Larry Derfner Tries to Think Like a Historian… Not!

Larry Derfner came to my attention a while back for a particularly nasty expression of moral indignation at some “racist” Israeli sentiments, and in looking into Derfner’s positions on other issues, I ran across an article he wrote on the “Irrelevance of Arab Hatred.” It struck me as a particularly good example of a dogmatic defense of the Politically Correct Paradigm whose logic ignored any contradictory evidence and yet expressed itself in terms of a “logic” of causal analysis.

Part of what makes reading the two articles — “Rattling the Cage: Israel is their home” and “The Irrelevance of Arab Hatred” — so striking when considered together is that the very sentiments he denounces among Israelis as “piggish” and “racist”, he sweepingly dismisses as insignificant when they show up — in far more virulent form — among the Arabs.

The Irrelevance of Arab Hatred


By Larry Derfner
derfner illustration
The consensus view of the intifada among Israelis, Diaspora Jews and American conservatives — that it’s caused by Arab hatred and rejection of Israel — is nothing but a lousy excuse. An excuse to say Israel is wholly blameless in this affair, and there’s nothing Israel can do except plod on, dying and killing. It’s an excuse to block out any doubt, and to go on with this bleak worldview that does, at least, offer the comfort of certainty.

Often when people speak in such blunt and dismissive tones they are telling you about themselves. The clue here is: “an excuse to say Israel is blameless…” which is in a league with “any time you criticize Israel in any way, you’re accused of anti-Semitism,” and “oh so it’s all my fault…” a line favored by children and spouses who don’t want to take any responsibility. The totalistic language of dismissal gives you a clue to the motivation, here projected on those who dare point out the importance of Arab hatred in perpetuating the conflict. Reverse the logic and you’ll get an idea of where Derfner is going (I know, no fair, I peeked). Dismissing the importance of hatred among Arabs allows us to return responsibility for action squarely on Israeli shoulders.

So let’s introduce a little doubt. If all this terror is caused by Arab hatred and rejection of Israel, how do we explain Egypt? Egypt’s armed forces haven’t fired a single shot at Israel in over 25 years. Does Egypt hate Israel any less than the Palestinians do? Are its newspapers and bookstores and general public discourse any less loaded with anti-Semitism? Does it have any less abhorrence for the idea of a Zionist state across its border?

Well, no. It’s true that Egyptian (and Arab) media are filled with anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic material, that paranoid conspiracy theories about Israeli gum causing impotence and Israeli shampoo causing baldness have destroyed economic relations between the two countries. But it’s also true that the intensity of indoctrination about Israel is nowhere near the levels in the Palestinian Authority, that children do not graduate kindergarten by symbolically dipping their hands in the blood of Israelis or collaboratiors slain in effigy, that Egyptian officials don’t structure Egyptian identity around the notion of sacrificing anything and everything for the sake of destroying Israel. Egypt, in other words, is not a frontline state in the war against Israel, and its government is not run by suicidal merchants of death. So no, it’s not the same and the idea that it is, shows how little Mr. Derfner knows (or cares) about what’s going on in the Arab world.

Egypt is the biggest, strongest country in the Arab world, an incomparably greater threat to Israel than the Palestinians ever could be. Its society is rampant with Islamic and Arab nationalist militancy, and hatred of all things Jewish. Yet even though the Egyptian “street” erupts in war cries, the Egyptian leadership resists.

If Arab hatred and rejection of Israel is the reason for Palestinian violence, why has Egypt been so thoroughly nonviolent toward Israel for so long?

This is obviously intended as a rhetorical question intended to be answered: “Arab hatred is not the reason for Palestinian violence.” But Egypt and the Palestinians are not equal entities. With Egypt, there’s an address: were they to start a war, not only would the Israelis pound them, but the media would not step in to protect their military as it does the Palestinian “civilian” fighters. The Egyptians have lost three major wars to the Israelis and have buried the hatchet, because unlike Palestine, Egypt is not run by suicidal maniacs who have been delegated as the sacrificial victims on the altar of Arab pride.

