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.