Monday, 23 May 2011

An Open Letter to Lauren Booth

It was, unfortunately, not a surprise that Lauren Booth, whose main claim to fame is her sister-in-law Cherie Booth's marriage to war criminal Tony Blair, has come out as a supporter of Gilad Atzmon.

In a report in the
Palestine Telegraph of 6th may 20 11 ‘jewishness’, scare tactics and a sense of humour.’ she presented him as a simple supporter of Palestinian rights who has stumbled on the secret of the Palestinian catastrophe - 'Jewishness'. Quite what one does with this nugget of gold is never revealed. True Booth has converted to Islam, but religious adherents have the odd intellectual amongst their ranks.

It is of course understandable that each national liberation struggle has its own unique features and that of the Palestinians is no exception, but they also have certain things in common, like an oppressor and oppressed. Now if the Palestinians were unique in having been expelled, if Israel was unique in being an apartheid state, if the massacre of indigenous people were patented in Israel, then maybe, just maybe there would be a half justification for the concept that 'Jewishness' is to blame.


But of course the history of imperialism is littered with examples. such as South Africa, the United States, Australia and Ireland of settler colonial states. Other examples of straightforward colonisation - Malaya, Kenya, Nigeria, India - where massacre and atrocity were the norm should demonstrate that focussing on the racial characteristics of the invader and settler, as opposed to the socio-economic reasons behind what happened - is the explanation of those without any explanation.

But clearly Lauren Booth, despite her religious conversion (a trait that she shares with Blair) thinks differently.

Tony Greenstein


'Jewishness' - the secret ingredient that explains everything and enchants Booth

Dear Ms Booth,

I read with interest your article of 6th May 2011 ‘jewishness’, scare tactics and a sense of humour.’ on Gilad Atzmon’s meeting that was going to be held at Westminster University, not least because of your own determined muddleheadedness. I can well understand that having a sister and brother-in-law as war criminals is likely to produce strange effects, but it doesn’t normally addle the brain.

Those anti-Zionist groups and individuals who opposed Atzmon’s meeting at no time called for it to be cancelled. We contented ourselves with persuading the two leading academics who advertised as part of the panel, John Rose and Ghada Karmi, not to participate in an anti-Semitic love fest with your hero.

As a convert to Islam you see what happens in Palestine through the lens of religion, i.e. how men 13 centuries or so ago interpreted society. That means abandoning any rational attempt to explain things like war and expansion. Perhaps you will also learn that religion is a means of rationalising repression – be it in Israel or Iran – the difference being that in Israel religion justifies the oppression of non-Jews, in Iran it justifies the oppression of Muslims.

It is unfortunate that you work for the Iran State’s Press TV, whose record includes broadcasting the confessions of torture victims such as Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman condemned to be stoned to death. Of course you have to earn your shilling but it also helps me to understand where you are coming from.

You quote Atzmon as saying that Zionism ‘is NOT a colonial enterprise. It is a tribal setting.’ Zionism has nothing to do with class, settler colonialism or western imperialism. Instead the answer is to be found in this elusive and mysterious elixir called ‘Jewishness’.

Having rejected any materialist understanding of the world and retreated into received wisdom, you are left with no alternative but to look for racial explanations. After all religious devotion and class politics rarely go together. But for those who want to understand why the Palestinians were dispossessed, ‘Jewishness’ is not much of an explanation.

Or let me put it more simply so that there is no room for misunderstanding. Do we analyse why up to 10 million Africans were exterminated in the Belgian Congo by analysing Belgianness? Or does Germanness explain the holocaust as Zionist historians like Daniel Goldhagen argue or the genocide of the Armenians by examining Turkishness or Americanness to understand why the Amerindians were massacred? And the murder and torture of thousands in Central and South America by US sponsored death squads and juntas? How then to explain the horrors of Mubarak’s regime and why the USA supports the Saudi regime?

