Gilad Atzmon (Hebrew: גלעד עצמון; born June 9, 1963) 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 thirteen to date, often explore the music of the Middle East and political themes. He has described himself as a "devoted political artist."
His criticisms of Zionism, Jewish identity, and Judaism, as well as his controversial views on Holocaust denial and Jewish history, have led to allegations of antisemitism and racism from both Zionists and leading anti-Zionists.
Atzmon was born in a secular Jewish family in Tel Aviv, and trained at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem.
He first became interested in British jazz when he discovered some in a British record shop in Jerusalem in the 1970s. He initially was inspired by the work of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes and regarded London as "the Mecca of Jazz." He also was influenced to become a jazz musician by the work of Charlie Parker, in particular Charlie Parker with Strings recorded in 1949. Atzmon said of the album that he "loved the way the music is both beautiful and subversive - the way he basks in the strings but also fights against them." He worked with top bands as a musical producer.
In 1994, Atzmon emigrated from Israel to London, where he attended the University of Essex and earned a Masters degree in Philosophy. He has lived there since then, becoming a British citizen in 2002. He renounced his Israeli citizenship.
While Atzmon's main instrument is the alto saxophone, he also plays soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones and clarinet, sol, zurna and flute. Atzmon's jazz style has been described as bebop/hard bop, with forays into free jazz and swing, and seemingly inspired by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Atzmon sometimes plays the alto and soprano sax simultaneously.
Atzmon's works have also explored the music of the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. Atzmon told The Guardian that he draws on Arabic music which he says cannot be notated like western music but must be internalised, which he calls "reverting to the primacy of the ear". Atzmon's musical method has been to play with notions of cultural identity, flirting with genres such as tango and klezmer as well as various Arabic, Balkan, Gypsy and Ladino folk forms. Atzmon's recordings deliberately differ from his live shows. "I don't think that anyone can sit in a house, at home, and listen to me play a full-on bebop solo. It's too intense. My albums need to be less manic."
Collaborations and groups:
Atzmon joined the veteran punk rock band Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1998, and continued with The Blockheads after Dury's death. He also has recorded and performed with Shane McGowan, Robbie Williams, Sinéad O'Connor, Robert Wyatt and Paul McCartney. He has recorded two albums with Robert Wyatt, who describes him as "one of the few musical geniuses I've ever met".
Atzmon has collaborated, recorded and performed with musicians from all around the world, including the Palestinian singer, Reem Kelani, Tunisian singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef, violinist Marcel Mamaliga, accordion player Romano Viazzani, bassist Yaron Stavi, violinist and trumpet-violin player, Dumitru Ovidiu Fratila, and Guillermo Rozenthuler on vocals.
Atzmon founded the Orient House Ensemble band in London in 2000 with Asaf Sirkis on drums, Frank Harrison on piano and Oli Hayhurst on bass. In 2003 Yaron Stavi replaced Hayhurst. In 2009 Eddie Hick replaced Sirkis. The group was named after Orient House, the former East Jerusalem headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization, later seized by the Israeli Defense Forces. The band has produced eight albums. Orient House celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2010, announcing a 40-date tour and a new album.
Robert Wyatt, who has said that Atzmon combines "great artistry with a sense of the intrinsically non-racialist philosophy that's implicit in jazz," worked with Atzmon and others on his 2007 album Comicopera . Wyatt collaborated with Atzmon and Ros Stephens, as well as lyricist Alfreda Benge, on the 2010 album For the Ghosts Within, released on Domino Records.
Atzmon produced and arranged 2 albums for British-American singer songwriter Sarah Gillespie Stalking Juliet (2009) and In The Current Climate (2011). Both albums were critically acclaimed. Atzmon tours extensively as part of Sarah Gillespie's band, playing saxophone, clarinet and accordion.
Atzmon is on the creative panel of the Global Music Foundation, a non-profit organization formed in December 2004 which runs residential educational and performance workshops and events in different countries around the world. and also offers personal workshops to students. A musical transcription of ten saxophone solos by Atzmon was released in 2010.
Atzmon and his ensemble have received favorable reviews from Hi-Fi World, Financial Times, The Scotsman, Birmingham Post, The Sunday Times and The Independent. Reviews of his 2007 album Refuge included:
Manchester Evening News: "The individuality of the music is extraordinary. No one is more willing to serve his music with raw political passion, and that curious cantor-like tone on clarinet is immediately arresting, like Artie Shaw writhing in his death throes."
