A Rightist Push Scores Against Press Freedom in Israel

A note to the reader: There will be no objectivity in this. Its subject is a good friend, an army buddy, at that. Its subject is also a newspaper that was my first home as a reporter, an institution of importance and influence.

And a newspaper which has made a terrible mistake.

The Jerusalem Post, which for nearly 80 years has given an astounding range of people a chance to express their views, has fired an exceptional columnist and feature writer, Larry Derfner, over words which never appeared in its pages. Words he had already retracted, words for which he had already publicly apologized.

Following the recent terror attack near Eilat, Larry posted a piece on the blog site he co-authors, Israel Reconsidered. Some readers understood the intent of the blog as a justification of Palestinian terrorism. A few days later, realizing that what he had written had been misinterpreted, Larry took down the blog and posted an apology.

"Writing that the killing of Israelis was justified and a matter of right took a vile image and attached words of seeming approval to it," he wrote. "This, I'm afraid, produced an 'obscene' effect, as one critic wrote. I don't want to write obscenity about Israel. I didn't mean to, and I deeply regret it."

The Post, it should be noted, has shown that it understands that writers make mistakes, that writing can be misinterpreted, and that apologies should be, but are not always, respected as sincere. Just last month, a Post editorial on the Norway massacres sparked what the newspaper itself called an "avalanche" of critical comments and letters condemning the paper for what readers saw as having offered justification for the terrorism.

In the wake of reader outrage, the paper later posted an extraordinary addendum to the online editorial, stressing that the newspaper "strongly denounces all acts of violence against innocent civilians" and that the editorial was in no way intended to deflect attention from the heinous crime.

But the tide of criticism continued, and a subsequent editorial, entitled "Apology to Norway," voiced the "hope that the Norwegian government and people will accept the Post's apology and forgive us for any offense or hurt caused by our editorial and columnists at this sensitive time."

This week -- Larry's blog post apology notwithstanding -- a virulent campaign fueled by subscriber cancellations and internet-borne bile succeeded in moving Post management to fire him.

The decision taken by Post management has placed many of the paper's editors and journalists in an impossible bind. Even many who disagree vehemently with Larry's point of view believe that the firing was a mistake. "I don't think Derfner should have been fired," wrote analyst and Post columnist Barry Rubin, whose views are far to Larry's right.

"All too often nowadays the response to disagreement is to try to destroy people on the other side of the argument, to delegitimize them with name-calling and to silence them," Rubin wrote on the Gloria Center think tank site. "That's not the way democratic debate is supposed to work. If you think someone is wrong then answer the substance of the statements being made."

In the end, the firing was not an editorial decision, but an economic one. To the chagrin of its editors and journalists, the management of the Jerusalem Post has caved in to what amounts to a political boycott.

The decision sets an alarming precedent, especially for a paper which has always championed democratic freedoms in Israel, even as many of its rightist commentators have endorsed or excused legislation which would curb those freedoms.

Larry Derfner has been made out by critics to be a traitor to Israel. But I would match his patriotism and his belief in a democratic Zionism against that of any of the hardliners whom the Post continues to feature. Responding to contentions from the left that Israel has forfeited its right to exist, Larry has
written some of the most cogent, courageous, and powerful defenses of the need for and the promise of a Jewish state.

Larry is that rarest of journalists in this day and age: the real thing. A writer with the integrity to say what he thinks, despite the demonstrated hostility of much of his audience, and -- what's more impressive -- the integrity, when he believes he has erred, to say that as well.