The same question could be asked about Jordan. Jordan hasn’t touched Israel in 35 years. As a matter of fact, most Jordanians are themselves of Palestinian origin; do they hate or reject Israel any less than do their brethren in the West Bank or Gaza? So why hasn’t Jordan joined the intifada?

Remarkably, we can even raise this issue regarding Syria. Except for when Israel went galumphing through Lebanon in the early 1980s, Syria hasn’t mixed with Israel since the last of the Yom Kippur War.

Which leaves, among Arab nations on Israel’s borders, Lebanon. Here we have to place an asterisk. Hezbollah is without question fighting Israel. But another unquestionable fact is that since the Israeli army pulled out of southern Lebanon over two years ago, Hezbollah has fought Israel with only a small fraction of its previous intensity.

Israel shares borders with five different hateful Arab nations. It has formal peace with two of them: Egypt and Jordan. It has de facto nonbelligerency with a third, Syria. With a fourth, Lebanon, it has a limited border clash. Only with the fifth and smallest neighboring Arab nation, the Palestinians, does Israel find itself in an agonizing war with no end in sight.

Derfner presents all this as if it were a “natural” situation. Both of those peace treaties were with governments that recognized they could not defeat Israel and preferred to step away from belligerency, but whose “street” continues to embrace it. Were either of two factors to change — a new government that embraced belligerency (e.g., an Islamist government) or a shift in the balance of power wherein the present government thought they could win — this situation upon which Derfner builds his case, would cease to exist.

What’s special about the Palestinians? Not their hatred of Israel, not their rejection, not their fearlessness and certainly not their strength. What’s special is that they are the one Arab nation whose rightful country — the West Bank and Gaza Strip — has been usurped by Israel.

Now that is an interesting formulation: whose rightful country — the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Straight out of PCP (is it 1 or 2?), it assumes a) that the Palestinians have a rightful country that it consists of the WB and the GS, and b) that they recognize that as their rightful territory and will be satisfied with that. The first strikes me as an indulgent form of cultural imperialism — if the Palestinians have a “right” to a country it’s conditional on their becoming a responsible people, which is far from self-evident, and further, we know what are the “right borders” because it’s convenient for us to designate this area as their “rightful country.” The second assumption is classic cognitive egocentrism — I’m sure they’ll be happy with what we’ve designated for them… after all, that’s what they say in English… more or less. Having assumed the truth of this extraordinarily unlikely concept, everything else Derfner has to say falls into place, including his (coming) contempt for the Israelis in their arrogant occupation.

Every other neighboring Arab nation can tend to its own affairs without any Israelis around, but the Palestinians have 220,000 Israeli settlers, and many thousands of Israeli soldiers, staring them in the face, lording it over them.

Again, the key to the formulation here, to the term “lording it over them” is the axiomatic assumption of Politically Correct Paradigms (PCP) notions: the Israelis have a choice, if they just would stop “occupying” Palestinian space as defined by us honest and fair progressives, then there would be no conflict; if they are there, it’s to lord it over people… etc.

This is the way it’s been since 1967.

And before 1967 there was peace? Jordan and Egypt and Syria didn’t engage in violence against Israel then? Or does this remark reflect the classic PCP anachronism? That is, the history of the conflict begins with 1967 and the “occupation” is therefore the source of the conflict.

Even in the “good old days” of the Oslo accord, when the “peace camp” was running Israel, the West Bank settlers kept taking more and more Palestinian land. Palestinians still had to pass through Israeli army and border police checkpoints on their way through the West Bank, and the more candid Israeli soldiers, not to mention human rights organizations, can tell about the frequent brutalities and humiliations that went on there.

