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Against the grain

Daphna Baram salutes Mike Marqusee’s honest appraisal of his radical journey through religion and politics, If I Am Not for Myself
Review in The Guardian, April 19 2008

The Mishnaic scholar Old Hillel is known, in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world, for his saying “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It is no accident, however, that Mike Marqusee, a New York-born Jew who has been living in the UK for the past three decades, picked one of Hillel’s more enigmatic and possibly least understood ethical aphorisms to mark the route of his journey to anti-Zionism: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”

It takes a complex ethical motto to lead one through the complex relationships between almost each and every Jew in the world during the past century, the Zionist movement, and the state of Israel. While Zionists claimed Hillel’s saying as one of their slogans, implying that the Jewish people should act for themselves by joining a national movement, creating their own state and redeeming themselves from living “among the nations”, Marqusee’s take on this old piece of Jewish wisdom led him to the opposite conclusion: “In defining myself as an anti-Zionist Jew, I am for myself, and at the same time and without contradiction for others.”

Marqusee’s book consists of three threads, woven into one journey of consciousness. The first is an account of the life and times of his grandfather, Ed, son of a Jewish mother and an Irish father, hence a “proper” Jew by any religious standard, who still felt the need to change his last name from the Irish Moran, into the somewhat more Jewish-sounding Morand. Ed V Morand, or EVM as his grandson got used to calling him, was a lawyer and a journalist with political aspirations. He was anti-imperialist, anti-racist, an ardent liberal, a supporter of workers’ rights, civil rights, and human rights, a champion of Black liberation in America, an anti-fascist – and an ardent Zionist. His grandson struggled to understand how a man who dedicated his life to fighting against every wrong in the world could have been so adamant in his denial of the wrongs done to the Palestinian people, the atrocities committed by the Zionists during the 1948 war – known as the nakba to Palestinians, and as “the war of independence” to Israelis.

Equally, he could not understand how his father, a peace campaigner, a member of the Civil Rights Movement in the US in the 1960s, and a radical activist against both the Korean and Vietnam wars, did not encourage him when he decided that the enlightened ideas he was brought up on should be applied equally to Israel’s behaviour in the territories it conquered in 1967.

When the teenage Marqusee comes home from school one day in 1969 and says that an Israeli soldier who was invited to speak to his class was a racist, and that in his own opinion “If the US was wrong in Vietnam … then Israel was wrong in taking all that Arab land”, a fight breaks out around the dinner table. In the heat of the argument his father throws at him the worst insult of them all. He calls his son “a self-hating Jew”. This is possibly the peak moment of the second thread of the book, which consists of Marqusee’s own personal journey from the all-Jewish-American-liberal home in which he was born and bred to his current rejection of Zionism. As one who has been through a similar journey, I always find accounts of such personal-political transitions fascinating – so I regretted that he chose to be so economical with this particular aspect of his own personal history.

But anything the second thread lacks is compensated for by the third, which is a tour-de-force of political and cultural analysis of various aspects of Jewish, Zionist and anti-Zionist history and politics. Marqusee touches on many painful spots – from the nakba, the catastrophe which led to the expulsion of most Palestinians from their land, through to the treatment of Middle Eastern Jews by Israel and the Zionist movement, and the form of antisemitism which is, ironically, inherent in Zionism’s rejection of “Diasporic Judaism”. The comparisons he draws between Zionism, Hindu nationalism, and other similar and dissimilar political phenomena are incisive and accurate. He shies away from no controversy, and his account of recent dealings with incidents in and around the anti-war movement – which attracted accusations of antisemitism – are penetrating and intellectually honest.

It sometimes seems that Marqusee’s task is too big for one book; EVM seems to deserve a whole biography for himself, Mike Marqusee’s own road to anti-Zionism is worthy of further expansion, and the analytical part of the book could have easily have given rise to a separate publication. And yet If I Am Not for Myself is a good read, and for many it will make sense of a few questions which, with the growing domination of Zionism over the Jewish discourse, seem to be more and more bewildering: can one be a Jew and not a Zionist? Can one be a lefty and a Zionist? And how exactly do all those confusing definitions cross each other’s paths?

It is enjoyable also because of the vivid way in which Marqusee brings back to life his passionate, life-loving, grumpy and flamboyant grandfather, who roamed the Bronx at the time when “the slogan Free Palestine meant support for a Jewish State and A Palestinian – a Jewish settler; Where the Zionist anthem ‘Ha-Tikva’ took its place with ‘The Internationale’”. And even if the grandson rejected a major ingredient of his grandfather’s politics, he certainly inherited his bold spirit, and his insistence on always calling a spade a spade. In this, If I Am Not for Myself is a manifesto for a whole generation of Jewish radical activists who refuse to be deterred by the threat of being labelled, and libelled, as self-haters. Those who brand them so, says Marqusee in his conclusion, “want to steal our selves from us – appropriate our selves to their cause – and speaking as a self, I’m damned if I’m going to let them get away with it.” His book is a vital contribution to making sure that indeed they will not.

Daphna Baram’s book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel is published by Guardian Books