Jewish and against Zionism

July 10, 2008

Sam Bernstein reviews a book that takes on the common accusation leveled at Jews who criticize Israel.

AS ANY anti-Zionist knows, raising opposition to Israel and Zionism immediately draws accusations of anti-Semitism--and, if the dissenter is Jewish, accusations of self-hatred.

It is precisely these attempts by Zionism to squash all criticism of Israel, especially from Jews, that Mike Marqusee takes head on in his latest book, If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew.

Starting with the papers of his late grandfather and Marqusee's own personal experiences being raised as a Jew in post-Second World War America, the book beautifully weaves together a broad, yet intimately personal, history of anti-Zionism and radicalism in Judaism. Equal parts biography, autobiography, history and commentary, Marqusee powerfully strips Zionism of its claim to represent and speak for all of world Jewry.

Central to Marqusee's task is the re-appropriation of Jewish, anti-Zionist and leftist history--a history that is consciously buried by the Zionist establishment. In this process, he shows the strong connections between history, how we understand the present, and the frameworks we can utilize in determining the future.

Marqusee weighs in on an impressively diverse and rich array of subjects, including (but far from limited to) the Jewish workers' Bund, Jewish Enlightenment philosophy, political struggles within the New Deal coalition, parallels between Zionism and right-wing Hindu nationalism, the claims about "left-wing anti-Semitism," discussions with Muslims about Zionism, Jews in the Middle East, and the parallels between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

These discussions and explorations radiate out from Marqusee's narrative center: the life of his maternal grandfather, Edward V. Morand (aka EVM), a Jewish leftist active in New York politics in the 1930s and 1940s.

Despite being involved in virtually every left-wing cause of his time, EVM increasingly became an ardent Zionist, which led him to unconsciously sacrifice many of his radical principles. Marqusee is particularly horrified by EVM's political positions in 1948--the year of Israeli "independence," or al-Nakba (the catastrophe), as it's known to Palestinians. As Marqusee writes:

In the midst of [Israel's] one-way process of destruction, displacement and plunder, EVM's constant cry is "no retreat." He seems to have entirely lost his former distaste for war and militarism...In this war, there seems to be only one kind of victim, Jewish.

Marqusee attributes EVM's political twists and turns, in part, to a "failure to imagine the people on the receiving end of your dreams. It's a failure rooted in Western and white supremacy, a network of unexamined assumptions that has proved much more ineradicable and insidious than anti-Semitism. EVM's writings of 1948 resound with it, and offer inadvertent testimony to the racist character of the Nakba and Nakba denial."

These political contradictions and hypocrisies are exactly what led Marqusee himself out of the Zionist trap. In a very candid section, Marqusee relates an experience that is no doubt familiar to many Jewish anti-Zionists: the first time he was accused of self-hatred.

He describes hearing an Israeli soldier speak to his Sunday school class just after the 1967 Israeli war that began the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The soldier was going on about how "the Arabs are better off now, under Israeli rule. You have to understand these are ignorant people. They go to the toilet in the street." Marqusee responds:

Now, something akin to this I had heard before. I had heard it from the white Southerners I'd been taught to look down upon. I had heard it from people my parents and my teachers described as prejudiced and bigoted. So I raised my hand and when called upon, I expressed my opinion, as I'd been taught to do. It seemed to me that what our visitor had said was, well, racist.

The young Marqusee was immediately denounced. Angrily, he went home to share this experience with his normally supportive parents. At the dinner table, he added to the story, putting forward his opinion, heavily influenced by the anti-Vietnam War movement, that "It was wrong for one country to take over another, or part of another, by military force...Suddenly, [my dad] barked, 'Enough already!'...Like my Sunday school teacher, he made me feel that I'd said something obscene...'I think you need to look at why you're saying what you're saying,' he said...'There's some Jewish self-hatred there.'"

IN THE end, Marqusee answers the question set out by the title:

If I am not "for myself"...then others will claim to be "for me"...[I]n defining myself as an anti-Zionist Jew, I am for myself, and at the same time and without contradiction, for others...I find in anti-Zionism emancipation both as a Jew and as a human being...

Jews today can no more escape the question of Zionism than they could the question of anti-Semitism in earlier eras. The problem today isn't that Jews are in denial of their Jewishness or of the threat of anti-Semitism, but that Jews are in denial about Israel, Zionism, the Nakba, the occupation, the wall...

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.

The task of anti-Zionists is to explain the role that Zionism serves in the U.S. imperial project, while also breaking the notion that Zionism has anything to do with Jewishness. As Marqusee puts it: "[T]he Zionist dominance of the diaspora, and especially the diaspora in America, is a mutable, historical phenomenon--not the inevitable expression of 'Jewish self-interest'--and the continuation of that dominance is by no means guaranteed."

Easier said than done, right? In addition to reclaiming history, we have to understand that Israeli war crimes and the logic of Zionism itself can shake even the most veteran of Zionists.

Just look at the development of Marqusee's father--the same dad who first called him a self-hater. As Marqusee writes:

[I]n the end, the Zionists tested his humanity beyond endurance. After the news broke about the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, he phoned me from New York. "Ok," he said, "you were right. They're bastards." He started to make contributions to Palestinian causes and to raise the issue among his friends.

The struggle against Zionism's dominance over Jews and Palestinians won't be easy, but Marqusee has made an important and captivating contribution to that fight. If you've ever had trouble arguing that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, or if you just want to get a sense of the rich diversity of Jewish history and its relationship to radicalism, then you should pick up this book.

I just bought a copy for my dad--the first person to call me a self-hater. If Marqusee can convince his dad, then I guess I'll hold out hope for mine as well.

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