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Indymedia UK and the Atzmon-Greenstein affair

IMCers | 24.02.2008 02:54 | Indymedia | Birmingham

Although moderation discussions and disagreements within the IMC UK collective are not that rare, never before has a post proved so controversial and divisive like an article by controversial Israeli writer and musician Gilad Atzmon titled "Saying NO to the Hunters of Goliath". The disputed post has triggered serious, heated discussions among Indymedia UK moderators, two active IMCers leaving the collective, as well as a malicious campaign of spamming and disinformation against Atzmon and Indymedia UK itself. However, the controversy was also an opportunity for IMC UK to reflect on the process of moderation and the need for a deeper political discussion. The purpose of this feature is to establish the facts and clarify IMC UK's position(s) on the Atzmon-Greenstein affair, anti-Semitism and moderation issues in general.

It goes without saying that Indymedia stands firmly against all forms of racism. The Editorial Guidelines clearly state that "posts using language, imagery or other forms of communication promoting racism, fascism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination" will be hidden. This obviously includes anti-Semitism as well and many anti-Semitic articles have been hidden straight away in the past. The problem with Atzmon's above-mentioned article, however, is that not all IMC UK moderators seem to agree that it -or the author himself, for that matter- is anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other anti's

The article in question was posted on Indymedia UK by a third party on 14 August, 2007. It had appeared on a number of sites [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 ] as well as Atzmon's own website. The article almost passed without attention on Indymedia UK at the time and no comments were posted to it until 18 October, 2007, when Tony Greenstein, one of Atzmon's long-term opponents, posted a comment asking Indymedia moderators to "quickly take it down."

While the article is mainly about the Lebanon war, it contains some controversial parts such as this:

"Clearly, the Zionist interpretation is engaged with nothing more than the concrete symptom, with the simplest manifestation of the animosity that surrounds it rather than with the core of the problem itself. Hitler was indeed defeated, Jews are now more than welcome in Germany and in Europe, yet, the Jewish state and the sons of Israel are at least as unpopular in the Middle East as their grandparents were in Europe just six decades ago."

While this was interpreted by some as blaming Jewish people for the Holocaust, which is what outright Nazis would say, it was read by others as acknowledging 'mere facts': that Jewish people were hated by some in Europe before WW2 and they are hated by some in the Arab Middle East now. The reason for the confusion seems to be that, while he blames "inhuman policies that are implied by Jewish nationalism and its political and cultural offshoots" for the present "unpopularity" of Israel in the ME, he does not state as clearly why Jewish people were "unpopular" in Europe before WW2. Instead, he focuses on the "simplistic Biblical worldview" that was inherited by Zionists and Neocons, rather than an analysis based on colonial history. What's sure, though, is that Atzmon's style is very provocative and often appears to be intentionally designed to wind people up.

The article soon attracted a flame war in comments, which cannot be accessed at the moment as the article has been put in the new "disputed" category. The flame war, however, soon moved onto the newswire and the imc-uk-features list, as will be shown later on.

Earlier that year, another article by Atzmon (again posted on Indymedia UK by someone else) sparked another heated discussion but was left up as most moderators seemed to agree that it was not racist, however controversial.

The Palestine Solidarity activist, who had served in the Israeli military, is widely quoted saying: "American Jewry makes any debate on whether the ‘Protocols of the elder of Zion’ are an authentic document or rather a forgery irrelevant. American Jews (in fact Zionists) do control the world," which effectively plays into Nazi and far-right propaganda about Jewish people. As Steve Cohen put it in his book That's Funny You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, "Anti-semitism is not simply a type of national chauvinism that happens to be directed against Jews — although this is obviously an important aspect of it. [...] The peculiar and defining feature of anti-semitism is that it exists as an ideology. It provides its adherents with a universal and generalised interpretation of the world. This is the theory of the Jewish conspiracy, which depicts Jews as historically controlling and determining nature and human destiny."

