November 26, 2011

Commentary on the “Philosophical Thinking” of Gilad Atzmon

This article is not about Atzmon’s antisemitism, which has been discussed elsewhere [1]. However, Atzmon recently deemed David Landy, who writes here at JSF, alien to “philosophical thinking,” and “unable to grasp… metaphysical depth.”[2] As Atzmon knows, we Jews are tribal. No sooner did I read it than an effervescence of “clannish solidarity” percolated through my veins like echoes of far away drums. I therefore set myself the task of discovering the essence of Atzmon’s fabled “philosophical thinking,” and perused his recent offering, The Wandering Who, blunderingly published by Zero Books.[3] Yet this is no traditional book review. Space and time constraints limit me to commenting a single chapter. I chose chapter nine, which mostly levels unproblematic accusations against Israel. As the commentary is longer than the chapter reviewed, I hope that by the end of it the reader understands why a serious review of the full book is not likely. Unless Zero Books decide to publish an annotated edition.

Atzmon in his own words

What Zionists think of themselves is not very interesting; far more intriguing is the duality referred to above, the chasm between who they think they are and what they actually are, between self-image and public image, consciousness and unconsciousness. Unconsciousness, says Lacan, is the ‘discourse of the other’, which is very much the male fear of impotence. Rather than the anxiety induced by the fear of being caught malfunctioning, it is the fear of being known as dysfunctional. The real terror here is the unbearable threat that the fiasco may become public knowledge.

At the time of the 2006 Lebanon war, the Israelis’ ‘discourse of the other’ encompassed CNN, Sky TV, BBC and the West in general. As the war proceeded, it began to appear as though resentment was mounting amongst those who were no longer willing to accept Israeli brutality. Indeed, this gulf between the confident Israeli self-image and the total contempt of the other is exactly where the neurosis of Yehoshua, Oz, Grossman and the majority of Israelis came into play.

Two and half years after its military flop in Lebanon, Israel found itself once again in the midst of a second disastrous war that it had launched.This was Operation Cast Lead (2008), a total war against the people of Gaza and their democratically-elected leadership, Hamas. Along the campaign,Israel attempted to implement the lesson of the 2006 war. I think, probably optimistically, that by then, somebody at the state hasbara bureau must have read Lacan. The Israelis would try to save themselves from fully grasping who they are and what they do by blocking out every possible mirror.Consequently the IDF barred all foreign media from entering Gaza, in order to guarantee a propaganda success. It wasn’t just about barring Goyim from entering the battle zone, but about preventing Israelis and Zionist Jews around the world from seeing themselves through the gaze of the Goyim. It was a crude attempt to divert the discourse so that Jewish unconsciousness was kept intact.
Atzmon follows with analyzing a detail from a Coen Brothers film, alleging that the key character, a Jewish American physics professor by the name of Larry, sheds light on the same issue.
In the dream, Larry is confronted with his guilt through his Goy neighbour. Rather than the fear of being unethical, it is the fear of being caught out as unethical that torments Larry. It is the ‘discourse of the other’ (the gun-toting neighbour) that introduces Larry unconsciously to a sense of guilt. I link this back to the case of Israel: it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being ‘caught out’ as such.
Atzmon concludes:
The Coens’ Jewish tribal cinematic reality is the Jewish unconscious, of which Jews are far from being proud. Like Al-Jazeera and Press TV in Gaza, the Coens reveal Jewish ghetto malaise to an audience of millions. But they also tackle the notion of Jewish unconsciousness by the means of mirroring.

The Argument

Let’s outline the argument. The chapter introduces three pieces in evidence:
  1. the gap between the self-image of Israelis and what was seen on TV during the 2006 Labanon invasion,
  2. the gap between the self-image of Israelis and what was seen on TV during operation Cast Lead,
  3. the gap between the self-image of Larry as a good man, a fictional American Jew, and the truth.
In each case, the gap produces a strong reaction:
  1. the alleged neurosis of Israeli authors (undocumented, we see nowhere evidence or definition of the neurosis),
  2. the barring of foreign journalists from covering operation Cast Lead in Gaza,
  3. Larry being tormented by his neighbor’s contempt.
The evidence reveals a pattern, a gap between self image and public image, which produces a psychological symptom which fits, according to Atzmon, Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory. Applying Lacan’s theory to the evidence therefore helps identify the “Jewish Ghetto Malaise” and the “‘Jewish ghetto’ mindset”, which explains the evidence and therefore Israel’s behavior.

What is wrong with this argument? Pretty much everything, as I will enumerate.

A Chamber Pot Called ‘Lacan’

Lacan does not use the terms ‘unconsciousness’ and ‘consciousness’ Atzmon attributes him. He uses ‘the unconscious’ and ‘the subject.’ Since the unconscious is Freud’s (and Lacan’s) central theoretical concept, mangling it is the equivalent of referring to Einstein’s “theory of relatives,” or the centrality of “classic struggle” in Marxism. It is a sophomoric term paper blooper of the kind that teaching assistants love to share.[4] Atzmon claims he studied philosophy in graduate school. Perhaps he fell prey to one of those internet scams.