EjazzNews: "For sheer improvisational fireworks, quirky humour and genre-defying invention, one will be hard-pressed to find a bandleader as unique as Gilad Atzmon." ("EjazzNews," September 2008)
BBC: "...the OHE is finding its voice in an increasingly subtle blend of East and West, that's brutal and beautiful."
In February 2009 The Guardian jazz critic John Fordham reviewed Atzmon's newest album In loving memory of America which was described by Atzmon as "a memory of America I had cherished in my mind for many years". It includes five standards and six originals "inspired by the sumptuous harmonies and impassioned sax-playing of (Charlie) Parker's late-40s recordings with classical strings".
While the music journalist John Lewis praises much of Atzmon's work, he notes that "trenchant politics often sit uneasily alongside music, particularly when that music is instrumental". Lewis criticized his 2006 comedy klezmer project, Artie Fishel and the Promised Band, as "a clumsy satire on what he regards as the artificial nature of Jewish identity politics."
Atzmon was the recipient of the HMV Top Dog Award at the Birmingham International Jazz Festival in 1996-1998. Gilad Atzmon's Exile was BBC jazz album of the year in 2003.
Atzmon's activism has included conducting Socialist Workers Party musical fundraisers, contributing to activist publications, and speaking engagements. In 2010 he appeared on the Russian RT television network to speak about the Israeli raid on the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla".
Atzmon's political writings have been published in CounterPunch,Al-Arab online,Uruknet,Middle East Online,The Palestine Telegraph,Aljazeera Magazine and Aljazeerah.info. (Note neither is connected with the Al Jazeerah news network.)
Atzmon has defined himself variously as a "secular Jew", a "proud self-hating Jew", an "ex-Jew""a Jew who hates Judaism" and "a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian." Atzmon told interviewer Theo Panayides "I don't write about politics, I write about ethics. I write about Identity. I write a lot about the Jewish Question - because I was born in the Jew-land, and my whole process in maturing into an adult was involved with the realisation that my people are living on stolen land." Atzmon has said that his experience in the military of "my people destroying other people left a big scar" and led to his decision that he was deluded about Zionism. He has condemned "Jewishness" as "very much a supremacist, racist tendency". He states that "I don't have anything against Jews in particular and you won't find that in my writings." Regarding the one-state solution, Atzmon concedes that such a state probably would be controlled by Islamists, but says, "That's their business."
Atzmon has compared the Jewish Ideology to that of the Nazis and has described Israel's policy toward the Palestinians as genocide.David Hirst, in his 2003 book The Gun and the Olive Branch, quotes Atzmon as saying America was "about to lose its sovereignty...becoming a remote colony of an apparently far greater state, the Jewish state." In 2009 Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cited Atzmon's written comment "Israeli barbarity is far beyond even ordinary cruelty" during a debate with Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Atzmon's A Guide to the Perplexed, published in 2001, is set in 2052 when Israel has been replaced by a Palestinian state. It largely reviews memoirs of the alienated Israeli Gunther Wunker's rise to fame as a "peepologist," or voyeur. The perplexed are defined as "the unthinking Chosen" who "cling to clods of earth that don't belong to them." The novel excoriates what it describes as the commercialization of the Holocaust and "argues that the Holocaust is invoked as a kind of reflexive propaganda designed to shield the Zionist state from responsibility for any transgression against Palestinians." A reviewer for The Independent wrote that "Those who still thrill to the pages of Sixties underground "comix" may find some of this amusing, however laboured. Yet even those semi-sympathetic to its politics will find it cheap and "provocative" in the worst possible sense." He also wrote that the book has "just enough connection with reality to give it a certain unsettling power" but concludes "His writing, alas, represents a completely false start."The Guardian observed it is "odd to mix knob gags with highly serious assertions" but thought it works because "Atzmon writes with so much style and his gags are so hilarious."Publisher's Weekly noted "Atzmon clearly wants to provoke, but his approach is so familiar that few readers will take the bait."
Atzmon's second novel, My One and Only Love was published in 2005, and features as a protagonist a trumpeter who chooses to play only one note (extremely well) as well as a spy who uncovers Nazi war criminals and locks them inside double bass cases which then tour permanently in the protagonist's orchestra's luggage. The book also is comedic take on "Zionist espionage and intrigue" which explores "the personal conflict between being true to one's heart and being loyal to The Jews".
