Atzmon in concert, February 2007
9 June 1963
Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Israel
Gilad Atzmon (Hebrew: גלעד עצמון, [ɡiˈlad at͡sˈmon]; born 9 June 1963) is a British jazz saxophonist, novelist, political activist, and writer. He has been described by scholars and anti-racism activists as antisemitic and a Holocaust denier.
Atzmon first became interested in the British variety of jazz when he came across some recordings of it in a British record shop in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and found inspiration in the work of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes and regarded London as "the Mecca of Jazz." However, at 17, while readying himself for induction into the army, he happened to hear a radio broadcast of a recording of Charlie Parker's With Strings and was swept off his feet. Atzmon has said of the album that he "loved the way the music is both beautiful and subversive – the way he basks in the strings but also fights against them." According to Atzmon, he skipped school to visit Jerusalem's Piccadilly Records outlet, and bought up every Bebop recording they stocked. Two days later, he purchased a saxophone.
According to Atzmon, he was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in June 1981, first serving as a combat medic and participated in the 1982 Lebanon War. According to Aztmon, he was transferred to a position within the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra and spent most of his military service in the Israeli Air Force orchestra. After he was demobilised, Atzmon says he travelled to Europe in December 1984, living as a busker.
In the following years, he trained at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. During the late 1980s and 1990s Atzmon was a popular session musician and producer, recording extensively and performing with Israeli artists such as: Yehuda Poliker, Yardena Arazi, Si Himan, Meir Banai and Ofra Haza. Additionally, he started the first incarnation of the "Gilad Atzmon Quartet" and a group named "Spiel Acid Jazz Band" with fellow Israeli Jazz musicians, and performed regularly at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.
In 1994, Atzmon planned on studying abroad in the United States but ended up in England, attending the University of Essex and earning a master's degree in Philosophy, according to CounterPunch. He has lived subsequently in the UK, becoming a British citizen in 2002, according to CounterPunch and renouncing his Israeli citizenship.
Atzmon told The Guardian that he draws on Arabic music which he says cannot be notated like western music but must be internalised, which he calls "reverting to the primacy of the ear". Atzmon's musical method has been to play with notions of cultural identity, flirting with genres such as tango and klezmer as well as various Arabic, Balkan, Gypsy and Ladino folk forms. Atzmon's recordings deliberately differ from his live shows. "I don't think that anyone can sit in a house, at home, and listen to me play a full-on bebop solo. It's too intense. My albums need to be less manic."
Atzmon joined the veteran punk rock band Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1998, and continued with the Blockheads after Dury's death. He has recorded two albums with Robert Wyatt, who describes him as "one of the few musical geniuses I've ever met".
Atzmon founded the Orient House Ensemble band in London in 2000 with Asaf Sirkis on drums, Frank Harrison on piano and Oli Hayhurst on bass. In 2003 Yaron Stavi replaced Hayhurst. In 2009 Eddie Hick replaced Sirkis. The group was named after Orient House, the former East Jerusalem headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The band has recorded eight albums. Orient House announced a 40-date tour in 2010.
Robert Wyatt, who has said that Atzmon combines "great artistry with a sense of the intrinsically non-racialist philosophy that's implicit in jazz," worked with Atzmon and others on his album Comicopera (2007). Wyatt collaborated with Atzmon and Ros Stephens, as well as lyricist Alfreda Benge, on the album For the Ghosts Within (2010), released on Domino Records.
Atzmon produced and arranged two albums for Sarah Gillespie Stalking Juliet (2009) and In The Current Climate (2011). Both albums were critically acclaimed. He has toured extensively as a member of Sarah Gillespie's band, playing saxophone, clarinet and accordion.
Atzmon is on the creative panel of the Global Music Foundation, a non-profit organization formed in December 2004 which runs residential educational and performance workshops and events in different countries around the world. A musical transcription of ten saxophone solos by Atzmon was released in 2010.
According to reviewer Chris Searle in 2010, writing in the Morning Star, "No jazz musicians have done more to honour, publicise and spread solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinians than Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble.”
In February 2009, The Guardian jazz critic John Fordham reviewed Atzmon's newest album In loving memory of America which was described by Atzmon as "a memory of America I had cherished in my mind for many years". It includes five standards and six originals "inspired by the sumptuous harmonies and impassioned sax-playing of (Charlie) Parker's late-40s recordings with classical strings".
While music journalist John Lewis has praised much of Atzmon's work, he notes that "trenchant politics often sit uneasily alongside music, particularly when that music is instrumental". In a 2009 profile in The Guardian, Lewis criticised his 2006 comedy klezmer project, Artie Fishel and the Promised Band, as "a clumsy satire on what he regards as the artificial nature of Jewish identity politics." While Lewis described Atzmon as "one of London's finest saxophonists", he observed that: "It is Atzmon's blunt anti-Zionism rather than his music that has given him an international profile, particularly in the Arab world, where his essays are widely read."
Atzmon's Exile was BBC jazz album of the year in 2003.