One would not know from this description that during these “good old days,” the PA was engaged in a systematic campaign of hate-mongering (but I forget myself, hatred doesn’t count) and that suicide bombing was only the most grotesque expression of that hatred. As for Derfner’s sources here, the “more candid Israeli soldiers” represent a group with exceptional moral sensibilities and self-critical faculties (bordering on Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome (MOS)) and the “human rights organizations” represent a group at once dedicated to a dubious ideological agenda and full-fledged dupes of Pallywood.

It’s true the Palestinians turned down a good-faith Israeli offer of land-for-peace at Camp David to launch the intifada, which puts most of the blame for the current bloodshed on them. But not all the blame. For three and a half years, between the bus bombings of 1996 to the outbreak of the intifada, the Palestinian Authority effectively put down Hamas and provided the Israelis with pretty good security. But in return for delivering three and a half years of a decent approximation of peace, the Palestinians didn’t get much more land — only 13 percent more of the West Bank in that fairly quiet period. Meanwhile Israeli settlements and bypass roads kept eating away at what Palestinians and the rest of the world thought was supposed to become their state. So while the Palestinians are guilty of starting the intifada, Israelis can’t say they were innocent of any prior provocation.

Again we are treated to an extraordinary version of history. The opening phrase: “It’s true the Palestinians…” represents quite a concession from Derfner and the PCPers who normally dismiss the Camp David offering as “nothing but Bantustans“, but like a teenager with ADD, our analyst cannot stay long on the subject. The key factor needing analysis — why the PA responded to generosity with ferocious violence — becomes a concessive clause in a remorseless obsession with Israeli fault. The rest of the paragraph segues from “mostly” but “not entirely” the fault of the Palestinians, to focus on Israel’s contribution to a problem. As for the description of the conditions, we get classic MOS: they did a good job (“delivered a decent approximation of peace”), we were awful. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explore just what version of reality and what maps Derfner uses to give us his statistics, but I suspect he’s getting them from trusted sources like the PA and the NGOs.

It’s also true the Palestinians killed the chance for peace with their demand for the right of return, and for exclusive Islamic rule over the Temple Mount. They’re going to have to drop these demands if the fighting is ever to end. But why is it unimaginable that the Palestinians might change?

Here we get a good insight into the thinking behind PCP. We know what’s good for you (positive-sum). It’s obvious what you have to do. And I’m sure you will soon see the light. Unfortunately, this last rhetorical question Good question, to which there are depressing answers, is about to get a “why not?” answer.

Egypt provoked the Six Day War, and later joined Syria to attack Israeli forces on Yom Kippur 1973, killing 2,600 of our soldiers. Who would have thought that four years later Egypt’s leader Anwar Sadat would be cheered wildly on the streets of Jerusalem,

But not Cairo or any other Arab capital.

and that one-quarter century of peace would ensue? A cold peace, even freezing — the important thing is that no one gets hurt.

Larry, why do you sound like a Jewish grandmother? 25 years of cold, even freezing peace is a solid sign that things are getting better? That the Palestinians, in following in the path of Egypt and Jordan, will lead to no one getting hurt?

The Egyptians would love to be rid of Israel. So would the Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese. But they don’t dare try it, because they’re afraid of Israel’s superior power. As long as Israel leaves them alone, the Arabs, with the minor exception of Hezbollah, don’t do anything more than mutter. And if Israel leaves the Palestinians alone — if it gets the settlers and soldiers out of the West Bank and Gaza — there’s no inherent reason why the Palestinians shouldn’t eventually come around and join the other neighboring Arabs to hate and reject Israel, but to leave them in peace.


It’s harder to come by a better example of cognitive egocentrism. All that’s missing is a comment like the one made by a specialist on NPR at about the time this column was written: “Any Palestinian with a three-digit IQ knows that Israel is here to stay.” Derfner clearly thinks that what’s on the surface in the Arab world is what counts. If Egypt maintains a 25-year long cold peace, then that’s solid.

James C. Scott, in one of the best books of historical and sociological analysis I know, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, quoted Vaclav Havel on his opening page:

Society is a very mysterious animal… with many faces and hidden potentialities… and it’s extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at any given moment is its only true face. None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population. Vaclav Havel, May 31, 1990.

