Zionism review: How Zionist McCarthyism devours its own
Tony Greenstein reviews: Antony Lerman -'The making and unmaking of a Zionist: a personal and political journey', Pluto Press, 2012, pp240, £20
Tony Lerman was, for over 25 years, at the heart of the British Jewish establishment. Lerman is a former director of Anglo-Jewry’s foremost research body, the Institute of Jewish Affairs (IJA), and subsequently the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (IJPR), as well as a former columnist on The Jewish Chronicle and editor of the Jewish Quarterly. His experiences should be compulsory reading for Jewish students, in particular, who want to understand the structure and power relationships of their own community.
I can identify with Lerman’s experiences on a number of levels. Like him I was brought up as a Zionist, albeit in the religious orthodox rather than the socialist Zionist tradition. Like him I have experienced the McCarthyite attitude of those small-minded leaders of the Jewish community who brook no dissent with the prevailing Zionist norms. Jewish academics are expected to toe the line and to produce research that conforms to the accepted and hegemonic narrative, prime amongst which is the idea that the Israeli state must on no account be criticised beyond the odd disagreement over a particular policy. In particular the founding ideology of Israel, Zionism, is sacrosanct and those of Jewish extraction who venture across these red lines and ask awkward questions should accept that they will be branded as traitors and ‘self-haters’. Although it died a death in Germany, the ‘stab in the back’ legend is alive and well amongst the Board of Deputies of British Jews and its sycophants.
The Board of Deputies, first set up in 1760 in order to pay tribute to George III, has always been a loyal poodle to the British establishment. Today it combines this with unswerving devotion to Israel. Based on the affiliations of synagogues, many of which are just rotten boroughs, it excludes virtually all secular Jews. Nonetheless it is a paragon of virtue compared to the wholly undemocratic Jewish Leadership Council - chaired by one Mick Davies, who controls the mining company, Xtrata, the only qualification for which is the depths of one’s pocket.
Lerman, a member of the socialist Zionist youth group, Habonim, took his politics seriously, spending two years in Israel working on kibbutzim. He also became an Israeli citizen. These are both the most interesting aspects of the book and also the most frustrating. When I was young, much of the left saw Israel as a socialist paradise in which the kibbutzim heralded a new future. Property was owned in common, private possessions were frowned upon, income and child-rearing shared.
Yet, as Lerman points out, those running the kibbutzim were seen, both by themselves and others, as the elite of Israeli society. In the army they dominated the officer corps, having created the left-Zionist Palmach shock troops, dominated primarily by the ‘Marxist’, Hashomer Hatzair, and the militaristic left Ahdut Ha’avodah party. They were, in the words of another ‘self-hater’, Gerald Kaufman MP, the Israeli equivalent of Eton. After 1967 leaders of Ahdut Ha’avodah, such as Yitzhak Tabenkin, became the advocates of the Greater Israel Movement and settlement in the occupied territories. The kibbutzim were indeed unique, but they were unique forms of collective colonisation. The separation of children from their parents had more to do with ancient Sparta than emancipatory communism. Children were the property of a military state and ties of love and affection were frowned upon.
Through manual labour the ‘Jewish nation’ - which Zionism, in common with the anti-Semites, saw as a degenerate and deformed people - would be renewed through a mystical attachment to its land. As Jacob Klatzkin, editor of the official Zionist newspaper Die Welt (1909-11) explained, Jews outside Palestine were “a people disfigured in both body and soul … At the very worst it can maintain us in a state of national impurity and breed some sort of outlandish creature … some sort of oddity among the peoples going by the name of Jew.1 Palestine, according to Pinchas Rosen, Israel’s first minister of justice, was an “Institute for the Fumigation of Jewish Vermin”.2
It does not take much imagination to see the parallels between Zionism, a ‘volkish’ Jewish political movement, and anti-Semitism - which is why the Zionist charge that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism is so ludicrous. The kibbutzim were at the forefront of the creation of the new Jew. It is no accident that one of their main proponents was Arthur Ruppin, justly known as the father of land settlement in the Yishuv (pre-state Israel). Ruppin was a devoted believer in the racial sciences and a fierce protagonist of the idea that Palestine should not accept just any Jew for immigration.
In 1933 Ruppin made a pilgrimage to see his hero, Hans Gunther, who had been installed as professor of racial anthropology at Jenna University, at the insistence of Wilhelm Frick, the first National Socialist state minister and later Nazi minister of the interior, who was hanged at Nuremberg in 1946. Gunther, who was Himmler’s ideological mentor, welcomed Zionism as “a positive development, praising it for recognising the genuine racial consciousness (Volkstum) of the Jews”.3
Lerman, however, by his own admission found his stay on the kibbutzim less than fulfilling. Without challenging its ideology he found “nothing intrinsically valuable” in manual labour (p23), but put this down to a personal failing. In fact the fetishising of manual labour for its own sake was a by-product of the divorce between the kibbutzim and socialism. There is nothing intrinsically progressive in manual labour. The capitalist abolition of drudgery in the house and home is a progressive development. It is no accident that when the kibbutzim diversified into manufacturing, they became collective capitalists, employing cheap Arab and oriental Jewish labour.
