‘The Nazis made me afraid to be a Jew, and the Israelis make me ashamed to be a Jew.’

 Israel Shahak

The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics

By Gilad Atzmon


 My grandfather was a charismatic, poetic, veteran Zionist terrorist. A former prominent commander in the right-wing Irgun terror organisation, he had, I must admit, a tremendous influence on me in my early days. He displayed unrelenting hatred toward anything not Jewish. He hated Germans; consequently, he would not allow my dad to buy a German car. He also despised the British for colonising his ‘promised land’. I can only assume that he didn’t detest the Brits as much as the Germans, however, as he did allow my father to drive an old Vauxhall Viva.

 He was also pretty cross with the Palestinians for dwelling on the land he was sure belonged to him and his people. Often, he would wonder: ‘These Arabs have so many countries, why do they have to live on the exact same land that was ‘given’ to us by our God?’ More than anything, though, my grandfather hated Jewish leftists. Here it is important to mention that as Jewish leftists have never produced any recognised model of automobile, this specific loathing didn’t mature into a conflict of interests between him and my dad.

 As a follower of right wing revisionist Zionist Zeev Jabotinsky,1 my Grandfather obviously realised that Leftist philosophy together with any form of Jewish value system is a contradiction in terms. Being a veteran right-wing terrorist as well a proud Jewish hawk, he knew very well that tribalism can never live in peace with humanism and universalism. Following his mentor Jabotinsky, he believed in the ‘Iron Wall’ philosophy. Like Jabotinsky, my grandfather respected Arab people, he had high opinions of their culture and religion, yet he believed that Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, should be confronted fearlessly and fiercely.

 Quoting the anthem of Jabotinsky’s political movement my grandpa would often repeat:

 From the pit of decay and dust

 Through blood and sweat

 A race will arise to us,

 Proud, generous and fierce.

 My Grandfather believed in the revival of the pride of the ‘Jewish race’, and so did I in my very early days. Like my peers, I didn’t see the Palestinians around me. They were undoubtedly there – they fixed my father’s car for half the price, they built our houses, they cleaned the mess we left behind, they schlepped boxes in the local food store, but they always disappeared just before sunset and appeared again before dawn. We never socialised with them. We didn’t really understand who they were and what they stood for. Supremacy was brewed into our souls, we gazed at the world through racist, chauvinistic binoculars. And we felt no shame about it either.

 At seventeen, I was getting ready for my compulsory IDF service. Being a well-built teenager fuelled with militant enthusiasm, I was due to join an air force special rescue unit. But then the unexpected happened. On a very late night jazz programme, I heard Bird (Charlie Parker) with Strings.

 I was knocked down. The music was more organic, poetic, sentimental and wilder than anything I had ever heard before. My father used to listen to Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw, and those two were entertaining – they could certainly play the clarinet – but Bird was a different story altogether. Here was an intense, libidinal extravaganza of wit and energy. The following morning I skipped school and rushed to Piccadilly Records, Jerusalem’s number one music shop. I found the jazz section and bought every bebop recording they had on the shelves, which probably amounted to two albums. On the bus home, I realised that Parker was actually a black man. It didn’t take me by complete surprise, but it was kind of a revelation. In my world, it was only Jews who were associated with anything good. Bird was the beginning of a journey.

 At the time, my peers and I were convinced that Jews were indeed the Chosen People. My generation was raised on the magical victory of the Six-Day War. We were totally sure of ourselves. As we were secular, we associated every success with our omnipotent qualities. We didn’t believe in divine intervention, we believed in ourselves. We believed that our might originated in our resurrected Hebraic souls and flesh. The Palestinians, for their part, served us obediently, and it didn’t seem at the time that this situation was ever going to change. They displayed no real signs of collective resistance. The sporadic so-called ‘terror’ attacks made us feel righteous, and filled us with eagerness for revenge. But somehow, amidst this orgy of omnipotence, and to my great surprise, I came to realise that the people who excited me most were actually a bunch of black Americans – people who had nothing to do with the Zionist miracle or with my own chauvinist, exclusivist tribe.

 Two days later I acquired my first saxophone. It’s a very easy instrument to get started on – ask Bill Clinton – but learning to play like Bird or Cannonball Adderley seemed an impossible mission. I began to practise day and night, and the more I did, the more I was overwhelmed by the tremendous achievement of that great family of black American musicians I was beginning to know closely. Within a month I learned about Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington, and the more I listened the more I realised that my Judeo-centric upbringing was, somehow, totally misleading.

