Antony Lerman’s remarkable memoir, The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist, details a life entwined with a cause he has abandoned as conflicting with his own Jewish values

Antony Lerman, The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist (Pluto 2012), xii, 228pp.

Antony Lerman is not a Jewish anti-Zionist, but something rather more dangerous than that as far as his detractors are concerned. As he says, it is not difficult for the Jewish ‘establishment’ in Britain to ‘marginalise’ Jewish groups who adopt a radical critical stance towards Israel, but Lerman ‘was at the heart of the community in a professional capacity for more than 25 years, was seen as part of the establishment … for someone like this to hold views usually associated with the marginalised, dissenting groups was an unprecedented danger, a traitorous act that simply could not be tolerated’ (p.199).

The views that Lerman had come to by the time of his ‘traitorous’ behaviour, around 2005-7, could be described as highly critical of Israeli policy, increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian national cause in general terms, and even ‘post-Zionist’, advocating very significant change to the nature of Israel as a state (see the discussion on p.203, for example). Importantly, Lerman also has for a long time insisted on drawing distinctions between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, on which the legitimacy of criticism of Israel depends. The reaction to what may seem quite a moderate stance from a pro-Palestinian perspective was indeed ferocious; for a start he was eventually driven out of his position as director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in late 2008, and his views cast as being beyond the pale (for some of the background to this episode see here).

The quotation above is, of course, Lerman’s own summation of the situation in which he found himself, after years in which his own doubts about Zionism, and the policies of Israeli governments, grew more and more inescapable. His description of the conflict carries conviction, coming, as it does, towards the end of this scrupulous and measured memoir. To anyone with a remotely open mind, Lerman would have to come across with more credibility than his opponents, including the egregious Melanie Phillips, who dubbed the organisation Independent Jewish Voices, with which Lerman was associated, as ‘Jews for Genocide’ due to their critical stance towards Israel (pp.173-4). The problem is that this sort of absurd commentary serves often simply to pull the debate in one (right-wing) direction, and must usually be being used consciously for that purpose.

It is to be hoped that Lerman’s memoir helps to correct this kind of imbalance in debate about Israel and anti-Semitism, but in any case it is a valuable story which is intended to help open up a number of questions and conversations. As a personal memoir it is both reserved but revealing where needed, narrating Lerman’s youthful identification with, and then gradual disengagement from and disillusionment with, the Kibbutz movement. From a pro-Palestinian perspective, it might be objected that Lerman’s Zionist Socialism could never possibly be a successful movement based, as it was, on the expropriation of another people’s land. In the end, Lerman does seem to acknowledge this point, but the memoir is written without hindsight, and rigorously from the perspective that the author had at each stage in his life. Lerman is not giving his present views as he goes along, but chronicling his involvement in Jewish Diaspora and Israeli public life across the decades to show how he arrived at a position so at odds with the current British Jewish establishment, as he refers to it.

If the main purpose might seem to be to convince pro-Israel readers to re-think their assumptions along with the author, those coming from the opposite political direction should bear in mind Lerman’s statement at the start that there is not ‘an equivalence of power and status between the two sides’ (p.viii). Eventually, as Lerman’s own re-thinking gathers pace, he realizes that, growing up, he shared the same North London geography with another writer whose experience of all this history was dramatically different. Reading the memoir of the Palestinian activist, Ghadi Karmi, In Search of Fatima (2002), prompts the regretful reflection that ‘what was for her an ill-wind bringing disaster, swept me to what I anticipated would be a brave new beginning’ (p.184).

The new beginning of his youth never arrives in a form that Lerman could accept on a permanent basis, with the result that he exchanged kibbutz life for academic study, and Israel for Britain, in an unsettled search, if not for the brave new beginning, then for a place to fit. The failure of the Socialist Zionist project in Israel is clear in Lerman’s experience. At the time in the late 60s, he asks whether the model of a ‘little socialist island’ existing in isolation within a larger capitalist context, and depending upon it to the point that ‘if that was at the expense of socialism elsewhere in society, could that be right?’ (p.23).

Despite these doubts, Lerman continued to hold a Zionist perspective, reconciling it with socialism on the grounds that the latter had to be internationalist, and therefore must support the self-determination of the Jewish people. This could be a convincing argument so long as the Palestinians and their ‘national aspirations’ are not allowed in view. It is late on in the book that the Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands and villages in 1948) and associated questions come into view, coinciding with the author’s final abandonment of his former Zionist commitments. It is not that Lerman had not come into contact with pro-Palestinian voices earlier than the 2000s, but when he did, in the form of a South African-born Israeli friend in 1968, ‘I simply had no way of assimilating the arguments she advanced’ (p.35).

It is very hard indeed to give up a perspective that a person has taken as the foundation of their active life. It is only experience, over time, of the contradictions in a position that can enable a break with those original premises. For Lerman there was an increasingly serious gap between what he saw as the core values of his Jewish heritage, and the actual practices of the Israeli state, and it was this contradiction that caused him to dissent from the dominant pro-Israeli line. Important in the growth of his awareness of the problem appears to be his disquiet at appearances of anti-Arab racism in Israel, which he notes as they occur in the course of his experiences of Israeli life (for example, pp.47-8).

