An open letter to Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon, the jazz musician who is prone to anti-semitic conspiracy theory rants played — not for the first time — for the Socialist Workers’ Party in December. The group’s invitation to Atzmon prompted a few words of protest by SWP apologist and children’s author Michael Rosen, writing as Isokotsky in the letters of page of Socialist Worker (7 January). Jazz fan Jim Denham has written this open letter to Atzmon.

Gilad, why is that you make me so angry? Maybe it’s because I love jazz. I love jazz in all its forms, including post-bop, which I don’t really understand. But even when I don’t understand or like a particular form of jazz (latter-day Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, for instance; also Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers) , I always respect the integrity of the musician(s), trying to do something new — which is what jazz is all about.

Actually, jazz is about something else as well: from its earliest days in and around New Orleans , it was about what would now be called “social inclusion”: at a time when blacks and whites could not mix socially, jazz began to break down the barriers.

On 17 July 1923 the (white) New Orleans Rhythm Kings recorded with the black pianist/composer Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton. It was the very first “integrated” recording session. A few years later (1929) Eddie Condon organised a band of his favourite musicians for a recording session (‘That’s A Serious Thing and I’m Gonna Stomp Mr Henry Lee’) that happened to include both white and black musicians. Condon thought nothing of it at the time:

“Five nights a week I went to Harlem, early or late, whether I was working or loafing. At Small’s Paradise on 135th Street I heard Charlie Johnson’s band, with Leonard Davis on trumpet, Happy Cauldwell on tenor saxophone, and George Stafford on drums. Someone, I thought, ought to put this music on records; it’s too good to miss. I went to Ralph Peer, of the Southern Music Company, a subsidiary of Victor. He looked dubious when I outlined my idea. ‘I want to use Davis, Cauldwell, and Stafford,’ I said, ‘with some friends of mine — Jack Teagarden, Joe Sullivan, and Mezzrow.’ After listening to me talk for twenty minutes about the music which would come out of such a combination, Peer gave in and set a date. ‘This will be for Victor,’ he said. ‘I hope it’s good’.

“It was, though Mezzrow and I played too. We made ‘I’m Gonna Stomp Mr Henry Lee’ and ‘That’s A Serious Thing’. The negro Joe Sullivan [NB: the pianist on the records was the white Irish-American stride and blues master, Joe Sullivan — JD] supplied us with some special introductory chords for ‘That’s A Serious Thing’. When the masters were cut Mr Peer congratulated me. ‘You were right about the music’, he said. ‘It is excellent. All in all I should say this has been an interesting experiment.’ It wasn’t untill I got out in the street that I realised what he meant. I made some inquiries: so far as I could discover we had made the first mixed recording date on any national label, using both white and negro musicians. I thought it had been done long before.”

Condon was not a political person, but he was a decent human being who loved jazz music, and so understood that catagorising people on the basis of race is simply wrong. A member of the audience once asked Condon, “Is your clarinet-player a negro?” (a reference to the light-skinned Afro-American Edmund Hall); Condon replied. “I dunno: I never asked him.”

It is that spirit that should inform jazz. It is the music of democracy, anti-racism and equality. Of course, many of the great pioneers were black Americans: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Theloneous Monk, John Coltrane, etc, etc. But plenty, too, were white — and quite a few Jewish (at a time when Jews were experiencing a milder form of the racism meted out to blacks in America): Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Max Kaminsky, Red Rodney, Zoot Sims, etc, etc. The fact that none of these ever made a big deal about being Jewish, is rather the point. They regarded jazz as simply music, and music that was the preserve of everyone — regardless of race.

Do you agree with that premise, or not, Gilad?

There is an interesting alternative story: that of Charlie and his Orchestra. Have you heard of this outfit, Gilad? It was formed during World War Two by the Nazis, when they realised that jazz and swing were a powerful propaganda tool for the Allies. So the Nazis formed their own broadcasting “swing” band — Charlie and his Orchestra — to play the hits of the day, with lyrics modified to convey Nazi propaganda. It was not a very good swing band, but its Nazi message was effective.

A few years ago I was discussing these matters on a jazz e-mail list, when someone brought up Charlie and his Orchestra, and I immediately denounced Charlie and stated that I would never listen to it. Someone pointed out to me that quite a few of the musicians in the Charlie Orchestra were Jewish: they were playing for the Nazis in order to save their lives, and the lives of their families.

So, Gilad, when you make mock (as you do with your “Artie Fishal and the Promised Band”), and when you make statements to the effect that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” may be accurate in describing Jews, and that “American Jewry makes any debate on whether the ‘Protocols of the elder [sic] of Zion’ are an authentic document or rather a forgery irrelevant. American Jews do try to control the world, by proxy.” ( what is it you think you’re saying?

And you go on to say (this is all on your website, by the way, so I presume you won’t be denying any of it): “The Jews are the ultimate Chamelions, they can be whatever they like so long as it serves some expedient...not only can’t they win...they can’t lose either, they can never be defeated...They move forwards and backwards, from left to right, from right to left, from spirituality into materialism, from orthodox Marxism into hard capitalism...”

