Britain's Leading Lapsed Zionist Speaks Out

Antony Lerman, former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, sits down with Haaretz to discuss the British Jewish community, why he renews his Israeli passport and his new book 'The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist.'

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON -- Antony Lerman says he is “not bitter.” Three and a half years ago he resigned as director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) amid a firestorm of accusations that his views on Israel were “dangerous” and “obscene,” and a feeling that the British Jewish establishment could not include figures who raise serious challenges to the community’s consensus. Today he insists that while “there is an image of me as someone who is on the periphery of the community, on the outside, it is not the true representation of who I am.”

He has had time to digest the events that effectively ended his career as a British Jewish professional and has just brought out a new book: “The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist” (Pluto Press), which will be formally launched in October at the London Jewish Cultural Center and featured early next year at the London Jewish Book Week Festival.

Does this mean that British Jews are prepared to come to terms with Lerman’s often harsh indictments?

“The Jewish leadership has solidified its support of Israel,” Lerman acknowledges in an interview. “But there are examples of people showing readiness to be more independent and critical of what Israel is doing. The polls show that an increasing percentage is ready to say that we should speak out if we disagree with what Israel is doing, even though most of them are still Zionists. I think we are now in a more fluid situation than we were five years ago.”

Though there may be a greater openness in the British community today, many will still have trouble internalizing Lerman’s arguments – for example, his contention that even an “inactive yet self-identifying Zionist living in Manchester” is also “complicit in propping up an unjust occupation” and the “widespread Jewish denial” of what Lerman sees as the injustices committed by Israel. Lerman believes that Israel’s only morally justified future is to abolish the Law of Return, relinquish its Jewish status and become a binational state for Jews and Palestinians.

To Jews in the Diaspora he offers a stark choice between two courses. One is “embracing pluralism, universalism, diversity, multiple identities, and drawing strength from the encounter between Jewish culture and values and the wider world.” The other, which is the only alternative, is a life “grounded in guarding Jewish exclusivity, rejecting multiculturalism, stressing the centrality of Israel and acknowledging Zionism as the primary political ideology uniting the Jewish people.”

From childhood Lerman, 66, has been involved in the Jewish community. He grew up in Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement and at age 18 spent a year training as a madrikh (youth leader) in the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization's Jerusalem-based Institute for Foreign Youth Leaders. At 22 he had become British Habonim’s mazkir, or national leader. He immigrated to Israel in 1970 but returned to London three years later and spent three decades, starting in 1979, working in Jewish organizations, mainly as a researcher in the Institute of Jewish Affairs (which would evolve under his directorship into the Institute for Jewish Policy Research). In seven years as chief executive of the Rothschild family’s Hanadiv Charitable Foundation, he oversaw funding of projects aimed at revitalizing European Jewish life.

Many prominent British Jewish leaders are critical of Israel’s current policies and identify with non-Zionist Jewish groups mainly concerned with articulating those positions. What makes Lerman unique is that he did so while actively filling a senior post in a mainstream communal organization. His membership in the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights (JFJHR), where he is a founder, and Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), overshadowed his second term as director of JPR and led to calls in the Jewish media for his resignation. "In addition, some central Jewish organizations and figures - including the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and Ron Prosor, at the time the Israeli ambassador to Britain - refused to cooperate with the institute while he was director."

You accuse the Jewish establishment in Britain of stifling debate on Israel and give the impression that you were hounded out of your job yet you were appointed to a second term, in full knowledge of your political positions on Israel and ultimately left of your own accord.

“I wasn’t forced out but I felt that the job had become impossible for me to do properly. As happens in public life when you personally become the story and you’re trying to do things and represent an organization, you get in the way. I felt that I no longer had the opportunity to have the impact I wanted and I felt that what was being said about me was damaging for JPR.”

Even those in the community who sympathized with your views felt that you had somehow broken an unwritten pact, that as leader of a communal organization you should not express radical views or sign certain petitions.

“The only code you have to abide by is doing what you personally feel is best for the Jewish community. I did censor myself and try to keep to a certain way of speaking about things. I had set out views about the possibility of a one-state solution but I wasn’t going to force those views on anyone. My specific aims were to raise debate about questions of Israel’s impact on European Jewry, the degree that anti-Semitism is being increased by actions that Israel takes and to think again about Zionism and what it means. There were occasions where I felt so strongly that I had to sign a letter and that is where I had problems with my board. But I never intended to make JPR a vehicle for my views."

