Monday, March 24, 2008

Review: If I'm not for myself

Rabbinical wisdom says that we should "Love work, loathe mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government." You'd be hard pressed to find these sentiments expressed by some of those who have taken it on themselves to fuse Jewish identity with the Israeli state.

Mike Marqusee's excellent new book If I Am Not For Myself takes on this relationship between Jewish identity and the state of Israel in the form of an intimate family memoir. He looks back at the activities and lives of his father and grandfather as American socialists who also supported the foundation of Israel and the subsequent terror against the Palestinians.

Where Marqusee is so strong is that instead of demonising or caricaturing Zionism he takes pains to crawl inside it and explore the psychology that led those who had stood against oppression whenever they found it to support ethnic cleansing and violence when it came to the foundation of the "Jewish State".

He takes their ideas seriously enough to explore them with sympathy - even when this becomes difficult or frustrating. Whilst he movingly recognises their human failings and is clearly not always approving of what he found in his journey there is no taint of moralism or pretence that people are easy to label and define, rather than complex and often nuanced mixtures. In fact, so well written and engaging is this book that I caught myself occasionally thinking "Why do I ever read books by people who are not Mike Marqusee?"

Whilst the majority of the book finds Marqusee sifting through a battered leather case full of memories and evidence of the past there is a noticeable gear shift towards the end of the book where he moves from his relationship with his family's history towards his relationship to the political movements (both right and left) of today. This section is a departure in tone from the rest of the book but it is no less readable and does not descend into dogmatism.

Whilst Israel's anti-semitic opponents share with the Zionists an obsession with creating an identity between Jewishness and Israel what this does is deny the fact that many Jews absolutely and completely reject the behaviour of the Israeli state, and some even reject its right to exist. That whilst they claim to act in the name of a shared Jewish interest they have no right to that claim, and that Jews need to speak for themselves lest the Zionists end up speaking for them.

For those of the left part of the task of undermining anti-Semitism is to show that actually Zionism is a political movement that has served an agenda very far from representing Jews (even if this were possible). Jews themselves are, just like everyone else, divided on political questions. To deny this is to render the Jewish population into some homogeneous mass - and you can see that this serves the purpose of the racists and the apologists for Israel's actions alike but does no service to those Jews who have been denied their own identity and voice in the process. As Jews Sans Frontier writes the ideology of anti-semites and Zionists can be two sides of the same coin rather than the polar opposites that we might at first assume.

Organisations like the Jewish Socialist Group work hard to defend the Palestinian people against the oppression and violence that they face from the IDF and Israeli State more generally. But they do not do this to, in some way, deny their Jewishness but because they are horrified that murders and atrocities are being committed in their name.

I've always had the suspicion that those who describe others as self loathing Jews for their rejection of Israel are, in fact, projecting and it is they who loath the Jewishness of actually existing Jews who are as diverse, annoying, interesting and human as anyone else. When this old self hatred canard is wheeled out it speaks volumes for the political weakness of the case that Israel deserves support in whatever it chose, chooses and will chose to do.

What Marqusee has to say about the accusation of self loathing, which was even levelled at him by his own father, was more interesting. "But do let me say a brief word for self-loathing. Anyone who entirely lacks this trait is not to be trusted." And this attitude is a valuable thread that runs throughout the entirety of the book, a self aware and self critical attitude that ends up strengthening and hardening his politics rather than undermining it.

As the review in the Independent quotes approvingly "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."

I think there is a lot to be learned from from this approach. For instance the Green Party recently passed a motion supporting the boycott of Israeli goods as part of the campaign to put pressure on Israel over its collective punishment against its neighbours and its refusal to acknowledge the damage its policies have caused to the ordinary citizens of the region. I supported the motion - although I thought it could have been more thoughtfully phrased.

As you might expect it was a contentious issue and there are those in the Party who were very unhappy about this motion. These Greens have even set up Greens Against the Boycott which has among its supporters some very reasonable people, who I'm in complete agreement with on other issues.

It seems to me that the way to approach these people is to have a dialogue and attempt some understanding, as Marqusee does, rather than denunciations and personalised attacks. I'm certain there will be some common ground and the worst thing that we can do is entrench our positions against each other, despite the fact that there is bound to be other areas where we will have to agree to part company.

