It was America in the 1960s, and his parents were civil rights activists who encouraged their children to speak their minds. Until, aged 14, Mike Marqusee criticised Israel. In this extract from his new book, he recalls his father's fury
Mike Marqusee, author of If I Am Not For Myself: a Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew. Photograph: Felix Clay
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.
As a young man, against the family grain, my father had taken an interest in social and especially racial justice and at college was drawn to the Communist party, which is how he met my mother, who was the product of a very different strand of the New York Jewish tapestry. This was in the heyday of anti-communist hysteria, of which my parents were first victims, then accomplices. After giving a speech against the Korean war at a student conference in Prague in 1950, dad was denounced as a traitor. His passport was seized. His father told the press that if his son had said such things, he was no son of his. It was in this period, I think, that he came to rely implicitly on my mother, the girlfriend who stood by his side when his life seemed most precarious.
They were married in 1952 and a year later I was born. Shortly after that, the FBI came knocking on the door. After months of pressure, from his own family as much as from the repressive organs of the state, my father, with my mother by his side, just as before, agreed to name names. "To this day we regret the mutual decision we made," my mother wrote. "It has been a source of incredible pain and shame." When my father, 45 years after the event, lay dying, sapped by chronic pain and humiliating dependence, he went over it yet again, as he had with me many times. "I fucked it up," he moaned. There was no absolution anyone could give him. All the other contributions he had made seemed outweighed by this ineradicable betrayal.
In the early 60s, having a wife and five kids, a big suburban home and a blossoming career as a real estate developer, was not enough, and he and my mother threw themselves into the struggle in the American south, raising money, organising meetings, sheltering young activists, supporting boycotts and pickets. In 1964, my dad went to Mississippi to deliver supplies to the beleaguered grassroots movement. It was a frightening time: they were now killing whites as well as blacks. Years later I learned that my mother was furious with my father over this adventure. She told him he was trying to compensate for his earlier sin, that he had no right to put his life at risk, to put this need for redemption above his obligation to his children. But in my eyes, the Mississippi visit, followed by his participation in the Selma march for voting rights in Alabama a year later, made my father a hero, along with the other heroes of the movement, which for me in those days included everyone from Martin Luther King to Stokely Carmichael.
All of which partly - but only partly - explains why, when he lowered the boom on me in the autumn of 1967 by suggesting I was a self-hating Jew, it came as an uncushioned blow, an attack out of nowhere, or out of a place of which I was previously unaware.
Initially, I was anxious about going to a new synagogue. I didn't know what to expect as we turned down the driveway. The building was purpose-built and sleekly modern, the parking lot crammed with station wagons. Dad escorted me to my classroom, where, at once, I felt relief. The room was filled with kids I knew from school. There was the one who played quarterback, the one who made funny noises, the one who had all the Batman comic books. So they were Jewish too. I hadn't known that. There was a map of Israel alongside a map of the US, but apart from that it looked like the classrooms I knew from school, with colourful posters and a big blackboard.
I felt at home. We all did. We were the most comfortable Jews that had ever walked the planet. Not for us the longing of exile, the pain of dispersal. We were Americans in America. And we were, in particular, suburban American Jewish kids in the early 1960s, blithely self-confident about our privileges and our position in the world. Sublimely safe. That was the beginning of my eight years of Reform Jewish education, which sputtered to an end when I was 15 and declared, in my confirmation speech, that God was dead and man was condemned to be free.
From an early age I conceived of myself as a rationalist and though I made spasmodic efforts at belief, I never felt a divine presence. During "prayer", I was acutely aware of the gap between what I was supposed to be thinking and what was actually going through my head. But in the end what alienated me from the synagogue was not the make-believe of the afterlife or the all-seeing omnipotence of an invisible God. Not in this synagogue. Here the absolutes were kept in the background. God was there, mentioned in the prayers, but he had been discreetly updated and denatured. No one seemed overconcerned about his judgment.
So what was the creed we were taught in Sunday school? It was not about God. It was about the Jews. A singular people who had given wonderful gifts to the world and whom the world had treated cruelly. A people who were persecuted. A people who survived. A people who triumphed. Despite the Holocaust, we were not a nation of losers, of victims. There was a redemptive denouement. There was Israel, a modern Jewish homeland, a beacon to the world. A shiny new state with up-to-date, Coke-drinking people like us. Liberals, like us. Bearers of democracy and civilisation, making the desert bloom. A little America in the Middle East.