However, others argue that the quote is taken out of context and that there is a difference between a "Jewish world conspiracy" and a "Zionist world conspiracy", the latter being a political ideology that aims to impose its worldview on the rest of the world by any means possible, just like Neoconservatism. Further, they argue that the fact that the out-of-context snippet could then be abused by genuine anti-Semites "does not invalidate" the whole text. As an article by Seth Farber put it: "Unlike Eisen, however, Atzmon opposes all racialist explanations based on allegedly biological traits or collective dispositions. Thus he indignantly rebuffs the charges of racism or anti-Semitism that his arguments have provoked. While Atzmon's conclusions are not based on biological racism and while there is reason to doubt that his motives are anti-Semitic per se, some of his conclusions are similar to those of anti-Semites."

In an audio interview conducted by a UK IMCer, Atzmon refuses to be labelled anti-Semitic and explains where he is coming from and why he is being witch-hunted by his so-called "five opponents". In regard to the controversial paragraph in the disputed article mentioned above, he insists that he did not mean to blame the Holocaust on the 'unpopularity' of Jewish people in Europe as such but, rather, that Israelis (and the whole world) should "learn the lesson" and not allow it to happen again, in Palestine, Iraq or elsewhere. (Listen also to his Brighton talk earlier this year.)

In fact, Atzmon rejects the whole concept of anti-Semitism as used by his critics:
"There is no anti-Semitism any more. In the devastating reality created by the Jewish state, anti-Semitism has been replaced by political reaction." (Atzmon's views on anti-Semitism can be found on his website.)

Later on, in a rather rude response to an IMC UK admin who argued that his writings were anti-Semitic, Atzmon wrote:
"[The concerned IMCer] refers to me saying: 'His arguments that there is a Zionist plan to dominate the world do seem to me to be disturbing.' I agree with you, it is indeed very very disturbing, but I believe that your job is to expose it rather than to silence it."

He then goes on:
"I am indeed critical of any form of Jewish politics (left, right and centre). The reason is rather simple: I am opposing any form of identity politics grounded on racial belonging." [...] "[The concerned IMCer] probably fails to realise that in my writings I differentiate between Judaism (religion), Jews (the people) and Jewishness (ideology)." And his problem, he argues, is with the latter, or what he calls the "tribal political identity"..

This does not seem to have helped much and it was argued that simply replacing the word "Jewish" with "Zionist", while keeping the 'same logic', does not mean the underlying discourse is not anti-Semitic. In fact, this kind of word-conflation has been used by neo-Nazis in their anti-Semitic literature.

Moderation, resignations and spamming

On 24 October (i.e. over two months after the article was posted), Tony Greenstein, a British Palestine Solidarity activist, contacted IMC UK asking for the article to be not only hidden but removed completely from the site, having been brought to his attention by Moshe Machoever. This (complete removal) has only happened in very exceptional circumstances, such as pornography, personal details and the like.

Having been forwarded to the imc-uk-features list, Greenstein's email sparked a long discussion on the list, with some asking for the article to be hidden [ 1 | 2 | 3 ] and others saying it should stay [ 1 | 2 | 3 ]. Over the course of the following few days, two IMC UK admins called for a "no platform" policy and a "blanket ban" on Atzmon [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ] as they spotted "disturbing" ideas and "bad" links in some of his other articles [ 1 | 2 ]. Other admins opposed that arguing that Atzmon was misquoted and misrepresented, and that there is a difference between "Jewish world conspiracy" and "Zionist world conspiracy" [ 1 | 2 | 3 ]. Soon, more UK IMCers jumped in to side with one side or the other, often without much of an argument [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ]. Some broader implications of this case were also raised: should all articles suggesting that the US foreign policy is strongly influenced, or determined, by Israel or the Zionist lobby be hidden? A pub meeting in London between the two 'camps' did not resolve anything.

