“Were you tortured by your own thirst
In those pleasures that you seek
That made you Tom the curious
That makes you James the weak?”
Rodriguez (Searching for Sugarman)- Crucify Your Mind
I was born in Johannesburg, Apartheid South Africa in 1960. My mom was a trainee nurse and she met my dad while he was recovering from an accident in which he had lost a leg. She was 19, him 28 (I think). Before he left the hospital she was pregnant – with me. They tried to build a life together but it didn’t work out. When I was two and a half, he took a car out and put a hosepipe from the exhaust to the window. An aunt tells me she talked him out of taking me with him. It would have saved me much pain if she hadn't - conversely it would have caused others even more pain. Life is so complicated.
My dad's suicide led to me being put into the care system and being moved from pillar to post until shortly before I was 5 when I was adopted by a dysfunctional couple, as a substitute for the children they thought they couldn’t have. By this time, I was a very disturbed little boy and my adoptive father, who was an immigrant from the UK, thought he could beat the disturbance out of me. My mother egged him on – and I learnt to dislike her even more than I hated him...
The more he beat me, the more disturbed I became,
The more disturbed I became, the more he beat me
– how’s that for a vicious circle?
Here are two defining moments that spring out from the time I spent with them. (By the time I was 11 I was mainly back in institutions, and back to moving from pillar to post).
When I was around 8 or 9 I had cause to go to our maid’s room, which was about 15 yards from the adoptive folks' very comfortable and large suburban house outside of Durban. Her room was cramped, and blackened by candle smoke because she didn’t have electricity – it was furnished with cheap furniture and very little of it. I asked my adoptive Mother why our maid lived in such terrible conditions, and she replied:
“They have different needs to us.”
Even at that age I knew that was a blatant lie and thus I learned to question what was going on around me and came to an understanding that none of us should be treated as a lesser being, nor judged, nor subjected to abuse and poverty or even death because of who brought us into this world ………. Perhaps because of my own disturbance I was unable to muster the supremacist ego of the racists around me – and I was further marginalised for not being one of them…… It is one of the greatest tragedies of my life, that my birth brother, from whom I was separated in my toddler-hood, and only found again a quarter of a century later, did become one of them, and still is. I love him so dearly – but our political differences prevent us from enjoying each other.
A year or so later I had done something else ‘naughty’ and my father was punching and kicking me around my room.
Him: “What are you?”
Me: “I don’t know.” (He beats me for not knowing).
Him: “You’re a yellow liver bellied snake.” (He beats me for being this).
Him: “What are you?”
Me: “I’m a yellow liver bellied snake.”* (He beats me worse than before)...
Him: “No child of mine ever talks about themselves like that...”
(*This is why I don’t believe torture can ever do any good whatsoever)
This may help those of you who know me to understand more about the tortured, disturbed, sometimes shy, sometimes outrageous, difficult individual that I have grown to be. It may help you understand why I have problems forming attachments, building relationships, accepting authority and believing that the world is an okay place….. why I have spent the last decade mired in a deep depression from which I am still struggling (so far without any success whatsoever) to emerge.
“Smile they said, things could be worse, so I did and they were….”
One of my mantras
My experiences have led to me search for ways to build a better world – I was a liberal until I knew better – I believed that I could be part of changing the world into a better place – but the harder I tried the worse it seemed to become. I thought I had found a ‘spiritual home’ and a group I belonged to when I discovered Anarchism and Direct Action, but like all my relationships it became problematic as I discovered that this group too was riddled with hypocrisies, double standards and, as it turned out, a rather distorted sense of what freedom means……. The systemic problems of the society and system I live in were mirrored in the very group that was trying to free itself from them. As I think Kurt Vonnegut might say, “How do you like them apples?”
