Book review: history lesson on the left’s Palestine blind spot

Originally published on Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 30 July 2010

Mike Marqusee’s book If I am Not For Myself, newly available in paperback, is a fascinating, meandering sort of family memoir. From the subtitle “Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew” one expects an autobiography. As it turns out, it mostly tells the story of Marqusee’s grandfather Edward V. Morand, based on an inherited suitcase full of his old personal letters, newspaper clippings and so forth.

Morand (or EVM as he is referred to throughout) was an American lawyer, sometimes columnist and Jewish activist. The fight against anti-Semitism on the streets of New York during the long build-up to the Second World War forms a large part of the narrative thrust of the book. Marqusee takes us through the Jewish and leftist milieus of the period, with extensive detours via extracts from his own life story, with analysis on religion, history and politics.

We meet Jewish prophets, heretics, thinkers, militants and activists: from Amos to Spinoza, the Haskalah and the Bund. They are a mixed bag, but their stories are rarely less than intriguing. Marqusee recalls a politically formative moment from his childhood, when an Israeli soldier, fresh from the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, visits his Jewish weekend school. The exotic visitor’s dismissive attitude towards the Palestinians makes a deep impression on the 14-year-old Mike:

“… they were better off now, under Israeli rule. ‘You have to understand, these are ignorant people. They go to toilet in the street.’ Now something akin to this I had heard before. I had heard it from the white Southerners I had been taught to look down upon … So I raised my hand … It seemed to me that what our visitor had said was, well, racist” (p. 59).

Around the dinner table, Marqusee senior angrily dismisses his son’s reaction as “Jewish self-hatred.”

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Book review: Gideon Levy and the Western media elite

Originally published on Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 26 July 2010

The small volume The Punishment of Gaza is a selection from Gideon Levy’s columns on Gaza in Israeli daily Haaretz since 2006. The dissident Israeli journalist reminds us that the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza has not been a matter of isolated wars of aggression, but an ongoing, long-term policy directed at the population of that small, refugee-packed fraction of Palestine.

Despite his ideological limits, Levy is a searing critic of Israeli brutality, as anyone who has read him will know. Right from the beginning, he named the last major Israeli massacre of Gaza “a war crime” — in his 27 December 2008 article “The Neighborhood Bully Strikes Again.” And he criticized it on moral grounds, not merely as the “mistake” or “blunder” that hypocritical Israeli pundits, masquerading as critics, would label it much later on.

At his best, Levy has a way with words that leads him to some brilliant indictments of Israel. He speaks of “the basic, twofold Israeli sentiment that has been with us forever: to commit any wrong, but to feel pure in our own eyes. To kill, demolish, starve, imprison and humiliate — and to still be right, not to mention righteous.” He describes how the 2008 feature film Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s apologia for the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, “outraged” him on a second viewing: “Art has been recruited here for an operation of deceit” and, “this is not an antiwar film.” He also seems to implicitly support the movement to boycott Israel with statements such as “Israelis don’t pay any price for the injustice of the occupation, so the occupation will never end” and the piece “A Just Boycott.”

Yet reading Levy can be a frustrating experience. In a July 2006 piece about an attack on Gaza after the capture by Palestinian fighters of a soldier involved in shelling the Strip, Levy writes: “The legitimate basis for the [Israeli army’s] operation was stripped away the moment it began.” This is an odd and convoluted phrase. Why not just say it was illegitimate to begin with? But there is worse than that. In an article arguing for negotiations with Hamas, he describes the first Palestinian intifada as “unnecessary and cursed.” Palestinians would beg to differ — the popular uprising is widely regarded as a high point of legitimate and mostly unarmed resistance.

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