Antony Lerman

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841) said “[a] foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  (from “Self-Reliance” in “Essays, First Series”). Tony Lerman would presumably agree since he has, during his long career, lurched from one extreme to the other in his stance on Zionism and antisemitism, moreover seemingly without pausing for thought at any points on the way.

In his youth, Lerman was a member and a youth leader in Habonim, the Labour-Zionist youth movement. In 1981, when he was a researcher at the then Institute of Jewish Affairs (later the Institute of Jewish Policy Research or IJPR) he wrote the following:

“abusive references to ‘Zionism’ … go far beyond direct reference to Israel. An ideology of national self-determination, applicable in one tiny part of the world, has become a universally applied epithet, a fundamental evil responsible for most of the world’s problems…. The ways in which Zionism is referred to are so far-fetched and have such little bearing on the real world that what is needed is a correct meaning and use of the word…. The distortion of Zionism is deliberate and calculated and not just a product of sloppy thinking.”

Yet by 1999 – according to Ha’aretz – Lerman (then Director of the IJPR) played a major role in persuading Prime Minister Tony Blair to abandon his initiative to legislate a law against Holocaust denial. In the same Ha’aretz article, it goes on to state that in 2003, the IJPR sparked a public debate following publication of the book A New Anti-Semitism?, an anthology of articles about the hypothesis that a ‘new’ type of antisemitism – the attribution to the Jewish state of stereotypes that were in the past attributed to Jews as individuals –had spread among the “liberal elites” in Britain. According to Ha’aretz, Lerman, who wrote one of the articles, dismissed this phenomenon out of hand, and claimed that there was nothing new in antisemitism.

And here is Lerman in 2009 blaming Israel for antisemitism in the rest of the world “by provoking outrage, which is then used to target Jews, Israel bears responsibility for that anti-Jewish hostility.”

Such statements have made him into a self-imposed pariah. Lerman’s appointment in early 2006 as Director (for the second time) of the IJPR precipitated the resignation of four IJPR directors and of one of its honorary patrons, the Conservative peer Lord Kalms.  This was because Lerman had questioned the viability of Israel as a Jewish State and had advocated the one secular state.   After a controversial tenure lasting less than three years, Lerman “left” his position in late 2008, leaving him in the wilderness.

Now Lerman purveys a toxic mixture of bitterness and utter confusion about Israel and antisemitism. In the interests of vilifying Israel and the Jewish community mainstream, he has no compunction whatsoever in moving ever closer to its eccentric outer edge, thereby making common cause with the likes of Deborah Fink and Gerald Kaufman.

While in transition from mainstream to maverick, Lerman became a keen supporter of the declaration by Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). He is now an IJV signatory. According to Melanie Phillips, IJV is a front for advancing the anti-Zionist agenda. For more on IJV click here and here.

Lerman’s propensity to ignite dissension around the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, as well as his blame of Israel for antisemitism, would seem to feed into his own preoccupation – to the point of obsession – that British Jews who do not support Israel as a Jewish state are being gagged.

It seems that Lerman unrealistically wants the penny and the bun – to be open in his vitriolic and destructive criticism of Israel but not to be censured or even challenged for doing so.

In an interview on BBC in 2006, Lerman attacked Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, for his use of the term ‘tsunami’ to describe the rising tide of antisemitism in the Muslim world.  Lerman also attacked the Board of Deputies, (the ‘Jewish Parliament’ elected by the synagogues and other communal organizations which are its members) for lodging a complaint against then London Mayor Ken Livingstone for telling a Jewish reporter that he could have been a guard in a concentration camp.

Lerman attacks the widely accepted EUMC (now Fundamental Rights Agency) Working Definition of Antisemitism (accepted by the US State Department and the UK Parliamentary Committee on Antisemitism). He says, the working definition “puts out of bounds the perfectly legitimate discussion of whether increased anti-Semitism is a result of Israel’s actions.”  It does not. And to blame antisemitism – the world’s oldest hatred which has been around at least two thousand years – on a state which has been around for only sixty one years, and which might have saved millions of Jews from the gas chambers had it been founded ten years earlier, is surely the product of a deeply confused mind.

In the same article Lerman, underlines his confusion by the somewhat bizarre suggestion that “advocacy of a one-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict” is not “prima facie anti-Zionist”. In a thorough debunking of Lerman’s article, Ben Cohen at Z-Word at remarks:

“None of this has anything to do with reconstituting a serious discussion of what antisemitism means, or how to combat it effectively. Lerman is doing exactly what he accuses his adversaries of doing: arriving at the table armed with ideologically-charged principles, which range from protecting the reputations of Jewish anti-Zionists to a research agenda focused on whether Israel’s actions are a cause of antisemitism. He’d like everyone to think that he’s the expert and that the rest of us are useful idiots in thrall to the State of Israel. I’d like to think that most people are too intelligent to be suckered by that.”

