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Why prominent Israeli journalist Larry Derfner rejected liberal Zionism in October 2008

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Larry Derfner moved to Israel in 1985, in his early 30s, and was a liberal Zionist until the final months of 2008. Then, he changed the opinions of a lifetime. His just-published memoir, No Country for Jewish Liberals, is a devastating critique of the views he once held. His change of heart eventually got him fired in 2011 from his job as a prominent columnist at the Jerusalem Post.

The first part of our review summarized some of his striking arguments. Here, we will look at the more personal side of his intellectual odyssey. Derfner has an engaging, informal style and a modest manner, which, along with his moral courage, make this book a page-turner.

Derfner’s life before Israel does not fit easily into a stereotype. He is from a lower middle-class Los Angeles background, the son of Holocaust survivors. But his father had been a Communist in Europe, and surprised Derfner one day in 1978 by staging a one-man demonstration outside the local Israeli consulate against the invasion of South Lebanon. “He tossed a cardboard placard on the dining room table,” Derfner writes. “I remember it said either ‘Israel = Nazi Germany’ or ‘Begin = Hitler.’”

Derfner went to Israel in 1985 mainly to work as a journalist, planning to stay only a year or two. He explains that the move “had nothing whatsoever to do with Zionism, or my Jewish identity, or, certainly anti-Semitism in America. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d heard anti-Semitic remarks, and I’d never let them pass.”

But once in Israel, he settled in, making a name for himself as a reporter, marrying and raising two sons. He did his first stint in the military at age 38, which made him uneasy at seeing the occupation close up, but he remained a orthodox liberal Zionist, a view reinforced during the first Gulf War when his family had to take refuge from Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks while Palestinians celebrated. He writes, “Today I hold no grudges against the Palestinians for cheering the Scuds that had us quaking in our gas masks. When you treat people like inferior beings, they’re going to want revenge, and we’d been treating the Palestinians like inferior beings for a very long time.”

So what happened in October 2008 to transform Larry Derfner, by then a man in his mid-50s? The triggering event was not in itself dramatic:

. . . Israel refused to allow a delegation of western doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists to cross into Gaza for a mental health conference, and also refused, before relenting under pressure, to allow a protest boat carrying medical supplies to dock at the Gaza strip.

Until then, Derfner had believed the Israeli government’s claim that it was blockading Gaza for security reasons.

But barring the doctors’ delegation and the peace flotilla from entering Gaza was so indefensible, so wanton, that it threw Israel’s whole policy toward the Strip into doubt. . . That was the moment when I began to stop seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967 as one in which both sides shared the guilt, and started seeing it more and more as one of oppressor and oppressed, of Israel being guilty and the Palestinians innocent.”

Derfner’s changing view was strengthened two months later, when Israel attacked Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, killing 1400 people, including 300 children. As a good reporter, he and a photographer visited Umm el-Fahm, the most politically radical Israeli Palestinian town, to gauge reaction there. He explains that most Israeli Jews would regard their visit as “suicidal.” He adds, “Two out of three Israeli Jews won’t even drive into an Israeli Arab town in normal times.”

Instead, Derfner and his colleague were treated respectfully, although the Palestinian Israelis were understandably in great pain over the attack on Gaza.

That day was a clear illustration of something I’ve learned from writing dozens of stories about Israeli Arabs and thousands about Israeli Jews; the former are more than ready to live in peace with the latter, and the latter don’t know it.

Larry Derfner’s views remain not entirely predictable, which adds interest to his personal story. It may be surprising to learn, for instance, that he praises the late prime minister Ariel Sharon for political courage, (for pushing successfully over two years to forcibly remove Jewish settler/colonists from inside Gaza).

He also mentions “one more very important thing that Israel has given me and for which I’m most grateful: a way to remain Jewish and pass it on to my children.” He feels that if he had stayed in America, “Having no feeling at all for religion and hardly any for Israel, my Jewishness would have continued being a sentimental thing that lived off a glorious past but had no future.” (Derfner clearly thinks he can easily remain Jewish after a genuine 2-state solution that also ends anti-Palestinian discrimination within Israel.)

