Gilad Atzmon and John Mearsheimer: self-criticism, self-hate and hate

I've long been an advocate that self-criticism, both as an individual and as a group, is an essential element of healthy political engagement. Group-think, political orthodoxy and correctness, and chauvinistic received wisdom are the worst kinds of political poison. Triumphalism and/or paranoia are the inevitable consequences, and they lead to grotesque distortions of perception and judgment. Self-criticism, especially of a group one identifies with and participates in, is not only healthy, it is indispensable. Without it, political thought is reduced to mere cheerleading, defensiveness and quickly degenerates into irrational hatred of the other while indefensibly championing the self.
So healthy self-criticism is to be applauded and supported whenever it emerges. It is also an essential element of dialogue between groups, because without it an understanding of other parties' grievances and the failings and even crimes done in one's own name are simply not acknowledged. While continuously defending Arabs, Arab Americans and Muslims from anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, I've tried to engage in as much self-criticism of the failings of these identity groups as possible in my writings, and this has inevitably garnered me a great deal of criticism from those who disapprove of it. Some have argued that at a time when the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States are under heavy attack from bigots and racists, now is the time to circle the wagons and not to look inward, openly, honestly and self critically. Anyone who reads my work will know that I reject this categorically.
Self-criticism, though, is very different from its more extreme relative: self-hatred. When constructive self-criticism gives way to embracing bigoted narratives that demonize and stigmatize identity groups with which one either does or did identify with, this is no longer self-criticism but self-hatred. There is a small coterie of professional former Muslim Islamophobes, such as the man who sometimes calls himself “Walid Shoebat,” and anti-Arab racists of Arab origin most notably Brigitte Gabriel, who make a tidy living off of peddling this garbage to credulous American audiences, particularly from the evangelical Christian and Jewish ultra-right lecture circuit and book-buying public. It is one of the great tragedies of contemporary American public discourse that there is a real, and indeed growing, market for this kind of bile, no matter how over the top. These individuals, in fact, compete with and outbid each other in how extreme they can be in their anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and often have acrimonious relationships based on market share jealousy.
The dichotomy between self-criticism versus self-hatred has recently reemerged in a controversy regarding the endorsement by University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer of a new book by the Israeli (or former Israeli) jazz saxophonist and political agitator Gilad Atzmon. Mearsheimer has been heavily criticized in some quarters for this endorsement, and has defended himself on the Foreign Policy blog of his some-time co-author Harvard professor Stephen Walt. Mearsheimer's main defense is that he found nothing objectionable in the book (which I have not read and will not bother to read either, for reasons which will become abundantly clear), and was not familiar with Atzmon or his other writings. The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that it was incumbent on Mearsheimer not simply to pick up the text he was sent but do a little bit of homework on the author he was being asked to embrace. Had he done so, he would have realized that Atzmon long since crossed the line from Jewish self-criticism to self-hatred in a repulsive and indefensible manner.
In his defense, Mearsheimer acknowledges that Atzmon is, indeed, self-hating, but he seems to confuse unhealthy self-hatred with healthy self-criticism: "The more important and interesting issue is whether Atzmon is a self-hating Jew. Here the answer is unequivocally yes. He openly describes himself in this way and he sees himself as part of a long dissident tradition that includes famous figures such as Marx and Spinoza." But Aztmon is not a dissident, in any meaningful sense of the word, leveling constructive criticism against his fellow Jews and Israelis. Instead, as Mearsheimer would have discovered if he had done his homework, Atzmon frequently traffics in the worst kind of anti-Semitism. Comparing him to Spinoza is simply absurd, and he goes far beyond Marx in his condemnations of his fellow Jews. Moreover, I don't know any self-respecting Marxists who aren't embarrassed by some of the harsher passages in Marx's writings about other Jewish Europeans.