Nor did Lacan say that unconsciousness is “the discourse of the other.” He said that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other.” Capitalization is important, since ‘Other’ and ‘other’ are in fact opposing concepts for Lacan. The other (uncapitalized) is the object of desire and stands in an imaginary relation with the ego. This fundamentally narcissistic relation is that which Lacan identifies in the act of gazing at oneself in the mirror. The narcissistic relation interrupts the other relation, that between the subject and the Other. The Other (capitalized) is the symbolic order, language and the primary law of signification and desire, which constitutes the subject and is inaccessible to it. Atzmon attributes to Lacan almost the precise opposite of Lacan’s concept of the unconscious. ( la lettre volée )[5]

Therefore, the Lacanian telegram, “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other” refers to the unconscious as that which is both at the core of subjectivity and related to as alien and inaccessible to it, being the external and constitutive symbolic order of language. By no stretch of interpretation can it mean ‘what CNN and Press TV say about me that I don’t know’, which is how Atzmon uses the term ‘unconsciousness.’ Whereas the mirror provides Lacan with the paradigmatic model of imaginary, narcissistic identification, Atzmon uses the image in the mirror and on the TV screen as synonyms with the truth.

Put simply, Atzmon’s alleged theoretical apparatus does not exist.

Distinctions without a Difference

Rather than the anxiety induced by the fear of being caught malfunctioning, it is the fear of being known as dysfunctional.
The syntactic form ‘Rather than A, B’ presupposes a meaningful difference between A and B. Putting aside that I don’t know what “anxiety induced by fear” means, let alone how it differs from fear, what is the difference between the two legs of this construction? Although the muddy prose does not help, it could be that Atzmon distinguishes between the fear of failure in the act (performance anxiety) and the fear of stigma (being known). How does this distinction affect his argument?

If ‘it’ in the above quote refers back to “the male fear of impotence,” which is, we are told, “pretty much” the definition of unconsciousness (according to ‘Lacan’, though certainly not according to Lacan), then Atzmon argues that the male fear of impotence is not performance anxiety but rather the fear of stigma. That would be a questionable assertion, both because these two fears are intertwined—one fears failing at least partially because of the projected stigma—and because I suspect most men would rather not be impotent even when there is nobody around to know it.

Alternatively, ‘it’ could be a forward reference to “the real terror here”, which apparently refers to Israel’s symptom. In that case, the expression “rather than” distinguishes between “the male fear of impotence” and Israel’s symptom, thus arguing that Israel’s symptom is different from unconsciousness. This would invalidate the whole argument which is based on the application of that term to Israelis.

Differences without a Distinction

Since there is allegedly a single ghetto mindset, the three facts in evidence for this mindset should reveal the same psychological pattern. They don’t.
  1. The real terror here is the unbearable threat that the fiasco may become public knowledge.
  2. The Israelis would try to save themselves from fully grasping who they are and what they do by blocking out every possible mirror
  3. Rather than the fear of being unethical, it is the fear of being caught out as unethical that torments Larry.
One can either be in denial about one’s crimes or blasé about them. One cannot be both. If one experiences guilt when caught, that is to the extent that the transgressed value has been internalized. If Israelis tried to avoid fully grasping what they have done (as Atzmon claims they did in Gaza), they could have only done so to the extent that they cared about the ethical implications of their deeds, not only about being caught (as Atzmon claims about Larry’s condition). If, on the other hand, they only wanted to avoid the repercussions of being exposed, they would have no reason to hide their behavior from themselves. The second and third patterns are not merely different psychological states, but mutually exclusive ones.

The first pattern is yet again different. Not revealing that one is an alcoholic is not the same as not revealing that one is a child abuser. Covering up a weakness so as to appear strong is not the same as covering up a crime so as to appear innocent.

In theory, different patterns can have an underlying unity, but they don’t have to, and they most likely don’t have one when they are mutually exclusive. Anyway, underlying unity needs to be shown. But there is no evidence that Atzmon is aware that his examples do not add up.

On The Interpretation of Films

Another example of Atzmon’s ‘Lacan’ at work is his cockamamie interpretation of Larry’s dream in the Coen brothers’ film, A Serious Man.
It is the ‘discourse of the other’ (the gun-toting neighbour) that introduces Larry unconsciously to a sense of guilt.
On the contrary. The dream's gun toting neighbor is not the Other. He is just a neighbor, namely, an other who provides a narcissistic reflection to the ego. One of the film’s main themes is the difference between experience (close to the Lacanian Imaginary), the realm of sense and visibility beneath which is glimpsed the Real, the realm of trauma and events, (the tornado, the disease, the car accident), and the Symbolic, the network of signification, religion, community, tradition, which governs the web of stories and interpretations that allows a person to make sense of the event, to survive, overcome, anchor oneself and relate to experience. We see that theme at the very beginning in the “Hassidic tale,” in which the husband (simple experience, sensible reality, the Imaginary) meets a helpful stranger (the Real) and invites him over to dinner, whereas the wife (tradition, knowledge, community, the Symbolic) possesses the communal knowledge that the man is dead, and therefore, deconstructing the image, interprets the event as a curse and the visitor as a dybuk. The same theme is introduced through the difference in quantum mechanics, between the stories “that help make sense of it”, such as the story of Schrödinger’s cat, and “how it really works”, the mystery that the incomprehensible mathematical formulae seek to represent.

The dream, as Freud notes, is a wish fulfillment fantasy, but the wish is not the manifest content. Larry’s desire, as the whole film reiterates constantly, is for the Other, for answers, for God, for meaning. But the truth of this desire is questioned. Does he really want answers, or does he want the questions to go away? He is asked directly, “do you really want to go back to how things were before?” His predicament in the film is precisely that he does not feel guilty of anything, and that means that he does not know what he wants. It is that predicament which makes the film a meditation on the biblical Book of Job. Larry’s wish therefore appears in the dream as the desire to be punished. By making himself a sinner he becomes the other of the Other, therefore eliciting punishment, which both release him from his predicament (fulfills his wish) and reintegrates him into the Symbolic by giving the misfortunes that befell him meaning. The Symbolic order, and the guilt that is essential to it, is the condition of the continuation of human life, which is why the only appropriate punishment is death. The neighbor who shoots him in the dream does not confront Larry with his real guilt, but is rather the imaginary representation of his own desire to be found guilty, to be guilty so he can continue to live, to be punished by God so that the disruptive question of God's will can go away. This is the paradox of the film, which is the theological paradox of Job, in that, in order to radically fulfill God’s will, one has to sacrifice the desire for order, for meaning, and for a relation with God, and vice versa.