Whilst personally I can't be bothered to engage with some of the more rock headed of Israel's supporters if we don't leave the door open to discussion then we accept that there are some good people who, despite themselves, give credence and legitimacy to a dangerous and racist rogue state.

Getting inside the reasons for that is the first step towards a more mature and interesting discussion - and it's my view that whether you find yourself in 100% support of the Palestinian cause or the Israeli this book will help you understand with sympathy those who stand on the other side of the wall.

See also Tami's report of the book launch.
Suggest a topic for the Daily (Maybe) here.


Mira said...

Hello Daily,
Certainly there's a principled stand to be made against anti-Zionism. It's the anti-nationalist stand. Steve Cohen is one such anti-Zionist. He is the author of a book you can download for free from Engage - That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic. I recommend this to all starting-out anti-Zionists. It will help them do it without the taint of antisemitism which is so much in evidence in the anti-Zionist boycott campaign(s). Personally, I don't buy anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionists would say that makes me a Zionist, but I don't buy that either.

Most pro-boycotters aren't anti-nationalist - they support the national claims of the Palestinians over those of Israeli Jews, whose rights and history they ignore. Jews are one ethnic group (this issue is not principally a religious one) whichhas a particular reason to cling onto its recently-won self-determination. The majority of Israeli Jews are descended from Jews who were turfed out of Arab countries, and a substantial proportion of the rest from Jews displaced by the Holocaust. Zionism is a natural reaction to recent Jewish history. So I suggest anti-Zionists, whatever their own nationality, start from there and work back. The worst way to persuade people to abandon their national self-determination is a cavilling, one-sided resolution like C05. And it was an exceptionally vaguely-worded motion. But unlike you I don't think it could have been improved - it was hamstrung by its basic boycotting premise. As it stands it fits in well with other boycott motions whose aim is the cancellation of Israel as an independent state - either by starving Israel of its defence equipment or by supporting the rights of the families of Palestinian refugees, numbering in the several millions, regardless of their place of birth, to move to Israel.

As for Jews needing to speak for themselves lest Zionists speak for them, do you think it's OK to feel that way about Muslims and hard Islamists? I don't. I think it's obvious that Ariel Sharon doesn't speak for Jews, even if he says he does - ditto the Muslim Brotherhood speaking for Muslims.

Lastly it would be good to know who you consider a rock headed supporter of Israel - in the spirit of distancing ourselves from these walking liabilities ;-)


Jim Jay said...

Hi Mira, these quite a few things here - I'll do my best to respond.

"Most pro-boycotters aren't anti-nationalist - they support the national claims of the Palestinians over those of Israeli Jews, whose rights and history they ignore."

I don't think that's quite right. Most of the *left* want a single state solution where your ethnic origin doesn't determine your relationship to the state. None of the left want to expel Jews from the middle east - although there are historically difficult questions like how to create an equitable settlement over the land stolen half a century ago.

"The majority of Israeli Jews are descended from Jews who were turfed out of Arab countries"

Marqusee is very good on this and I don't claim to be an expert here. He argues that this "turfed out" is an oversimplification of what happened.

"Zionism is a natural reaction to recent Jewish history."

It's *a* reaction but it neither the only reaction it is posible to take nor is it an appropriate one. I think it's important as you say to see the actaction of Zionism as a reactionto 20th century events - but I don't think this means we need tobe uncritical.

"do you think it's OK to feel that way about Muslims and hard Islamists?"

I have to say I wasn't sure what you were trying to say here. I think the statement that if you do not speak for yourself someone will speak on your behalf holds true for us all.


I'm not going to name and shame because I don't think it's helpful - and I like to think that even the toughest barrier can be broken down with discussion - but we shall see.

Mira said...


When you say that Zionism is "not an appropriate response" that goes beyond being "critical". It flies in the face of what the majority of Israelis and Palestinians want - self-determination. It is also ahistorical and blind to the current realities of rising antisemitism, and continuing doubts on the part of Jews that the left will defend them against it this time. Yesterday Al Quaeda called for attacks on Jews (not Israelis - Jews) in a now-familiar (but definitely not inevitable) blending of Palestinian solidarity and antisemitism. And in Novisibirsk the the blood libel was recently resurrected. The loudest Palestinian solidarity activists are the boycotters and they ignore these things, revealing an inability to address Jewish Israeli fears about their standing within a binational state.

