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Rattling the Gilded Cage: An Interview with Larry Derfner

The author of 'No Country for Jewish Liberals' discusses how a Liberal Zionist can support BDS, why some Israeli peaceniks might be better off voting for Bibi, and why the Left in Israel is living in a gilded cage.

Michael
Omer-Man

“No Country for Jewish Liberals,” by Larry Derfner, Just World Books, 260 pp., $26.95

Moving to Israel was an experiment of sorts for Larry Derfner. As a journalist, it was an attempt to advance his career. More significantly, at least with the benefit of hindsight, it was an attempt to reconcile the intoxicating appeal of muscular nationalism with the liberal values he absorbed in his Los Angeles home and by coming of age in the Vietnam-era anti-war movement.

It was easier to be liberal in the United States because the real-world consequences of dovish policies rarely put you at personal risk, Derfner tells me in a broad-ranging conversation about his recent book, No Country for Jewish Liberals. “You want to be a liberal here? You better get a better idea of what’s at stake. I wanted to test my ideals against reality. That’s what I thought Israel was.”

Derfner is best known as a columnist and opinion writer, for The Jerusalem Post, for several years at +972 Magazine, and currently with Haaretz. The book itself also feels like a journalistic experiment at times: a director’s cut of his decades-long body of work. But mostly, it is an accounting of his personal political transformation, and through it, the story of Israel over the past three decades and the many deep-seated contradictions it comprises.

When Larry Derfner first started writing for +972 Magazine, one of the first major public discussions in which he took part centered on the question of whether Liberal Zionism poses an inherent contradiction. Looking back on that debate today, it is clear that Larry has always been uncompromising in his assessment of the world but is also willing to accept certain contradictions — and even some injustices — as unmovable foundations of reality. That often leaves him uncomfortably wedged between the uncompromising nature of the radical left and the mainstream’s unwillingness to look reality in the eyes.

Nevertheless, many of his views have continued to progress over the years.

In that +972 Magazine debate back in 2011, Derfner had already come to acknowledge that, “Zionism privileges the Jews over Arabs and other gentiles, and that’s at odds with liberal values.” However, he continued, “if Israel stops being a Jewish state it will become a Palestinian state, and on the way to that it will be a state at civil war that will bring on the exodus of the Jews – and that’s even more at odds with my liberal values than Zionism.”

When we sat down to discuss his new book a few weeks ago, I decided to start there, checking back in about his thoughts on that same topic.

Is there such a thing as Liberal Zionism? Can liberalism and nationalism be reconciled in Israel?

“There could be. If we got out of the West Bank and Gaza I think we could have a Jewish majority state that would be a great country, where we’re not ruling anybody’s life, where we’re not attacking countries because they look at us funny, and we’re treating Israeli Arabs as [equals] … where they’re in the government.

“Personally, I’d like to see an integrated society. I’d like to see Jews living with Arabs and Jewish kids going to school with Arab kids. And treating refugees as refugees and not as pariahs. I think all that is possible, but it’s not happening and the chances are overwhelming that it won’t.”

Your political views would put you smack in the middle of the political map somewhere like the U.S. but in Israel they make you a radical. Do you resent being pushed into the political margins?

Larry Derfner (by Jonathan Bloom)

Larry Derfner (by Jonathan Bloom)

“It’s not that I resent it but it’s not my comfort zone. My comfort zone is where I was until about 2008, which is the right wing of Meretz and the left wing of Labor. As one guy said to me, ‘you’re a leftist but you’re a muscular leftist.’ I always loved that. The retired general who’s in favor of dividing the territory but who fought like a lion against terrorism and all that stuff. It sounds really good to me. I feel comfortable with that because personally, I’m not a radical. I live in the suburbs. I got a wife and two kids.

“But we’re in a situation where Israel is doing the kinds of things, more or less like they did in South Africa, like they did in the American South, and to be just a normal democrat puts you in a 180 degree opposition to that, which makes you a radical.”

