Sunday, December 18, 2011


The surf's up and Thomas Friedman has got the biggest, baddest board of them all.   He's not just going to ride the wave.  He is going to attack it.  He is one angry, mean surfer.  Nothing seems to get in his way, particularly reality.

The creation and acceptance of the new conventional wisdom is like a wave.  We seem to have wave after wave when it comes to Israel. A few issues, much hyperbolic talk by Israeli politicians, some very irresponsible comments by some members of President Obama's Cabinet,  a willing press, and the truth is born, facts be damned. 

When it comes to Israel, the newest wave appears to be an amendment of the prior one holding that if only Israel would stop building "settlements,"  there would be peace and reconciliation within minutes. Now, in addition to Israel's "settlements" preventing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, it also seems that Israel's democracy is about to be destroyed.  

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recent demand that Israel and the Palestinians just "get to the damned bargaining table" seemed to, at a minimum, put the onus equally on the parties for the lack of negotiations, conveniently forgetting that Israel has been pleading for direct negotiations for over a year and suspended West Bank "settlement" expansion for 10 months in order to motivate the Palestinians. 

Never mind that the Palestinians refuse to come to the bargaining table unless Israel makes major concessions prior to negotiations.  Never mind that it is now official policy of the "moderate," ostensibly peace-seeking Fatah party of the "moderate," ostensibly peace-seeking President Mahmoud Abbas/Abu Mazen to harass and threaten Palestinians who attempt to meet informally with Israelis.  (See "Fatah declares war on 'normalization' with Israel", Jerusalem Post, Dec. 18).  Preventing people from talking--what a way to promote peaceful coexistence.

Never mind that Dennis Ross, key Middle East negotiator in the administrations of the first President Bush, Clinton, and Obama recently stated that Abbas is determined to avoid negotiations with Netanyahu because he does not believe he can get the deal he wants and does not want to be blamed for failed negotiations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly followed up by comparing the offensive efforts of a relatively few fanatical ultra-Orthodox Jews to segregate women and men on buses with the pervasive racism of the Deep South of the U.S.  Never mind that the Israeli Supreme Court has twice declared the practice illegal and Israeli media are full of stories on how the government is taking action to stop the practice, while segregation in the South was wide-spread and government-sanctioned and supported for decades. 

Never mind that millions in the South accepted and supported their racist way of life while most Israelis are appalled by this treatment of women.  Never mind that both the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Prime Minister Netanyahu have clearly condemned the odious practice.

Never mind that a former President of Israel recently started to serve a sentence handed down by an Israeli Arab judge for crimes against women while in office.  One wonders if Secretary Clinton ever compared that demonstration of democracy with the handling of another President with whom she is quite familiar who claimed he did not do "IT" with a White House intern.

Secretary Clinton apparently was not satisfied with just comparing Israel to the racist South.  She went onto say that the one incident in which five religious male soldiers walked out of a ceremony in which female soldiers were singing because of an ultra-Orthodox prohibition on watching women sing (you can't make this stuff up) reminded her of the treatment of women in Iran.  Yes, Iran!! 

Never mind that they imprison, torture, and kill women in Iran for showing too much skin, or for adultery, or for being raped, or for being lesbian, or for converting to a religion other than Islam.  Never mind that the Israeli soldiers were punished and the behavior roundly condemned by the Army, many in the government, and by society in general. 

Never mind that Israel has had a woman prime minister, has a woman Supreme Court president, and has women as leaders of two of the largest opposition parties. To Secretary Clinton, one isolated incident makes Israel comparable to Iran in its treatment of women.

So, the new wave of conventional wisdom is that Israel is an oppressive country at risk of destroying its democracy.  And the wave is gaining strength amongst those in D.C. and New York who spend a lot of time talking to each other. It's time for those who like to catch a popular wave rather than to think and analyze independently to grab their boards.  There is no greater surfer of popular waves than Thomas Friedman.

So, in a column overwrought, preachy, condescending, and mean-spirited even for him, Friedman has caught the wave with a vengeance.  His recent N.Y. Times op-ed, Op-Ed Columnist: Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir,  is a screaming, hugely overstated, angry, highly selective, mostly fictional commentary on the state of Israel's democracy. 

Friedman takes isolated incidents by extremists with little following, completely ignores counter-efforts by both citizens and government, and almost gleefully concludes that Israel is on its way to being the next fascist state. To back up his conclusion, he quotes a columnist from the Haaretz newspaper. That's like citing Bill O'Reilly for an assessment of President Obama or The Nation for an assessment of George Bush. In other words, it's crazy.

In probably the lowest moment of his career, Friedman basically joins the authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion when he asserts that the reason Congress gave a warm, supportive welcome to Netanyahu a few months ago was because members of Congress were "bought and paid for" by the "Israel lobby." 

Never mind that the "Israel lobby," by which I assume he means AIPAC, does not contribute money to campaigns. The "PAC" in AIPAC stands for Public Affairs Committee, not Political Action Committee.  Yes, pro-Israel citizens undoubtedly support members of Congress whose positions on U.S.-Israel relations they like, just as citizens support politicians whose positions they like on abortion, taxes, China, Iran, air emissions, and a myriad of other issues. 

Never mind that polls consistently find Americans' support for Israel over 65% and support for the Palestinians at less than 15%.  Must be Jewish control of the media.  Never mind that a lot of believing Christians strongly support Israel.  Must be Jewish control.  Never mind that Republicans, who never get much of a Jewish vote or support, feel that Israel is a bulwark against what they view as militant Islam. Must be part of the conspiracy.  

