I have known Rich Forer for a few years, we have met several times and shared a platform more than once. Rich is the author of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear Into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict? Rich’s opposition to Zionism is universal and humanist in nature.
Recently, an interview with Rich was published by the Jewish Pro-Palestinian outlet, Mondoweiss. I was impressed with many of Rich’s statements but thought that some of his ideas should be challenged. I believe that those who are interested in criticism of ID politics, Jewish culture and power may find this dialogue enlightening.
Gilad Atzmon: I’d like to congratulate you for your recent interview with Katie Miranda.
I have no doubt that your heart is in the right place and I welcome your criticism of Jewish Identity. But I also have some fundamental doubts about your thesis.
In the interview with Miranda you present a binary opposition between the ‘human’ and the ‘Jew.’ You write “If, for example, I define myself as a Jew first and a human being second I will possess anywhere between a subtle and a palpable emotional and intellectual bias that takes for granted that the collective Jewish worldview is superior to other worldviews. On the other hand, if I define myself as a human being first my identity as a Jew is less likely to be pathological.”
I would like to point out to you that the binary opposition you present above is in itself inherently Jewish. Ordinary people, gentiles, don’t ‘define’ themselves ‘as humans.’ Ordinary people know they are human and see no need to identify themselves as such. In other words, your presentation of a distinction between the ‘Jew’ and the ‘human’ suggests to me that you still think within fundamental Jewish categories. And if you cannot emancipate yourself from the Jewish identity complex, who can?
Rich Forer: It is nice to dialogue with you. In the interview I made a point of saying: “These psycho-spiritual roots affect all of us regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or ideology.” So, I disagree that I am presenting “a binary opposition between the ‘human’ and the ‘Jew [my emphasis].’” What I am presenting is an understanding of how the universal dilemma of separation, arising out of the process of identification, affects all humans and how it can lead to immense suffering in the world.
This binary is not inherently Jewish, it is inherently human. Of course, it can manifest in unique ways depending on one’s culture, religion or other categories but there is no qualitative difference from one human to another in terms of the dilemma. To borrow Hindu and Buddhist terminology, the separation or differentiation of the world into self and other and the multitude of permutations that manifest from dualistic thinking is Maya or illusion.
In short, my thinking on this subject not only reflects emancipation from fundamental Jewish categories, it reflects emancipation from all categories that are based upon a presumption of a limited or exclusive identity.
Identification, the act of identifying, begins with the conception of self and other, which cannot be anything other than binary (I prefer “duality”) because, to the conceptual mind, everything falls into one of two categories: self and other; and both of these categories are in flux.
Gilad Atzmon: I am sorry to interject. It seems to me as if your terminology is vague. You say, “the act of identifying, begins with the conception of self and other,” surely what you mean is ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Identification encompasses the self’s craving for belonging and doesn’t act alone. But more important, following Hegel’s Master Slave dialectic (and Lacan’s Mirror Stage) we tend to believe that the relationships between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ are not binary in nature but more of dynamic and dialectic. For Hegel and Lacan our notion of ourselves is shaped by other’s recognition. This is not a binary relationship, it is actually symbiotic or do you disagree?
Rich Forer: From my perspective, self and other is the foundation of dualistic thinking but I cannot say with complete certainty that my understanding is complete. In order to know for sure we have to fully intuit our earliest beginnings as human beings. However, my intuition is that self and other is the being’s innocent acceptance and modeling of a separate identity via its earliest relationships, prior to the development of the thinking mind.
The consciousness of us against them arises out of self and other and requires indoctrination and a thinking mind. I agree that self is shaped to an extent by the other’s recognition and that there is a symbiotic nature to this relationship. There has to be because in the most fundamental sense other is a reflection of self.
Gilad Atzmon: Contemporary Jewish identity involves a certain element of binary qualities due to choseness. As we know, Jewish assimilation and secularization, starting in the 19th century, led to the evolution of a Jewish concept of biological exceptionalism that is racist in nature. The supremacy we detect in Jewish political discourse, both Zionist and so-called anti, points to an inclination towards a Jew/Goy ‘binarism.’
