Zionism and secularisation of the Jewish ghetto

Mike Marqusee 'If I am not for myself: journey of an anti-Zionist Jew' Verso 2008, pp256, �16.99. Reviewed by Tony Greenstein

Despite being written by one of the most prominent dissident Jews - a veritable Renaissance man, with writings covering Muhammad Ali, cricket and Bob Dylan - this book by Mike Marqusee has received scant attention. It is as if this is a subject which many, not least in the bourgeois media, find embarrassing. It raises too many uncomfortable questions.

The title is taken from the famous saying of rabbi Hillel, who emigrated from Babylon, the centre of the largest and wealthiest Jewish community, to Jerusalem perhaps 30 years before the birth of Christ, which is recited every year at the Passover Seder (meal): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” It encompasses the ideas of the bourgeois revolutions and the workers’ struggles and is a precursor of the Marxist idea that the emancipation of the oppressed is the work of the oppressed themselves. It is also a rallying cry against the idea of bourgeois individuality versus the collective good, with a sideswipe against social democratic gradualism!

Hillel, one of the great Talmudic authorities, can be seen as the founder of Hebrew modernism, with the adaptation of the Bible to the changing fortunes and role of Palestinian Jewry - three-quarters of whom, contrary to Zionist mythology, had ‘exiled’ themselves from Palestine, even before the fall of the Second Temple. This reflected a time of change, when Jewish agriculturists converted to christianity and the remainder engaged in trade, usury or professions associated with the former, such as goldsmiths and diamond-cutters. It involved a rejection of biblical savagery and retribution in favour of monetary compensation.

Apocryphally, when asked by a non-Jew who had been rebuffed by Hillel’s adversary, rabbi Shammai, to sum up the Jewish Pentateuch (Torah) in one sentence, he told his inquirer: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” This bears a marked similarity to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, from the Sermon on the Mount. It marked the transition from the ancient to the new, monotheistic world.

Yet this is a book that omits as many questions as it asks. Marqusee tells us that Jewish identity in the 1930s “had become a progressive essence, aligned with the cause of democracy, of America, of the popular front, of labour, of all victims of discrimination” (p118). For it was “in resistance to anti-semitism that EVM [Marqusee’s grandfather] … found a core, a purpose to his Jewishness” (p121).

He extrapolates from this to the present day - and therein lies the problem. He postulates an identity which is both anti-racist and anti-imperialist, which draws different lessons from the holocaust and which does not blindly support Zionism and Israel, right or wrong. One suspects that Marqusee is nonetheless avoiding the central question: what is it to be Jewish in the 21st century?

The myths of the wandering Jew are as important in their own way as the reality and help to inform that reality. When Hitler borrowed the idea of the cosmopolitan Jew, who owed no allegiance to state or nation, then he was dipping into a deep well. Jews formed a trading caste in medieval Europe, a separate estate. The Jewish ghetto, that most quintessential of medieval institutions, was as much self-imposed as the creation of outsiders.

Jews who made their mark on history - Baruch Spinoza, Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx, as well as Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt in their own way - were rebels against Jewish identity. Spinoza was excommunicated, Heine converted and Marx, whose parents were baptised, rejected all religion and dismissed Judaism as corrupted by its associations with trade and money. Einstein too, despite his latter-day embrace by the Zionists, rejected the fundamentals of Zionism.

In his evidence to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946, which led to the UN partition resolution, Einstein testified: “The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-mindedness and economic obstacles. I believe that it is bad. I have always been against it.”1 And then continued that the idea of a Jewish state was an “imitation of Europe, the end of which was brought about by nationalism”. Despite being flattered by the Zionists, he rejected the offer of the presidency of the Israeli state.2

Arendt reconsidered her youthful Zionist attachments in a seminal essay Zionism reconsidered in 1944 and her book Eichmann in Jerusalem - the banality of evil, based on her reporting of the Eichmann trial in Israel, attracted fierce criticisms from the Zionists. She wrote of the collaboration of Zionism with the Nazis in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe and was particularly condemned for her comment that without a Jewish leadership far more Jews would have survived the holocaust.

