability.

Add to this, the false smear by extremely powerful (economically and politically) Zionist lobbyists who label me "anti-Semite, Holocaust-denier, and Nazi/Nazi-sympathizer for simply reading a book, and suddenly the price I have to pay for expressing my opinions and stances is a LOT higher than the average European (or indeed an Israeli such Atzmon) anti-Zionist. Very simply, everything from my visa to live Europe, my ability of hold my job, my (already meagre) ability to publish and basic civic freedoms, are threatened. Let us be very honest, a society that can keep Atzmon's voice out of the mainstream simply because of the accusation of anti-Semitic is not likely to be tolerant of a brown woman like me who is smeared - regardless of truth - of the same.  My point is simple: it is a higher risk for any non-western, non-white, and non-Judeo-Christian person to be pronouncing ANY opinion on Zionism or Israel!!!!

And perhaps this is what bothers me about the way reactions to Gilad Atzmon's book have been framed by his supporters. Yes, the Electronic Intifada has distanced themselves from the book and the author. We can debate the right and wrong of that...and don't get me wrong, I believe that there is a much needed debate to be had there.  However, what is unacceptable is the labelling of Electronic Intifada as somehow Zionist apologists or sympathizers by Atzmon's supporters, especially when those same supporters are well ensconced in positions of relative power in western countries (thus with relatively greater narrative/economic/political power than those they are critiquing and labelling).

The recent revelation of New York Police Department's records of spying on the city's Muslim communities shows the risks and pressures of taking ideological or political stances that oppose the mainstream US political agendas even by those of American citizenship and descent.  And let us make no mistake, even a less than overtly effusive support of Israel is seen as treason and terrorism in the much of western popular narrative. And yet these aspects have been overlooked by Atzmon's increasingly strident supporters. This makes their gratuitous accusations of collusion and/or collaboration aimed at Palestinian-Americans and Arab-Americans particularly sickening: they never need to pay the price of dissent as they enjoy every privilege conferred by race, ethnicity and religion.

The fact still remains that Palestinians and their non-white (and non-Judeo-Christian) supporters, walk a very fine line in western popular (and often the ever-shifting legal) spaces. They must prove their 'non-terrorist attitudes' (even if they are second and third generation citizens) even as many self-righteous western anti-Zionists insist that they take as radical and explicit (and as I have stated earlier, an oddly non-nuanced) stance as Gilad Atzmon. These are communities and people already suffering,  afraid and with good reasons, based on their characterisation as somehow anti-west and 'Islamist' simply for holding non-Zionist views. They already walk a very fine line in an rabidly pro-Israel environment that attempts, and mostly with great success, to smear and destroy any voice to contrary, while further running the risk of Islamophobic accusations. Yet I have watched, in the past few days, the sickening imperialist-tinged spectacle of the privileged western white Judeo-Christians men (and yes, on social media, these seem to primarily men) who support Atzmon insisting that these marginalised communities prove their anti-Zionism. Even more troubling is that the standard for anti-Zionism that is 'acceptable' to those demanding such evidence has been set not by the communities or people with personal stake in Palestine but by those who are collectively and historically aligned to the oppressive powers.  It is as if southern white Christian communities were to set  the standards of 'blackness' for African-Americans!

To be perfectly clear how the above is applied in the current situation: these strident Atzmon supporters insist that Palestinians/Arabs/Muslim/brown people live up to mythical ideological standards that they set for them. A sickening aspect here: Atzmon is seen as the prophetic voice who some how speaks for and about the Israel/Palestine situation. And yet his supporters replicate older colonialist ideals where the white man speaks for the native regardless of the native voice.

Furthermore, these avid Atzmon's supporters seem to ignore that the Palestinians (including Electronic Intifada and those who signed its letter) occupy a far more precarious space than most of those who insist they take certain stances. For Atzmon supporters who have secure privilege and safety in the West and risk very little (by dint of religion, race and ethnicity)  to insist that more at-risk communities match up to the standards they set is sick at the worst, and neo-imperialist at best.