The way that ‘muscular liberalism’ manifests itself in Israel is in a security discourse. Particularly with regards to the peace process, its motivations for ending the occupation are purely self-interested, expressed by security and demographic dominance. The question of morality, justness or empathy is simply not a part of the equation. You write:

“To those ‘liberals’ who care only about Israel’s practical self-interest, I suggest that they support Netanyahu. I would, if that’s all I was looking out for. He’s managing the conflict, so far at a very, very low price to Israeli Jews; why mess with success? Ending the occupation will be sheer hell for this country… If you’re concerned strictly for Israel’s practical self-interest, you don’t want that. You want Netanyahu.”

“I call myself a liberal Zionist because I believe Israel as a Jewish state is the only way that this place can survive; I don’t think a bi-national state can survive. Not because I need a Jewish state or we need a Jewish state — I don’t think we do, but it’s here. To try and to dismantle it would be disastrous. So given the options, I’d like to have a Jewish state and that technically makes me a Zionist. And because I want to get rid of the occupation and all that, that makes me a liberal Zionist.

“But when people on the Left hear liberal Zionist they think of Thomas Friedman and they think of Jeffrey Goldberg and these people who say ‘nu, nu, nu’ to Netanyahu but every time we start a war it’s ‘go get ’em.’ When people hear Liberal Zionism, or Liberal Zionist, they think of phony Liberal Zionists, and unfortunately, in most cases that’s true. But I think there is a Liberal Zionism that doesn’t have to be phony.”

Your book, in some ways, is like watching the director’s cut of your body of work — decades of opeds. You weave it all together, and talk a lot about the progression of how you got to where you are today. There’s a passage that stuck with me:

“The most discomforting but also vital experience in writing opeds, at least for me, comes from facing my fears. 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).”

You write that your last major political transformation happened around 2008 with Cast Lead. Since then you have moved even further left, but at some point that movement ended. Does that represent a personal ‘end of history’ moment for you? Is there anything you’re still afraid to say?

'No Country for Jewish Liberals', by Larry Derfner“The last idea I’ve come to accept, which was hard to accept, is that from the beginning, as Ari Shavit writes, the logic of Zionism was always expulsion — mass expulsion. Very simply, you can’t build a Jewish state in a land that’s overwhelmingly Palestinian. Sooner or later that means either expulsion or apartheid, or occupation.

“It’s hard because for all the real problems with the Zionist movement coming here, at least they had a good impetus: they were fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe. They really were. So I sympathize with that original impulse to build a Jewish state here. But I understand that we kicked those people out. I understand that the Palestinians suffered for our gain. It’s only recently I came to understand that it was really unavoidable, and that’s not good.

“I’ve also come to accept the justice of the Palestinian right of return. I didn’t before. Even as of 2011 I was saying, well they kicked us out of Gush Etzion, they kicked us out of the Old City. But, if you kick out 700,000 refugees, you can’t say nobody can return. That’s not just. I recognize that. I still say that we can’t have an open ended [return] but we could probably absorb a few hundred thousand refugees.

“Where I stop, and not because I’m afraid, is the issue of one state. I’m not in favor of a Jewish-majority state in principle. I’m against it in principle. I prefer a multi-cultural state. But that’s not the way it’s going to be. It’s going to be a Jewish state or a Jewish/Arab state, and if there are roughly half and half, we’re going to fight. I don’t think that’s something we can afford.”

Does that come from a place of self-preservation?

“Sure. I think it would be terrible for the Jews. Hell yes. I think the Jews are entitled, by right, to a stable existence. But what the hell. Let’s divide it into two states and then if things are working out between the two states, little by little, let’s try and make it one state.”

In the book you talk about your great disappointment that Breaking the Silence, as soldiers in a warrior society, have not only failed to show the Israeli public why the occupation must end, they have been cast as traitors for trying. That is part of how you conclude external pressure on Israel is the only way. Do you think there is a role for internal dissent other than as an avenue for people who oppose the occupation to feel like they’re on the right side of history?

