Reviewed by Andy Simons
Larry Derfner; No Country for Jewish Liberals (Charlottesville, Virginia : Just World Books, 272 pages, ISBN 978-1-68257-064-7, 2017)
It’s rare that we get an Israeli perspective on the Palestinian struggle, one whose audience is broadly Jewish, including Israelis, and yet written in English. Larry Derfner’s political autobiography decidedly lives up to its title as epiphany-upon-epiphany have leapt upon him while vainly trying to resist them. An American émigré, he swallowed the Zionist myths, easily digested in a country that, for its Jewish residents (there are no legal citizens in Israel), has increasingly tried to be a bastion of Bostonian life in the Middle East. Coming from a traditional 20th century Socialist household, he was seduced by Tel Aviv sunshine and increasingly, as immigrants do, longed to assimilate. My reactive smugness, and yours too, won’t trouble him though, as he represents a sharp intake of moral justice, if the air over Palestine can ever be sufficiently clear.
As the author carves a journalistic niche in the naturally Liberal Zionist community of non-Hebrew publishing, the cultural blinds get raised occasionally and it becomes hard not to see what most of the rest of the world see regarding the oppression of Arab Palestinians. Although not wanting to be a war correspondent, he finds that he cannot ignore the charges mounting up in the crime beat : house demolitions, brute force, unjust incarceration and reckless racism keep hanging out on the corner, in the Israel he longs to champion.
We’ll probably not meet another such well-meaning Zionist by the bookshelves for a while, and this is no oxymoron. Israel’s Leftists ceased being Left by the close of the 1980s and came to represent not those who supported the working class but rather those Stateside-familiar ‘peaceniks’ who were deemed soft or sympathetic to the Palestinian case. And he opens the door to the Hebrew-speaking world’s cultural conversations.
Netanyahu’s most recent electoral success was highlighted by a TV advert of ISIS fighters asking an Israeli for directions to Jerusalem. The reply, “Take a left,” leads to the caption, “THE LEFT WILL SURRENDER TO TERROR.” As few in electoral percentage as the literal Leftists are today, and the author is in no doubt that the Right Wing have won, the cause of justice there needs encouragement from the growing ocean of exogenous activists. Fascist football fans of the Likud-linked Betar Jerusalem team yell “Death to the Arabs,” and even warble a song with the same sentiment. But there’s no overt malice – the intolerance is so embedded in these fans, they seem bored.
No Country for Jewish Liberals is a rare lamp on how the English-language Israeli press have followed the first and second Intifadas, the rule and demise of Arafatian power, and the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas. Ever critical of Israeli norms, the corruption and abuse of crude Palestinian Authority power are under the interrogation spotlight too. The IDF’s fourth-gear strategy against the first Intifada failed and this was apparently understood by the Liberals, before even their own public opinion shifted into reverse.
Over his career, Larry Derfner twice gets hired and sacked by the Right and conservative Jerusalem Post, which, at one point, gets slagged-off by Yitzhak Rabin as its pre-1948 title, Palestine Post, for not being loyal enough to the supposedly chosen people’s political path. His other employers have included Ha’aretz, US News and World Report, the Sunday Times, and the liberal Catholic weekly, the Tablet.
One privileged insight offered here is that the Prime Minister’s assassination wasn’t a result of the Oslo Agreement. No, you see, to perhaps half of the population, his murder was at least a year overdue! Netanyahu is seen having had a front seat in the coach to Central Intolerance, gazing down approvingly at placards denoting Rabin in a Nazi uniform and audible cries for the latter’s death. Other curtains are opened to reveal not just the rivalry of class and race between the established Ashkenazim European Jewish elite and the second class Arab Jewish Mizrahim, but the latter’s keenness to join the Americanised, patriotic middle class, even rallying behind Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Further, the lower-class Mizrahis lead the league tables of Jewish violent crime, carried out by what is termed the country’s ‘Jewish Mafia.’ And the stage is also set in these pages for the Arab-on-Arab injustice, on both sides of the pre-1967 War’s so-called Green Line.
One wishes there were insights into the wider landscape within the Knesset. The current no. 3 party, Yesh Atid, is dismissed for being, strangely, uninvolved with the Palestinian situation. But the rapid rise of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, the professed Zionist and religious “settlers’ party” is ignored. For me, the narrative suffers a bit from Derfner’s infrequent personal inspection of the UN-judged illegal Occupied West Bank, although his stated focus as a news reporter is squarely within internationally-recognized Israel.
Every passing year and each Israeli Defense Force belligerence makes the narrator question his perceptions. The result is that he’s increasingly been publicly, tribally disloyal, condemning the occupation, the seeming tidal chart of Gaza war crimes, and even now praising BDS. Striving to be a good Israeli citizen, his insights at dawn have been cloudy. But let’s still grasp that really big wish, that the end of this book is merely another chapter and not a conclusion. Just as stars’n’stripes Americanness is a kind of religion, he’s similarly wrapped in the secular faith of a lone star Jewish state, preferring two problematically polka-dotted plots in the desert to a single, secular, democratic one facing up to the sun, which he feels is an impossibility. His is not a lone voice, but an important if less-accepted one in the world’s worst Apartheid country. Israeli Jews do suffer the disease of panic, a fear of their own brutal making. So, Larry Derfner’s pleas and apologies are important. But political kicking and screaming can be good therapy, and let’s hope he and his fellow patients get well soon.