By Hizami Iskandar
If I am not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew
Verso, 2008, pp. 296
A random memory from my childhood had me reading Amir Muhammad’s column many a year ago, where he wrote of his friendship with a Jew. In a world where Israel’s name was (and still is) emblazoned thrillingly on the 2nd page of my passport – the one place in the world where a child with a Malaysian passport could not seemingly go – this was heady stuff. Jews were the enemy, after all – the shadowy cabal whose hidden hand pulled the strings of the world with their infinite gold and hatred of Muslims. One does not normally make friends with the bogeyman under the bed, hence, the strangeness of the very notion.
A few years down the line, I found myself picking up Edward Said’s The End of the Peace Process.Here was that most remarkable of individuals – a Palestinian Christian who became his people’s most articulate defender in the West. For decades, he toiled tirelessly, struggling to establish the very existence of Palestinians as a people in the minds of a sceptical public, then becoming a Cassandra for the tragic farce that was Oslo. But he never blamed the Jews – rather, his friendship with the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim was deep and abiding, with projects such as the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra standing testament to their common belief in the power of music to bridge even the widest of chasms. Much more recently, I had the pleasure of reading a tribute to him by his friend, the historian Tony Judt, who was himself a most formidable and erudite critic of Israel.
Several more years passed, and became involved with the local chapter of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which was to be an integral part of my university life. The activists with whom I had the privilege to serve were humbling in their commitment – one could barely walk, yet insisted on being at our campaign stall in the middle of town practically every week, using her little foldable stool to provide some much-needed support; another had been campaigning her whole life, from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to apartheid, and finally the Palestinian cause, provoked by the heartbreaking images of the Second Intifada. Some of our most committed activists were Jews – I remember well seeing the full-page ad placed by Jews for Justice for Palestinians condemning Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza, and proudly spotting a colleague’s name in the list of signatories.
I recall listening to Jeff Halper, sometime near the end of my first year. An Israeli, he leads the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, which campaigns against the cruel demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli authorities. These are the people who stand in front of bulldozers; who mobilise volunteers to rebuild destroyed homes, and bring what succour they can to traumatised families. As it turned out, a couple of years after I first heard him speak, I met a young Israeli lawyer at a human rights conference, who was about to go back to Israel and work against the same demolitions. Of such chance encounters is hope unlooked-for born.
Another memory surfaces, this time of Israeli Apartheid Week in 2008. Not too long before, Independent Jewish Voices had been launched in London – a clarion voice which would not hesitate to criticise the actions of Israel, and rejected the monolithic notion that all Jews stood for Israel’s conduct. I recall well Prof. Ilan Pappe speaking that week – an Israeli revisionist historian, his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, sets out in detail the intentions and actions of the Israeli leaders who systematically implemented the removal of 800,000 Palestinians from their homes during the Nakba, thus illuminating the true scope of that tragedy.
Then came the end of 2008, and the Israeli war on Gaza. The Islamic Society scrambled to compile signatories from amongst the academics in Oxford for a press statement condemning Israel’s assault. Prof. Avi Shlaim was one of them – another Israeli revisionist historian, he wrote a stunning critique of the Israeli assault on Gaza in the Guardian, comprehensively demolishing the Israeli case for the assault. Two memories of him are particularly strong – a memory of him marching alongside nearly a thousand of us in the centre of town, protesting the massacre in Gaza; and a memory of him wryly setting out why Israel should be considered a rogue state – to be lumped together with North Korea is not a pretty place to be in the league of nations.
Israel’s war on Gaza provoked much condemnation, including a piece in the Guardian by Rabbi Dr David Goldberg, Rabbi Emeritus at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London. It also saw Caryl Churchill pen the brilliant play Seven Jewish Children, a dark and incredibly moving meditation on the corrosion of the human spirit that leads to tragedies such as that of Gaza. (NB: Available to be performed royalty-free, as long as any proceeds are donated to Medical Aid for Palestinians). Although fiercely attacked by many quarters as anti-Semitic, an equally fierce defence was mounted – two, in particular, still resonate with me. Prof. Jacqueline Rose, one of the founders of Independent Jewish Voices, and a long-time critic of Zionism, engaged in an acrimonious debate with the Booker-winning Howard Jacobson in the pages of the Guardian, whilst Tony Kushner (whom I have long admired for the wonderfully disturbing Angels in America) and Alisa Solomon subjected the play to a searching examination in The Nation, finally dismissing any accusations of anti-Semitism and ending with a haunting hope for the last of the eponymous Jewish children: ‘Perhaps this girl will grow up to work for justice’.
In his book, Mike Marqusee tells the story of his grandfather – a union activist, politician and columnist living in New York in the first half of the 20th century. It’s partly the story of labour’s flirtation with Communism and sometimes dysfunctional relationship with the Democractic Party; it’s partly the story of McCarthy, and the agonies of that dark time. But it’s also the story of a man who, though he fought injustice wherever he could find it, was blind to one great injustice – that of the Palestinian people. It was that blindness which forms the backdrop to Marqusee’s own personal journey – fourteen-year-old Mike, sitting at the dinner table on a summer night in 1967, came to a seemingly logical analogy between Israel’s Six-Day War and America’s unjust war in Vietnam, only to be greeted by fury from his father, and his first accusation of ‘Jewish self-hatred’.
