September 21, 2019

‘No Country’: A view of Israel many won’t cheer


Larry Derfner is one of us.

He grew up in Los Angeles and started his career at City News Service, a fixture of L.A. journalism. A former contributing columnist to the Journal, he still contributes to a long list of distinguished American publications, ranging from Tablet to U.S. News & World Report.

Nowadays, however, he lives in Israel, where he serves on the editorial staff of Haaretz, and his home is in the “model city” of Modi’in. The story of what he found there — a story with deep resonance for many American Jews — is told in “No Country for Jewish Liberals” (Just World Books), a searing memoir and a challenging critique of Israel by a disaffected American Jew who is no longer at home in his new homeland.

Modi’in stands on the near side of the boundary between Israel and the West Bank, and when Derfner moved there in 1995, the development was meant to “show that while the previous Likud government had put its energy into building West Bank settlements, the Rabin government would forget about settlements and build on the Israeli side of the old pre-1967 Six-Day War border.”

Derfner, whose identities as a Jew and a liberal “meshed very smoothly,” embraced the “now-embarrassing, nostalgic, socialist idea that Modi’in would be the modern-day Israeli version of my Aunt Rose’s apartment complex in the Bronx that we used to visit in the ’50s: a humble community where Jewish working people gather in the evenings on the benches on the big lawn to kibitz.” What mattered just as much to Derfner and his young family was the fact that “the apartments would be big by Israeli standards and relatively cheap.”

“That was then,” Derfner writes. What matters now, as we discover in Derfner’s urgent, often witty and deeply unsettling book, is the hardening of Israeli politics that has reached even Modi’in.

“The majority of Modi’in residents are theoretically in favor of the two-state solution, but suspicious, at best, of even the most modern Palestinians and resentful of foreign pressure on any Israeli government,” he writes. “The people of Modi’in sit very comfortably within the Israeli ‘security hawk’ consensus.” To make the point, he quotes Gideon Levy, one of his colleagues at Haaretz: “It used to be that if you asked two Jews a question, you’d get three opinions. Now you only get one.”

Derfner thinks Israelis are nicer than they used to be — he attributes the softening of the Israeli character to “the advent of prosperity, consumerism, careerism, foreign travel, even air conditioning” — but he also insists that nationalism and patriotism, rather than the moral burden of serving as a light unto the nations, are now the core values of the Jewish state.

“The mindset here is very much like that in red-state America,” he writes. “I think of Israel as a small, Hebrew-speaking Texas, with Tel Aviv the country’s answer to Austin.”

Unlike the rest of the world, American Jews included, the Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the Palestinians, or so Derfner argues. “Israelis don’t believe in a solution; they think that trying to solve things will only make them worse, like it did before, and get a lot of them killed,” he explains. “The army has the Palestinians under control — why tamper with the way things are?”

All of these developments are deeply alienating to Derfner, who points out that ignoring a problem is not equivalent to solving a problem. “Fear and aggression, this has become the Israeli way,” he writes.

He deplores the treatment of Palestinians, African refugees and the Arab citizens of Israel, and he unapologetically declares that “Israel and I have gone in opposite directions.” He writes that he loves Israel “as much as I’m capable of loving a country,” but goes on to say that “it has done awesome damage to the Jewish soul and Jewish conscience.” Indeed, he is even willing to argue that “Palestinian terrorism, for all its hellishness and its innocent victims, amounts to self-defense,” an assertion that would be fighting words if uttered in certain places here and in Israel.

Like many American Jews who make aliyah, Derfner bumped into the sharper edges of the Jewish homeland, where the sacred mission of Zionism — the creation of a place where Jews can seek refuge without passports or visas — has been tragically compromised by those who are empowered by the state to decide who is a Jew. “My wedding was a glorious day, but, unlike my kids’ bar mitzvahs, it did not fill me with gratitude to Israel: Philippa and I got married in South Africa after I repeatedly failed to meet the medieval Israeli rabbinical establishment’s standard of proof of being Jewish,” he writes.

As I read Derfner’s troubling account of his experiences in Israel, I was fully aware of how his book will be received by a great many readers who are not prepared to hear, for example, that he does not blame the Palestinians for cheering the Scud missiles that Iraq launched against Israel, because “when you treat people like inferior beings, they’re going to want revenge, and we’d been treating the Palestinians like inferior beings for a very long time.”

But I could not forget that Derfner voted for Israel with his feet when he made aliyah. He pays his taxes in Israel, he served in the Israel Defense Forces, and so have his children. He has mastered the details and nuances of Israeli history and politics, both as a journalist and as an eyewitness to the most consequential events and personalities of the past several decades.

“Writing this is not treason,” Derfner insists. “It is an attempt at patriotism.”

For that reason alone, when Derfner speaks about Israel, I feel obliged to listen.