If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew By Mike Marqusee
Verso Books. Reviewed by ASHER GOLDMAN
In recent years, there has been a rise in explicitly Jewish anti-Zionist publishing and organising. Jews, both within Israel and in the diaspora, are increasingly moving away from a more passive, silent anti-Zionism towards outspoken attempts at engagement with the wider Jewish community, where a pervasive Zionism is the default political belief for most.
Mike Marqusee’s work follows in this trend, most recently seen downunder in Antony Loewenstein’s My Israel Question (Melbourne University Publishing, 2006). Where Loewenstein focussed on Australian media and political parties’ representations of Israel, and contained a wider history, analysis and critique of Israeli policies, however, Marqusee takes a much more personal stance.
If I Am Not For Myself operates simultaneously on two tracks: the majority of the book looks at the life of Edward V Morand (known in the book as EVM), Marqusee’s grandfather. Morand was a small time politician and political activist in the USA from the 1930s onwards, a man of many contradictions. Part Irish, part Jewish, Morand never felt entirely accepted within either community, making it hard for him to find a support base as he attempted to break through pervasive antisemitism in his political (and indeed, everyday) life. Marqusee elegantly tells the story of the Grandfather he hardly knew, putting himself in Morand’s shoes in an attempt to understand the path that led him from the fringes of the Communist Party to militant Zionism.
The second track in the book looks at Marqusee himself. The telling of his story feels rushed in comparison to the time lavished upon Morand, and, despite the title, very little is actually learnt about the journey of this anti-Zionist Jew.
What little we hear about Marqusees own journey certainly echoes my own. A leftwing perspective on the world, when applied to Israel, led to logical conclusions about the colonial nature of the Zionist project, and the brutality required to uphold the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (and indeed the treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel). These logical conclusions, for Marqusee, led to his being labelled a self-hating Jew by his father. While my own family has never sunk to this depth, it certainly mirrors my treatment at the hands of many within the Wellington Jewish community.
“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.”
The hesitation mentioned by Marqusee in this passage will likely be a well-recognised feeling for many Jews who are beginning to question Zionism as a whole, or even just some aspect of Israeli policy. A love for “Israel, right or wrong” is drilled into us from a young age, long before we are able to comprehend what it actually means. Israel is the land of milk and honey, a land where all Jews belong and are safe, a land of Kibbutzim (Jewish-only cooperative/nominally socialist agricultural communities, commonly built on stolen Palestinian land) and holy sites. Later, if we begin to hear stories of Israeli brutality, they are always countered with images of suicide bombings. Every effort is made to continue our ignorance, both from outside (the various Zionist groups active within the community on almost every possible front), and from within (it is incredibly difficult to question something which has been part of the fabric of your identity for longer than you can remember).
Those who are able to push through their hesitation, who are able to genuinely engage with Palestinian historical narratives, will inevitably come to the obvious conclusion about the illegitimacy of Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza, and the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance to the occupation (although questions of tactics are equally obviously valid here).
If I Am Not For Myself is a valuable addition to the collection of modern anti-Zionist literature, and it’s personal reflections will reach people that perhaps a more technical or historical account might not. I would have liked to see more about Marqusee himself, both on his journey towards anti-Zionism and on his path since. What drew him into writing this book, a vast departure from his normal topics (such as cricket), is not apparent, and would have been an important addition to this otherwise well written and engaging book.
In the following excerpt from an interview in Jewish Socialist magazine, Issue 55 (Spring 2008), Marqusee strongly makes the point that Zionism has not been the eternally dominant ideology amongst Jews that it often pretends, and perhaps, provides Jewish anti-Zionists with hope that there is room and opportunity for us to further push an anti-Zionist politics within the Jewish communities we are often excluded from.
“I would like to normalise being an anti-Zionist Jew. Until the 1940s, most Jewish opinion defined itself as being anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. the principal rabbinical body in America – the body of Reform Rabbis – started off in he 1880s expressly opposed to the idea that the Jews constituted a nation, and expressly opposed to Zionism when it emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.
In the period in which I grew up, anti-Zionism was regarded as extreme heresy and a betrayal of the community. But blanket support for Zionism is actually an exception in Jewish history and the situation is changing again.”
Asher Goldman is a freelance writer, a Jew who turned from Zionist to anti-Zionist after spending time in Israel in 2003 / 4. More of his writing can be found at http://anarchia.wordpress.com