“We have to aim our protests abroad. Without external pressure Israel won’t change. It’s no different than South Africa, or than the American South. In South Africa, with the whites holding all the power and the exclusive votes, would they have given up apartheid without external pressure?

“And here’s the other thing: BDS and all that stuff is good but this [situation] isn’t going to change without the leadership of the Palestinians. I am in no position to suggest that the Palestinians take steps they’re going to suffer from — physically, at the hands of Israel, which they will. But the Palestinians are not going to get anywhere by doing Israel’s dirty work. If the Palestinians dissolve the PA and hand the keys back and let Israel take over, then they have a larger small chance of getting independence. But the cost for them — and the cost for Israel, too, but especially for them — will be very high.”

A left-wing Israeli protester stands next to masked Israeli riot police at an anti-occupation demonstration in the West Bank, April 1, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

“Maybe some fascists will get in your face but for the most part you can write what you want, you can say what you want, you can do what you want. It’s a gilded cage for the Left.” (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

You’ve spoken about how you think it’s unfair to place the blame for the settlements on the settlers, and in the book you write that boycotts which target only settlements and settlers are unfair.

“These are people who moved there for lower rents. Even the ultra-Orthodox go, obviously for lower rents. The settlement movement has mainly run on people of the lower middle class. So they’re going to get screwed over? They don’t deserve the exclusive punishment.”

Part of your argument for BDS is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a domestic issue. Do you think there’s room for more forceful intervention?

“I would love America to say, ‘by the end of business today we’re leaving and we’re not coming back unless the cabinet signs off on the end of the occupation by 5 p.m. today.’ America should have cut off the $4 billion a year 20 years ago. As BDS goes: the Boycott part isn’t much, the Divestment part isn’t much, it’s the Sanctions part that’s going to count.

“If America said, ‘the Palestinians are getting screwed, we realize that now, sorry for history, and we’re going to send the Marines in there to protect them,’ there would be no war. Israel would get the fuck out. Never in a million years would I call for any violence against Israel but if you talk about the U.S. or the UN saying, ‘we’re going to send in troops to protect the Palestinians,’ what’s Israel going to do? The U.S. is the make or break component.

“If there’s one reason for some optimism that I do have, it’s that the South Africans put up with a lot of hell: the rand collapsed, they couldn’t fly to all kinds of places, they swallowed a lot of relative hardship to keep apartheid going. Israel won’t swallow as much to keep the settlements going as South Africa did to keep apartheid going. It will take a lot less pressure on Israel to give up the occupation.”

You write about coming to terms with the fact that this is your life — that you’re too old to move, that your family has a good life here. Was that a process, coming to that peace with your place here?

“It’s not peace.”

Acceptance?

“It’s not acceptance. I’m not happy about it. I just read a history of WWI told from the point of view, mainly, of the anti-war protesters. They went to jail. They were hounded left and right. That’s one of the historic failures of the Israeli left, or whatever you want to call it — that we have it so good that we haven’t suffered at all. How many people really put their asses on the line? How many people have sacrificed? It’s a great life [for the Left]. “

Do you think that will change? The free and safe arena within which even the Jewish radical left operates?

“Only if the right wing is really stupid, and they’re not stupid. They know this is just enough rope, just enough slack. The intelligentsia, the educated people, the professional class — they’re all liberals. They’re all moaning and groaning but we stay because our life is really good and one of the things that makes it good is that freedom of speech, that nobody is knocking on our doors. Maybe some fascists will get in your face but for the most part you can write what you want, you can say what you want, you can do what you want. And that’s what keeps us here, what keeps all this educated manpower here.

“If the right wing makes it hard for us to live here, if they turn it into Turkey or something and we start living really shitty lives, then people will start thinking about leaving. And I don’t think [the right wing] is that stupid. This is perfect for them. It’s a gilded cage for the Left.

