Narrative Is Open to All

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.

– Baruch Spinoza

Daniel Cohen (fictitious name) is deeply admired by many. He is a humanist, an anti Zionist and he is also a man of great integrity. A week ago, Daniel decided to challenge my views, and launched a courageous debate. Being a gracious man, he might have hoped to open my eyes to some ‘categorical mistakes’ he believed I was making. For my part, I was very open to his criticism and engaged in the dialogue.

Daniel was not happy with the way the exchange has evolved. Though he circulated his comments and my interventions to his close Jewish friends, he made it clear that he wanted to stop the exchange at a certain stage. Daniel was very angry with me. He also made it clear that he did not want me to publish the exchange of views. As I always do in such cases, I suggested that together, we should edit the debate, but he refused. Respecting Daniel’s request for anonymity, I have now re-edited the text myself, concealing Daniel’s real name, removing all sections and biographical references that could reveal Daniel’s identity. Occasionally, I have re-phrased Daniel’s comments for purpose of continuity and clarity, but I have faithfully retained his meaning.*

Unlike Daniel, I believe that issues to do with Jewish history and Jewish ideology must be discussed openly and without fear.

Questions You Should Never Raise

Daniel Cohen: Dear Gilad, we certainly share many ideas and thoughts. We both oppose Zionism and Israeli policies, however, rather, too often, you fail to be careful enough with your formulations, and this gives room for some misunderstandings. You seem to challenge some issues to do with the Holocaust, and history in general. It seems to me as if, often enough, you raise questions to which various sufficient answers already exist.

Gilad Atzmon: I can already tell you, at this stage, that I have a slight problem with your approach. To start with, as a philosopher, I am far more interested in the art of asking questions. I leave the ‘answers’ to politicians. Moreover, the relationship between questions and answers is paradigmatically oriented. A sufficient ‘answer’ within one paradigm (or discourse) may as well be totally inadequate or irrelevant within another -a certain ‘answer’ within Aristotelian physics may well be within the realm of the inexpressible within a ‘Newtonian’ paradigm.

DC: If you ask, for instance, why were the Jews repeatedly hated in so many places along their history, as you do in some of your texts, you create room for anti-Semites who may say it is because they are intrinsically evil.

GA: To start with, as a thinking being full of curiosity, I do not take instructions from anti Semites or Zionists or Jewish anti Zionist campaigners. I instead follow my instincts and go along with my sincere ethically driven truth-seeking adventure. Also, I believe that the answer you attributed to anti Semites can be easily addressed. Jews cannot be ‘intrinsically evil’ because Jews do not form a racial or ethnic continuum. Any racial attribution to Jews is clearly wrong and silly.

DC: I actually do not agree with your approach. The appropriate answer to the above question is that in the Middle Ages Jews were barred from many professions except money trade and peddling, two professions which could easily arouse disdain and hate.

GA: Dear Daniel, with all due respect, such an answer is far from being sufficient. In Europe at least, Jews have been emancipated since the French Revolution. By the end of the 19th century most European Jews enjoyed equal rights. And yet, something went horribly wrong in the 1920s-30’s. Our duty then, is to understand, what was it? Why did it happen? Why do Jews encounter resentment all too often and in many different places?

I don’t know whether you are aware of it, but the reasoning you suggest here is very similar to the Early Zionist mantra. Borchov and Katznelson were also convinced that Diaspora conditions were responsible for ‘Jewish deformed cultural identity’. They believed that on a land of their own, Jews would be able to re-invent themselves and become ‘people like other peoples’.

As you and I agree, Zionism is a complete disaster. The Jews are hated in the Middle East. And as Shahid Alam suggests, Zionism did not really solve the Jewish question; it only re-located it in a new place (Zion).

The answer to the question is actually very simple; as long as Jews operate politically, culturally and socially within exclusive racially oriented cells, be it Israel, Zionism, Jewish ‘anti’ Zionist networks or even ‘Jews only’ football clubs , they will encounter problems.

