Trump’s Pick for Israel Ambassador Is ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Hazardous’ for The New York Times
The New York Times launched a triple-barreled critique (December 17) of President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of David M. Friedman as the next American Ambassador to Israel. A front-page article (co-authored by reporters in Jerusalem and Washington, bolstered by additional contributions from New York, London and Jerusalem and two researchers) was followed by the lead editorial and an adjacent op-ed. Taken together, they comprised a fusillade of disapproval of the “Orthodox Jewish bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island.”
Why did the Times go ballistic (ironically on the Jewish Sabbath)? The first sentence on Page 1 reveals: Friedman is “president of the American fund-raising arm for a yeshiva in a settlement deep in the West Bank headed by a militant rabbi.” The next paragraph discloses that he has written columns for Arutz 7, the Israeli news site identified with religious Zionism. Further along, readers learn that Mr. Friedman actually “refers to the West Bank by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria” — gasp! — and, as the poisonous frosting on the cake of Times disapproval, Mr. Friedman disclosed his anticipation of working “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem,” thereby replacing its location in Tel Aviv since 1948. His appeal, suggested former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel C. Kurtzer (who also wrote the op-ed), is limited to “a small minority of Israeli – and American – extremists.”
The lead editorial headlined Friedman as “A Dangerous Choice,” who is “likely to provoke conflict in Israel and the occupied territories, heighten regional tensions and undermine American leadership.” With “no diplomatic experience” and “extremist views,” he even “expects to have his office in Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv.” Imagine! Trump’s choice of Friedman, the editorial concluded, is a “reckless step” that displays “a dangerous ignorance of or indifference to the land mines across the Middle East” – and, it seems, in Times editorial offices.
According to the title of Kurtzer’s op-ed, Friedman is “Hazardous to Peace.” His “reckless words” and “extreme views,” Kurtzer warns, disqualify “someone so lacking in experience and knowledge” for the position of ambassador – especially to Israel. Representing only “a small, extreme minority of Americans who have in mind the interests of a small, extreme minority in Israel,” Friedman – “whose views are congruent with those of the extreme right in Israel” – could “severely damage the United States.”
Now that it has fired its news and editorial guns, perhaps the Times should take a deep breath, stifle its outrage — at least momentarily — and give Trump’s and Friedman’s shared vision of American-Israeli relations a chance. But for reasons deeply rooted in 120 years of New York Times history, that is highly unlikely.
Adolph S. Ochs, who purchased the Times in 1896 and launched the enduring Sulzberger publishing dynasty upon his death in 1935, was the son-in-law of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founding leader of the American Reform movement. Ochs embraced the Reform definition of Judaism as a religion, not a national identity. The fledgling Zionist movement, urging the restoration of Jewish national sovereignty in the land of Israel after nearly 2,000 years, was anathema to the Times publisher. He perceived a menacing Zionist challenge to the loyalty of American Jews to the United States.
During nearly 70 years of Jewish statehood, the Times has repeatedly expressed its intense displeasure whenever Israel disregarded Ochs-Sulzberger norms – whether to defend itself against Arab/Palestinian aggression or restore a Jewish presence in biblical Judea and Samaria. Right-wing prime ministers – along with Jewish settlers and Orthodox Jews — have often aroused the ire of editors and columnists alike. Political liberalism, entwined with American patriotism, have provided a strong Times buffer against fearful insinuations of dual loyalty.
Since 2009, relentless Times criticism of Israel has been framed within the acrimonious tension between a liberal American president and a right-wing Israeli prime minister. With Donald Trump’s election victory, and his appointment of an Orthodox Jew as ambassador to Israel, the Times’ worst liberal assimilationist nightmare looms as a menacing reality on Inauguration Day.
Jerold S. Auerbach is completing a history of The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016.