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Gilad Atzmon in New York: A Report

4,008 words [1]

On April 30, 2017, having had less than two days’ notice, I stepped onto a plane destined for New York City and took my first action as a “real journalist.” I had decided to travel to New York to cover Gilad Atzmon’s appearance on a panel entitled “Trump, Brexit, The Middle East . . . What Next?” alongside Stanley Cohen, Professor Norton Mezvinsky, and Michael Lesher.

I’ve spent the last year in a private neighborhood deep in the mountains of Georgia, where I head upstairs in the mornings to write with a view of trees stretching all the way out to the edge of the horizon. So from the moment I stepped onto the plane, it was like someone had found the remote dial on life and pressed fast forward. A Pakistani cab driver shuttled me into the winding jaws of the city in a ride that left me twice as disoriented as the heavy turbulence of the flight already had.

I had visited New York City in the past, so I thought that I would enjoy it now just as much as I did then. But for the first time in my life, I was overwhelmed with the sensation that what I was being fast-forwarded into was some deliberate rendition of dystopia – as if the whole city were a live-action role-play of something like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [2] As I passed books set out in stacks on the sidewalk by the likes of Freud and Marx and Adorno quite literally on almost every block, I was struck with the thought that graffiti was partly rooted in a perfectly natural human desire to inject some sort of natural color into a drab environment artificially deprived of it, rather like the way people will sometimes give newborn mice separated from their mothers a warm water bottle wrapped in cloth to sleep with. Instead of traveling around to take in the usual tourist attractions, I was most inspired to take pictures of the state workers I saw tending to tiny, 3×3 patches of grass as if they were some precious resource. The contrast with the place I had just arrived from was dramatic enough to make me imagine a future where half-android people jealously guard display stands holding single strands of grass, the way we might preserve fossilized amber as a reminder of the past today.

Everywhere I went, I heard non-stop messages preaching about how amazing New York City was. It reminded me of a sleepless single mother who had adopted too many children repeating to herself in an endless mantra how much she loved them, to delude herself about the fact that between the never-ending stress of screaming, crying, temper tantrums, diaper changes, breast and bottle feedings, and everything else, she didn’t have enough time or energy left to authentically feel anything at all. Most of the people preaching this message did so while frowning – eyes darting suspiciously in search of anyone whose agreement might not be perceived as enthusiastic enough to be convincingly authentic.

I had heard that the antifa would be protesting the event. Dressed in Tru-Spec brand Multicam pants [3], I was excited for the possibility of ending up in a confrontation with the deranged hordes (not that I would ever strike first, devout libertarian that I am). But their showing couldn’t have been more disappointing. For the most part, a passerby would have been unable to tell that the protestors were anything more than bored audience members waiting in line for the show to start, wishing they had brought along a snack. Before I went inside, I struck up a conversation with the few exceptions: a Jewish man in a kilt with a large French hairclaw in the back of his head, holding a sign that said something about white supremacy. The clearest explanation of his objection to Gilad Atzmon’s speech that I could gather before it was time to go in was that Gilad “doesn’t think there is any essence to Judaism other than Zionism.” As the show started, I feigned as if I was merely a curious passerby and said I’d like to go in and find out what it was all about for myself. He sputtered and looked at the ground like an abused puppy afraid to make eye contact and, after a moment, said, “Well, just don’t give him any money . . .”

I turned to the man passing out pamphlets. Saying nothing, he glanced suspiciously at my pants and then back towards my face. I shrugged while smiling sheepishly and extended my hand, and he responded by giving me one of the pamphlets. I read it as I walked inside. The only interesting bit in it was a brief mention of the fact that David Duke and Gilad Atzmon had both said vaguely nice things about one another.  Indeed, while the two have only ever briefly discussed one another, and Duke certainly does not “avidly promote” Atzmon as the pamphlet claimed (see here [4] – Duke has two posts about Atzmon dated from 2008, three dated from 2013, and that’s it), Duke has [5] called  Atzmon “perhaps the bravest and clearest thinking person of Jewish descent in the world.” Atzmon, for his part, says of Duke [6] that he “is a humanist because he says ‘I want to celebrate my right and you should celebrate your rights’ whether you are Muslim or black or whatever.” After making brief comments about these quotes, the pamphlet read, “Atzmon has the right to free speech, just like everyone else. But East Village venues with a progressive history have no responsibility to provide him with a stage – indeed, they have the responsibility not to. That is why we are protesting Theatre 80.”. . . Okay.

Inside, the four Jewish panelists were like what would happen if the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears had involved Jews instead of porridge.

