Portside aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left that will help them to interpret the world, and to change it.
It takes tremendous courage to recognize that the political views that you have held for your entire adult life have been at least partly mistaken. Larry Derfner, a prominent American-turned-Israeli journalist now in his mid-60s, has such courage.
Derfner’s new memoir, No Country for Jewish Liberals (Just World Books, $26.95) is a brave analysis that will help change history. No liberal Zionist who reads this 260-page, sprightly-written book will be able to close it with their complacency intact. And among what Derfner calls the “right-wing chickenhawks of organized American Jewry,” there will be teeth-gnashing and a dilemma: should they ignore Derfner and hope that few notice him, or should they launch a campaign to try and smear him?
There is so much in this vital new book that this review is in two parts. First, we will summarize some of Larry Derfner’s courageous insights, which will shake liberal Zionism to its foundation. In Part 2, we will look more closely at his compelling personal evolution, in which he explains how he was a liberal Zionist himself during his first two decades in Israel, until he changed in his mid-50s.
Here is some of what Larry Derfner believes today. Let us remember that he is no marginal figure, but a successful, respected journalist, who has contributed to American media since 1985 and had a long-running column in the Jerusalem Post until he was fired for his changing views.
Israel is not the victim, but itself provokes the regular conflicts in Gaza and the attacks in Lebanon and Syria. Derfner did successfully place a short version of this well-reasoned argument in the New York Times Op-Ed section. It is a sharp break with liberal Zionists, who contend Israel is forced to fight, and is also a brave stand for a man who himself served in the Israeli army and whose two Israeli sons are subject to military service.
Israel is a segregated society. Derfner explains that he and his family live in the middle-class town of Modi’in, a place with 85,000 residents — which includes not a single Palestinian Israeli family, even though a fifth of the Israeli population west of the green line is Palestinian. He says, “The way I live now, in a city that’s 100 percent Jewish, is the Israeli norm.”
Both the 1993 Oslo agreement and the negotiations in 2000 led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak were fatally flawed, and no Palestinian leader could ever have accepted either agreement. Here is another deep disagreement with liberal Zionism, which blames the Palestinians for turning down reasonable deals.
“The occupation is not just a flaw, but a morally fatal flaw.” Derfner adds, “It is different from apartheid, different from Jim Crow, but the same in one overriding way: It is a species of tyranny, a system of government in which the strong trample the weak. The system Israel runs on the three million people of the West Bank is military dictatorship.”
“The purpose of the occupation isn’t security; it’s conquest.” He goes on, “If Israel had only been interested in the West Bank and Gaza for security reasons, it wouldn’t have built civilian settlements — colonies — for 600,000 people and counting. Instead, it would have built only military installations. Residential neighborhoods, schools, shopping centers, and parking lots don’t give you security.” Liberal Zionists are far too squeamish to agree — especially when he accurately uses the word “colonies.”
“Israel’s problem is not what it may become, but what it already is.” Derfner argues convincingly that the Israeli right and far-right have already won, that only a small, powerless percentage of Israeli Jews agree with his views: “Liberals who for years on end warn Israel about the future are just afraid to admit that the future has long since arrived.” Here he is correcting one of the most dangerous examples of bias in the New York Times and the rest of the US mainstream — which go to tortuous lengths to cover up the viciousness, violence and the power of the Israeli far right, some of whom are already influential members of the government.
“Stop blaming both sides equally.” Here is another view that should cause liberal Zionists to lose sleep. Derfner writes, “. . . if all the influential liberal politicians, diplomats and writers were to suddenly tell the truth about who they think is mainly, if not fully, to blame for the conflict, the pressure on Israel would skyrocket.”
“US diplomacy is not the solution; it’s a central part of the problem.” Professional Peace Processors like Dennis Ross will turn pale with fear on reading, “Negotiations that go nowhere take international pressure off Israel, which is why Netanyahu almost always wants to negotiate.”
Boycott Divestment and Sanctions is a necessary part of the solution. Here is where Derfner’s moral courage shines especially brightly. He lives in Israel, and he may actually be breaking Israeli law by endorsing BDS. He says, “Not that I like the idea of advocating the boycott of my own country, but since it is now clear that Israel will not change of its own accord and that America is unwilling to force it to change, there’s no way left but the South Africa model to end the occupation, and so BDS seems the lesser of two evils, the greater one being occupation forever.”
Liberal Zionists distract by asserting that some BDS advocates actually want to end Israel as a Jewish state. Derfner quotes his own rebuttal, from a piece he wrote in the (excellent) online publication +972:
I have no problem supporting BDS because I know that if Israel ever gets to the point where it’s ready to concede to international pressure, it will be responding not to the small left-wing groups calling for it to give up Jewish statehood, but to the powerful forces in the democratic world calling for it to give up the occupation alone.”
Larry Derfner’s excellent publisher, Just World Books, is starting to put together a publicity visit to the US. Of course Jewish Voice for Peace will want to hear this courageous and accomplished writer. But other organizations, from J Street to AIPAC all the way over to the Zionist Organization of America, should be eager to book him. College Hillel’s and synagogues from coast to coast should invite him to speak, just as they have always welcomed Israeli Zionists like Ari Shavit.
But if the liberal Zionists and others do boycott this remarkable man, they should at least read what he has to say about moral and intellectual courage (on page 199):
“So often I’ll be writing a piece, or thinking about writing one, and I’ll become aware that there’s something I’m afraid to say, something I’m even afraid to think. Then I’ll dare to think that thought (because once you realize there’s something you’re afraid to think, you either have to think it or admit that you’re a coward).”