But on balance, Derfner is not optimistic. He is clear; Israel is now a solidly and overwhelmingly right-wing nation:

. . . despite what sentimental liberals like to believe, it’s not the big bad Israeli leaders who drag the peace-loving public to battle; it’s much closer to being the other way around.

He advocates Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions as the only way to force change, a courageous stand that might be violating Israeli law. But if Israel continues down the same path, he is already encouraging his two sons to leave the country.

This is the second part of a two-part review. The first part appeared last week

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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30 Responses

  1. eljay on April 12, 2017, 1:24 pm

    Larry Derfner moved to Israel in 1985, in his early 30s, and was a liberal Zionist until the final months of 2008. …

    According to this February 8, 2016 article by Mr. Derfner in Haaretz, he remains a liberal Zionist:

    … I am a liberal Zionist, I want Israel to remain a Jewish state …

    • Mooser on April 12, 2017, 2:12 pm

      “eljay”, watch out for buses.

      • eljay on April 12, 2017, 2:33 pm

        || Mooser: “eljay”, watch out for buses. ||

        No comprendo, Señor Alce(r). Am I about to get thrown under one?

      • Mooser on April 12, 2017, 3:47 pm

        If my memory serves you well, Derfner wrote an article here, and participated in the comments.
        He wished a bus hit on me, as I remember.

      • eljay on April 12, 2017, 6:12 pm

        Ah, yes, here it is:

        Mooser, you are a goddamn fucking idiot, and you should get run over by a bus.

        Hmmm…that doesn’t sound much like “dialog”. But it was good enough for y.f. to give it a “thumbs up. one like”.

      • wondering jew on April 12, 2017, 10:51 pm

        Mooser acts juvenile and/or obnoxious between 40 to 75% of the time. How to deal with him? Best to ignore him. Two years ago I had not arrived at this conclusion.

      • gamal on April 12, 2017, 11:03 pm

        “Best to ignore him”

        You have disobeyed yourself

      • Mooser on April 12, 2017, 11:19 pm

        “Two years ago I had not arrived at this conclusion.”

        See how time brings wisdom? You know your best bet is just to sit there and take it.

      • Talkback on April 13, 2017, 8:36 am

        Derfner is truly a “liberal Zionist”. A bus is not a tank!

      • Mooser on April 16, 2017, 8:28 pm

        “A bus is not a tank!”

        Well, considering what the Bus Factor is, I’m sort of flattered.

  2. JosephA on April 12, 2017, 7:46 pm

    I grew up in a predominantly Jewish city. More than half of my friends and classmates were Jewish, and most of them went to Israel on birthright trips. Several of them told me upon returning from Israel that “it is all propaganda”. They could see right through the bulls**t. I appreciated their honesty, and it was partly this perspective that made me become more interested in learning about and reading more of the history of Palestine. Having said that, not everybody that went on their birthright trip felt this way and some of them bought the snake oil.

  3. Maghlawatan on April 13, 2017, 3:24 am

    Derfner is a thinker and he didn’t go through the Israeli education system so he didn’t get the full brainwash. I’m surprised it took him until 2008 to lose his religion. Sharon would have done it for me. It is pretty clear that Israel is not going to turn towards the light. There won’t be a happily ever after. But groupthink is so attractive…..

    The % of Jewish Israelis who reject the lunacy is pitifully small. I wonder how Zionism compares to other doomed ideologies.

    • Kaisa of Finland on April 16, 2017, 8:38 pm

      Maghlawatan: “Derfner is a thinker and he didn’t go through the Israeli education system so he didn’t get the full brainwash.”

      What I found so weird in Israel (among the people I lived with), was that continuous talk of Israel being the best country in the world, and disability to admit that the state was far from perfect, even when not only talking about the problems with the Palestinians. Then sometimes, behind closed doors, I would hear someone to say something.. And then next day in the daylight, the “propaganda” was there again..

      I don’t know, if it was because I was “an outsider” or what, but asking too many questions made me face some strange situations and sometimes I was simply politely silenced by the people I knew. It felt like the “outspoken Jewish state of Israel” was a mirage in their heads and criticizing it out loud, would have made the vision to disappear..

      In the end Israel just left me wondering, how can people live in such atmosphere.. Pretending that everything is ok, when they obviously know it is not..