Later in the memoir, Lerman shows that these concerns, that the treatment of Palestinians by Israel is in contradiction with essential Jewish values, have grown to an extraordinary point. Some Israelis, from a still Zionist point of view, were beginning to argue by 2004 that Israel was a ‘democracy without democrats’, in a political situation parallel to Germany in 1932 (before the Nazi takeover), and had in fact a ‘proto-fascist right-wing government’ (p.127). Whether this is a tenable parallel is not the point; as Lerman says ‘there was something compelling about the testimony of the Israelis [who made the parallel with Germany]. There was no reason for them to make this comparison if they didn’t believe in its validity’ (p.127). The earlier failure of Zionist socialism was, by this point it seems, compounded by what, for Lerman and others, amounted to the failure of Israeli democracy.

The invocation of fascism in debates about Israel is necessarily an incendiary move, and many feel that it is at least unhelpful, if not actively obnoxious. However, apart from academic and technical definitions of fascism, what really lies behind the use of the term? It is a sense that the normal standard of law is being abrogated, that basic norms of human rights are being disregarded. This is very hard to deny in the case of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, actually from the Nakba onwards, but particularly so in the last ten years or more. Whether or not parallels with the decay and collapse of Germany’s democracy in the 1930s are of any use, Lerman is clear that the Palestinians are and have been subject to dehumanisation in the face of ‘a slew of anti-democratic, racist, anti-human rights legislation’. While there are opponents of this ‘supremacist form of Zionism’, these ‘Liberal Zionists’ continue to support ‘state policy to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel in perpetuity’, rendering themselves ‘inconsequential as a force’ (p.197). Later, Lerman advances his own, more contemporary parallels for Israel, if it carries on in its current course: it is heading towards ‘the authoritarianism of a state like Russia, which rejects European democratic norms and multiculturalism, or Singapore, in which prosperity … is prized above fundamental freedoms’ (p.204).

It is in this context that Lerman has, in becoming a post-Zionist, ‘rejected the ethnocentricity of Zionism and the moral and practical implications of taking coercive, racist and illiberal measures to secure a state with a Jewish majority in perpetuity’ (p.198). However, it is all about the distinctions; he insists that it is possible to remain a citizen of Israel and not be a Zionist, and indeed opposing Israel’s current character does not mean that it would not be possible to ‘discover a new road that could lead to genuine national self-determination for Palestinians and the reaffirmation of national self-determination for Jews’ (p.205). It might well be that from a pro-Palestinian point of view plenty of points of disagreement with Lerman could be found, but it would surely be a positive development if the suggestions here were to gain wider traction.

If this ‘new road’ were to be found, it would be necessary for Israel to accept not just the injustice of the occupations of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, but the problems of the foundation of Israel itself. Lerman recounts his late discovery that near the site of the Amiad Kibbutz, where he spent significant time in his youth, lay the Arab village of Jubb Yusuf, which had been ruthlessly emptied of its people in 1948. Like many, Lerman as a young man ‘was totally unaware of a people and a history the existence of which Israel and the Zionist movement had denied’ (pp.194-5). The myths covering up the existence of the Nakba do indeed need to be cleared away, but here the signs are not encouraging. One Israeli historian who did much to challenge the Israeli narrative, Ilan Pappé, was effectively driven out of the country as a result (see his memoir Out of the Frame).

The story here brings up questions beyond that of Israel and Zionism on their own. In 1987 an early controversy led Lerman to comment in his diary on ‘the inability of the self-styled establishment to allow the free expression of views on issues of Jewish importance … threatening employees of Jewish organisations with the loss of their jobs because they express their views on political matters in print’ (p.81). Lerman himself, well before he actually abandoned Zionism, was accused subsequently of ‘combining Jewish self-hate and loony Leftism’ by a serious figure of the general establishment, Sir Alfred Sherman (p.90). This kind of language is of course an attempt to silence debate through demonization, a tactic which has become steadily more prevalent. Lerman was subject to more, and worse, of this sort of abuse in the more recent crisis which drove him out of his job.

This episode is indeed a case of the suppression of free speech in Britain. Supporters of Israel sometimes claim that Israel is held to a higher standard than other states in a particular form of anti-Semitism, but while this complaint is unconvincing, it is true that too often the Palestine/Israel issue is treated in isolation. Here it would be too easy to do the same with what has been happening to political debate in the Jewish community in Britain. Lerman’s story may in fact be an example of a more general danger that dissent can be shouted down and silenced in many other parts of life in this country. At least there is much to show in Lerman’s account that independent voices in the Jewish community will not be suppressed, and the book itself is a mark of such determination.

Just as the coarsening of political debate is a general phenomenon, the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli state are not happening in isolation. Israel exists within an imperial context, and its ability to treat the Palestinians as it does is due to effective permission from the United States in particular. While Israel starves Gaza, its imperial sponsor engages in chillingly extra-legal drone warfare, capping off the succession of illegal invasions, institutionalised torture, rendition, and the apparently permanent threat constituted by Guantanamo Bay. The actions of imperial centre and imperial dependency reinforce and legitimise each other.

Britain does not stand apart from any of this, and the basic norms of human rights and law are tarnished and endangered by this country’s association with these crimes. It is important in itself that someone like Lerman took the stance he did, standing up to right-wing intimidation, and attempting to open up discussions about Jewish diaspora communities’ relationships with Israel. Yet, his memoir has significance beyond this assuredly important task. Without open debate, free from the fear of retribution on whatever level, democracy withers. If free speech fails in one part of society, the democracy of the whole society is in danger also. Ultimately it has taken a persistent mass movement against war, and against the imperial abrogation of basic human norms, to act as a protector for democracy, such as it is, in Britain since the ‘global war on terror’ began. The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist is a welcome contribution to that effort.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).