World-renowned Israeli-born jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon brought his ensemble to the United States on his third annual North America Jazz tour 4-15 May, crisscrossing the country from New York, to Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco, finishing up in Colorado. The concerts' theme was "Music for Palestinians' Resistance", and the tour was used to raise awareness and fundraise for various humanitarian causes concerning Palestine.
Atzmon described his multi-city tour as giving him an opportunity to "talk about Israel, Palestine and the power of beauty". His tour included a stop in Oakland to attend a benefit for the Bay Area's flotilla passengers set to embark on the US-flagged Audacity of Hope in June to break Israel's illegal naval blockade of Gaza. The novelist, political activist and writer, who now makes his home in England, said he began visiting the US four years ago and comes once a year for two weeks. He said he has a lot of fans in the US and believes the exchange of ideas is crucial.
"I visit as many cities as I can, I meet a lot of people, I give interviews. I believe that true spiritual and intellectual exchange can lead towards a shift of consciousness. It is crucial for me to unveil the spirit and ideology that drives the Jewish state and Zionists around the world," Atzmon told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I believe that we are dealing with a unique ideology and practice and I am also aware that due to self censorship, not many people can discuss openly some of the topics I touch on, such as the fact that Zionism is a continuation of Jewish ideology."
Atzmon, who was born in Tel Aviv and served as a paramedic in the Israeli Defence Forces, is known for his no holds barred criticism of Israeli policies. He has a master's degree in philosophy and is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and speaker on Israel and Palestine. He is particularly outspoken on human rights denied the occupied Palestinian people.
"For me the support of the Palestinian cause was a lesson in humanity. Through Palestinian suffering I grasped the supremacy that was inherent in my culture," said Atzmon. "I confronted the tribal and 'chosen' in me. I searched for a new meaning of universalism, humanism and empathy."
Atzmon supports the Palestine right of return and the one- state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He believes one day there will be a Palestinian state. "For me it is clear that Israel is a state but Palestine is the Land. States can rise and fall, yet, the land is there to remain forever," said Atzmon. "Israel belongs to the past. We will see a one state from the river to the sea and that state is going to be Palestine. This principle is both ethical and rational as opposed to the Zionist philosophy that is both nonethical and irrational. Israel is the most dangerous place for Jews to be in," he told the Weekly.
On this visit to the US Atzmon said he was able to meet with many American Jews, including Rabbi Michael Lerner and members of his liberal congregation as well as leaders of the Jewish Voice for Peace. He even stepped outside a church hosting his concert-lecture and launched a dialogue with four Zionists that were sent by the Israeli consulate to picket his talk.
It's not uncommon for his opponents to try to obstruct his appearance at events. Zionists and Jewish anti-Zionists in the UK blocked a 3 May panel discussion he organised to debate "Jewishness and Israeli criminality" at the University of Westminster. He still held a panel event off campus the next day featuring former ITN and BBC Panorama foreign correspondent Alan Hart, Palestine Telegraph founder Sameh Habeeb and writer Karl Sabbagh that discussed "Jewishness, Zionism and Israel".
"For me guilt becomes meaningful once transformed into responsibility. Unlike many Jews in the left who redeem themselves by shouting 'not in my name', I actually contend that every Israeli crime is committed in the name of the Jews," explained Atzmon. "This is a very complicated moral issue that cannot be brushed aside easily. Israel defines itself as 'the Jewish state'. It drops bombs on Gaza from airplanes decorated with Jewish symbols. It is my duty, as a thinker, to grasp what 'Jewishness' stands for."
He said that, strangely enough, some of his most vocal opponents are Jewish anti-Zionists. Atzmon believes he is "standing at the core of a terminological shift in this movement". He thinks Zionism should be redefined, adding that "Israel is not colonialism and it's not exactly apartheid." Atzmon said when he tried to raise concerns about what "Jewishness" stands for and it was the Jewish left that tried to stop him. "It made me realise that there is a kind of a strange continuum between Zionism and its so-called opposition within the Jewish discourse," he said.
Atzmon is a prolific writer and his novels A Guide to the Perplexed and My One And Only Love have been translated into 24 languages. His popular writings on political matters, social issues, Jewish identity and culture have been published around the world.
"I am driven by search for beauty and ethics. When I write about Palestine I search for the metaphysics of the discourse. I search for truth rather than for a political message," said Atzmon.
In his 15 May article "From 'Right of Return' to 'Return in Practice'" at gilad.co.uk, Atzmon addresses the Israeli response to Nakba protesters in Gaza, the West Bank and in the Syrian and Lebanese borders. Referring to media reports that said the Israeli army used "all means" in order to "keep infiltrators out of Israel", Atzmon responds, "Someone should remind the Israelis that it is actually the Israelis who are the infiltrators." It is the Palestinians who are in fact the indigenous inhabitants of the land, he says, calmly exploding yet another Israeli myth.
"What we see today is a clear message to the Jewish state, the Israelis and Zionists around the world," he writes. "Palestine is not an academic notion; it is actually a vibrant struggle for justice. The right of return is not just an ethical concept; it is now put into practice. The days of the Jewish state are numbered."
Apart from his political writings, music has been an influential and life-altering force in Atzmon's life. Atzmon discovered Charlie Parker's "With Strings" at the age of 17 before his mandatory service in the Israeli army. The album moved him to purchase a saxophone and he grew to absorb the music of American jazz legends like Sonny Rollins and Hank Mobley. Atzmon told the Weekly that as he immersed himself in music, "my Zionist enthusiasm disappeared completely. Instead of flying choppers behind enemy lines, I started to fantasise about living in NYC, London or Paris."
Atzmon has recorded nine albums so far, which touch on political themes and the music of the Middle East. He plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, clarinet and flutes, both modern and traditional. His album "Exile" was the BBC jazz album of the year in 2003 and he was described by John Lewis in the Guardian as the "hardest-gigging man in British jazz". Atzmon has worked with Ian Dury, Robbie Williams, Sinead O'Connor and Paul McCartney to name a few.
"I believe that music heals, it certainly amended my soul," said Atzmon. "Along my ongoing struggle to learn how to play and understand Arabic music, I learned to listen. I realised that rather than the eye, it is the ear that holds the key to ethical thinking."