The Unmaking of a Zionist (Part 2)

by Antony Lerman, Tom Mills

The author of 'The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist' discusses Jewish Diaspora support for Israel, anti-Semitism and his gradual disenchantment with Zionism.

First published: 27 November, 2012 | Category: Activism, Foreign policy, Racism, Terror/War, The Right

Antony Lerman is a former director of the influential UK Jewish think-tank, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.  He was pressurised into resigning in January 2009 as a result of his criticism of Israeli policies and his support for Palestinian rights.  In his recently published political autobiography, The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist, he details his five-decade journey from an idealistic young socialist Zionist to a prominent critic of Israel.  In the second of a two part interview with NLP, he discusses his gradual disenchantment with Zionism, anti-Semitism and Jewish Diaspora support for Israel.  The first part is available here.

There are many other British Jews who have taken a public stand on Palestinian rights and related issues, but you seem to be unusual in that you are an Israeli citizen, a former Zionist and have spent much of your life working in mainstream Jewish organisations.  What do you think were the key experiences that led you to developing a more critical stance?

I first seriously began to question the Zionist project and Israel’s political trajectory when I was serving in the Israeli army in early 1972, after immigrating to Israel in September 1970. I was an enthusiastic conscript, wanting to perform as well as I could during my three months of basic training to demonstrate my loyalty to the Zionist cause. From early on I resented being treated like someone who had been forced to serve against their will and needed to be treated like a minor criminal in order to obey the officers. But this was essentially naivety about the way all armies knock conscripts into shape. It was towards the end of my 3 months, when we went on a major route march from our base at Gush Etzion in the occupied West Bank to near Hebron, where we were to undertake two days of field manoeuvres to show that we could do as we had been taught as far as using weaponry and making mock attacks were concerned. 

The day before the march, our Commanding Officer addressed all 300 or so conscripts, emphasising with a supreme kind of arrogance the danger to our lives presented by the Arabs we would encounter on the way and using language about them that was demonising and degrading. We had to have our rifles and Uzis ready to use at all times. Having never before heard Arabs talked about in these terms, I found the experience very disturbing and shocking. Although I had been taught to see the ‘Arabs’ as enemies during my years in the youth movement, this was the first time I had heard them described using such openly racist language. This simply did not correspond to my understanding of Zionism. 

But as I stress in my book, this was not a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – I never experienced such a sudden falling of scales form my eyes – but one in a series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection that led me to ask ever more searching questions about Zionism and Israel’s path. 

Out of many such moments, in addition to the one just described, I’d pick out a few that stand out. 

First, when – between 1975 and 1980 – I was trying to write a book about the socialist-Zionist youth movement to which I belonged, I read a lot of the ideological essays and pamphlets about socialist-Zionism circulating in the movement from the early 1930s up to and including the outbreak of the Second World War. Palestine’s Arab population was virtually invisible in the tracts. When Arabs were mentioned, it was in patronising, colonialist terms, mixed with socialist rhetoric: socialist-Zionism would ‘drain the Arab social swamp’ and be a ‘civilizing force’. 

Second, a much-praised book by Professor Shlomo Avineri, The Making of Modern Zionism, written after the Zionist revisionists came to power under Menachem Begin in 1978, tried to prove that Zionism was a humanistic project to which the revisionist Zionism of Jabotinsky, Begin’s mentor, was alien. The implication of this was that revisionism would therefore fail to hold on to power and the forces of Labour would soon return to government. By this time, 1983, my understanding of Zionism was sufficiently well developed to lead me to conclude that this was an entirely false argument, constructed to place revisionism beyond the pale, when it was clearly as much a part of Zionism as socialist Zionism, or any other form of Zionism. Yes, you could argue that some forms of Zionism were humanistically-inclined, but that could be said for all nationalisms. To make humanism the essence of Zionism was simply incorrect, although I could see how I had myself implicitly absorbed this idea during my youth and early adult years as a Zionist. It was probably from this time that I began to see more fully the fundamental flaws in the Zionist project. 

Third, from the mid-1980s, but especially during the 1990s, I came to see how damaging to diaspora Jews was the Zionist and Israeli use of antisemitism as a political tool to defend indefensible Israeli actions and as a crude recruiting tool for persuading Jews to immigrate to Israel. The ‘they will always hate us no matter what we do’ attitude that underlay these approaches seemed to me to negate the Zionist idea, which was specifically intended to eradicate antisemitism. If this wasn’t happening and antisemitism was getting worse, Zionism must be failing in one of its fundamental aims. 