‘Jewishness’ explains nothing whatsoever. If it means Jewish identity, well this identity has changed repeatedly in the past 150 years in different parts of the world - from caste, to a working class, to supporters of Marxism and revolution and now Zionism. Your fascination with Atzmon and 'Jewishness' is a mere chasing of your own tail. You will be more likely to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow than ‘Jewishness’ as an analytical tool.

Or maybe the oppression of Catholics in Ireland lies in the nature of Protestantism rather than the machinations of British colonialism. Unfortunately the ruling class is not so stupid. Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, signed off on both the Partition of Ireland and the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine. Or to quote the first Military Governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storres: ‘A Jewish State will be for England a little, loyal Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.' [Orientations p.4l4]

In fact the first Zionists weren’t even Jewish but Christian! Having read little about Zionism and understanding even less, you probably weren’t even aware of Zionism’s Christian roots. Try reading Hani al-Rabeb’s ‘The Zionist Character in the English Novel’ or Non-Jewish Zionism by Regina Sharif. Yes in the 19th Century, the age of imperialism, the idea of a Jewish ‘return’ to Palestine was popular among Christian imperialists and Evangelists (& before them the Puritans) long before it made any impression on Jews. Lord Palmerstone, Ernest Laharanne, Napoleon III, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Gladstone, George Elliot, to say nothing of Lord Balfour, who like many combined anti-Semitism and Zionism.

Employing Atzmon’s logic, we should also ask if it is Christianness that explains Zionism. It should be obvious, even to you, that you are looking down the telescope from the wrong end. You are mistaking cause and effect.

So when Atzmon asks ‘‘Is Zionism what it is. Because ‘Jews’ are what they are?’ the answer should be obvious. Even an Islamist should understand that imperialism didn’t depend on personal or racial characteristics (and if you ask what Jews are then you are talking race) of the conqueror. Of course the imperialists rationalised and justified their plunder and murder by explaining that they had to 'civilise' the subjugated, who were 'backward savages'. All in the name of a ‘Christian’ civilisation. Most people called it racism. No doubt Atzmon wil begin a minute examination of the New Testament.

That is why historically it has been the oppressed who rejected racism because they understood it was the weapon of those they were fighting against. In South Africa the ANC emphasised that it was a non-racial organisation which welcomed white opponents of Apartheid. And on occasion, as in the ‘End Conscription’ group white anti-apartheid activists organised separately. Some of the most prominent anti-apartheid Whites – Ruth First, Jo Slovo, Ronnie Kassrills – were Jewish and unsurprisingly it is Kassrills who has been the most ardent advocate of the Boycott of Israel which Atzmon opposes.

Atzmon talks of ‘the good Jew’, anti Zionist ‘lite’; willing to condemn acts of the Israeli state but supporting the right of ‘Jews’ to a homeland. A supporter of the right of Jews, who are not a nation, to a ‘homeland’ is not an anti-Zionist – be they Jewish or non-Jewish. But I seem to recall it is Atzmon who thought that Israel would change with the rise to leader of the Israeli |Labour Party of Amir Peretz, the ‘Defence’ Minister who waged war on Lebanon in 2006 and who believed that Zionist hegemony had ended with Obama.

In fact it is not the supporters of 2 States who have opposed Atzmon. It is those who oppose Zionism root and branch and have been integrally involved with BDS. Not because of any ‘presumption of superiority’ but because we recognise that there is no greater gift to Zionism than for Palestinian solidarity to be redefined in racist and racial terms. Anti-Semitism poses no threat to Jews today but it is dangerous to Palestinians and Palestine solidarity. Without anti-Semitism there would have been no Zionism. Atzmon, half fool, half charlatan that he is, wishes to replay history as a farce.

The question is cui bono – who benefits from Atzmon’s forays into Jewish conspiracy theory? I first came across him when he defended Israel Shamir, an open holocaust denier. Shamir is widely believed to be linked to the Russian internal security police, FSB. Everything about Atzmon’s behaviour and his efforts to divide the Palestinian solidarity movement, suggests that he also may have links to Mossad.