If I have a criticism of Lerman’s account of his stay on the Yifat and Amiad kibbutzim, it is his passing reference to the nearby ruins of Jubb Yosef, an Arab village, though later he attempts to establish whether it was built over a razed Arab village. Elsewhere he refers to Mahmood, the Arab caretaker, as “a local Arab who lived on the plantation in a hut with his wife and children” (p21). It does not seem to have occurred to Lerman to ask why Mahmood was not a fully-fledged member of the kibbutz. Of course, the answer was that he was not Jewish, and the kibbutz was a wholly Jewish affair. Zionist socialism excluded the indigenous population, whilst dismissing their hostility as nothing more than the product of manipulation by feudal effendis. Socialist Zionism saw its role as bringing modernisation to the backward Arabs.
Lerman was typical of a whole generation of young Zionists who accepted socialist Zionism at face value without ever questioning the purpose and political context of collective forms of organisation. Lerman was unaware of how the ‘socialist’ Zionist leaders, David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, had worked hand-in-glove with the British military rulers of Palestine to expel and imprison the Jewish communists who did take joint work with the Arab working class seriously.
Nor was he aware of the fierce battles in the 1920s between the Zionist ‘trade union’, Histadrut, and the gdud avodah (work brigades) based in the northern kibbutzim - some of whom moved to an anti-Zionist position and collaboration with the Arabs - who were literally starved into submission.4 From its very inception socialist Zionism belonged to the right wing of the labour movement internationally - not merely an adaptation to, but in Palestine the engine behind, colonisation.
Much of Lerman’s book is taken up with the trials and tribulations of a free-thinker confronting a Jewish and Zionist establishment with its own pre-determined conclusions about racism, anti-Semitism and Jewish history.
Lerman was expected to be an establishment Zionist academic, a David Cesarani or Martin Gilbert. The role of the Zionist academic, especially in the Jewish diaspora, is to prove that which is already known! It is a form of reverse academic engineering. Lerman was too naive to realise, when applying for a research post with the IJA, that the very term ‘anti-Semitism’ had a different meaning for Zionism. His first mistake was to become editor of an ailing magazine, the Jewish Quarterly, a cultural/political journal which had staggered on from one crisis to another for 30 years and which, on the death of its editor, Jacob Sontag, was facing imminent demise.
But Lerman’s major mistake was the second editorial he wrote for the Jewish Quarterly in early 1985, coupled with his commissioning of an article, with which he disagreed, from David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialists Group. The JSG had been anathema to the Jewish establishment from the moment it had set up stall. The Board of Deputies and the various misleaders of the Jewish community did not take kindly to Jewish radicalism, especially when it came dressed in the clothes of the Bund, an anti-Zionist Jewish party that was influential in pre-war Jewish Poland. Lerman’s editorial managed to press all the right (or wrong!) buttons. It questioned not only the misuse of anti-Semitism as a weapon against Zionism’s adversaries, but also the role of the Jewish diaspora vs Israel (the ‘Jewish’ state).
In the eyes of Zionism there is no role for a Jewish diaspora other than as a support mechanism for Israel, cheerleading from the side. It was axiomatic that Jews outside Israel do not question or criticise those on the front line of the war against the Arabs. In the words of Lord Tennyson, theirs is not to reason why! In suggesting that Jews outside Israel might have interests that are not synonymous with that country and, even worse, to suggest that it was the actions of Israel, which claims to speak on behalf of all Jews, that was creating the very ‘anti-Semitism’ that it deprecated. This created a tsunami of hatred and abuse, made even worse when Lerman started suggesting that maybe the life of Palestinians inside Israel was not everything it was cracked up to be.
Despite or maybe because of his work for the IJA, the IJPR and for the Rothschild Foundation’s Yad Hadaniv, in which he consciously sought to strengthen the internal life and institutions of European Jewry, he brought down on his head the wrath of people like Lord Stanley Kalms of Dixons plc, former treasurer of the Conservative Party, and the Thatcherite ghoul, Sir Alfred Sherman. Kalms simply walked out of the IJPR, taking with him a number of other trustees and making the life of Lerman’s remaining supporters even more difficult.
