The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey
by Antony Lerman
Pluto Press, 2012
In this disturbing but fascinating new book, Antony Lerman reveals the extraordinary lengths to which powerful figures in a Jewish community go to prevent the expression of views contrary to their assumptions about Zionism, anti-Semitism, and the role of diaspora Jews in relation to Israel. Lerman, who for more than forty years has been at the leading edge of facilitating intellectual life in the British Jewish community, has chosen this moment to reveal with candor and great honesty his own professional and personal journey as he progressed from being the national secretary of Habonim, the Socialist-Zionist youth movement in Britain, to becoming the head of the most important think tank in the Anglo-Jewish community. Much of the tale is of demeaning, intolerant, and sometimes downright sordid politicking aimed at Lerman and others like him who had the temerity to question core assumptions of the contemporary Jewish establishment. It is a story that can easily be told concerning those in the United States who violate what are held to be the indisputable tenets of Jewish belief as these relate to Zionism and the Israeli state.
Lerman’s book tells the story of how his ideas about the meaning of Jewish identity gradually evolved. It begins with his life in the Zionist youth movement, where he came to believe that the fulfillment of Jewish life can take place only with one’s aliyah, or emigration to Israel. Within Israel, membership in a kibbutz represented the highest calling of those who believe in the need to transform the bourgeois life of middle-class diasporic Jews. Lerman’s struggles to square his Zionist ideals with the hard reality of a society in which his Zionist ideology no longer seemed meaningful began during this period, as he grappled with the realities of Israeli life, military service, and the day-to-day experience of work in the small kibbutz community. The widespread anti-Arab discrimination and prejudice he encountered there seemed to mock the dreams of a socially just and pluralistic democracy.
From these beginnings Lerman traces an intellectual odyssey in which, over a period of several decades, he has reached conclusions that have placed him at odds with conventional Jewish opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. He came to believe, for example, that much of the anti-Semitism that can be found in Europe today must be seen as a product, at least in part, of Israel’s own policies and actions toward the Palestinians over whom it now rules. Lerman argues that instead of being the protector of Jewish interests, the state is now the leading catalyst for fomenting anger toward Jews in Europe. Lerman is in no sense justifying this anti-Semitism or denying that anti-Zionism can also indeed be a mask for anti-Semitism. He demands only that we see how Israel’s policies of military occupation, confiscation of land, denial of Palestinian human rights, etc. have fueled, however misguidedly, anger at Jews. He has taken issue with the belief held by many British Jews that the media and especially the BBC are biased in their depictions of Israel, suggesting that the bias is often in the eye of the beholder. Lerman contends that such a stance conveniently allows the Jewish community to avoid a critical position in regard to Israeli military behavior, the growing colonization of Palestinian land, and the harsh nature of the Occupation. Moreover, he asserts that there is no unqualified solidarity between the Israeli state and Jewish diasporic communities; that like all states, Israel has its own interests that are not necessarily identical with those of Jewish communities in other places.
Most contentiously, Lerman came to reject his own Zionism, believing that democracy and human rights are simply incompatible with a state that privileges an ethnic majority culturally, politically, and economically at the expense of the 20 percent of its Arab citizens. He argues that peace in that land requires, in the immediate sense, the end of the current military occupation of Palestinian land on the West Bank. And in the longer term, he argues, peace will require a change much more fundamental than the present Zionist ideology of the Jewish state allows—a change that guarantees the full recognition of both Palestinian and Jewish national rights.
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