The case against David Friedman

February 15, 2017
David Friedman in New York City on June 21, 2016. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

Who ever thought that the savior of the Jews would be Rand Paul?

The libertarian Republican senator from Kentucky may just end up casting the decisive vote in the confirmation of David Friedman to be the United States ambassador to Israel. If Paul joins with the Democrats on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, President Donald Trump’s pick would find his ascension to the high profile and sensitive job blocked.

Senator Paul, do it.  For our sake.

Here’s my pitch: Within reason, presidents have the right to choose their representatives.  Ambassadors don’t make policy, they help communicate or enact it.  As Trump’s longtime bankruptcy lawyer, Friedman is more than qualified to do Trump’s bidding– assuming he can figure out what that is.

During his campaign, Trump came out very strongly for moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for supporting the current government’s settlement policies and for ripping up the Iran nuclear deal.

Those are all positions that garnered Trump ardent support from a minority of Jews. And they are positions that Friedman, who has served Trump as his personal lawyer, holds as well. Friedman is an ardent supporter of Israel’s settlement enterprise. He has donated money to help build at least one of them. He speaks Hebrew and has a home in Jerusalem, where he said he will conduct official business. He also despises the Iran deal.

But now President Trump no longer seems as keen on any of these promises as Candidate Trump. In fact, over the past three weeks, Trump has completely walked back or broken them all. After a brief meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, he decided to go very, very slowly on moving the embassy. As for settlements, in a Feb. 9 interview with Israel Hayom newspaper, Trump said, “Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace.”

Wait, no. President Barack Obama said that in a 2013 speech. Here’s what Trump actually said to Israel Hayom: “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

Anyway, same difference.

On the Iran deal, Trump ate a lavish meal of hot, roasted crow. Last week, The Wall Street Journal headlined the fact that Trump administration officials are “Committed to Keeping the Iranian Deal Alive.” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), once among the deal’s most outspoken critics, echoed his boss, I mean, the president, saying it appears to be working.

All these reality checks will no doubt lead to some challenging questions for Friedman as he appears before the committee beginning Feb. 16.  He will have to serve up a more thoughtful, realistic and nuanced view of U.S. policy in the Middle East than the stories Trump told his eager and, alas, most gullible Jewish supporters.

But wherever Trump– or Friedman — stands on these positions isn’t why I want Sen. Paul to vote against him. The fact that he is a diplomatic neophyte in an extremely complex region might give some people pause, but not me.  He certainly won’t be the least qualified person the president has selected, and as we now know, he is far from the most compromised.

The reason I’m hoping the committee’s hawkish Democrats and Paul vote against Friedman has less to do with Israel, and more with the Jews.

During the election, Friedman referred to the pro-Israel peace organization J Street as “kapos” and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “morons.” When Jewish groups expressed outrage, Friedman doubled down. On a right-wing website, he answered whether he could possibly equate Jews who support a two-state approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with Jews who collaborated with Nazis to kill their fellow Jews.

“The answer,” Friedman wrote, “actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos — Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

To my ears, those sentences disqualify Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

As I’ve written before, a plurality of American Jews support a two-state approach. This doesn’t necessarily translate into support for J Street. You can support two states and still disagree with J Street’s strategy or its positions on other issues. But in any case, Friedman is drawing a battle line and damning, in the most vicious and undiplomatic way, a significant portion of American Jewry.

What Friedman said is bad for Israel, which has long depended on broad support among American Jewry to ensure bipartisan support in Congress. And it’s bad — really bad — for the American-Jewish community. As much as the ambassador represents the U.S. to Israel, he or she also serves as one of the most high-profile leaders of American Jewry.  There are not so many of us that we can afford leaders who denigrate and write off entire portions of this community, who stoke enmity and inflame hatred.

After this column went to press for the Jewish Journal print edition, various web sites reported that Friedman, in a private meeting with the New York Board of Rabbis, apologized for his “kapo” comments.  He will have to do so sincerely, and publicly, before that apology is accepted.

Israel will survive David Friedman; American Jewry, I’m not so sure. Sen. Paul, strange as it seems, we’re looking to you.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

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