Communal courtier of controversy

A former youthful idealist explains his disenchantment with Zionism

By Daniel Hochhauser, November 9, 2012

The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist/ By Antony Lerman/ Pluto Press, £20

Tony Lerman

Tony Lerman

There is an interesting recent literature of reappraisal of Zionism and Israel by such writers as Bernard Avishai, Peter Beinart and Gershon Gorenberg, who are basically sympathetic to Israel and Zionism but examine the crisis exemplified by Israel’s settlement policies and failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

Now we have an account by Antony Lerman, a career bureaucrat in the Institute of Jewish Affairs, Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) and Yad Hanadiv.

Starting from youthful idealism in Habonim, Lerman gradually became disillusioned with Israel and Zionism and is now a non-Zionist supporter of the one-state solution and Palestinian right of return. He aims “to allow the reader to understand what I experienced as it happened”. This is achieved through an account of aspects of his life and career, including statements, writings and diaries.

Unfortunately, there is little originality to be found here. Lerman’s pedestrian prose and turgid accounts of the many symposia, conferences and lectures in which he participated make the book a difficult read.

Letters to the Jewish Chronicle attacking and defending him are included. Those wanting comprehensive accounts of the “Jewish Quarterly affair”, or his two-month stint as a JC columnist, will find them (this is unusual territory for the radical Pluto Press, whose website boasts Chomsky and Pilger).

Lerman’s current beliefs are scathing on Jewish identity (“What is peoplehood anyway? Just another con-trick on the part of the Jewish Agency and Zionist bodies”), and Israel’s problems (“I was already convinced that Israel was largely the agent of its own misfortunes”).

However, the underlying theme of the book is intense bitterness at his treatment by the Jewish community. The book opens with quotations from Spinoza and includes chapters entitled “Character assassination and self-censorship” and “Gunning for Lerman”.

Lerman frankly admits that he used invitations to meetings as “opportunities… to influence the direction of Jewish organisational life”. If so, why should he not be held to account for views differing radically from those of the majority of the Jewish community? The plaintive tone of the book is unjustified.

Incidentally, the book includes text of an email I wrote in 2007 to JPR questioning how Lerman, as the head of a Jewish organisation, could say in a Haaretz interview that he “understood the resentment of the Iranian President”. Lerman asserts that he “had said nothing about Ahmadinejad in the interview”, a serious inaccuracy which can be immediately ascertained on Google.

Lerman certainly does not lack self-confidence. Arguments made by Michael Walzer and Shlomo Avineri are respectively, “lightweight” and “unconvincing” and, had attention been paid to his and others’ warnings, “we could have been looking at a much brighter future for Jews and Palestinians today”. Perhaps on one point I can agree with Tony Lerman: he is not self-hating.

Daniel Hochhauser is Kathleen Ferrier Professor of Medical Oncology at University College London

Last updated: 1:02pm, November 9 2012