Somehow when citizens support members of Congress who strongly support Israel, it is a nefarious activity in Friedman's eyes. The Congressional members are "bought and paid" for. One wonders if Friedman would feel the same way if the majority of Americans and the Congress agreed with him.

Never mind that Friedman's little nugget of a reason for Netanyahu's welcome has been used to murder millions of Jews. 

Friedman has gone beyond journalism to apparently thinking that he plays a role in politics. He has taken to advising and cajoling in his columns. He likes to write "memos" to leaders. He has effectively become a politician. But he does not seem able to handle the fact that his admonitions to Israel are ignored and that his views on Israel are just not accepted by a majority of Americans. 

Friedman knows what is right. Therefore, if he is on the losing side, it cannot be because people just disagree with him, or that he's been out-argued or out-politicked fair and square. There has to be some nefarious, unfair reason. 

Because he cannot simply accept the fact that people do not agree with him, Friedman is quite ready and apparently comfortable just hooking into the old canard that Jews have money, Jews manipulate, Jews control politics, Jews are conspiratorial.

Friedman shows that he has lost all perspective and decency. He is an angry, petulant bigot, and he is not deserving of any respect.

I never thought Friedman was the prophet some made him out to be. But now it appears that he has lost his marbles and needs some therapy. He is obviously bitter   that Israel has not taken his advice. He hates Bibi. He obviously is upset that the Prime Minister has the chutzpa to implement the policies wanted by those that elected him rather than the policies Friedman wants.  It appears that, when it comes to Israel,  Friedman only likes democracy when it results in policies to his liking.  

Friedman is probably embarrassed in his circle by some of what Israel does, right or wrong.  This is the same genius who thought that springtime for democracy was just around the corner in the Arab world, and the same genius who encouraged Palestinians to gather en mass on Israel's borders and try to invade. 

And the New York Times is the same paper that recently published an op-ed by a Jewish lesbian professor from an obscure Long Island college claiming that the only reason Israel has a great record on gay rights is to cover-up its alleged oppression of the Palestinians.  No kidding!  Talk about an insidious plot.  This professor tried to paint the picture of gays and lesbians in the Palestinian territories as enlightened and tolerant.  That must be the reason the main Palestinian gay rights group is headquartered in Haifa.  Using technical, sophisticated legal terms, Alan Dershowitz called the publication of this op-ed "dumb."
Day after day Israeli newspapers have article after article about the government cracking down on right-wing vigilantes, about both right-wingers and left-wingers claiming some of crackdown violates the rights of the accused, about efforts by the government and groups to ensure the rights of women, about court fights on these issues, and on and on. Exactly what you would expect in a democracy: messy, loud, and never quite the perfect solution . None of this seems to have caught Friedman's attention. He is too busy riding the wave.
There is a right-wing nationalistic streak that is finding resonance in some of Israeli society.  It is a matter for concern. Some of this nationalistic streak is due to the fact that a good part of the population does not have a solid background in democracy.  Some of it is a reaction to some arguably lunatic activities on the left. None of this is good but this is what happens in an open society.  And none of it means the end of Israeli democracy.

There are plenty of Israelis fighting back against the increased nationalism and the efforts to curtail rights in the name of security.  The fight is not pretty.  Charges, counter-charges, hyperbole, threats, deadlock, deviousness.  Sound familiar?  Yes, it is not just the U.S. Congress that does democracy this way. 

In his December 15 op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Israel is a Vibrant Democracy, Alan Derhshowitz analyzes with nuance and proportion the challenges to Israel's culture of freedom and democracy.  He confirms that there are issues that warrant concern.  He also confirms that Israeli democracy is not in jeopardy and, indeed, Israelis are doing exactly what one would expect free citizens to do: they are arguing, they are engaging in hyperbole, and they are using the courts.  Dershowitz' reasoned and informed op-ed stands in sharp contrast to Friedman's petulant tirade.

Friedman has spent his career surfing the waves.  Dershowitz has spent his bucking the tide when truth and justice demanded doing so.

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  1. Alan, I share your deep disappointment in Friedman's column. This represents a new extreme for him. There have been times in the past I did not agree with him, but he has also written many articles and books that were enlightening and interesting. His latest effort is, however, bereft of value. It detracts from the overall conversation about Israel and the Jewish community, and most seriously it diminishes his standing as a person of knowledge and clarity. I hope this incident proves to be an aberration and not a trend.

  2. Alan, as always well articulated, to the point (tachles), and an absolute pleasure!

  3. Alan,
    This is a great piece. Please try to publish it in a widely circulated paper like the Wall St. Journal.

    Friedman has been over-rated for years and it is time that he should be called on his nonsense.

  4. Putting aside Friedman's position on Israel -- which against all evidence to the contrary, hasn't changed much since the heyday of Oslo. Many Israelis recognize that Israel's democracy faces very real threats and it does no good to pretend that these can be wished away.

    Whether on the right or left, it is hard not be embarrassed at FM Lieberman's recent praise (as far as I know, alone among Western Democracies) for the elections in Russia. Likewise, the slate of bills being pushed in Knesset are likewise a dark day for Israeli democracy. Nor should pretend that the rising political power of Israel's Haredi community, with their disrespect for the democratic process and their priority for maintaining their constituents welfare isn't also a huge problem.

    Going all the way back to the seventies, the joke used to be that Israel was a country with a German army and an Italian government. What was once funny, is now tragically true. Never before has Israel been so seriously in need of reforming its democratic institutions and never before has it suffered leaders of such pedestrian vision.

  5. Thanks were the antidote that I needed to cure the nausea I felt from reading Friedman's depressing article!