Gilad Atzmon and the 'Truth'
Gilad was a key part of accelerating that disenchantment – he has taught me so much and cost me so much…… I love him like the birth brother I am prevented from loving – although I have only met him a few times and we are in no sense close friends….. we too have political differences but at least we can try talking about them – and sometimes we even resolve them. Sometimes we tackle issues together – for most of the time I remain connected to him through his writings, which I read often – I must have read most of what he has written by now, and there is lots of it.
I understand that truth too is myth – even what we have seen with our own eyes, and experienced with our own lives, and which seems blatantly true to us, changes when we come to understand the motivations and reasons for the parts that other actors played in the event. It shifts as we learn more, and as we realise that our own issues have clouded our interpretation. Our culture, our upbringing and our personal pain all affect how we experience the world, and how we perceive it. I know this but Ali Abunimah, it seems, has yet to learn it….. as have others.
So, this is how I see Gilad and understand his work. It is part of an evolving view and it is possible that in time I may see it all completely differently. Gilad himself may identify with parts of it, and disagree with other parts. He may even help to change my view of him…… and maybe I can help change his view of him – all things are possible.
Like me, Gilad was born in an Apartheid society – in his case Israel. I should tell you that one of our key differences is around whether or not Israel is an Apartheid state – I am an Aye – he is a Nay. Unlike me, he bought into it as a kid. It was only when he was coming to the end of his time in the misleadingly named Israeli Defence Force, where he was a medic and musician, that he had cause to go to Lebanon and see the conditions that Palestinian prisoners were kept in. This led him to start questioning all that he had learnt and the society in which he grew up.
He left Israel and moved to Europe where he developed his music and also studied philosophy and did some training in psychotherapy. He found himself profoundly influenced by Otto Weineger, a disturbed and brilliant soul who wrote some disgusting stuff and killed himself at a very young age.
Influenced by Weineger, Gilad began examining himself – a process of looking into the mirror, and examining what he didn’t like about himself in minute detail. He came to think that Jewish identity was a part of his problem, and his study of this aspect of himself was further developed when he expanded his navel gazing to include a small but influential group of Jewish anti-Zionists, centred mainly in London where he also lives, and whom he publicly attacked after they (JAZ) started attacking a group whom he discovered were also critically exploring the issue of Jewish ideology, often in an very offensive and unpleasant way. The group included Paul Eisen and Israel Shamir. I am not very clear on how close they were, or the interactions between them, but it does seem that they were all influenced by each other, and learnt from each other.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for accusations of anti-Semitism to start flying around – and for destruction to occur. The more the group developed their critique of Jewish Power, it seems the more Jewish Power was unleashed in an attempt to marginalise and destroy them. Gilad chose to face the onslaught full on, and despite serious attempts to marginalise and destroy him, he continues to develop his critique of them, their ideology and their power. He still works as an accomplished and popular Jazz musician and his writings are widely read – Erdogan even quoted him once which caused a major furore, and some respectable and respected individuals such as Richard Falk and Mearsheimer have been seriously attacked for coming out in support of his work. I too have been under sustained attack by Jewish anti-Zionists and Zionists alike.
The attempts to silence Gilad have been sustained and brutal, and it is difficult to read him if your introduction is the out of context snippets circulated with the intention of destroying him.
An example of this: I went to the launch of his book - and was met with the spectacle of folk I have been involved in BDS actions with, picketing the meeting and handing out a leaflet, written by arch rival Tony Greenstein which claimed to be snippets of the book (The wandering who says ….) They were not from the book at all. In order to attend the launch, I had to cross a picket line of people I have previously faced arrest with, and that pretty much ended my involvement as an activist who had been intensely involved in BDS Direct Actions. I now share many of Gilad’s reservations about, and critiques of BDS... although I continue to believe that every attempt should be made to isolate Israel as a brutal, Apartheid state.
Indymedia UK, a project I have a long association with, has been profoundly damaged by an insistence that it ban Atzmon, which didn't happen, partly because I opposed the demand. It seems to me that if Indymedia UK lived up to its own aims and intentions it would be a good forum for the debate he is trying to launch – but it proved to be moribund by its own inconsistencies, and has so far not been able to stand up to the attacks on it by Atzmon’s opponents.
