Trump’s Israel envoy pick shakes up American Jewish status quo

Trump’s Israel envoy pick shakes up American Jewish status quo

In February 2010, David Friedman, Donald Trump, and Ivanka Trump walked out of the Federal Building after they appeared in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden. (Bradley C Bower/Bloomberg News via Getty Images)
In February 2010, David Friedman, Donald Trump, and Ivanka Trump walked out of the Federal Building after they appeared in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden. (Bradley C Bower/Bloomberg News via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Nearly six years ago, when President Barack Obama was set to elevate one of his top emissaries to the Jewish community to the Israel ambassadorship, Dan Shapiro asked for — and got — the endorsement of one of Obama’s fiercest pro-Israel critics.

“Dan has always spoken to us, patiently and carefully explaining the administration’s position, and he does so with aplomb, with concern, and with intense appreciation of the other side’s position,” Morton Klein, the Zionist Organization of America’s president, said at the time.

Don’t expect J Street, or the Reform movement — or, really, anyone on the liberal side of the pro-Israel spectrum — to extend that embrace to David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer who is one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top emissaries to the Jewish community and whom he nominated to be ambassador to Israel.

An “intense appreciation of the other side’s position” does not describe Friedman’s denigration of J Street as “not Jewish” and “worse than” Jewish collaborators with Nazis; his calling Obama “blatantly anti-Semitic,” and his lament that more than half of American Jews are not pro-Israel.

Friedman’s nomination has sent shock waves through a chunk of the organized Jewish community because of the signal it sends to the 71 percent of American Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton. It’s a message of marginalization, not of outreach. While Friedman’s nomination was hailed by a hawkish but influential minority as a sign that Israel will get the U.S. support it deserves, it possibly sidelines a pro-Israel mainstream that believes that moderation is the best way to build a pro-Israel consensus.

“We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this administration,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “But the notion that someone who would represent the United States would describe people as ‘not Jewish’ and ‘kapos’” — the Jews who collaborated with the Nazi death machine — “what does that say about respect for civil discourse and what does it say about temperament in a particularly volatile region?”

There are few ambassadors who must navigate domestic constituencies as assiduously as they do their host countries, and they are chosen with both audiences in mind. They include the envoys to Israel, Ireland, and occasionally Greece and Italy.

American Jewish leaders long have expected a warm reception from their ambassador when their delegations pay a visit to Israel.

“It’s a very multifaceted position, they do a lot of outreach to Jewish communities in the United States,” Ron Halber, the director of the Jewish Community relations Council of Greater Washington, said of ambassadors to Israel. “It’s more than diplomatic, it’s symbolic. I’m concerned that symbol could be tarnished by someone who has staked out extreme ideological positions on internal Israeli matters.”

Those positions include a rejection of the two-state solution and unchecked expansion of the settlements — the former counter to the stated position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter also a challenge to longstanding U.S. and international policy.

Friedman did not return a request for comment.

A range of liberal Jewish groups already have denounced Friedman, citing his online history, which is thick with broadsides against liberals, as well as his extensive fundraising for the settlement movement. Much of his writing appears on a pro-settlement Israeli news site, Israel National News.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a Jewish congressman known for his close ties to the organized Jewish community, said in a statement that Friedman’s “extreme views and use of such hateful language is an insult to the majority of American Jews.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, joined a number of groups in pledging to do its best to keep the Senate from confirming Friedman. “Friedman should be beyond the pale for senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel,” the group said in a statement last week.

The New Israel Fund launched a fund-raising appeal on Monday based on what it called Trump’s “dangerous” nomination of Friedman.

Hawkish Jewish groups have welcomed the appointment, most pronouncedly Klein’s ZOA. It said Friedman “has the potential to be the greatest US Ambassador to Israel ever.”

In an interview, Klein said he stood by his 2011 endorsement of Shapiro, who strove to reach out to right-wing Jews in the United States and hard-liners in Israel as a staffer on Obama’s National Security Council and then as ambassador.

“I said I found Shapiro to be a person of integrity,” Klein said. “That’s true of Dan and it’s true of David Friedman.”

Friedman was reported to have said earlier this month, at an off-the-record segment of the annual Saban Forum colloquy of U.S. and Israeli influencers, that were he to become ambassador, he would not take meetings with J Street.

“He’s not there to represent the views of most Jews,” Klein said of Friedman, although he said he believed that Friedman’s support for moving the embassy to Jerusalem and for settlement expansion was representative of the Jewish community.

Klein said he would not use “kapos” to describe J Street, which opposes settlement expansion and advocates for an assertive U.S. posture in bringing about a two-state solution, but he understood how Friedman might have done so out of “anguish and misery.”

The Union for Reform Judaism stopped short of saying it would oppose Friedman, but expressed concerns about his statements and his rejection of the two-state solution.

In an interview, URJ President Rick Jacobs said that the Reform movement has relied on U.S. administrations to represent to Israel, through their ambassadors, the broad range of American Jewish opinion. An ambassador who represented only one segment of the Jewish community would diminish attachment to Israel among Jews already unsettled by Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies, and by the exclusion of non-Orthodox groups from civil matters like marriage and divorce, he said.

“Our larger project has been to keep people connected to Israel,” Jacobs said of the URJ. “We may be seeing a series of policy shifts” under Trump “that make it harder for non-Orthodox Jews to see Israel as a place they love.”

Larger groups were treading carefully around the nomination. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in response to a request for comment, stuck to its longstanding position of not pronouncing on nominees. The Anti-Defamation League also was not forthcoming, although after Friedman’s comments about J Street were made public, another interview, in which he called the ADL’s leaders “morons” and said that its representatives would not be welcomed in the Trump White House, hit the news.

In response, Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, the longtime but now retired head of the ADL, said, “Jewish community leaders and organizations deserve greater respect from those who, like Mr. Friedman, aspire to leadership and speak on behalf of the Jewish people. Ambassador-designate Friedman’s ugly language in describing ADL, its current CEO, and J-Street is unacceptable and it undermines the need for unity in our community to face the challenges we know are ahead of us, whether it is rising anti-Semitism or the threat of radical Islam.

“It is my hope that as ambassador, Mr. Friedman will exercise greater restraint in his public remarks, recognizing that it is far better to disagree civilly than to attack indiscriminately. This is for the greater good of civil discourse, for unity in the Jewish community and for ensuring the continued strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that it was noteworthy that nominating a Jew for the job no longer raised hackles (that’s been the case for close to three decades) and that it wanted to know more about what the choice of Friedman said about Trump’s Israel policies.

“We shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special U.S.-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord — which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict — and, of course, the larger regional context in which Israel lives,” the AJC said.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said in reply to a query that Friedman was representative of the minority of Jews (and a majority in his community) who voted for Trump.

“Trump’s selection of David Friedman to be his administration’s ambassador to Israel is consistent with the policy view Trump expressed during the campaign and consistent with the view of most of those American Jews who actually voted for Trump for president,” he said.

Burton, whose Boston JCRC called on Friedman to apologize for his past remarks, said that it was key for Jews who object to Friedman not to be drawn into the polarizing invective that characterized Friedman’s writings in the past.

“We have to acknowledge that some members of our community are optimistic about the next administration,” he said, noting parts of Trump’s Israel message that should please most Jews, including his expressions of friendship to the country and his desire for peace. “We do ourselves a disservice collectively if we are in the black or white zone on everything.”

JTA Wire Service

Joanne Palmer contributed to this report

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