David Mamet, Gilad Atzmon and Identity Politics


L-R: David Mamet and Gilad Atzmon

by James Warner

Reading Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? immediately after David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge, I was surprised to find the two books, written from vehemently opposed political viewpoints, nonetheless reminded me of each other. Does Mamet’s need to see the Israelis only as scapegoats grow from the same root as Atzmon’s need to see them only as perpetrators? An underlying emotional argument of Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge could be glossed as “I used to be a poster child for liberalism, so all the more reason to believe me now I reject everything about liberalism.” For an underlying emotional argument of Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? substitute “Zionism” for “liberalism.” But even if this were a compelling line of argument, each book contains plenty of evidence Mamet and Atzmon were never exactly poster children.

Mamet’s plays and other writings celebrate individual courage, discipline, and commitment. While he has only recently started identifying as a conservative, his long-term distrust of academia and high estimation of street smarts, his generally low opinion of human nature and belief that playing the victim card is a more contemptible route to power than is straightforward self-interested chicanery – while arguably bipartisan attitudes — in the contemporary U.S. tend to be more associated with the right. It’s not surprising if a man whose plays observe the Aristotelian unities of Time, Place and Action leans conservative, while when it comes to Israel – more likely the driving factor behind Mamet’s political conversion – he has for some time been on the right of Israel’s foreign policy spectrum. According to The Secret Knowledge, he now desires a Republican victory in the U.S. in 2012 and the repeal of health care reform, Israel’s infallibility apparently not extending to its system of socialized medicine. Mamet loves America and Israel for their entrepreneurialism, and tends toward the neo-con line that Israel is the front line in the “War Against Terrorism,” and that anyone criticizing the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians must be an anti-Semite. Mamet reports he is now ashamed not to have fought in Vietnam, a lack for which his more recent hawkishness could be seen as a bid to compensate.

Atzmon on the other hand is in rebellion against his own experience of the 1980s Israel-Lebanon war, recalling in The Wandering Who? visiting a prison camp in Lebanon where Palestinians were incarcerated by Israelis, and deciding he was on the wrong side. Although Atzmon’s grandfather was in the Irgun and Atzmon served in the Israeli military, his presentation of himself as ever having been a good Zionist is often undermined by his own evidence. In The Wandering Who? Atzmon reports on a high school visit to the Israeli Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem asking “the emotional tour guide if she could explain the fact that so many Europeans loathed the Jews so much and in so many places at once,” implying the Jews might be to blame for the persecutions inflicted on them. One recognizes Atmon’s type of adolescent, calmly crafting a question designed to enrage his listener – that word “emotional” is particularly disingenuous here.

Faulting the Jews for their own sufferings is specifically identified by Mamet, in his earlier book The Wicked Son, as characteristic of – in Mamet’s own words — “apostate Jews whose denunciation of Israel rises past legitimate debate into the realm of race treason.” This is the sort of “emotional” response the adolescent Atzmon doubtless sought, and in this respect he has not matured much — the same impulse to provoke is blatantly at work throughout his writings. He reports being sent home from school for a week for posing his falsely-naive question. The Palestinian adolescent who asked a similar question, as to whether the sufferings of the Palestinians might be rooted in flaws in Arab culture, might not get off as lightly.

Atzmon is frequently misdescribed as a Holocaust denier, but here’s what he actually writes about the Holocaust in The Wandering Who? – “It was actually the internalisation of the meaning of the Holocaust that transformed me into a strong opponent of Israel and Jewish-ness. It is the Holocaust that eventually made me a devoted supporter of Palestinian rights, resistance and the Palestinian right of return.” Atzmon asserts that Israel granting Palestinians the right of return “won’t just resolve the conflict in the Middle East, it would also bring to an end two millennia of mutual suspicion and resentfulness between Christians and Jews.” The only obstacle Atzmon sees to this plan being enacted is that “Jewishness is an ethnic-centric ideology driven by exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination towards segregation,” a claim one would surely be equally justified, or unjustified, in making about any ethnicity? Characteristically absent is any admission of ethno-centrism on the Palestinian side, or attempt to explain why the efforts of European Jews to assimilate prior to the Holocaust were rewarded with renewed anti-semitism.

