Friday, September 30, 2011

Gilad Atzmon's The Wandering Who: Incisive, Provocative and Sometimes Dangerous to Read

Reading is such a personal exercise that the slightest variance can utterly transform the experience and meaning of a book. Remember the affection you hold that mediocre paperback? All because you read it in the golden haze of a summer romance. Or the brilliant, luminous award winner that turns your stomach simply because you read it while nursing a broken heart? I had a strange twist on these normal reading experiences last week. Gilad Atzmon's new book, shall be forever imprinted in my mind as a dangerous one to read!

I tweeted as I began reading The Wandering Who: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics and within hours found myself neck-deep, not in the book itself (I had barely made it to page twenty), but in a maelstrom of utter madness: hateful e-mails, bizarre comments on my blog, fringe Zionist blogs that hurled accusations that I was the newest avatar of the West's contemporary unholy trinity: an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathizer, and a Holocaust denier. Mind you, all this for saying not whether I liked or agreed with the book but simply because I was reading it. So right at the outset, you have been warned: read the book at your own risk!

As for me, while I read the book, I found myself growing more baffled by the smear campaign both against me (in a very tiny comparative measure) and against Atzmon. The book is certainly provocative, but it doesn't warrant being called anti-Semitic; it is certainly written by a curious, questioning mind, but nothing suggests Holocaust denial; it is definitely critical of Israel's polity and policies, but that hardly merits being smeared as Nazi. In fact, the book is an extensive, thoughtful, informed study of Zionism and the politically charged narratives around, by and for Israel, and their often troublesome, even painful consequences for many Jews. (Note: Atzmon differentiates quite clearly between those who follow Judaism as a religion, are affiliated to it by birth, and those who follow a politico-religious version of the same).

The book begins on a particularly poignant note: the first moment of recognition by the writer of his own belonging to the larger world (brought on by his discovery of jazz), a moment that ruptures the tribal isolation of his upbringing in Israel, and provides initial links and closer affinities with those not of his 'blood tribe' but of a community of intellect, passions and affections. This initial moment is a familiar one: similar explorations of individual and collective identities have been undertaken by many, from varied ethnic, religious, racial, sexual backgrounds. Replace the term Jew/Jewish in the account with another minority group and the book would hardly merit a raised eyebrow.

However, for Atzmon, this initial questioning itself is fraught: Atzmon finds himself in the first Lebanon war, as part of the Israeli military apparatus, and not only questioning but ashamed of his 'blood tribe.' At an Israeli prison camp, he looks at the prisoners, and recognises acute parallels with Nazi concentration camps where his family perished. It is a painful and honest (and brave) moment in the book when Atzmon realises that he is on the wrong side of the fence: in Lebanon, he is the guard, the oppressor, the war criminal, and in a moment a terrible honesty, no different from a Nazi.

From this initial discovery, Atzmon sets off on a personal journey of redemption and it is this long quest that is recorded in this book, complete with its myriad questions, flashes of insights, painful recognition of truths only half-veiled and even less understood. In many ways, and this is both a strength and weakness of the book, this journey is recorded in its full rawness, shorn of polish, literary flourishes, disclaimers and caveats. The raw despair and anger bring passion to the prose which is any writer's greatest strength; at the same time, that very passionate, provocative writing makes it easy for smear campaigners (who never actually read what they attack) to attack the writer. Moreover, at times the hot language obstructs the many valuable arguments Atzmon mounts.

Reading the book, I was consistently reminded of the ways in which 19th century European nationalism impacted the rise of political Islam, in ways not so dissimilar from the construction of Zionist ideology and narratives. Both rely on a combination of persistent victimhood and an aggressive secularised self-assertion (not God but the believer shall resolve all trouble); they also see their own collective selves as constantly under threat and the 'other' as nothing more than the enemy. The narcissism of minor differences indeed!

At many points in the book, I was left thinking of Pakistan, the other religion-based nation-state created around the same time as Israel, which, even after six decades, still struggles with a fragmented sense of self, with an national identity based only on its opposition to others.  Focussing on Israel, although the reasoning is equally apt for many other collectives and individuals, Atzmon ably points out the dangers posed by an exclusivist, mono-faceted identity - collective or individual - as well as its horrendous costs.

Atzmon's most provocative sections are those where he addresses the ways in which the dominant Zionist narrative mobilises governments, institutions and individuals in nations beyond Israel. Furthering Mearsheimer and Walt's study of the Israel lobby, Atzmon links popular Zionist idolisation of Hebraic myths of the Book of Esther to specific Zionist economic and political motivations, actions and consequences, and marshalls much historical and current evidence of the "sayanim" or Jews living in exile/diaspora who act for Israel even while professing loyalty to the nation he/she inhabits. (Again this final point is not so different from Islamophobic accusations hurled at Muslims minorities).

Although Atzmon makes a far reaching argument, it is also at this point that he overstates his case, falling into the same Judeo-centric trap he critiques at so many other points in the book. While he argues that Jews are not merely passive victims of history, but also exercise significant agency (in the past and now), here he reduces the "goyim" to the hapless victims of a Jewish/Israeli lobby, thus undermining a powerful case against an organised Zionist lobbying apparatus in the power circles of many western nation-states.

Others have described this book as provocative and insightful, and a useful for read for both Jews and non-Jews. It is all these indeed! But it is also a book that leaves one with more questions than answers, with much to think about, and many faint glimmers of questions to come. Ideally it is the first of many books to explore the topic.

Finally, it must also be noted that in content and style, this is also a quintessentially Israeli book, living up fully to the Israel-created stereotype of the abrasive, brash, arrogant, sabra who uses a hammer to kill a fly. Perhaps Atzmon could have made his case in a more circumspect manner, perhaps even employed gentler language. Perhaps then he - and his readers - would not incite such hysterical aggression and smears. Then again, sometimes a brash, abrasive provocateur is what is required as a catalyst for genuine debate. And this provocative, brash, insightful book is definitely that!