“But it’s not peace. Not for me. And I don’t think it is for anybody else. Everyone has a guilty conscience.”

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    COMMENTS

    1. BOAZ

      I am stopping short of supporting BDS.

      Larry should be cautious about whom he is going to bed with when he proclaims his support for these phony supporters of “the rights of the Palestinian people”.

      As previously stated,

      Some things should be put straight about the “non-violence” of BDS:

      -Spilling produce or goods in supermarkets,
      -Heckling artists during their shows for not complying with BDS demands,
      -Shouting down any Israeli or pro-Israel proponents ,
      -Denying access to academic resources to Israeli students coming to a foreign university (such as denying them access to research, or supervision of their doctoral dissertations)for the sole reason they are there on a scholarship,

      -Shunning pro-Israeli colleagues in the universities and denying them tenure on the sole ground of their stance on the I/P conflict,

      …..are NOT non-violent methods, but SA-style thuggery.

      A Meretz activist would not even pass the litmus test of BDS.Their “agnosticism” about 2 states or a single state is pure hypocrisy.

      As far as I am concerned, occupation should be fought as is there were no BDS, and BDS fought as if there were no occupation.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Boaz: But you can’t possible believe that BDS has any effect. Right?

        Reply to Comment
        • Jay

          Sure Bruce, any sentient person would have noticed that under pressure from BDS, Israel has evacuated all settlers from Kiryat Arba, Ariel, Maaleh Adumumim et al.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            @Jay: So BDS is so ineffective there’s no need to even discuss it; there’s no problem with BDS because it can’t work. Right?

            Reply to Comment
        • BOAZ

          Yes , Bruce, BDS has 2 major effects:

          -Writing off the peace camp in Israel in the eyes of the local and worldwide liberal opinion;

          -Re-inforcing the “kol ha-olam negdeinu” discourse of the Israeli right.

          It does not advance the interest of Palestinian people by one inch.

          Reply to Comment
      • duh

        Boaz, when the Zionist movement didn’t have any actual military power, its activists did everything from lobbying imperialist heads of state (Herzl met with both Kaiser Wilhelm and the Ottoman Sultan) to pouring kerosene on Arab-sold tomatoes (a director of the Histadrut construction company Solel Boneh admitted to this and certainly not an SA tactic). Anyone who claims to oppose both the occupation and bds needs a refresher course on the Zionism they’re trying to save.

        “to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there” – also not an SA tactic

        cites:
        “I had to fight my friends on the issue of Jewish socialism to defend the fact that I would not accept Arabs in my trade union, the Histadrut; to defend preaching to housewives that they should not buy at Arab stores; to defend the fact that we stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there … to pour kerosene on Arab tomatoes; to attack Jewish housewives in the markets and smash Arab eggs they had bought … to buy dozens of dunums [of land] from an Arab is permitted but to sell God forbid one Jewish dunum to an Arab is prohibited; to take Rothschild the incarnation of capitalism as a socialist and to name him the ‘benefactor’ — to do all that was not easy.” [13]
        https://electronicintifada.net/content/histadrut-israels-racist-trade-union/8121

        http://www.jta.org/1927/12/12/archive/german-protectorate-for-palestine-considered-in-herzls-day-biography-says

        Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Lightbown

      To thine own self be true. I certainly admire Larry for that, even if, in his own words, he is living comfortably with his guilty conscience.

      Inevitably I have points of dissent. Perhaps it was an oversight not to mention getting out of the Golan? But his statement on the Nakba is naïve crap. The “expulsion” (as he calls it) was only “unavoidable” because the Zionists made damn sure there was nowhere else to go. (And even then they didn’t mind leaving Jews behind in places like Hungary.)