After some further discussion on the list that seemed to go nowhere [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ], with two admins prepared to block a blanket ban on Atzmon [ 1 | 2 ], one IMCer decided to leave IMC UK as he felt he was "simply not functioning on the same planet as the rest of the most active site admins", while keeping his activity within IMC London. Another IMCer soon followed as he "did not want to be associated with a group that endorses such bullshit". Some emails from frustrated or shocked IMCers followed [ 1 | 2 | 3 ], while the 'scandal' was circulated elsewhere on the web.

Meanwhile, Tony Greenshtein, a Jewish anti-Zionist British activist, was busy posting long articles and emails all over the place demanding that Atzmon's article is taken down and the author is banned from Indymedia. It has since transpired that there has been a long-running 'war of attrition' against Gilad Atzmon by a group calling itself Jews Against Zionism (JAZ).

The conflict is said to have begun after Atzmon wrote an article, provocatively entitled "The Protocols of the Elders Of London", which railed against the way some JAZ members had treated Israeli writer Israel Shamir (for some background see here 1 | 2 | 3 ). It is also worth mentioning that Indymedia is not the first group that has been forced to side with either Atzmon or Greenstein in this years-long spat. Both Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had been more or less though the same, and both took time to consider the issues and came to a decision not to reject Atzmon [ 1 | 2 | 3 ].

Greenstein's posts on Indymedia UK about Atzmon's article have included: Why does Indymedia Tolerate an anti-Semitic article by Gilad Atzmon? | Why is Indymedia hosting openly Gilad Atzmon's anti-Semitism | How Indymedia UK became a safe haven for Anti-Semitism, all of which have been hidden as complaint about moderation (i.e. non-news) or inaccurate (see this response by an Indymedia admin). He has also sent numerous emails to the features list [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 ] often copying to other groups and individuals in an attempt to pile up pressure on Indymedia moderators to do what he wanted. He has even asked other people to allegedly lobby on his behalf [ 1 | 2 | 3 ].

After a while, people got fed up with Greenstein's unsolicited emails [ 1 | 2 ]. To browse the list archives and send emails to people personally is considered an abuse of mailing lists, to say the least. One IMCer wrote: "Tony, I'm not really happy with the way this is going. The personal is political and I'm really not comfortable with the way you're acting here. It just seems a bit too full on."

More seriously, on 3 December 2007, someone faked an email, using Sharpmail, that appeared to be coming from one of the IMCers at the heart of the conflict, proposing in his name to ban all Greenstein's posts. This was probably "the straw that broke the camel's back". After several proposals from various people [ 1 | 2 ], the features list was finally put on moderation, i.e. all incoming mail would need to be approved by list admins. But this meant that discussion on the unresolved issue was no longer possible, so a wiki page was started where all relevant stuff was collected.

Other prominent players who appeared in this fiasco included Mary Rizzo, an Italian journalist who runs a no-less controversial blog called PeacePalestine (see her emails to the features list: 1 | 2 | 3 ). Another was David Gehrig, an openly Zionist IMCer from Urbana Champaign IMC, who set up a blog called "Anti-Semitism and Indymedia UK". Gehrig was involved in a similar campaign in 2004 over charges of anti-Semitism, which resulted in banning Wendy Campbell from San Francisco IMC. One UK IMCer at the heart of this recent conflict has also set up a blog to support Atzmon and document what's happening from his (the IMCer's) perspective.

On 21 February, 2008, Gilad Atzmon wrote to the imc-uk-moderation list asking for all his writings on Indymedia UK to be "removed within 48 hours" and that none of his stuff is published there "without [his] consent." Having followed the discussions within IMC UK for the last 3 months, he added, "I do believe in hierarchic editorial clear-cut decisions and, as sad as it may be, I do not approve any form of ideological collectivism. I believe in freedom of the spirit and freedom of speech."

Decisions and disinformation

A long-awaited IMC UK network meeting took place in Nottingham on 9-10 February, 2008. The Atzmon-Greenstein affair and related moderation and process issues dominated the discussions, along with other pressing issues such as the new design and new Content Management System (CMS).

