The Unmaking of a Zionist (Part 1)

by Antony Lerman, Tom Mills

The author of 'The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist' discusses Jewish communal life, Zionism – left and right – and the power of political ideology.

First published: 26 November, 2012 | Category: History, Racism, Religion, Zionism

Antony Lerman is a former director of the influential UK Jewish think-tank, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.   He resigned in 2009, having been vilified by the British Jewish establishment for his criticism of Israeli policies and his support for Palestinian rights.  In his recently published political autobiography, The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist, Lerman details his five-decade journey from an idealistic young socialist Zionist to a prominent critic of Israel.  In the first of a two part in-depth interview with NLP, he discusses Jewish communal life, Zionism – left and right – and the power of political ideology.

Your early encounter with Zionism, both as an idea and a reality, centred around the kibbutzim.  Could you explain a little about the kibbutz movement and how it related to the broader Zionist movement?

After the establishment of the political Zionist movement by Theodor Herzl in 1897, attention was increasingly focused on building up the infrastructure of Jewish settlement in what Zionism saw as the Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Jewish settlers who came to Palestine to join or establish rural communities before then were not well prepared for the physical conditions, often had very little knowledge of agriculture and became heavily reliant on charity provided by wealthy Jewish philanthropists in Europe who were broadly in favour of Zionism as manifested in the Jewish return to the land.  This began to change as more ideologically determined settlers, influenced by Zionist thinkers who saw the collective development of rural communities by Jews transforming themselves from weak bourgeois into manual labourers as the purest form of socialist or labour Zionism, began to arrive.  While they too had little agricultural knowledge, their commitment to the Zionist enterprise meant that they were more prepared to stick to their chosen path despite the hardships.  And they did this by organising themselves as collectives where there was complete equality, sharing of all resources, no private property and a willingness to sacrifice any personal ambition to the collective aims of the settlement. 

This was partly pragmatic – organised in this way they had better chances of making a success of their personal act of self-realisation (aliya, literally ‘going up’, meaning emigrating to ‘the Land of Israel’) and of the aim to grow and stabilise the Jewish community in Palestine – and partly the implementation of the ideas of ideologues like A.D. Gordon, Ber Borochov and Berl Katznelson.  From the time of the establishment of the first kibbutz in 1917, to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the numbers of kibbutzim grew, encouraged by the dominant Jewish political forces in Palestine, the Labour Zionists, eventually headed by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.  Not all socialist Zionists were enamoured with the kibbutz movement – which developed a diversity of forms of collective life ranging from a strict, purist, secularist, exclusivist collectivism wedded to the international communist movement, to a more moderate, less politically rigid community unimpressed by Stalinism – but it was seen as strategically of great significance because settlements were placed in certain areas deliberately to establish a Jewish presence and extend the overall area under Jewish control.  As the struggle with the Palestinian Arabs intensified, the kibbutzim increasingly took on a military significance, proving to be invaluable to the Jewish side in the 1948 war and making it easier for the Haganah, the initially underground Jewish military forces, to seize territory that would constitute the state of Israel. 

So by the time the state was established, the kibbutz had come to represent the pinnacle of the Zionist ethos – or at least the Zionist ethos that Zionist leaders wanted to present to the outside world and to Jews worldwide.  The kibbutz was seen to stand for self-reliance, a just and simple way of life and the crucible for creating the ‘new Jew’: proud, physically strong, a rifle in one hand and a hoe in the other, fully at home in the revived Hebrew language, dedicated to the ideals of Zionism and not to material things.  As opposed to the image of the weak, downtrodden, obscurantist, religious diaspora Jew, who went ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’ in the Holocaust. 

In the period that I became a Zionist – the late 1950s and early 1960s – this image of the importance of the kibbutz to Zionism still held sway.  In some ways it was still valid – for example, a very high percentage of the officer corps in the Israel Defence Forces came from the kibbutzim – but in other ways, the tide of politics, a dirigiste economic policy, social unrest over the treatment of Jews from Arab countries, the maintenance of a highly militarised society, the military law that still applied to Israel’s Arab population all meant that the kibbutzim were gradually becoming marginalised.  And they had their internal problems too.  The largest umbrella kibbutz organisation went through a bitter and damaging split after the death of Stalin, with some wanting to remain loyal to the Soviet Union and others recognizing the crimes of Stalinism and no longer able to identify with the organised communist movement.  Economic problems mounted, arguments over whether to hire outside labour – Jewish or Arab – were very divisive and fundamental inequalities between men and women came to the surface and revealed a society much less equal than it claimed to be. 

I – and I think this is true of most of my friends in the Zionist-socialist youth movement in Britain – was not really aware of these changes.  We were socialists, looking for the way that a ‘real’ socialist society could be created, and saw this in the kibbutz.  We even theorised as to how Israel could transform itself into an entire society built on the kibbutz ‘ideal’. 

