The firing of Larry Derfner

What didn’t stop Ehud Barak from reaching the premiership has cost Derfner his job, and that is a shame.

Tent protesters hold vigil 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Tent protesters hold vigil 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
When I was editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post over a decade ago, I fired a number of columnists. Newspaper editors have the right – in fact, it’s their job – to decide who should be granted the privilege of 20 or so column inches a week in which to argue their piece.
A successful editor will choose a broad range of writers, with the aim of entertaining, instructing and, yes, infuriating readers. No editor wants a paper so bland that the readers never splutter over their morning cereal or coffee while reading the opinion pages.
In infuriating some Post readers, it seems that Larry Derfner was only too successful. But the article that cost Derfner his job was not something he wrote for the Post; it was a piece he wrote for his own blog.
And herein lies the danger of blogging.
Without an experienced editor at his shoulder saying, “Larry, are you really sure you want to write, particularly after a terror attack, that because of the occupation ‘I think the Palestinians have the right to use terrorism against us’?” Derfner rashly self-published an article that he thought was arguing that the occupation provoked terrorism, but that everybody else took, at face value, as justifying Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians.
To his credit, on realizing his mistake, Derfner posted an apology on his blog, stressing that he did not condone terrorism, and removed the offensive column. In his apology, Derfner wrote: “The occupation does not justify Palestinian terror. It does, however, provoke it. Palestinians do not have the right to attack or kill Israelis. They, do, however, have the incentive to, and part, though not all, of that incentive is provided them by the occupation. I believe that if Israel gives the Palestinians their independence, we have enough military power to neutralize whatever leftover incentive they would have to attack us.”
Now, one can agree or disagree with this point of view, but it’s not really a viewpoint that’s outside the Israeli consensus.
Let’s not forget that the defense minister in one of the most right-wing governments in the country’s history basically shares this perspective. When he was successfully running for prime minister in 1999, Ehud Barak was asked what he would do had he been born a Palestinian. His answer: “I would join a terror organization.”
What didn't stop Barak from reaching the premiership has cost Derfner his job, and that is a shame, both for Derfner personally and the wider Post readership. Derfner (disclosure: Larry is a personal friend, dating back to our time together in ulpan after we both made aliya over a quarter of a century ago) is a committed Zionist, with a liberal perspective that is at odds with this newspaper’s editorial line.
And this is precisely what makes him such an important writer for the Post. A newspaper with a trenchant political line needs a maverick columnist to “rattle the cage” of the paper’s comfortable orthodoxies and to show the readers that there is an Israel out there that does not share its particular assumptions.
Looking back at my career at the Post, one of my major accomplishments was bringing haredi columnist Jonathan Rosenblum into the paper. I hardly agreed with a word that he so elegantly and amusingly wrote, but felt it important that the paper provide a window into the haredi world. The same was true for the decision to hire Daoud Kuttab as a columnist; instead of having learned Israeli academics write about what Palestinians were thinking, why not go to the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and have a Palestinian write? But at the same time, once the second intifada really kicked in, we dropped Kuttab’s column. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but we were at war with the Palestinians and that was not the time to provide editorial space to someone on the other side of the lines.
Derfner is no enemy of the Jewish people, and he wishes Israel no harm.
In fact, it is the readers who vehemently called for a boycott of the Post if Derfner were not fired who present the real danger to Israel. Their narrow, self-righteous view of the world and Israel’s place within it, coupled with their failure to accept any criticism of Israel that jars with this viewpoint, encourages a totalitarian mind-set that damages the fabric of Israel as an open, tolerant society in which freedom of expression is a basic right.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.