On ‘Comment is Free’ however, Lerman continued to belabour this “British Jews as useful idiots” theme, when he opined that European Jewry sees itself as “an embattled outpost of Israel” and argued for greater assimilation.  Among the benefits of this, he argued, would be an increased ability for Jews to be able to distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Zionism!

He continues in this vein, again at ‘Comment is Free’ , where we see him holding UK Jews responsible for Israeli governmental policy.  The subtext here is that if Diaspora Jews withdraw their support then Israel will have to compromise with neighbours who want to eradicate her.  Nowhere, however, does Lerman remind us of the compromises Israel has made so far, for little or nothing in return, and of the promise of eradication of Israel and the Jews which forms the central platform of the Hamas Charter.

Lerman’s anti-Zionist credentials are further evidenced by his tendentious argument that a one state solution is already a fact when he states that he hopes for the “eventual evolution of a federal version” of one single bi-national state “as a way of guaranteeing the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians in the long term.”

Petra Marquardt-Bigman tears that argument to shreds where she places Lerman in what she calls the “facts don’t matter” camp, as regards the threat towards Israel’s security and concludes with the following observation:

“But those like Lerman who argue that a ‘one-state solution’ would somehow be the best ‘way of guaranteeing the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians in the long term’ betray that they believe the Palestinians are entitled to veto the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel: in their view, the cause of ‘human rights’ ultimately requires that the Jewish state – even in its pre-1967 borders – ceases to exist so that a bi-national state can emerge (emphasis added). If Lerman wasn’t so busy defending anti-Zionism and writing about how dangerous and counterproductive it is to exaggerate the threat of anti-Semitism, he might have the time to explain why it is not anti-Semitic when the Jews are denied a right that others are encouraged to take for granted.”

Lerman’s metamorphosis from ardent Zionist to antisemitism minimiser, and his persistent criticism of Israel for ‘causing’ antisemitism, opens the door for such hatred to become an acceptable part of social discourse and is therefore very probably responsible for exacerbating it.

Below is a comment made by Antony Lerman “in his own words”:

“I know that the siege, bombardment and invasion of Gaza were not like the German obliteration of the Warsaw ghetto – a comparison that critics of Israel are spreading through the internet I believe. And our need for calm and compassionate examination of the reality of the conflict would be greatly enhanced if we could retire such comparisons. But if we pause to think of the suffering of a dying Jewish child in the ghetto and a dying Palestinian child in Gaza, who would dare to suggest that their suffering is any different. Yet, as Professor Baron seems to imply, we fall all too easily into the trap of thinking that there is something unique about Jewish suffering. There isn’t.” Must Jews always see themselves as victims? The Independent March 7, 2009

Below is a selection of comments made by Antony Lerman on ‘Comment is Free’ “in his own words”:

Avigdor Lieberman is no aberration in Israel’s polity. His aggressive rightwing Zionist rhetoric, racist demonisation of Palestinians and Arab-Israelis, shameless political populism and the tide of corruption allegations now close to engulfing him are all depressingly and dangerously familiar features of a broken system. The immigrant from Moldova has brilliantly exploited and contributed to the fracturing of politics in the state – but anyone who thinks his removal from the governmental scene will signal some sea change is sadly mistaken. The trends Lieberman represents and epitomises are deeply ingrained. Netanyahu is midwife and child of them, too.

The legal system may now clip Lieberman’s wings, but the forces that produced him, and which he so successfully harnessed, are in dire need of far more radical treatment?” Legitimising Lieberman, August 4, 2009

“Using Nazi analogies to criticise Israel and Zionism is offensive, but should it be banned, criminalised or branded as antisemitic? Comment is free itself has a policy on this, according to which moderators generally rule Nazi comparisons out of order for being provocative, abusive and doing nothing to promote better understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict; a distinction is made, however, when actual historical connections between Zionists (or Arab nationalists) and the Nazis are a legitimate topic under discussion” Should we ban ‘Nazi analogies’? July 24, 2009

“[Sharansky] is the man being placed in charge of what many regard as ‘a corrupt, bureaucratic dinosaur,’ but one with such financial clout that it can have a very significant impact when it throws its weight around. While it’s true that pressure over the last 20 years has produced some significant change in Jafi, there are two fundamental reasons why it should cease to exist. First, while every state is entitled to control immigration policy, to do this through an organisation operating on the basis of an exclusivist Zionism and bolstered by the law of return, which allows only Jews and their immediate family members to become citizens by right, is unacceptable in the 21st century. The fact is that Jafi is anyway no longer any good at the task of encouraging Jewish immigration. It’s been eclipsed by private organisations that do this far more efficiently, though immigration remains at very low levels and is well below the numbers leaving the country.