Atzmon has defined himself variously as "not a Jew anymore. I indeed despise the Jew in me (whatever is left)", a "proud self-hating Jew" in the style of Otto Weininger, "a Jew who hates Judaism", and as "a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian".
He has said: "I don't write about politics, I write about ethics. I write about Identity. I write a lot about the Jewish Question – because I was born in the Jew-land, and my whole process in maturing into an adult was involved with the realisation that my people are living on stolen land". Atzmon has said that his experience in the military of "my people destroying other people left a big scar" and led to his decision that he was deluded about Zionism. Atzmon has compared "the Jewish Ideology" to that of the Nazis and has described Israel's policy toward the Palestinians as genocide. He has condemned "Jewishness" as "very much a supremacist, racist tendency", but has also stated that "I don't have anything against Jews in particular and you won't find that in my writings". Regarding the one-state solution, Atzmon concedes that such a state probably would be controlled by Islamists, but says, "That's their business".
Atzmon's A Guide to the Perplexed, published in 2001, is set in a 2052 in which Israel has been replaced by a Palestinian state. Jeffrey St. Clair in CounterPunch describes it as "vividly written satire, infused with a ribald sense of humor and an unsparing critique of the incendiary political cauldron of the Mideast". It largely reviews memoirs of the alienated Israeli Gunther Wunker's rise to fame as a "peepologist", or voyeur. The perplexed are defined as "the unthinking Chosen" who "cling to clods of earth that don't belong to them". The novel excoriates what it describes as the commercialization of the Holocaust and "argues that the Holocaust is invoked as a kind of reflexive propaganda designed to shield the Zionist state from responsibility for any transgression against Palestinians".
Matthew J. Reisz, a reviewer for The Independent, wrote that "As a viciously black satire on Israeli life" the book "is grandiose, childish and nasty, but with just enough connection with reality to give it a certain unsettling power". Darren King in The Observer noted of this "provocative debut novel" that it is "odd to mix knob gags with highly serious assertions", but thought it works because "Atzmon writes with so much style and his gags are so hilarious".
Atzmon's second novel, My One and Only Love, was published in 2005 and features as a protagonist a trumpeter who chooses to play only one note (extremely well), as well as a spy who uncovers Nazi war criminals and locks them inside double bass cases which then tour permanently in the protagonist's orchestra's luggage. The book is also a comedic take on "Zionist espionage and intrigue" which explores "the personal conflict between being true to one’s heart and being loyal to The Jews". By 2009, his two comic novels had been published in 24 languages.
Atzmon's 2015 book, A to Zion: The Definitive Israeli Lexicon, was summarised by Eugene Schulman in CounterPunch as "designed to alphabetically define certain aspects of Zionism and Zionist personalities in one-liner jabs" and said it would "knock a hole in all your prejudices".
Atzmon's fifth book, Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto, published in 2017, was described by James Petras as "a brilliant and substantive critique of identity politics and Jewish political ideology and culture" and as "an essential read for understanding and confronting authoritarianism of all stripes and colours". Keith Kahn-Harris, in an opinion piece, argued that its critique of identity politics and ascription of it to Jewishness was inherently antisemitic.
In 2011, Zero Books published Atzmon's book, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, stating that it "examines Jewish identity politics and Jewish contemporary ideology using both popular culture and scholarly texts".
Marc H. Ellis likens Atzmon's rhetorical extremism and harsh censure of Jews to the prophetic voices of the Old Testament, arguing that, for Atzmon, diasporic Jews are asked to construct their identity on the basis of the State of Israel and the Holocaust, an identity he regards as without foundation. He adds that Atzmon considers charges that he is antisemitic as 'last ditch attempts' to validate that identity. In Ellis's view, there may be, in the perceived anxiety in these repeated attacks, a reflection of the same anxiety Atzmon himself arguably embodies.
In The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg described Atzmon as "jazz saxophonist who lives in London and who has a side gig disseminating the wildest sort of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories", and described several instances of Holocaust denial and antisemitic discourse by Atzmon including: describing the Holocaust as "the new Western religion", that Hitler was persecuted by Jews, and that Jews traffic in body parts. Goldberg notes that even Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists have repudiated him. According to Goldberg, Atzmon in the book calls for renewed scholarship into the veracity of long-rejected medieval blood libels.
According to Alan Dershowitz in The New Republic, at least ten authors associated with the publisher called on it to distance itself from Atzmon’s views, asserting that the “thrust of Atzmon’s work is to normalise and legitimise anti-Semitism".
In 2003 Atzmon wrote that: "We must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously", the blog post was subsequently amended with "Zionists" replacing "the Jewish people" in the original post. Also in 2003, Atzmon wrote that attacks on synagogues and Jewish graves, while not legitimate, should be seen as "political responses".
In April 2005, Atzmon said in a talk with SOAS university students that "I'm not going to say whether it is right or not to burn down a synagogue, I can see that it is a rational act". Atzmon responded that he was quoted inaccurately and out of context and did not mean to justify violence, but that since Israel presents itself as the "state of the Jewish people" the "any form of anti-Jewish activity may be seen as political retaliation."
