Posted by: Lister | March 5, 2008

Mike Marqusee

Marqusee is the author of If I Am Not For Myself:

The first person to call me a self-hating Jew was my father. It was in the autumn of 1967. Dad was 39, a successful businessman who was also, along with my mother, active in the US civil rights and anti-war movements. I was the oldest of his five children and had already, at age 14, intoxicated by the ideals of justice and equality, begun my career as a footsoldier of the left. It was not only the first time I had been called a self-hating Jew, it was the first time the phrase, the idea, entered my consciousness, and it was a shock.

[…] I’m not sure exactly when or how I began to doubt. But I remember what happened the first time I expressed that doubt. It was a few months after the ’67 war. A special visitor came to our Sunday school class. He was in his early 20s, with thick fair hair falling over his forehead, a snappy sports jacket and polished loafers. Some of the girls whispered that he was cute. He had an accent but it was nothing like our grandparents’ accents. He looked and dressed like us but he had been a soldier in a war and that made him an alien being. Smiling, he perched himself casually on the front of the teacher’s desk and told us about the remarkable achievements of the Israeli army. He told us that the Arabs had planned a sneak attack but had met with more than they bargained for. They were bad fighters, undisciplined soldiers. And they were better off now, under Israeli rule. “You have to understand these are ignorant people. They go to the toilet in the street.”

Now something akin to this I had heard before. I had heard it from the white southerners I’d been taught to look down upon. I had heard it from people my parents and my teachers described as prejudiced and bigoted. So I raised my hand and when called upon I expressed my opinion, as I’d been taught to do. It seemed to me that what our visitor had said was, well, racist.

I felt the eyes of the teacher and the other kids turn on me. They were used to me spouting radical opinions but this time I had gone too far. Angrily, the teacher told me I didn’t have any idea what I was saying and that there would be no discourtesy to guests in his classroom. The young Israeli ranted bitterly about Arab propaganda and how the Israelis treated the Arabs better than any of the Arab rulers did.

I can’t remember how long it was after that that I decided to share this experience and my thoughts on it with my family. This was something I was usually encouraged to do. We were sitting around the dinner table – all seven of us. I launched into my story about the Israeli in Sunday school and how what he said was racist. I had been thinking about the matter and now added, for my family’s benefit, a further opinion. It was wrong for one country to take over another, or part of another, by military force. If the US was wrong in Vietnam – and that was a given around our dinner table – then Israel was wrong in taking over all that Arab land. I was reasoning by analogy, and nobody had yet told me that some analogies were off limits.

For some time I remained unaware that my father was listening to me not with approval but with rising fury. When he barked, “Enough already!” the shift was disturbingly abrupt. Like my Sunday school teacher, he made me feel that I had said something obscene. Then he drew a breath and seemed to soften. “I think you need to look at why you’re saying what you’re saying,” he said, and then the softness vanished. “There’s some Jewish self-hatred there.”

I felt then – and still feel now, when I look back – deeply and frustratingly misunderstood. My motives had nothing to do with self-hatred or any feeling about being Jewish. Nor did they have anything to do with compassion for a people – the Palestinians – about whom I knew nothing. I was merely following, as best I could, and in typical 14-year-old fashion, what seemed to be the dictates of logic. If in following them, the results appeared to defy assumptions, then that just made them more curious and compelling. Judging people by their colour or religion was wrong. Racism – making a generalisation about a whole people, stereotyping a whole people – was wrong. Taking over other countries was wrong, even if they attacked you (it was years before I learned that it was Israel that had launched this war, justified at the time by Abba Eban, American liberal Jewry’s favourite Israeli, as a “pre-emptive” strike). Among the shibboleths I was brought up on was the belief that “my country right or wrong” was wrong. No one liked to insist more than my dad that if you really loved your country you criticised its flaws. Surely that also applied to religion, and “my religion right or wrong” must also be wrong. I was only trying to apply general principles to a particular case. An exercise in logic. An exercise in teenage stubbornness. But I was unprepared for the response, with its implication that I did not know myself, coming from my father’s lips. An attack on my selfhood.

I was startled and bewildered by the phrase “Jewish self-hatred”. I didn’t know what it meant. I hadn’t imagined that Jews would hate themselves, or that anyone would think that I hated myself. The charge seemed so far-fetched, yet so personal. And so bitterly unfair. Burning from head to toe, I threw down knife and fork and left the table in a huff, pounding up the stairs to my room, where I hurled myself on my bed and wrestled with my frustration.

Some might by now have concluded that the roots of my anti-Zionism lie in oedipal trauma. For sure, this was a deeply distressing incident. Later, I looked back on it as my first political disagreement with my father. Later still, as one of a number of raw episodes in our relationship, most of which had nothing to do with politics. Now, looking again at the history behind this incident, I see more clearly why the opinions I was expressing would have infuriated nearly everyone in my father’s milieu in those days. To me, they were a logical development from the agreed shared ground of democratic liberalism, but to liberals of my father’s generation they were an insolent abrogation of that shared ground. Without in the least intending to, I had breached a taboo.

Today, as cracks show in the presumed monolith of Jewish backing for Israel, increasing numbers of Jews are interrogating and rejecting Zionism. Nonetheless, the existence of anti-Zionist Jews strikes many people – Jews and non-Jews – as an anomaly, a perversity, a violation of the first clause in the ethical aphorism of Hillel, the first-century rabbi and doyenne of Jewish teachings: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Zionism is an ideology and a political movement. As such it is open to rational dispute. Jews, like others, might view the Jewish claim to Palestine as irrational, anachronistic, and intrinsically unjust. They might consider the Jewish state to be discriminatory or racist or might object – on political, philosophical, or even specifically Jewish grounds – to any state based on the supremacy of a particular religious or ethnic group. As Jews, they might reject the idea that Jewish people constitute a “nation”, or at least a “nation” of the type that can or should become a territorial nation-state. Or they might have concluded on the basis of an examination of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that the underlying cause of the conflict was the ideology of the Israeli state.

Any or all of the above should be sufficient to explain why some Jews would become anti-Zionists. But that doesn’t stop critics from placing us firmly in the realm of the irredeemably neurotic. Whenever Jews speak out against Israel, their motives, their representativeness, their authenticity as Jews are questioned. We are pathologised. For only a psychological aberration, a neurotic malaise, could account for our defection from Israel’s cause, which is presumed to be our own cause.

Anti-Zionist Jews are not and do not claim to be any more authentic or representative than any other Jews, nor is their protest against Israel any more valid than a non-Jew’s. But “If I am not for myself”, then the Zionists will claim to be for me, will usurp my voice and my Jewishness. Since each Israeli atrocity is justified by the exigencies of Jewish survival, each calls forth a particular witness from anti-Zionist Jews, whose very existence contradicts the Zionist claim to speak for all Jews everywhere.

(Via JSF).



  1. Are you related to John Marqusee & Janet Morand Marqusee? I went to college with them and was with them in the campus left. Assuming you’re their son, it’s good to see the next generation carrying on the good fight. Best wishes,

  2. I’m not Mike Marqusee. And I don’t know him personally. I’m just quoting him.

    You can try Mike, which is what google brought up.

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