But let us go back to issues of whether some ‘questions that should never be raised’. For me, to be in the world is to live through changes, to allow meaning to be in flux and to let ourselves be transformed accordingly. I could never accept the Idea that some questions have sufficient and firm answers. In fact, I oppose any form of dogmatism.

DC: But, in your text ‘Truth, History & Integrity’ you go as far as asking “why Auschwitz’s (Jewish) prisoners didn’t wait for the Red Army ?” Do you think that this is an appropriate question to ask?

GA: Sorry Daniel. I have to stop you there, I believe that in order to address this quote, I must first re-locate my words in the right order, and within the appropriate context. In my paper ‘Truth, History & Integrity,’ I quote Israeli Holocaust historian Israel Gutman, who suggests that Auschwitz prisoners (or at least some of them) joined the Death March voluntarily (“I then decided to join [the march] with all the other inmates and to share their fate”).1 Following Gutman’s quote, I then presented the following inference:

“If the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war? Why didn’t the Jews wait for their Red liberators?”

What we see above is a clear inference (rather than a mere question). It seems to me that it is there to suggest that further research is needed. As opposed to the historian who searches for a narrative, as a philosopher, I am there to question what the word ‘narrative’ actually stands for, or in Kantian terms — what are the conditions of the possibility of a historical narrative. In my relevant paper, I do not attempt to provide an answer — I am not an historian. My primary issue is concerned with the freedom to wander/wonder, and to raise possible dilemmas without being terrorised by the ‘Holocaust censorship police’ or any other form of thought dictatorship.

DC: But, can’t you see that with such a manner of behaviour you provide Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites with ammunition? They can so easily misuse your words.

GA: Dear Daniel, I do understand your concern, but with all due respect, I have been writing for some years now, and, as far as I am aware, anti-Semites or Holocaust deniers do not seem to misuse my words. I have been quoted by some so-called anti Semites, some of whom liked me, whilst others hated me, but they appear to quote my ideas within context and seem to be faithful to the original meaning and intention of my writing.

But — let me tell you, I have seen many Zionists and ‘anti’ Zionists systematically misquoting me, misrepresenting me, forging my statements, and taking my words out of context, all willfully done to create the most awful impression of my work.

DC: But let’s return to your earlier statement — can’t you see that the inference you are making here is that Auschwitz was not a death factory, which to me, comes near to denial.

GA: No, I do not agree with such an interpretation of my words. In my article, you will notice that I refrain from suggesting any answer. I would argue instead that raising the right questions is far more important than repeating the ‘right’ answers. The same applies to the 911 Truth Movement. Whether someone manages to come up with the right explanation of this peculiar chain of events is one issue, the fact that so many people suspect and challenge the official narrative is clearly a revelation or at least very positive sign. Furthermore, I also find the notion of ‘denial’ rather problematic. Instead of denial, I would prefer to emphasise the fundamental and ethically grounded right to revise, re-visit and re-view. I believe that to be tolerant is to agree not to agree, and also to respect others when we don’t agree.

Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness

DC: I want to say that I am also troubled with your attitude towards Judaism and Jewish religion.

GA: Actually, you will notice when you read my work that I tend to avoid dealing with the Judaism (the religion), and I also avoid discussing Jewish people as an ethnic or racial group — instead, I prefer to elaborate on ‘Jewishness’, Jewish ideology and Jewish political identity.

DC: But for me, there is no such a thing as ‘Jewishness’ — there is only Zionist Ideology. I do not accept at all the notion of Jewish ideology or Jewish political identity. I am only willing to deal with the Zionist political identity.

GA: I am absolutely fine with that – I am familiar with, and respect your views, which are common amongst Jewish anti Zionists. Unfortunately, my way of ‘perceiving the universe’ is somewhat more complex and I am far from being proud of what I see. It seems to me that you are missing a crucial aspect of the whole debate – You do not seem to realise that Zionism is just part of the problem. The notion of Zionism no longer actually means very much to Israelis anymore. Hence it falls short of explaining Israeli collective barbarism. Once Israel was founded, the Zionist dream had fulfilled itself. Zionism is now largely a Jewish Diaspora discourse, and therefore, falls short of explaining Israeli politics and Israeli brutality in particular.