Dream Work: Condensation and Displacement

Atzmon reaches conclusions about “Israelis and Zionist Jews.” However his evidence, to the extent that it is factual, does not have the same scope. The first and second evidence relate to the actions of Israeli authorities, primarily the IDF and the government. The third piece of evidence is a detail from a film, a dream, which relates to a fictional Jewish American character about whose political sympathies nothing is said. How do we get from these specific instances to the mindset that characterizes Zionist Jews and Israelis in general?

Regarding moving from governing authorities to Israelis, Atzmon offers nothing. It must be assumed that there is no such thing as a society, namely, a differentiated whole, divided by class, race, gender, status, etc, rife with both conflict and cooperation, with internal relations of domination, resistance and co-optation.

Otherwise, one could ask for example, are those who were prevented from “fully grasping” what happened in Gaza the same people as those who issued the order to bar journalists from Gaza? If not, what is the relation between them?

Rather than presenting a relation, Atzmon’s drift between the different categories works like a dream. Freud describes the unconscious thought process as the work of two mechanisms of substitution, condensation and displacement, which Lacan translates to metaphor and metonymy. The IDF / Government of Israel / Israel / Grossman / Israelis / Zionists / Jews (and we may continue with terms from elsewhere, Wall Street / Greenspan / the Bund / Marxists, etc. etc. practically ad infinitum) is such a signifying chain, in which every term can be substituted for the others through such mechanisms.

Regarding the move from the fictional Jewish character Larry to Israel, Atzmon is more explicit, although his explanation refers only to crossing the Atlantic and ignores the question of crossing the gulf between fiction and social reality.
…A Serious Man delivers a clear message regarding Israel and Zionism, for Israel is the Jewish state and, despite the Zionist promise to build a civilised nation, it functions as a Jewish ghetto, subject to all the symptoms of abnormality conveyed by the Coens.
What Larry’s case teaches us can be applied to Israel because Larry is Jewish and Israel, Atzmon says, is “the Jewish State” and functions as “a Jewish Ghetto.”

Thus, Atzmon practically declares that what ultimately connects Larry to Israel is a pure signifier, ‘Jewish,’ whose presence justifies substituting one to the other. Presumably, you know one Jewish thing you know them all. However, we need also examine the function of the signifier ‘ghetto’, as it may suggest a more substantial claim, thus giving ‘Jewish’ a positive content.

In what way does Israel function as a ghetto? It does function as such as a simile. There is one aspect of Israel that is like the Jewish ghetto/shtetl of yesteryear. Both are geographically bounded areas in which Jews live among Jews (in Israel, to the extent that Palestinians are segregated). Thus, the simile “Israel is like a ghetto” can be useful if one makes an illuminating argument on the basis of that aspect, but the simile does not exhaust its terms. In other key aspects Israel is not like a ghetto. It is a sovereign state possessing an army and nuclear arms, something the Jewish ghetto usually lacked. It is much larger, much more internally differentiated by class and race, much wealthier in the aggregate, etc. Why is the similar aspect determinant while the differences are not? Ultimately, Israel is like a ghetto in the same way that a gun is like a penis. The simile may illuminate why some men worship guns. But you cannot deduce from knowing that one needs a license to own a gun that owning a penis requires a license as well. What gives Atzmon’s false inference the appearance of solidity is, again, the sliding through the signifier ‘Jewish.’

Furthermore, in what way is the American Jew Larry connected to a “Jewish ghetto”? Larry lives among non Jews, thus lacking even that aspect of the ghetto that applies to Israel. While aspects of Larry’s life as depicted in the film are intensely Jewish, including some that might be illuminated through the metaphor (and not the reality) of the ghetto, there is no reason why either Larry’s ethical lapses or his sex fantasy would be so illuminated, rather than, for example, through male subjectivity, quantum mechanics, suburbia, academic life, theology, etc. Non Jewish men fantasizing about sex with the neighbor are not unheard of, and Larry’s decision to take the bribe is no more Jewish than his student's deciding to offer one is Korean. The connection between Larry’s lapses and the ghetto in which he doesn’t live is a pure semiotic slide through the signifier ‘Jewish’ and its permutations: Larry /Coen Brothers / Jewish / Jewish ghetto / Zionism / Jewish State. Atzmon glides from one term to the other, as if dreaming, or spinning free associations on the therapist’s couch, revealing little about anything other than his own unconscious.

Occam’s Razor and Gyges’s Ring

The Israelis would try to save themselves from fully grasping who they are and what they do by blocking out every possible mirror. Consequently the IDF barred all foreign media from entering Gaza,
Consider these four factoids:

  • The Alawite Syrian regime imposes a virtual media blackout on the popular uprising going on in Syria. [6]
  • The NYPD prevented journalists from covering the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park.[7]
  • The Chinese censor scrubs the internet for any mention of the dissidence.[8]
  • Israel barred all foreign media from entering Gaza.
One could offer four different theories, each positing a new entity, one for each fact: an Alawite mindset explaining Syria, a Han Chinese mindset explaining China, an NYPD mindset explaining the NYPD, and a Jewish mindset explaining Israel.