Rich Forer: I agree that the supremacy in Jewish political discourse, Zionist and non-Zionist, points to an inclination towards ‘binarism.’ I would also say that the idea that “Choseness” conveys supremacy is, in my opinion, a perversion of original Jewish teachings. I agree that Jews (and many Christians who’ve also perverted their teachings) who actively participate in or passively defend Israel’s inhumane treatment of the “other” are guilty of a belief in Jewish exceptionalism, whether that belief is conscious or not. This is the predictable result of, allegedly, being chosen by God.
However, I never hear anyone ask the question, “If Jews are a chosen people, what are they chosen for?” The answer I have found in Jewish teachings is that Jews are chosen to bring blessing to the world, to make the world a “dwelling place” for the Divine. The Hebrew phrase for this is dirah betachtonim. The consciousness of us against them has perverted this teaching and turned it into exceptionalism. I believe making a dwelling place for the Divine is what all humans, regardless of religion, are chosen for.
Gilad Atzmon: I agree. I also believe that the Judaic notion of choseness is less poisonous than the Jewish secular and political version of the word. And yet, when it comes to Judaism, I still wonder what kind of people invent a God that chooses them over all other people.
Rich Forer: I agree that the Judaic notion of choseness is less poisonous than the secular. In support of that conclusion, Gershon Winkler, a Torah scholar and formerly an orthodox rabbi who now calls himself “flexidox,” told me that the Torah calls the Jewish people “A” chosen people, not “The” chosen people.
I’d like to add that growing up in the U.S., in synagogue I occasionally heard the phrase that Jews were God’s “chosen people” but there was no teaching or discussion of choseness and no mention of Jewish exceptionalism. If people developed a belief in Jewish exceptionalism it was either because of the pride they felt in the accomplishments of fellow Jews throughout the world or as a reaction to anti-Semitism, which made them retreat more devoutly into a Jewish identity. The former is very similar to the pride someone might feel because a beloved celebrity comes from their home town. I refer to this pride or inflation of self as consolation for the ego.
Gilad Atzmom: I am not so sure. I wonder what is it that establishes a delusional continuum between Moishe from the corner shop and Spinoza or Einstein? Isn’t this a manifestation of the tribal fantasy of Jewish biologism – the belief in race or blood connection? This I what I refer to as choseness, and it is uniquely Jewish.
Rich Forer: Yes, “Jewish biologism” is a “tribal fantasy” and it has an influence in the collective Jewish mind. Earlier, you said that it evolved in the 19th Century. I suspect its evolution began much earlier as a survival mechanism and that its fuller expression flowered in the 19th century. Centuries have passed and survival is no longer an issue, yet the fantasy persists and has taken what I can only describe as a virulently self and other destructive turn.
I think we disagree on this but although I am not aware of choseness as a concept in Islam or Christianity, both religions see themselves as more blessed or less tainted than other religions and groups of people.
Gilad Atzmon: It is possible that some Muslims and Christians may believe to be ‘more blessed than other people’, and yet, such a belief is spiritually driven rather than biologically oriented.
I really appreciate and admire your emancipation in light of your personal history and affiliation with The Lobby. I wonder, do you think American Jews, who are considered the most privileged ethnic group in the USA, would consider relieving themselves of their exceptionalism? The facts suggest the opposite. Jewish power and identity politics is a snowball, it grows exponentially. On the one hand you see PM Benjamin Netanyahu imposing himself on the congress, on the other hand you see the so-called good Jews, those who support the Palestinians doing very little but celebrating their affinity to purge culture in our midst. Is it really normal behavior? Is this a universal tendency? Can you think of any other ethnic group in America that has followed a similar behavioral path?
