Jean Bricmont has written an article defending Gilad Atzmon from his numerous critics on the Left, who accuse him of, among other things, being an anti-Semite. (Personal disclosure: I am one of them.) You can read the complete article here. (This links to Atzmon’s website. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you will be amazed at some of the things you will find there.) The first thing one notices about this piece is that it is extremely long-winded. You could cut out at least half the verbiage in it, and it would say the same exact thing. I consider that to be bad writing (although I realize some may not agree with me about this). I find this disheartening. I have always liked to think that theoretical physicists must also be good writers. Einstein wrote well. Carl Sagan could express himself clearly and succinctly. Yet another one of my illusions in life has been shattered.
After nine mostly long paragraphs, Bricmont finally gets to his main argument:
- This movement often gives the impression that its “solidarity” with Palestine takes place above all over there and requires more and more missions, trips, dialogues, reports, and even sometimes “peace processes.” But the plain facts of the matter are that the Israelis do not want to make the concessions that would be needed to live in peace and that a main reason for that attitude is that they think they can enjoy Western support ad vitam aeternam. Therefore, it is precisely this support that the solidarity movement should attack as its priority. Another frequent error is to think that this support is due to economic or strategic considerations. But, at least today, Israel is of no use to Western interests. [This is plainly false.] It turns the Muslim world against us [this is only partly true], doesn’t bring in a single drop of oil [man does not live by oil alone, Prof. Bricmont], and pushes the United States into a war with Iran that the Americans clearly don’t want [some, such as Norman Finkelstein, have argued that Israel is bluffing about this]. The reasons for this support are obvious enough: constant pressure from Zionist organizations on intellectuals, journalists and politicians by endlessly manipulating the accusation of anti-Semitism and the climate of guilt and repentance (for the Holocaust) kept on artificial life support, in large part by those same organizations. As a result, the main task of the Palestine solidarity movement should be to allow free speech about Palestine, but also to denounce the pressure and intimidation by various lobbies. Which is what Atzmon does. Far from rejecting him, the solidarity movement should make it a priority to defend the possibility of reading and listening to him, even if one is not in total agreement with what he says.
Look, so far as I and other leftists are concerned, Atzmon can write whatever bullshit that happens to float his boat. All we’re asking is that we at least acknowledge that what Atzmon writes is bullshit. Bricmont’s unwillingness to admit this raises serious questions about his intellectual honesty. Moreover, Bricmont makes so many dubious assertions here, that one must wonder whether he actually has any idea what he’s talking about. I think I should also point out that the “Israel is useless to the West” argument is often made by right-wing critics of Israel, at least some of whom are almost certainly anti-Semites. That fact should give Bricmont pause.
- By his all-out attack on Jewish “tribalism,” Atzmon’s essential contribution to solidarity with Palestine is to help non-Jews realize that they are not always in the wrong when conflicts with Jewish organizations arise. The day when non-Jews free themselves from the mixture of fear and internalization of guilt that currently paralyses them, unconditional support for Israel will collapse.
If I may speak for my fellow non-Jews, I don’t feel one shred of guilt about what happened during the years 1933-45. Again, one has to wonder whether Bricmont has any idea what he is talking about. What’s more, the second sentence is obviously nonsense. Bricmont apparently considers it a matter of principle to ignore the political and economic forces that drive the West’s support for Israel.
In all fairness to Bricmont, I should point out that he seems to be partly motivated by concerns about laws recently passed in France that prohibit certain types of speech. Although I don’t pretend to be an expert on French politics, it seems to me that the problem there is that France has no equivalent of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. (This is a problem in many other countries as well.) I realize that this argument may be too idealist, but I think there is at least some truth to it.
With all due respect, perhaps Bricmont should stick to particle physics. There is no shame in that.