Or one could suggest a single theory that explains why governing authorities or elites seek to control official information despite knowing that the information will spread anyway. To take one example, in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, James C. Scott offers a sophisticated analysis of interactions between dominated and dominating groups, introducing the concept of “the public transcript,” and arguing that the ideological performances of elites that seek to control the public transcript are primarily directed at themselves.[9]

What would Occam do?[10]

A similar appeal to Occam’s razor invalidates every other explanation Atzmon offers in this chapter. Do we need a special Jewish ghetto mindset to explain why the IDF sought to cover up its incompetence during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon? Do we need a special ghetto mindset to explain an illicit sexual fantasy of a fictional character? Do we need one to explain the fact that some ethical rules are sometimes obeyed by some people out of the fear of being caught?

As for the latter, hypothesizing that Atzmon’s graduate studies in philosophy consisted in corresponding with an on-line scammer hawking sham degrees might explain why he is unaware that the question ‘why do people behave justly?’ is somewhat old, as is the argument that they do so out of fear of punishment. In the second book of Plato’s Republic, for example, Glaucon argues:
…that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. [11]
The story proceeds with the myth of the ring of Gyges [12], who becomes corrupt after acquiring the power of making himself invisible. Incidentally, Gyges then
… seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.
Could it be that Glaucon reached his unflattering conclusions after observing the behavior of the many Jews who packed fifth century B.C. Athens? There weren’t any. Were the Athenians themselves so ‘Jewish’? Apart for the inherent offensiveness of the formula, that would be an odd argument given how much hay Atzmon makes from the imaginary opposition he posits between Universalist “Athens” and tribalist “Jerusalem.” (To close a circle with the film, in the following paragraph, accessed through the link above, Plato indeed conjures a Job.)

“Dear Consumer,”

Given that the text falls apart for being breathed upon, one has to ask how it works; what is the pleasure of the text? And, leaving that to another day, why would the author serve his readers the intellectual equivalent of canned dog food? A possible answer could be that he internalized Alan Greenspan’s market ethics. Atzmon cites Greenspan explaining why subprime mortgages were a good thing:
Innovation...has brought about a multitude of new products, such as subprime loans and niche credit programs…With these advances in technology, lenders have taken advantage of credit-scoring models and other techniques for efficiently extending credit to a broader spectrum of consumers.
The same is true of the field of books and articles. If there is a market for intellectual dog food, why ask why? There always will be entrepreneurs eager to satisfy the demand—for a modest return, be it mostly vanity.

Post-Scriptum: a Joke

A man visits a therapist and asks for help. The therapist proposes a Rorschach test. The therapist shows him the first inkblot and asks, what do you see? The man looks at it and replies, I see Jews. The therapist holds up the second image. What do you see? I see Jews. The therapist shows him the third image. What do you see? I see Jews. And so they go through the whole set of inkblots, and the man keep saying for every image—I see Jews. The test finished, the therapist folds the images back into a drawer and says: I think you might have an obsession with Jews. Why? Asks the man, upset. It is you who collects so many pictures of Jews!

NOTES (all links in the text are repeated here)


[5] Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire sur « la lettre volée » in Écrits I, Éditions du Seuil, 1966, pp. 66-67.


[12] Plato’s story is most likely one of the inspirations of Tolkein’s the Lord of the Rings.

November 25, 2011

The Police, the Zionist and the Crawler

by David Landy

Five years ago, the Israeli embassy in Ireland tried to hold a cultural event in Dublin city centre. They bought over the Israeli writer, AB Yehoshua to the Irish Writer’s Centre on Parnell Square. On a balmy June evening, we held a noisy, peaceful protest, reading from Yehoshua’s writings – the one where he looks forward to a ‘purifying war’ on Palestinians in Gaza and advocates collective punishment. We also read – loudly – from the works of two Palestinian poets – Ghassan Zaqtan and Zacharia Mohammad - who Israel had prevented from coming to Ireland when they were booked to read their works in the Irish Writers Centre. We were, as the police said, entitled to protest.

Last night, the Israeli embassy held another cultural event in Dublin City centre, a film festival in Filmbase, in Temple Bar. Naturally, we held a similar protest. It was a larger protest, but equally good-natured – although this time it was in the rain and cold. The only real difference was the attitude of the police. As our press release describes it:
A protest outside the Israeli Embassy sponsored “Israeli Film Days” in Temple Bar turned acrimonious this evening when Gardai broke up a peaceful demonstration by pro-Palestinian activists outside the venue. Citing Section 21 of the Public Order Act, Gardai forcibly removed around sixty activists from the area outside the venue, Filmbase, on Curved Street in Temple Bar, while others were removed from inside the venue.

Prior to the removal, the protestors had gathered to chant slogans and hand out leaflets explaining why they were opposed to the event. Between 5.30 and 6.40pm the activists held a loud, colourful, vibrant and entirely peaceful protest outside. By this time the majority of those attending the event had entered without incident – including the Tanaiste and Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, and Justice Minister Alan Shatter, and it was at this time – after everyone inside had gone downstairs into the cinema area - that Gardai began to forcibly remove the protest from the street. After being forced off Curved Street, the protest found itself split into two crowds, on Temple Lane Street and Eustace Street.”

More information about the police shutting down our peaceful protest can be found here:

Why did the police take such radically different approaches to such similar Palestinian solidarity actions? The immediate answer isn’t hard to find – we have a new Justice Minister, Alan Shatter. He is an Irish Jew and a staunch Zionist, and has always considered that his remit involves representing Israel in Ireland.

I have seen police clear a street of protesters before, but never with such lack of enthusiasm. They knew that this was an operationally stupid decision which only prolonged and intensified the protest. They were aware that we had actually been on the point of leaving. But orders is orders is orders and clearly our presence had become embarrassing to our Justice Minister in the presence of his Israeli friends. After all, they wouldn’t stand for that type of nonsense in Israel. So the rabble was cleared from the street.

