Herodotos is an historian who trains you as you read. It is a process of asking, searching, collecting, doubting, striving, testing, blaming, and above all standing amazed at the strange things humans do’ - Poet and translator of ancient Greek, Anne Carson, Nox (2011)
Gilad Atzmon’s intellectual expedition into the daunting terrain of Jewish identity politics has always evoked a storm of controversy. Still, when I first met Gilad, it was hard not to suspect he was exaggerating the extent of abuse he received from various UK pressure groups. Primarily, it’s not easy to wrap your head around the notion that a person can plausibly be branded as ‘a racist’ when they tour the world with a gypsy violinist, a black drummer, a Jewish bass player and a token English white boy on piano. However, as I began to understand the full complexities of Gilad’s arguments – a process, which, for me, required as much unlearning as it did learning – I reluctantly grasped the problem. And, to my utter horror, I also fathomed the full measure of pathological bile wielded against him. Indeed, some of it hemorrhaged in my direction.
After the 2009 Israeli assault on Gaza I organized a concert for ‘Medical Aid for Palestinians’ featuring iconic violinist Nigel Kennedy. Campaigners launched an onslaught from all sides - the right, the left, the Zionists and the anti-Zionists - individually and collectively, lobbied the owner of the venue, the director of MAP and myself, demanding that we cancel the event. Some even accused us of mobalising art to fund rocket attacks on Jews. I was shocked, upset and embarrassed that I had inadvertently dragged my friend, who owns the club, into such a shameful debacle.
After the concert (a huge success) I was labeled a Holocaust denier. Not only was this accusation ludicrous and totally unfounded it was potentially damaging to me. It is clear that in this culture, you could query the extent of the Holodomor, the Nakba or the annihilation of American Indians without raising much of an eyebrow in the public domain, but to do the same with the deaths of Jews in the Second World War is tantamount to career suicide. My lawyer advised me to get the accusation removed from the Internet but I think it best serves as a small, cyber monument to the preposterous and baseless sewage in which some people are content to swim.
More recently the cacophony of hysteria we are subjected to since Gilad’s polemic The Wondering Who crowned him a cause célèbre, has shot off the richter scale. Gilad puts up with it almost daily. Yesterday the Jewish Chronicle demanded that the Arts Counsel of Britain withdraw funding from the Raise Your Banner Festival that we are playing at together on 25th November. They failed of course, but have now resorted, in a separate piece, to simply comparing Gilad to a paedophile. I too have been inundated with hostile youtube comments, messages and emails insisting I either drop my gigs with Gilad, or issue a statement denouncing his views.
This inspired me to do the exact opposite, to state here categorically how much I support and admire Gilad Atzmon’s work, both as an artist and as a humanist, how much I cherish freedom of thought and speech and to declare that the day I withdraw from a festival because a few campaigners threaten to wreck my reputation, will be a cold day in hell. We are artists. We are entitled to express ourselves as we wish, we are entitled to sing, ask, dance, write and reflect.
It would be advantageous for Gilad’s opponents if he were, as they claim, a banal biological determinist who simply dislikes people according to the lottery of their DNA. If this were the case, I’m sure they would be slightly more successful in dismantling our concerts and banning Gilad’s talks. Unfortunately for them, too many people understand that Gilad is on an intellectual quest for truth. According to the Greek historian Herodotos, quoted above, this is most humane thing you can ever hope to do. We can not be banned from playing, from writing or form ‘wondering who’ we are. Lest we forget, the word ‘history’ comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning ‘to ask’.
So, alas dear agitators, even if we dropped dead tomorrow someone somewhere would still listening to our albums and reading Gilad’s book. I’m afraid the battle might continue but the war is already won.
Sarah Gillespie is a singer songwriter based in London. She will be discussing the role of politics in music on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ on Monday 21 November. Hear "How the Mighty Fall" here.