By Jeanie Barton
I have always considered music a universal language; perhaps the only form of communication that can unite us regardless of creed, race, religion or even species – life connects with the beauty and passion of musical expression. I was therefore recently very disturbed that, a small number of Nottingham residents succeeded in lobbying Gedling Borough Council to cancel a concert by a popular, critically acclaimed saxophonist who is also an Israeli critic of Jewish Identity Politics and identity in general.
When I heard that just 13 people had managed to cancel the musical performance of Gilad Atzmon, whose band has previously played The Bonington Arts Theatre 9 times to packed houses, without any complaint from audiences or residents, Jewish or Gentile, I balked at what this could mean for freedom of speech, jazz and music in general.
Gilad is critical of ‘Jewish Power’. He is not alone. Following last summer’s latest military assault on Gaza by Israel, supported politically and financially by the US and her allies, there has been a profound awakening in the western public’s consciousness that all is not well and good in Palestine and that ‘we’ are complicit in the continued bloodshed and heartache.
Although not directly relevant to Gilad’s music, this campaign against him highlights the subsequent increase in people being labelled as anti-Semitic. In the wake of operation Protective Edge (which killed around 2200 Gazans and 71 Israelis) I know many people critical of Israel, Zionism and ‘Jewish Power’ globally, have been accused of being anti-Semitic or ‘self-hating Jews’. The desired result of these accusations is to silence discourse and in this case it went so far as to silence instrumental music.
So is Gilad anti-Semitic, and did Gedling Borough Council have any legal right to cancel his musical performance when he has never had any formal charges relating to anti-Semitism brought against him?
When I meet him he readily admits to being an “arrogant c*nt” but denies being anti-Semitic. He points out that his latest book, The Wandering Who (within which the complainers site ‘anti-Semitic’ statements) has so far been published within 12 countries, including some who have laws against Holocaust denial. It has received numerous endorsements from leading scholars and eminent global political figures including; Professor Richard Falk (United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Palestine), Professor John J. Mearsheimer, Greta Berlin (Co-Founder, the Free Gaza movement), Professor William A. Cook, Professor Norton Mezvinsky (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012) the list goes on and on…
Although one of the complainants, Dave Rio emailed and called my attention to an online document wherein 24 Palestinian solidarity activists denounce Atzmon, it rather put me in mind of the adage that ‘you can please some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time’. Whose list of accreditors/condemners is more worthy or correct? That is a subjective argument and would still not prove Atzmon is an anti-Semite. We can only know that his book’s endorsements are by people who have definitely read the work in full.
As Gilad told me, Jews are generally very easily offended. If his observations and statements are offensive to some, does that mean those few should get to choose for others what they hear – even if those others just wanted to hear jazz music and likely had no interest in politics? Dave stated to me that “I would not tolerate anyone who made comparable remarks about black people or Muslims playing in Nottingham.” But who is he or the other 12 signatories to ‘tolerate’ or not? This is a level of presumed moral authority that I’m not sure can be legitimised – they always had the option to boycott the concert themselves.
Gilad has previously questioned the definition of anti-Semitism; “You are either a racist, which I am not, or have an ideological disagreement with Zionism, which I have.” He has also defended himself from being labelled an anti-Semite with the witticism “while in the past an ‘anti-Semite’ was someone who hated Jews, nowadays it is the other way around, an anti-Semite is someone the Jews hate.”
Following the cancellation of his concert at the Bonington on the 15th January (which went ahead at The Five Ways pub), Gilad arranged to come back for a talk, where his accusers could discuss with him their concerns at the Canalhouse, Canal Street, Nottingham on the 2nd February. I popped there before my gig nearby only to find the whole pub in darkness – it turns out that someone had tipped off the venue and police that the meet could cause trouble and that the safety of the public and staff might be at risk, so they completely closed as a precaution! Jaw dropping levels of panic! The talk was moved last minute to the Salutation where around 35 people gathered, none of which were the mysterious 13. It was calm, ordered and professional consisting mostly of local academics and jazz lovers. Goodness knows why the venue or police thought it would become violent?
This level of fear surrounding criticism of Israel and Jewish Power to me is the most frightening aspect of this saga. With new steps being introduced to outlaw anti-Semitism in Canada and elsewhere, the Orwellian thought police are now a reality – but ironically we were actively encouraged to criticise and mock Muslims post Charlie Hebdo by world leaders who marched in Paris on 11th January? Many have spotted this screaming hypocrisy.
Another irony here is that in trying to destroy Gilad’s music career, the actions of these 13 individuals and Gedling Borough Council have created an enormous amount of publicity for him and his work! Gigs and talks across the country are now flooding his diary – his band joked that he probably orchestrated the whole thing, but he professes not to be that clever…
Joking aside, I found out recently how unjust and upsetting it is to have your music attacked because of your opinions. In a small way I experienced this by being outspoken about the detrimental effect of the NET tram construction, which has wreaked havoc on residents and cost many businesses tens of thousands of pounds (including my family’s firm, which did not qualify for compensation). Compounding this misery, it recently became public that local Councillors have been involved in using fake identities to ‘flood the press’ with positive PR. Aliases and pseudonyms on the Nottingham Post website that had previously only commented on articles about the tram, trolling those who do not adhere to the ‘positive’ light rail narrative, quickly moved across to attack me professionally under the article about my appointment as the new jazz columnist.
However, this new age of poison pen letters merely compels us to continue exposing injustice locally, nationally and internationally; an attack on our music because of our opinions will only succeed in making us more outspoken. I can only surmise that the nearer the target one gets the more flak you receive and that jazz music has a history of attracting rebels.