However, Alan Shatter was not the only Irish Minister inside the Israeli festival of propaganda. Shamefully, near-unbelievably, our Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour party (and formerly from the Workers Party) was also present. This was despite the fact that a scant fortnight before, 14 Irish citizens, including two elected representatives had been attacked in international waters by Israeli commandos and dragged to an Israeli prison. After the Filmbase protest, there was a public meeting where these flotilla participants talked of their abuse by the Israelis. They also told of how Irish embassy staff who tried to ensure their release were lied to and treated badly by the Israeli officials. Evidently Eamon Gilmore isn’t concerned about Palestinians, but one would have thought that national pride would have led to him staying away from this Israeli event.

It’s awkward to bring up issues like national pride and national sovereignty without endorsing some kind of bigoted and small-minded nationalism. But the erosion of Irish national sovereignty over the last year is important, whether it is the IMF control of our economy, or the kowtowing to European banks. It is akin to the erosion of Greek sovereignty, which led to them impounding the Freedom Flotilla.

Our government protests that Ireland is not like Greece, but only in that we are good subjects that will abide by whatever rules the German and French governments and banks set us, not like those feckless Greeks. These days in Ireland it feels like the old colonised attitudes never really went away. That our elites were just waiting for the time to doff their caps to new masters. This more-or-less willing handover of vestiges of national sovereignty has had the knock-on effect that the government is less willing to risk offending anyone perceived as powerful. When Israeli officials called Ireland the most anti-Israel place in Europe and blamed our docile little government for this shocking state of affairs,,7340,L-4149059,00.htmlsmall wonder that our Minister for Foreign Affairs crawled to Temple Bar to placate them and to appear at this festival of Israeli hasbara.

So now we have a toadying Minister for Foreign Affairs, a Zionist Minster for Justice.

This augers a sea-change in our government’s attitude to Palestine and Palestinian solidarity. First there is change in the police’s attitude - from easy tolerance to degrees of repression. More importantly, it speaks of a change in our government’s practice of at least voicing concern about the repression of Palestinian (while admittedly doing nothing), to a position indistinguishable from other European governments.

This change is not all bad – it indicates that Palestinian solidarity in this country and internationally is seen as a force to be taken seriously and combated rather than humoured. It shows how our actions, the events like the flotilla and the ongoing international boycott campaign, are starting to disrupt the normal flows of state and economic power.

For the growing governmental drift to Israel is taking place at a time when solidarity with Palestine in this country has never been stronger. It is one more indication of the widening divide between people and politicians in this country.

In the meantime, we can be happy that this protest turned out to be such a success. Our aim was to politicise Israel’s use of culture to whitewash their crimes. For the price of a few small bruises, we succeeded beyond all our expectations. We are confident that there will be a good, determined turnout for our protest this evening and Saturday and Sunday. For this, the police, the Zionist and the Crawler are to be thanked.

November 24, 2011

Netanyahu, the new occidentalist prophet

While Washington is confused by the Arab masses, not knowing how to control them, afraid that backing the dictators too openly would backfire, trying to co-opt the revolutions with various palliatives or overrun them with military action, Netanyahu assumes the role of the prophet of unwavering reaction, the new De Maistre of the Occidental world.
Almost a year after the Arab Spring began, Netanyahu's speech, his sharpest Knesset comment since the wave of uprisings swept out of Tunisia, provided a glimpse into the prime minister's true views concerning the massive popular unrest movement.

The speech showed an expressed lack of trust in Arab nations' ability to maintain a democratic regime; a yearning to go back to the days of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; a fear of the collapse of the Hashemite royal house in Jordan, and an utter lack of willingness to make any concessions to the Palestinians.

"In February, when millions of Egyptians thronged to the streets in Cairo, commentators and quite a few Israeli members of the opposition said that we're facing a new era of liberalism and progress...They said I was trying to scare the public and was on the wrong side of history and don't see where things are heading," he said.

But time has proved him right, Netanyahu said. His forecast that the Arab Spring would turn into an "Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave" turned out to be true, he said.

Netanyahu also slammed Western leaders, and especially U.S. President Barak Obama, who had pushed Mubarak to resign from power. At the time this was happening Netanyahu said in closed talks that the American administration and many European leaders don't understand reality. On Wednesday, he called them "naive."

"I ask today, who here didn't understand reality? Who here didn't understand history?" he called from the Knesset podium. "Israel is facing a period of instability and uncertainty in the region. This is certainly not the time to listen to those who say follow your heart."

Netanyahu used the upheaval in the Arab world to justify his government's inaction vis-a-vis the peace process with the Palestinians. Haaretz, November 24, 2011

War heroes

Above, the hero of the massacre of Gaza shake hands with the hero of the killing of protesters in Tahrir square.

November 20, 2011

Pig herding for beginners

After police officer Lieutenant John Pike (Phone number +1.530.752.3989, email, please let him hear from you) attacks sitting, peaceful students with pepper spray, the students of UC Davis, in a display of effective popular discipline, herded the pigs and led them out peacefully.

American Leftist has great coverage of the daily developments in the West Coast.

The Nation published Norm Stamper, chief of the Seattle Police Department during the WTO protests in 1999. Stamper describes the police decision that started the Seattle events as a mistake, and laments the growing militarization of US police forces around the US. His most important paragraph however is one about the link between the brutality of the police and the hierarchical organization itself.

The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders—a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood—is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.