      But that was some years ago, so things might have changed.. And I did not know anyone (in Israel) coming from U.S. So the perspective I got then was ofcourse also different.

      • Maghlawatan on April 17, 2017, 3:25 am

        I find Israelis unable to talk about the Palestinians without lapsing into hasbara. They have separated them geographically out of sight so they don’t come across them but everyone outside knows they are there. The Israeli treatment of the Palestinians overrides all the other achievements. It defines Israel. It is why the army is central to their society. It gets the money. It is why the society becomes ever more extremist.

      • Kaisa of Finland on April 17, 2017, 1:09 pm

        “It is why the society becomes ever more extremist.”

        Yes, and I quess the new generations just grow into thinking it’s new normal. Those born before 1940’s often told another story..

      • Maghlawatan on April 17, 2017, 1:48 pm

        The older Israelis were less extremist because they had experience of other societies or lived in Israel before the occupation or before the Likud won in 1977.
        Netanyahu has been a disaster.
        20 year old Israelis have grown up in his world of hatred and war. And most of them live in a Hebrew bubble.

      • Kaisa of Finland on April 17, 2017, 4:10 pm


        Couldn’t agree more with you. I’d have so many stories to tell, but these people who came around 50’s and 60’s, they were different people. Those I met were not nationalists or fanatics, in my opinion, they were just average nice people mislead to come to Israel to fill up the “Jewish State”..

      • Maghlawatan on April 17, 2017, 4:30 pm

        Also Kaisa, the groups which have had the highest population growth since say 1975 have been settlers, Orthodox and ultra Orthodox and their electoral power has marginalised the secular , educated people. You can see it in the senior politicians today. People like Lieberman and Bennett are neo fascist. In a Jewish State. It’s incoherent.

      • Kaisa of Finland on April 17, 2017, 7:25 pm


        I answered to you, but I quess I was censored, since the answer never showed up here.. So end of that discussion.. Take care..

      • Mooser on April 18, 2017, 11:30 am

        “I answered to you, but I quess I was censored, since the answer never showed up here..”

        “Kaisa” the commenting system sometimes drops comments.

  4. wondering jew on April 14, 2017, 9:07 pm

    I was surprised to find out that derfner’s aliya was more happenstance than ideology.

    I became disenchanted with Israeli policy during cast lead and derfner at the time explained that lebanon war of 06 made sense ( because lebanon is an independent country) in a way that gaza 08-09 was different because gaza is not independent.

    His advocacy of bds is glaring. I take comfort from his assertion that he would not attend a bds demonstration, because the bds movement’s goals and rhetoric are not his.

    • Danaa on April 16, 2017, 1:43 pm

      So when you gonna write your book, Yonah?

      Suggested title: “Disenchantment and its discontents”.

      Alternatives: “BDS as Kosher Enlightenment: the third rail”,

      Sorry, I keep the best titles for my own, so you can’t have “Israel, a case study of Hysteresis in Jewish History”

    • Maghlawatan on April 16, 2017, 3:16 pm
      • Mooser on April 16, 2017, 8:10 pm

        I never call them “The Cars” anymore. To me, they are and will always be “The Khazars.”

    • catalan on April 16, 2017, 5:00 pm

      Alternatives: “BDS as Kosher Enlightenment: the third rail”, –
      My title: “BDS: the amazing story of how buying store brand hummus instead of Sabra led to Universal Peace and the Perfect Man”

      • Mooser on April 16, 2017, 8:16 pm

        “BDS: the amazing story of how buying store brand hummus instead of Sabra led to Universal Peace and the Perfect Man”

        “catalan”, if BDS didn’t lead to Universal Peace and the Perfect Man, but only helped to make Israel more amenable to compromise, would you support BDS just as much?

        However if you think you think the entire world and man must be perfect before it has any moral or ethical or legal standing to talk about Israel, just say so. I mean, think about it, the same people who made the Holocaust are now going tell Jews about what’s good and bad? They have no right! After what they did?

      • Maghlawatan on April 17, 2017, 4:25 am

        We have been relying on the mitzvot for years, Catalan, but they haven’t been effective. My guess is that there is a problem with the kavana. Separating meat and dairy while standing with your foot on the head of a kid from Gaza is somehow off. It must be the kavana.

