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Tribute by Brian Klug

London, February 2017

A Mensch

It is night-time in East Jerusalem. Reva (my partner) and I are sitting at a table in the dimly-lit interior of Askadinya, a Palestinian restaurant, waiting for Mike Marqusee to join us for dinner. Suddenly a frail figure, slightly bent, leaning on a stick, appears at the entrance. He hobbles over to our table and, painfully, squeezes himself into a chair. For the next three hours the whole place is lit up as Mike regales us with his anecdotes and analysis, illuminating every subject under the sun.

People who knew Mike often described him as a ‘Renaissance Man’ on account of the breadth of his interests and his knowledge. I call him a Mensch because of the depth of his humanity and because it is a vivid Yiddish word for someone with his qualities; and Mike never ceased to be a Yidl. In the Preface to his autobiographical If I am Not for Myself he says: “I have never had the slightest doubt that I am a Jew.” Mike was many things: author, poet, activist, connoisseur of cricket, Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali (to mention just a few subjects). But, to be frank, he was never cut out to be a rabbi, for he was also, by his own account, an atheist and a ‘left secularist’. So, he asks himself in the book, “What makes me a Jew?”

What comes immediately to mind is Isaac Deutscher’s category of the ‘non-Jewish Jew’. But that’s wrong. Deutscher’s examples, such as Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, either did not identify as Jews or did not use Jewish sources – even if their origins left a recognizably Jewish mark on their thought and attitudes. They went to the border and crossed it, leaving Judaism behind. Mike did not leave it behind. When he crossed the border into the universal space of humankind he took his Jewish identity with him. Not only did he take it with him, he took it by the scruff of the neck and he made it his own, claiming it for himself with such tenacity that not even the combined forces of the Chief Rabbinate, the Board of Deputies and the Embassy of the State of Israel could take it away from him.

What he took with him was not a religion but a sense of sharing with other Jews common sources, common texts and a distinctive historical experience as a minority. For Mike, Judaism was not a set of beliefs about the origin of the world or the order of things but a set of references, a repository of human experiences, a ‘repertoire of meaning’ (in Stuart Hall’s phrase): on all of which he drew like Jacob at the well upon seeing Rachel for the first time. Mike is more in the “tradition of Jewish secular thought” that David Biale describes in Not in the Heavens. He was someone who did not so much cross the Jewish border as open it, opening it up to the width of the world.

“My Jewishness,” he writes in the Preface to his memoir, “is … a locale where the self intersects with history, past and present”. He describes Jewishness as indeterminate and says that every attempt to narrow it down “has backfired, broken down or produced manifest absurdities”. The attempt to narrow it down that is most on his mind in the book – as it was in his life – is worse than absurd: tying Jewish identity to Zionism. “I find in anti-Zionism,” he explains, “emancipation both as a Jew and as a human being, and any consequent diminution in my Jewishness is strictly in the eye of the beholder”.

For Mike, being an anti-Zionist meant being simultaneously opposed to two kinds of oppression. First, it was “an expression of a positive solidarity with the Palestinians as victims of injustice and specifically of colonialism”. Second, it was an act of defiance against those forces that police the Jewish border and seek (you might say) to colonize the self of individual Jews. Their take is that Jews who reject Zionism reject themselves. For Mike, to the contrary, anti-Zionism meant claiming himself as a Jew. “The people who call us self-haters want to steal ourselves 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.”

These are the words with which his memoir closes. They refer back to the quotation on which he drew for the title of the book, the whole of which is this: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?” These are three questions in one: they were indivisible for Mike in his life as they were for the ancient Palestinian whom he was quoting: Hillel HaZaken, Rabbi Hillel the Elder.

Hillel also said, “In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.” Mike did. He was a Mensch.