This is the irony that Marqusee himself proves. The most brilliant stars in the firmament were always rebels against the Jewish establishment. The Zionists have to content themselves with run-of-the-mill establishment toadies such as Melanie Phillips and Howard Jacobson. Little wonder that the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, decried “our excessive production of mediocre talents”.3

One of the most persistent of anti-semitic themes was that Jews were not engaged in productive work and were overconcentrated in intellectual and business occupations. Any study of Jewish socio-economic structure in pre-war Germany would bear this out. The Nazis were reportedly surprised when, during the invasion of the Soviet Union, they came across Jewish agriculturists. The Bolsheviks, recognising the distorted occupational structure of Jews, had attempted to ‘normalise’ the Jewish socio-economic structure. The Zionists too, in the theories of Ber Borochov, the founder of ‘Marxist’ Zionism, had spoken of the Jewish occupational structure as being akin to an ‘inverted pyramid’, with too many rich and intellectual Jews at the top and too few workers below.

In fact this had already changed by the time Borochov was writing in the early 20th century and there was no greater testament to this than the Bund - the General Jewish Workers Union of Russia, Lithuania and Poland - which, as Marqusee notes, had by the summer of 1904 some 23,000 members, three times as many as the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, which it helped found (p14). But the Jews were mainly employed in small, often family-run, businesses, so their ability to engage in class struggle was limited by the ability of those who employed them to make concessions.

Yet the predominance of anti-semitism and the result of the breakdown of Jewish occupations led to the situation described by Abram Leon, the Belgian Trotskyist murdered in Auschwitz: “The Jewish masses find themselves wedged between the anvil of decaying feudalism and the hammer of rotting capitalism.”4 This led to the situation whereby Jews felt little or no national attachments and were foremost in revolutionary parties. When Zionism was one of the few legal movements in tsarist Russia, Jews constituted more than 50% of those arrested by the tsarist police for revolutionary activity. It was not for nothing that Hitler spoke about the Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy and it is clear that he saw Jews as the initiators and cause of revolutionary class struggle, with the Nazis particularly despising the eastern Jewish proletariat.5

This book is marred both by the political vacillations of its author and at times an annoying lack of coherence. It centres around Marqusee’s maternal grandfather, EV Morand, a labour activist and journalist for the Jewish Review. Morand, with whom Marqusee clearly identifies, began on the left of the Democratic Party, a link man between Tammany Hall and the Jews, before ending up founding the American Labor Party, which managed to gain one of the New York seats in Congress. Marqusee describes how his grandfather repeatedly urged him to write his biography (p256) and one suspects that this book is as much a peg on which to hang Marqusee’s tribute to his grandfather as an exposition of the trials of an anti-Zionist Jew.

But Morand ended up after the war as a Jewish chauvinist, despising above all Jewish anti-Zionists. Mike’s belief that his grandfather would have come round to his politics is, one suspects, wishful thinking. His ex-communist father, who had gone down to Mississippi to support the civil rights movement in 1964, had denounced him as a “self-hating Jew” for coming out as an anti-Zionist at the age of 15. It was only after Sabra and Chatilla, when “the Zionists tested his humanity beyond endurance”, that his dad admitted, “You were right. They’re bastards” (p258).

This book is not written in a vacuum. As Marqusee notes, we have had ‘anti-semitism’ redefined - by the European Monitoring Committee and our own All Parliamentary Committee on Anti-Semitism, headed by New Labour’s Dennis MacShane - as political opposition to Zionism and its bastard offspring, the Israeli state. In this Orwellian world, opposition to the murderous racism of Zionism and the idea of Jewish ‘self-determination’ is in itself a form of racism!