Mamet writes of Jewish anti-Zionists in The Wicked Son, that “if Israel were gone, these anti-Zionist souls believe they might dwell in an unmitigated state of assimilation, any pressures of which might conceivably be combated by an effortless supineness.” The Wicked Son seemed overstated to me when I first read it – it tackles the archetype of a Jew ashamed of his own people who rejects them to join a group of enlightened post-tribalists – but if not a good fit for all Jewish anti-Zionists, Mamet’s “Wicked Son” archetype does ring true in Atzmon’s case. Atzmon at one point describes himself as a “proud, self-hating Jew,” rather like the character Finkler in Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question who takes pride in joining a group called “Ashamed Jews,” consisting of Jews who are ashamed of Israel. Mamet, in turn, is ashamed of Jews who feel that way.

Julia Stiles as Carol and Bill Pullman as John, Oleanna, Los Angeles, 2009.

In Mamet’s world, political correctness is generally a mask for vindictive envy, and acts of liberal guilt are savagely exploited by their beneficiaries, who interpret them as weakness and are only interested in race warfare. In Mamet’s play “Race,” for example, the black woman Susan is so committed to race and gender politics that she sabotages her own law firm’s case in order to frame a white man with rape. It is through such a lens that Mamet views Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with any well-meaning concessions doomed to run aground on the unqualified hatred of the other side. If Mamet’s play “Oleanna” did not provoke sufficiently heated discussion for you, try advancing an interpretation of it in terms of Israel-Palestine relations – the powerful professor is Israel, the radical, rape-alleging student is Palestine, onlookers sympathize exclusively with one or the other, and negotiation between the two is impossible.

Neither Mamet nor Atzmon would be very helpful at a negotiating table, but the tormented arguments of The Secret Knowledge and The Wandering Who? perhaps help an outsider appreciate some fraction of the psychic trauma entailed in being Ashkenezi. Mamet and Atzmon personify rival internalisations of the meaning of the Holocaust, “we must never be victims again” versus “we must never victimize others,” perspectives appallingly hard to reconcile. Their extremist certainty of tone reflects a terrible underlying vulnerability, one more common ground between Mamet and Atzmon being that both are looking for refuge. Mamet believes Israel is a refuge for Jews from a world that hates them, Atzmon that “Israel’s enemies do not need to nuke the country – all they need do is send a message to the Jews of the world that Israel is anything but a shelter. In fact, this is what Arab and Islamic resistance is all about: a metaphysical message rather than a call for a Judeocide.” Atzmon sees true refuge only in assimilation, but his vagueness about what the post-Zionist future might look like calls to mind the inept U.S. President in Mamet’s play “November” who, while Iran is bombing Israel, unreassuringly tells the Israeli ambassador over the phone, “Look: you people, got along without a country for two thousand years. You’re gonna be fine.”

Of his great-grandmother’s death in the Holocaust, Atzmon writes, “The fate of my great-grandmother was not so different from hundreds of thousands of German civilians who died in deliberate, indiscriminate bombing, just because they were Germans.” It may be Atzmon’s prerogative to try and put his great-grandmother’s death in perspective – his point is that “we should strip the Holocaust of its Judeo-centric exceptional status” — but why not apply as much relativity to the Palestinian right of return? Millions of Indians and Pakistanis became refugees in the 1940s, as well as Jews from European and Arab countries, Germans from Eastern Europe, and the millions forcibly relocated by Stalin – to designate Palestinians as the only ethnic group whose refugee status from the 1940s must never be allowed to expire is itself a form of reverse Judeo-centrism. Atzmon writes that “within a culture metaphysically centred on exilic ideology, the last thing you can expect is a successful homecoming,” but if a sense of exile nurtured over generations automatically disqualifies a people from managing a nation-state, this again would logically be an argument against granting Palestinians the right of return. Palestine, Atzmon calls an “ethically-driven ecumenical society,” which seems less an attempt at a sociological analysis than a fantasy meant to help Atzmon feel good about transcending his own Israeliness, the flipside of Mamet’s tendency to treat the words “Arab” and “terrorist” as interchangeable in The Secret Knowledge — both Mamet and Atzmon tend to see Jews as psychologically convoluted, while using Arabs as blank projection screens for their anger or guilt.

