Yes to free speech, no to anti-semitism

Submitted by AWL on 10 March, 2015 - 5:05 Author: Bruce Robinson

A concert by the controversial Israeli-born jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon has been cancelled by the Royal Northern College of Music on the spurious grounds of threats to “safety” of the audience. This followed a petition from the North West Friends of Israel calling for cancellation on the basis of Atzmon’s anti-Semitism.

This attack on the principle of free expression should be condemned, particularly as it is part of a growing wave of actions by University authorities responding to speakers or acts that may cause controversy or protest by banning them. It also precedes government moves to criminalise undefined “extremist” views on campuses. “No platforming” should be reserved for organised fascists, those who incite violence and are a direct threat to minority groups.

Defending freedom of expression should not be confused with defending Atzmon or his views. Atzmon believes anyone who claims a Jewish identity is “tribal” and necessarily racist and reactionary. His condemnation of an ethnic group as a whole for supposedly shared negative traits is racist and leads Atzmon to some particularly unsavoury conclusions, as an examination of his website shows. For example, sympathetic posts on Holocaust deniers (“ I agree 100 percent with everything Ahmadinejad said about the Holocaust”) go alongside blaming “Jewish misbehaviour” for anti-Semitism:

“If anti-Semitism is defined as the Goyim’s [Gentiles’] reaction to Jewish misbehavior, Benjamin Netanyahu provides us with an incredible opportunity to observe such transgressions in action… Jews as an ethnic and ideological collective lack the means to restrain itself and its destructive powers from within. This may help to explain why the Jewish past can be construed as a chain of Shoahs. [A Hebrew word meaning ‘catastrophe’ used for the Holocaust]”

The left should clearly have nothing to do with Atzmon rather than giving him and his music a platform, as the SWP did in 2005. But we should not advocate that the state or public spaces ban him. It is not merely wrong and opens the doors to wider bans but also counter-productive: the RNCM ban has allowed Atzmon to paint himself as a victim (of a Zionist conspiracy, of course). He is also able – generally truthfully, I think – to argue that he does not present his anti-Jewish views as part of his musical performances. This is strange for someone who describes himself as a political musician and whose political views would probably be ignored if he wasn’t a well known musician.

The reason is clear. If his detailed views were better known, he would probably lose much of his audience. And that suggests how those opposed to Atzmon should act: make sure that as many people know what he really believes and advocate a boycott of his music. To ignore it is to ignore anti-Semitic racism.

A petition has been launched on Change.org condemning the RNCM ban and asking for the concert’s reinstatement. As Atzmon is presenting it as a petition in support of him, socialists should not sign it. Better to write a letter to the RNCM making the arguments.