That was only the beginning, of course – later on, we find him in London, having fully rejected the legitimacy of Zionism, a position framed by the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as a genuine anti-colonial voice of the Palestinian people. It was thus particularly moving to find his previously hostile father calling Marqusee from New York 15 years after that dinner-table outburst, after the Sabra and Shatila massacres, to tell him that he was right after all. As Marqusee describes it, ‘the Zionists tested his [his father’s] humanity beyond endurance’.
In the latter part of his book, Marqusee fleshes out his essentially simple argument: one can be a Jew, and yet reject Zionism, and condemn the wrongs perpetrated by the state of Israel. Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic; neither does it make a Jew ‘self-hating’. As Marqusee says:
‘But for us the real act of self-hatred, of traumatic self-betrayal, would be to repudiate the various strands of our own being and beliefs – democratic, humanist, anti-racist – in favour of a narrow political definition of ‘Jewish interests’’.
That insight is often lost on the Board of Deputies of British Jews and other quarters who perennially rail against ‘left-wing anti-Semitism’. Unfortunately, the same insight is often lost on many of us in Malaysia, whom all too often resort to very careless talk of the perfidies of the Jewish people.
Valuably, Marqusee sees an undeniable analogy between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – conspiracy theories, accusations of dual allegiance and two-facedness, and anti-immigrant hostility are but some of the common features between them. There are important lessons here to be learnt. We Muslims blanch when Peter King says ‘Muslims killed us [Americans] on 9/11’; we protest when we are labeled as terrorists collectively. Yet, every time someone says ‘Death to the Jews’, or ‘The Jews control the world’, we are doing exactly the same to another people. We detest being judged for the actions of a few; we are clear in our rejection of their criminal actions; we vigorously demonstrate that their actions have no foundation in our Law – why, then, do we so blithely do the same to the Jews?
Over in Israel, B’tselem has been tirelessly working to educate and inform the Israeli public about Israel’s human rights violations in the Occupied Territories. Richard Goldstone accepted the task of leading the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on Israel’s war on Gaza, and despite the Israeli government’s refusal to cooperate with the mission, saw it as his responsibility as a Jew to hold both Israel and Hamas accountable against the norms of international law.In 2002, a Combatants Letter set out the principled refusal by 50 combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defence Forces to participate any longer in enforcing the Occupation – now, Courage to Refuse records 627 signatories, whilst over 280 refuseniks have been court-martialed for their courage.Another organisation, Breaking the Silence, has recorded over 700 testimonies from Israeli soldiers serving in the Occupied Territories, working to educate the Israeli public on the terrible wrongs perpetrated against the Palestinians, and the true moral cost of the Occupation. Every time
we carelessly conflate Jews with Zionism or Israel, we do an unforgivable disservice to the work of these brave individuals.
To be human is to be individual. To be human is to be able to make independent moral choices, and to be recognised for the choices that we make. To see another human being not as an individual, but merely as a member of a larger grouping, is to thus begin the process of dehumanisation. To deny a Jew her individuality, to ascribe to her the crimes of a state she is entitled to reject, is to dehumanise her. And to do so is to make us no better than those who would wear a t-shirt showing a pregnant Palestinian woman caught in the crosshairs of a rifle, proudly saying, ‘1 shot, 2 kills’.
Marqusee takes the title of his book from Hillel’s catechism, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ He refused to accept that his Jewishness dictated support for Israel, and exercised his own sense of justice in order to reject the legitimacy of Zionism, and the actions of the state of Israel. He refused to allow others to speak for him, and insisted that his own moral convictions overrule a narrow conception of group loyalty. Many other Jews, as I have found again and again over the past few years, have made the same choice, and we owe it to them, and our shared humanity, to see our Jewish brothers and sisters as individuals and human beings, not as an undifferentiated group, collectively responsible for all of Israel’s actions. Our real task is to end the Occupation, restore justice for the Palestinian people, and extend Israel’s democratic promise to all its citizens – and in that task, we will always have many friends from amongst the Jews, and in time, if we are steadfast in our affirmation of a common humanity, will come many more. Insha-Allah.
Hizami Iskandar read Law at the University of Oxford, and is currently pursuing the BPTC at BPP Law School, London. He was previously the Editor of CEKU in 2008/2009.
 Edward W. Said, The End of the Peace Process, Granta Books, 2002. http://www.amazon.co.uk/End-Peace-Process-Edward-Said/dp/1862075239/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1300722258&sr=1-1
 Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, William Heinemann, 2008. Chs. 10, 16 and 17. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reappraisals-Reflections-Forgotten-Twentieth-Century/dp/0434017418
 Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, OneWorld Publications, 2007. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ethnic-Cleansing-Palestine-Ilan-Pappe/dp/1851685553/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
 Avi Shlaim, ‘How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe’, The Guardian, 7 January 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/07/gaza-israel-palestine
 David Goldberg, ‘An endless cycle?’, The Guardian (CIF Belief), 6 January 2009.
 Caryl Churchill, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2009/feb/26/caryl-churchill-seven-jewish-children-play-gaza
 Jacqueline Rose, ‘Why Howard Jacobson is wrong’, The Guardian (CIF), 24 February 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/23/howard-jacobson-antisemitism-caryl-churchill
 United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict Report. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/specialsession/9/docs/UNFFMGC_Report.pdf
 Breaking the Silence. http://www.shovrimshtika.org/index_e.asp (for an illuminating review of one of their recent publications, see David Shulman, ‘Israel and Palestine: Breaking the Silence’, The New York Review of Books, 24 February 2011. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/feb/24/israel-palestine-breaking-silence/)