The sense of belonging to a victimized group, or to a victimizing group one must always be apologizing for, can be equally distorting of one’s world view. Both Mamet and Atzmon tend to see political affiliation in terms of joining a group, while doing a better job of applying this insight to their opponents than to themselves. Mamet writes that liberals want to hold onto their “membership in a group whose size and power allows the individuals to submerge his doubts,” meanwhile submerging his own doubts in the current right-wing American orthodoxy, in The Secret Knowledge repeatedly denying climate change and at one point, in his hunger to join the Republican “tribe,” coming as close as he can to disputing the theory of evolution — “The Left says of the Right, ‘You fools, it is demonstrable that dinosaurs lived one hundred million years ago, I can prove it to you, how can you say the earth was created in 4000 BCE? But this supposed intransigence on the part of the Religious Right is far less detrimental to the health of the body politic than the Left’s love affair with Marxism, Socialism, Racialism, and the Command Economy…”

Although The Wicked Son is ostensibly and insistently about anti-Semitism, Mamet’s dominant fear in this book is not that the “Wicked Son” will face persecution, but that he will renege on the traditions of his fathers – could Mamet be so obsessed with anti-Zionism out of the fear that, in the absence of persecution, Jewish identity is in risk of eroding? He reports critically that liberal Jews who strip everything else from their Jewish identity retain to the last the ideal of “social justice,” but there are also American Jews whose Jewishness is expressed primarily through their uncritical support of the Israeli government, and who may feel some cognitive dissonance justifying Israel as a safe place for Jews when America actually feels safer. Atzmon — whose true vocation is as a bebop saxophonist — writes that “the Palestinians are the indigenous people of the land, and the rockets they shoot from time to time are nothing but love letters to their stolen villages, orchards, vineyards and fields.” This lapse into lyricism does not inspire confidence. To Leo Frank, a Jew lynched in the U.S. in 1914, whose story is dramatized in Mamet’ novel The Old Religion, Mamet gives the line – “For that is how they’ve condemned me – in the search for a magical past, like the present in all respects but with no Jews.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mamet writes that “in abandonment of the state of Israel, the West reverts to pagan sacrifice.” With rhetoric like this, whether Israel is scapegoat or perpetrator, the conflict becomes mythologized into something lying beyond the confines of reason.

In his novel My One and Only Love, Atzmon portrays Israeli intelligence services going out of their way to protect Nazi war criminals, to prevent the sense of closure that might be achieved through these Nazis being tried, “to keep the Shoah legacy going as long as possible.” Characteristically, Atzmon hits on a tasteless way of making a serious point — that it is wrong to use the spectre of the Holocaust to deflect all criticism of actions by the Israeli government. Westerners are hopelessly conflicted here – how much pro-Israeli feeling among Westerners is driven by guilt over the Holocaust, and how much pro-Palestinian feeling by guilt over imperialism in the Middle East? Atzmon is offended by “those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all of their other traits,” but since he does not complain about people of other ethnic groups putting their ethnicity over and above their other traits, he is guilty here of a sort of negative exceptionalism, holding Jewish people to a higher standard of moral universality than anyone else, and then finding them wanting. George Steiner has written that for anti-Semites like Céline “hatred of Jews is the natural distillation of a generalized contempt of the human race” – analogously, for some anti-Zionists, condemnation of Israel may be the distillation of a generalized dislike of the nation-state.

On the other end of the spectrum, love of Israel can make a great American playwright and movie director like Mamet try to excuse the beliefs of Creationists. In many arguments about Israel and Palestine, the opposing sides seem to be disregarding each other’s arguments completely, so it’s interesting that Mamet and Atzmon do at least seem to be in the same conversation, rather as if each is the straw man the other is tilting at.

One senses if they actually met and got into a lengthy argument, and didn’t come to blows, that at some point after all the bystanders had fled, their conversation might become enlightening – could they conceivably even find a way out of the destructive discourse they are both trapped in? It’s a scene I wish they would both try to write.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy | Creative Commons License

About the Author:

James Warner is the author of All Her Father’s Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here.