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Thomas Friedman and the New Anti-Semitism

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Though The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman invariably characterizes himself as a friend of Israel, his Dec. 14 column illustrates the slippery slope along which critics of the Jewish state invariably slide as they attempt to shout down those with whom they disagree.

In an effort to simultaneously bash Republican supporters of Israel as well as the Israeli government, his frustration with Israel’s enduring popularity led Friedman to engage in smears more typically associated with fringe intellectuals such as Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. It’s not just that Friedman disdains Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s belief in the U.S.-Israel alliance, but that in order to justify his contempt he finds himself having to paint Israel as being intrinsically unworthy of any support.

First, Friedman is wrong that Newt Gingrich’s line about the Palestinians being an “invented people” means Israel wants to rule the West Bank indefinitely. Rather, the injection of some truth about the history of the conflict ought to highlight a fact that journalists like Friedman have done so much to ignore: the inextricable link between Palestinian nationalism and a belief in the destruction of Israel. The point that Gingrich and many others have tried to make is that unless and until the Palestinians reinvent their identity and political culture in such a fashion as to drop their desire to extinguish the Jewish state, peace is not possible.

Second, let’s address one of the primary slanders at the heart of his piece: that the standing ovations Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received last spring in Washington were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Rather, they were the result of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans – Jew and non-Jew alike – think of Israel as a friend and ally. They, and their representatives in Congress, believe the Jewish state’s security is, contrary to Friedman’s formulation, a vital U.S. interest in the Middle East. It is true, as Friedman says, that the applause may not have been a personal endorsement for Netanyahu, but that’s because it was also a stiff rebuke to President Obama’s attempt to ambush the Israeli prior to his visit with his speech about the 1967 lines, whose purpose was to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians.

The notion that the only reason politicians support Israel is because of Jewish money is a central myth of a new form of anti-Semitism that masquerades as a defense of American foreign policy against the depredations of a venal Israel lobby. This canard not only feeds off of the traditional themes of Jew-hatred, it also requires Friedman to ignore the deep roots of American backing for Zionism in our history and culture.

Friedman goes on to embarrass himself by contrasting the reception Netanyahu received on Capitol Hill to the one he might get at a center of leftist academia such as the University of Wisconsin. There’s little doubt he would not be cheered there. But the same would be true of most American politicians or thinkers who deviated from leftist orthodoxy. The notion that liberal campuses are more representative of public opinion about Israel than Congress is laughable.

But Friedman doesn’t stop there. He goes on to enumerate various Israeli sins that should, he thinks, cause American Jews and our leaders to distance themselves from the Jewish state.

Some of the items he lists are troubling. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s closeness with the Putin regime in Russia is a mistake. But can a small nation under siege be blamed if one of its leaders sees the value in maintaining relations with a powerful nation? And many Americans, Friedman included, have at times criticized opinions or decisions made by our own secretaries of state. Disagreeing with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton isn’t considered a good reason to abandon support for America’s continued existence and security, so why should it be so for Israel?

The violent actions of a tiny band of extremist settlers are also unsettling. But it’s a stretch to say such activities are representative of the Jewish communities in the territories, let alone that of the entire country. Even less credible are Friedman’s citing of ultra-Orthodox attempts to segregate buses in their neighborhoods by gender and the Knesset’s consideration of bills that make it harder for foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to pursue propaganda campaigns that support Israel’s enemies.

The fight over the buses is ongoing, but it is a struggle conducted by competing groups in a democratic society. Any effort to portray an overwhelmingly secular Israeli culture as one that is dominated by haredim bears little resemblance to reality.

The attempt to skew the debate over the legislation about the NGOs or even efforts to reform a court system (whose power far exceeds that of the United States) as anti-democratic is equally off the mark. The lively debates on these issues that represent efforts to impose some accountability on foreign bodies as well as on an out-of-control judiciary is a sign of a healthy democracy. Those Israelis and Americans who have attempted to argue the contrary are merely engaging in partisan bickering that has little to do with the truth about the Jewish state.

Israel is an imperfect society, but the idea that its imperfections should cause American Jews or Americans in general to back away from it are without substance. More than that, it reflects an urge to judge it by a double standard that would not be applied to our own country or any other. Treating the one Jewish state in this manner is indistinguishable from any other variety of the prejudice we rightly term anti-Semitic.

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine with responsibility for managing the editorial content of its Contentions website – where this originally appeared – as well as serving as chief politics blogger.

About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.


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