Israel was both our own cause, a Jewish cause, and a moral cause, a universal cause. Like America. A land without people for a people without land. Like America. That was the gift we received in Sunday school - an extra country. For us there were two nations and, best of all, we didn't have to choose between them. As Jews and Americans, we enjoyed a double birthright and a double privilege. The coming home of the Jews to the land of our forefathers completed the epic saga stretching back to Genesis and ensured it ended with a huge upswing in mood. From near-annihilation in the Holocaust to the pride of statehood in a few short years. We took this less as a sign of the divine inspiration of the ancient prophets than as another manifestation of the order and justice that generally prevailed in our world. A testament to progress and the Jewish mastery of progress.
Thanks to America and Israel, the Jews were safe at last. We could visit Israel and work on a kibbutz, like a grown-up summer camp. We were taught to revere Ben Gurion and his heir, the Jewish-American farm girl Golda Meir. In our Sunday school textbooks the Israelis looked like us. And the country they were building looked familiar, with modern buildings and girls in jeans. These were Jews who read books but also drove tractors and tanks.
As always, the Jews had enemies. Israel was menaced by Arabs (not Palestinians, a word never uttered in our synagogue). They were exotically attired bedouin - people who did not have or want a home. In our Sunday school texts, they appeared swarthy, coarse, ignorant, duplicitous. These descendants of Pharaoh and the Philistines seemed curiously ungrateful and irrational. For no reason at all, they hated us.
I was intrigued by the Jewish holidays. Simchas Torah, a year marked out in chapters of a book. Succoth, the Jewish Thanksgiving, a harvest festival, a deeply exotic idea to kids who knew food only from supermarkets. Purim, the revenge of integrity. Yom Kippur disturbed me (I knew I should atone for something but wasn't sure what), but Pesach was special. The matzoh balls and latkes my grandmother brought. Elijah's cup. Most of all, it was the story that pulled me in - that epic of liberation, with the oppressed triumphing over their oppressors, right over might. An intoxicating narrative, as exciting and satisfying as the food. People should be careful when they teach this stuff to kids. It sinks in deeper than they realise. It can even turn someone against the land promised them in the Pesach story.
For several years I took twice-weekly Hebrew lessons in preparation for my barmitzvah. Then came a year of lavish celebrations, services, dinners, dances, in marquees on suburban lawns and ballrooms in midtown hotels. Mountains of gifts. Cheques or bonds or little stakes in IBM or ITT. Compared to some, my barmitzvah was a low-key affair; my mother disapproved of the conspicuous display made by our neighbours. I got the cheques, I got a set of left-handed golf clubs, but better yet I got elegant illustrated editions of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and Thoreau's Walden.
Within weeks of my barmitzvah, every word of Hebrew vanished from my head. The language had been learned solely to complete a public performance, a rite, that had little meaning for me. I certainly did not feel that I had become a man, an adult, a member of a congregation, that I was enfranchised. Instead, I began to look for and find some of that sense of growth, of emergence as an autonomous human being, in politics, in the world of the left, in battles against racism and for civil liberties. Soon I just could not stop talking about the Vietnam war and how it was wrong on every count. This, in 1966, did not make me popular. So why was I so determined to pursue the course? Was I just showing off, calling attention to myself? Yes, I was. But there were other ways to do that and I did not choose them.
In Sunday school, Israel's victory in the 1967 six-day war was a great moment of Jewish pride. I don't remember much thanking of God, and no mourning for the victims on either side, just a sustained note of elated triumph. To cap all our other Jewish achievements, to confirm our eminence, we had proved ourselves masters in war. Six days to defeat Arab armies attacking from all sides, to sweep across the Sinai, unite Jerusalem, drive the enemy back across the Jordan. No one spoke then, not in my hearing, of the beginning of an occupation. We had redrawn the lines on the map. That was our prerogative. That was justice. We were unbeatable and we were righteous. Israel married moral virtue and military strength - another sign that we lived in an age of order and progress. When a friend who liked to tease me about my anti-Vietnam war views suggested I might not support Israel against the Arabs, I was outraged and offended.
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.
· This is an edited extract from If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, by Mike Marqusee, published by Verso at £15.99. To order a copy for £14.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.