This mishmash of a book contains a powerful denunciation of Zionism. The attack is both historical and logical. However, the argument is scattered through family history, personal reflections, and New York City politics.
In his description of a Bronx teachers’ strike, Marqusee sides with a black “community control” group that wanted to fire white teachers to replace them with blacks, chiding the socialist teachers union leader for defending the teachers. What would one expect a union leader to do? Much of the book is given over to the career and writings of his grandfather, which are only tangentially related to the argument.
Tangentially. What his grandfather, his Sunday school experiences, and his life in a New York Jewish milieu do say on the subject is that Zionism was (and to a large extent still is) deeply ingrained in the Jewish cultural world view, especially because of the Holocaust. Along with what they knew of the Holocaust, there was an equal ignorance about what was happening to the Palestinians. Thus, people who were strong supporters of black civil rights (his grandfather went down to take part in the Selma march for voting rights, along with Martin Luther King) were gullibly open to accept all kinds of myths about Palestinians and their “ingratitude.”
So let’s get to the meat of this historical exposition. The myth that is widely accepted in Jewish circles outside Israel (less in vogue in Israel itself) is that at the time of Israel’s declaration of independence the Palestinians fled at the command of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who told them to leave to give the Arab armies a clear path to drive the Jews out. Marqusee documents the attacks on the Arabs.
In April, 1948, the Irgun slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian civilians at Deir Yassin. That month also saw an attack on Haifa, where Irgun “machine-gunned Arab workers in broad daylight.” As a result, most of the Palestinians fled the city, with Jews moving into their homes. And the myth of the underdog Jews holding off the invading Arab armies? The Jewish forces were much larger than those opposing them.
Marqusee also throws light on why Jews from the Arab countries left, largely to Israel. In Iraq, Jewish emigration swelled in 1950 and 1951. In 1950, a grenade was thrown at a coffeehouse frequented by Jews. The following year, one was thrown near a synagogue, and Jewish businesses and the U.S. Information Center were also bombed. In 1951, men accused of being Israeli agents were tried and convicted of these crimes. “What’s more, it is an admitted fact that Israeli intelligence sought to employ precisely the same terrorist tactics a few years later in Egypt.”
The author attacks the underlying logic of Zionism. He links it to historical efforts by rabbis and other Orthodox leaders to resist emancipation, people who attacked the likes of Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn. He even shows Zionist efforts to work with Nazis to promote the departure of Jews. In response to the claim that a Jewish nation has as much right to exist as others, he listed other nations that do not have their own countries. He mentions Kurds, but, in the absence of an index, my memory fails to add the others that he lists. However, there are the Basques, the Catalans, and the Galicians, and that is just in Spain (and a slice of France).
One argument that he does not make is with regard to the concept of a Jewish nation. A nation is supposed to unite people around commonalities of race, language, religion, a common political tradition, and/or ancestry. On such criteria, a stronger case can be made for an Ashkenazic nation and a Sephardic nation than for a Jewish nation. And neither of these would include the Falashas, the Ethiopian Jews.
In spite of Marqusee’s mishmash (he calls it a memoir), the book is a treasure trove of important information about Israel and Palestine, Zionism, Jewish emancipation, and the resistance to emancipation. He sees Zionism as a modern form of opposition to emancipation.