Rich Forer: I seriously doubt that American Jews or any other privileged group would be willing to relieve themselves of exceptionalism. The ego easily becomes addicted to special privilege or status and always finds ways to justify that privilege. Over time this status is taken for granted so that the idea of giving it up is inconceivable. With regard to American Jews, this addiction, combined with fear of losing their privilege, especially in light of the Jewish people’s history of persecution, is, possibly, the greatest obstacle to peace and an acceptance of the Palestinian people as human and as inherently entitled to the same rights as anyone else.
Offhand I cannot think of another ethnic group in the U.S. that resembles this behavioral path, though I suspect others would be pleased to enjoy a similar status as American Jews, so I do see this tendency as universal. To clarify a bit, by “universal” I do not mean to suggest that every member of every group has a desire to acquire special privilege. Many people are humble and fair-minded. But there are always significant minorities in any group who do aspire to privilege. In the case of American Jews, the outrageous and dishonest hasbara that Israel and its lobbies in the U.S. continually disseminate finds its way into the minds of many people, depriving them of rational thinking while depriving the Palestinians of any chance for equal rights.
Gilad Atzmon: To take it further; I believe that such identity issues are primarily a Jewish secular symptom that emerged after assimilation.
In the late 19th century, it was only natural for Germans to become Germans and for the Italian to become Italians. It was far more complicated for German Jews to decide who they were. That specific identity crisis is known as the ‘Jewish Question.’ Bolshevism and Zionism were attempts to solve the Jewish Identity crisis. Similarly ID politics, cultural Marxism and the orchestrated attempt to split Western society into ID groups are also Jewish progressive projects. Jewish intelligencia taught the West to think sectarian. We learned to identify ourselves ‘as a..,’ ‘as a Jew,’ ‘as a Black,’ ‘as a Woman,’ ‘as Gay,’ etc. Rather than being united in our struggle for a better world, we ended up living in a society shredded by multiple identity synagogues. I am not sure that identity/identification is a universal or metaphysical feature. I think it is a contemporary cultural symptom and it is universally Jewish . I, for instance, have never identified ‘as a saxophonist.’ I am a saxophonist; I make a living playing the sax. I am pretty sure that my next door neighbor knows he is English, he doesn’t have to identify as such. And this brings us to the next question. Can you differentiate between identification and belonging?
Rich Forer: Gilad, I am not familiar enough with the history you cite to give a well-thought out answer to that part of your question. I think, though, that you and I use the word “identity” in different ways, which make it appear that we don’t agree, though we are probably in greater agreement than either one of us sometimes tends to think.
When I speak about identity I am speaking about a tendency that is latent within every individual from birth. I think you speak about identity more within an historical context and perspective.
Actually, I have always thought that we agreed about 90% of the time and that the 10% is more a result of unique perspectives than actual rejection of our respective points of view.
I agree with you that you are a saxophonist and do not need to identify yourself as one. I could say I am a Jew by birth but do not need to identify myself as one. However, I don’t think that is the case with most people who, in fact, are attached at a deep, deep level to their conception of self. If the ego or presumed identity is attached to a need to identify with something in order to boost its sense of self or to allay its fear of mortality, it may cling to the label “sax player.” By the same token it may also cling to, or attach itself to its apparent heritage as a Jew as a way of “belonging.” That belonging provides a security blanket and the false sense that we are not alone, that we are part of a greater whole. This is paradoxical because in one sense we are all alone but in another sense we are a part of the greater whole. It is just that the greater whole we really are a part of is not a particular tribe, as distinguished from other tribes; it is all of humanity and, according to some spiritual realizers, all of life itself down to the smallest atom.
Gilad Atzmon: I understand why contemporary Jews are prone to ‘as a..’ identities. Identification (and by that I mean all forms of identification) removes one from authenticity. Even ‘identifying as a human.’ Rather than encountering the world authentically, identification imposes a mimicking mediating template as well as a layer of correctness. Those who ‘identify as’ saxophonists are obviously insecure about their sax playing. They ask themselves what would Coltrane or Bird do on a given chord sequence. Similarly, Jews who identify ‘as human’ are insecure about their ‘humanity.’ They must be asking themselves what humanity entails or how humans are supposed to react in a given scenario. By doing so, they accept or admit being foreign to the human experience. Secular Jews are often obsessed with their Jewish identification because Jewishness is vague for them and yet they cling to it. I think that identity/identification and ID politics is primarily a Jewish discourse. Accordingly the dominance of ID politics is a symptom of Jewish power.
