David Friedman, President Trump’s pick to be the next US ambassador to Israel, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday for his confirmation hearing.
It was anything but routine.
As Friedman began his opening remarks, a young Palestinian man stood up and shouted, “Mr. Friedman said that Palestinian refugees don’t have a claim to the land. ... My grandfather was exiled, was kicked out, by state officials. And I’m right here, holding up the Palestinian flag!” Minutes later, another young man with a Palestinian flag stood up and declared, “David Friedman is supporting the theft of Palestinian land!”
But it wasn’t just Palestinian activists disrupting the hearing. At one point, If Not Now, a left-wing Jewish group that protests Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, began singing, “olam chesed yibaneh,” which is Hebrew for “we will build this world with kindness.” One activist blew into a shofar — the ceremonial ram’s horn used on the Jewish new year as a symbol to Jews to wake up.
That a Jewish group was protesting is no surprise. Indeed, the most aggressive debates over Friedman have actually been taking place within the Jewish community, and the Jewish press, ever since the Long Island–born bankruptcy lawyer was named to the post in December.
For a community that often lacks consensus, Friedman’s appointment has been uniquely contentious among both American and Israeli Jews
The Jewish community has no shortage of positions on Friedman. Those on the political right have celebrated the positions of such a hard-line, pro-settlement figure, while those on the left view have described them as “anathema to values that underlie [the] US-Israel relationship.”
An editorial in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, titled simply “David Friedman Is Unfit to Serve as U.S. Envoy to Israel,” called him “a man with a simplistic, dangerous worldview, a member of the extreme right who supports annexing territory on the West Bank to Israel.” Meanwhile, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America crowed that “Friedman has the potential to be the greatest US Ambassador to Israel ever.”
Friedman’s positions are well-known from his time as columnist for the right-leaning online Israeli magazine Arutz Sheva. It was there that he casually pointed to a “hundred year history of anti-Semitism” at the US State Department, and it was in Arutz Sheva that he said, “Peace will come if and when Palestinians learn to stop hating us and to embrace life rather than worship death.”
Friedman’s opposition within the Jewish community does not stem solely from his far-right positions on Israel. It comes, as well, from the often combative ways he has expressed those positions.
He has been particularly scathing and brutal in his name calling of those on the opposite side of the political spectrum with whom he disagrees. He has called the Anti-Defamation League “morons.” He accused Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) of “validating the worst appeasement of terrorism since Munich” for considering approving the Iran nuclear deal. He also accused former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry of “blatant anti-Semitism.”
Most infamously, he called supporters of J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel (“and pro-peace,” as their tagline goes) lobby group “far worse than kapos — Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” For Jews, especially those who are descendants of Holocaust survivors, there can be no worse accusation. It is a violent description, even a form of incitement, and it is meant to be.
Indeed, his use of that term raised the ire of dozens of Holocaust survivors themselves, who along with 29 Holocaust historians and a number of rabbis wrote letters to the senators involved in his confirmation hearing, calling on them to factor Friedman’s use of the term into their considerations.
For all these moments and more, Friedman was called upon again and again during his hearings to repudiate his language. It was pointed out that diplomats are required to be judicious in their speech, and their positions, as a mechanism of diplomacy. Friedman claimed during the hearing:
Some of the language that I used during the highly charged presidential campaign that ended last November has come in for criticism and rightfully so. While I maintain profound differences of opinion with some of my critics, I regret the use of such language.
I want to assure you that I understand the critical difference between the partisan rhetoric of a political contest and a diplomatic mission. Partisan rhetoric is not appropriate in achieving diplomatic progress, especially in a sensitive and strife-torn region like the Middle East.
But being forced to walk back each contentious comment resulted in some dry skepticism from the senators at the hearing. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) asked why Friedman even wants the ambassador position if it means he has to “recant every single strong belief you’ve had.”
It is rare to choose someone with such a specific, well-defined, and controversial political opinion about an area of the world to be an ambassador to that region. Indeed, until the Clinton administration, it was thought that the US ambassador to Israel should not necessarily even be a Jew. Martin Indyk, the first Jewish person to serve in the role, was seen as an unusual pick at the time, both for his faith and because he was not a career diplomat.
A pick like Friedman, a Jewish lawyer from Long Island with no diplomatic experience and extremely divisive views on some of the most controversial issues he’ll be dealing with on a daily basis, is far more unusual.