The Wandering Who?:
A Study of Jewish Identity Politics

Gilad Atzmon

Zero Books 2011
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Atzmon begins The Wandering Who? with his personal story, growing up in Israel with a grandfather who wouldn't let his father buy a German car, and eager to become a martyr himself. It was jazz that freed him from this world, by exposing him to black musicians and by giving him an alternative identity as a saxophonist. His experience serving in Lebanon contributed to his political disillusionment and his experience as a migrant to Britain exposed him to Jewish identity politics in the diaspora.

The result is a barely contained rage. Atzmon has no problem with Judaism as a religion or with "human beings that happen to be of Jewish origin", but reserves his ire for "those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all of their other traits". He himself rejects the label Jew, except in the one phrase "proud self-hating Jew", and calls himself instead a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian.

The Wandering Who? consists of short chapters that cohere, more or less, around this common centre, but tackle quite different topics. This makes for easy reading but also gives it a rather scattered feel.

Atzmon naturally spends quite a bit of time analysing Zionism, as a marginal separatism, a negation of alternative identities, and a historiographical project. For him Zionism is "a tribal Jewish preservation project ... that has as its aim the prevention of assimilation" and he suggests that "Zionism per se has little to do with Israel, it is simply an internal Diaspora Jewish discourse". Within Israel, Atzmon looks at the differing successes of settler and sabra ideologies, the see-sawing position of the left on Sharon's invasion of Lebanon, and a few other topics, but otherwise Israeli politics remain peripheral.

The scope of The Wandering Who? is wider than just Zionism, however. Atzmon is just as critical of groups such as "Jews against Zionism" and "Jews for Boycott of Israeli Goods", which maintain an identity-based politics, and he seems to have a personal feud with a couple of figures from the British Jewish Socialists. He also draws parallels between radical left group Matzpen and the neoconservatives — both want to remake the Arab world to their own ends, one by imposing communism and the other by imposing democracy. The fundamental problem for Atzmon is that "secular collective Jewish identity has never matured into adopting a universal humanist ideological standpoint" — and never can, since tribal commitment is ultimately incompatible with a universal ethics.

Just to make sure he will have no friends anywhere, Atzmon also works in some criticisms of other forms of identity politics, notably of separatist feminists and the gay identity movement.

There are some ventures into psychology, looking at identity-seeking, traumatic stress syndrome, the workings of stereotypes, Otto Weininger's ideas about sex and genius, and so forth. There's a chapter on the reworking of the Holocaust as a kind of religion. (Atzmon's stance here has spawned the usual accusations that he is a Holocaust denier, which is manifestly not the case.) And one of the more entertaining diversions in The Wandering Who? is a riff on the Coen brothers' film A Serious Man.

Atzmon writes about Greenspan, Wolfowitz, the Project for a New American Century, and their role in the global financial crisis. He revisits Milton Friedman on the relationship between Judaism and capitalism. And he looks at Purim, AIPAC, and the use of the Book of Esther as a model for Jewish lobbying. As with Zionism, Atzmon sensibly rejects any idea of a conspiracy here, or even of an organised movement.

Atzmon has studied philosophy and works in passing references to Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Lacan, Descartes, and so forth. These are incidental and not elaborated on, however, and there is no attempt to use any developed theory. A more important consequence of this background is a certain precision about language and terminology.

Much of The Wandering Who? is necessarily rather shallow. Where Atzmon wanders into attributing blame for the financial crisis, for example, he is just speculating, and his ventures into psychology don't go beyond "interesting". On other topics, he's largely summarising, and those after much more thorough, if less passionate, analyses can read Norman Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, Shlomo Sand and so forth for themselves.

His central analysis, of the limitations, distortions and dangers of Jewish identity politics, is compelling. But Atzmon doesn't make much of a case that this is qualitatively different to all the other groups which have attempted to build transcendent identities at the expense of everyone else, in the name of a nation, an ideology, a religion, a language, or an ethnicity. (And a few comparisons here might have helped some people step back and attain a different perspective.)

Atzmon is, of course, fighting the battle that he has the knowledge and the insight to fight, against the identity politics that is salient in his own life. One doesn't need to look at the bimodal reviews of The Wandering Who? on Amazon to realise it will polarise those for whom Jewish identity is a concern.

It's not clear, however, how relevant it is for outsiders, who may be better off ignoring Jewish identity politics and focusing on specific political struggles, whether for Palestinian rights or for better transparency in their own political processes. Expecting the rest of the world to worry about Jewish identity crises for their own sake would itself be a form of Jewish exceptionalism.

November 2011

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%T The Wandering Who?
%S A Study of Jewish Identity Politics
%A Atzmon, Gilad
%I Zero Books
%D 2011
%O paperback, notes
%G ISBN-13 9781846948756
%P 202pp