Earlier this year Sharansky said that if appointed head of Jafi, he would close down 90% of the organisation. But this was when it still rankled that he lost out the last time the appointment was made. Now in post, it seems unlikely that he will relinquish control over so much cash when he can use it to promote his extreme Zionism. Jews worldwide will suffer by being even more tightly yoked to notions of Jewish victimhood and “the world is against us”. Israel will suffer because a Sharansky-led Jafi will provide cover for Netanyahu’s policies. American Jewish leaders could have pulled the plug on both Sharansky and Jafi. That they didn’t shows just how complicit the diaspora Jewish leadership is in condoning Israel’s mistaken policies and in aggravating the tensions that Jews elsewhere experience.” A disaster for Jews and Israel July 15, 2009

“I hope my judgment on this is wrong and that my pessimism is misplaced. Whatever happens, it is a sad reflection on the Jewish condition that Netanyahu can refer in his speech to the values that Jews have given the world and for the apparent modern embodiment of that to be the figure of the extremist Avigdor Lieberman rubbing shoulders with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg. But this isn’t what truly defines Jewish culture, history and religion. We need reminding that there is far more to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish future than a set of political arrangements or how you define your state. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, from the conservative Masorti denomination, does that movingly and indirectly puts Lieberman in his place in the most recent issue of the Jewish Quarterly. “Certain anti-Zionist comments are racist, but certain actions of the state of Israel are definitely racist,” Rabbi Wittenberg writes. ‘I’ve heard from people and I’ve seen with my own eyes that they’re not accidental but part of a clear policy of wanting to remove non-Jewish inhabitants from certain key areas. I worry this is part of a process of long-term defeat for Israel. In the end, and this is a rabbinic matter, ultimately Judaism is much greater than Israel.’” Netanyahu’s gift for Lieberman June 17, 2009

“Virtually anything can be said about Israel-Palestine, as Cif contributions and responses show only too clearly. Yet none of the words on any of the blogs hosted by any of the newspapers make a blind bit of difference to progress towards a just solution to the conflict. The power that derives from the barrel of a gun or the bombs of an F16 appears to be what does make a difference, although not to achieving peace. But at some point, if the conflict is ever unlocked on the basis of universal standards of justice, words will have played a central role. I don’t mean in the form of an agreement that fudges fundamental differences, but as a tipping point, in the form of a truth, previously unsayable, that is finally told.” Diaspora Jews find their voice May 20, 2009

“There are already many words on record denouncing Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children as antisemitic. We can now add to them the official view of the Community Security Trust, the UK Jewish community’s defence body, as presented by two of its most senior employees, one of whom, Mark Gardner, the CST’s communications director, is the public face of the organisation. And their verdict is damning. Although they grant that “Churchill almost certainly does not intend” the play to be antisemitic, the entire thrust of their article is to argue that it is, in effect, virulently so.

“But not everyone agrees, and I would suggest that the reasons Rich and Gardner give for their views are utterly unconvincing.” Antisemitic alarm bells May 4, 2009

“This is not intended as a plug for the one-state solution based on justice and equality. I have mused on the eventual evolution of a federal version of this as a way of guaranteeing the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians in the long term, but believe that it could only ever happen from a position of two states first and only with the consent of both peoples.

“So, to concentrate minds everywhere on achieving a two-state arrangement means admitting frankly and openly that the illiberal one-state is here, and that debates full of righteous indignation over the secular, democratic one-state idea are, today, just a distraction.” Israel-Palestine is already a de facto one-state April 29, 2009

“Pat Oliphant, the most widely syndicated political cartoonist in the world, has been fiercely attacked by major American Jewish groups for a cartoon published last week which they say is “hideously antisemitic”.

The cartoon shows a headless Nazi-like, goose-stepping, jackbooted figure, with one arm raised and outstretched, holding a sword, and the other wheeling a head in the form of a Star of David – one side of which is a wide-open mouth, equipped with vicious teeth, about to devour a very small, fleeing refugee-like female figure holding a baby. The word “Gaza” is emblazoned on her cloak.

“But what, if anything, makes the Oliphant cartoon antisemitic? It’s certainly very offensive, and the accusation that a parallel can be drawn between the Nazis and Israel’s behaviour in Gaza is very extreme. Whether making Holocaust analogies in the Israel-Palestine conflict helps or hinders understanding the plight of the Palestinians in general, or that of the people of Gaza specifically, is highly debatable. It implies the ultimate in man’s inhumanity to man and as such should be used sparingly to preserve its effect. I would personally argue that using such an analogy in this crude fashion should be avoided. But political cartoons are often very offensive, and offensive – even when it involves comparing Israelis with Nazi – does not automatically mean antisemitic.” Antisemitic, or just offensive? April 2, 2009