By now it should be obvious I think Derfner is “extremely short-sighted.” He tries to engage in “causal analysis,” and show by comparison with other cultures that have the same factor but don’t behave in the same way, that the factor in question — hatred — has no causal importance. But what if… what if hatred is not a homogenous entity — there or not — what if at different levels it operates at differently, and needs a tipping point in order to trigger activity?

During the intifada, for example, one sardonic Israeli commentated that the violence could be calculated by MDPH (Muhammad al Durah per Hour) on Palestinian TV. Whipping up outrage and hatred unquestionably plays a role in provoking violence. The question is not, hatred or not, but how much, when, where, and operating in what psychological climate. Unquestionably the Palestinians suffer more than other Arabs as a result of their contact with the Israelis. But that’s not by accident. They are the designated victims; for the rest of the Arabs to remain quiescent in their hatreds, the Palestinians must be “on the front line.”

What Derfner has attempted here is the kind of causal analysis historians are supposed to do all the time. What were the causes of the French Revolution, Bolschevik Totalitarianism, World War I, etc.? We then look for the factors that look like they might apply, we compare the situation to other places with the same factors to see if they operate the same way. For example, Alexis de Toqueville wrote a famous book on the French Revolution arguing that it was not poverty that caused it (since there was worse poverty in the rest of Europe), but rather rising and disappointed expectations. (A similar point disproves the causal link between poverty and terrorism today — lots of places with poverty but no terrorism.) This is as close to the idea of “science” and “proof” that historians get in causal analysis.

What historians have found, over time, is that a) things are overdetermined: lots of things contribute to a given effect; b) given our inability to sort out the “noise” of countless details we cannot “control for” (unlike laboratory scientists), we dare not claim to “prove” anything, only “demonstrate”; and c) most events are part of a web of factors and without understanding the cultural ecology one really doesn’t have much of a handle on what’s going on. (For a wonderful meditation on this issue, see Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play Arcadia.

In the case in question, we are dealing with an ecology of hatred which, like some epidemic, has outbreaks in different populations and spread according the factors that need close attention. The model we use has a great deal to do with what we look for and notice. For example, if one uses the PC Paradigm, that is, that the rational behavior of the surrounding Arab states will communicate itself to the Palestinians — or, in Derfner’s words: “there’s no inherent reason why the Palestinians shouldn’t eventually come around and join the other neighboring Arabs to hate and reject Israel, but to leave them in peace” — then hate is irrelevant and not worth paying attention to.

If one follows the Honor-Shame Jihad Paradigm (JP) (i.e., that the Palestinians are a key factor in a larger Arab strategy for destroying the humiliating existence of Israel), then hate is a key factor in keeping the violence going in Palestine, and simmering in the rest of the Arab world. In the one model, concessions will produce reciprocating de-escalation; in the other they will produce further violence. In other words, according to the paradigm that Derfner rejects a priori (as racist and hateful), the hatred that Derfner acknowledges is omnipresent in the Arab world but dismisses as a relevant factor, will metastasize as a result of the policies he favors.

Thus, by PCP expectations, a withdrawal to ’67 borders will bring peace; but by JP expectations, it will bring a sense of empowerment and a spread of violence. (Even Derfner acknowledges that it is only the fear of Israeli retaliation that keeps the Arabs at bay.) These issues are obviously no small matter. And Derfner’s analysis, riddled with liberal cognitive egocentrism which he asserts aggressively (as if to disagree was immoral as well as stupid), is crude even by the standards of early 20th century positivist historiography.

Derfner’s problem, the source of his crude and superficial causal analysis lies in his agenda. He wants so badly to believe that there is something “his side” can do to advance peace, that he will view the world in such a way as create “real” possibilities for constructive action — i.e., withdraw to the 1967 borders. Given the immense flaws upon which the PC Paradigm is based, one might expect those who still adhere to it after 2000 to show just a bit of modesty in their advocacy.