Israel defines itself as the ‘Jewish State’, and it drops bombs on innocent civilians from airplanes that are clearly and unambiguously decorated with Jewish symbols. Israel commits horrendous crimes—‘in the name of the

Jewish people’. In ‘my universe’ then, I am more than entitled to ask what Jewishness stands for, and I repeat, that Zionism is just one manifestation of Jewishness.

The next stage is surely to define what Jewishness is all about.

I say again, that in my writing I differentiate between ‘Jews’ –the people, Judaism–the religion, and Jewishness the ideology. I avoid the first two categories almost entirely, and I focus on Jewish ideology. I admit that such an approach issue can lead occasionally to some misinterpretations – but as far as I am able, I do try to be clear about it, as much as I can.

I do not consider the Jews to be a race, and yet it is obvious that ‘Jewishness’ clearly involves an ethno centric and racially supremacist, exclusivist point of view that is based on a sense of Jewish ‘chosen-ness’. Zionism too, is a clear manifestation of such an ideology. But, tragically enough, the Jewish Left happens to be of a very similar tendency. Like Zionists, the Jewish Left are also interested in notions of being ‘racially’ or ethnically exclusive. For instance, Hamed from Gaza would not be able to settle in Tel Aviv — but surprisingly enough, he may also find it very problematic to join IJV (independent Jewish voice) or ‘Jews for peace in Palestine’.

DC: But you have to bear in mind that in sharp contrast with the multifaceted religion of Judaism, Zionism is completely monolithic in that it can be defined as having just one single goal: maximum surface in Palestine (for the Jews) with the minimum number of Palestinians on it.

GA: I am sorry but here again, I find myself in a slight disagreement with you. Zionism and political Zionism are dynamic movements, and subject to constant metamorphic changes. They change their goal all the time. It is even very difficult to define what is the ‘exact’ role of Zionism after Israel has been founded. I think that your definition of Zionism is basically a very good description of Israeli policy (“maximum of surface in Palestine with the minimum number of Palestinians on it”). However, and I re-emphasise, Zionism should now be considered to be largely a Diaspora discourse. It means very little if anything at all to the Israelis.

Zionists cannot even decide whether they want to schlep world Jewry to Zion, or to leave them in the Galut (Diaspora) so they can campaign for Israel forever.

DC: But wouldn’t you agree that Zionism is chauvinistic, racist, expansionist and colonialist? It is imperative to be very careful in distinguishing between the words Judaism and Zionism.

GA: I largely agree with the above. However, in my work I never tie the two together. Yet, I do allow myself to argue that if Israel defines itself as the ‘Jewish State’ we must surely be entitled to wonder what Jewishness stands for.

Holocaust religion vs. Judaism

DC: Gilad, you write about Holocaust religion. Yet again, in very sharp contrast to Holocaust religion, Judaism has taught the world how to differ in opinion and how to debate. Judaism is non-dogmatic and since the destruction of the second Temple everyone over 13 years of age is entitled to take part in debate and discussion, provided he has good arguments.

GA: I am not so sure that I agree with you here. In theory you may be right, that on the face of it, the Talmud is indeed part of an open debate and a search for conclusive and rational ruling. However, there is another aspect to Rabbinical thinking, and that is the notion of Herem (ex-communication) to give just one example. Rabbinical Judaism is very dogmatic and extremely intolerant towards dissidence. The cases of Spinoza ex communication and the brutality towards Uriel Da Costa seem to be to be crucial for an understanding of Judaism. I want to remind you that Israeli PM Rabin was assassinated following a Halacha ruling (Din Rodef).

DC: However, Holocaust religion is the opposite. It is very dogmatic and forbids practically any discussion.