I'm not going to subject my readers to any lengthy catalog of the worst of Atzmon. It's well-documented, and the fact that Mearsheimer is, or at least claims to be, unaware of any of this is, in itself, an embarrassment to any self-respecting academic who wants to comment on such issues. Atzmon calls himself a leftist, but in a straightforwardly racist manner distinguishes between genuine Marxism and a pathological Jewish version: "Jewish Marxism is very different from Marxism or socialism in general. While Marxism is a universal paradigm, its Jewish version is very different. It is there to mould Marxist dialectic into a Jewish subservient precept. Jewish Marxism is basically a crude utilisation of ‘Marxist-like’ terminology for the sole purpose of the Jewish tribal cause. It is a Judeo-centric pseudo intellectual setting which aims at political power." According to Atzmon, "Jewish Marxism is there to suppress any form of engagement with the Jewish question by means of spin. It is there to stop scrutiny of Jewish power and Jewish lobbying." As Andy Newman correctly noted in The Guardian, "This is a wild conspiracy argument, dripping with contempt for Jews."
Atzmon has also disturbingly argued that, "American Jewry makes any debate on whether the "Protocols of the elder of Zion" [sic] are an authentic document or rather a forgery irrelevant. American Jews (in fact Zionists) do control the world." Atzmon argues that he is only referring to Zionists and not Jews, so these comments cannot be considered anti-Semitic. Yet the first sentence in the passage clearly refers to “American Jewry” in general and the second to “American Jews” which he describes in general as being “in fact Zionists.” His disclaimers are completely unconvincing and are absolutely belied by the language and structure of his text, which are not equivocal. It's also noteworthy that this article appears to have been permanently removed from his website, but it can still be accessed here. As Atzmon himself notes, the bracketed comment “in fact Zionists” does not appear in his original text, and he added it later to try to establish that his essay “contains no anti-Semitic or anti Jewish sentiment." I'd challenge any reader of the full original text linked above to agree with that assessment.
One could go on much further, but there's no need. The above quotations demonstrate unequivocally that, for whatever reason, Atzmon does not traffic in healthy self-criticism, but in fact indulges in fairly extreme forms of anti-Semitism, and therefore in self-hatred of an extremely unhealthy variety. A lot of this is very reminiscent of the anti-Semitic ravings of another self-described former-Israeli, "Israel Shamir," who my former co-author, Ali Abunimah, and I warned pro-Palestinian activists about back in April 2001. Not surprisingly, Atzmon is a big fan of Shamir, claiming that, “As an ex-Jew, Shamir is a very civil and peaceful man and probably is the sharpest critical voice of ‘Jewish power’ and Zionist ideology.”
Regarding Shamir, Abunimah and I wrote, “Perhaps some are ready to overlook statements that appeal to anti-Semitic sentiments because the person making them identifies himself as a Jew. But the identity of the speaker makes such statements no less odious and harmful. We do not have any need for some of what Israel Shamir is introducing into the discourse on behalf of Palestinian rights, which increasingly includes elements of traditional European anti-Semitic rhetoric. Such sentiments will harm, not help, the cause.” Based on his comments cited above, and so many others, obviously exactly the same calculation applies to Atzmon. He may see himself as a champion of Palestine and the Palestinians, but through his self-hatred, which has degenerated, at least in those statements, into hatred pure and simple, he can only harm it, and indeed badly.
Gilad Atzmon is no Israel Shahak, a real leftist critic and a genuine heir of Spinoza, who was at the same time a devoted citizen of Israel who served all his required military and other civic duties while railing against its policies and attacking what he saw as the idiocies of Jewish religious fundamentalism. Shahak is often falsely cited as self-hating or anti-Semitic, but he was neither. His was a genuine, healthy form of self-criticism, and although he occasionally took self-criticism to its extremes, he knew where the line between self-criticism and self-hatred was, and he never crossed it. Atzmon, as the above citations demonstrate, does what Shahak never for a moment did, and engages in a fairly advanced version of self-hatred. And with self-hatred of this degree, there is really no distinction with simple hatred itself. As many of the anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes of Arab and Muslim origin demonstrate, being a part or formerly a part of an identity group doesn't in and of itself stop someone from becoming a purveyor of the worst forms of hate against it.
