Saturday 26 May 2012

Atzmon, Anti-Semitism and Political Faith

After a heated exchange with a friend yesterday, I thought I might brave the water of reflecting on what 'Anti-Semitism' might mean. But particularly what it means for Christians who read the Bible as a social and economic, as much as spiritual text.

The argument we were having revolved around 0 Books and their association with Gilad Atzmon, Israeli vet, jazz singer, pro-Palestinian, and writer.

Atzmon has claimed that he cannot be anti-semitic because he is not against Jewish people but against Jewish religion.

There can be no doubt that Atzmon is against Jewish religion, although he associates Extremism with the whole, in much the same way Richard Dawkins does to Christianity. It's easy to criticize the fundamentalists but not helpful to characterize them as representative of the whole.

The second flaw in Atzmon's logic is his paring apart of religion and identity. For an atheist Jew, like Atzmon, perhaps they are separate. But for Jewish people who hold to their traditions religion and self are not distinct from one another. "I am a Jew" is far more apt than "I am Jewish".

To consider Judaism corrupting is to be anti-semitic. One cannot, as Atzmon does, draw distinctions between racism and cultural prejudices. There is only the human race, after all. We are one. The belief that we are separate races is a statist distinction, a product of modern Europe.

But to criticise violence and injustice that has been carried out in the name of Judaism. This is an ancient prophetic tradition. We might put Noam Chomsky in this category. Chomsky, a Jew, brought up by a Rabbinic dad in an Orthodox tradition, knows how to be a clear voice in favour of a Just Judaism. But this is not Atzmon's way, it seems. Atzmon writes off Judaism wholesale.

The argument, mentioned at the top of this entry, started because I've signed a contract with 0 Books, who have published a book by Atzmon as well. 0 Books publish hundreds of books, they are no strangers to controversial content but they don't normally publish anti-semitic authors. This isn't an excuse but it does mean punishing a relatively small and mostly well-meaning publishing house for finding itself stuck between a rock and a hard place seems somewhat unhelpful.

The book I've written looks into the socio-political reality Jesus' faced. Sensibly I sent the first draft to a few trusted friends. One of whom I chose deliberately because of her deep affection for Judaism (and because I knew she'd do a great job).

What I discovered, from her notes and underlining, was how much anti-semitism (there I said it) had crept into my Christian theology! I was horrified. Some was from my Evangelical past but much had slipped in because of sloppy writing about Jesus challenging those in power in his day. I hope I've corrected the text but perhaps I need to take a little longer to correct my language.

And that's the point really, by way of parable, that we who read the Bible politically must be vigilant against anti-Semitic language when really we mean to be anti-Imperialism or anti-collaborationist. And by the same token, be wary of the collaborator in us.