GA: I obviously agree with you here, but given your opinion here, then I would expect you to support me asking all those earlier questions that to me, appear to be totally legitimate.

DC: But surely you agree that you cannot debate with people who deny the Holocaust as a historical fact. And why should one raise questions where answers are already known to all?

GA: Dear Daniel, I would prefer to engage in a preliminary discussion here. I think we should be careful in the way we use the word ‘fact’. A given Historical chapter is not solely a fact but a narrative composed of many ingredients such as: facts, personal testimonies, prose, culture, emotional contents and so on. The narrative is the mortar that bonds all the different ingredients by means of reasoning. It allocates events with meaning and direction. This applies to the Napoleonic wars as much as it does to the Holocaust, or indeed, any other historical chapter. The Holocaust should not be regarded solely as a rigid set of ‘facts’ but rather as a very complicated historical narrative, a compound of very many things including facts (of course). I believe that once we allow the Holocaust to be treated as a historical narrative rather than a religion or a ‘fact’, none of us would be under the impression that every doubt may endanger the entire historical narrative or even our existence.2 For me, openness and integrity when we study historical events is far more important than any ideology or a given party line.

DC: I could not disagree more. History is indeed very complex but past historical research has given us quite a good picture and understanding of what actually happened in Europe between 1933-1945.

GA: Daniel, you are a very educated man, would you allow yourself to say the same thing about science? Would you dare saying “Chemistry has given us quite a good picture of what is happening in the world, so we may put an end to our research right here”? I don’t think so. And this is where integrity comes into the picture.

DC: But , surely you see that to reduce the Holocaust into a narrative or even a number of narratives is a personal insult to every Jew.

GA: OK I can see where is the problem here. In fact, I do not ‘reduce the holocaust into a narrative’, because every historical chapter is a narrative. The Nakba is a narrative, Zionism is a narrative, and the Napoleonic Wars is a narrative. Narrative is not a secondary quality. Narrative is the attempt to string (factual) events into a story with a direction and reason. The narrative furnishes the fact with sense. The Narrative is actually a dynamic notion. It allows us to shape and revise our vision of the past as we proceed in time. The Nakba, for instance, was hardly discussed in Western media until recently. Do you know why? Because we are now understanding the 1948 Zionist crime through our current notion of Israeli brutality. This is the true meaning of historical thinking; we move forward and backward. This is the deep meaning of the narrative and this is also the meaning of temporality-‘to be in time’. We are subject to constant changes.

The past becomes a meaningful event once it reflects on our present and future. The past becomes a vivid form of knowledge when it conveys a prospect of a better future, when it becomes as elastic as the now and ‘things to come’. In order to achieve such a goal we must allow ourselves to visit, re-visit and re-vise our visions of the past as we move along forward towards the unknown (future).

For me the meaning of temporality is the free bouncing between past and future, between the memory and the unknown. Any attempt to seal a chapter in our past, is for me, an attempt against humanity. I will never support such an approach and I understand that this is enough to make me a hate figure in the Jewish world. I can take it.

DC: I am very displeased with the result of our discussion. It has led nowhere, and I am saddened by it.

GA: I think that I understand your frustration. However, unlike you, I actually think that this was an amazing discussion especially because we do not agree. I myself have learned a lot.

  1. “One of my friends and relatives in the camp came to me on the night of the evacuation and offered a common hiding place somewhere on the way from the camp to the factory. The intention was to leave the camp with one of the convoys and to escape near the gate, using the darkness we thought to go a little far from the camp. The temptation was very strong. And yet, after I considered it all I then decided to join (the march) with all the other inmates and to share their fate.” (Israel Gutman (editor), People and Ashes, Auschwitz — Birkenau, Merhavia 1957).” []
  2. Many of those who identify themselves politically as Jews happen to believe that any doubt concerning the Jewish historical narrative is nothing less than questioning Jews’ ‘right to exist.’ []

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached at: atz@onetel.net.uk. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.