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Journey of events and evidence

If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew by Mike Marqusee reviewed by Daniel Machover, Socialist Lawyer, September 2008

“a highly readable and engaging mix of biography, autobiography and political analysis…”

This book tracks the life of the author’s grandfather, Edward V Morand (known in the book as EVM), a journalist, founder member of the National Lawyers Guild and political activist in the USA during the 1930s and 1940s. We also learn something of the author’s upbringing and how he formed his anti-Zionist outlook, gain interesting insights into Jewish history and biblical Judaism, and learn many interesting facts, for example, until 1937 Reform Judaism in the USA was actively hostile to the idea of Jews being ‘a nation’.

EVM was a complicated and imperfect man, at home and in his public life. His activism provides
the reader with an account of left wing Jewish politics in the New York area in the 1930s and 1940s, including the politics of the New Deal, anti-racism, the boycott of Nazi Germany and the
witch-hunts against communists. We learn a great deal about the activities of the non-communist
left in New York in the 1940s, the rise and fall of the American Labour Party (founded in 1936) and EVM’s attempt to be elected to Congress in 1946.

By then, EVM was a staunch Zionist, and references to ‘Palestinians’ in his writings of the period refer to the Jewish settlers, not the indigenous Arab inhabitants. EVM and other leftist Jews who supported Zionism in this period viewed the struggle of Jews in Palestine as being an anti-imperialist, post-colonial battle against British oppression:

‘For EVM, the Arabs are incapable of independent thought or action, and in the end merely tools for the prime enemy of the Jews: Britain, now under a Labour government […] By displacing the Palestinians and making the British the prime enemies, EVM was able to treat the war in Palestine as a classical national liberation struggle, whose opponents were all, by definition, reactionaries.’ (quotes from pages 187 and 188, but see page 205 in particular.)

EVM became a strong supporter of a boycott of British goods. Marqusee very effectively juxtaposes EVM’s warped analysis with a narrative account of the Nakba, but we also learn a great deal about US politics in 1948. We learn about the wrath EVM visited on anti-Zionist Jews and non-Jews, while in fact learning rather more about the history and shortcomings of the anti-Zionist ‘American Council for Judaism’.

In chapter 10, the writer begins with EVM’s assertion in October 1948 that Jews in Arab countries were being persecuted and that in Egypt in particular, Arab refugees in Palestine were allegedly going to directly displace Jews, who would in turn be ‘thrown into camps’. This is the backdrop, however, for a detailed tour of the Jewish communities of Iraq, Egypt and Morocco, that shows how Israeli efforts to destabilise those communities was a key component in their migration.

Chapter 2 and chapter 11, with their different themes, contain less family history and are mostly analytical, yet both chapters still seem to fit within the biography/autobiography format of the book. Indeed, if you read just one chapter of this book, I recommend the second chapter, entitled ‘The war against analogy’. What are the appropriate analogies to make between Zionism and the claims of Jewish nationhood and other political projects? How can Zionists sustain their claims that Israel is a progressive democracy in the face of appropriate analyses and analogies? The part of the final chapter that includes the very topical exposition of the flawed Walt and Mearsheimer analysis of the power of the Israel lobby in the USA is also excellent
(pages 266-272).

The author’s ‘journey of an anti-Zionist Jew’, stands in contrast to the other main theme of the book, namely EVM’s journey towards Zionism. The author’s journey is simply explained:

‘Mainly, what turned me into an anti-Zionist was just following events, and finding the pro-Israel
narrative and its underlying Zionist claims unsustainable in the face of the evidence. This wasn’t a truth forced on me from the outside. In the end, after some hesitation, I sought it out, in the same way and for the same reasons I sought out alternative understandings of the world role of the United States and Britain or any number of other political questions.’

If I Am Not For Myself is a highly readable and engaging mix of biography, autobiography and political analysis. It was interesting to gain a better understanding of how Zionism came to grip the lives of left wing diaspora Jews of EVM’s generation, but the vitriol Zionists pour on diaspora Jews who are critical of Israel or adopt an anti-Zionist stance just demonstrates the lengths diehard supporters of a Zionist state of Israel are prepared to go to in trying to maintain that grip. It can only be hoped that clear-sighted books of this kind assist in loosening that grip and that Jews and non-Jews alike will begin to apply the same standards to Israel as any other country founded on settler-colonialism.