Third, let us be clear about one thing: Palestine's liberation is NOT about the West's' guilt or ability or will. In the past five hundred years, western nations have inflicted enough damage around the world not only with various colonial enterprises but because of the very well-intentioned 'white man's burden.'  Whatever the result of the Palestinian struggle, let us be clear about one thing: the "west" shall have no or little say in the process or results.  The global balance of power has already begun shifting and the new wave of postcolonialist change has already hit much of the former excolonies; western military and politico-economic might is fading, and fast.  This means that 'allies' for the Palestinians need to know their place - our space is to support the ideas of freedom and equality till the best of our ability and extent of our ideology. We neither set the agenda for Palestinian freedom (that would be supremely paternalist!) nor do we set the standards for Palestinians to determine their means and ways of dissent!

Finally, it is NOT acceptable for an Israeli (former Zionist or not) OR indeed his European Palestine sympathizers to decide who is acceptably pro-Palestinian.  So by all means critique how Jewish anti-Zionists act (which Atzmon does) or how various western liberals behave, but it is not up to the former and current colonizers or those aligned institutionally as enablers (however personally dissenting) to determine the scope and range of Palestinian dissent, either in the territories or abroad.

Here I want to be clear: Atzmon writes about the Zionist project, its sympathizers and its proponents. His opinion adds to the debate, regardless of the stance one takes. However, when his supporters start to run down Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims or other historic stakeholders for their apparent Zionist sympathies, they cross an ideological/narratological/political line. I draw a parallel to another anti-colonial movement, the one in India: white Europeans were welcome to support our struggle; however at no time were they the leaders of our struggle and they did not decide the steps or goals of the movement.  Regardless of their participation, the independence struggle was ours alone! The same rule stands for Palestine: there may be allies all over the globe (including in other parts of Middle East and North Africa) but these are not the same as the actual stakeholders.

Here it is also worth reminding many of Atzmon supporters who have been taking an increasingly colonialist attitude even as they profess otherwise: an ally - especially when a dissident member of the oppressor - is NOT one of the oppressed. Regardless of the passion and intensity they may feel for the colonized, they speak from a position of privilege unavailable to the oppressed. This also means they have no right or space to stand in judgement to the many varieties of dissidence regarding Palestine amongst the stakeholders. Just as an Englishman had no right to determine who the Indian 'nationalists' were during the Independence struggle, no European 'pro-Palestinian' has the right to speak for Palestine.

How does this translate to the social media kerkuffle? Well here is a note to Atzmon's supporters (and others who profess to be anti-Zionists or pro-Palestinians): By all means support anti-Zionists and be anti-Zionism, but not at the cost of demeaning Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians in the 'west' who risk a hell of a lot more for a simple act of dissent than you - with your historic privileges - can ever imagine. Most importantly, recognise that you are in no position to impose your 'standards' of dissent on Palestinians, either at home or abroad (this means it is not your call how political groups even those made up of second and third generation Arab or Palestinians in the 'west' choose to follow their struggle).

If Atzmon supporters can't manage this tiny and basic act of anti-imperialist solidarity, I am afraid he would have failed in his apparent mission that he so passionately argued in his book. 


  1. It's very interesting that you have broached this topic. I've begun to question the U.S.'s relationship with Israel and have generally become annoyed with American scare tactics, giving people and ideas negative labels when they don't conform to the ideas presented by the higher ups.

  2. Thanks for the comment. And agree about the scare tactics...very damaging

  3. Those who pointed out early on that Atzmon's politics use antisemitism to whitewash colonialism and decomplexify racism, unlike you, are not surprised by the outpouring of "colonial attitudes" from his supporters (and you forgot, from the man himself, whose racist attack on As'ad Abukhalil you forgot to quote).

    This is what Atzmon has always advocated, burying the radical critique of colonialism and replacing it with antisemitism.

    But don't get wrong. I appreciate your post. It's not nice to say to people, "we told you so". But some of us did.

  4. Evildoer,
    It appears that you have not actually read my post. The "I told you so" is not only misguided but also premature.

    I still do not find Atzmon's writings anti-Semitic or racist although I also do not agree with many of his views.

    Also as a fellow writer, I am quite aware that Atzmon is not to be blamed for what his supporters and fans do.

    However, just as the complexities of my review of his book and my stance that he has the right to express his views were shouted down by Zionist radicals, my critique of the unthinking condescension by his supporters is being shouted down by his fans. The funny part: the two (the Zionists and the anti-Zionists) are both mirror images of each other and perhaps, just for that, deserve each other fully.

  5. Sunny,

    I did not blame Atzmon for his supporters' actions. I pointed out that the substantive critique of his writing that you do not share EXPLAINS well how his supporters behaved (and how he himself did, which you consistently ignored). Whereas your reading doesn't explain it and thus you were surprised. Explanatory power is not proof, but it is food for thought. Nibble when you feel peckish.