You became gradually disenchanted with the reality of life on a kibbutz and seem to have been profoundly disillusioned by your experience of military service.  But nevertheless you remained a committed Zionist for many years.  What was it about Zionist ideology do you think that gave it such an enduring appeal?

I think it would be more accurate to say that ‘I remained a less and less committed Zionist for many years’, since my gradual disillusionment with Zionism went along with an increasing unwillingness to identify in any practical way with Zionism, though I continued to call myself a Zionist until that late 1990s. 

I was introduced to Zionism at a very formative time in my life.  I grew up in a very orthodox and observant Jewish family, but by the time I was thirteen, I was kicking against the constraints of orthodoxy, its narrowness, rigidity, apparent irrelevance to my life – and I had already realised that I did not believe in God or in the theory and practice of prayer.  It seemed to me something from a past that needed to be superseded.  But I was very comfortable living in a Jewish cultural – in the widest sense – milieu and never felt any conflict between that and my estrangement from orthodox Judaism.  In a rather inchoate way, I had imbibed a sense of justice from studying Judaism from aged four to thirteen, and also an idea of community and social responsibility.  I stress that this was inchoate.  It would be false of me to make it look as if I was already possessed of some fully worked-out personal philosophy.  But once I was introduced to the Zionist youth movement, a form of Israel-centric scouting, not only was it simply enjoyable – the games, camping, hiking, making new friends, learning in a manner totally different from school education, inspiring youth leaders – and an important means of socialisation for me, I was able to enjoy being Jewish without all the religious stuff.  As I got older, that it was also a social framework that stressed the values of sharing, cooperation and equality made it even more appealing. 

Israel was presented to us as something ideal, the realisation of the longing for return to the homeland that seemed to be embodied in so many of the rituals and festivals of Judaism.  For example, every spring, at the Passover festival when we would read the story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, we would say ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ So it was a matter of seeing Zionism as the practical realisation of the destiny of the Jewish people.  There was no future for Jewish life in the Diaspora, we concluded.  The history of persecution and assimilation was seeing to that.  Zionism provided the complete solution to the problems of Jewish existence. 

This ‘package’ had been so much part of my teenage years, it felt as if it was such an integral part of my identity, that, for a long time, even though my questioning and critique intensified, it was impossible to let the idea go. 

It was also hard to be engaged in Jewish communal life, especially professionally as I was from 1979 on, and distance oneself from the Zionist consensus because the Jewish community was in great part organised around a model that closely reflected the Zionist politics of the Israeli state.  Until the mid-1980s, the British Zionist Federation was probably the most prominent Jewish communal organisation.  The individual organisations affiliated to the Zionist Federation were mirror images of the main Zionist political parties in the Israeli Knesset (parliament).  Even the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the official – in government eyes – representative body of the Jewish community, was roughly organised along the same lines.  If you were religiously observant, you could locate yourself in a far less-Zionistically-oriented Jewishness, since anything to the right of mainstream Jewish orthodoxy was at the very least lukewarm about political Zionism.  The very strictly orthodox were simply not Zionists at all.  Some were even vociferous opponents.  So if you were neither Zionist nor orthodox, there was little organisationally that represented who you were.  This began to change radically from the early 1980s, as the Zionist structures in the UK declined with the coming to power of Menachem Begin and the nationalist right-wing.  

I think it’s also true that one can continue to subscribe to an idea, an ideology, as long as one remains ignorant of facts and analyses that undermine the validity of that ideology.  So I suppose what I’m shifting the emphasis to in my answer is that, whilst my attachment to Zionism continued in part because of an element of ‘enduring appeal’, what was equally important was not being aware of the alternative narratives: both the narrative that revealed the flaws in Zionist ideology and practice and the narrative that told a different story about the possibilities of other forms of Jewish existence – in other words, that Jewish life in the diaspora was in itself valid and authentic and the negation of it that was integral to Zionism was simply wrong, both ideologically and practically. 

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I found it striking how little you thought about Palestinian rights during that period, especially given your left-wing ideals.  How do you make sense of this now, looking back?

The Palestinian story had simply been written out of the Zionist narrative as we absorbed it in the 1950s and 1960s, except in so far as the ‘Arabs’ – the word ‘Palestinian’ was never used to refer to Palestine’s indigenous Arab population – were held responsible for trying to ‘strangle the Jewish state at birth’ and ‘drive the Jews into the sea’ and for telling their own people in Palestine to leave their homes so that the Arab armies could deal with the Jews and then the people could return to their homes.  We were taught to believe that it was the Arabs who were responsible for the refugee problem.  Any notion that the Zionist forces had any hand in expelling Arabs from Palestine was rejected as Arab propaganda.