In a 2005 opinion piece, David Aaronovitch criticised Atzmon for his essay "On Anti-Semitism" and for circulating an article promoting Holocaust denial. In June, members of the Jews Against Zionism (JAZ) group protested in front of a London bookshop against an appearance by Atzmon who was criticised by JAZ for circulating a Paul Eisen work that defended Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel.
In a 2006 opinion piece, David Hirsh criticised what he called Atzmon's "openly anti-Jewish rhetoric", including Jewish deicide. In response to a question about this Atzmon replied, in CounterPunch, "I find it astonishing that people today happen to be offended by such accusations (i.e. about an event almost 2000 years ago)".
In 2012, the US Palestinian Community Network published a statement by three members of its National Coordinating Committee and other Palestinian activists, including Ali Abunimah, Naseer Aruri, Omar Barghouti, Nadia Hijab and Joseph Massad, calling for "the disavowal of Atzmon by fellow Palestinian organizers, as well as Palestine solidarity activists, and allies of the Palestinian people" and affirming that "we regard any attempt to link and adopt antisemitic or racist language, even if it is within a self-described anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist politics, as reaffirming and legitimizing Zionism."
At a talk by Richard Falk at LSE in March 2017 at which pro-Israel protestors were expelled for disruption, Atzmon commented that Jews had been "expelled from Germany for misbehaving", and to have recommended the works of David Irving, whose Holocaust denial views are widely known. Atzmon subsequently confirmed that he indeed recommends Irving's work and that in his view "Jews are always expelled for a reason".
According to a joint report by Hope not Hate and Community Security Trust, in 2017 Aztmon gave talk to the conspiracy theory group Keep Talking in which he advanced the argument that the Balfour Declaration transpired to "conceal a century of Jewish political hegemony in Britain".
In 2018, Islington Council stopped Atzmon from performing at the council-owned Islington Assembly Hall, as the council feared Atzmon's appearance could harm relationships between different races and religions.
David Neiwert, writing in the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch, described Atzmon as "a self-described 'self-hating ex-Jew' whose writings and pronouncements are rich in conspiracy theories, Holocaust trivialization and distortion, and open support of anti-Israeli terrorist groups."
The Anti-Defamation League described Atzmon as "an outspoken promoter of classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and a fierce critic of the State of Israel (who) has engaged in Holocaust diminution and has defended the right of Holocaust deniers to challenge historical narratives and offer revisionist theories about the Holocaust.".
Hope not Hate described Atzmon as "an antisemite who has promoted the works of Holocaust deniers". relating the Holocaust denial support mainly to circulating a work of Paul Eisen. Atzmon has accused Hope Not Hate of being "an integral part of the Zionist network, dedicated to promoting Jewish tribal politics".
According to David Hirsh, Atzmon attempted to lead an antisemitic purge of the anti-zionist movement, which however runs counter to the anti-Racist values of most anti-zionists. Despite this, it took some time for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Socialist Workers Party to stop treating Atzmon as legitimate.
Nicolas Terry, a historian of the Holocaust and of Holocaust revisionism at the University of Exeter, characterised Atzmon, along with Paul Eisen and Israel Shamir, as one of the very few Jewish Holocaust deniers who were associated with Deir Yassin Remembered. Terry notes that after the Palestine Solidarity Campaign expelled several Holocaust deniers, Atzmon rallied other sympathisers around the Deliberation website.
According to Spencer Sunshine, a researcher on the far-right, Atzmon along with Israel Shamir and Alison Weir forms an axis of crypto-antisemites who recycle traditional antisemitic conspiracy theories with the replacement of "the Jews" with a code word or synecdoche. Sunshine states that Atzmon denounces Judaism itself as the root issue in Zionism, With Atzmon framing Israeli atrocities as a "historic relationship to gentiles, an authentic expression of an essentially racist, immoral, and anti-human ‘Jewish ideology.’". Sunshine notes that Atzmon's appearances on White nationalist media such as Counter Currents has not stopped Atzmon from being platformed in left-wing publications such as CounterPunch.
According to Atzmon, his statements have lost him performance contracts, especially in the United States, while in Britain, the Campaign Against Antisemitism has sought to stop him performing.
Oren Ben-Dor wrote in CounterPunch in 2008 "I am firmly convinced that these vulgar attempts at silencing of Gilad and other courageous voices offends against supremely thoughtful, compassionate and egalitarian intellectual endeavours".
In July 2018, Atzmon was forced to apologise to Gideon Falter, the chairman of the Campaign Against Antisemitism and agreed to pay costs and damages, after being sued for libel. Atzmon had falsely alleged that Falter had profited from fabricating antisemitic incidents. Atzmon had sought help from readers of his website to cover the remaining £40,000 of legal costs and damages.
דווקא בתור יהודי ששונא יהדות, אני שם את עצמי תחת זכוכית מגדלת ובוחן כל אספקט יהודי בתוכי. (As a Jew who hates Judaism, I put myself under a magnifying glass and examine every Jewish aspect in me).