New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was for a long time a particularly harsh critic of Israel. The criticism had a special edge, a sneer, to it. The Israelis were such idiots he almost couldn’t believe it.
As in a November 2009 column where Friedman asserted:
Right now [America] want[s] [peace] more than the parties…. Today, the Arabs, Israel and the Palestinians are clearly not feeling enough pain to do anything hard for peace with each other…. [T]hen I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table….
Full disclosure: Israelis don’t like this sort of thing. We don’t like being derided by a comfortable American Jew like Thomas Friedman for “not feeling enough pain,” not wanting peace. We don’t like being told that we and our rather peace- and democracy-challenged neighbors are on the same peace-refusing page, and a “detailed U.S. plan” is all it would take for flowers of harmony to sprout.
Then there was the March 2010 dust-up when Vice President Biden was here, and the Israeli Interior Ministry committed the terrific faux pas of announcing plans for apartments—for Jews, no less—in a Jerusalem neighborhood. Biden, Friedman wrote,
should have… flown home and left the following scribbled note behind: “Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you’re serious….”
Again, those damn idiot Israelis. If one were to veer into the psychological, one would note that in these outbursts Friedman himself is suffering embarrassment over what he sees as his boorish country cousins, and contrasting this rather emphatically with his American allegiance.
And there were other instances, as when, writing from Tahrir Square, Cairo, in February 2011, Friedman celebrated what he called a “Facebook-driven, youth-led democracy uprising” and jeered at Israel’s leadership—after all, what did these country rubes know about the region they lived in?—for being so “out-of-touch, in-bred, unimaginative and cliché-driven” as to think that the fall of Hosni Mubarak would usher in the Muslim Brotherhood.
All this, again, was especially nasty criticism, but not antisemitism. But if there’s one thing you learn from looking into antisemitism in today’s world, it’s that the severe and persistent Israel-critics have a larger Jewish problem.
A few months later, on May 19, 2011, President Obama shocked Israel and the pro-Israel community by calling for a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank—something both Israeli and U.S. military experts had long regarded as suicidal.
Five days later, in a speech to the U.S. Congress, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that, while he was ready to accept a Palestinian state beside Israel, it could only be under conditions that guaranteed Israel’s security and basic rights. The speech drew repeated rounds of bipartisan applause.
It was toward the end of that year, in a December 13 column, that Thomas Friedman pulled a shocker of his own.
Starting by deriding the “Republican competition to grovel for Jewish votes,” Friedman went on to write:
I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.
That was the point where Friedman—after years of Israel-hammering laced with a special contempt—crossed the line into classic antisemitism. He offered, of course, no evidence—he could not have found any—that the “Israel lobby” had “bought” all those legislators. As Elliot Abrams commented in response:
I would hope that in the cold light of morning Mr. Friedman would re-read what he wrote and withdraw the remark. Members of Congress in a country that is two percent Jewish stand to applaud Prime Minister Netanyahu because they, like their constituents, support Israel and want America to support Israel. Many of those standing and cheering were from districts where there are no Jews or a handful of Jews, and where Evangelical churches form the strongest base of support for the Jewish state. Now perhaps Mr. Friedman means those churches when he refers so nastily to the “Jewish Lobby,” but I doubt it. I think we all know what he means, and that is why he should withdraw the ugly remark fast….
Friedman’s statement drew other criticisms as well, and Friedman, in response, managed to come up with:
In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like “engineered” by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to.
Which was, of course, no real retraction, since it left in place the basic allegation that U.S. legislators could not think for themselves and were under the spell of Jewish power. And there was more to come.
Late in July 2012, then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited Israel. Thomas Friedman didn’t like it. He said the whole thing was “to satisfy the political whims” of conservative, pro-Israel, American Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson. Part of Adelson’s fortune came from the casino business, and Friedman sneered:
why didn’t they just do the whole thing in Las Vegas? I mean, it was all about money anyway…. Really, Vegas would have been so much more appropriate than Jerusalem. They could have constructed a plastic Wailing Wall and saved so much on gas.
Yes, Friedman is Jewish, but that—both in tenor and content—is antisemitism; the phenomenon of Jewish antisemitism is hardly unfamiliar. As Friedman saw it, the Jew, Adelson, dangled the money, and Romney could only lunge for it. It was all so odious that it justified mocking the “Wailing Wall” (better termed the Western Wall).
And just last November 19, Friedman was still going at it. Seized with fear that Netanyahu would scuttle the emergent nuclear deal with Iran (which, of course, he was powerless to do), and appalled that Congress, too, had misgivings about the deal, Friedman declaimed:
never have I seen more lawmakers—Democrats and Republicans—more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.
Elliot Abrams, reacting to this, was again on the ball and is worth quoting at length:
Who after all can be “certain” that there is a “growing tendency” on the part of “many American lawmakers” to put aside American interests and loyalties and simply do what their Jewish, Zionist paymasters require and demand? Well, Thomas Friedman…is “certain,” and here uses language that is the usual fodder of anti-Semitic journals and writers…. (By the way, what evidence does he offer for this astonishing charge? None.)
This is awful stuff. It does not seem to occur to Friedman that those lawmakers simply agree with the Saudis (and many other Arabs) and Israelis that the Obama policy they oppose is dangerous for the United States. They are not “taking Israel’s side against their own president’s” but taking America’s side against a policy they see as foolish and dangerous. Does Friedman think John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the key critics of Obama’s Iran policy, are beholden to “the Israel lobby” for their re-election campaigns, for donations, for future promotion? This is nonsense on stilts….
I suspect that if a guy named Joe Doaks sent in a proposed op-ed article to the Times that claimed (offering zero proof) that members of Congress are in the pay of the Jews and that’s why they vote as they do, more and more, taking Israel’s side against our president’s, the editors would reject it out of hand….
Abrams was right, of course; but this was the great “liberal,” Thomas Friedman, free to spout any twaddle no matter how offensive.
Friedman, so far, has only turned on the antisemitism spigot a few times. But as a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a super-high-profile figure, his words carry weight. He is exceptionally well situated to move antisemitism from the fringe to the mainstream—and he does it.