The Wandering Who?:
In 2011, Zero Books published Atzmon's book The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics whose publisher states the book "examines Jewish identity politics and Jewish contemporary ideology using both popular culture and scholarly texts." Five academics, a journalist and an author were quoted in blurbs in the front of the book. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago wrote that "Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world" and that the book "should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike." Richard Falk wrote it was "absorbing and moving" book that everyone who "cares about real peace" should "not only read, but reflect upon and discuss widely." James Petras wrote that the book is "a series of brilliant illuminations and critical reflections on Jewish ethnocentrism and the hypocrisy of those who speak in the name of universal values and act tribal" which "uncovers the links between Jewish identity politics in the Diaspora with their ardent support for the oppressive policies of the Israeli state." He also wrote that Atzmon "has the courage to...speak truth to the power of highly placed and affluent Zionists who shape the agendas of war and peace in the English-speaking world."
Ten anti-Zionist authors, including Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour, all of whom have also been published by Zero Books, publicly condemned the publisher in an open letter for releasing the book. They signed a statement arguing:
"The thrust of Atzmon's work is to normalise and legitimise anti-Semitism. We do not believe that Zero's decision to publish this book is malicious. Atzmon's ability to solicit endorsements from respectable figures such as Richard Falk and John Mearsheimer shows that he is adept at muddying the waters both on his own views and on the question of anti-Semitism. But at a time when dangerous forces are attempting to racialise political antagonisms, we think the decision is grossly mistaken."
In The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg quoted Atzmon on the Holocaust, Jewish "persecution of Hitler" and Jewish "trafficking in body parts" and took John Mearsheimer to task for "endorsing the writing of a man who espouses neo-Nazi views." Mearsheimer replied via his co-author professor Stephen Walt's blog that "There is no question that the book is provocative, both in terms of its central argument and the overly hot language that Atzmon sometimes uses. But it is also filled with interesting insights that make the reader think long and hard about an important subject. Of course, I do not agree with everything that he says in the book -- what blurber does?"
Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz argues that Atzmon is an antisemite, and criticizes Mearsheimer and Falk for recommending his book. Dershowitz cites statements from the book arguing that Jews are inherently evil, seek to control the world and are a threat to the rest of humanity. Dershowitz notes that Atzmon encourages readers to deny the Holocaust, and quotes Atzmon as saying "Jews are corrupt and responsible for 'why' they are 'hated', and Israel is worse than the Nazis." Dershowitz argues that "Even the most radical anti-Zionists in England have distanced themselves from Atzmon." He writes that "hard-core neo-Nazis, racists, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers" endorse Atzmon, including David Duke, Kevin B. MacDonald and Israel Shamir.
He criticizes John Mearsheimer and Richard Falk for endorsing the book and encouraging colleagues, students, and others to read and "reflect upon" Atzmon's views. He also criticizes other academics who have defended Atzmon, including Brian Leiter, William A. Cook, Oren Ben-Dor, and Makram Khoury-Machool. Dershowitz then challenged professors Mearsheimer and Falk to a "public debate about why they have endorsed and said such positive things about so hateful and anti-Semitic a book by so bigoted and dishonest a writer." Falk rejected Dershowitz' call to debate and wrote to The Daily Caller "I have a limited taste for the sort of defamatory polemics that the Dershowitz attack mounts." He wrote that "if the book is fairly read, and not denounced, it is concerned exclusively with 'Jewish identity,' not with Jews, and explores this reality in a highly personal, passionate, provocative, and honest manner."
Gilad Atzmon offered to debate Dershowitz "any time." He called various criticisms "a typical Hasbara smear & intimidation campaign." Atzmon replied to the MacDonald review referenced by Dershowitz writing his own book "is a study of Jewish identity politics and Jewish culture, it is not concerned with Jewish ethnicity or racial origins."
Peter Bacon has written that Atzmon reminds us of "the strong link between jazz and the radical politics that are sometimes the only way to ensure its - and our - freedom." In a 2009 profile in The Guardian John Lewis described Atzmon as "one of London's finest saxophonists". He wrote: "It is Atzmon's blunt anti-Zionism rather than his music that has given him an international profile, particularly in the Arab world, where his essays are widely read."