So why do you think you became such a target for many in the community?

“The fact that I was at the heart of the Jewish community and I had developed these views made me a threat. It was easy for the establishment to demonize other Jewish people who are not part of the community, but to have someone on the inside saying these things was threatening for them.”

Your book is mainly about the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel but there is an underlying question of what the Jewish Diaspora stands for. You promote a secular, cosmopolitan and liberal European-Jewish identity but the experience of the past 50 years would seem to indicate that only religion and Zionism are effective rallying causes.

“If Judaism is worth anything, it’s a lot more than that. Judaism is about values and behavior and mitzvot, not territory and governments. You can’t have a strong Jewish life without that. I don’t want to cut off anyone’s connection with Israel, but Jewish life in the Diaspora has a meaning for its own sake. There are Jewish centers all around the world, not just one center in Israel or America. Birthright [the program offering young Jews free first trips to Israel] thinks the only way we can appeal to young Jews is by sending them to Israel. I’m not against sending people to Israel, my own Jewish connection developed thanks to going and living there, but we need ways of encouraging Jewish identity outside Israel. Israel and religion are part of the mix, but there are other things such as concern for welfare of the elderly and disadvantaged. These are important Jewish values, as is the huge area of Jewish culture and education.

You write that Israelis were often the only Jews who fully agreed with your criticism of Israel. Isn’t that ironic when set against your assessment of Israeli democracy?

“In a sense you're right. There is hardly any democracy in the British Jewish community and even a lot of left-wing Jews feel uncomfortable because they are critical of Israel but are worried about what they can say in public because of ‘what our enemies will say.’ And there are certainly strong elements of democracy in Israel, I’ve never said otherwise. You can have an open debate there, though it’s harder in recent years, but people still do speak out and that is one of the things that give me hope. But there are certain features of what has happened in Israel and the nature of what is happening in the West Bank and in Gaza that are fatal to Israel’s democracy.”

The debate within the British community is opening up. Last year UJIA chairman Mick Davis warned in public that Israel risks becoming an Apartheid state; Yachad, a pro-peace movement that is critical of Israeli policies, now exists within the community.

“When I first heard of the idea of a British equivalent of [the American] J-Street, I was very supportive. But I soon became very concerned because it seemed to me that Yachad distanced itself from what people call radical Jews. Veteran peaceniks like me were labelled and kept out of the debate. I felt that I was ostracised by them. They were in effect contributing to the demonization of certain Jews who were seen as holding too radical opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is better to have Yachad than nothing, but there really was a sea-change at the time in Jewish views and the right kind of leadership could have tapped into it. Yachad failed at that.”

You write that despite no longer being a Zionist, 'I could take myself out of Israel, but I couldn’t take Israel out of myself' and that 39 years after coming back to Britain, you still make a point of renewing your Israeli passport.

“I am still happy to be an Israeli citizen just as I am a British citizen but I am a nationalist of neither. There is such a thing as liberal nationalism, but what dominates in Israel is extreme nationalist Zionism. Some people think liberal Zionism is compatible with human rights and liberal values. For me though, Zionism today means only one thing, which is represented by current Israeli governments, and settler ideology. That is the only Zionism that matters in terms of where Israel is going. I am not against Jewish national self-expression – but the way it is done impacts on universal values, is ethnocentric and anti-human rights.”

Are you anti-Zionist?

“No. Sometimes arguments about Zionism can sound like flat-Earthism. Zionism happened, it’s a done deal - and to be anti-Zionist is like saying I’m against the French Revolution. Wanting to dismantle Zionism is totally impractical, even if there was any justification for it. There is an Israeli state and a strong Israeli culture. But Zionism is today being portrayed as an ongoing project to purify the nation, as a settler ideology.”

'My aims were to raise debate about questions of Israel’s impact on European Jewry,' says Lerman.Credit: Courtesy Antony Lerman
Lerman working on the banana groves of Kibbutz Amiad where he was a member.Credit: Courtesy Antony Lerman



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