Interestingly enough, Zionism and Israel provide an answer to Jewish ID politics. Israel is telling the Diaspora Jew to stop talking ‘as a Jew,’ come over to Tel Aviv and ‘be one.’ The Scottish nationalists are selling similar products, when they tell their followers rather than talking ‘as Scots’ let’s ‘be Scots.’ Funny enough, ISIS is selling an identical product. Rather than talking ‘as a Muslim’, it offers young French and British Muslims the chance to be Muslims. It is interesting that the Zionist barbarian interpretation of Jewishness is vastly popular amongst Diaspora Jews, yet statistics suggest that ISIS’s brutal version of Islam is only accepted by a fraction of Muslims worldwide.
In short while ID politics robs the human subject of the authentic experience by means of mimicry, belonging, like the ‘dwelling’ is home.
I guess my final question to you is whether you agree that the rise of nationalism is an answer to invasive ID politics and multi culturalism? After all, Brits, Christians, Muslims, saxophonists, humans etc. do not have to identify at all. Within the nationalist context we are what we are rather than what we claim to mimic. We accept otherness because we know that to others we are ‘the other.’
Rich Forer: Your comment that “identification removes one from authenticity and I mean all forms of identification. Even ‘identifying as a human.” Rather than encountering the world authentically, identification imposes a mimicking mediating template as well as a layer of correctness” is an excellent understanding of the human dilemma. I see this dilemma as common to all of humanity and, although there are distinctions according to DNA, nationality, religion, ethnicity, the dilemma itself does not, in my opinion, differentiate among those characteristics.
Ordinary people do not “see the need to identify as humans,” but that doesn’t mean they are free of the dilemma of separation, which operates at all levels and is so ingrained within the mind that very few ever become conscious of it, let alone resolve it.
We all have many identities, but core identities are particularly problematic because we will defend them to the point of death. The irony is that what we are defending is an illusion. It is not who we really are. Identities are borne of thought and exist in the mind, yet they influence our destinies and, collectively, the destiny of mankind. Emancipation from identity and dualistic thinking confers the compassion and clarity necessary to recognize our common humanity with all people.
With regard to your question about nationalism, I consider it another separative ideology. However, if one understands that his nationality is secondary to his humanity then I have no problem with it.
Gilad Atzmon: Thanks so much for your time and energy. I guess that we have managed to complete a circle here. You landed back at your original position assuming that there is kind of an elementary hierarchy of identifications between humanity and Nationalism. I do not believe that this is the case. I believe that this form of binarism or even dualism is Jewish in nature. I prefer to see authentic existence as a dialectic continuum. I have argued all along that ID politics and Identification is a symptom of inauthenticity. However, I also think that the fact that we do not agree makes this discussion a fruitful and entertaining dialogue. I hope to continue this exchange in the near future.
Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli-born British jazz saxophonist, novelist, political activist, and writer.
Atzmon’s album Exile was BBC jazz album of the year in 2003. Playing over 100 dates a year, he has been called “surely the hardest-gigging man in British jazz.” His albums, of which he has recorded nine to date, often explore the music of the Middle East and political themes. He has described himself as a “devoted political artist.” He supports the Palestinian right of return and the one-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His criticisms of Zionism, Jewish identity, and Judaism, as well as his controversial views on The Holocaust and Jewish history, have led to allegations of antisemitism from both Zionists and anti-Zionists. A profile in The Guardian in 2009 which described Atzmon as “one of London’s finest saxophonists” stated: “It is Atzmon’s blunt anti-Zionism rather than the music that has given him an international profile, particularly in the Arab world, where his essays are widely read.”