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Thomas Friedman and Israel

It long ago became evident that when he writes a column about the Jewish state, readers should expect a barrage of criticism.

Author and “New York Times” columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Credit: Twitter.
Author and “New York Times” columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Credit: Twitter.
Jerold S. Auerbach
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016) and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book for 2019.”

Journalists associated with The New York Times reporting from Israel have often revealed more about themselves than about the Jewish state. A prime example is Thomas L. Friedman.

It long ago became evident that when Friedman writes a column about Israel, readers should expect a barrage of criticism. His discomfort with the Jewish state traces back to his undergraduate years at Brandeis University, when he joined a left-wing “Middle East Peace Group” that blamed Israel for Middle East instability and favored Palestinian statehood.

Beginning in 1984, when he became Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times, Friedman seldom missed an opportunity to criticize Israel. The religious Zionism of Jewish settlers (living in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people) and its harsh military response to Palestinian terrorist attacks were his primary targets.

Celebrating the emergence of Palestinians as a distinctive people, Friedman expressed surprise that they were linked to terrorism, despite repetitively deadly attacks on Israeli civilians. He dismissed them as merely “a continual poke in the ribs.” Palestinian violence, he absurdly suggested, resembled the “non-lethal mass civil disobedience” of the American civil-rights struggle.

Equating Jewish settlers with Palestinian suicide bombers, Friedman saw “no hope for peace without a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.” Otherwise, Israel would “be stuck with an apartheid-like, democracy sapping, permanent occupation of the West Bank.”

The only hope for a “full peace,” he imagined, was “a complete Israeli withdrawal” from biblical Judea and Samaria (Jordan’s West Bank), eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. In translation, Israel should return to its precarious pre-1967 borders that had invited repeated Arab attacks.

Friedman also suggested that the King of Saudi Arabia pray at the Al-Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount “to reaffirm the Muslim claim to East[ern] Jerusalem.” He seemed oblivious that the Temple Mount, as its name indicates, was the location of the ancient Jewish Temples and has remained the holiest of Jewish sites.

Former President Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel in 2013 elicited praise from Friedman for suggesting that Israel “collaborate with Palestinians to build a West Bank [Arab] state that is modern, secular and Westernizing.” He reminded readers (erroneously) that “crazy” Jewish settlers had assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when he tried to cede part of the West Bank for peace. Rabin’s assassin lived in the Israeli city of Herzliya.

If Israel rejected a peace proposal from former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that included Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, wrote Friedman, then Israel would undermine itself as “a Jewish and democratic state.” Unless it accepted Friedman’s suggestions for peace, he has preposterously warned, Israel “could become some kind of apartheid-like state in permanent control of over 2.5 million Palestinians.” According to Friedman, it “sinks ever deeper into a de facto binational state controlled by Jewish extremists.”

Israeli politicians across party lines, Friedman has claimed, have ignored “the existential and moral questions posed by the occupation.” But he ignored the reality that “occupation” meant the return of Jews (the “settlers” he despises) to their biblical homeland. Friedman wondered “what kind of society is Israel to become?” Would it be “a Jewish South Africa, permanently ruling Palestinians in West Bank homelands” or will it be “a Jewish Prussia, trying to bully all its neighbors.” As it turned out, neither. It was then, and has remained, the only democratic state in the Middle East.

As a columnist, to be sure, Friedman is free to pontificate about what is best for Israel, which he has rarely hesitated to do. He has flattered himself as “a principled critic of Israeli excesses.” But his coverage of Israel has closely resembled the reporting of Joseph W. Levy, the first Times reporter in Palestine (hired in 1928). Levy launched the anti-Zionist critique that became the hallmark of the daily newspaper’s discomfort with the idea—and eventual reality—of a Jewish state. Thomas Friedman, convinced that the Jewish David has become the Israeli Goliath, is his worthy successor.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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