A Bigot in New York

How many chances in life do you have to see one of the world’s most anti-Semitic musicians perform at a hallowed Manhattan cathedral?

Believe me, there aren’t a lot. But if you visited St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue just a couple of days ago, you might have had the opportunity.

He plays a variety of instruments, including the sax and clarinet. He’s grizzled, bespectacled, on the portly side. And he’s originally of Jewish heritage.

Yes, that’s right. This rabid anti-Semite was born a Jew.

His name is Gilad Atzmon. You may have heard of him. Or perhaps not. He has a reputation—not a good one, mind you, though he does have legions of admirers on Facebook and Twitter, where he often disseminates his invective. It’s not pretty stuff. Both sites have removed content he has posted for hate speech in the recent past. Most of his writings comprise diatribes against Jews in some way or other, with frequent subjects relating to supposed universal personality defects ascribed to them. He associates with Holocaust deniers and bigoted conspiracy theorists, who gravitate to him like dill fronds enveloping a soggy matzo ball. He has thoroughly rejected his faith and now condemns it as if Judaism is a bad actor engaging in all kinds of villainy. He also condemns Israel, even though he is of Israeli extraction.

Yes, Israeli. This man is a product of the only democracy in the Middle East.

Gasp all you want—a quick review of his oeuvre, quite accessible via social media, will tell you all you need to know. Which is why it’s so puzzling as to how St. Peter’s Church, known for its jazz program (among other features), allowed Atzmon to ply his trade at its location … despite the fact that this institution has done much to promote civil rights and even has showcased an image of the Star of David on its Facebook page in association with text pertaining to a reception and exhibition involving artistic “Symbols of Judaism.”

An email inquiring about whether Atzmon was vetted beforehand was not answered at press time. That’s distressing, as clarity on this matter is highly warranted. Did St. Peter’s administrators do a little research on this guy prior to his gig? Or were they remiss? Is it possible they knew what kind of person he is and ignored it?

I suspect the latter isn’t plausible, owing to the London-based Atzmon’s near-anonymity stateside; he doesn’t have the notoriety of a bigot such as David Duke, for example. Yet his performance certainly highlights the need to do due diligence before providing a forum for any individual—a swift, comprehensive background check could work wonders, especially given the availability on the web of information pertaining to most wired-in people. Such data is out there in force for Atzmon. All one has to do is view it.

That brings up another question: Is barring this no-goodnik from playing music at a religious venue copacetic, even ethical? Isn’t there such a thing as freedom of speech? Well, yes there is … but any public or private operation also has the right to reject or avoid association with an individual if that person doesn’t follow its guidelines or regulations—or, in the case of Atzmon, propagates hateful ideologies that would be anathema to them. His prejudice-filled credo is definitely anathema to all that St. Peter’s Church stands for. It would have been perfectly legitimate to opt for someone else as the session’s tunesmith.

So why didn’t it? Maybe the folks there didn’t know. I say, however, that no matter what the situation was, an examination of his body of work encompassing not only his musical efforts but also his literary initiatives should have been in order … which ideally would have led to his absence from the site. If everyone could be so rigorous, we wouldn’t have this kind of issue seeping into the arts—or, for that matter, any sector—today. Can such atrocious scenarios be prevented in the future? Sure; with a little help from the Internet, everything’s possible.

The catch is ensuring all potential paths are explored. When that’s addressed, there’s no end to the type of affronts we’ll mitigate.

Here’s to wishing we’ll get to that place soon.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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