Antony Lerman has spent his whole working life at the heart of the Jewish community. While he is now well known for his radical views on Israel, it was not always thus. This book traces his personal involvement with Zionism over the course of 50 years, exploring his transformation from a teenager immersed in the 1960s Zionist youth movement to a leading Jewish critic of Israel.
Despite his parents being rather apolitical, as a teenager in London’s Golders Green, Lerman was attracted to the socialist Zionist movement Habonim. Prizing the kibbutz, with its communal ownership and dedication to agriculture, as the purest expression of Zionism, Habonim was a community of its own and Lerman was very involved, travelling eventually to Israel to train as a youth leader. In 1970, at the age of 24, he returned to Israel, this time moving there and becoming an Israeli citizen. Despite his ideological zeal, he remained there for only two years, finding it difficult to adjust to life on the kibbutz. In particular, his experience of serving in the Israeli army unsettled him as it exposed a side of the country which he had not expected. Lerman has gone to great pains not to justify any of his past actions or to tint his recollections with hindsight. While this is occasionally frustrating, it makes the account of his Zionist activism particularly interesting as it offers evidence of a different time. In the 1960s and 1970s, the myth that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land” was accepted widely. The young Lerman had no idea about the Nakba (“catastrophe”), or the Palestinian exodus. Instead, he believed that the Arabs do not believe in the Jewish right to self-determination, but have no genuine grievance. Nothing in the wider culture caused him to question his assumptions.
Returning from Israel, Lerman completed his university education and began what would turn into decades of work in Jewish think-tanks and research organisations. Taking him to the centre of Jewish political and intellectual life, this work included the foundation of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in the 1990s. Avowedly not an autobiography, the book traces the evolution of Lerman’s opinions over this time. It is written sparsely – the whole book is just over 200 pages – and in blank, unassuming prose. While at times, particularly in busy periods of his career, this risks reading like a CV, overall the simplicity makes it easy to follow the thread of some dense intellectual grappling. Much of the book consists of summaries of what Lerman thought at different points, with extracts from speeches, articles or book proposals, and summaries of debates he had with colleagues and friends. These (mostly) brief summaries give an interesting cross-section of the high-level intellectual debate taking place about Zionism and Israel, although there are points at which more personal detail would have been illuminating.
There is no “eureka” moment at which Lerman casts off his previous beliefs. Rather, there is a slow shift in his thinking and areas of interest. There are certain points at which one wonders how he reached these new views: we suddenly discover, for example, that he has become an advocate of a one-state solution. While he offers thorough and reasoned justifications for this stance, it is such an unusual view for someone in his position – a former Zionist and stalwart of the Jewish community – that it is difficult to imagine there was not a level of soul-searching or internal conflict before he reached these conclusions. That aside, the transformations are tracked honestly and realistically. It starts with anti-Semitism: Lerman takes issue with the idea of the “new anti-Semitism”, arguing from the 1990s, when this began to be discussed, that claims of a resurgence of anti-Semitism were being exaggerated. Gradually, as Lerman seeks out more information about the treatment of Palestinians, this view develops into a strong belief that Israeli policy is seriously harming Jews in Europe and actually fostering anti-Semitism.
Although he doesn’t address directly the issue of “wilful blindness” in sections of the Jewish community about the plight of the Palestinians, it is shown implicitly by the fact that he has to seek out such information, despite being highly educated and having worked in the field for years. This wilful blindness is surely in evidence on the other side of the conflict too, and this book is effective in explaining the views and deeply held beliefs of a wide range of the Jewish community, both those who support Israel whole-heartedly and those who are more critical. As Lerman’s thinking evolves over 50 years, the state of Israel evolves too. At the beginning of the book, it is a new state and it is unclear which direction it will take. Regardless of its violent beginnings, it held (and still holds) huge symbolism and hope for many British Jews. By the end of the book – the modern day – the state has entrenched racial segregation and human rights abuses. These truths are now harder to ignore.
Lerman’s exploration of contemporary Jewish identity is fascinating. He believes that this identity should be grounded in values of multiculturalism, pluralism and human rights, rather than the ethno-religious identity propagated by Israel. His argument is that the best way to serve Judaism is to allow free and open debate about the direction in which Israel is going, and even about the centrality of Israel to Jewish identity. Yet his attempts to foster discussion of these alternate identities have been met with hostility and back-biting. The book details several attempts to create such dialogues with other like-minded Jews, some of which are successful and productive discussions. Some are less so, with Lerman left feeling frustrated that he is preaching to the converted rather than reaching out to other diaspora Jews who may feel the same way.
When he takes up the directorship of the JPR for the second time, Lerman is subject to a campaign of character assassination and backstabbing which eventually proves insurmountable. Much of this is centred on his increasingly outspoken views on anti-Semitism, and his support for a one-state solution to the conflict. The latter is grounded in his belief in multiculturalism and universal values, but is anathema to many in the Jewish establishment. Lerman concludes that his vilification is largely because of his insider status: it is harder to marginalise someone as an outsider who holds insane views when they are heading a major Jewish policy organisation. One of the few places where some emotion comes through is when he describes the personal pain he feels at being demonised. Many of the attacks labelled him an anti-Semite or a self-hater, a claim levelled frequently at dissenting Jews, but a plainly ludicrous one in this instance, given that Lerman has spent his entire working life in Jewish organisations, with many years dedicated to the renewal of Jewish life in Europe. It is a conflation, once again, of Judaism and Israel: just the kind of conflation that those opposed to anti-Semitism should be fighting, not propagating.
To describe Lerman’s views as “anti-Israel” would be reductionist. His critics posit that he hates Israel and wants it destroyed. Certainly, he is heavily critical and his advocacy of a one-state solution is radical, but he does not question Israel’s right to exist (and still holds his Israeli passport), instead arguing that it does not need to be central to Jewish identity and that its human rights abuses should be put right. The afterword is the only section where Lerman allows himself to analyse or look back with hindsight and, as a result, it is far more strongly worded and polemic than the rest of the book; a glimpse of the Lerman familiar from his Guardian columns. In recent years, a hard line right-wing Zionist perspective has dominated, resulting in the marginalisation of other Jewish viewpoints as disloyal. But Judaism has an exceptionally rich intellectual history and tradition of scholarly debate. It would be a tragedy indeed if that were lost. Lerman’s story, told without bitterness, is testament to a man who has tried, with principle and conviction, to open up that conversation and keep the proud tradition of debate and pluralism alive.