Prediction: Israeli Democracy Will Outlast Tom Friedman’s New York Times Column
by Ira Stoll
Tom Friedman usually cranks out opinion columns at the rate of about one a week. This week, he’s gone into overdrive, publishing not one but two separate columns about Israeli judicial independence.
Both columns display the double standards, lack of context, anonymous sources, and logical flaws that too often characterize New York Times coverage of Israel in general, and Friedman’s columns in particular.
The Times online subheadline on the first of the two columns has the Israeli prime minister’s name misspelled as “Netanhayu.” It goes downhill from there.
The column reports on President Biden weighing in on the debate over judicial reform in Israel. When Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to Congress about the Iran nuclear deal, Friedman whined about it: “The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner to cook up an address to Congress by Netanyahu on why the U.S. should get tougher on Iran is churlish, reckless and, for the future of Israeli-American relations, quite dangerous.”
Friedman called Netanyahu’s speech “an insult,” claiming, “It doesn’t only disrespect our president, it disrespects our system and certain diplomatic boundaries that every foreign leader should respect and usually has.” Friedman advised, “Just lie low, Mr. Netanyahu. Don’t play in our politics. Let America draw its own conclusions.”
Yet when it comes to Israel’s politics, Friedman throws respect for diplomatic boundaries to the wayside, and solicits a statement from Biden that, as Friedman characterized it, “weighed in on an internal Israeli debate.”
Got that? When Netanyahu weighs in on the Iran deal before Congress, it’s dangerous and disrespectful. But when Biden weighs in on Israeli judicial reform, Friedman praises it as practically heroic. It “will add credibility to America’s voice in support of democracy globally,” Friedman claimed. That is funny, because what Biden is doing is actually undercutting Israel’s democratically elected government, which was elected by Israel’s voters while promising to reform the judiciary. Only in Tom-Friedman land is it in “support of democracy” when an American president tells a democratically elected prime minister not to do what that prime minister promised the voters he would do.
Likewise, the Biden statement speaks of the importance of “an independent judiciary.” In America, the president nominates the judges. And even the current American system is under fire from Biden, who himself appointed a commission to consider changing the Supreme Court. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge or mention any of these ironies or double standards, taking Biden’s statement at face value.
Friedman’s second column on the topic is no better. Headlined “Netanyahu’s Judicial Coup Could Destroy His Start-Up Nation,” the column asks, “If the Israeli legal system that has gradually and collaboratively evolved over the past 75 years was so awful — so in need of emergency radical surgery overnight, without any national debate — how did it help produce and guard the Israeli economic miracle of the past 20 years that Netanyahu always, and justifiably, takes credit for and has made Israel’s middle class amazingly prosperous?”
The claim that the reform is “without any national debate” is laughable. The issue has been debated ad nauseam. I saw Ayalet Shaked, who was then Israel’s justice minister, speak on the topic in 2018.
Friedman’s question has plenty of possible answers. Maybe if Israel had a better legal system, Israel’s economic growth would have been even more robust.
Friedman complains about what he calls “an extremist right-wing think tank inspired by the Federalist Society in America.” That’s classic Times behavior, hurling insulting adjectives —“extremist,” “right-wing”— rather than thoughtfully arguing the merits of an issue. If an Israeli civil society group had been inspired by the American Civil Liberties Union or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, you can bet that the extremist left-wing columnists at The New York Times wouldn’t mind one bit.
The Friedman column ends with five paragraphs from an anonymous source: “one of Israel’s most important, veteran high-tech investors, who asked not to be identified for fear of government reprisals.” The anonymous source likens Israel to a house with termite damage: “It looks great today, but it will one day suddenly collapse.”
One might turn Friedman’s question back at him: if the Israeli legal system status quo is so terrific, why is the important high-tech investor fearful of government reprisals for speaking out?
Tom Friedman has been predicting Israel’s catastrophic collapse, incorrectly, since the 1970s, writing basically the same falsehood-riddled column after every major or minor news development in Israel. This time around, he can’t even get his source to speak to him on the record.
The journalistic commercial incentives all tend toward Friedman hyping Netanyahu’s proposal as the collapse of Israeli democracy. If Friedman is wrong, he can just write another column in a few months, making the same prediction.
My own prediction is that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and as a democracy will outlive the presence of Tom Friedman’s columns on The New York Times opinion pages. That is a prediction I make in my own name—without hiding behind any anonymous sources.
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.