Allegations of antisemitism and racism:
John Lewis writes that some Palestinian activists see Atzmon's "anti-Jewish" rhetoric as "discrediting their cause". Andy Newman also described his writing as "anti-Jewish hate-speech". The British Socialist Workers Party, which at one time regularly invited him to their annual Marxism event, now distances itself from Atzmon.
Several of Atzmon's statements regarding Jews and Judaism have led to allegations of antisemitism. In 2004 the Board of Deputies of British Jews criticized Atzmon for saying, "I'm not going to say whether it is right or not to burn down a synagogue, I can see that it is a rational act." Atzmon responded in a letter to The Observer that "since Israel presents itself as the 'state of the Jewish people' ... any form of anti-Jewish activity may be seen as political retaliation. This does not make it right."
In a 2005 piece David Aaronovitch criticized Atzmon for writing in his essay "On Anti-Semitism" that "We must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously" and "American Jewry makes any debate on whether the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' are an authentic document or rather a forged irrelevant. American Jews do control the world, by proxy. So far they are doing pretty well for themselves at least"; Aaronovitch said Atzmon was "a silly boy advancing slightly dangerous arguments." Aaronovitch also criticized Atzmon for circulating an essay by Paul Eisen defending Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel and supporting many aspects of Zündel's Holocaust denial theories. Aaronovitch wrote that Atzmon said he had a "slightly different" view than Eisen: "the Holocaust like any other historical narrative is a dynamic process of realisation and interpretation." Atzmon has said he does not deny the Holocaust or the "Nazi Judeocide" but insists "that both the Holocaust and World War II should be treated as historical events rather than as religious myth. . . . But then, even if we accept the Holocaust as the new Anglo-American liberal-democratic religion, we must allow people to be atheists." In a 2006 piece in The Guardian, David Hirsh cited Atzmon's "On Anti-Semitism" essay, and particularly its Jewish deicide claim that "the Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus," as an example of Atzmon's "openly anti-Jewish rhetoric." In response to a question about this quote from Lenni Brenner, Atzmon replied that he meant "I find it astonishing that people today happen to be offended by such accusations."
In 2007 the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism criticized the Swedish Social Democratic Party for inviting Atzmon to speak, saying he had worked to "legitimize the hatred of Jews." The party defended its choice of speaker.Nick Cohen, in a 2009 piece for The Observer, criticised Atzmon's declaration that "Jewish ideology is driving our planet into a catastrophe" and "the Jewish tribal mindset - left, centre and right - sets Jews aside of humanity". In his blog for The Times, Oliver Kamm charges Atzmon with antisemitism for his article "Truth, History and Integrity", in which Atzmon writes, "As it happened, it took me many years to understand that the Holocaust, the core belief of the contemporary Jewish faith, was not at all an historical narrative for historical narratives do not need the protection of the law and politicians. . . . It took me years to accept that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn't make any historical sense."
According to Irish academic David Landy, a former chair of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Atzmon's words, "if not actually anti-Semitic, certainly border on it".Ynetnews has used Atzmon as an example of Jewish anti-Semitism: "Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli jazz musician, defines himself as anti-Jewish and sees the torching of synagogues as a rational move."
In a review of Howard Jacobson's 2010 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question, Edward Alexander writes, "the novel's Holocaust-denying Israeli yored drummer is in fact based upon one Gilad Atzmon, who is better known in England for endorsing the ideology of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and describing the burning of British synagogues as a 'rational act' in retaliation for Israeli actions."
In September 2011 trade unionist and blogger Andy Newman wrote in The Guardian that Atzmon's political writing are "a wild conspiracy argument, dripping with contempt for Jews". In a letter to the editor printed by the Guardian Atzmon wrote that Newman had "misrepresented" his views and that "how to define a Jew is a loaded topic since Jews define themselves in many different ways, some contradictory, and use those definitions to try to achieve political aims."
In November 2011, Hope not Hate, a United Kingdom anti-fascism and anti-racism campaign group issued a call to cancel a Gilad Atzmon performance at the "Raise Your Banners" festival of political song, stating "Bradford TUC has long been at the fore of the anti-fascist movement in the area and it is in this tradition that we demand the withdrawal of Atzmon's invitation". Bradford Trades Union Council condemned the appearance and the Board of Deputies of British Jews asked the Arts Council, which had funded the festival, to stop the performance. The Arts Council refused the request. Gerry Sutcliffe, the Labour MP for Bradford South, and the Right Reverend David Ison of the Bradford Cathedral also called for the festival to rescind their invitation to Atzmon. The Raise Your Banners director said organisers did not believe the claims of anti-semitism. Atzmon said the Trade Union Council's letter "stitched together" into one quote phrases from five separate paragraphs to make him look racist. He said he wanted an apology.