  5. Maghlawatan on April 16, 2017, 3:21 pm

    Here’s Mondo’s old friend Y Medad of “Shiloh” settlement on Derfner, from 2011, the year he was booted out of the JPost. He really hit a nerve.
    “Should Larry Derfner Be Prosecuted or Just Shunned?
    Here is Larry Derfner’s thinking on the killing of Jews:
    Still, I don’t think Hamas and their allies need any more encouragement, so whatever encouragement they might take from me or any other liberal Zionist is coals to Newcastle. What’s needed very badly, however, is for Israelis to realize that the occupation is hurting the Palestinians terribly, that it’s driving them to try to kill us, that we are compelling them to engage in terrorism, that the blood of Israeli victims is ultimately on our hands, and that it’s up to us to stop provoking our own people’s murder by ending the occupation. And so long as we who oppose the occupation keep pretending that the Palestinians don’t have the right to resist it, we tacitly encourage Israelis to go on blindly killing and dying in defense of an unholy cause.

    And by tacitly encouraging Israelis in their blindness, I think we endanger their lives and ours, their country and ours, much more than if we told the truth and got quoted on Hamas websites.

    There’s no time for equivocation anymore, if there ever was. The mental and moral paralysis in this country must be broken. Whoever the Palestinians were who killed the eight Israelis near Eilat last week, however vile their ideology was, they were justified to attack. They had the same right to fight for their freedom as any other unfree nation in history ever had. And just like every harsh, unjust government in history bears the blame for the deaths of its own people at the hands of rebels, so Israel, which rules the Palestinians harshly and unjustly, is to blame for those eight Israeli deaths – as well as for every other Israeli death that occurred when this country was offering the Palestinians no other way to freedom.

    What do you think?

    Is Larry sane?

    Is he criminal?

    Is he an extremist?

    A kook masquerading as a journalist?

    Steve Plaut thinks these addresses might be of interest to you:

    Yaakov Neeman, Israeli Minister of Justice

    Fax 972-2- 6285438
    Email: [email protected]
    Mail Address: 29 Salah a-Din Street
    Jerusalem, 91010 Israel

    The Attorney General of Israel (same mail address)
    Phone 972-2-6466521 or 522 at the end
    Fax 972-2-6467001
    And you can also type your complain into this form:[email protected]

    The form is in Hebrew, but you can write in English. The bottom part of the form is where the complaint goes. The upper part is your name and contact details

    If you fax, send a copy also to the director of criminal prosecution in the Ministry at fax 972-2-6271783″

  6. Maghlawatan on April 16, 2017, 3:28 pm

    Derfner really understands the insanity of late Zionism. This is a separate issue to what happened in 1948 because it relates to what Danaa identifies as the hysteresis of the ideology. Even if Israel manages to keep the Palestinians under lock and key for the next few decades it probably won’t be able to survive.

  7. Maghlawatan on April 16, 2017, 3:38 pm

    This is why he was sacked

    In a subsequent e-mail to The Lede , Mr. Derfner reflected:
    “I knew that what I was writing was shocking, I wanted it to be shocking — that was my whole point, I thought that shocking the Israeli public, not by my little blog alone, but as a strategy for the Left — might shake people out of their paralysis. It was sort of a reckless, blind conviction — now I see that that’s one of the dangers, if not THE danger of a personal blog: no editor.”
    In response to a question about whether he still believes that columnists and bloggers from one side of Israel’s political divide can influence readers who start on the other side, Mr. Derfner replied:
    “I think when you write about such a long-standing, polarized subject as this, you can provoke people who disagree with you to think, but you’re not going to change a right-winger into a left-winger or vice versa — if you’re lucky you can pull a centrist or two to your side. Mainly you buck up your own team. But it’s not why you write. You write because you can’t help thinking, you write because you find something interesting and true — you want to change things, but that’s not your first goal — if it is, you should go into politics. The sad thing in Israel today is that even the politicians who oppose the occupation can’t change things.”

    Amira Hass has also written about this. The idea that if Yossi Israeli is presented with the facts that he will be able to join the dots. And Yossi isn’t interested. Neither is Yossita.
    It is impossible to break through the brainwash.

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