Fortunately for us, Thomas Friedman’s inflated sense of running the world doesn’t translate into reality.
The mystique developed by Thomas Friedman over years of pontificating on what the Arabs and (mostly) the Israelis are doing wrong, backed up by the imprimatur of lofty leftist comrades in the once admired New York Times, has given his pronouncements on Mideast peace a status just below that of the Delphic oracle. President Barack Obama himself, I understand, seeks his advice.
Unfortunately, many of Friedman’s earnest entreaties to “save Israel from itself” are beginning to sound like the garden-variety Israel-bashing of anti-Semites and PLO supporters. Even at their best, there is always the element of factually challenged blow-hard opinion filtered through an unchanging world view.
Take his latest article, “Why Not Vegas?” In short, the article says that since Mitt Romney’s trip to Jerusalem was simply to please Sheldon Adelson and get him to part with his money, wouldn’t it have been easier to hold it in Las Vegas? The article also goes on to complain that Romney couldn’t spare the time to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and made a horrible, racist statement that implied Israelis were more culturally entrepreneurial than Palestinians.
First of all, Adelson contributed $10 million to Romney before he came to Israel. Secondly, since Abbas himself has been an intransigent obstacle to peace, what point would there have been for Romney to take a detour to Ramallah? Indeed, given the fact that we are in the middle of another Olympics, why would Friedman want Romney to visit the man who raised the funds that financed the PLO Munich massacre of our athletes? While even Friedman is forced to admit that “Israel today is an amazing beehive of innovation,” he credits this to “an influx of Russian brainpower, massive US aid and smart policies.”
Dear Oracle, what an error for someone on your lofty perch to make! As one familiar with Israel’s hi-tech miracle (my husband worked for the fledgling Check Point software firm), I can emphatically tell you that you’re wrong. Check Point was founded by three young Israelis straight out of an elite army unit, not a Russian among them.
As for US aid playing a part, it is interesting that the massive amounts of aid given to the Palestinians and Egyptians haven’t produced anything similar. I guess then, it must be our “smart policies,” like our educational system? Our drive? Our hard work? Our “cultural entrepreneurship”? If only, dear Oracle, this was your sole stupid pronouncement.
Alas, it is not.
Friedman has been a consistent cheerleader for almost every single attempt to force Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands: to give back land, to destroy settlements and to abandon our security needs. The withdrawal from Lebanon, the Oslo Accords, disengagement – you name it, he was for it. But then, when it all went terribly wrong and thousands of Israelis started getting slaughtered and injured in the streets by unplacated, nondove-painting Palestinians, Friedman, ever articulate, found a way out for himself, if not for Israelis and others who had taken him seriously.
“The Oslo Accords have failed,” he admitted on August 29, 2001, in his foreign affairs piece “A Way Out of the Middle East Impasse.” “The Middle East conflict has become so violent and depressing you wonder if the two sides can ever find a way out,” he wrote, so disillusioned that he went as far as to part ways with the Israeli Left who put their hopes into even more negotiations with Yasser Arafat.
But not to worry; Friedman had his own alternative resolution to the post-Oslo debacle. Still convinced that land was the key to peace, he wrote: “The only solution is maybe for Israel to invite NATO to occupy the West Bank and Gaza and set up a NATO-run Palestinian state.”
Fortunately for us, the Oracle’s inflated sense of running the world doesn’t translate into reality.
Unfortunately for Friedman’s readers, the disastrous consequences of Oslo that made such an impression upon him in 2001 weren’t lasting.
Referring to Friedman’s article “Hobby or Necessity,” Martin Sherman pointed out in a February 14, 2011, article on Ynet that while Friedman wrote that “everything we thought for the last 30 years is no longer relevant,” he still suggested that we “implement… precisely what he was proposing before these shifts, i.e., massive Israeli territorial concessions to the Abbas-Fayad regime.”
Yes, Friedman has a thing about settlements, chiding Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in this same article for not extending the 10-month building freeze. Hello? Did Israel not uproot entire settlements in Gaza, including cemeteries? And what was the result? What is behind this apparent intellectual intransigence? When a good journalist – and I believe Friedman is one, despite his surprising failures and omissions – refuses to allow reality to interfere with his reporting and opinions, we need to dig deeper.
The widely promoted narrative about Thomas Friedman was that he was a good Jewish boy and an avid Zionist who loved Israel up until the 1980s, when he covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for The New York Times. There, the story goes, he was disillusioned by the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla. As he himself writes, he was “…a Jew who was raised on… all the myths about Israel” until the “Israel he had deeply believed in while in high school and college receded from the gilded, heroic mythology to the shadows of a bleak reality.”
One problem: That’s not actually what happened.
His transformation from good Jewish Israel-supporting Zionist took place long, long before Sabra and Shatilla. As Jerold S. Auerbach of Wellesley College wrote in response to a review of Friedman’s book in the September 1989 issue of Commentary, “Friedman has invented the timing of his conversion story, while remaining silent about the indisputable evidence of his own political bias that long antedated his journalistic career.” Indeed, as Auerbach wrote, “By the time Friedman graduated from Brandeis University in 1975, he was already expressing sympathy with the Palestinian national cause, offering apologies for PLO terrorism, and identifying with Breira, the single organization so… critical of Israel that it quickly became a pariah group within the American Jewish community.”
Spending the summer of his senior year in Cairo, Friedman joined the steering committee of a Middle East “peace” group. In November 1974, the day before Arafat declared in the UN that “Zionism is racism,” Friedman signed a letter calling for Israel to negotiate with “all factions of the Palestinians, including the PLO.” The group also criticized America for “reinforcing the strategic alliance with Israel.”
Following these activities, the Times had no problem hiring him as a journalist to cover the Middle East, where he fulfilled his mission admirably, writing that he was “determined to nail Begin and Sharon.” As Auerbach points out, he “buried” Sharon on Page 1 of The New York Times along with, as Friedman told it, “every illusion I ever held about the Jewish State.” Tellingly, he was then assigned by the Times to its Jerusalem bureau.
I agree with Auerbach that the “naïve pro-Israel Jewish kid disillusioned by first-hand atrocities in Lebanon as a reporter” is a myth. But it’s a much more sexy story than the PLO-supporting college student who goes on to stubbornly report through his prejudices.
Maybe the time has come for the Oracle of the Middle East to take a long, hard look at how he is filtering his information. If he can just get rid of his blinders, he might really deserve the next journalism award he receives. And he might actually be worth listening to by all those who care about what happens here.
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 10 August 2012.