Recently my attention has been mainly focused on the brutal attack on the poor in the UK, currently being orchestrated by the nasties in the coalition, and their dismantling of all that made Britain a bearable place to live for those like me who feel unable to cope in the countries of their birth. I haven’t been writing on Palestine, and haven’t been involved in activism around it. I avoid demos because of the intense victimisation I have suffered at the hands of the police – who have helped me understand that the police are the enemy of freedom, and that for as long as we have police we cannot be free.
I have been horrified by how muted the so-called radical Left’s response has been to these brutal attacks on our own society's most vulnerable. At times it has seemed as if I am back in an Apartheid state, with much of the left being in the position that Liberal white South Africans found themselves in – they knew it was wrong, but they were benefiting enough from it not to want seriously to destroy it. I have personally been affected by the cuts to services that have hindered my own attempts to free myself enough from my own disturbances and depression so that I can find a way of being in this world that allows to me function in a better way than I am able to now... In order that I don't spend much of my time wishing I could go to sleep and never wake up, or fighting strong suicidal impulses.
I am wondering if it is even possible to be well-adjusted in a maladjusted world. If being well-adjusted means accepting inequality and injustice and allowing it to flourish, then I guess my project is doomed to failure.
If you believe the hype about Atzmon, as represented by his rivals, then he aims to turn us all into jack-booted racists. I know enough about him to think this is preposterous, and I am beginning to believe that part of what makes them most uncomfortable and angry about him - all that he hates most about the way that his Jewish upbringing has affected him - makes them profoundly uncomfortable about themselves too because, when we are confronted with parts of ourselves that repulse us, we often lash out.
I do believe that Gilad is part of a much wider struggle towards a world where we can live in dignity, and at peace with one another – for a while he ended all his performances with “What a wonderful World”. In any case, any new and improved society will have to include all, including those who offend us, disturb us or are from the far Right, regardless of whether we like them or not.
At the least Atzmon opens a debate that I think needs to be had – and which has been censored at a major cost to many – but he has chipped away at it and it seems to me that the debate is beginning to open up.
Despite all the time I have spent reading Atzmon, and listening to him, and recording him, I still don’t hate anyone on the basis that their mother or father happened to be Jewish. In fact, some of the most influential and loved people in my life fall into that category. So if his opponents are right about his project then it appears to be a failed project.
If his project is the deJudaization of Atzmon, it too is doomed to failure because his upbringing is central to who he is now. But his argument that people need to find a way of understanding and reducing the influence of the environments we grew up in and relinquishing the identities foisted upon us by them, has some validity in it, and it does seem that an increasing number of Jews are starting to explore the path.
I am out of energy – follow the links if you want to know more – and read Atzmon if you are able to open your mind enough to hear what he has to say, or perhaps start by listening to his music. If you insist on judging him solely on what his opponents say, then you aren't going to be able to do it. And if you insist that you will only relate to me if I denounce him and stop reading his writings, then farewell until such time that you are ready to allow me the freedom to follow my own instincts and respect my right to live a life with as much integrity as I can muster.
I will end with one more part of my truth.
When I arrived at my adoptive home – having been stripped of my mother, my father, my brother, my home and my culture - they tried to rename me. Even at 5 I was stubborn enough to refuse to answer to the new name they wanted to foist onto me.
In my essence I am still that stubborn kid, who insists on being himself and I still thirst for a world which is propelled by a desire to meet need, not greed – where we do our utmost to ensure the dignity of all, and where we do not have states and corporations that rob so many of so much.
Maybe we’re part of the same struggle – but I have to do it my way - and that may sometimes make you uncomfortable. It certainly causes me great personal discomfort and costs me much.
If you read this far, I hope it has helped you understand some of the things I have done – and dispelled some of the preposterous myths about me (and, co-incidentally, Atzmon).
I thank you.