If centuries of discrimination, a load of pogroms leading up to the Holocaust, a few post-war years in displaced people's camps, a load of subsequent boycotts and ongoing antisemitism of a distinctive kind are not enough to convince you that Zionism - Jewish self-determination - was and continues to be a natural reaction, then you are willing to ignore a lot in favour of delegitimising national liberation movements. I like your idealism, but I can't relate it to the here and now.

If "if you do not speak for yourself someone will speak on your behalf" holds true for us all, then (in the context you bring it up) this implies a life spent draughting and redraughting personal manifestos on everything. That's no way to live. But what you actually write is that *Jews* need to dissociate themselves from Zionists. This is identity politics (and you link to Jews Sans Frontiers) which impose double standards which I don't hold with at all. I also find it hard to reconcile your comfort with identity politics and your parallel aim for a relation to the state irrespective of ethnic origin.

Israel's pretty good, and improving, regarding legal rights for all its citizens. By most accounts what it needs to work on is the outlook to accompany those legal rights. See my write-up of Mohammad Darawshe of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Israeli co-existence organisation.

And regarding the Arab Israelis whose expulsion from their homes you are sceptical about, have a look at The Point of No Return blog, which collects stories of Jewish refugees.

Rich said...

Nice review :-)

Can I borrow the book off you?

Jim Jay said...

"When you say that Zionism is "not an appropriate response" that goes beyond being "critical"."

I don't think you're right there. It is critical, I've certainly heard people go beyond critical and that sentence falls far short of some of the sentiments I've heard expressed in my life. I think Zionism is an inappropriate response, but I can see its appeal.

Rising antisemitism does not equal the need for Israel - we disagree on this.In fact I'd argue that the actions of Israel hurts rather than hinders the fight against anti-semitism.

Al Quaida may engage in "blending of Palestinian solidarity and antisemitism." but they hardly represent even a significant minority of the Palestinian solidarity movement do they? The vast majority of Palestinian Solidarity campaigners in the UK (I can't speak for elsewhere) are not anti-semitic, although I dare say a few of them have been accused of anti-semitism purely on their attitude towards the Israeli state, without regard to what their opinion of Jews is - if they even have one.

"if you do not speak for yourself someone will speak on your behalf" does hold true for us all - and, as you say, I said it specifically about Jews and Zionism *as well* as saying it holds true for us all. I can't see what the objection is, in an article on Jews and Zionism, to apply something that I think holds true more generally to a specific case.

I'm not making an exception on the issue, simply being specific in an appropriate context.Now some people may not agree with what I've said - for instance they may think that Zionism *does* speak for Jews or that this is a special case - I don't agree with that, but we can discuss it.

I think the point about identity politics is an interesting one - but for me it is about rejecting identity politics to say that people should speak for themselves - not get lumped into a mass and certainly not start identifying themselves with any state - let alone one with Israel's record.

But we can't simply pretend not to have cultural influences either.

I'm happy to do some reading on Arab countries expelling Jews when I have time - I claim no particular knowledge on it - I just thought MM's section on this was interesting and largely new to me.

Jim Jay said...

Hi Rich, of course you can. What's mine is yours

Dorothea said...

Zionism seems to be really losing the credibility it has had for too long. But don't forget that most religious Jews always opposed Zionism; it was largely secular, liberal and socialist Jews who pushed the ideology.

As a reviewer of “Overcoming Zionism” by Joel Kovel (2007) writes;

"At the turn of the l9th century, a Zionist conference in Vienna delegated several rabbi's to travel to Palestine on a fact finding mission. The rabbis arrived and cabled back, "the bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man". The Zionist Jews had "a fantasized relationship to a mythic territory... .and that has been the fatal flaw in Zionism, both before and after the conquest, and why we call it, ungenerously but truthfully, a bad idea." Kovel writes incisively of what ensued and deserves to be quoted at length. "A tremendous struggle would be necessary, therefore, if the Zionists were to dislodge these inhabitants, and only a tremendously concentrated desire could suffice to energize that struggle." There were great difficulties. "...the resistance of those who stood in the way would have to be displaced; the exigencies of geo-politics; and one's own inner being, which would have to be retooled from the self-image of an ethical victim to that of a ruthless conqueror. All of these obstacles could be dealt with by signing on to Western imperialism and capitalism." Jewish suffering and persecution became justification for aggression in asserting the "outlandish claim of a territory controlled 2500 years ago by one's putative ancestors." ..."