To the far left, sporting a kippah, was Michael Lesher, the only Orthodox Jew in attendance. He sat tensely, with his toes pressed to the floor underneath his seat. As he began his speech, his reaction to the audience’s laughter was always to look down at the table, shake his head, and throw his hands out, palms upwards. When he smiled, his smile never revealed anything but the upper half of the top row of his teeth, and I could imagine him smiling in the exact same way with the exact same posture if the auditorium had been a den of wolves and he was there to give a presentation on why they shouldn’t eat him.

He was the only speaker who the attendants at the back of the room interrupted because they couldn’t hear anything he said. Gilad quickly took charge when they interrupted, suggesting that they take one of the many available seats down in front. Thanks mostly to his demeanor, when it came to the exciting two-hour Q&A session, almost no one asked Lesher a single question. The moderator even stepped in at one point, clearly feeling bad about how obviously he was being neglected, asking if anyone had any questions for him. This was unfortunate to me, because if not for his delivery, the content of Lesher’s speech may have been the most interesting of all. In the midst of his general argument about the shifting definition of “being a Jew” that is held among Jews, he discussed multiple cases at length that he had been personally involved in where he had investigated well-documented instances of rape and child abuse committed by Orthodox Jews, only to discover that all awareness of these cases had been silenced throughout New York City thanks to the pervasive and nepotistic influence of the rest of the Orthodox community, overrepresented as they are within the legal profession.

Beside him was Dr. Norton Mezvinsky, who was the co-author with Israel Shakah of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel [7].  I can’t speak to the quality of the man’s work – for all I know, it’s incredible scholarship and I’m missing out for not having studied it. But the only impression I was able to get from his involvement in the panel was of encroaching senility. His tone was like someone playing a single bass note four times on the beat for every beat before pausing on a single beat without any variation whatsoever in either tempo or tone, and his inflection reminded me of someone who’d removed his dentures after getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of his mouth.

For the most part, the only tangible point he had to make was that everything is very complicated.  When Gilad talked about political correctness, for example, Norton thought that these arguments were invalid simply because different people have different things in mind when they use the term – as if the very concept of stipulating a definition of something in order to make it possible to have a conversation were completely foreign to him. To quote the conclusion of his argument directly: “So to use that [term political correctness] in a general way, and say that that general way is the problem, I would say that is simply not the case!”

Perhaps my own comprehension of this point was off, but at one point he made an argument that I couldn’t summarize any better than something like, “No one can ever draw any conclusions from reading history, because historians can’t agree on what history is about.” When a member of the audience asked him to elaborate on his views regarding Syria, I felt even less informed about what his views were than I did before he spoke. Maybe Assad will stay in power,  maybe he won’t, maybe there won’t even be a Syria in twenty years . . . but maybe there will . . . When he made the comment that he “could go on and on” in a way that indicated that he might just try, Gilad dove into a brief pause to physically lean in to respond to the questioner by saying, “Basically, we have no answers.” A woman who would later be a heavy contributor to the higher vocal range of the discussion during the Q&A screamed, “WE DON’T NEED A SOLUTION! WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE THERE. WE DESTROYED IT ALL FOR THE SAKE OF” – as her voice quivered under the sheer weight of injustice piled on her shoulders alone, with her fingers fluttering in violent air quotes like a vampire bat latching onto its prey – “GREATER ISRAEL!” 

Next to Dr. Mezvinsky was the attorney Stanley Cohen. On his Website, Stanley describes himself as “an advocate for many people the government would like to silence or put in jail.” Suffice to say, one gets the impression that he’d never consider defending a conservative involved in a free speech case. He did, however, join Lynne Stewart to provide the defense for Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Greg Johnson’s observation that Jews feel safer among Arabs than whites, as demonstrated by their collective choice to establish the state of Israel in a sea of Muslims rather than elsewhere, has never felt more palpable to me than it did while watching this man.

His first case, while still a law student at Long Island University, was to represent Kathy Boudin, one of the leaders of the Weather Underground Communist terrorist group. From there, he went on to defend members of Hamas, Hezbollah, and even al-Qaeda, including its one-time spokesman, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Cohen spoke with a trembling, shaking jaw as spit literally flew visibly off his canines about the arrogance of “people who only crawled out of caves five hundred years ago” – by which he clearly meant whites – “daring to dictate the nature of Arab resistance.”

So, back to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Michael Lesher looked like a hazing victim squeezing himself into a desk surrounded by bullies, hoping they wouldn’t notice him (which perhaps wasn’t too far from the truth). Meanwhile, it wouldn’t have been too surprising if Stanley Cohen had walked out and recruited a few friends to come back in wearing suicide vests after the panel was over.