Much of the problem is rooted in a rigid command-and-control hierarchy based on the military model. American police forces are beholden to archaic internal systems of authority whose rules emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets. An officer’s hair length, the shine on his shoes and the condition of his car are more important than whether he treats a burglary victim or a sex worker with dignity and respect. In the interest of “discipline,” too many police bosses treat their frontline officers as dependent children, which helps explain why many of them behave more like juvenile delinquents than mature, competent professionals. It also helps to explain why persistent, patterned misconduct, including racism, sexism, homophobia, brutality, perjury and corruption, do not go away, no matter how many blue-ribbon panels are commissioned or how much training is provided. (The Nation)

Perhaps introducing Occupy Wall Street consensus based General Assembly model to the police would be a good thing, though I am afraid that this will probably have to wait for after the revolution. As it were, I'd disagree with Stamper here, as the problem of police brutality is has much to do with the "professional" corporate mindset that the police both embodies and serves as it is to "juvenile delinquency" of police officers. Professional culture only provides a simulacrum of personal liberty while hiding the hierarchies beneath motivational speaking jargon. As long as the police work for the 1%, it will be brutal when the 1% feel threatened. But one could agree with Stamper that the brutality of certain police officers is inculcated through the dehumanizing process to which which the lower ranks of the police are themselves subjected.

Some UC Davis academics have risen to the occasion, and not in the typical way of trying to contain and tame student anger, but in genuine solidarity. Bob Ostertag describes the concrete changes in police strategy that we are witnessing. Nathan Brown, Assistant professor in the English department, wrote a sharp open letter calling for a resignation of the UC Davis Chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi.

Of course, the militarization of the police is equal parts a reflection of the ruling class preparing for over a decade to exactly what is happening today, and a business, indeed one of the few sectors of capital that is not just doing fine but booming today. In Egypt, the Tahrir Intifada entered a new phase:

The tear gas used against the Egyptian people, as reported by the Hossam el-Hamalawy, and Patrick Connors, is manufactured by CSI, which bills itself as "a leading manufacturer and marketer of tactical munitions, pyrotechnics, less-lethal crowd control and launching systems sold under the CTS and Penn Arms brands." CSI is a venture capital project owned partly by Point Lookout Capital, whose two partners are no doubt making a killing, quite literally, in the death business, including the "less lethal" franchise of CSI. It is perhaps worth pondering the uncommon honesty of CSI, whose products for "law enforcement" are marketed as "less-lethal" rather than non-lethal. As usual with violence, there is an Israeli connection. CSI sells the gas canisters that Israeli soldiers use, not only to attack protesters, but also to kill them. The pepper spray used in UC Davis is manufactured by another company, whose name will be revealed in due course. But the differences between companies is not as important as the unity of the class of people who own all of them.

Update from Nedster: Egyptian thugs show the world how it's done:

November 17, 2011

Remi Kanazi - 'This poem will not end apartheid', London, 12.11.11

You can catch Remi's performance in the UK:

Nov 13 London
Nov 14: Cambridge
Nov 15: Brighton
Nov 16: Portsmouth
Nov 17: Southampton
Nov 18: Dorset
Nov 19: Bristol
Nov 20: Bristol
Nov 21: Oxford
Nov 22: Birmingham
Nov 23: Liverpool
Nov 24: Nottingham
Nov 25: Leicester
Nov 26: Leeds
Nov 27: Newcastle
Nov 28: Manchester
Nov 29: London

Click here for more info on each city, when it becomes available.


The routine murder of Houda Hawajah

The routine murder of Houda Hawajah by bored Israeli soldiers was captured live by the Israeli TV cameras. In a rather unusual move, the TV station ignored the rules of self-censorship that reign in the Israeli media, and aired the footage.

As it was pointed out to me, this is an old video. Not that there is anything wrong in principle is remembering old events, but that was not my intention. I was just careless.

November 15, 2011

Bibi beggars belief

This has always been the case of course but I didn't get round to doing a post, when it was news, about Sarkozy and Obama pouring their hearts out to each other about what an indignity it is having to deal with Netanyahu, in Obama's case, every day.  An article in today's Ha'aretz has given me the excuse to dust off the old news and to run an alliterative headline which I always enjoy:
If the law enabled putting leaders on trial for serial defrauding of the public and obtaining support through deception, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be keeping company with Moshe Katsav in prison. The former president has been convicted of raping women who were his subordinates and misuse of his authority. Netanyahu is having his nefarious way with Israeli democracy and using his status in order to lead Israeli society astray, all the way to diplomatic and economic isolation. From there it is but a short way to regional war and apartheid - the only question is which will come first. Yet nevertheless, a whole country is continuing to give in willingly to a liar who does not cease to harass and endanger it.
Silly article really but that's my excuse for revisiting the Sarkozy, Obama, Netanyahu business out of the way.

There's another article in today's Ha'aretz describing Obama's side of the conversation with Sarkozy as a "gaffe" which I suppose leaving the microphone on was.  Apparently Obama has acknowledged the "gaffe" but
“With respect to the ‘hot mic’ in France, I'm not going to comment on conversations that I have with individual leaders,” Obama said in Hawaii.
But the thing about the affair which troubled me most was this:
Several journalists, including a few from large media organizations, heard the initial exchange between Obama and Sarkozy but did not initially report it, agreeing among themselves that to do so would be a violation of journalistic ethics.
Now how on earth does it violate journalistic ethics to report that two presidents who support Netanyahu in everything he does don't actually believe a word he says? Surely it is more of a violation of their calling that journalists agree among themselves to cover up such a newsworthy report.

Rafeef Ziadah - 'We teach life, sir', London, 12.11.11

An amazing performance that you will watch again and again and again.