Why Mearsheimer found Atzmon compelling in spite of these attitudes, even if they are largely concealed, implicit or downplayed in his book, is a very disturbing question. Ever since he and Walt began criticizing the role of the pro-Israel lobby (Jewish power in Israel and the United States being a subject that deserves serious interrogation of the kind being done by Peter Beinart, among others), Mearsheimer (far more than Walt) has been developing an outright vendetta with the Jewish mainstream that, I fear, has become deeply personal and therefore distorted. Last year he gave a dreadful speech at the Palestine Center in Washington in which he abandoned his long-standing good advice to Arab and Muslim Americans to develop an alliance for a two-state solution with peace-minded Jewish Americans. Instead, he counseled Palestinians and their allies that Israel would never agree to the creation of a Palestinian state and that because of demographics and other factors, Palestinians would ultimately prevail, and that in effect they need do nothing to achieve that victory (save, he noted, not engaging in the kind of violence that might rationalize another round of Israeli ethnic cleansing). In response to that worst of all possible advice, I dubbed him the “Kevorkian of Palestine,” because I believe he was preaching a form of assisted suicide. He was repeating the siren song Palestinians and other Arabs have been telling themselves about Israel and Zionism since the 1920s: that demographics are destiny and steadfastness alone would secure a victory over the Israeli national project. To say that history has proven this logic incorrect, and led from defeat to defeat, would be a gross understatement.
I cannot claim to see into Mearsheimer's mind, but it struck me at the time that this terrible speech was probably prompted more by a desire to provoke and annoy his antagonists in the pro-Israel lobby than being intended to do anything to help Palestinians achieve independence or an end to occupation (or, for that matter, anything constructive whatsoever). In the same vein, it's hard not to see his endorsement of Atzmon's book as anything other than another extension of this unconstructive, unhealthy and unhelpful two-way vendetta he has with the Jewish-American mainstream. Like the anti-Semitic ravings of Shamir and Atzmon, Mearsheimer's endless quarrel with the Jewish-American establishment does nothing whatsoever to help Palestinians or Arab Americans achieve any of their important goals, most especially ending the Israeli occupation.
There is, of course, plenty of hatred that is not self-hatred but simple hatred of others. A recent video released by a Jerusalem Post editor, Caroline Glick, and her cohort Noam Jacobson is an excellent example of how certain strands of Jewish Israeli discourse are so rooted in a paranoid chauvinism that it shamelessly expresses itself in the most ugly racist stereotypes against a wide variety of other ethnicities and identities. There has been a shameful silence from mainstream Jewish-American groups and commentators about this video, and I would say that for the sake of their own credibility, Jewish Americans who agree with what I have said so far in this posting about Atzmon need to end that silence immediately and condemn this video for what it is: the most repulsive form of racism aimed at many ethnicities. One can only imagine the uproar had an editor of a major Arab newspaper produced a video remotely approaching this one in terms of stereotyping, racism and shameless hatred.
The phenomenon of Arab anti-Semitism is also disturbingly common and well-documented, and I've been a strident critic of it, especially here on the Ibishblog. Combating racism directed towards others from within one's own community is the first step in a serious self-critical engagement with one's fellows, compatriots and coreligionists. But self-criticism that crosses the line into self-hatred and becomes, therefore, hatred pure and simple directed against one's own community of origin isn't any better because of the identity, or former identity, of the purveyor of hate. There is no difference between chauvinistic hatred of the other based on ethnic paranoia and internalized hatred of what is, or used to be, one's own community based on some kind of neurotic and probably Oedipal rebellion and rejection. There are lots of outstanding Jewish and Jewish Israeli critics of Israeli policies, culture and attitudes, and lots of Arab and Arab-American critics of Arab governments, culture and attitudes as well. Walid Sheobat and Brigitte Gabriel are not among them, and neither are Israel Shamir or Gilad Atzmon. Hate is hate, and the source is immaterial and no defense whatsoever.
As for Mearsheimer, his defense of his endorsement is unconvincing, and by standing by it even when confronted with what he claims he did not know about Atzmon before "blurbing" his new book, he has provided his strongest critics with powerful new ammunition to dismiss his opinions as too distorted to merit serious consideration. He certainly can't be compared with Atzmon, and it may be that some of the accusations against him have been unfair. But there's no excuse for his ongoing endorsement, particularly now that he is fully aware of Atzmon's history and views, which he openly agrees amount to self-hatred but has not yet admitted clearly cross the line into anti-Semitic hate speech. Yet again, Prof. Mearsheimer gets a well-deserved F. With this latest blunder, he has finally and permanently flunked out of the respectable conversation about the Middle East and anything related to it.