'Israeli' Jazz Star Praises Yasser Arafat

Christian Henderson
15 November 2004

"It is clear that this man, this brave man, this hero, the biggest 20th century freedom fighter, went through a hell of a time," said Atzmon in a telephone interview from his North London home.

But Atzmon is not your average Israeli. In fact he takes offence at even being called Israeli.

"Let me make it clear, I am not an Israeli. I was born in Israel, for the first 22 years of my life I thought of myself as an Israeli. But when I realised what Israel was all about, I stopped regarding myself as an Israeli. I demand not to be seen as one. I am a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian," he says.

Atzmon's transformation from Israeli to Hebrew-speaking Palestinian began when he visited an Israeli prison camp in south Lebanon with an Israeli army band.

He was so disgusted by the treatment of the Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners there that he began to dissent from Israel and Zionism.

Ten years later he turned his back on Israel and left for London where his musical career took off.

After a stint playing with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, he founded his own band, the Orient House Quartet, naming it after the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's headquarters in Jerusalem.

'A racist set-up'

Atzmon has just released his fourth album, is published in 15 languages, banned in Israel and remains an ardent anti-Zionist.

"For me it is clear that Zionism is a racist, nationalist and a fundamentally religious perception, and I don't want to live in a racist set-up," he says.

"Everything I liked about this place (Israel) the smell of it, the authenticity of it, the food, hummus, the falafel, didn't belong to Jewish nationalism it belonged to the Palestinian people."

Atzmon says the only solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a single state with two people living side by side.

"Palestine belongs to the Palestinian people. The two state solution doesn't address the Palestinian cause and never addressed the Palestinian cause," he says.

New album

But despite his anger over the plight of the Palestinians, Atzmon's music expresses his feelings in the most serene ways.

He is a master at blending styles and the end result is an eclectic mix of east and west, Jewish and Arab and just about everything in between.

On his last album Exile, voted by the BBC as the best jazz album of 2003, he reworks an Israeli anthem written about the conquest of Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and adds the words of renowned Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish.

On another track on Exile, Atzmon took a Jewish song that commemorates the Nazi holocaust called Brother our Ghetto is Burning and renames it Jenin, a sad and soulful number dedicated to the residents of the West Bank refugee camp of the same name that was invaded and smashed by the Israeli army in April 2002.

Atzmon says his new album addresses the hijacking of popular music by American-led globalisation and big corporations.

"In my new album I don't attack Israelis any more than I attack the globalised world. I don't see any difference between the Israeli abusive treatment of the Palestinian people and the American abuse of the Arab world," he said.

'Qualified imbecile'

Oddly, Atzmon thinks the re-election of George Bush is not quite the disaster that many believe it to be.

"America is a superpower. No one can topple it. The only people who can topple America are Americans themselves and they have done it.

"They have elected a qualified imbecile to run their administration. They are getting involved in so many wars and they are far from being successful in any of them. This empire is falling apart," he said.

Originally published here.