November 14, 2011

Atzmon and Alderman – preaching from the same hymn book

By David Landy

There have been a few reviews of my book, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights - generally positive, but also pointing out that it has too much sociological jargon, which is fair enough, I guess (sigh). There have also been a couple of bad reviews from exactly the type of people you’d dread getting good reviews from. In my case, from the right-wing Zionist Gilad Atzmon, and right-wing anti-Zionist Geoffrey Alderman. Or maybe the other way around.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.

Alderman’s brief review argues that the book proves that Jews who criticise Israel as Jews are trying out some bizarre form of perverse ethnic identification. Connoisseurs of Atzmon will be more than familiar with this particular thesis. In his review, Atzmon mixes this farrago with the conspiracy theories we’ve come to know and love. Thus, one failing of my book is that I don’t realize how these Jews are engaged in a conspiracy to expel the good folks out of Palestine solidarity. How could I have missed that? (maybe I’m part of the cover-up!) Another problem is my failure to understand that Jews in Jewish groups are somehow categorically different from Jews in general pro-Palestine groups (despite membership overlap). And so on.

But worst is when they agree with the book – for what they agree with is emphatically what the book does not say – Alderman on the tortured identities of participants, Atzmon dishonestly using a partial quote from page 26 to depict participants as selfish Zionists. This is even more irritating (just) than being called a postmodernist.

There’s loads in the book to criticize and/or praise, and I’ve received some genuinely fruitful criticism from movement activists. So why do these reviewers attack and support what isn’t actually there? No point in being naïve; the reason is clear. Both authors are using their reviews as an opportunity to once again launch their well-rehearsed attacks on Jews who criticize Israel. In this, the book itself is incidental, so small wonder that there is some similarity between their reviews.

Alderman at least doesn’t advise me to read Alderman, in the way Atzmon advises that the best I can do is read Atzmon. Ironic that. Alderman, for all the disagreements I have with him, can write well and does have interesting things to say about British Jews. Whereas Atzmon – well, I think I’ll treasure this line for the rest of my life: ‘Philosophical thinking also seems alien to Landy so he is unable to grasp the metaphysical depth of questions connected to identity, identification and authenticity in the context of Jewish culture and ideology.’

That’s me told.

November 13, 2011

So how was Finkelstein?

Not so great, I'm hearing.  Here's a feedback from Naomi Foyle on the British Writers for Palestine website:

On Friday Nov 11 2011, at UCL, world-renowned scholar and activist for Palestinian rights Prof Norman Finkelstein appeared in conversation with Prof Jonathan Rosenhead of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine), discussing the proposition:
The Palestinians having being denied justice for 63 years, those who support their rights must endorse their call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), including academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Prof Finkelstein also gave a public lecture in the evening, which unfortunately I could not attend.  Following is my report on the afternoon conversation, which turned into a debate.  I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of the discussion, which was videoed and presumably will soon be available online.   Rather I will just summarise here the main disagreement between the speakers, and give my reaction to it.

Jonathan Rosenhead opened with a clear historical overview of boycott as a strategy, and ended by saying that in the case of Palestine, it should continue until the Palestinians ask us to stop supporting it – that is, until the system of oppression they suffer under has ended.  Norman Finkelstein responded by arguing forcefully that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign should work toward goals based in International Law, not some vague, impossible to define, outcome; and that we shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the Palestinians’ lead, as previously this would have obliged us to support suicide bombing.  He said much else, including giving a review of the state of International Law on Palestine, and the helpful advice to cite this more in our literature, but I want to focus on this essential point of discord.

Frankly I was very surprised to hear Prof Finkelstein’s criticism of BDS.   I, and others, spoke from the floor, reminding both speakers that the demands of the BDS movement, as stated by PACBI, are clearly based on International Law:

[that] Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid.

Prof Finkelstein responded by saying that while the first three demands are sound in law, the last, the demand for Israel to dismantle its system of apartheid, is not, because Israeli apartheid hasn’t been recognised by the UN or other bodies of International Law.  He claimed that without this legal underpinning, the goal of ending apartheid in Israel is counter-productive – that it ‘turns people off’; that BDS will never become a mass movement if we try to get people to sign up to tampering with the state of Israel itself.

I also tried to discuss this with him afterwards.  I asked him why,  if the situation in Israel fits the UN definition of apartheid,  we shouldn’t work toward getting iron-clad legal recognition of this fact.  But Prof Finkelstein rejected this approach, saying ‘ that would take 100 years’.
Underlying Prof Finkelstein’s hostility to this key plank of the BDS movement appears to be the fear that the demand to end Israeli apartheid is a disguised call to ‘end the state of Israel’, rather than ending the way the state is currently organised, which is how all the people I know interpret the demand.  After all, South Africa still exists as a state.   Personally, I think Prof Finkelstein is sadly out of touch with the robust health and rapid growth of the BDS movement.

Far from being a threat to building a mass movement, the demand to end Israeli apartheid is one that everyone can understand – every ordinary person on the streets of the UK knows what South Africa was like; all they need is some basic education about Palestine to see that apartheid is operating there as well.  Especially considering that the South Africans themselves are taking such leadership in BDS, and separate campaigns to End Israeli Apartheid are evident all over the internet, it’s a nonsense to say that the demand is unrealistic.  On the legal front,  the very recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine Capetown Session has recommended (among other pertinent goals):

The UN General Assembly to reconstitute the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, and to convene a special session to consider the question of apartheid against the Palestinian people.  In this connection the Committee should compile a list of individuals, organisations, banks, companies, corporations, charities, and any other private or public bodies which assist Israel’s apartheid regime with a view to taking appropriate measures.