It’s true, of course, that there were Jews and Israelis who knew something of the truth about the Palestinians – for example, the socialist and anti-Zionist political group Matzpen, formed in the early 1960s by former members of the Israeli Communist Party, was active in London at the end of the 1960s.  We knew of them, but regarded them almost as some kind of traitorous, evil organisation with which we should never come into contact.  Matzpen opposed the occupation, supported the innate right of the Palestinians to resist the occupation and their right to self-determination.  But they were a very small group and did not represent the views of the mainstream left in the period from 1948 to the early 1970s. 

The mainstream left supported Israel and accepted the Zionist project as correct in the context of the horrendous suffering of Jews during the Holocaust and the past history of Jewish persecution.  It was the Jews who were seen initially as the underdogs, and therefore deserved the support of the left.  Moreover, the Israel Labour Party, Mapai, which held power (in coalition) from 1948 to 1978, professed to be building a socialist society – another reason why the left supported Zionism.  I believe that even at this time, many on the left understood that Zionism displayed some distinctly colonial features, but because of the special circumstances of the Jews, Israel was treated as a special case – no doubt also because mainstream socialist parties in Europe accepted the idea that the introduction of socialism in Israel would also benefit the Arab population. 

This does not excuse ignorance about the Palestinians, but it does help to explain why it was possible at that time – in the 1960s and early 1970s – to regard yourself as a socialist and yet not be aware of the truth of the Palestinian position. 

This, of course, changed radically, but not immediately, after the 1967 Six Day War, as Israel came to be seen as the dominant power in the region and the innate colonial elements of the Zionist enterprise came to the fore in the way that Israeli governments handled the occupation of Palestinian land.  In a sense, the left in general gradually returned to a more classical socialist position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, with its support for Zionism in the early period of the state being an exception from the norm. 

It should be remembered also that, as the victors in the 1948 war, the Zionists quickly moved to embed their narrative in the international consciousness of events in the Middle East.  It was a powerful, simple story of David against Goliath and the Zionist movement was very adept and quite ruthless from a propagandistic point of view in making that story stick.  In my book I exemplify this by noting that Leon Uris’s book Exodus, a worldwide bestseller, and the subsequent 1960 film starring Paul Newman, popularised a positive image of Zionism and the story of the founding of the state of Israel for a generation.  In theory, we could have known about the Palestinian narrative, but in practice, given the relatively closed Zionist environment in which we operated, searching for alternatives would not have been easy and would have seemed illogical given our sense of the rightness of the Zionist cause.  

So it seems from what you’ve said that the Zionist ideas that powerfully shaped your sense of Jewish identity, as well as your understanding of Palestinians and their history, were not just appealing ideas, but were embedded in specific organisations and institutions – the kibbutzim, the youth groups, the Zionist Federation and so on.  And you also mentioned that these ‘Zionist structures’ went into decline in the early 1980s.  What then do you see as the equivalent structures or organisations which perform this ideological function for Zionism today and how far do you think the greater availability of information threatens the sort of ideological cogency earlier generations of Zionists were able to achieve?

Very interesting question.  The peculiar thing is that many of those organisations that existed and were so significant in the Jewish world when I was in my teens and early 20s are still around – the Zionist Federation (ZF), for example, as well as the main Zionist youth movements.  There’s even still a reflection of Israeli politics as it was, and as it sort of is, in the existence of Poalei Zion – the Workers of Zion – which was directly linked to the old Israel Labour Party Mapai, and in Meretz UK, which mirrors the small Israeli left/civil rights party.  The ZF aside, most of the individual organisations that would identify themselves as Zionist subscribe to what’s now called ‘liberal Zionism’, which is a far cry from the ideologically charged forms of Zionism that existed in the 1950s and 1960s.  (The youth movement that I belonged to, Habonim (The Builders), still calls itself ‘socialist-Zionist’, but its position on Israel is virtually indistinguishable from liberal Zionism.)  These bodies see themselves as giving generalised support for the state of Israel, but a support shorn of practically all ideological content and fervour.  The ZF, in contrast, which claims to have 120 organisational affiliates (but doesn’t list them on its website), has come to represent a strident and rather aggressive right-wing Zionism, if not fully in tune with the messianic, religious Zionism of the settler movement, then at least providing some cover for it.  In the past, there were intense battles within the ZF between the various political groupings before it could make any political statements, which were inevitably rather bland, but as far as I know, this no longer goes on.  I’m sure that the vast majority of the affiliated organisations are part of the ZF in name only, and if questioned would quietly distance themselves from the ZF’s leadership’s more strident posture. 