Tony Lerman was an innocent abroad who felt it was his duty to point out that the emperor had no clothes. He did not realise that his job was to maintain the pretence that all was normal. He clung to the naive belief that what mattered was logic, persuasion and argument. So, although in his editorial in Jewish Quarterly he disagreed, rightly in my opinion, with David Rosenberg’s argument that anti-Semitism was on the increase, this was irrelevant. What was important was that he had taken discussion of anti-Semitism outside the accepted parameters. After all, what his Zionist critics termed ‘anti-Semitism’ was a different creature anyway.
In his battles with the petty-minded petty bourgeois of the Board of Deputies, Lerman attracted the support of the cream of the British Jewish intelligentsia - people like professor George Steiner and Rabbi Julia Neuberger. But it was to no avail, because the Zionist leadership of the Jewish community in Britain does not do debate. Anti-Semitism had already been redefined as hostility to Israel - ‘the Jew amongst the nations’ - and weaponised accordingly. When the battles against Oswald Moseley were at their height, the board ran for cover and when anti-fascists mobilised against the National Front in the 1970s, it and its Zionist echo chambers were more concerned about anti-Zionism.
‘Anti-Semitism’ became transmuted into the ‘new anti-Semitism’: anti-Zionism. Traditional anti-Semitism was only useful in so far as it was connected with opposition to Israel. Islam became the real enemy. Incidents in which Arabs or Muslims took Zionist claims to represent Jews at face value and engaged in anti-Semitic acts are magnified out of all proportion. At the same time there is virtually no comment about the fact that the English Defence League marches with Israeli flags or Andres Breivik massacres scores of young socialists in Norway, whilst proclaiming his undying love for Israel. Neo-Nazis and far-right politicians, such as Euro-MPs Michal Kami?ski (Poland) and Robert Ziles (Latvia), are also ardently pro-Zionist and pay homage at Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust propaganda museum. Ziles even manages to march each year with the veterans of the Latvian Waffen SS!
Israeli organisations sought to gain a monopoly on the collection of statistics of anti-Semitism for one purpose only - to show how dangerous Europe was for Jews amongst the Muslim hordes and how much better off they would be in Israel. The British end of this operation is the Community Security Trust, a group set up by the Board of Deputies, allegedly to monitor anti-Semitism in Britain, but it also collates intelligence on leftwing Jews. This year it supplied false information to the home office in its failed bid to deport Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel. Unsurprisingly the CST “played a role both in vilifying me personally for my views and undermining the work JPR was doing” (p187).
So when Lerman says things like “Zionism failed to eliminate anti-Semitism and now Israel provoked it”, he was putting his head in a noose (p132). When he was appointed in January 2006 to the post of director of JPR it was greeted by a headline over an article by one of The Jewish Chronicle’s hack columnists, Geoffrey Alderman, which read: “JPR loses mind in choice of new head”.5 Round-robin emails, secret meetings, conclaves and other examples of skulduggery resulted in Lerman’s position becoming personally and politically untenable. Yes, he became paranoid - but with good reason.
The book is replete with various symposia and conferences that Lerman participated in. However, while polite academic debate in Israel and elsewhere was one thing, the Zionist propaganda machine required compliant and tame academics like Robert Wistrich, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, who could use their credentials to further a Zionist agenda.
Lerman himself had begun to draw the conclusion that Zionism was outmoded and outdated, a vehicle for the interests of the Israeli state via institutions such as the Jewish Agency. In one paper, presented in January 2007 to a conference at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, he outlined four particular aspects of what was termed “Jewish peoplehood”: the particular vs universal; diversity of identity and opinion; the threat to an Israel-centric definition of peoplehood; and Jews as the subject, not object, of history. He could have asked what the material basis of the existence of Jewish people outside Israel was.
All of these are important questions in their own right. For example, Jews as the subject directly challenges the Zionist notion of eternal anti-Semitism (itself a reflection of the Nazi idea of the ‘eternal Jew’), according to which anti-Semitism is one unchanging constant over some 2,000 years. Jews were held to be passive victims rather than players in history. As Lerman summed it up, “What is peoplehood anyway? Just another con-trick on the part of the Jewish Agency and Zionist bodies” (p160). To those like Stanley Kalms, the enemy was Islam and the purpose of the JPR was to support Blair and Bush, the only people who had stood up to it (p167).
The book cleared up one minor mystery for me. In 2007 an organisation called Independent Jewish Voices was launched, but missing from its list of prominent signatories, including Mike Leigh, Stephen Fry, Susie Orbach and Jacqueline Rose, was Tony Lerman. It transpires that it was almost a condition of his continued employment that he was not seen to associate with IJV, although in practice he attended its committee meetings. IJV was an attempt to create a space for Jewish people to debate issues free from the narrow confines of Zionist orthodoxy. As such it attracted the venom of people like Melanie Phillips, who notoriously described it as “Jews for Genocide”!
