Over the line

Larry Derfner’s new book is sure to raise your blood pressure

Larry Derfner (photo credit: JUST WORLD BOOKS)
Larry Derfner
(photo credit: JUST WORLD BOOKS)
No Country for Jewish Liberals is a political history of Israel’s recent decades intertwined with a memoir by American-Israeli journalist Larry Derfner.
The author, a former Jerusalem Post writer currently on the staff of Haaretz, made aliya from Los Angeles in 1985, and recounts growing up in the southern part of that city, interacting with the predominantly African-American clientele of his father’s liquor store.
“That experience – of identifying with people who happened to be society’s most feared and hated outsiders – helped shape the ideas I would come up with later.”
Derfner’s move to Israel seems to have been a spur-of-the-moment, albeit life-changing, decision. Feeling that he’d “topped out as an urban beat reporter” after covering the 1984 LA Olympics, he set his sights elsewhere. A friend who’d recently moved to Israel wrote to Derfner, saying that he’d found work as a journalist in Jerusalem, and a light bulb went on.
“I was 33, unattached, figuring that within a couple of years I was going to get serious about getting married... I saw that this was probably my last chance to go off and have an adventure before I settled down.”
Derfner didn’t see it as a long-term plan and writes that “it had nothing whatsoever to do with Zionism, or my Jewish identity, or, certainly, anti-Semitism in America.”
Derfner’s story begins with lofty hopes in his adopted home of Modi’in in 1995.
He recalls the excitement of the Oslo era and recounts looking on government maps showing Modi’in “as an Israeli stop on a future highway between Damascus to the north and Amman to the east.” He reminds readers that Modi’in was billed as a “city of the future,” a start-up city, descriptors which seem laughable when looking at the “sprawling suburban bedroom community” in 2017. He uses the story arc of the city with much bigger dreams to mirror the hopes he had for Israel and the country that he sees today.
Knowing in advance that Derfner was fired from The Jerusalem Post in 2011 for writing something incendiary (he notes his demise with the newspaper at the beginning of the book, it’s not just insider Post knowledge) keeps the intrigue high throughout the book.
Reading lines like “The Palestinians will be going it alone against Sharon and a fed-up Israeli public, and they will have brought it on themselves... I can’t help feeling some grim satisfaction that they’re now going to have the ol’ bulldozer [Sharon] to deal with. For Arafat and his flock, it’ll amount to rough justice,” kept this reader turning pages, intrigued at what made Derfner snap from fitting in at the centrist Post – to someone who condones Palestinian terrorism.
It would be difficult to find a single member of Israeli society that wouldn’t be offended by something in the book’s 240 pages. In fact, most of them wouldn’t have to go past the second chapter, where he writes “[Israelis] were outgoing, warm, and talkative but didn’t seem to have much depth or reserve; when you met an Israeli the fourth time, it wasn’t much different from meeting him the first time,” and “Israelis, just by being here lived such eventful lives, yet in person I often found them to be fairly predictable and boring, I’m sorry to say.”
A bold statement for a nation of more than eight million people.
It might take others until Chapter 7, where Derfner dissects Israel’s Mizrahi population, to get irritated.
“I think the main problem among the Mizrahi poor is a victim’s mentality – an abiding sense of being wronged and of being helpless, together with habitual seeking of handouts and of blaming everyone but themselves,” he writes. Interestingly, the same argument is made by many about the Palestinians, though Derfner comes nowhere near it in the memoir.
For some, it might take until one of the last chapters, where the subject of the blog that led to Derfner’s firing from the Post is finally revealed. After a terrorist attack near Eilat in 2011, he wrote on his blog, “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.”
To his credit, Derfner provides some background of the content both before and after the post was written. He was on vacation in Sweden when the attack occurred, and wasn’t engulfed in the country’s collective mourning process. He talks about going to the hospital after being fired from the Post because he thought he was having a heart attack (it was anxiety), that he was peeved he wasn’t given the right of reply to the dozens of letters or an editorial in the paper on the subject, and finally the realization that what he put into words was “obscene.”
He admits that his blog was probably the wrong medium (too “narrow”) for his position on Palestinian terrorism, and goes on to lay it out later in the chapter.
While reading it, you can hardly believe that – with both sons who have served or are serving in the IDF – Derfner writes time and again that soldiers are perfectly legitimate targets for Palestinian militants. And it is hard to imagine how anyone, no less someone with a wife, friends and family who live in Israel, can argue that civilians are acceptable to target as well.
Derfner is a talented writer who has led an interesting life, but unless you find yourself to the left of Meretz, his book will serve primarily to raise your blood pressure.