So, in effect, Zionism, as a multi-strand political ideology, has been largely hollowed out and there is no significant organisation dedicated to supporting the right-wing, settler Zionism, which is the only Zionism today that has any ideological substance to it. 

That is not to say that there isn’t support for it among Jews in Britain.  But because this Zionism is now inextricably linked to Jewish religious orthodoxy as well as to the strictly or ultra-orthodox Jewish groups, it manifests itself principally as a form of religious obligation, rather than a form of political engagement with a high public profile.  In practice that religious obligation means donating money to orthodox seminaries (yeshivas) and settlement activity in Israel and the West Bank, going to live in Israel and West Bank settlements, setting up businesses in Israel and frequently travelling to and from the country, and providing material support to Israeli political groups and parties that are either religious or that are non-denominational and support the settlement project.  I don’t know what proportion of the Jewish population affiliated to Jewish organisations of all kinds are in this group (a term to be used very loosely in this context), but it may be as large as 20 to 25 per cent, and no smaller than 15 per cent.  In the past the strictly orthodox distanced themselves from Zionism of any kind, but that changed radically in the decades following the Six Day War, such that they are now a very solid section of this right-wing, settler Zionism supporting group. 

If there is anything like a centre of gravity for this kind of Zionism, it probably rests with the rabbis leading congregations of the mainstream orthodox denomination in the UK, the United Synagogue (of which Lord Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi).  My Jewish background was in this denomination, but back in the 1950s and 1960s the rabbis took very little direct interest in Zionism and Israel.  Yes, they expressed support for Israel in their weekly sermons from time to time, but their main focus was on observing the commandments of the religion and berating their congregants if they were falling short of their religious obligations, a verbal dressing-down that most synagogue members took with a pinch of salt.  Most of the rabbis were locally trained and despite being very observant themselves, generally practiced a far more tolerant Judaism than their modern equivalents.  These men are far more likely to have been trained in the US or Israel with a significant proportion having been members of strictly orthodox and even Hasidic sects.  By taking up positions in the synagogues of the United Synagogue organisation, they have driven that once more moderate body to the right, maintained and even tightened up their demands that congregants stick to the letter of Jewish law and introduced into their sermons a much clearer and stronger religious and ideological identification with the fundamental aims of the settler movement. 

Even though very many of the people – lay leaders and professionals – who are central to organisations such as BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), the Jewish Leadership Council, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Community Security Trust (set up to monitor and combat anti-Semitism) would categorically say that they do not support settler Zionism, the collective effect of the advocacy and defence of Israel that they undertake is to legitimize such Zionism, intentionally or not.  And, largely in response to mounting criticism of Israel in the early 2000s and the exasperation of some key Jewish leaders who despaired at the quality of both the community’s and the Israel embassy’s public relations (hasbara) for Israel, these organisations have become far more effective and even sophisticated in fulfilling this role. 

Now one of the reasons for this perhaps rather difficult to grasp situation in which there appears to be no formal organisational centre in the UK for what is the dominant strain of Zionism today, is precisely because there is too much information now available to Jews in this country as to Israel’s lurch to the far-right, its militaristic posture towards the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank, the governing coalition’s support for the settlement project etc., for there to be a ‘cogent’ political and ideological movement or organisation reflecting settler Zionism.  Most Jews when surveyed express deep disquiet about what Israel is doing, so they are hardly likely to sign up to such a movement, and yet they hesitate to express their doubts in public or to join any of the new groups critical of Israeli policy that have sprung up in recent years.  Like Jews in America, Jews in the UK in general are privately far more critical of Israel, the occupation, settler Zionism and so on than Jewish leaders. 

Because the divide among Jews in the UK over Israel and Zionism is so predominantly between religious and secular Jews, the situation is increasingly polarised and the arguments between people on different sides, when they surface, are very bitter.  While Jews with doubts and little appetite for any form of ideologically emphatic Zionism are certainly in the majority, they do not make anywhere near as much noise as those Jews who seek to maintain the status quo and run and identify with the mainstream establishment organisations.  As I have already explained, these organisations and their leaders are by no means all public cheer leaders for settler, messianic religious Zionism, but they help give it legitimacy and space to breathe and gain ground – in part, I should think, because there is something about the elemental, biblically-justified, ‘pure’ nature of the religious case for Zionism – ‘God promised Israel to the Jews.  Period’ – that they see as something they must respect and defend. 

Who will win this battle is very hard to predict.  So much points to the eventual dominance of the more secular, critical side, and yet the right-wing Zionists have proved incredibly adept at modernising their message and popularising the way it is presented.  They are also more committed, dedicated and, for some at least, also fanatical.  I have always been an optimist, but the current situation is deeply depressing. 

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of the New Left Project.

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