In contrast, everything about Gilad Atzmon’s style and demeanor screamed jazz. Almost every time one of the other speakers was losing their connection with the audience, it was Gilad who was ready to improv and say just the right thing at the right moment to bring the energy and focus back on point. While a the other speakers sat neatly and evenly spaced in a row, Gilad sat angled off to the corner of his desk with his legs crossed and his elbow resting on it, casually waiting for his moment to strike.

During the intermission, I followed him outside to watch him interact with the protesters. A man with a black top hat and goatee that made him look like a caricature of the Devil was spinning in circles and waving his arms while repeating “Race! is! a! social! construct!” towards what, to my surprise, was a very unedified audience.

When he saw Gilad walk out the door, he lurched forward in what was nearly a lunge and fired a line that he had clearly prepared in advance for the occasion: “The great thing about this man playing the saxophone is he chose an instrument he has to use with his mouth, so he can’t speak when he plays it!”

Gilad calmly approached this man without changing his pace or stride and placed his arm around the man’s shoulder, replying smoothly and without missing a beat, “Exactly. You should support my musical career!” After allowing a moment to let that sink in, and casually leaning over to pull the cigarette from the side of his mouth, he asked a question that was almost rhetorical at this point given that the photographer (a member of Gilad’s jazz band) was already in position: “Can I take a picture with you?” Disarmed by his politeness and the complete ineffectiveness of his opening line in provoking any reaction whatsoever from Gilad, the man could only squirm uncomfortably underneath Gilad’s resting arm and say, “Sure.”

Without question, it was the aggressive banter between Stanley and Gilad that led into several screaming matches between Stanley and various members of the audience during the two-hour-long Q&A that formed the event’s climax. Throughout the opening speeches, the tension between the two of them was visibly growing, just waiting to explode. One of the most “offensive” things Gilad attempted in his presentation was a brief, ten-minute discussion of The Bell Curve [8] – to which he added the caveat that the book’s arguments were nonsense. While insisting that IQ is a poor measurement of what he called “ability” and denying that he had any interest in talking about genes,  and even adding that the data underlying the book’s claims was false because black IQ is higher than that of whites in England, Gilad nonetheless very excitedly drew illustrations of an actual bell curve on a marker board and wanted to make the point that Jews are unevenly distributed along the top of the curve, and that this is why they tend to dominate major cultural institutions.

The main questions I prepared for my interview with Gilad revolved around how he could find anything of value in a “bell curve” explanation of Jewish influence if he rejects hereditarianism. He even notes the practice of eugenics-based arranged marriage throughout Jewish history, so how could he think Jewish predominance involves genealogy without thinking it involves genes? I’ll be publishing Gilad’s answer when it’s prepared. Suffice to say that I don’t think Gilad is trying to shy away from controversial claims; it seems to me that he’s already brought all the heat and controversy down on himself from the moment he references The Bell Curve favorably at all.

Throughout the entirety of Gilad’s speech, Stanley Cohen’s eyes were glazed and yet stuck open, his face frozen in a nauseous half-smile. As Gilad began this surprisingly tepid “defense” of The Bell Curve that in the end amounted to little more than a defense of the existence of bell curve charts, Stanley literally stomped his feet while holding his head in his hands, and after chattering angrily back and forth with Norton while Gilad was getting started, started screaming about how this wasn’t what anyone in attendance had come to hear, that it was wasting everyone’s time, and so on and so forth. It took several minutes of an increasing number of audience members shouting, “Let him at least speak!” before Stanley finally relented and allowed Gilad to draw a few bell curve charts and point out the obvious fact that Jews are indeed overrepresented in positions of power and influence.

Later, when Norton claimed that no one can talk about political correctness in a meaningful way because everyone has a different definition of it and Gilad responded that he “totally disagreed” because he “offered a working definition,” a member of the audience asked Norton, “Do you know what Gilad is referring to when he talks about politics that aren’t allowed to be criticized? He’s talking about issues involving Jewish culpability.” Stanley interjected at this point, “That’s absurd! That’s absurd! That’s absurd! That’s absurd!” At this point, I uttered the only comment I made during the entire event: “Isn’t the fact that he reacts like” – I pointed as Stanley continued repeating exactly the same motion – “that exactly the proof that Gilad is right? He’s telling us no one is stopping us from talking about it. But the moment we try to talk about it, he shuts down the conversation by screaming about how stupid it is for anyone to say it’s something we can’t talk about. What is the term they use for that . . . performative contradiction?”

Every single face turned towards me was nodding at me in exasperation. It really was as if Stanley was there for the sole purpose of validating everything Gilad had to say about the sociopolitical influence of Jews. Meanwhile, Norton chimed in along with Stanley, “It is absurd. Moreover, not only is it absurd as he’s saying, but it’s absurd that we can’t talk about it!”

