From Kenton to eye of the storm

The IDF’s media spokesman is the son of a London taxi driver

By Jenni Frazer, August 22, 2014
Face of Israel: Peter Lerner

Face of Israel: Peter Lerner

Slightly to his surprise, one suspects, British-born Peter Lerner has become the face of Israel in this latest conflict, an improbable blue-eyed blond who is the antithesis of the usual sabra stereotype.

Grave-faced and solemn when dealing with the endless daily crises of Israel's war in Gaza, and personally immensely charming, Mr Lerner is surprising in other ways. As a lieutenant-colonel, he is the Israel Defence Force's spokesman to the international media and commander of the IDF social media activities, and is certainly among the highest ranking officers to fill this role.

We meet in a slightly shabby suite of offices near the heartland of Israel's defence quarter, the Kirya. The building, only identifiable by its large Israeli flag, is like many Israeli military institutions: seedy, scruffy and run down. The block's shoddy appearence, however, belies the razor-sharp grasp of facts and figures of those who work inside.

The lieutenant-colonel's office, his young staff joke, is very British, with a scrupulously tidy desk and Mr Lerner himself wearing a uniform shirt which is so well ironed and starched that it could easily walk out of the door by itself.

Mr Lerner is in his early 40s and was born in Northwick Park Hospital in London. He and his sister, two years' younger, attended Kenton's Sinai School. "My father has just retired as a London taxi driver," he says. "The family were regular shul-goers and I was a member of B'nei Akiva."

I have a very, very vivid memory of hate from when I was about eight.

The Lerner family moved to Israel when the future lieutenant-colonel was 12. - although his parents eventually moved back to London. It was an aliyah banded before and after by incidents of antisemitism, he says.

"I have a very, very vivid memory of hate when I was about eight years old. I was riding my bike around the neighbourhood, near where my aunt lived. I used to wear a kippah and I was stopped by a girl who suddenly smacked me on the face so that I fell off my bike on to the ground. She screamed: 'you are a Jew!' For me, this was a wake-up call." He immediately enrolled in karate classes, although he admits that as an asthma sufferer, "I was never going to be a real fighter".

The other incident involved his sister, after the family had moved to Israel and were back briefly in London visiting the children's grandmother. "We were in a shop somewhere and my sister, who was about nine or ten years old, accidentally stepped on a man's foot. And he shouted, 'Hitler should have finished you off.'"

Their parents, Mr Lerner says, "felt that moving to Israel was the right thing to do for us. And it was."

In the summer of 1985 the Lerners went to an absorption centre at Mevasseret Zion. "There were lots of people there who had difficulties, with Hebrew, with Israel… I never felt that. I felt right at home immediately, and so did my sister."

Despite their parents' return to London, the Lerner siblings stayed and thrived. Mr Lerner went to school in Jerusalem and joined the army at 18, first serving in a military police unit, and then moving to be a liaison officer between the army and a variety of international organisations such as the International Red Cross, the UN and foreign embassies.

His command of English - refined from that of a 12-year-old by his voracious appetite for reading - soon led the army to pay attention. He became the spokesman for IDF Central Command and was then sent to study political science at Bar-Ilan.

Eighteen months ago, Mr Lerner, after being sent to the IDF Staff College, was put in his current eye-of-the-storm job, explaining the work of the military to the foreign press and running the army's considerable online presence. Long before this current conflict there was a re-think, says Mr Lerner, about the IDF role: "It was realised that explaining Israel to the world couldn't just be the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office." Today, he says, the IDF spokesman will be involved in preliminary discussions before missions are carried out: not operationally, but so that Mr Lerner's office is not caught unaware.

"Bad things will happen in a war," says Mr Lerner, but adds that the IDF will acknowledge mistakes "only after a thorough investigation". Only too aware that Israel is constantly getting a bad press, Mr Lerner takes refuge in the fact that "Israel is a democracy and it is the foundation of our philosophy here. Hamas and freedom of the press is a contradiction in terms. The foreign press in Israel, I believe, are extremely professional and receptive to what we have to say - and Israel does not intimidate journalists."

Was his job mission impossible? "No. Is it hard? Absolutely. But for me, this is not just a career, but something which is bigger than any individual. And I really think of it as a huge honour, to have been this Anglo-Jewish kid from Kenton and now speaking for Israel."

With a small sigh, Mr Lerner was ready to take the briefest of breaks with his lawyer wife and daughter. He hoped, he said, that the ceasefire would hold.

Last updated: 1:45pm, August 22 2014