JFNA’s Sandler taking heat for support of David Friedman
The chairman of one of America’s largest Jewish membership organizations is facing criticism for publicly supporting President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for ambassador to Israel.
Appearing in Tel Aviv on a panel about Israeli-American relations under Trump, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) board of trustees chair Richard Sandler spoke highly of David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer and Trump confidante.
“I believe he’s a very intelligent individual, and I think he’ll be a good representative if he is confirmed,” Sandler said, according to Haaretz. “My expectations of him are very positive.”
Friedman has made headlines for inflammatory comments about liberal Jews, for instance, comparing members of the left-wing group J Street to Jews who collaborated with the Nazi regime. Sandler’s support for Friedman came as a shock to some who feel those comments are disqualifying.
“Unless one really represents the majority view of the organization, sometimes it’s better just to keep your mouth shut — and this is one of those times,” said Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and national chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Israel arm of the American Reform movement. “And I’m sorry that he did it.”
Meanwhile, Sandler, a Santa Monica-based attorney and former chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, was quick to frame his comments as a personal opinion, rather than the view of JFNA, the umbrella group for Federations across the continent.
“The comments reported in the press were in response to a question directed to me about David Friedman and reflected my personal view, based upon my analysis of the situation and my personal contact with Mr. Friedman,” Sandler wrote in an email to JFNA trustees. He declined to comment for this story.
At the panel, Sandler cited Friedman’s apology before the Senate as grounds to move beyond the nominee’s past statements.
“These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them,” Friedman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a confirmation hearing last month. “They’re not reflective of my nature or my character.”
But Rosove of ARZA, who is also a member of the executive rabbinic cabinet of J Street, was less than convinced.
“I’m surprised that a distinguished leader of the Los Angeles Jewish community would believe anything that David Friedman says,” he told the Journal.
He said that ARZA’s board voted unanimously to oppose Friedman’s appointment. He called Sandler’s support for Friedman wrongheaded and inappropriate, saying he hoped the Federations leader would recant his view.
Others in the community were more disappointed than angry about Sandler’s comments.
“He’s done a lot for both the L.A. as well as the national Jewish community,” Adam Wergeles, a co-founder of the West L.A. congregation IKAR, told the Journal. “And on the other hand, you have a guy like Friedman who has said some horribly divisive things about progressive Jewry. And it is upsetting to see someone like Sandler — who’s kind of using his stature — to support what felt to me like Friedman’s very convenient and self-serving retraction.”
Yet Sandler is only one of a number of mainstream Jewish leaders now expressing support for Friedman. On Feb. 19, Stephen Greenberg, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said Friedman has “all the makings” of a successful diplomat and spoke highly of his performance before the Senate.
Greenberg stopped short of issuing an endorsement, while others felt it necessary to go further.
Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, which represents more than 100 synagogues and 25,000 members nationwide, said he felt compelled to speak out in favor of Friedman after hearing criticism from the left. He said he took Friedman for his word when the nominee apologized for past comments.
“These people who come out against him are not really people who know him,” he said, citing multiple conversations he’d had with Young Israel members who knew Friedman personally and spoke highly of him.
Sandler’s comments come on the heels of a public debate on whether Federations should take political stances at all. The L.A. Federation came under fire last month after an email from its president and CEO addressed – but did not denounce – Trump’s executive actions on refugees and immigration.
At the time, Sandler told the Journal that he supported the L.A. Federation’s decision to refrain from taking a position, saying political statements invariably upset some donors.
“Federations really should not get involved in making statements one way or another, because they need not get distracted from the work Federations are supposed to do,” he said at the time.
JFNA has previously shied away from commenting on political appointees. In November, the group came under pressure to condemn the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist for his role at the helm of Breitbart News, but declined to take a position.