See also “History of Orthodox Jewish opposition to Zionism”

“In traditional Judaism the Torah is central. Beginning in the late 19th century, Zionism attempted to replace the Torah with a secular state. In the eyes of most Rabbis this was blasphemy [idolatry]. Only God, through the Messiah, can gather the Jewish nation together; any attempt to do so through human agency would be a violation of God's will and lead to disaster.” Frank Capra

Graeme McIver said...

Hi Jim,
Yes, I'd noted this book and will read it as soon as it comes into Bolton library.
Through a series of coincidences, I've read a bucketload of Jewish books recently.
One I would particularly recommend is "the myth of rescue" by William D. Rubinstein where he argues that the Western Allies did all they could to save Jews from the holocaust. I think this is important because there is a view among pro-Israeli policy people that Israel need to rely on its armed might alone because the Jews were left to die by an anti-Semitic world in the recent past.
By the way I find the whole use of the word Zionist in the modern world strange. Zionism was a historical movement that proposed the setting up of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Since this has happened it would seem to me that then term really has no real current meaning except as a term of political abuse. Is there any sizeable organisation out there that describes itself as Zionist?

Jim Jay said...

I think there are people who describe themselves as Zionist. After all in this very thread we have had Zionism described as an appropriate response to the events of the twentieth century - so it isn't only used as a term of abuse.

This reminds me of a picket of a Tory dinner before the '97 election where Portillo was appearing as a guest speaker. We were generally heckling people as they went in and this one particular anarchist kept screaming "Tory!" at them... I had to take her to one side and say "They know they're Tories, but they don't see it as a bad thing."

Raphael said...

"I think there are people who describe themselves as Zionist. After all in this very thread we have had Zionism described as an appropriate response to the events of the twentieth century - so it isn't only used as a term of abuse."

That is quite extraordinary given that:
1)We are in the 21st century now.
2) Mira wrote also "Personally, I don't buy anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionists would say that makes me a Zionist, but I don't buy that either."

Zionist is certainly used as a term of abuse, including on the internal list of the Green Party:

Dorothea, about "Overcoming Zionism", it has been written
"*in fury about Israel and the unholy complicity of the United States and its Jewish community that grants it impunity*".

Who wrote that? Kovel himself, in the prologue of the book.

He continues to describe how the traumas of his Jewish childhood explain how he became an antizionist. Talking about American funding for Israel nuclear
bomb, he writes:

"*learning many years later that my name could have been on funds that went into this monstruous venture only adds to the stew of emotions behind the present work*"

He also explains that his antizionism originates in his "quarrel with Judaism":

"*my quarrel with Judaism took shape about the themes of chauvinism and entitlement, and his this way extended to the critique of Zionism. The antipathy began viscerally in the Synaguogue and at my aunt funeral, and over the years, grew into a worldview*"

I couldn't make it up, could I? His antipathy for Judaism growing into a worldview...

The conclusion of the prologue is such an extraordinary textbook example of scapegoating (even worse than the ones already mentioned on this list:
Israel as the root cause of unrest in the Middle-East, Israel as the root cause of the conflict between the "west" and "Islam", etc), that I cannot resist posting it here:

*The whole earth itself and all the people and other creatures upon it come into view as our only true home.
But then, there is that matter of that militarized state at the eastern end of the Mediterranean standing in the way, and the dreadful mistake that was
made to get it going...*

Israel as the ultimate obstacle towards happiness and friendliness for all human and non-human creatures on earth... What a Green and exciting worldview...

Jim Jay said...

Hold on - I didn't say it wasn't used as a term of abuse - just that it wasn't *only* used as a term of abuse and that some people describe themselves as Zionists quite happily.

I didn't realise that was a controversial point. Although you're right that Mira said she didn't buy Zionism so it wasn't accurate to say she was describing herself that way - not that that made any difference to my willingness to listen to what she has to say.

I've never read any Kovel, don't describe myself as an ecosocialist (as he does) and until I've read what he has to say I'm going to leave an open mind on him. I also don't automatically agree with something just because a green says it - which I think is reasonably clear from this blog (just to clarify as I thought the line of your argument might be coming from a misunderstanding)