 After one month with a saxophone shoved in my mouth, my military combatant’s enthusiasm disappeared completely. Instead of flying choppers behind enemy lines, I started to fantasise about living in New York, London or Paris. All I wanted was a chance to listen to the jazz greats play live, for it was the late 1970s and many of them were still around.

 Nowadays, youngsters who want to play jazz tend to enrol in a music college. It was very different when I was coming up. Those who wanted to play classical music would join a conservatory, but those who wanted to play for the sake of the music itself would stay at home and swing around the clock. There was no jazz education in Israel at that time, and my hometown, Jerusalem, had just a single, tiny jazz club, housed in an old, converted picturesque Turkish bath. Every Friday afternoon it ran a jam session, and for my first two years in jazz, these jams were the essence of my life. I stopped everything else. I just practised day and night, even while sleeping, and prepared myself for the next ‘Friday Jam’. I listened to the music and transcribed some great solos. I practiced in my sleep imagining the chord changes and flying over them. I decided to dedicate my life to jazz, accepting the fact that, as a white Israeli, my chances of making it to the top were rather slim.

 I did not yet realise that my emerging devotion to jazz had overwhelmed my Jewish nationalist tendencies; that it was probably then and there that I left Chosen-ness behind to become an ordinary human being. Years later, I would indeed come to see that jazz had been my escape route.

 Within months, though, I began to feel less and less connected to my surrounding reality. I saw myself as part of a far broader and greater family, a family of music lovers, admirable people concerned with beauty and spirit rather than land, mammon and occupation.

 However, I still had to join the IDF. Though later generations of young Israeli jazz musicians simply escaped the army and fled to the Mecca of jazz, New York, such an option wasn’t available for me, a young lad of Zionist origins in Jerusalem. The possibility didn’t even occur to me.

 In July 1981 I joined the Israeli army, but from my first day of service I did my very best to avoid the call of duty – not because I was a pacifist, nor did I care that much about the Palestinians. I just preferred to be alone with my saxophone.

 In June 1982, when the first Israel–Lebanon war broke, I had been a soldier for a year. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the truth. I knew our leaders were lying, in fact, every Israeli soldier understood that this was a war of Israeli aggression. Personally, I no longer felt any attachment to the Zionist cause, Israel or the Jewish people. Dying on the Jewish altar didn’t appeal to me anymore. Yet, it still wasn’t politics or ethics that moved me, but rather my craving to be alone with my new Selmer Paris Mark IV saxophone. Playing scales at the speed of light seemed to me far more important than killing Arabs in the name of Jewish suffering. Thus, instead of becoming a qualified killer I spent every possible effort trying to join one of the military bands. It took a few months, but I eventually landed safely in the Israeli Air Force Orchestra (IAFO).

 The IAFO was uniquely constituted. You could be accepted for being an excellent musician or promising talent, or for being a son of a dead pilot. The fact that I was accepted knowing that my dad was still amongst the living reassured me: for the first time, I considered the possibility that I might possess musical talent.

 To my great surprise, none of the orchestra members took the army seriously. We were all concerned with just one thing: our personal musical development. We hated the army, and it didn’t take long before I began to hate the very state that required an Air Force that required a band for it, that stopped me from practising 24/7. When we were called to play for a military event, we would try and play as poorly as we could just to make sure we would never get invited again. Sometimes we even gathered in the afternoon just to practise playing badly. We realised that the worse we performed as a collective, the more personal freedom we would gain. In the military orchestra I learned for the first time how to be subversive, how to sabotage the system in order to strive for a personal ideal.

 In the summer of 1984, just three weeks before I shed my military uniform, we were sent to Lebanon for a concert tour. At the time it was a very dangerous place to be. The Israeli army was dug deep in bunkers and trenches, avoiding any confrontations with the local population. On the second day we set out for Ansar, a notorious Israeli internment camp in South Lebanon. This experience was to change my life completely.

 At the end of a dusty dirt track, on a boiling hot day in early July, we arrived at hell on earth. The huge detention centre was enclosed with barbed wire. As we drove to the camp headquarters, we had a view of thousands of inmates in the open air being scorched by the sun.

 As difficult as it might be to believe, military bands are always treated as VIPs, and once we landed at the officers’ barracks we were taken on a guided tour of the camp. We walked along the endless barbed wire and guard towers. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

 ‘Who are these people?’ I asked the officer.

