If I Am Not For Myself, by Mike Marqusee

Next year – not in Jerusalem

Reviewed,Michael Kustow
Friday 21 March 2008 01:00 GMT

When I had finished this book, I wanted to cheer. It concludes with "Confessions of a 'Self-Hating Jew'", a passionate dismissal of the accusation that anyone who criticises Israel must be an anti-Semite and, if Jewish, a self-hater. The chapter is all the more powerful since it is triggered by autobiography: a rebuke from the author's father to his son's anti-Zionism. The personal and the political coalesce, making this book, subtitled "the journey of an anti-Zionist Jew", a rare and precious work. Its polemical force is anchored in experience.

Mike Marqusee has previously written fine studies of complex, fruitfully divided selves (Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali) and some of the most resonant sports writing since CLR James. Coming to political activity in the 1960s, he has battled through the sectarian disputes of the Left. He casts a distinctive gaze on the world in his column in The Hindu. He's an American who has lived half his life in London, who joined the Labour Party and came out again, who worships William Blake, backed Rock Against Racism, and feels inalienably Jewish – but not Israel-right-or-wrong Jewish.

Reading this book while Israel pounded Gaza, and Palestinian rockets slammed into Sderot, has been like a glimpse of clarity in a climate of chaos. I wanted a copy in the hands of every politician and general, every zealot in the Middle East. If Jewish adolescents got Marqusee's book as a barmitzvah present, there might be a chance of avoiding the repetition of history's mistakes.

Marqusee compares and contrasts his way of being a Jew and a socialist with the life of his cantankerous grandfather, Ed Morand. Armed with a battered leather briefcase of his grandfather's papers, he conjures up this garrulous and eloquent ancestor from the Bronx.

Grandfather Ed kept his convictions unstained by the political distortions of his lifetime. But with the creation of Israel in 1948, Ed embraced a militant Zionism that, in Marqusee's view, betrayed and simplified Jewish inheritance. There is sad, wrenching drama in the way the author parts company with his precursor. From Ed, Marqusee learned to hammer thoughts out to their ultimate expression, which makes him an exhilarating, if occasionally pugnacious, writer. His own hard-fought journey teaches Marqusee to avoid submitting himself to Zionism, submerging what the poet Nathaniel Tarn called "the beautiful contradictions" into its rhetoric.

When I started this book, I thought its subtitle over the top. But Marqusee convinces me of its appropriateness. His anti-Zionism is grounded in a detailed historical account, and his conclusion is the credo of a man who has followed the dreams and seen through the delusions of the ideological battlefield. "I cannot subcontract my ethics, my relationship with the human race, to a state or a religion – or indeed a political party. For me, being an anti-Zionist is inextricable from being a democrat, a socialist, a humanist and a rationalist." Within anti-Zionism is "a necessary affirmation: of internationalism, of humanity", and of "one's own humanity".

Marqusee is aware of the dangers of analogy. Is it really any more than name-calling to say that the Israelis are behaving like Nazis? Do Palestinians really seek to re-run the Nazi crusade by "driving Israelis into the sea"? Marqusee can turn a trenchant phrase against such robotic assertions: "The presumption [of the self-appointed gate-keepers] that they can adjudicate on our Jewishness or lack thereof is as fatuous as the anti-Semites' presumption that our Jewishness determines our character."

His title comes from the "marvellously succinct ethical-existential catechism" of Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" It's often quoted by backs-to-the-wall spokesmen to mean that Israel must be stronger than its neighbours, because the world is against it, and its only defence is deterrent attack. Marqusee is determined not to be co-opted by simplifications of the complex fate of being Jewish. He wants Jews and Israelis not only to reflect on their special experience but to enter the perspectives, hopes and tragedies of others. Hillel, he reminds us, went on to ask, "If I am only for myself, what am I?"

Michael Kustow's biography of Peter Brook is published by Bloomsbury

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