JERUSALEM ““ The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, a non-profit legal aid society affiliated with Israel’s settler movement, wants an investigation into whether a recently terminated Jerusalem Post columnist is guilty of encouraging Arab terrorism against Israeli civilians. The request came in a letter to State Prosecutor Yehudah Weinstein that was obtained by The Jewish Standard.
The columnist, Larry Derfner, set off a firestorm of debate recently when he published a controversial post on his personal blog allegedly suggesting that the recent triple terror attack in Eilat was “justified.” Eight Israelis were killed in that attack.
Among other comments that angered so many, Derfner wrote, “Palestinians have the right to resist [the occupation] – to use violence against Israelis, even to kill Israelis.”
Derfner’s remarks and the debate over them “went viral,” in the language of the Internet, propelled by conservative Israeli bloggers who have often criticized Derfner in the past. It quickly led to what Derfner claimed were “hundreds of notices of cancellations of subscription[s]” sent to Post editor Steve Linde, who then fired Derfner.
News of Derfner’s termination also went viral. It was picked up within hours by the Agence France-Presse and JTA wire services, and published in major newspapers around the globe, including The New York Times, Lebanon’s Daily Star, and France 24.
Derfner’s controversial statements were also reported on the website of the Hezbollah-controlled satellite network Al-Manar, as well as by Palestinian media outlets Ma’an and Al-Quds. This, in turn, led to the decision to pursue legal action against the columnist.
At the heart of the investigation is the question of how free a free press should be in an Israel under siege. In its letter to Weinstein, the Legal Forum alleged that Derfner “expressed in no uncertain terms the legitimacy and justification of that massacre [in Eilat] and [other] terrorist acts committed by Palestinians against Israeli civilians.”
His comments, the letter claimed, constitute “serious violations of the prohibition of support and encouragement of terrorism and of incitement to terrorist acts and the murder of Israelis.”
The forum cited a 1948 ordinance on the prevention of terror, which outlaws the “publication of praise, sympathy, or a cry for help or support of a terrorist organization, or an act that reveals identification with or sympathy for the terrorist organization.”
On the other hand, despite the circulation of Derfner’s comments in some Arab media, Palestinian media figures in the west bank insist they are not aware of Derfner’s statements and that, in any case, his comments were not of concern to most Palestinians.
Fadi Abu Sada, editor-in-chief of the independent Palestine News Network, said that he is “sure that [the Palestinians] are not aware of what happened in The Jerusalem Post,” and added that he “didn’t hear about that” himself. Palestinians are much more concerned about Israel’s social justice protests and the upcoming Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N., he said.
Chief Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib also said that he was not familiar with Derfner’s comments or the debate surrounding them, and that there would be no official comment coming out of Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah.
However, he added, “you may get reactions coming from unofficial levels here.”
Derfner sought to calm the controversy by posting an apology. In it, the frequently controversial commentator, who had provided a left-leaning counterpoint to such conservative Jerusalem Post columnists as Caroline Glick and Isi Leibler, wrote that he “wasn’t ‘for’ terrorism,” and did not mean to suggest that he was. “[W]hile I thought the occupation justified [acts of terrorism], that didn’t mean I supported it. But I see now that the distance from ‘justified’ to ‘support’ is way, way too short, and I am as far away as anybody can be from supporting attacks on Israel and Israelis. I don’t want to write obscenity about Israel. I didn’t mean to, and I deeply regret it.”
Seemingly bitter about his firing, Derfner explained that what bothers him most is “that I’m not being given the opportunity to fill in the picture that’s been so distorted.” He added that “the parts of the picture being obscured or outright hidden would show that while I misspoke myself harmfully, my intent was not to support, endorse, advocate, encourage, or call for terror against Israelis, but to end it.”
Derfner’s apology was described as unacceptable by Post editor Linde, who wrote in The Jerusalem Post that “the substance of Derfner’s apology itself was not convincing. He used ludicrous logic to defend his position, repeating the same obscene sentiments that made many readers sick to their stomachs in the first place.”
Derfner has his defenders. Dimi Reider, writing in the Internet magazine +972, was one of the first media figures who came to Derfner’s defense.
“Larry’s dismissal is made all the more obscene,” Reider wrote, “by virtue of the light it sheds on the egregious double-standard that a once-professional publication now employs in regard to conservative versus liberal opinion; I say that as someone who fondly remembers the fairly conservative op-ed editor of my own time at the Post soliciting op-ed pieces he openly disagreed with.”
Conservative Israeli commentator Barry Rubin also came to Derfner’s defense, stating that “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. 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.”
Derfner, Rubin said, should have been “debated, not fired.”
Jameel Rashid, a pseudonymous Israeli blogger who was largely responsible for the public backlash against Derfner, disagreed with Derfner’s defenders that free speech was at issue. “No one has actually taken Derfner’s free speech away,” he wrote on his own website. “He has merely been removed from standing up on someone else’s private soapbox.”
Derfner himself told The New York Times’ Lede Blog that he intended to be “shocking.”
“[T]hat was my whole point,” he wrote. “I thought that shocking the Israeli public, not by my little blog alone, but as a strategy for the Left, might shake people out of their paralysis. It was sort of a reckless, blind conviction. Now I see that that’s one of the dangers, if not the danger, of a personal blog: no editor.”
The Ministry of Justice declined comment on the Legal Forum’s request, but said it was reviewing the matter.