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Stumbling out of Zionism

Mukul Kesevan reviews If I Am Not for Myself
BIBLIO, March-April 2008

Mike Marqusee’s range as a writer is prodigious. The first book of his that I read was Anyone But England, a brilliant materialist history of cricket in England, one of the best books ever written on the game. I remember thinking then, how extraordinary it was to be informed about a game I had loved all my life, by an American who had grown up in the cricketing wilderness of suburban New York and who had only first encountered the game as an adult in England. And an American Marxist at that! It seemed beyond strange.

Marqusee has since then written studies of Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali in the frame of the 1960s and this book, as the title suggests, sets his own life in the embattled context of Jewish anti-Zionism. The book’s reason for being is set out in its Preface:

“Whenever Jews speak out against Israel, they are met with ad hominen criticism. Their motives, their representativeness, their authenticity as Jews are questioned… Anti-Zionist Jews are not and do not claim to be any more authentic or representative than any other Jews, nor is their protest against Israel any more valid than a non-Jew’s. But “If I am not for myself,” then the Zionists will claim to be for me, will usurp my voice and my Jewishness. Since each Israeli atrocity is justified by the exigencies of Jewish survival, each calls forth a particular witness from anti-Zionist Jews, whose very existence contradicts the Zionist claim to speak for all Jews everywhere.”

Marqusee’s (pronounced mar-kuh-see) preferred narrative manner is argumentative history. The context for his own anti-Zionism is blocked in via a series of historical sketches. This context is a huge intellectual hinterland that includes a consideration of the prophetic tradition in the Bible and its implications for contemporary Zionism, an account of the drawn-out process of Jewish emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries which is a marvel of historical compression, a
quick tour of the Jewish diaspora in the years that followed the foundation of Israel and, most importantly, Jewish involvement in Left and Democratic party politics in New York through the
20th century, a tradition of machine politics and political debate in which Marqusee, his father and his maternal grandfather tried to find their bearings as Jews and as Americans.

The hero of this book isn’t Marqusee; it’s his maternal grandfather, Edward V. Morand, the son of
an Irishman and a Jewish woman from eastern Europe. EVM (as he’s called throughout this book) chose to be a Jew: he had his name changed from Moran (which sounded aggressively Irish) to Morand, which didn’t sound particularly Jewish but kept him from being identified as Irish. EVM
dominates the book; he is the prism through which the experience of being Jewish in the first half of the 20th century is refracted for his grandson.

“Lawyer, poet, columnist, radio show host, political activist, militant Jew, congressional candidate, antifascist and antiracist. Champion of civil liberties, free speech, world peace, and in 1948, of the new state of Israel. EVM is a revealing witness to his times, even, or especially, when he’s wrong, where the craziness that made him unique and the context he shared with others, that wider world he was always addressing or assaulting, seem inextricable.”

Marqusee inherited a suitcase full of EVM’s papers from his mother in October 2001, just a month after 9/ 11. In the shadow of that dreadful, epochal event which spawned a master narrative of Islamic terrorism and seemed to confirm every Zionist nightmare about Arabs and Muslims, Marqusee tried to understand his grandfather’s political demons, partly to exorcise his own.

Marqusee’s particular burden is the charge of self-hatred levelled against Jews who refused to see Zionism and the foundation of Eretz Yisrael as the logical culmination of Jewish history. For Marqusee the claim of Israel on a Jew’s identity became personal, unfinished business because he was 14 years old when he was first called a selfhating Jew.

In the course of dinner with his parents, who had always encouraged him to think about the world in the universalist terms of the Enlightenment, he ventured the opinion that the dispossession of Arabs in Palestine to build Israel was wrong. To his bewilderment his father (a liberal committed to the civil rights struggle and critical of the American involvement in Vietnam) hissed him into silence. “I think you need to look at why you’re saying what you’re saying… There’s some Jewish selfhatred there.”

To hear his father, who had taught him the elements of democratic liberalism, question his sense of self in this hurtful way when he tried to apply its general principles to the particular case of Israel, was traumatic. It was also, for Marqusee, the start of an intellectual journey that forced him to
reckon with the great questions that have confronted Jews over the centuries. The challenge of being God’s chosen ones while living scattered amongst peoples who worshipped other gods, the promise and the danger of assimilation, the poisoned chalice of emancipation in Europe, the rights and wrongs of a secularised identity, the dilemma of being French (or German or American) and Jewish and finally the urgency of dealing with these matters in a post-Holocaust world – these were
large questions for which Marqusee, like his grandfather before him, had to find personal answers.

This is a challenging book to read because Marqusee takes his reader on a hurtling ride through several kinds of history. The Prophet Jeremiah, Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, Napoleon, Heine
and Marx have walk-on parts while obscure political splinter groups and political operators in the Bronx in the ’30s and ’40s get more space than they sometimes seem to deserve. We move
from the life and times of ancient Judean kingdoms to the minute ideological differences that sometimes agitated anti-war marchers in London in the early years of the 21st century, all within the space of a few pages.

The effect of this ought to be disorienting but isn’t; once I got used to the roller coaster rhythm of his narrative technique I was exhilarated by the scope and variety of the story he was trying to tell. It is Marqusee’s particular gift to be able to assimilate secondary historical works and then
synthesize them into polemical narratives that simultaneously inform and provoke his readers. Not for him the Olympian, definitive history; in this book, as in his populist, partisan history of cricket, he generates insights by taking sides. Whether he is pointing up the striking affinities of Hindutva and Zionism or explaining the reasons for the collapse of anti-Zionist Jewish organisations in America like the America Council for Judaism, or dissecting the depressing failure of some Left-leaning and liberal critics of Zionism to distinguish between the ‘Jewish lobby’ (with its anti-Semitic implications) and the ‘Israel lobby’, his insights are driven by his intellectual commitment to understand the world in a materialist and unsectarian way.

To read his book, to follow him as he tries to be true to his creed of radical internationalism, is an education for any Indian politically committed to a pluralist India. Just as anti-Zionism draws the venomous charge of selfhatred, so does an anti-Hindutva stance provoke the analogous charge of selfloathing. L.K. Advani’s durable neologism, pseudo-secularist, is familiar to us all. When Marqusee confronts the accusation towards the end of his book, in a chapter called ‘Confessions of a “self-hating Jew”, he seems to speak so directly for the cause of pluralism that you want to cheer.

“… Let me say a brief word for selfloathing,” says Marqusee, as if in passing. “Anyone who entirely lacks this trait is not to be trusted. And it is generally acknowledge as an ethical principle that correction of the self comes before chastisement of others. For the privileged self, a form of selfrejection – not personal, but political – may be necessary to reach out to others, to know oneself and become fully human.”

There’s nothing I can recall in any book that describes the impulse behind anti-sectarian politics better than this passage does. Reading it, I realised that the unusual references to Kabir and Ambedkar and Phule that dot the book aren’t just multi-cultural tokens; they are the eclectic reference points of a genuinely cosmopolitan writer who looks to the world to understand his
place within it. The last words in this review are the last lines of this book:

“… I’ve had the good fortune to have stumbled my way out of Zionism. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my life in that prison. The people who call us self-haters want to steal our selves from us – appropriate our selves for their cause – and speaking as a self, I’m damned if I’m going to let them get away with it.”