The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE -

SLIGHTLY TO his sur­prise, one sus­pects, Bri­tish-born Peter Lerner has be­come the face of Is­rael in this lat­est con­flict, an im­prob­a­ble blue-eyed blond who is the an­tithe­sis of the usual sabra stereo­type.

Grave-faced and solemn when deal­ing with the end­less daily crises of Is­rael’s war in Gaza, and per­son­ally im­mensely charm­ing, Mr Lerner is sur­pris­ing in other ways. As a lieu­tenan­tcolonel, he is the Is­rael De­fence Force’s spokesman to the in­ter­na­tional me­dia and com­man­der of the IDF so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­i­ties, and is cer­tainly among the high­est rank­ing of­fi­cers to fill this role.

We meet in a slightly shabby suite of of­fices near the heart­land of Is­rael’s de­fence quar­ter, the Kirya. The build­ing, only iden­ti­fi­able by its large Is­raeli flag, is like many Is­raeli mil­i­tary in­sti­tu­tions: seedy, scruffy and run down. The block’s shoddy ap­pearence, how­ever, be­lies the ra­zor-sharp grasp of facts and fig­ures of those who work in­side.

The lieu­tenant-colonel’s of­fice, his young staff joke, is very Bri­tish, with

Face of Is­rael: Peter Lerner

a scrupu­lously tidy desk and Mr Lerner him­self wear­ing a uni­form shirt which is so well ironed and starched that it could eas­ily walk out of the door by it­self.

Mr Lerner is in his early 40s and was born in North­wick Park Hos­pi­tal in Lon­don. He and his sis­ter, two years’ younger, at­tended Ken­ton’s Si­nai School. “My fa­ther has just re­tired as a Lon­don taxi driver,” he says. “The fam­ily were reg­u­lar shul-go­ers and I was a mem­ber of B’nei Akiva.”

The Lerner f a mily moved to Is­rael when the future lieu­tenant-colonel was 12. — al­though his par­ents even­tu­ally moved back to Lon­don. It was analiyah­band­ed­be­fore and af­ter by in­ci­dents of an­ti­semitism, he says.

“I have a very, very vivid mem­ory of hate when I was about eight years old. I was rid­ing my bike around the neigh­bour­hood, near where my aunt lived. I used to wear a kip­pah and I was stopped by a girl who sud­denly smacked me on the face so that I fell off my bike on to the ground. She screamed: ‘you are a Jew!’ For me, this was a wake-up call.” He im­me­di­ately en­rolled in karate classes, al­though he ad­mits that as an asthma suf­ferer, “I was never go­ing to be a real fighter”. The other in­ci­dent in­volved his sis­ter, af­ter the fam­ily had moved to Is­rael and were back briefly in Lon­don vis­it­ing the chil­dren’s grand­mother. “We were in a shop some­where and my sis­ter, who was about nine or ten years old, ac­ci­den­tally stepped on a man’s foot. And he shouted, ‘Hitler should have fin

ished you off.’”

Their par­ents, Mr Lerner says, “felt that mov­ing to Is­rael was the right thing to do for us. And it was.”

In the sum­mer of 1985 the Lern­ers went to an ab­sorp­tion cen­tre at Mevasseret Zion. “There were lots of peo­ple there who had difficulties, with He­brew, with Is­rael… I never felt that. I felt right at home im­me­di­ately, and so did my sis­ter.”

De­spite their par­ents’ re­turn to Lon­don, the Lerner sib­lings stayed and thrived. Mr Lerner went to school in Jerusalem and joined the army at 18, first serv­ing in a mil­i­tary po­lice unit, and then mov­ing to be a li­ai­son of­fi­cer between the army and a va­ri­ety of in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the In­ter­na­tional Red Cross, the UN and for­eign em­bassies.

His com­mand of English — re­fined from that of a 12-year-old by his vo­ra­cious ap­petite for read­ing — soon led the army to pay at­ten­tion. He be­came the spokesman for IDF Cen­tral Com­mand and was then sent to study po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Bar-Ilan.

Eigh­teen months ago, Mr Lerner, af­ter be­ing sent to the IDF Staff Col­lege, was put in his cur­rent eye-of-thestorm job, ex­plain­ing the work of the mil­i­tary to the for­eign press and run­ning the army’s con­sid­er­able on­line pres­ence. Long be­fore this cur­rent con­flict there was a re-think, says Mr Lerner, about the IDF role: “It was re­alised that ex­plain­ing Is­rael to the world couldn’t just be the For­eign Min­istry and the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice.” To­day, he says, the IDF spokesman will be in­volved in pre­lim­i­nary dis­cus­sions be­fore mis­sions are car­ried out: not op­er­a­tionally, but so that Mr Lerner’s of­fice is not caught un­aware. “Bad things will hap­pen in a war,” says Mr Lerner, but adds that the IDF will ac­knowl­edge mis­takes “only af­ter a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion”. Only too aware that Is­rael is con­stantly get­ting a bad press, Mr Lerner takes refuge in the fact that “Is­rael is a democ­racy and it is the foun­da­tion of our phi­los­o­phy here. Ha­mas and free­dom of the press is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. The for­eign press in Is­rael, I be­lieve, are ex­tremely pro­fes­sional and re­cep­tive to what we have to say — and Is­rael does not in­tim­i­date jour­nal­ists.”

Was his job mis­sion im­pos­si­ble? “No. Is it hard? Ab­so­lutely. But for me, this is not just a ca­reer, but some­thing which is big­ger than any in­di­vid­ual. And I re­ally think of it as a huge hon­our, to have been this An­glo-Jewish kid from Ken­ton and now speak­ing for Is­rael.”

With a small sigh, Mr Lerner was ready to take the briefest of breaks with his lawyer wife and daugh­ter. He hoped, he said, that the cease­fire would hold.


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