But Marqusee also betrays his own political weakness. Instead of arguing that the only people to classify the Jews as a nation were the anti-semites and the Zionists, he accepts that Jews constitute a ‘nation’. Yet how can people who live in different continents, speak different languages, bound only by a vague religious attachment, if any, be part of the same nation? British, Argentinean, American Jews are part of the nations amongst whom they live. Marqusee instead goes on a wild goose chase arguing that certain nations - the Tamils and Kurds, for example - are not deemed worthy of the right to form a nation-state. And in pursuit of this absurdity he accepts the apartheid definition of the Afrikaners and Zulus as ‘nations’.

Marqusee’s discourse on nationalism, in response to the charge of exceptionalism (why pick on poor li’l ol’ Israel?), is the least thought out part of this book (pp24-31). What is particularly strange is that he repeats, without comment, Dorothy Parker’s observation towards the end of the book that “the claim that every Jew in the world is, by his very existence, a member of the Jewish nation … is a claim never made before by anybody except anti-semites” (p237).

But if it has its political weaknesses, this book has its strengths too. Foremost amongst them is the chapter on Jewish emancipation and the decision of the French assembly of September 27 1791 to emancipate the Jews. No-one was more bitterly disappointed than the rabbis when the ghetto walls, and thus their own power, were destroyed in the wake of the French Revolution. Marqusee cites the words of the French revolutionary, Clermont-Tonnerre, that “everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation and everything granted to them as individuals” (p72).

Likewise the chapter on ancient Palestinian and the prophets is well worth reading. As Marqusee notes, Jeremiah was a revolutionary defeatist who welcomed the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans! And, although limited, the chapter ‘Diasporic dimensions’, primarily about the Iraqi, Indian and Moroccan Jewish communities, is informative.

As Marqusee remarks, there was no Jewish community under Axis control that fared as well as this large community in Vichy-administered Morocco. The Sultan declared, in response to attempts to separate off Jews and Arabs (always the precursor to deportations), that he would make no distinction between his subjects. The Iraqi Jewish community was the world’s oldest - prosperous and influential before it was destroyed by Zionism.

Marqusee details how Jewish war veterans and labour activists launched in March 1933 the boycott of Nazi Germany and equally how the Zionists and the Jewish establishment of the American Jewish Congress opposed them (pp95-97). Yet his grandfather, EVM, supported the boycott of Nazi Germany and never seems to have wondered why the Zionist movement even in 1933 collaborated with them.

EV Morand was first and foremost a supporter of the popular front and it is with this in mind that he and others formed the American Labor Party (ALP), initially as a means of supporting Mayor La Guardia, Roosevelt and the ‘left’ of the Democratic Party against Tammany Hall and Ed Flynn. He describes how his grandfather worried that the anti-fascist activities against the anti-semitic Irish priest, Father Coughlin, and the struggle against anti-semitism and fascism in general, was taking on a sectarian Jewish versus Irish flavour in the Bronx and Manhattan.

In a rare moment of insight Marqusee sees a reflection of himself in Morand: “Independence from factions can be an excuse for opportunism, as well as for a reluctance to follow a party line. In any case, it seems to be one of the traits I share with EVM,” he writes (p115). Possibly he has in mind his own unfortunate association with the Socialist Workers Party in the days of the Socialist Alliance!

There are unfortunately a few howlers, not least the description of Herbert Morrison as the Labour Party leader (p127). It is also unfortunate that a book such as this does not possess an index.

Marqusee describes how the ALP called for the opening of the gates of both Palestine and the USA to Jewish refugees from Europe, whilst ignoring the Zionist campaign to keep immigration controls in the USA at one and the same time as they were intent on using the survivors of the holocaust as a battering ram to open the gates of Palestine to colonisation.

Marqusee, to his credit, despite his hero-worship of his grandfather, admits that in his support for Zionism as some kind of response to the holocaust, EVM made a “colossal historical error” (p180) - this one-time leftist was now forging new alliances with the right, including Tammany Hall, and denouncing the “lowest of the low - anti-Zionist Jews” (p186). This included support for Israel’s concept of “pre-emptive aggression” (p191).

