David Friedman, Donald Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel, may have been channeling Groucho Marx when he went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and seemed to contradict a string of insults he hurled against Barack Obama, liberal Jews, supporters of Israeli-Palestinian peace and others who don’t share his extremist views.
Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and a nominee utterly lacking in diplomatic or foreign policy experience, said the former president is an antisemite, the Anti-Defamation League are morons, the pro-peace J Street are like the kapos who collaborated with the Nazis and the Jewish Democratic leader of the US Senate is another Neville Chamberlain.
Friedman didn’t apologize, he just said those words are “not reflective of my nature and character.” It sounded like he wished he’d phrased his insults a bit more artfully. He reminded me of what Groucho famously said: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well I have others.”
He tried to dismiss his slurs as one-time emotional outbursts in the heat of a political campaign, but that’s hard to buy. He’d said many of those things repeatedly and often in writing and frequently well before the campaign.
Five former US ambassadors to Israel in both Republican and Democratic administrations, three of them Jews, have declared Friedman unqualified for the job. Of course, they’re right. Any fair-minded person who has read or heard what he’s had to say on the subject could come to no other conclusion.
But that won’t stop his confirmation, which is likely to sail through the Republican Senate. It will be difficult for non-Jews to justify to their Jewish supporters a vote against a Jewish ambassador to the Jewish state who has the enthusiastic backing of the Israeli prime minister.
Major Republican contributors, starting with Sheldon Adelson who shares Friedman’s extremist views, and many of AIPAC’ s hardline members will make this vote a litmus test for their support in future elections.
Forget that those views – opposed to Palestinian statehood, supporting annexation of much or all of the West Bank, favoring unlimited settlement construction – not only are contrary to longstanding bipartisan US policy but also to the views of the majority of Americans, Jews and non-Jews, as well as a plurality of Israelis.
This is about far more than a maladroit loyal retainer being rewarded by a grateful and myopic billionaire client for handling his bankruptcy cases.
Friedman’s nomination represents the role of Jewish extremists in the Trump administration who, like him, are rabidly anti-Arab, anti-reconciliation, intolerant and narrow minded, not to mention reflexively opposed to anything and everything done by the Obama administration.
Three out of four American Jewish voters opposed Trump, whose fundamental pro-Israel constituency is Christian Evangelicals. He lost the overall popular vote among all candidates by more than 10 million votes. His supporters are out of step with the mainstream of American Jewry and the American public.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represents what Trump represents – hatred, bigotry, divisive rhetoric, racism and intolerance.
Friedman’s selection exemplifies the deepening schism between Israel and its traditional followers: a prime minister who embraces the most extreme elements in Israel and warmly endorses an American president who does the same.
This is the wedge – not the antisemites, the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and the nativists who are a big part of Trump’s base – that is separating Israel from the mainstream of America, both Jews and non-Jews.
Prime Minister Netanyahu shares that extremism and created the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
The net effect, and what Friedman’s nomination represents, is to drive a deeper and wider wedge between Democrats and Jews on the one hand and the Republicans, Evangelicals and the Israeli far Right on the other.
Trump’s contribution, aided and abetted by the short-sighted Netanyahu, will be to make Israel an even more divisive and partisan wedge issue, further undermining the traditional bipartisan consensus that has endured for so many years.
Republicans boast they are the more pro-Israel party, and when that is measured by their support for the hardline Likud policies, the polls bear that out. But what does it really mean? Republicans, who have few other issues on which to appeal to Jewish voters (notably on the broad range of domestic issues and increasingly so in the Trump era), trumpet their contrast with the progressive Jewish mainstream by focusing on Israel.
Trump and Netanyahu have abandoned all pretense of bipartisan consensus. Trump doesn’t care; Netanyahu should.
Netanyahu, since his service in the early 1980s as the number two at the Israeli embassy in Washington, has energetically encouraged that wedge strategy and he can claim Ambassador Friedman as a monument to his success.
Since Trump has come to office there have been dramatic increases in antisemitic incidents, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats against Jewish community center centers and schools and other hate crimes. References to antisemitism and the Nazi murder of six million Jews were edited out of a White House proclamation on the Holocaust.
The president is reportedly planning to eliminate the State Department’s special envoy for combating antisemitism is the false guise of needing the money to fund a massive hike in defense spending.
Meanwhile, the president has barely uttered three sentences of protest against this rising tide – unlike his vice president – as if none of this concerned him.
Only after several waves of antisemitic incidents did the White House spokesman say the president is “deeply disappointed” by the incidents and “condemns” them. He can’t cower behind his Jewish grandchildren as if that gave him absolution for the bigotry spawned by his administration.
Netanyahu’s shameful marriage with this hate-spawning president can only accelerate the flight from active support for the Jewish state by the American Jewish mainstream, leaving the pro-Israel playing field totally in the hands of the extremist minority that shares his shortsighted and self-serving views.