But no. Derfner is filled with contempt for those who might view the situation differently. His confidence in such a faulty paradigm leads him to give the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt and to heap criticism on “his own.” Finkielkraut identified the dynamics here: Derfner is not a hate himself; its other Jews he holds in contempt.

If this were merely the overheated moral imagination of Jews afflicted with Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome then the rest of the world could just look on, like the centurian in Life of Brian who shakes his head in disbelief as he watches the People’s Front of Judea and the Campaign for Free Galilee duke it out.

But it’s far more problematic than that. While Derfner and his moral-perfectionist friends do their public dance of self criticism, feeding an increasingly frenzied chorus of anti-Israel hysteria on the left, they make it virtually impossible for the uninformed outsider to perceive the situation and its gravity.

It’s not anti-Semitism that fuels are current malaise, although antipathy to Jews and Israel surely adds some boost to the fuel. It’s our inability to get out of the Moebius Strip of cognitive egocentrism in which people like Derfner project positive-sum rationality on Arab elites in their dealings with Israel and the West, and they project zero-sum bad faith on us. If, in our eagerness to self-criticize, to “break the logjam” by making more concessions, we support their accusations against us and dismiss any criticism of their position as “racism”, then we are lost.

19 Responses to Larry Derfner Tries to Think Like a Historian… Not!

  1. Hillel Stavis says:

    All of the criticisms levelled at the myopic Mr. Derfner were right on target. His contortionist logic reminds me of Mike Gold’s preface to his 1936 novel of gritty Jewish life on the lower east side, “Jews Without Money”. Gold, the literary “enforcer” for the CPUSA, dismissed Hitler’s Jew hatred and prognostications of extermination by noting that “Jewish capitalists and bankers” were not to be held blameless in provoking such a response. Writing barely a year after the Nuremburg Racial Laws, Gold, dutifully concluded that it was the working class, not the Jews who would suffer at the hands of the brown shirts – “Plus ca change…” Sadly, Derfner’s idiocy has been elevated to the highest ranks of political policy within Israel and the United States.

  2. RL says:

    i was on a BU panel discussing whether the USA shd go into iraq in 2003 and one of the students asked if the situation in any way resembled that of the 30s. the immediate response of one of the most vociferous anti-war panelists was: “absolutely not.”

    now while i think there are obvious differences, the idea that there is no resemblance between now and the thirties strikes me as irresponsible to say the least. why don’t we have more studies of the 30s and the behaviour of the “peace-in-our-times” camp? i’m not sure.

  3. […] what “barometer for the political struggle with Israel” means, although MDPH (Muhammad al Durah per Hour) comes to mind. In othe […]

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  5. Rachel Salomon says:

    I just came across one of his articles in the Jerusalem Post. It does not surprise me that he is anti-Turkish as well. I can’t stand these left-wing self-hating Jews that put all of the blame on their own people while ignoring what the enemy does and puts all of the blame on Israel’s few allies while ignoring what their enemies have done. These people really get on my nerves.

  6. […] obviously a matter of speculation, since we’re dealing with a counter-factual. But Derfner, whose ability to think historically is somewhat compromised by his political agenda, typically presents his argument as an open and shut case rather than the […]

  7. […] I don’t think there’s any Haredi, Sefardi, Dati Leumi, Anglican Monk, Arab Terrorist and French Tourist who couldn’t get behind the idea of spitting on Larry Derfner. […]

  8. […] responded thrice in the Spring of 2008 to Dernfer’s rattling his cage about Al Durah – here, here, and here – and I probably should leave him to rattle in peace. But there’s […]

  9. […] responded thrice in the Spring of 2008 to Dernfer’s rattling his cage about Al Durah – here, here, and here – and I probably should leave him to rattle in peace. But there’s […]

  10. […] have already discussed some of Larry Derfner’s writings, whose liberal cognitive egocentrism stands out even in a […]

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