A while later, an audience member posed the following: “I want to ask a question about Jewish tradition and Jewish history, and how it’s influencing what’s going on right now. We all agree with freedom of speech, we all agree with freedom of association, but you can’t have that without freedom from association . . . If you cannot choose, then there is some degree of totalitarianism . . . What’s going on now with refugees and migrants, the preponderance of those coming into Europe are economic migrants. There are indeed refugees, but there are many who are using that as cover, and they’re being led in. I won’t get into the morality of it, but a lot of it is being influenced by Jewish ideas, whether it’s sociopaths like George Soros, who is financing a lot of this stuff, there’s also a charity based in Europe facilitating the assimilation or acculturation of the ‘New Europeans,’ and most of the rabbinate are very pro-immigrant, they’re pro-migrant, everywhere but Israel, it has to be said. So my question is, how is it that the Jewish history of diaspora has influenced this? Is this something that can change, or should not change, or will change now that Israel exists?”

Throughout the posing of this question, Stanley had stared at Norton with a “hold my beer” sort of look; and as soon as the question was finished, he once again did everything possible to dominate the discussion. From the look on his face, I had honestly expected that he must have personally known the questioner’s mother and been ready to tell him for the first time that his mother was a Jew, or something equally mind-blowing. Instead, he launched into the most mind-numbingly unoriginal rendition of “My wife is Cherokee, and she would tell you to get the fuck out of my country” I’ve ever heard. In fact, several members of the audience actually groaned audibly in unison.  Stanley concluded the speech by saying, “Everyone is an immigrant. EVERYONE! So MY question TO YOU is, where are YOU from? ORIGINALLY!”

As the questioner tried to take the bait and move forward, Stanley kept hounding him, forcing him to state the exact countries his parents had immigrated from and explain when and why they had done so. Finally, the questioner calmly replied, “Yes, but that’s not the question I was asking, because . . .” And as he made the motion to clarify, Stanley blocked his attempt to continue speaking by crossing his arms, shrugging smugly and saying, “Yes, but that’s the way I’m answering the question you’re asking.”

After Stanley finally concluded, proclaiming, “I support open borders completely,” Gilad said, “I hold an entirely different position. I believe countries should be able to decide who they want in, who they don’t . . . However, there is a humanitarian issue. So if this country launched a war in Syria together with Britain, these two countries should be the first to take care of refugees. To sum it up, I don’t believe in open borders, I believe countries should be able to sustain what they believe to be their cultures.” To which Stanley interjected, “Culture? What culture? Do you spend a lot of time in the Deep South?” With the most seething disdain he could muster, he continued, “Yeah, you’ve got culture there, it’s called cracker.” After saying the word, he turned and swiveled his head left to right at a slow, rhythmic pace across the audience with a huge smile that looked more intended to bare his teeth like an animal making a threat than to communicate anything else. In that moment, I found it absolutely astounding that in a world where people are lined up outside to protest Gilad Atzmon, no one was protesting the presence of Stanley Cohen. Of course, earlier Gilad had already (albeit indirectly) observed why this was so: “When you tell a white working person the revolution is at ten o’clock tomorrow, they say: ‘I can’t make it; I have work!’ This is the problem with working class people . . . None of the people who picketed here today are factory workers. They don’t have the time.”

At the end of the Q&A, Gilad’s band prepared to take the stage. I looked on in mock disappointment and asked each of them, “Does this mean the four panelists aren’t the ones playing jazz together tonight? I thought . . .” All of them found the comment humorous, but Gilad laughed most heartily of all.

As the music began, Gilad was impressive both for his energy as well as for his composure and restraint. He would play with roaring energy when he felt like it. And when he didn’t, he would pause to go rest in a chair or lean against the wall with no apparent concern for the audience whatsoever. The intuitive communication between the band members was excellent. At one point early on, Gilad walked up and added two simple notes to the bar of music on which the rest of the band was repeatedly playing small variations. At the next bar, he added the same two notes, and then one more. At the next bar, he added one more note to the sequence. Then the drummer smiled at him, and for the next bar, the guitarist and bassist picked up their rhythm significantly, and Gilad dove in with the most explosive solo yet. If cues like these had been rehearsed to produce the effect they created, they certainly didn’t appear to be.

But what was most impressive about it was the fact that Gilad felt up to giving the remaining audience two hours of this kind of performance after three straight hours of sitting only a foot away from the screeching voice of Stanley Cohen. I had been sitting at a safe distance of several rows away, and I was ready to go fit my titanium earplugs as deep inside my ear canal as I could get them and then sleep.