In March 2012, a group of leading Palestinian activists issued a statement calling for "the disavowal of Atzmon by fellow Palestinian organizers, as well as Palestine solidarity activists, and allies of the Palestinian people". Describing him as a racist and antisemite, the statement affirmed that "we regard any attempt to link and adopt antisemitic or racist language, even if it is within a self-described anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist politics, as reaffirming and legitimizing Zionism." Signatories to the statement included Ali Abunimah, Naseer Aruri, Omar Barghouti, Nadia Hijab, Joseph Massad and several others.
The Community Security Trust report on antisemitic discourse in the UK in the year 2011, published in November 2012, describes Atzmon as increasingly regarded among anti-Zionists as an unwelcome antisemite:
Atzmon's analysis of Jewish history, identity and culture introduces an unusually explicit and quite new antisemitism into far left-wing politics. Leading Jewish anti-Zionist figures have denounced Atzmon as an antisemite. Most anti-Zionists have followed suit and now also condemn Atzmon, but some factional splits have occurred due to a minority of activists defending him.
In Rewriting History: Holocaust Revisionism Today, a book-length assessment of the Holocaust denial movement published in December 2012 by Hope not Hate, Atzmon is listed among the "Who's who of Holocaust Revisionism":
For some time left-wing anti-Zionists defended Atzmon's views, but since he embraced Holocaust Revisionism, publicised the work of outright Holocaust deniers and came out with other irrefutably antisemitic comments, his support base on the anti-Zionist left has waned. Nevertheless, there are still some left activists and academics who are prepared to defend him in spite of the evidence and have praised The Wandering Who?
In the book's foreword, Nick Lowles writes: "Despite being Jewish himself, Atzmon has promoted Holocaust deniers and claims that the established history of the Holocaust is misleading. He attacks Jewish identity in a way that would clearly be recognised as racist if it were about any other minority identity and claims that people might think that Hitler was right about the Jews because of their behaviour today. He tells crude antisemitic jokes and mocks any concerns about antisemitism."
Atzmon refers to charges of antisemitism as being a "common Zionist silencing apparatus." He denies both that he is an antisemite and the very existence of antisemitism, stating that "'Anti-Semite' is an empty signifier, no one actually can be an Anti-Semite and this includes me of course. In short, you are either a racist which I am not or have an ideological disagreement with Zionism, which I have." In 2009, Atzmon said "I've got nothing against the Semite people, I don't have anything against people -- I'm anti-Jewish, not anti-Jews." He added that "Stupidly we interpreted the Nazi defeat as a vindication of the Jewish ideology and the Jewish people", however, "in fact Jewish ideology and Nazi ideology were very similar." In 2009 Atzmon debated David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen on the topic of "Anti-Semitism - Alive and Well in Europe?" at the 2009 Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.
Atzmon says his statements have lost him performance contracts, especially in the United States. Atzmon has had conflicts with anti-Zionists who have attempted to stop his performances.
Oren Ben-Dor wrote in 2008 "I am firmly convinced that these vulgar attempts at silencing of Gilad and other courageous voices offends against supremely thoughtful, compassionate and egalitarian intellectual endeavours." Reviewer Chris Searle defended accusations against Atzmon's "crude anti-zionist rhetoric," writing "No jazz musicians have done more to honour, publicise and spread solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinians than Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble."John Mearsheimer has defended Atzmon, writing with regard to the charge that Atzmon is anti-semitic, "to be perfectly clear, he has no animus toward Judaism as a religion or with individuals who are Jewish by birth. Rather, his target is the tribalism that he believes is common to most Jews, and I might add, to most other peoples as well. ... The more important and interesting issue is whether Atzmon is a self-hating Jew. Here the answer is unequivocally yes." Richard Falk described Atzmon "a de-Zionized patriot of humanity."Norton Mezvinsky wrote that "Gilad Atzmon is a critical and committed secular humanist with firm views, who delights in being provocative."