Just before the network meeting, Greenstein had asked one IMCer if he could write a letter to be read out at the gathering summing up his views on the issue. This was opposed by many [ 1 | 2 | 3 ] as it was felt that this would not be productive, given Greenstein's previous engagements. Earlier, David Gehrig had written to the features list suggesting ways to 'resolve' the issue "in a spirit of problem-solving".

While the fate of Atzmon's article could not be decided and some political issues remained contested, some things were very clear: there is no place for anti-Semitism on Indymedia; Zionism should not be equated with world Jewry; it is OK for people to criticise Israel's aggressive policies against the Palestinians; more in-depth debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitic is needed. A couple of practical steps were agreed towards these ends: a further meeting between the 'two camps', clearer editorial guidelines, and starting a collective "political guide for Indymedia admins". It was also decided that Greenstein has been disruptive and abusive and should be banned from the lists. Likewise, any other/similar disruption related to this issue will also not be tolerated.

As to the article itself, a new category called "disputed articles" was created (at the moment articles are either shown normally or hidden) to reflect the dispute process. It was also decided to take moderation discussions off the features list and create a new list for that, with some list rules in an attempt to avoid the recent unpleasant experience of imc-uk-features.

Early in the affair, a number of trolls had jumped in, posting fabricated and inaccurate accounts of what was going on. Many newswire posts and comments were hidden as "inaccurate", "non-news" or "disruptive" [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | .... ]. What's more, many of these (especially the recent ones) were from well-known trolls who have been running an organised disinformation campaign against Indymedia UK. Their clever disinfo posts in the past have centred around Israel/Palestine, Cuba and other sensitive political issues, but have also included false accounts of meetings or demos being called or cancelled, misrepresentation of the moderation process and personal attacks against IMC admins.

Disinformation is defined as deliberately misleading information announced publicly or leaked by a government, intelligence agency, corporation or their agents for the purpose of influencing opinions or perceptions. Unlike misinformation, which is also a form of wrong information, disinformation is produced by people who intend to deceive their audience. A group might plant disinformation in reports, in press releases, in public statements or in practically any other routine, occasional or unusual communique. Disinformation can also be leaked, or covertly released, to a source who can be trusted to repeat the false information. A common disinformation tactic is to mix truth, half-truths and lies. Disinformants sometimes seek to gain the confidence of their audience through emotional appeals or by using semi-neutral language interlaced with threads of disinformation (more background: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ).

After the network meeting, the Atzmon-related disinfo campaign intensified. The first fabricated account appeared on February 11th, by someone calling himself Steve. The second was by a fictional group of Birmingham University students who had had a meeting to discuss the network meeting's outcome. Another was posted under the name of the Birmingham Anti-Racist Campaign (ARC), claiming the group "condemned without reservation the recent conclusions drawn at the Indymedia UK meeting." Of course, there were no Steves or Birmingham students at the meeting, and ARC doesn't know anything about it. Other posts were published under the name of made-up activists who were angry with the way Indymedia was handling the problem [ 1 | 2 ]. Even this feature, while being drafted on the wiki, was not spared.

What's more worrying is the circulation of this disinformation on the wider web. A couple of articles and comment threads have already appeared elsewhere and many readers have fallen into the trap. Even Tony Greenstein seems to have done so (he quotes some of the above-mentioned disinfo posts).

So far, three articles have appeared on the Socialist Unity site, with such inaccurate titles, misrepresentations and distortions: How Indymedia UK lost its way and became a safe haven for Anti-Semitism; Indymedia Capitulates to the Anti-Semites and Holocaust Deniers; Fallout as Indymedia Embraces Anti-Semitism. Another article also appeared on the Workers' Liberty site bearing the title Defend Tony Greenstein!. Again, the article is clearly biased, or misinformed, and misrepresents the facts. All articles have attracted numerous comments, some of which appear to be coming from the same disinfo trolls mentioned above.

What remains there to say is that, despite the political disagreements, the IMC UK collective seemed determined to not give in to any bullying, blackmailing or lobbying. Indymedia has a mission that is far more important than these scuffles. It's not the first time and won't be the last.