The presidency of Donald Trump has opened with some alarming blunders. The administration released a sweeping immigration and refugee ban that was halted by numerous federal courts, most definitively the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And the president made the fateful decision not to divest personally from his global business empire, a stubborn judgment that puts him sharply at odds with the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prevents collection of payments from foreign governments.
But the impulsive new president has launched yet another ill-conceived commitment that is likely to come back to haunt him. He has nominated his personal bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, as U.S. ambassador to Israel. A columnist for a rightwing newspaper in Israel and activist for a West Bank settlement, Friedman’s relentless denunciation of Democrats and liberal Jews mark him as a polemicist unfit to represent the American people as an ambassador anywhere, above all to Israel where he is a partisan actor in the conflicts of the day.
The posting to Israel calls for a skilled, prudent, tactful and accomplished diplomat. We have been blessed in the past with excellent ambassadors to Israel, both political appointees and career foreign service officers. Today, with prospects for the two-state solution dangerously slipping away, we need to send to Israel the very best diplomat that America has to offer.
But David Friedman is no diplomat, no statesman and no conciliator. He is a firebrand activist openly contemptuous of the two-state solution, which has been an official American policy commitment for decades. Friedman has called former President Barack Obama, who swept the Jewish vote in back-to-back presidential elections, a “blatant anti-Semite.” He has called presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the choice of 71 percent of Jewish Americans, “no friend to Israel.” As Daniel Kurtzer, who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, says of Friedman: “He has made clear that he will appeal to a small minority of Israeli — and American — extremists, ignoring the majority of Israelis who continue to seek peace.” The New York Times describes Friedman’s views as “far to the right” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Because he has vilified Palestinians, Muslims, liberal Jews, Democrats, Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry, Friedman is a terrible selection for ambassador to Israel. He has opined so passionately on so many Middle East issues — like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which he has loudly championed, and the two-state solution, which he ridicules — that he has essentially boxed Trump in on all of the main problems to be negotiated there. If it is true that Trump, a self-proclaimed master negotiator, wants to broker the “ultimate deal” in the Mideast, an Ambassador Friedman would impede the process because he long ago swept all the president’s bargaining chips off the table.
Meantime, Friedman’s selection is a wrecking ball in American politics and specifically the Jewish community, which needs reconciliation and dialogue, not more division and polarization. Friedman calls leading Democrats anti-Semites simply for taking public policy positions he disagrees with. For example, whatever one thinks of the Iran nuclear agreement, surely we can all acknowledge that there are decent people of good will on both sides of the issue, all of them seeking what they think is best for America, for Israel and for world peace and security. By accusing Obama and Kerry of “blatant anti-Semitism” for negotiating the Iran agreement, Friedman tells a preposterous and defamatory lie that distorts the meaning of anti-Semitism.
While lobbing the charge of anti-Semitism at leading officials who disagree with his foreign policy commitments, Friedman elaborately defended the Trump campaign’s infamous closing TV ad in November 2016 against criticism from the Anti-Defamation League that it trafficked in classic anti-Jewish stereotypes. This was the darkly ominous commercial which pictured billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein on the screen as Donald Trump warned that “the establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”
Defending the ad as mere “fake anti-Semitism,” as opposed to the “real anti-Semitism” of Hamas and “the Palestinians,” Friedman said that the ad’s critics, like ADL and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, had lost “all credibility” and “sound like morons.” He then tried to displace attention from the makers of the ad by denigrating the people featured in it, questioning their Jewishness in the most arrogant and presumptuous way: “I doubt people even know that Janet Yellen is Jewish. She’s never done anything in her life to identify as a Jew. Other than the fact she happens to be born of a Jewish mother, she has done nothing to be Jewish.”
Of George Soros, a refugee from Nazism who has dedicated much of his life and fortune to defending liberal democracy, Jewish causes and the “open society,” Friedman wrote that “most people don’t even know that he’s Jewish. He doesn’t have a Jewish name. He’s done nothing to positively identify with the Jewish community at any point in his life. George Soros has done more to vilify the State of Israel and to fund anti-Israel propaganda machines than almost any individual on the face of the earth. The idea that by criticizing George Soros I am anti-Semitic, or I am indicating anti-Semitic tendencies, when George Soros is himself one of the great enemies of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, turns the world on its head.”
Friedman believes that “less than half of American Jewry” is pro-Israel because apparently you can’t be pro-Israel in his book if you favor a real two-state solution, which 78 percent of American Jews do. Friedman caused a storm of protest when he likened supporters of J Street — which calls itself the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” — to “kapos” in Nazi concentration camps who helped send fellow Jews to their deaths.
Friedman redoubled his criticism of liberal Jews and even upped the ante with this expansion of his critique: “Are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos?” he wrote. “The answer, actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos — Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
In 2017, the world is aflame with political extremism, religious fanaticism, rising anti-Semitism and racism, and authoritarian attacks on freedom and human rights. Now is a moment that calls for maximum prudence and diplomacy in office, cultural bridge-building and creative political action to break the brutal logic of hatred and war. The confirmation of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel would be bad news not only for Israel and the Palestinians, but for solidarity and civility in the American Jewish community.
Jamie Raskin represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the House of Representatives, where he serves as vice-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee and sits on the Oversight and Government Reform and the House Administration committees.