      Then there are times when I wonder what he really means by “liberal”. When the likes of Obomber and Clinton are described as liberal I can only echo Max Blumenthal in declaring that I no longer know what the word means. That problem surfaces in parts of this interview. Such as “I think the Jews are entitled, by right, to a stable existence”. Sure Larry, so do I, but is that are far as you can go at the moment? Can you still not dare to say the same for Palestinians, BY RIGHT? Can’t you face the implications that the two state solution can never produce anything more than a reservation for the Palestinians, at best?

      If that’s as far as a liberal Zionist can dare to think then there is not much chance that justice and human rights are going to be universally applied in the region for a veeeeerrrry long time, if ever. And that means no peace for you guys too.

      Reply to Comment
    3. GSP

      Larry is last in line to write an Israel-basher. That means his Jewishness won’t sell for quite as much $$$ or recognition as smarter businesspeople like Ilan Pappe, who got into the Jewish turncoat game a long time ago

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Really striking the inveterate, rank anti-Semitic trope-mongering of the Israeli right wing. Every principled Jewish liberal or leftist becomes a venal, money-grubbing sellout. Wow. Who needs European anti-Semites when Israel grows a bumper crop of them at home? Unbelievable. And the right wing Prime Minister and his wife are caricatures of grasping venality and stinginess and everything the guy and gal do is for themselves, but hey, that’s OK, he’s a rightist.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      This cuts through so much bullshit. Here is why you are great, Larry Derfner:

      “If America said, ‘the Palestinians are getting screwed, we realize that now, sorry for history, and we’re going to send the Marines in there to protect them,’ there would be no war. Israel would get the fuck out. Never in a million years would I call for any violence against Israel but if you talk about the U.S. or the UN saying, ‘we’re going to send in troops to protect the Palestinians,’ what’s Israel going to do? The U.S. is the make or break component.
      “If there’s one reason for some optimism that I do have, it’s that the South Africans put up with a lot of hell: the rand collapsed, they couldn’t fly to all kinds of places, they swallowed a lot of relative hardship to keep apartheid going. Israel won’t swallow as much to keep the settlements going as South Africa did to keep apartheid going. It will take a lot less pressure on Israel to give up the occupation.” …

      I just read a history of WWI told from the point of view, mainly, of the anti-war protesters. They went to jail. They were hounded left and right. That’s one of the historic failures of the Israeli left, or whatever you want to call it — that we have it so good that we haven’t suffered at all. How many people really put their asses on the line? How many people have sacrificed? It’s a great life [for the Left]. “ …

      “Only if the right wing is really stupid, and they’re not stupid. They know this is just enough rope, just enough slack…And I don’t think [the right wing] is that stupid. This is perfect for them. It’s a gilded cage for the Left.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        I’m reminded of previous times US sent their military to Arab lands. Didn’t work out well. If the marines were there to protect the Palestinians, who would be responsible if there were any unrest?

        I suspect this proposal ain’t going to fly.

        Reply to Comment
      • GSP

        @Ben “Here is why you are great, Larry Derfner” – this is pretty creepy. YOU are pretty creepy.

        Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      Derfner’s incoherent interview won’t clear him. He has alienated everyone. For the “progressives” he gives a garbled partial justification for Zionism which can’t stand scrutiny from the viewpoint of the anti-Zionists. For the Right, he is merely a justifier of Arab terrorism for which he was sacked by the Jerusalem post for praising the terrorist attack that came out of the Sinai and killed Israeli civilians travelling on the border road, and for his truly bizarre comment that the mass attack by Breivik in Norway (killing something like 80 people for which he received only 20 years in the klink) was a “gift from heaven” (HIS WORDS) because he thought, wrongly, that the Israeli Right would be blamed for it (?!). I am surprised that the international media would give him the time of day. Just shows how low they have sunk

      Reply to Comment
      • I don’t bother responding to insults, but when somebody lies publicly about what I’ve written, as “I Like Ike” just did, I set the record straight. I didn’t write that Breivik’s massacre was a godsend, I wrote that the revelations in his manifesto that he admired Israel’s Islamophobic right was a godsend for the political health of the country and beyond. Here’s the paragraph:

        “This is a bombshell, pardon the pun – but the problem with bombshells is there’s no telling who will get hurt. It’s a good thing that Zionism’s anti-Muslim Right is going to be badly discredited by this racist mass murderer; in fact it’s a godsend. Unfortunately, according to Channel 2, Breivik also admired Theodor Herzl. Once the manifesto is fully digested, all of Zionism, Israel as a whole, maybe even Jews as a whole, could suffer. But from what we know of Breivik’s political heroes and villains so far, I think this revelation is going to do more good than bad for the long-term health of Israel, the Jewish people, the Middle East and the world.”