Finally, although by 2003 I was no longer a Zionist and had developed what I felt was an increasingly comprehensive critique of Zionism and Israel’s trajectory, it was an encounter with three Palestinian-Israelis – educationalists, academics, human rights activists – who spoke of their own deeply troubling experiences of the Israeli state and the structurally disadvantaged position of Palestinian-Israelis in Israel that had a very profound effect on me. By then I knew in a kind of abstract way about how Palestinian-Israelis who had decided that they had to accept the Israeli state and try to work for their rights within it had essentially been rebuffed and treated as second class citizens. But to hear the story told with such clarity, passion – as well as controlled anger – brought home to me the human tragedy of the Palestinians and the primary importance of securing their human and civil rights that I had, I suppose, until then only really appreciated in an impersonal way. 

In your research work you’ve focused a great deal on European Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe. Do you think anti-Semitism still represents a threat to European (including British) Jews?

Yes, I think antisemitism still represents a threat to European Jews, just as any observable level of racism in any society represents a threat to the minority or minorities which are the objects of that racism. The real question is how serious is the threat? And additionally, where does it come from? What can be done about it? 

In my judgement – and I have been arguing this for more than 10 years – the threat is nowhere near as serious as most Jewish representative bodies, Jewish monitoring organisations and so-called anti-Semitism experts outside of Europe, specifically in Israel and America, make it out to be. I do think it has become more serious during this period, however, but I put this down to the way Israeli policies towards the Palestinians have provided an excuse for some people to take out their frustrations and anger by attacking Jews – on line, verbally, physically – and also to the general rise in levels of racism in the UK and Europe as a result of the financial and economic crises and the growing antagonism towards immigrants, foreigners and ‘strangers’ generally. 

The exaggeration of the threat is largely due to the way criticism of Israel, from mild opposition to the policies of the Israeli government to proposals for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, has increasingly been construed in and of itself as antisemitic. While some anti-Israel discourse is antisemitic, this blanket equation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism is unjustified. The effect of this kind of argumentation, which has gained ground over the last fifteen years and has found acceptance in bodies like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the US State Department, has been to undermine and devalue the term ‘antisemitism’, to destroy the commonly held consensus view of what antisemitism was and to make it more difficult than ever to assess antisemitism and determine what threat it represents. 

How important do you think the attitudes of British Jews and the official support of British Jewish organisations are to Israel?  Would a significant political shift here have a broader impact do you think?

One of the things I have argued consistently over the last twenty years is that British Jewish organisational support for Israel and support for the state more widely as measured in surveys of Jewish opinion remain of great importance to Israel – or to put it another way, they are important to the way successive governments see Israel’s place in the world. 

The support of diaspora Jews for Israel was important from the very beginning, but as Israel became more established, its population and economy grew and it developed other means of support – especially the strong backing of the US – outside Jewish support became less significant. The charitable funds Jews raised and donated to causes in Israel grew but contributed a smaller and smaller proportion of Israel’s overall national income as the years went by. 

A key turning point in this relationship was the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, tried to introduce a new policy making it clear that diaspora Jewish support for Israel was no longer so important; that funds raised for Israel should be redirected to Jewish educational, cultural and religious projects in the countries where Jews lived; and that Israel did not need to manage its foreign relations, particularly with the US, through local Jewish or pro-Zionist bodies. 

But this attempt to bring a greater sense of normality and balance to the relationship between diaspora Jews and Israel, and to free Israel to pursue its peace plans with the Palestinians without interference by rejectionist forces in the Jewish world, was short-lived. With the assassination of Rabin and the deterioration of Israel’s international position, after a period of a few years when it dramatically improved because there was widespread world acceptance that the Israel-Palestine conflict was coming to an end, Israeli governments came to the conclusion that they still needed Jewish support to bolster their position internationally. Successive governments since the mid to late 1990s have made increasingly opportunistic use of Jewish support for the state, using the rhetoric of ‘we Jews are all in this together’, or ‘these actions we are taking’ – such as waging war in Lebanon and Gaza – ‘are on behalf of Jews everywhere’. Although this has not gone down well with all Jewish communities and their leaderships, it has mostly worked as it plays on the fears even of Jews who have doubts about Israel’s path that to distance oneself from such an embrace will hand ammunition to Israel’s enemies. 

But the other side of the coin is that Israel has come to rely increasingly on Jewish diaspora support to justify its actions, such that any diminution in that support is viewed with deep concern among Israeli officials. So, were a significant political shift to occur here, I’m sure it would have a broader impact. The ‘loss’ of British Jewry – which is perhaps too strong a way of putting it, even if there was a major transformation – would not in and of itself be a game-changer, but it would certainly have a serious effect on the Israeli government, although it would do its best to shrug it off. More importantly, it might send a very strong signal to Jewish critics of Israel in other communities and to potential dissenting voices that have hitherto remained quiet, that they could take a similar stance. 

Regrettably, although some of us continue to work to achieve this breakthrough, it doesn’t look like coming any time soon. You only have to read the letter of solidarity with Israel issued by more than fifty leaders of Jewish organisations in the UK a day or two after the beginning of the latest Israel offensive against Gaza to understand how far there is still to go in galvanizing and uniting dissenting Jewish voices. 

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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