In my view, the current BDS strategy is right on target, and I wish Prof Finkelstein would put his considerable legal chops in the service of the goals of the Russell Tribunal.

I also wish to respond to his second criticism of the BDS movement – that it takes its leadership from the Palestinians.  To deal first with his counter-example – in my view, the BDS movement is not at all comparable to the suicide bombing campaigns, which made no formal call for international support, and were never, to my knowledge, endorsed by any UK solidarity group.   Rather, solidarity works to provide and support democratic alternatives to such desperate, tragic, violent and, indeed, as Prof Rosenhead stated, politically counter-productive measures.  The Palestinians themselves have turned en masse away from suicide bombing as a strategy – as comedian and ‘extreme rambler’ Mark Thomas recently recounted in his recent Walking the Wall tour, countless Palestinians get through holes in the wall daily, not to bomb civilians, but in order to work illegally in Israel.   Instead, Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly endorsed BDS, and taking our leadership from them is an essential part of the moral legitimacy of the campaign.

First, if BDS was just a matter of personal conscience, then indeed I would be a hypocrite for spending so much time promoting the boycott of Israel and not other countries with terrible human rights records.  Second, as I have stated before, it is not up to us in the West to dictate to the Palestinians how they should run their campaigns.   Instead, we can choose which campaigns we want to support, and then do so wholeheartedly, and in a spirit of solidarity, dialogue and willingness to learn.   I don’t believe in capital punishment for any crime, and would never endorse any kind of violence that was not clearly in self-defense, in the strictest sense of the term.  But as I have argued before on this blog, Palestinian violence must be seen in the context of 62 years of oppression, and ending that systematic injustice, in a way that is 100% consistent with the principle of Palestinian self-determination, is the only way to end that violence.

By criticizing this key demand of the BDS movement, and dismissing the paramount importance of the need to work in solidarity with the Palestinians, Prof Finkelstein is playing Jenga with the Palestinian struggle – poking and pulling away the foundational planks of its existence.   We don’t need that at this time.  We need an atmosphere of mutual support and co-operation between the legal, civil disobedience, and BDS strategies. I thank Prof Finkelstein for his very useful summary of the legal position of the Palestinian cause and Prof Rosenhead for his profound commitment to the principle of solidarity, and I place these thoughts on record in hope that they may contribute to a spirit of unity in the popular movement for Palestinian human rights.

Note: Jenga is a game played with wooden blocks, which players take turns to remove from a tower and balance on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure that eventually collapses.  The word is derived from the Swahili term for ‘to build’. 
Finkelstein has been stating the same case for some time now but I don't think it is simply grounded in international law. Rather, I think it is grounded in what Finkelstein sees as international consensus. Consensus is a far more subjective notion and it may well be that Finkelstein's position accords with the consensus of the circles in which he moves or in which he wants to be accepted.

Tony Greenstein did attend the Friday night session of the Finkelstein talk and his comments are to be found on his blog and in the comments below this post.

November 09, 2011

The Norman Finkelstein Matinée at the UCL

An addition to the previous post on Norman Finkelstein's speaking engagements in London this week.

Norman Finkelstein in conversation with BRICUP chair Jonathan Rosenhead
2 pm Friday November 11
Christopher Ingold Lecture Theatre
UCL Chemistry Building
20 Gordon Street, London WC1 6BT
This is opposite the Bloomsbury Theatre.
To reserve your place please email Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi at
They will discuss the proposition:
The Palestinians having being denied justice for 63 years, those who support their rights must endorse their call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), including academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
This is in addition to Finkelstein's lecture at 7 pm in the Logan Hall, Institute of Education
for which booking is required.

November 05, 2011

Norman Finkelstein in the UK

Norman Finkelstein speaking engagements in the UK but check out additional info below the list for what is happening in Manchester:

DATE 7/11/2011
PLACE: University of Leeds
TIME:  7:00 PM
SPONSORS Palestinian Return Centre
DATE 8/11/2011
PLACE: University of Manchester Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount Street, M2 5NS
TIME 7:00 PM
SPONSORS Palestinian Return Centre
DATE 9/11/2011
PLACE University of Nottingham
SPONSORS Palestinian Return Centre
DATE 10/11/2011
PLACE University of Birmingham
TIME 6:00 PM
SPONSORS Palestinian Return Centre
DATE 11/11/2011
PLACE Logan Hall, London
SPONSORS Palestinian Return Centre and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods
Manchester venue changed after lobbying from the, er, lobby, in this instance the Jewish Society, an affiliate of the Union of Jewish Students which in turn is an affiliate of the World Zionist Organisation.  Here's Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods on what happened to change the venue:

Manchester University has caved in to Zionist pressure and forced students organising a speaking tour by Professor Norman Finkelstein to move his planned lecture off campus.
Students from Manchester Action Palestine said the university management and Union “capitulated to pressure from JSOC [Jewish Society] to limit attendees of the event to students only, depriving the public of seeing one of the world’s foremost commentators on the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
JSOC members alleged that the safety of Jewish students would be endangered if the public were allowed in, even though they had made clear their own intention to attend and hold a picket.
Instead of standing up to this blatant attempt to interfere with freedom of expression, administrators issued an ultimatum saying that the lecture would have to be closed to non-students or be cancelled.
Action Palestine has been obliged to find a new location in the city. They are asking supporters to send protest letters to Martin Conway ( Head of Governance Office and Deputy Secretary, and Pat Sponder ( Head of the Office of Student Support and Services.
According to the UJS website they "want to be open and honest about what we do" and yet the only indication that are a affiliates of the World Zionist Organisation is in a blog post from last year. I don't think the Manchester University Jewish Society even pretends to be, what was it? oh yes, "open and honest about what we do".