 ‘Palestinians,’ he said. ‘On the left are PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation], and on the right are Ahmed Jibril’s boys [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command] – they are far more dangerous, so we keep them isolated.’

 I studied the detainees. They looked very different to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The ones I saw in Ansar were angry. They were not defeated, they were freedom fighters and they were numerous. As we continued past the barbed wire I continued gazing at the inmates, and arrived at an unbearable truth: I was walking on the other side, in Israeli military uniform. The place was a concentration camp. The inmates were the ‘Jews’, and I was nothing but a ‘Nazi’. It took me years to admit to myself that even the binary opposition Jew/Nazi was in itself a result of my Judeo-centric indoctrination.

 While I contemplated the resonance of my uniform, trying to deal with the great sense of shame growing in me, we came to a large, flat ground at the centre of the camp. The officer guiding us offered more platitudes about the current war to defend our Jewish haven. While he was boring us to death with these irrelevant Hasbara (propaganda) lies, I noticed that we were surrounded by two dozen concrete blocks each around 1m2 in area and 1.3m high, with small metal doors as entrances. I was horrified at the thought that my army was locking guard dogs into these boxes for the night. Putting my Israeli chutzpah into action, I confronted the officer about these horrible concrete dog cubes. He was quick to reply: ‘These are our solitary confinement blocks; after two days in one of these, you become a devoted Zionist!’

 This was enough for me. I realised that my affair with the Israeli state and with Zionism was over. Yet I still knew very little about Palestine, about the Nakba or even about Judaism and Jewish-ness, for that matter. I only saw then that, as far as I was concerned, Israel was bad news, and I didn’t want to have anything further to do with it. Two weeks later I returned my uniform, grabbed my alto sax, took the bus to Ben-Gurion Airport and left for Europe for a few months, to busk in the street. At the age of twenty-one, I was free for the first time. However, December proved too cold for me, and I returned home – but with the clear intention to make it back to Europe. I somehow already yearned to become a Goy or at least to be surrounded by Goyim .

 It took another ten years before I could leave Israel for good. During that time, however, I began to learn about the Israel–Palestine conflict, and to accept that I was actually living on someone else’s land. I took in the devastating fact that in 1948 the Palestinians hadn’t abandoned their homes willingly – as we were told in school – but had been brutally ethnically cleansed by my grandfather and his ilk. I began to realise that ethnic cleansing has never stopped in Israel, but has instead just taken on different forms, and to acknowledge the fact that the Israeli legal system was not impartial but racially-orientated (for example, the ‘Law of Return’ welcomes Jews ‘home’ from any country supposedly after 2,000 years, but prevents Palestinians from returning to their villages after two years abroad). All the while, I had also been developing as a musician, becoming a major session player and a musical producer. I wasn’t really involved in any political activity, and though I scrutinised the Israeli leftist discourse I soon realised that it was largely a social club rather than an ideological force motivated by ethical awareness.

 At the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I saw that Israeli ‘peacemaking’ was nothing but spin. Its purpose wasn’t to reconcile with the Palestinians or confront Zionist original sin, but to further secure the existence of the Jewish State at the expense of the Palestinians. For most Israelis, shalom doesn’t mean ‘peace’, it means security, and for Jews only. For Palestinians to celebrate their ‘Right of Return’ wasn’t an option. I decided to leave my home and my career. I left everything and everyone behind, including my wife Tali, who joined me later. All I took with me was my tenor saxophone – my true, eternal friend.

 I moved to London and began postgraduate studies in philosophy at the University of Essex. Within a week, I managed to obtain a residency at the Black Lion, a legendary Irish pub on the Kilburn High Road. At the time I failed to appreciate how lucky I was – I didn’t know how difficult it was to get a gig in London. In fact, this was the beginning of my international career as a jazz musician. Within a year I had become very popular in the UK, playing bebop and post-bop. Within three years I was playing with my band all over Europe.

 Yet it didn’t take long before I began to feel homesick. To my great surprise, it wasn’t Israel I missed; not Tel Aviv, not Haifa,not Jerusalem. It was Palestine . It wasn’t the rude and loud Israeli taxi drivers at Ben-Gurion Airport, or grimy shopping centres in Ramat Gan, but the little place in Yefet Street, Jaffa that served the best hummus money can buy, and the Palestinian villages stretched across the hills amidst olive trees and sabra cacti. Whenever I fancied a visit home, in London, I would end up on the Edgware Road, spending the evening at a Lebanese restaurant. Once I started to fully express my thoughts about Israel in public, it soon became clear to me that Edgware Road was probably as close as I could ever get to my homeland.