There is no dispute that most acts of ‘anti-Semitism’ are a result of the atrocities of Israel and claims that Israel is acting on behalf of all Jews. In fact Zionism has always welcomed such anti-Semitism as a means of stimulating emigration to Palestine. By supporting Atzmon, this is something you are also, no doubt unwittingly, are helping in. However the idea that you cannot be an anti-Semite because Jews are not a race is the kind of absurd question that I once had to put down from Oliver Kamm. Accordingly there is no such thing as racism against the Palestinians. After all they are not a race. And the Nazis weren’t racist either. Since there are no races there is no racism according to this logic!

You say that ‘The concept of ‘Jewish’ labelled, pro Palestinian groups, really gets under Atzmon’s skin. Why again, he argues, this need to be ‘special’ or ‘separate’ from other solidarity groups.’ Atzmon isn’t an activist. Nor are you. Jewish anti-Zionist groups don't act separately from other solidarity groups. Quite the contrary. Only Boycott Divestment and Sanctions has forced Israel and Zionism on to the defensive. Nothing that Atzmon says is of the slightest concern to Israel’s supporters.

So what was Atzmon’s reaction to the academic boycott which triggered off the boycott campaign of the past 6 years? In an interview ‘Tangling with the Oppressor’ Atzmon makes his position very clear:
‘interfering with academic freedom isn’t exactly something I can blindly advocate. Unlike some of my best enlightened friends, I am against any form of gatekeeping or book burning. But it goes further, I actually want to hear what Israelis and Zionists have to say. I want to read their books. I want to confront their academics. If justice is on our side we should be able to confront them…. to impose a boycott is to employ a boycotter.’
And why was Atzmon opposed to the Academic Boycott? Because his critics, not least Jewish critics, led the campaign! But according to him, ‘we are crypto-Zionists’!

There is a very good reason for Jews to organise as such. Not because of any desire to organise separately on ‘racial or ethnic grounds;’ (Atzmon doesn’t use the term ‘race’!) but because we are most effective when we do. It also helps deflect the charge that supporting the Palestinians is anti-Semitic. That was why at the national conference of UNISON I was deliberately chosen to speak in support of Boycott in order to counter the Zionists. The same happened in the University & College lecturers Union. It seems a price worth paying, even if it does get under Atzmon’s skin. But to Atzmon the academic boycott is the equivalent of 'book burning'.

You finish with Atzmon’s quip that ‘'The real genius of the Jews is that they made God into an estate agent and the Bible into a land registry'. It is anti-Semitic because it attributes what Zionism did to every Jew. It also holds true for many other religions.

If Atzmon is correct and it is all about ‘Jewishness’ then we should give up on solidarity. Instead the focus should be on Jews outside Israel who, Atzmon holds, control Israel. Instead of demonstrating outside Ahava we should be picketing synagogues and Jewish restaurants. And abandon Palestine solidarity work (as some of his supporters argue) Which I suspect is the real reason for Atzmon’s obsessions.

And if you want any further proof of Atzmon’s anti-Semitism then one only has to read his latest epic ‘Jewish Clandestine Operation Exposed’ about a meeting to discuss the issues above. In fact a number of those taking part, including London ISM, are non-Jewish. But why spoil a good conspiracy?

It’s a great pity that you have chosen to hitch your wagon to this particular carthorse.

regards

Tony Greenstein

4 comments:

jewbonics said...

Tony,
I generally support your politics, but cannot support your attacks on religion. Latin American liberation theology has been responsible for some of the more encouraging political mobilizations of this century. Should we just wave them off because they were mobilizing "religiously"?

Tony Greenstein said...

I am an atheist and therefore I criticise religion, all religion. In certain circumstances religion can co-exist with radicalism as with the liberation theology which of course the church establishment vehemently opposed, as per John Paul II. But there is no such tradition in modern times, that I know of anyway, in Islam.

