The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist – A Personal and Political Journey

Antony Lerman – Pluto Press (2012)

Antony Lerman, author

Antony Lerman, author

In so far as my personal and political journey has brought me to believe that justice for both peoples is attainable without unbearable sacrifices, it has only been possible because I have not disowned my past but taken responsibility for who I was.

On that note, Antony Lerman concludes his truly remarkable tale and I’m left thinking … “The world needs many more Antony Lermans!”

Several of my Jewish-American colleagues (planners and lawyers) who have decided to cut ties with me over the Israel-Palestine question might find some helpful insights in Lerman’s book. Or maybe not.

In the beginning, we tried to politely discuss our different views about “Israel”, “Hamas” and the “Occupation.” As I recall, those were the hot-button issues which sparked our most passionate exchanges. [Contrary to some of my activist-friends, I try not to adopt a beligerent, holier-than-thou, righteous attitude with people with whom I don’t see eye-to-eye. I sincerely want to hear and engage with other points of view.] 

Each of them are politically liberal, well-educated, successful professionals . . . and thoughtful. We share many political and professional goals, but I’m not Jewish. They are. So we have gone in different directions, but I haven’t forgotten them.

“PEP” — a snarky acronym which might offend them, but I think it applies.  Progressive Except Palestine.

I’m still perplexed how thoughtful, intelligent people can flatly reject facts (admittedly, facts with which they disagree) without any sense of curiosity. In their view, Israel’s Hasbara must be left unchallenged. Any criticism of Israel is a slap in the face of Jews everywhere. Any words in support of the Palestinians resisting 60+ years of Israeli Occupation is tantamount to blasphemy.

Tony Lerman’s book — The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist — helped me understand why it’s so difficult for Zionists to absorb facts which disprove their lifelong beliefs about the founding of the State of Israel, about the Palestinian narrative, and about the current events in the Middle East. Lerman’s personal transformation took decades and much soul-searching, a testament to his intellectual curiosity and integrity. Book Cover

His online bio clearly establishes his Jewish and Zionist ‘creds.’

His book recounts his personal journey over 50 years, beginning with his childhood in an Orthodox Jewish family in England in the 1960s, to life on a Kibbutz in Israel for a few years in the 1970s, to his professional journey among the higher echelon of Jewish philanthropic and research organizations. The author kept a diary throughout those years which proved invaluable for recalling the dates, places and names of people along the journey. I found the details a bit dry and skipped large chunks in favor of the later chapters where he described his personal angst and unease in coming to terms with the truth of Zionism today, something much different from the socialist Zionism of his idealistic youth.

Kibbutz-members-at-Kibbut-006The author’s reckoning with Zionism and the State of Israel did not occur quickly — there was no “a-ha moment” — and it didn’t follow a straight path.

As I learnt more about how Zionism achieved its ends and the history of the path Israel followed, it became clear that we were certainly not told anything like the whole truth about Zionist settlement in Palestine, the response of the indigenous Palestinian-Arab population, the actions of the Zionist leadership to create a Jewish state, the treatment of the Palestinians during the 1948 war and the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.

He struggled with his internal unease, and finally was blacklisted and shunned by his fellow Jews who thought him a threat to their carefully-constructed reality of Zionism. Lerner explains:

Settler Zionism is a form of xenophobic and exclusionary nationalism inspired by religious messianism. It claims that God promised Jews exclusive rights to the Land of Israel and that the Palestinians who have lived there for centuries have nothing more than squatters’ rights.

Lerner’s questioning began because he felt that the Zionist ‘revolution’ was failing to live up to its ideals. After many years, he concluded, as many others have, that Israeli politics have morphed into proto-fascism.

Looking back, those who raised the alarm bell about incipient fascism now seem remarkably prescient. It’s now routine for the political right and right-wing civil society groups to talk in terms of the nation, in effect, as an organic body. Even the most sober voices now describe the slew of anti-democratic, racist, anti-human rights legislation proposed and enacted, the absence of any serious political opposition to these developments in the Knesset, the institutionalisation of discriminatory policies on the local level, the continued treatment of Palestinian Israelies as second-class citizens and the nationalist-religious culture war against liberal secularism as akin to facism. Had heed been taken of the warnings of Meir Pail, Tony Judt, Gideon Levy, myself and others, we could have been looking at a much brighter future for Jews and Palestinians today.

I think the Jewish Diaspora (Jews living outside of Israel) is the audience Lerner is speaking to. My former colleagues who have found my conversations about Israel-Palestine so discomforting (distasteful?) might be more receptive to hearing many of the same points I raised coming from another Jew. It’s that old —- “we can criticize Israel but we’ll circle the wagons when an ‘outsider’ does.”

The message Antony Lerman will share with them:

There will never be peace and reconciliation unless and until Jews living in Israel and elsewhere understand and accept the legitimacy of the narrative and the aspirations of the Palestinians. … First, Jews and Palestinians need to acknowledge that there is a set of universal human rights values which they hold in common and to which they must adhere, that supersede history and memory and offer an ethical and fair guide to achieving justice and human rights for all. Second, in that context, the sum of a people’s suffering, the harsh facts of history, the injustices experienced and meted out, the inescapable but unassailable ancestral claims and the role of the imperatives of competing religious beliefs, all have to be brought into the open and taken into account. Third, for peace and justice to prevail, if we must have nationalism, there needs to be a commitment on both sides to detoxify and transform it into civic patriotism, not crank it up in pursuit of a mythical homogeneity.

I hope my Jewish friends and family who have thought my words too coarse will pick up Lerman’s book. The author’s journey is one which every Jew must follow if there’s going to be a future for the people living in the Holy Land.

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