Friday, 26 August 2011


Written in 2008
Mike Marqusee.

Marqusee’s examination of his upbringing in 1960s Jewish-American suburbia, his anti-war and Pro-Palestinian activism in Britain, along with his grandfather’s experiences in Jewish New York in the 1930s and 40s that saw him move from anti-fascism to militant Zionism provide the background for a thought provoking exploration of what its means to be Jewish in the 21st century.

Why did you write this book?

In recent years there's been intense argument not only over Israel and Palestine but also over allegations of anti-Semitism and of  “self-hatred” on the part of Jews who criticise Israel, especially Jews like me who reject Zionism. I wanted to answer those charges and explore the issues raised but to do so through the specifics of lived history including my own and my grandfather's.

Was your grandfather’s move from anti-fascism to militant Zionism inevitable?

Only under those specific historical conditions and given the man's own history and impulses; not everyone followed that course. I'm always wary of narratives that imply that your identity is your destiny and that in the end we all return to our own kind. Jewish support for Zionism has not been a permanent factor in Jewish life; it was something that was fought over. It changes over time and it's changing now. 

Can you explain why the call for a boycott of all goods stemming from Nazi Germany in the 1930s was opposed by many Jewish organisations?

When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, there was a widespread demand at the grass roots of the Jewish communities in the USA and Britain for a boycott of German goods. Jewish leaders in both countries were hesitant. Some feared a backlash. Some wealthy Jews had businesses that traded with Germany and did not want their business disrupted. At the same time, the Zionist Federation made a public agreement with the Nazis called the ha'avara – transfer – through which German Jews who had the money would be allowed to emigrate to Palestine on condition that they used their assets to purchase German goods or services. The ha'avara undermined the boycott both materially and politically: for the Nazis, it was a propaganda coup. How could one argue for a boycott when Jews themselves were seen to be doing business with the Nazis? For most Zionists, the priority was always to get more Jews into Palestine, and the fate of Jews in Europe was a secondary matter.

Isn’t the fact that so many Jews left places such as Iraq between 1948 and 1951 to move to Israel
an indication they were being persecuted in Arab countries?

Historically, though there were outbreaks of anti-Semitism at various times and places; Jews in Arab countries were generally not subject to persecution. Certainly they never faced anything like what the Jews faced under the Czars, not to mention the Nazis. The position of Jews in the Arab world only became precarious after the birth of Israel, and in response to Israeli policies. The circumstances under which Jews left their homes after 1948 varied. In Iraq, the bulk of the Jewish population departed for Israel within two years. This was accompanied by anti-Semitic government propaganda, but it took place via collaboration between Israel and the Iraqi regime, facilitated by the US and the UK. In Morocco, the process unfolded over 30 years and was resisted by Moroccan governments.

How can you dispute the 2006 claim by the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, that Jews were threatened by a tsunami of anti-Semitism?

The evidence doesn't support it. There has been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and that is worrying. But the numbers make it clear that Jews face nothing remotely comparable to the racism that other minority groups face.  Sacks's “tsunami” claim is based on his view that growing opposition to Israel and to Zionism itself betokens a rise in anti-Semitism.

How can you claim that there is a weakening of Jewish support in Britain for Israel?

For many years, Jewish opposition to Israeli policy was barely visible in Britain. That's manifestly changed in the last decade. In August 2006, during Israel's attack on Lebanon, there was vocal and visible Jewish opposition in demos, meetings and letters to the press both here and in the USA. Undeniably Zionism remains the dominant political force, and the Jewish establishment remains wedded to Israel. But as Israel's record comes under greater scrutiny, that dominance has been threatened, which is why attacks on opponents of Israel have become more strident and sweeping.

How would you respond to claims that you can only be a Jew by supporting the Israeli Government?

There's nothing in the Hebrew Bible or the Talmud to justify such a view. To me it's completely incompatible with significant sections of the Bible (for example, the prophet Amos). More importantly, at least for me, is that the strict political limitation of what it is to be a Jew is incompatible with modern Jewish traditions of humanism, secularism, equality and democracy. Reducing Jewishness to allegiance to a particular nation-state flies in the face not only of our history but also of our lived experience. Can I only be a Jew by sacrificing the rest of my humanity, by ignoring the claims of human solidarity? Among its other shortcomings, Zionism drastically narrows down Jewish identity and Jewish history, most of which has unfolded outside of Palestine. 

No comments:

Post a Comment