x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Free speech row after Jerusalem Post sacks writer over blog post

Larry Derfner's apparent justification of Palestinian attacks against Israelis in a post on his personal blog last month proved too much for the management of the newspaper where he was a columnist.

An injured Israeli soldier is brought into Yosseftal hospital in the Red Sea resort of Eilat after an ambush on a bus north of town last month which prompted a controversial blog from Larry Derfner. Yehuda Ben Itah / AFP Photo
An injured Israeli soldier is brought into Yosseftal hospital in the Red Sea resort of Eilat after an ambush on a bus north of town last month which prompted a controversial blog from Larry Derfner. Yehuda Ben Itah / AFP Photo

JERUSALEM // Larry Derfner, an Israeli columnist and blogger, is no stranger to controversy. His column "Rattling the cage" appeared regularly in the Jerusalem Post and stood out on the newspaper's right-wing editorial pages, offering a rare liberal counterpoint to pro-settler and, some might argue, anti-Palestinian sentiment.

But his apparent justification of Palestinian attacks against Israelis in a post on his personal blog last month proved too much for the newspaper's management. He was sacked from his columnist position and his views were labelled by the Post's editor-in-chief, Steve Linde, in an editorial he wrote on Friday, as "hate speech", "egregious" and "venomous".

"Derfner's blog later appeared on a Hamas website, giving succour to Israel's enemies," Mr Linde also wrote in the editorial.

Others, however, call his sacking a setback for free speech, a bid to pander to its readers and a business decision to retain subscribers.

"In the end, the firing was not an editorial decision, but an economic one," Bradley Burston, a liberal Israeli writer, wrote in the Huffington Post last week.

Criticising the Jerusalem Post for sacking Mr Derfner "over words which never appeared in its pages", Mr Burston said the decision "sets an alarming precedent" against free speech.

Even some of his ideological opponents spoke out against the sacking. Fellow Jerusalem Post columnist Barry Rubin wrote on the website of the Gloria Center, a think tank in Israel, that "I don't think Derfner should have been fired."

"All too often nowadays the response to disagreement is to try to destroy people on the other side of the argument, to delegitimise them with name-calling and to silence them. That's not the way democratic debate is supposed to work," he wrote.

The controversy stems from Mr Derfner's blog post on August 21, days after attacks in which eight people were killed by suspected Palestinian militants near the city of Eilat.

Titling the post "The awful, necessary truth about Palestinian terror", Mr Derfner appears to condone such violence in response to Israel's occupation.

He wrote that so "long as we who oppose the occupation keep pretending that the Palestinians don't have the right to resist it, we tacitly encourage Israelis to go on blindly killing and dying in defence of an unholy cause."

While saying that "I think the Palestinians have the right to use terrorism against us", he also cautioned readers that "I don't want them to use it" and "as an Israeli, I would do whatever was necessary to stop a Palestinian, oppressed or not, from killing one of my countrymen".

Nonetheless, his comments prompted angry reactions in the blogosphere and apparently angered the readers of the Jerusalem Post.

Some fellow liberals also feel he crossed a red line when it comes to terrorism. Gershon Baskin, a peace activist and editorial contributor to the Jerusalem Post, said: "The argument is different than saying Palestinians have a legitimate right to struggle against occupation, but I think those rights stop short of terrorism."

He also called Mr Derfner's argument "too much to handle" for the public.

Mr Derfner declined to comment on the issue, apologised and removed the 1,000-word post from his blog. But in an August 29 post he also suggested the newspaper had sacked him for financial reasons, saying that it "got hundreds of notices of cancellations of subscription after my blog post of Sunday last week".

The newspaper said it was "due to a professional disagreement" that was "connected to his personal blog", in a front-page announcement published on Tuesday.

In his editorial, Mr Linde, the chief editor, also said the newspaper had declined to publish Mr Derfner's apology and had instead "dissociated ourselves completely from his comments, to which we object in the strongest possible terms".

However, Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, warned that the Jerusalem Post's reaction to one of its journalists could backfire.

"You send a message that you don't stand behind your staff, and that you're open for blackmail," he said, using as an example potential demands to publish advertisements against journalists at the newspaper. "I don't remember any case of someone from Haaretz being fired for what he wrote in the paper or outside of it. It may be that I'm spoiled, but this is how I expect newspapers to operate in a democratic country."

hnaylor@thenational.ae