Book review: history lesson on the left’s Palestine blind spot

Mike Marqusee’s book If I am Not For Myself, newly available in paperback, is a fascinating, meandering sort of family memoir. From the subtitle “Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew” one expects an autobiography. As it turns out, it mostly tells the story of Marqusee’s grandfather Edward V. Morand, based on an inherited suitcase full of his old personal letters, newspaper clippings and so forth.

Morand (or EVM as he is referred to throughout) was an American lawyer, sometimes columnist and Jewish activist. The fight against anti-Semitism on the streets of New York during the long build-up to the Second World War forms a large part of the narrative thrust of the book. Marqusee takes us through the Jewish and leftist milieus of the period, with extensive detours via extracts from his own life story, with analysis on religion, history and politics.

We meet Jewish prophets, heretics, thinkers, militants and activists: from Amos to Spinoza, the Haskalah and the Bund. They are a mixed bag, but their stories are rarely less than intriguing. Marqusee recalls a politically formative moment from his childhood, when an Israeli soldier, fresh from the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, visits his Jewish weekend school. The exotic visitor’s dismissive attitude towards the Palestinians makes a deep impression on the 14-year-old Mike:

“… they were better off now, under Israeli rule. ‘You have to understand, these are ignorant people. They go to toilet in the street.’ Now something akin to this I had heard before. I had heard it from the white Southerners I had been taught to look down upon … So I raised my hand … It seemed to me that what our visitor had said was, well, racist” (p. 59).

Around the dinner table, Marqusee senior angrily dismisses his son’s reaction as “Jewish self-hatred.”

In the 1930s, EVM was a loud proponent of a campaign to boycott Nazi Germany. As obvious as that sounds in hindsight, it was a controversial move in those days before war had started. Zionist groups such as the American Jewish Committee and the Board of Deputies of British Jews were actively against the boycott. Perhaps this is not so surprising when we consider the attitude of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which Marqusee describes as “by far the most active opponent of the boycott.” He recounts the 1933 deal between the WZO and Nazi Germany known as “Haavara” — the “transfer” of German Jews and their money to Palestine (p. 96).

“German Jews were permitted to remove some of their funds in the form of German-produced capital goods which were then sold in Palestine (as well as in the US and Britain),” Marquesee recounts. A part of this investment would then be recouped later. Referencing Lenni Brenner’s 1983 book Zionism in the Age of Dictators, Marqusee says the Nazi-Zionist scheme “accounted for some 60 percent of all capital invested in Palestine between August 1933 and September 1939” and was vital in sustaining the Zionist settlement movement through both the depression and the Arab Revolt (p. 96).

The main curiosity of Marquee’s focus on his grandfather is that EVM was an ardent Zionist. He was a supporter of the Irgun terrorist militia, even while it was carrying out some of its worst atrocities against the Palestinians. The Lehi, aka Stern Gang militia’s terrorist methods he described as “unorthodox and unprecedented exploits” (p. 172).

Why would a book ostensibly about an anti-Zionist Jew turn out to focus on a Zionist? In many ways, EVM fits the typical “progressive except for Palestine” mold of the pro-Israel liberal one still finds today. Although he was never a communist (“Don’t join the Communist Party and don’t get pregnant,” he loudly warned his cringing daughter when dropping her off at university (p. 210)) he took the side of persecuted communists during the red scares of the pre-war period. He took part in the founding of the American Labor Party (ALP) and spoke out against racism in many forms. He almost got into a bar fight in defense of anarchist martyrs Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti the night they went to the electric chair. He was prophetic when it came to the dangers of Hitler and fascism (although his First World War experiences and antipathy towards the British Empire left him initially wary of US involvement in the war).

And yet when it came to Palestine, the documents show a “close-up view of a man of conscience making a colossal historical error,” as Marqusee describes it (p. 180). Despite his anti-racist positions in other areas, EVM wrote about Palestinians and other Arabs in almost exclusively racist and orientalist terms: “hostile bandit chiefs,” “Arab hordes,” “marauders,” “robbers,” etc. (pp. 185-186)

Marqusee ultimately concludes with a reclamation: “EVM, forgive me, but I think my anti-Zionist politics are actually an evolution of your legacy, working its way through another half-century of history” (p. 295). This seems to me an unrealistic and rose-tinted — if understandable — view of Morand’s legacy. Yet Marqusee’s focus on his grandfather is vindicated by the insight it gives us into the liberal-leftist blind spot that Palestine was, and still is for some.

The Palestinians and the Arabs in general simply did not figure into the calculations of the contemporary left — and the few times they did, they were only understood as the “Arab bandits” of the imagined Orient. Marqusee points out that the Palestinian revolution or Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and its brutal suppression by the British occupation forces was ignored by the Western left: “In contrast to the Spanish Civil War, or even Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the most intense and sustained anti-colonial insurgency of its time was ignored by the left in Europe and North America and actually denounced by the British Labor Party as ‘fascist.’” Marqusee points out that Herbert Morrison, Labor Party leader in the 1930s, put it this way: “The Jews have proved to be first class colonizers, to have the real good old Empire qualities” (p. 127).

Marqusee describes this as the left’s “failure to imagine the people on the receiving end of your dreams. It’s a failure rooted in Western and white supremacy … EVM’s writings of 1948 abound with it, and offer inadvertent testimony to the racist character of the Nakba and Nakba denial” (p. 210).

Personally, I would have been willing to trade some of the detail of Morand’s life in favor of more focus on such almost-forgotten figures of Jewish anti-Zionism as Rabbi Elmer Berger of the American Council for Judaism, as well as the more well-known groups such as the Bund. Nevertheless, If I am Not For Myself remains a fascinating critical insight into Zionism, and amounts to a crucial warning from history on Palestine for the liberal left of today.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Ramallah. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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Image of If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew

If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew

Manufacturer
Verso
Release date
2010-02-01
Price
$19.95