EVM is a good example of the perniciousness of Zionism in forcing to the right even the best, socialist-inclined Jews. Marqusee describes how Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College and an early feminist who had fought against a quota on Jewish students at her college, was nonetheless pilloried by EVM as someone who delights in the murder of Jews (p202), although, as Marqusee says, at least she was spared, as a non-Jew, his attack on Jewish anti-Zionists.

EVM wrote an editorial in the Jewish Review, entitled ‘The Jewish quislings’, where he wrote gloatingly over the expulsion of the Palestinian refugees, whom EVM conflated with the Nazis (p209). EVM was oblivious to the point that Dorothy Parker, a fighter against anti-semitism, made, when she raised the situation of the Palestinians and was, of course, lambasted for it. She said: “My Zionist friends do not seem to understand the universality of simple moral principles” (p235).

This book is a mixed bag. Repeatedly Mike’s own politics holds him back, as when he argues that the equation of the star of David and the swastika “can legitimate anti-semitism”, since the former is a “symbol of Jewishness” (p262). In fact the star of David was always a minor symbol of the Jewish religion and one related to the mythical warlike figure of King David (it was the candelabrum which historically was the most potent Jewish symbol - Zionism has transformed this, like much else). When young Arab demonstrators in my own town, Brighton, had placards with both symbols on them, then the point they were making was that both Zionists and Nazis were guilty of similar war crimes. There was nothing anti-semitic in this.

Likewise, when Marqusee speaks of 2,000 years of Jews being persecuted as the crucifiers of Christ, he unwittingly adopts the Zionist version of Jewish history. As Abram Leon noted, “Zionism transposes modern anti-semitism to all of history and saves itself the trouble of studying the various forms of anti-semitism and their evolution.”6

It is perhaps appropriate that Marqusee ends the book by wondering what his grandfather would have made of him: “Would he have hated me? Have I turned into one of the Jewish quislings he despised?” One suspects the answer to that is ‘yes’ and that EVM would have been a lost cause. But he would have been no more than symptomatic of the majority of Jewish people who, with their support of Israel and its apartheid wall, have re-entered the ghettos of old.

There is a crying need for a book on Jewish identity and the place of anti-Zionism within it, and for a definition of Jewishness that excludes the last 60 years, when Jewish identity has been conflated with a virulently racist and murderous state. As more and more Jews question the linkage between being Jewish and Zionism, this book is more than welcome. However, it is only the start of such a debate and it has some very obvious flaws.

We should be clear that the golden age of Zionism has gone. No longer do we have to argue about the myths of a ‘socialist’ Zionism, as the reality is only too apparent. As Jewish opponents of Zionism begin to find their voice, it is to be hoped that this book is but one contribution to an overdue debate.


1. www.newdemocracyworld.org/Einstein.htm . See also A Lilienthall The Zionist connectionNew York 1978.
2. Israeli prime minister Ben-Gurion allegedly said to his secretary: “Tell me what to do if he says yes. I had to offer the post to him because it’s impossible not to. But if he accepts, we are in for trouble” (thejewishpress.blogspot.com/2008/04/einstein-first-post-zionist.html).
3. T Herzl Der Judenstaat New York 1989, p26.
4. A Leon The Jewish question - a Marxist interpretation New York 1970, p226.
5. This was expressed in the curious story of Wilhelm Kube, Generalkomissar of the Minsk ghettos, who differentiated between German Jews “from our Kulturkreis” and the “bestial native hordes” of east European Jewry. Kube nearly found himself sent to a concentration camp for his efforts to save German Jews deported to Minsk from extermination, at the same time as native Russian and Byelorussian Jews were being shot in their thousands. Kube was assassinated by a partisan bomb (see G Reitlinger The final solution London 1971, pp236-41).
6. A Leon The Jewish question - a Marxist interpretation New York 1970, p247.


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