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July 13, 2017 2:11 pm

Fourteen Flaws in Tom Friedman’s ‘Israel to American Jews’ New York Times Column

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avatar by Ira Stoll


New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Photo: Charles Haynes via Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times devotes three columns on the top half of its op-ed page to an article by Thomas Friedman that appears under the headline, “Israel to American Jews: You Just Don’t Matter.”

By my count there are at least 14 different problems with the article, starting with the headline.

[Problem No. 1] “Israel to American Jews: You Just Don’t Matter” mischaracterizes the message sent. “Netanyahu to American Jews: You Just Don’t Matter,” or “Israeli Prime Minister to American Jews: You Just Don’t Matter,” would be a more accurate headline for Friedman’s column, because it quotes at least two Israelis, Michael Oren and Gidi Grinstein, who disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s moves. Friedman could have also pointed out that Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, who are both Israeli, have also differed with the moves Friedman criticizes. Since Lieberman and Sharansky are both Israelis who came from the former Soviet Union, that underscores a second problem with the headline [Problem No. 2], which is that Israeli conversions, and the chief rabbinate’s control over them and marriages, actually have more effect on Israelis from the former Soviet Union than on “American Jews.” Not that many “American Jews” seek to get married in Israel, but many individuals from the former Soviet Union do.

Characteristically, Friedman moves briskly from the flaps over conversions and over non-gender segregated prayer at the Western Wall to proceed to his more longstanding preoccupation, which is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian Arabs. In the third paragraph of the article, Friedman writes that Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership, is “erasing the line between Israel and the Palestinians.” This is from the same newspaper that is endlessly harping on Israeli checkpoints and the security wall that separates Israel from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. And in the same Friedman column that goes on to accuse Israel of heading toward “apartheid.” It seems to me [Problem No. 3] that these two lines of criticism are mutually contradictory. Israel can be erasing the line with the Palestinians or erecting barriers, but it doesn’t make any sense to attack Israel simultaneously for doing both.

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Friedman goes on for a while with this digression about the situation between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. He writes, “Bibi masterfully distracted Trump with a shiny object — a video of extreme statements by Abbas (with no mention of extremist actions by Israeli settlers).” This is [Problem No. 4] a false equivalency. Abbas is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Extremist settlers are a fringe element within a faction of the Israeli electorate.

Friedman goes on to quote a former Israeli politician, Ehud Barak, warning that Netanyahu’s policies “will inevitably lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.” Yet [Problem No. 4] there’s nothing inevitable about this whatsoever. Even if you add together the entire West Bank and all of Israel, 6.45 million Jews are more than 1.796 million Israeli Arabs and 2.9 million West Bank Palestinians. It isn’t even close. With the Arab and Jewish birth rates now roughly even, there’s no reason to believe that the situation will change anytime soon. That’s leaving aside the possibility of increased immigration to Israel by Jews from Europe or North America.

Finally, Friedman returns to his point about the Western Wall and conversions. He writes “There are roughly six million Jews in Israel, six million in the U.S. and four million spread elsewhere.” That [Problem No. 5] is a bogus statistic. He cites no evidence for it, provides no source, offers no hyperlink. A more accurate estimate would cite Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics for the figure of 6.45 million Jews in Israel. The American Jewish population is somewhere between 5.6 million (Pew, 2010) and 7.28 million (Brandeis), with the difference being that the Brandeis “high estimate” uses a broader definition that includes some people who might not identify themselves as Jewish. Pew says the world Jewish population is 14 million, meaning Friedman just somehow miraculously discovered, or manufactured, an extra 2 million Jews with his erroneous 6 + 6 + 4 = 16 formulation.

Friedman’s math gets even worse in his next sentence: “About 75 percent of the 10 million diaspora Jews are non-Orthodox, mostly followers of the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.” As we just saw [Problem No. 5 repeated a second time], the “10 million diaspora Jews” claim is a Friedman fantasy. But the real problem here [Problem No. 6] is that readers are left with the false impression that there’s something like 7.5 million Reform and Conservative Jews out there. In fact even the Reform movement itself claims merely that “More than 1 million Americans and Canadians are affiliated with Reform congregations,” with “nearly 900 congregations in the U.S. and Canada, more than 1,200 congregations worldwide.” The Conservative movement is smaller. In a 2011 financial report the Conservative movement claimed “approximately 657 affiliated congregations representing approximately one and a half million members”; by 2015 the number of affiliated congregations had declined to “approximately 594,” and the financial report stopped making any claims about how many members the movement had. The Pew research center looked at American Jews in 2013 and found 35% Reform and 18% Conservative.

