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November 9, 2022 3:43 pm
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Tom Friedman Column Is So Wrong It’s Funny

avatar by Ira Stoll

Opinion

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

So wrong it’s funny.

That’s one way to to describe the latest column from Tom Friedman in the New York Times, which appears under the apocalyptic headline, “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.”

Wrong as in just plain factually inaccurate, to the point where a correction is warranted. Friedman claims, “You have not seen this play before, because no Israeli leader has ‘gone there’ before.” Writing about Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, Friedman writes, “Netanyahu has increasingly sought over the years to leverage the energy of this illiberal Israeli constituency to win office, not unlike how Trump uses white nationalism, but Netanyahu never actually brought this radical element… into his ruling faction or cabinet.”

It isn’t actually true that Netanyahu “never actually brought this radical element…into his ruling faction or cabinet.” In fact, Smotrich was Minister of Transport in Netanyahu’s government from 2019 to 2020. The sky did not fall. Friedman doesn’t tell readers this, perhaps because it would undercut his thesis that “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.”

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What makes it funny is that Friedman and the New York Times have been proclaiming the death of the Israel they supposedly once loved for forty years now. In the 1992 collection of essays With Friends Like These: The Jewish Critics of Israel, a chapter by Jerold Auerbach described Friedman in the early 1980s as watching “an Israel he had deeply believed in while in high school and college recede from gilded, heroic mythology to the shadows of bleak reality.” And, as Auerbach notes, Friedman’s disillusionment with Israel even predated the 1980s Lebanon War. “By the time he graduated from Brandeis University in 1975, he had already identified himself with the Palestinian national cause, with apologies for PLO terrorism, and with the single organization so reflexively critical of Israel that it quickly became a pariah group within the American Jewish Community.”

Friedman writes basically the same falsehood-riddled column after every major or minor news development in Israel. He predicts that this time this latest event — whatever it might be — is going to lead the world and American Jewry to shun Israel. Each time, Friedman’s fear turns out to be wrong. In 2017, for example, Friedman claimed, “the foundations of Israel’s long-term national security are cracking… Under the leadership of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Israel is … drawing a line between itself and the Jewish diaspora, particularly the U.S. Jewish community that has been so vital for Israel’s security, diplomatic standing and remarkable economic growth.” Five years on, Israel’s economic and diplomatic standing is stronger than ever, thanks to the Abraham Accords and to Netanyahu’s leadership, and Friedman looks foolish.

Other commentators have already made interesting additional substantive points responding to Friedman’s hysteria. For the Jewish News Syndicate, Jonathan Tobin noted that any gaps between Israel and American Jewry may be more attributable to assimilation among American Jews than any Israeli electoral outcome. “If Jews don’t care about being Jewish, then they aren’t going to be inclined to support Israel, no matter who is in its government,” Tobin writes.

Elliott Abrams, writing at his Pressure Points blog at the Council on Foreign Relations, advises, “hold off on the doomsday talk. Netanyahu is a known quantity as prime minister because he was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister ever. His party is by far the largest in his coalition and as his long record shows he is as canny a politician as Israel has produced. Moreover, he has in the main been pretty prudent as a leader, avoiding war and conflict whenever possible and watching carefully where the voters are. It is not at all to be assumed that the government will be under the thumb of Ben Gvir and or Smotrich.”

And Daniel Gordis, in a detailed rebuttal on Substack, takes on the “Fifth Column” issue.

Tom Friedman writes that “Netanyahu has been propelled into power by bedfellows who see Israeli Arab citizens as a fifth column who can’t be trusted,” intimating that Israeli Arabs are not a fifth column. Some are, some aren’t. In our podcast series, I’ve interviewed many Arab women and men who are quite the opposite. But if you live in the Negev, if you have farmland you can’t protect from Arabs in the south or the north, you’re fearful. If you’re a young Jewish Israeli woman afraid to walk in downtown Beer Sheva, you don’t think a “fifth column” is a ludicrous claim.

Ben-Gvir knows that. Friedman can dismiss it, but Israelis increasingly don’t. The left and center ignore the issue, and now, Israelis are ignoring them.

It’s ironic that the New York Times, which has taken in its news columns to calling Israeli Arabs “Palestinians,” is faulting Israeli Jews for expressing concern on this issue.

Gordis writes that he lacks Friedman’s “certainty… that things are going to be horrible,” and cautions that when it comes to Israel, “little about this place plays out as we expect.” Indeed, little about Israel turns out as Tom Friedman expects.

The main utility of Friedman these days is as a humor columnist. It’s actually a relief to read him with the knowledge that all the dire things he predicts: “profound effect on U.S.-Israel relations” or an erosion of “bipartisan support in Washington,” are figments of Friedman’s hyperactive imagination aimed at his far-left New York Times readers, rather than reflecting a nuanced understanding of Israeli reality.

Friedman’s been warning for 40 years that Likud governments and policies will undercut Israeli security. Israel is far more prosperous and secure now than it was when Friedman started issuing the warnings back in the 1980s, as Netanyahu drily put it in his recent autobiography, back when “newspapers…still wielded a powerful influence over public opinion.” That influence has eroded not only owing to technological trends but because readers have learned that columnists such as Friedman are not trustworthy.

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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