Like many dissident Jews, Lerman was accused of ‘self-hatred’ which, he describes as a way of “strengthening a narrow, ethnocentric view of the Jewish people” (p178). In fact it is worse. It is a racist calumny which assumes that to be Jewish you have to be a chauvinist. It is the same charge that the Nazis levelled against anti-fascist Germans.
On January 22 2008 Lerman decided that he had had enough and handed in his resignation. Almost immediately the fake leftist David Hirsh from Engage, a campaign that fought a losing battle against the academic boycott in the University and College Union (and which is now known to have been financed by the Board of Deputies) had applied to be Lerman’s replacement!
As Lerman recognises, having worked at the heart of the Jewish establishment for more than 25 years, “to hold views usually associated with the marginalised, dissenting groups was an unprecedented danger, a traitorous act that simply could not be tolerated” (p197).
Tony Lerman is not an anti-Zionist. As far as I can discern he has not formulated a critique of Zionism as a movement - which was, from the start, bound to end up as a rightwing, chauvinist movement. I suspect that even today he holds that it had progressive origins rather than seeing that Zionism, formed in the crucible of anti-Semitism, was a counterrevolutionary movement which accepted the argument of the anti-Semites that Jews did not belong in non-Jewish society. That it was a movement forever condemned by its alliance with imperialism and its nationalism, a settler movement that had no progressive content, but which owed its nationalism to the volkish currents of central Europe.
Tony Lerman is no Ahad Ha’am, the cultural Zionist who after visiting Palestine warned:
“We who live abroad are accustomed to believe that almost all Eretz Yisrael is now uninhabited desert ... But this is not true ... We who live abroad are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake. The Arab, like all the Semites, is sharp-minded and shrewd ... But, if the time comes that our people’s life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily …”6
A glaring omission is Lerman’s failure to say what might be the basis of a secular Jewish identity that is freed from Zionism’s poisonous racism. In times gone by Jews played particular social, economic and political roles and their religion and identity reflected that. The Bund, for example, was formed as a result of a distinctive Jewish proletariat. The Jews of medieval times played the role of money-lenders and traders, which in turn helped define and mould the oral tradition of Judaism. What distinctive role today would Jews play if and when Zionism is discarded? I suspect that minus Israel most Jews would assimilate, as in fact they are already doing, leaving the remnants of Jewish orthodoxy.
It is a subject that Lerman barely mentions, but which is elephant in the room. Zionism itself is proving a massive turn-off for young Jews in particular and is insufficient to provide the basis for a separate Jewish identity. Lerman also makes very little connection between his own ideas and of those Jews who are now active in support of the Palestinians.
Tony Lerman’s book is, though, a valuable depiction of how Zionist McCarthyism devours its own if they stray from the path. What happened to Norman Finkelstein at De Paul University, the attacks on Ilan Pappe, exiled from the University of Haifa, the attacks on academic freedom on American campuses, where groups such as Campus Watch (any group with ‘watch’ in its name is almost certainly an organisation set up to curb the freedom it watches) has also happened to Tony Lerman.
Perhaps the most pathetic gesture of all was the decision of Stephen Pollard, editor of the declining Jewish Chronicle and ex-editor of the Daily Express, to commission a ‘review’ by a Daniel Hochhauser,7 which instead of criticising the message attacks the messenger - Lerman is a “career bureaucrat”. Hochhauser neatly sums up the argument of the Zionist McCarthyite. Thus he finds it surprising that Lerman used various conferences to put his own views across and yet he resented “being held accountable” for them.
It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the ignorance of this hired gun. The whole point of academic tenure is to ensure that people can express their views without being subject to dismissal or detriment. Working for Jewish policy and research institutes, Lerman was in a particularly exposed position. Hochhauser sees nothing wrong in waging vendettas against those whose views he disagrees with - to the point where their jobs and careers are threatened.
In many ways Antony Lerman should consider it to his credit that The Jewish Chronicle, a paper bereft of any reputation, dare not take up the challenge that Lerman’s book has thrown down.
1. A Hertzberg The Zionist idea Philadelphia 1997, pp322-23.
2. J Doron, ‘Classic Zionism and modern anti-Semitism: parallels and influences (1883-1914)’ Studies in Zionism autumn 1983.
3. A Morris-Reich. ‘Arthur Ruppin’s concept of race’ Israel Studies Vol 11, No3, fall 2006, pp8-9; and E Bloom Arthur Ruppin and the production of the Modern Hebrew culture (PhD thesis) Tel Aviv 2008.
4. See Z Sternhell The founding myths of Zionism Princeton 1998.
5. The Jewish Chronicle January 13 2006.
6. Quoted in T Kushner Wrestling with Zion New York 2003, pp14-15.