    I am anti-Zionist, and I don't remember shouting you down or having any conversation with you about your review. Nor did I, or anyone else on my side of politics AFAIK, deny Atzmon's right to speak. We'd rather however not associate with him. This is called "freedom of association," which is protected in the same article of US constitution as "freedom of speech" and equally deserving of your defense.

    As for the mirror point, again, quite a few anti-Zionists have pointed out that Atzmon accepts uncritically the major philosophical premises of Zionism (which are also those of antisemitism). so indeed, I think the mirror effect between him and his supporters and zionists goes deeper than both being shrill towards you.

    But for the record, I condemn all those who "shouted you down," now and then.

  6. First of all, thank you for engaging politely. After the abuse and threats I got from Zionists for reading his book (and then reviewing it) a few months ago and the abuse yesterday from fans about this post, I am actually surprised to find anyone who is willing and able to engage without getting abusive.

    First, you are assuming that I am surprised. I am not. I have written about the hypocrisy and bias of western liberals before, especially regarding the former colonies. I am however irritated by self-professed anti-Zionists who think it is all right to label instead of debate, thus mirroring the same smearing tactics used by those they condemn for being Zionists.

    As far as Atzmon is concerned: I read him, I agree with some of his ideas and disagree with many. That is how I take on ALL readings. I wrote a response to the book first and now to the hysteria of some of his fans. I am neither interested in defending him nor labelling him. Moreover he needs neither my support nor opprobrium.

    Once again, I can only suggest that you read my post. It addresses far bigger issues than a personal one about one writer or indeed his fans. I am saddened that those are being overlooked (even by you).


  7. I am happy to leave Atzmon aside. I agree with what you say about a hyper-masculine anti-Zionism that in some cases is being demanded from Palestinians. And I understand and agree with the need of people with privileges to recognize the higher risks and different constraints under which oppressed people must formulate and carry out their liberation struggle. That should be obvious and constantly repeated as it is fundamental to any possibility of solidarity.

    But I think you are being somewhat reductive when you stop there. First, even in order for people with privilege to grasp what you are saying, they need first to agree to listen, since they (we, since I should include myself) cannot discover these truths by mere introspection. The obligation to listen, and listen again, and again (which is not the same thing as to follow ) therefore precedes the obligation to respect the autonomy and special constraints of those you call “the stakeholders.”

    When you tell Atzmon’s supporters that Palestinians cannot often be as outspoken as they are (which is true) AND STOP THERE, the upshot is that they don’t need to listen, because you imply that the position they hear Palestinians take publicly is merely a toned down version of what they themselves already believe to be “the truth.”

    The insistence on listening to dominated groups is rooted in a tradition of radical thought inspired and elaborated by members of dominated groups, women, workers, oppressed sexual orientations, racialized and persecuted minorities, etc., from which come the recognition that it is from within the perspective of these groups that the clearest, most visionary and far reaching articulation of justice and liberty have been and continue to be produced. So when you criticized the people who responded condescendingly to the Palestinian demand to disavow Atzmon’s shock jockery, I think it is important to note that the fault of the condescending interpretation of that demand as “cowardice,” “compromise”, “collaboration”, etc., goes beyond failure to take into account different constraints or respecting the autonomy of the struggle. It is a refusal to listen and to question their own ideas of what liberty and liberation means. It seems to me that imagining liberation as the freedom to say shit is the product of a spoiled consciousness. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

  8. Hallo Evildoer:
    Intrigued that you think I am being reductive or that recognition of what the oppressed face can be achieved by "mere introspection." On the contrary, the post points out the fact that the failure of anti-Zionists.

    My post is VERY clear that the only people who can make the decisions are the stakeholders and whatever allies may think, their's is not the role or the choice. I don't believe we are in disagreement there.

    Indeed instead of stopping at pointing out that this is not the role of solidarity, I make the point that frankly there will soon be even less role for western allies in the issue. The shift in global power is apparent and what western liberals, or indeed entire nations, want is becoming more irrelevant each day. That is something that western anti-Zionists refuse to acknowledge or even recognise. While that feeds their condescension, it also increases the risk that when changes are achieved, their "solidarity" will be more critiqued and refused. And that day isn't very far away at all.