The development of political Islam in the Middle East, a reaction to be sure to imperialism, has been a setback to anti-imperialism and as in Iran has led to a bloodbath of the left and workers movement. Just as in Saudi Arabia a medieval feudal regime uses Islam as its ideology.

But even with liberation theology there were problems. With Islam as per Booth and co. it is definitely regressive and taking her shilling from the Iranian regime compounds that. Islam has introduced sectarianism into the Palestinian movement and has nothing to offer but further division.

Evildoer said...

I stand with Max. Lauren Booth is one of many not too sharp pencils in our drawer who cheer for anything that sound remotely as a blow against Israel, even when it is in fact a service for Zionism, as Atzmon's ravings are.

But.

Your statement about religion is not "criticizing religion". If a Muslim produces a faith based argument that strikes you as bad, you should criticize it. A generic statement that religion is not rational is not "criticism." It is an act of essentializing both religion AND rationality, and bullying people for being different.

Booth may be a Muslim and she may be a reactionary. And the two may even be connected. If you want to establish that. You are welcome. But a generic assertion that booth is a reactionary because she is a Muslim is no different than what Atzmon does when he asserts "Jewishness" as the root of Zionism. You of all people should understand that.

Furthermore, defining Islam as inherently retrograde (13 centuries ago) is participating in a racist and colonialist discourse. Modern European thought, including its secularist strands, is rooted in intellectual traditions that are thousands of years old. Rationalism is itself a spiritual tradition that includes its own prophets and martyrs (Socrates, Spinoza, etc.) who were very much keen on the divine. If you think rationalism and faith don't mix, you are ignorant of your own intellectual history.

Furthermore, putting Islam on a lower plane, outside the flow of time, reproduces the intellectual strategies of white European Christian suprematism, the consciousness of colonial aggression, which is unfortunately having a great comeback because of current imperial interests in the form of Islamphobia. It is very sad that you play this particular racist game, which, by the way, is exactly Atzmon's game as well. You owe an apology.

Of course, everything else you say is true.

Tony Greenstein said...

Evildoer

I'm not sure who Max is, but I think you have taken my comments out of context.

You say that 'if a Muslim produces a faith based argument that strikes you as bad, you should criticize it.' I agree. However faith based arguments operate within the limited space of the religious texts, Hadith etc. Or Bible and so on. In practice you can justify anything, good or bad, from religious texts.

I don't think that the argument that religion is not rational is essentialising either religion or rationality. Of course there is a history to the development of rationalism through Spinoza, JS Mill, Bentham, Darwin or Marx. Marx is particularly valuable on this.

But it is not essentialising religion, merely a statement of the obvious viz. that faith and reason are diametrically opposed.

I'm sorry if you misunderstood me. I don't believe that Booth or anyone else is a reactionary because they are a Muslim, although conversion does suggest that there is active choice to reach for the dark side. If you look back I also compare her conversion to Islam with Tony Blair's conversion to Catholicism, another religion of the medieval.

BUT as Ireland demonstrated, Catholicism can also be progressive in certain circumstances and I have no doubt the same can be true of Islam, as it was in Bosnia and has been in Albania and indeed in much of the Middle East prior to the incursion of imperialism.

I deliberately describe Booth as an Islamist because I believe she tends towards Political Islam which definitely is reactionary.

But I certainly reject the ideas of the 'clash of civilizations' of Huntingdon that there is something inherently reactionary in Islam. Islam has deliberately been made reactionary or being used in that way, consciously by both Israel and the USA.

The Koran was a product of the 7th/8th centuries. It reflected a pre-capitalist age. When you look back and consciously try to reproduce that you get Iran and its barbaric rulers, or Saudi Arabia. Just as Israel is moving in much the same direction. But that is not inevitable it is how religion is used in the modern era to prop up elites. In that sense Islam is no more reactonary than the majority of Christianity.

I hope I've made this clear because my original article may have not been clear but I didn't intend the meanings you have given it.