You may not realise it, Gilad, but this kind of stuff is classic European and Russian anti-semitism: the Jews as both Bolsheviks and Rothschild capitalists: the ultimate conspirators. Your stupid, ignorant “Artie Fishal” routine is worse than Charlie and his Orchestra: at least the Jews in that band played anti-semitic material because they had no choice; you do it because you want to. Because you revel in baiting your homeland, which you wish to see destroyed.

You are free, of course, to bait Israel and to spout your anti-semitic propaganda. The degenerate ex-Marxists of the SWP are free to promote you and your band (though why, exactly, they should allow you to speak on the politics of the Middle East, remains a mystery).

But, as a jazz-lover, I have to say that I hate your racism. Jazz is the music of integration, of humanity and equality. Your anti-semitism has no place in our music


The letters...

The Rosen letter:

Inviting Gilad Atzmon to play is a bad move

Great news about the Cultures of Resistance musical programme, but I have to say I’m mightily dismayed that you have saxophonist Gilad Atzmon on board.

He is someone who has frequently expressed racist ideas and surely we have always said that you can’t fight racism with racism? I fear that the racism he expresses is seen by some in the liberation movements as a racism that doesn’t matter as much.

That’s to say, it’s said by some that racism towards peoples from countries oppressed and exploited by the West is the main racism we’re fighting, but a racism directed towards peoples seen as heavily implicated in the West’s oppression matters less.

Thus, antisemitism in the 21st century is seen perhaps as “mistaken” within the liberation movement, much as we might say that going on about Rupert Murdoch being Australian is “mistaken”.

This is a disastrous route to go down. Antisemitism imagines the removal or elimination of a group of people from the world system.

All we have to ask ourselves is: 1) would eliminating that group change the system for the better? 2) what ghastly processes would a state create in order to do the removing and eliminating?

I think Cultures of Resistance is making a great mistake taking Atzmon on board with them and this will undermine and weaken what we are all trying to do.

Michael Rosen, East London

The 'reply':

Gilad Atzmon is not racist

As the organisers of the Cultures of Resistance event we were disappointed to see Michael Rosen claiming that Gilad Atzmon is an antisemite and should therefore not have been invited to perform (Letters, 6 January).

We would never give a platform to a racist or fascist. Our entire history has been one of fierce opposition to fascist organisations and antisemitism.

Faced with such accusations, Gilad has issued a personal statement making it clear that he is not a racist or a Holocaust denier. It is also worth noting that papers like the Morning Star and Guardian have also run articles refuting these claims.

Gilad has now played around a dozen fundraising events for the SWP and we can say categorically that he has never made any offensive/racist comments – in fact every performance has been one of supporting the civil rights struggle and opposing war.

While defending Gilad’s right to play, that in no way means we endorse all of Gilad’s views. However it is worth noting that he is a Jewish exile from Israel who was a member of the Israeli army.

As part of his struggle to break from his Zionist upbringing he has become an angry and bitter opponent of Israel. For the record we have publicly challenged and argued against those of his ideas we disagree with.

Instead of banning him shouldn’t socialists be celebrating his undeniable musical talent, and at the same time challenging those ideas that he holds that we disagree with?

Hannah Dee and Viv Smith, London


I was sorry that Michael Rosen feels that antisemitism “doesn’t matter as much” to some people as other forms of racism today.

It should matter, because all racism has to be opposed. But in the current context, two further points should be made.

The state of Israel and its policies towards Palestinians lead some people to equate Jews with Israel’s ideology of Zionism. We have to constantly explain that not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews (some of Israel’s strongest supporters are the neocon Christians in the US).

We also have to recognise that in Europe today the main form of racism, taken up and propagated by governments and media, is against Muslims. This scapegoating has direct parallels with the situation of the Jews in the 1930s.

Of course other groups suffer racism as well. The Nazis were humiliated by the black athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, whose performance didn’t fit in with their views of Aryan supremacy.

But the main form of racism was still against Jews. Today the caricatures and demands to integrate are not directed at Jews but at Muslims.

While it’s a mistake not to recognise racism in any form, it’s at least as big a mistake to fail to understand the main form of racism at any particular time.

Let’s not make any of these mistakes.

Lindsey German, East London


Whilst Dee and Smith wheel out the predictable 'line' - disingenuous, flip-flopping, spineless tosh - German's contribution is genuinely baffling. Who does she think she's speaking to and who does she think she represents when writing? Failing to address Atzmon's egregious Jew-baiting and instead telling people not to make 'mistakes'!

Would two leading SWP activists feel moved to write such a letter in defence of an openly gay homophobe for instance? I can imagine that out there, somewhere, is a gay man who opposes war, can play a nice tune on his sax but has taken to denouncing lesbians on a personal web-site. Would the SWP invite this man to raise money for them? Would SWPers defend him? Would we be surprised if they did?

Tom Unterrainer

Atzmon on why 'Jewish Socialists' are a global threat...

CounterPunch carries an article by Gilad Atzmon explaining in the most opaque terms why Jewish Socialists like Michael Rosen are part of the 'global Zionist conspiracy' - you have to get all the way to the end to get the meat of his 'theory' but to get the link to Rosen et al you need to read the whole thing. Here's a taster:
"Zionism is not a local movement supported by some enthusiastic lobbies around the world. Zionism is a global network. It is a clannish political apparatus that systematically endangers our planet for the sake of a miniature ethnic group. This very group is not the Jews per se, it is actually the Jewish political tribe."
See for more.