'There's no daylight between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to combating antisemitism'

The 2023 March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau would be jointly led by US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides and his immediate predecessor, Ambassador David Friedman.

 Current U.S Ambassador Thomas R. Neidas with former ambassador David Friedman (photo credit: Gil Shimon US Embassy)
Current U.S Ambassador Thomas R. Neidas with former ambassador David Friedman
(photo credit: Gil Shimon US Embassy)

It seemed like a simple idea: The American Ambassador to Israel, a Jewish Democrat and his predecessor, a Jewish Republican, will both lead the March of the Living (MOTL) this April in Poland. But in 2023, when both American and Israeli politics are so divisive and polarized, this type of unity is rare and inspiring.

In November, the MOTL announced that the 2023 march from Auschwitz to Birkenau would be jointly led by US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides and his immediate predecessor, Ambassador David Friedman.

The idea of participating in the MOTL was actually Friedman's. As Nides recalled, "About three months ago, David asked to come over and see me, and when David asks to come see me, I usually get worried," he laughed. "But in this particular case, David said he had an idea: That we participate together and co-chair the MOTL together." 

MOTL Poland March (Credit: YOSSI ZELINGER)MOTL Poland March (Credit: YOSSI ZELINGER)

Nides loved the idea and said that "it's an important thing to do, and it shows not only bipartisanship, but that Holocaust remembrance and antisemitism knows no political boundaries."

Friedman was surprised that Nides answered positively so quickly and asked the current ambassador, "Don't you have to check with anyone?" Nides immediately responded, "No. Actually, I don't. This is about the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism - there's nothing about this to check out."

Nides continued, saying that he's happy to be embarking on this journey with Friedman, even though and probably because "we don't agree on a lot of stuff. But we certainly agree on the love of Israel and, obviously, the need to fight terror." 

According to Nides, there is "a huge problem [of antisemitism]" in the US, and therefore it is important to "make sure people never forget why it's important to fight the hatred out there." He added that "by just showing up for the day-and-a-half and marching, I'm just trying to do this in a small way." 

Friedman shared during the interview that the current political climate in the US and Israel is "painful to watch." He continued, saying that he sees "the Jewish world so divided, on so many issues," and that he's actually tried to "bridge that divide, so far, with resounding success."

"I thought to myself, this is actually something that we agree upon. There's got to be something that everyone in the Jewish world can unite us and bring us all together, that we all agree upon." What Friedman understood is that "fighting antisemitism, in its broadest sense," is what can unite all Jews. "It's a shame that antisemitism is what we need to bring some unity to the Jewish people," Friedman said. "It's been true for many generations, but it is what it is."

"We're not divided on the fight against antisemitism, and the support of Israel is an element of that fight against antisemitism."

David Friedman, Former US Ambassador to Israel

Friedman recalled the meeting with Nides a few months back and quoted his colleague by saying that "As Tom said, we don't agree on a lot of political issues, but foundationally we actually agree on a lot, which is: We both love the State of Israel; We both want to fight antisemitism, so Tom seemed like sort of the perfect partner in this, because it's a great way to demonstrate to the world how two people who don't necessarily see the world the same way in terms of how to get from point A to point B, but what's in our hearts are very much the same."

Friedman added that he "thought it was needed three months ago, and I think it's needed even more today." 

Both Nides and Friedman, interestingly, have no direct family connection to the Holocaust. "I grew up as a small little Jewish kid in Duluth, Minnesota, as the youngest of eight children. We grew up as liberal and secular Jews, but my parents were big leaders in the Jewish community of Duluth. It's kind of an oxymoron. My father headed the UJA, and our mothers headed the Hadassah sisterhood. So, we grew up understanding the importance of never forgetting." 

Nides shared that "fortunately for us, my family and ancestors were not, thank God, victims of the Holocaust, though it didn't stop us from understanding and learning." 

The ambassador said that he remembers his first visit to Israel when he was 15 and the visit to Yad Vashem. "I think it made an indelible mark on who I am as a person, so it's really important."

Interestingly, Nides and Friedman grew up on opposite sides of the American Jewish community. Friedman shared that he "grew up as the son of a rabbi, in a traditional, Orthodox environment." He added that his parents and grandparents are not Holocaust survivors, "but my grandparents' siblings were, in many cases, Holocaust survivors.

There was a whole group of family members that I never had the privilege to meet or see, but they weren't my immediate family. I always had a sense growing up that something was going on that I didn't know about and that I should know about. And it, if you will, kind of cast a shadow on the happiness of my parents and their generation." 

Even though they grew up differently, they both read the book "Night" by the late Elie Wiesel when they were younger and were deeply influenced by it. Friedman read Night when he was in seventh grade. "It had this incredible effect on me," he said. Nides added that he read the same book at about the same age. "I was a little smarter than David," he said with a smile, "I think I read Night when I was in the sixth grade." And on a serious note, Nide added that "it was a defining moment. Because in a graphic detailed way, you saw how people survived the single biggest tragedy in our society." 

Nides emphasized that this part of both of their upbringings is interesting since David "grew up in a much more religious household," and that he, who grew up as a secular Jew along with others in his generation, saw the Holocaust as "this a part of why you were a Jew. We grew up in a secular family, but part of our religious study between our grandparents and our confirmation in our Sunday school was the idea of reminding you about the Holocaust; reminding you of what you might do; that this could happen again, and that we, as David points out, can never forget."

Nides said that he is excited about the fact that the MOTL is mainly young Jews who participate: "It's an opportunity for young people. The vast majority of participants will be school-aged kids. How cool is that? How important is that, in an era where this next generation will become further away from the tragedies of World War II and the Holocaust? These people will begin to be just memories, and I think what's woken up people is that the scourge of antisemitism is on our minds to purge it from society. But part of that is to remind people how easily this has taken off as an issue."

"I think politics is broken everywhere," Friedman said. "I think everybody is equally to blame. They're [politics] broken in America; they're broken in Israel. And in much of Europe, it's just broken." He added that "the first reaction that people have when something goes wrong is to blame somebody else instead of just trying to solve the problem. It's the reflex that seems to have taken over everybody's politics. I'm sure it's hard for Tom to watch it; it's also hard for me to watch it."

Friedman's message he would like to get across is that marching together is "a small thing where we say, 'Look. Maybe the politics are broken, maybe they're not, but we are still capable as political figures, as human beings, as Jews, as Americans, to take a stand for something that unifies us and that we believe in.'"

He concluded that while we may be divided on many issues, "we're not divided on the fight against antisemitism, and the support of Israel is an element of that fight against antisemitism."

Nides asked to conclude by stating that the government he represents will do anything in its power to combat antisemitism. "We need to fight back. We need to push back and to protect people. We also need to educate people." He added that "there's a lot of hate out there both in the US and in Europe. It's all over the world. And ultimately, you have to be smart and strategic about how you manage it." 

"David and I both agree that there were plenty of instances in the recent year where people opened up their mouths and said stupid things. And that it's important that we call those people out, so they understand that it's not right and it's not acceptable."

Friedman concluded that "there's no daylight whatsoever between Democrats and Republicans, or at least this Democrat and this Republican and probably so many more," he said of the fight against antisemitism and the support for Israel. "America and Israel have internal debates. We're seeing the Jewish people in both countries having their internal debates. There are conflicts, but don't think we don't both get together on issues that we care about."