The next problem [No. 7] comes in Friedman’s claim that Netanyahu “canceled a 2016 agreement to create a distinct egalitarian prayer space adjacent to the Western Wall…where men and women of the non-Orthodox movements could pray together.” That makes it sound, inaccurately, as if that prayer space was never created, or does not exist, or existed and was shut down. In fact, it does exist, and has since 2000. I attended a bar mitzvah there a few weeks ago and stood next to my wife. I have photos to prove it. There were several other bar mitzvahs going on at the same time, using Conservative-movement-issued prayer books. There’s an argument about how directly the gateway to this area should be connected to the rest of the Western Wall area, which if people want to argue about, great; a plan to resolve that argument has indeed been frozen. But, as the Times of Israel put it, “There is already pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall.”

Friedman is similarly shaky on the details when it comes to the conversion issue. He accuses Netanyahu of supporting a bill “‘pulling government recognition for private conversions’ — basically those done by non-Orthodox rabbis.” That [Problem No. 8] mischaracterizes the issue. Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel have never been recognized; at issue here is Orthodox conversions in Israel outside the chief rabbinate’s bureaucratic framework.

The next Friedman falsehoods come rapid-fire, in a string of claims. America, he writes, “is a steadfast supporter of Israel in the UN, looks the other way on settlements…and just promised Israel $38 billion in security aid over 10 years.” But the Obama administration abstained and allowed the passage of an anti-Israel UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlement activity, about which American administrations have consistently complained, albeit with varying degrees of vehemence. The American “security aid,” taking inflation into account, represents a reduction in previous aid levels, and adds a new requirement to spend the money on American defense contractors. It’s basically a taxpayer subsidy to the US defense industry using Israel as a cut-out. And it was only enacted by the Obama administration as a kind of consolation gift to Israel after Obama granted Israel’s enemy, Iran, $150 billion in sanctions relief, some of which was flown into Iran in cash stacked on cargo pallets in unmarked planes. So on the UN [Problem No. 9], on settlements [Problem No. 10], and on security aid [Problem No. 11], it’s just inaccurate to portray America, as Friedman does, as lockstep, shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel.

Friedman — like authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, whose book was widely criticized for trafficking in antisemitic tropes — attributes American support for Israel not to shared values or strategic interests but to the political power of the Jewish lobby. As Friedman’s source puts it, “this astonishing reality is the outcome of tireless work by hundreds of thousands of Jews — Democrats and Republicans, most of them non-Orthodox.” This [Problem No. 12] erroneously ascribes American support for Israel entirely to Jewish political activism. Not to take anything away from Jewish political activists, but plenty of other countries — say, India, Jordan, Japan, Turkey, Micronesia — have also seen fit to forge warm relations with Israel, even without large or politically influential Jewish populations. Their military and trade interests or values dictate it. American Christian support for Israel is also significant.

Friedman concludes by repeating the unproven accusation that we counted as Problem No. 3: “Runaway Jewish nationalism threatens to meld Israel with the Palestinians in the West Bank.” Again, the separation wall and the checkpoints don’t fit with the “meld” accusation. Then Friedman makes a new false claim that is probably the biggest fabrication of the entire long article: “Runaway Orthodox politics threatens to disconnect Israel from its most committed supporters.” [Problem No. 13]

For Israel’s “most committed supporters,” working for the Jewish state is not transactional, not something done in exchange for a section at the Western Wall or a sensible policy on conversions. Israel’s most committed supporters know that they’ve already gotten way more from Israel than they can ever give in return in political activism or money. They’ve gotten a state that is a refuge for Jews anywhere who need to flee oppression, a source of pride and spiritual energy and cultural renewal and national strength. To cut off Israel in retaliation for this would be like cutting off one’s own right hand. It would be self-defeating.

There is one last problem [No. 14], which is Friedman’s failure to take seriously the Orthodox objections to Reform involvement or control at the Western Wall. I myself am a member of a Conservative synagogue and support Conservative Jewish institutions, and have belonged to a Reform synagogue in the past, so I am inclined to be sympathetic. But at a certain point, when the Reform movement strays so far away from traditional Jewish law and practice as to have their rabbis officiate at marriages between Jews and Christians, or to serve shrimp in their synagogues, there’s a certain naivete about turning around and then being surprised or offended or indignant when the Orthodox rabbis aren’t exactly waiting to roll out the red carpet for them to bring those practices to the Western Wall.

Friedman’s column was headlined “Israel to American Jews: You Just Don’t Matter.” For 14 reasons, a more accurate headline would have been “Friedman to Facts: You Just Don’t Matter.”

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here

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