        But the bigger lie “I Like Ike” wrote is that I “praised” Palestinian terrorists. My blog post “The awful, necessary truth about Palestinian terror” is too long to post in full here, but it can be Googled easily enough; for now, see if this excerpt squares with “praise” for Palestinian terrorists:

        “But while I think the Palestinians have the right to use terrorism against us, I don’t want them to use it, I don’t want to see Israelis killed, and as an Israeli, I would do whatever was necessary to stop a Palestinian, oppressed or not, from killing one of my countrymen. (I also think Palestinian terrorism backfires, it turns people away from them and generates sympathy for Israel and the occupation, so I’m against terrorism on a practical level, too, but that’s besides the point.) The possibility that Israel’s enemies could use my or anybody else’s justification of terror for their campaign is a daunting one; I wouldn’t like to see this column quoted on a pro-Hamas website, and I realize it could happen.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The sneaky lies of “I like Ike,” exposed here, show up the habitual dishonesty of the right wing. And it is standard practice here. This is not a one-off. And it shows the easy, vicious slander and character assassination to which the right wing feels entitled. Larry Derfner has always showed both uncommon moral courage and uncommon common sense. Whatever you think of where he situates himself along the political spectrum. He is a searcher for a genuine solution. His persecution by his fellow Israelis is, I think, emblematic of the deteriorated level of Israeli sociopolitical culture.

        Reply to Comment
        • Thanks very, very much for what you wrote, Ben. Just one thing – online harassment doesn’t rate as persecution – I’m part of the Left I described – I live in a gilded cage too.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You’re right, Larry. It’s too strong a word. I did not mean to promote the likes of some commenters here from harassers to persecutors. They don’t deserve the promotion in my opinion. I really had in mind your treatment by the Post and as I understood it your general vilification. And my view of the editor of the Post back then was of a coward who could not stand up for freedom of speech against a journalistic lynch mob. My opinion of course. But persecution is a strong word. (No one, for example, invaded your house in the middle of the night in a sleeping village and terrorized your family and threw you on the floor of a jeep and took you in for indefinite detention without due process, as happens routinely in the OT to people who engage in even peaceful resistance. Or did to you what was perpetrated against Ze’ev Sternhell. Or did to you what would have happened to you in China, for example. Or several countries in the Middle East. Not even close.) So here’s the thing: You say that the Left has it so good and hasn’t suffered at all and lives in a gilded cage calculated to sustain the status quo. True. But although you live in the gilded cage too, in my opinion you have suffered, have paid the price, a bit more than most. And in my opinion you weathered that admirably, with courage and grace and without bitterness or meanness, and as a true patriot. And emerged on the other end as a positive example to others. That’s what I meant to say.

            Reply to Comment
          • Thank you, brother.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      Another Jew who gives opinions without living in Israel. I suggest him to come here and to do politics. We will see whether he will be successful.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Bruce Gould

      Back to BDS: People don’t give up power without being forced to, as Nathan Thrall shows in his new book “The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise In Israel and Palestine”. Not violence – force; Israel won’t give up its settlements and control over millions of stateless people without pressure. Letters to the editor won’t do the trick.

      Reply to Comment
      • Itshak Gordin Halevy

        Radiohead has given on Wednesday night one of his best and longest shows in Tel Aviv. Its leader told that he despised boycots.

        Reply to Comment
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