 When I lived in Israel, admittedly, I hadn’t been at all taken with Arab music. I guess that colonial settlers are rarely interested in the indigenous culture. I loved folk music and had already established myself in Europe and the USA as a klezmer player, and over the years I had begun playing Turkish and Greek music as well. Yet I had completely skipped over Arab music, and Palestinian music in particular. In London, hanging out in those Lebanese restaurants, it began to occur to me that I had never really explored the music of my neighbours. More worrisomely, I had ignored and even dismissed it. Though it had been all around me, I had never really listened to it. It had been there at every corner of my life: the call to prayer from the mosques, the voices of Umm Kulthum, Farid El-Atrash and Abdel Halim Hafez. It could be heard in the streets, on TV, in the small cafés in Jerusalem’s Old City, in the restaurants. It had been all around me – but I had disrespectfully never given it any notice.

 In my mid-thirties, away from the Middle East, I became drawn to the indigenous music of my homeland. It wasn’t easy; it was, in fact, on the verge of being completely unfeasible. As much as jazz was easy for me to absorb, Arab music was almost impossible. I would put the music on, grab my saxophone or clarinet, try to integrate my sound with it and come out sounding utterly foreign. I soon realised that Arab music was a different language altogether. I didn’t know where to start, or how to approach it.

 To a certain extent, Jazz music is a western product with an extensive Afro-Cuban influence. It evolved at the beginning of the twentieth century and developed at the margins of American culture. Bebop, the music I grew up on, consists of relatively short fragments of music. The tunes are short because they had to fit into the three-minute record format of the 1940s. Western music can be easily transcribed into some visual content via standard notation and chord symbols. Jazz, like most Western musical forms, is therefore partially digital. Arab music, on the other hand, is analogue – it cannot be transcribed. Its authenticity evaporates in the attempt. By the time I achieved enough humane maturity to literally ‘face the music’ of my homeland, my musical knowledge stood in the way.

 I couldn’t understand what it was that stopped me from mastering Arab music, or why it didn’t sound right when I tried to play it. I had spent enough time listening and practising, but it just didn’t work. As time went by, European music journalists began to appreciate my new sound and to regard me as a new jazz ‘hero’ who crossed the divide as an expert in Arab music. I knew they were wrong though – much as I had indeed tried to cross this so-called ‘divide’, I could easily tell that my sound and interpretation were foreign to true Arab music.

 Then I discovered an easy trick. During my concerts, when trying to emulate this elusive Oriental sound, I would first sing a line that reminded me of the sounds I had ignored in my childhood. I would try to recall the echoing call of the muezzin sneaking its way into our streets from the surrounding valleys, and the astonishing, haunting sounds of my friends Dhafer Youssef and Nizar Al-Issa, as well as the low, lingering voice of Abel Halim Hafez. Initially I would just close my eyes and listen with my internal ear, but without realising it, I began to gradually open my mouth as well, and to sing loudly. Then I realised that if I sang with the saxophone in my mouth, I would arrive at a sound that closely approximated the mosques’ metal horns. I had tried to draw closer to the Arab sound for so long, but now I simply forgot what I was trying to achieve and began to enjoy myself.

 After a while I noticed that the echoes of Jenin, al-Quds and Ramallah began to emerge naturally from the bell of my horn. I asked myself what had happened, why it suddenly sounded genuine, and concluded that I had given up on the primacy of the eye , and devoted my attention instead to the primacy of the ear . I didn’t look for inspiration on the page, for the visual or the forensic, in musical notation or chord symbols. Instead, I listened to my internal voice. Struggling with Arab music reminded me why I had begun to play music in the first place. At the end of the day, I had heard Bird on the radio, I did not see him on MTV.

 Through music, and particularly my very personal struggle with Arab music, I learned to listen . Rather than looking at history or analysing its evolution in material terms, it is listening that stands at the core of deep comprehension. Ethical behaviour comes into play when the eyes are shut and the echoes of conscience can form a tune within one’s soul. To empathise is to accept the primacy of the ear2.

Gilad Atzmon