The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey
by Antony Lerman
Pluto Press 2012
Following the death of Jacob Sonntag, founder and sole editor (1953- 1984) of the Jewish Quarterly, Tony Lerman was appointed in his stead. His tenure lasted for three issues. Following his resignation — the dispiriting background to which is convincingly evoked in his account of his intellectual, emotional and political journey from mazkir (national secretary) of British Habonim to his current views on a future for Israel/Palestine beyond Zionism — his successor Colin Shindler editorialised about one of “the fundamental issues that have been raised” by the resignation, “namely, the right to the free expression of opinion within the Jewish community…” Not for the last time, Tony Lerman had fallen foul of the power-brokers and machers of Anglo-Jewry.
When this affair burst into the public domain, generating months of pro- and anti- letters in the Jewish Chronicle during the summer of 1985, Lerman was employed as a researcher in London at the Institute of Jewish Affairs, the research arm of the World Jewish Congress, a body whose purpose was to represent the political interests of Jewish communities worldwide. His sin had been to suggest in his first editorial that “a question Jews must urgently seek to answer” was how far any attack on Zionism from the non-Jewish world was “a disguise for old or new antisemitism and how far it arises from a genuine disagreement with and a critique of the present character and policies of the state [of Israel].”
Developing this theme of the politicisation of antisemitism, a later editorial contrasted the way in which “In Israel the debate on these issues goes on daily. Here, the debate is avoided…Rather than admit that Israel’s mistakes fuel anti-Zionism, we prefer to brand critics as antisemites.” One of the questions implicitly raised by Lerman’s heartfelt and sometimes bitter book is whether, nearly thirty years later, the leadership of Anglo-Jewry is any more able to tolerate the public voicing of these questions, or whether we have retreated even further into a self-imposed isolationist bunker.
On that occasion early in his career, Lerman was caught up in a pincer movement consisting of certain members of the Board of Deputies — and Lerman is at pains to name them both here and whenever he senses “a concerted campaign going on behind the scenes” — and the Director of the IJA who believed the views expressed by Lerman in his role as Jewish Quarterly editor were incompatible with his role as an employee of a research body. Such conflicts seem to have become — and the evidence is laid out in great detail in the pages of this memoir-cum-apologia pro vita sua — an unwished-for shadow accompanying Lerman’s professional life.
A self-avowed “political animal”, Lerman became Director of the IJA at the end of the 1980s. Within half a dozen years he had achieved his “secret aim of turning the IJA into a fully-fledged policy think tank”: in 1996 the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) was born. Within three years this intellectually restless gadfly-to-received-opinions had moved on to the Geneva-based charitable foundation Yad Hanadiv in order to focus on the rebuilding of Jewish life in the new Europe. By 2006 he had been reappointed director of JPR — a decision that divided their board of trustees and caused a further furore in the Jewish press: “JPR loses mind in choice of new head.” Lerman had become the favourite bête noire of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, a “self-hating Jew” whose personal views, whether on Israel’s politics or the need to recalibrate the relationship between diasporic Jews and Israel, were seen as too dangerous to be given a public platform through the JPR. Lerman’s account of this unhappy saga unwittingly illustrates the imaginative poverty of some of his critics, who believe it impossible to do a professional piece of work — such as researching the state of contemporary Jewish communities here and abroad, or organising a Jewish think-tank that brings together groups of policy-makers to help them develop their own thinking about contemporary challenges — without the direction of that work being contaminated by personal convictions. From there, one might go on to conjecture about the ways in which the inability to separate personal feelings from professional activities that Lerman’s critics impute to him, might in part be a projection of such critics’ own confusing of these two domains within themselves.
One of the strengths, and fascinations, of Lerman’s book is that it allows us to see the contours of his scholarly and intellectual journey: he is not merely settling accounts for the hurts he has endured, but offering us the opportunity to consider with him the complex dynamics within some of the key issues of Jewish life today, many of which revolve around Israel-Diaspora relationships and perceptions. He introduces us to a cast of academics and scholars — from Israel, the US and Europe — whom he has read, listened to and lectured with, over more than thirty years and who have helped him think deeply about the multiple ways in which “Judaism, Jewishness, Jewish identity and Jewish ethnicity are much more than Zionism.”
His passionate commitment to strong Jewish diasporic life has meant that he has found himself “alerting people to the fact that antisemitism in Europe was being exacerbated by Israeli politics towards the Palestinians” and “arguing that a resolution to the Israel- Palestine conflict will only be achieved if it is based on human rights values.” His is not the voice of a self-hating Jew, or an anti- Zionist — “The person who isn’t a Zionist does not, a priori, wish to destroy Israel or subscribe to anti-Zionism” — but the voice of Jewish concern over the implications of belonging to a millennia-old heritage rooted in a particularism that always pointed beyond itself. A Jewish concern about values.
It was the deep paradox of Biblical consciousness that a tribal collective such as Israel should be a light unto the nations. Particularism is precious, but one must have a vision that goes beyond tribe, ethnicity and nation. For Lerman the paradox of Jewish universalism versus particularism gives rise to “two fundamentally different ways of living in the world”. One is “grounded in guarding Jewish exclusivity, rejecting multiculturalism, stressing the centrality of Israel and acknowledging Zionism as the primary political ideology uniting the Jewish people.” The other means ‘“embracing pluralism, universalism, diversity, multiple identities, and drawing strength from the encounter between Jewish culture and values and the wider world.” Lerman’s book shows the journey he has made — painful, haphazard at times, intellectually courageous, filled with dissent from conventional pieties — away from the first towards a full embrace of the latter. That he has old scores — and sores — to settle along the way is understandable. Full disclosure: our paths have crossed a few times in recent years, for we have both been involved in that coven of self-hating Jews, the Independent Jewish Voices group (IJV) — though Tony, as might be expected, was a founder member in 2007 while I was a mere humble hod carrier. Once again pressure was exerted on him over a perceived conflict of interest between his wish to express dissenting-from-consensus views in public and his professional role as executive director of an independent Jewish policy body. He left the JPR as 2008 drew to a close.
At the end of his last editorial, Jacob Sonntag wrote: “As to the question of what we could or should do in relation to Israel, there is only one answer: we should support, in every way possible, those in Israel who are working towards genuine peace and real progress. We must not shy away from criticising policies we consider wrong and ill-conceived…” Or as the Ha’aretz essayist Gideon Levy rhetorically states, as quoted by Lerman in this splendid, disturbing, and provocative narrative, “Who is the sincere friend of Israel? The loving critic or the unthinking patriot?”