They weren’t wearing black masks or hurling smoke bombs. But a small group of no more than 20 anti-fascists made it clear Sunday afternoon that they strongly opposed the appearance of British jazz saxophonist and author Gilad Atzmon at a panel discussion on politics after Brexit held late yesterday afternoon in Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place.
“Jew-Haters [get] out of the East Village,” blared a leaflet handed out by local journalist Bill Weinberg, a leftwing anarchist who writes a blog called New Jewish Resistance. His leaflet describes Atzmon, who was born in Israel and served as a medic in the Israel Defense Forces, as a “proud self-hating Jew” who allegedly traffics in anti-Semitism and has made a career out of “legitimizing hatred.”
“Atzmon has the right to free speech, just like everyone else,” states the leaflet, which provides no examples of Atzmon’s purported anti-Semitic language. “But East Village venues with a progressive history have no responsibility to provide him with a stage–indeed, they have a responsibility not to.”
We caught a few seconds of two of shouting matches between protestors and a few people about to enter the theater around 5pm for the hours-long event. The action was also scrutinized by men who appeared to be involved with promoting Atzmon’s new paperback book, Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto, and by a tall, heavyset gent who only identified himself as Jim. He told B+B he had been retained to come by the theater “because there might be a need for bodyguards.” Jim declined to say who sent him and asked not to be photographed.
“These people are a bunch of a racist assholes!” shouted one demonstrator, apparently referring to attendees who had paid $10 to hear Atzmon speak with three other panelists, including radical leftwing lawyer Stanley Cohen.
“That’s your interpretation,” replied an East Village man, a former squatter who told us he didn’t regard Atzmon as anti-Semitic. “Why don’t you allow other people their right to speak?”
At one point during the brief verbal clashes, Atzmon, 53, entered the fray carrying his smart phone and exchanged views with a young critic. Atzmon is a big guy who had on a pro-Palestinian t-shirt. Earlier in the day, when we had asked if he was worried about violence at Theatre 80, he told us, “No, I’m not afraid–I’ve been in a war.” He disputed his detractors’ claims that he is anti-Semitic. “None of that is true. These are labels. I am a philosopher and I write a lot about Jewish identity and Jewish identity politics.”
Atzmon characterized Weinberg as a “Jewish ethnic activist. He tried to smear me in a 2012 piece in which he called me a holocaust denier. I don’t deny [the holocaust]. The issue here is history and for me the only historical discourse is when we rewrite and revise the past. We are entitled to a different historical perspective.”
But the protestors weren’t buying any of Atzmon’s explanations. “I heard about this guy,” said Dan Cahill, a former East Villager in his 60s who now lives in New Jersey. “I got [Weinberg’s] leaflet and he put the pieces together and you can’t let this guy speak. It’s like equal rights for plague.”
This isn’t the first time one of Atzmon’s appearances has been protested. He’s been criticized for comparing Israel’s Palestine policy to Hitler’s genocide, and for making statements such as “American Jews do try to control the world, by proxy.” For his part, Atzmon has said, “I’m anti-Jewish, not anti-Jews. I think Jewish ideology is driving our planet into a catastrophe and we must stop.”
“It’s hate speech,” said a woman who called herself Amina and had traveled alone to Sunday’s event after reading about it on Facebook. “Since the election, hate crimes [against Jews] are on the rise. I’ve read this guy’s writings and none of it is based on reality. As a society, I think we need to show more responsibility and keep each other safe.”
Inside Theatre 80, Stanley Cohen, the first speaker on the panel, lambasted the demonstrators as politically naive and purer-than-thou. He recounted being told by a young protestor that there could be no “Jew haters” in his East Village neighborhood. “After asking him if he had reached puberty, I reminded him that this was my fucking neighborhood for 35 years,” noted Cohen, who relocated from his former loft on Ave D to his upstate home after he pled guilty in 2014 for impeding the IRS and later served 11 months in prison.
Cohen added that any attempt to repress speech is “an invitation to violence.” He said there’s a “growing repression” worldwide that now includes some people on the “insular Left” who are, he said, “attempting to dictate the dialog and to shut down the marketplace of ideas. That’s called fascism.”
The fiery lawyer also claimed without substantiation that there had been “discussions” before the demonstration to shut down the panel, possibly create violence and exact “economic punishment” on Theatre 80, allegations which Weinberg, one of the organizers of the protest, said was news to him.
For his part, Atzmon read passages from his book and railed against “the tyranny of political correctness,” sometimes drawing laughter from attendees–especially when he declared that Archie Bunker of the TV series from decades past was a beloved show that created a kind of cultural revolution eventually leading to the election of Donald Trump.
“Archie was technically an early version of Donald Trump,” he said. He noted that Archie was created by Norman Lear, a “progressive Jew who wanted to make the world a better place through humor. Lear is the lesson in the cultural revolution you went through that was taking place under your radar. Lear was sitting behind his typewriter and delivering the revolution…whether you liked it or not.”
Pacifist/socialist David McReynolds, an East Village icon, was in the audience, telling B+B later that he first thought the program would be about the need to fight for free speech. McReynolds said he “found nothing wrong with what [Atzmon] said. He was very provocative–not about Israel but in terms of political correctness and the issue of identity politics. I was fascinated by that. He sounds perfectly rational.” He added, however, that he hasn’t read his books and might change his mind if he did.
But McReynolds, who had one of Atzmon’s jazz CDs before all the controversy began, also lamented that The Left has gotten into “some very nasty stuff–like the efforts to repress Ann Coulter.” He commended Theatre 80’s owner, Lorcan Otway, for refusing to cancel the program.