BY SARAH FERGUSON | What is the relationship between the Left and Free Speech? And is some speech so beyond the pale, that it’s wrong to even engage in debate?
These questions took center stage last Sunday during a political forum held at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s. The panel was titled: “The Post-Political Condition: Trump, Brexit, the Middle East…What Next?”
But the real controversy was over its organizer, jazz saxophonist and author Gilad Atzmon, who’s been accused of peddling Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitic theories under the guise of philosophy.
A former Israeli soldier and “proud self-hating Jew,” Atzmon clearly relishes his role as provocateur. Though he’s better known as a saxophonist (he used to play with Ian Drury and the Blockheads), he’s parlayed his critiques of Israel, Zionism and Jewish “chosenness” into a certain niche on the American left.
His first book, “The Wandering Who?” plays off the Christian mythic figure of the “Wandering Jew” — which has long been an anti-Semitic trope.
His latest work, “Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto,” has an intro written by former Congresswoman and Green Party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney.
That kind of support enrages anti-Zionist Jews like Bill Weinberg. A Villager columnist and left-wing journalist, Weinberg launched a social-media campaign to pressure Theatre 80 owner Lorcan Otway to cancel the panel, saying it would only serve to “legitimize” Atzmon’s “odious” theories.
Otway responded — in an op-ed post for the “Times of Israel,” no less — that he would not censor Atzmon, despite his own “deepfelt disagreements” with Atzmon’s views on the reasons for the Nazi genocide. The best antidote to hate speech is more speech, Otway argued, noting that the panel would feature other speakers — such as radical attorney Stanley Cohen — who are critical of Atzmon, as well as a Q&A from the audience.
Undeterred, Weinberg and fellow antifa (anti-fascist) activists announced plans to picket the event — though they never said they would disrupt it, as some alleged. They pointed out that Atzmon also has admirers on the Right, like David Duke — and questioned why a radical like Cohen would appear with him. Were Weinberg and crew just being “overly sensitive”?
In an online article in The Villager two days before the event, Cohen proclaimed it all “lunacy.” And, indeed, from the outside, it seemed crazy that three old-school, left-wing East Villagers were having such a public dust-up over this single event. Was the East Village becoming a Berkeley-esque war zone — a politically correct minefield, where efforts to shut down “bad” speech only serve to amplify the hate?
I’d never heard of Atzmon before this — let alone read his books — but all the drama just made me more curious.
In fact, there were no rabid Jewish Defense League thugs parked outside Theatre 80 ready to sucker-punch Atzmon or the other panelists when they arrived on Sunday (as Cohen had predicted). Instead, I found Weinberg, who runs an anti-Zionist blog called “New Jewish Resistance,” passing out leaflets that blared: “Jew-haters out of the East Village.” Joining him were a half-dozen other protesters bearing signs like “Atzmon is Shonde.”
A few arguments broke out between the protest group and audience members as they entered the theater.
“Why don’t you come inside and hear what [Atzmon] has to say before you judge him? You’re just following the herd,” said one young man who said he was Jewish, smoking a cigarette.
“Why don’t you kill yourself with cancer,” came the retort.
By contrast, the panel itself was relatively tame. It consisted of Atzmon, Cohen and two other Jewish iconoclasts, who didn’t really debate so much as expound on their separate themes.
They included Michael Lesher, an Orthodox Jew and attorney who has written about sexual abuse in Orthodox communities, and Professor Norton Mezvinsky, a historian of Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, whose nephew happens to be married to Chelsea Clinton.
“We don’t agree on many things,” announced Cohen, kicking off the forum. “But one thing that all four of us agree on is there is no arbiter of free speech.”
“Whenever you try to engage in time, place and manner controls based on content, it’s a slippery slope,” Cohen continued.
Having defended the rights of everyone from squatters to Hamas and Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Cohen said he wasn’t one to favor restricting speech from those with whom he disagreed. He railed against the growing “insularity of the Left,” which he said was too often driven by the “cult of personality,” rather than any real consistency of positions or belief.
Similarly, Atzmon spoke on the “tyranny of political correctness,” saying it was in fact “worse than tyranny, because it is self-censorship. It is you who silence yourself.”
Atzmon blamed “identity politics,” which he said had divided progressives into “sectarian wars,” allowing “big money” and “the elites” to control us, while alienating the working classes, who have turned to the nativist populism voiced by people like Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen and Britain’s rightwing UK Independence Party.
All that seemed well and good — at least until Atzmon got into trying to define who the “elites” running the ship are.
At one point, he singled out financier George Soros and his Open Society for “sustaining” this “progressive madness.” Later, he cited the multiculturalism preached by Norman Lear on “All in the Family” as having enormous sway, and even pointed to the preponderance of Jewish landlords in New York City.
During the Q&A, Atzmon got more specific. He drew up a series of bell curves to illustrate the dominance of what he termed the “Jewish cognitive elite” — an elite created, he said, by 1,500 years of the children of “European rabbinical Jews” and Jewish merchants intermarrying to foster a “society based on mammon and scholarship.”
America, he alleged, was caught in the throes of “cognitive partitioning,” with rich Jews leading us around by the nose.
Cohen threw up his hands and attempted to put a halt to such talk, saying the audience didn’t come to hear “this kind of debate.”
But in fact, many in the crowd did.
“We all agree with freedom of speech and association, but you can’t have that without freedom from association,” chimed in one man sitting in the back.
This man wanted Atzmon to address how “sociopaths like George Soros” and various Israeli charities had somehow aided and abetted the wave of refugees and immigrants washing across Europe.
Couldn’t the “Jewish concept of diaspora” be influencing that, he demanded?
I sat there waiting for Atzmon to refute this man’s absurdly broad, anti-Semitic claim, but Atzmon actually gave it credence: “Your question is spot-on,” he responded. “Soros is supporting a lot of pro-immigration lobbies,” he said, along with the rest of the “Jewish intelligentsia.
“For Jews, it is better to live in a society that is fragmented and sectarian,” Atzmon said. “And yet, Israel is the most anti-immigration country in the world.”
The real conspiracy, he maintained, wasn’t that Jews somehow controlled things like immigration, but that we’re “not allowed to talk about it.”
I looked around to find many of the audience members smiling and shaking their heads in agreement. A guy in back of me started ranting about J.F.K.’s 1965 immigration act, which got rid of country (i.e. racial) quotas for immigration. That, he said, is what “changed everything” in America — for the worse.
It was all more than I could bear. I left feeling shocked, not so much by what Atzmon had said, but by the crowd he’d dragged in. Who were these people? And what were they doing in Theatre 80 — this little throwback of a progressive theater run by a Quaker, no less, the son of Irish and Romany (gypsy) immigrants — how could this place have devolved, even temporarily, into a haven for such bigotry?
I’ve always believed it’s better to expose hate in the open, rather than allow it to fester in secret. But what if by giving hate a platform, you wind up propelling it instead?