By Mike Marqusee
This provocative book is a mixture of family biography, travel journal and anti-Zionist polemic. All these narratives are subsumed in the dominant presence of the author’s grandfather Edward V Morand — EVM.
This huge personality was a writer, lawyer, political activist, militant Jew, anti-fascist, anti-racist and champion of black civil rights. Towards the end of his life, he asked his grandson to write his biography. This book partly fulfils that request but is also a trajectory from one man’s conscience to another’s.
The central conflict stems from EVM’s support for Israel’s cause in 1948 and, in 2008, his grandson’s questioning of the need for a Jewish state. There is a deep moral stand underlying all this. EVM could not extend his feelings for injustice against blacks in the US towards the Palestinians. In examining this, Marqusee traces his own path to anti-Zionism. Structurally, the work is a mix of personal memory, history and political analysis written in an idiosyncratic style which takes time to absorb. The spine of the story is Marqusee’s political linking between three male generations.
For this is a masculine odyssey where women have small roles. There are glimpses into the author’s grandmother’s miserable marriage and of his mother getting her nose “fixed” at 16 before she joined the Communist Party. But, for the most part, the women are disappointingly incidental. This is emphatically a study of Jewish men. While EVM comes across as a hero, his son Marty, Mike’s father, is damned for naming names during the McCarthy trials.
Their relationship can be glimpsed in an exchange when EVM, at 65, was in Atlanta marching with Martin Luther King. Marty asked: “Dad, what are you doing in Selma?” The response, quick as a flash, and on the tip of his tongue for decades, was: “Son what are you doing elsewhere?” Marqusee, refuting his father’s charge against him of being a “self-hating Jew”, offers a very broad examination of Jewish identity, taking in the Pashtun tribe of Afghanistan; Mossad’s “dirty tricks” in getting Iraqi Jews to flee to Israel; and the recent move to encourage Indian Jews to help demographic problems in Israel today.
In a book as discursive as this, inevitably there are moments which delight and others which are frustratingly brief — for example the difference in identity between post-war American and British Jews, and the effect that English antisemitism has had on Jewish self-confidence. Maybe that could be his next book. That said, I found this a fascinating, if quirky exploration of the Zionism-versus-anti-Zionism debate, to which it adds more fire.
Julia Pascal is a playwright and critic