So much for Donald Trump’s “neutrality” on Israel-Palestine. In another act of open cronyism, the President-elect has nominated bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman—who the New York Times notes “has done legal work for Mr. Trump since at least 2001, when he handled negotiations with bondholders on Mr. Trump’s struggling casinos in Atlantic City”—as the United States’ ambassador to Israel. In addition to having no experience relevant to the position for which he’s been tapped (a seeming prerequisite in Trumpland), Friedman is a dogmatic Zionist of the Alan Dershowitz variety, which is to say he scarcely bothers to feign coherence (let alone objectivity) while attempting to deny or rationalize Israel’s abominable human rights record. Indeed, he appears to wear his prejudice as a badge of honor.
Friedman has, for instance, charged the Obama administration with “blatant anti-Semitism.” Such a charge is warranted, he writes, because the president occasionally acknowledges that Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers are part of a “cycle of violence”—meaning they should perhaps be understood according to the context in which they take place. That Obama unilaterally vetoed a 2011 UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, or that he responded blithely to the IDF’s murderous assault on Gaza in 2014 by citing Israel’s “right to defend itself,” matters not: as far as Friedman is concerned, Obama hates the Jews. Which means that a new term will have to be coined—”Super anti-Semite”?—to besmirch leaders of the other fourteen member states of the UN Security Council, who all voted in favor of the 2011 resolution. And we’ll need another term on top of that to describe people who are actually, you know, hostile to Jews.
Demonstrating further contempt for logic and common sense, Friedman has argued that supporters of J Street, a liberal Zionist organization that believes Israel should be “the national home of the Jewish people,” are “far worse than kapos—Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” Leaving aside the inane comparison, what are J Street’s crimes? Per Friedman, who evidently struggles with syntax: “They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.” (The advocates themselves are “delivered from their sofas”? To whom? By what means?) It seems that J Street had better update their mission statement; as of now it fails to convey their yearning for “Israel’s destruction.”
The prospective ambassador is also, naturally enough, a staunch advocate of Israel’s illegal settlement activity in the Occupied Territories—a salient feature of which is the mass demolition via bulldozer of Palestinian homes, basic human rights be damned—and went so far as to suggest that a total annexation of the West Bank might not be so problematic a thing. After all, “nobody really knows” how many Arabs are living there—except that they do: the CIA puts the West Bank’s Palestinian population at approximately 2.7 million, compared to about 371,000 Israeli settlers, all of whom are living there in violation of international law.
It is owing to this sort of blind zealotry and disdain for reality that Judy Maltz of Haaretz describes David Friedman as being “positioned on the far right of the Israeli political map—more hardline in his views than Prime Mininster Benjamin Netanyahu.” No mean feat, that.
As if to prove Maltz’s point, Friedman marked the occasion of his ambassadorship nomination by releasing a statement in which it is taken for granted that, under Trump, the US embassy in Israel will be transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“I intend to work tirelessly,” Friedman said, “to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem, of course, has been a flashpoint of the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades, ever since the former’s illegal annexation of the eastern part of the city (Palestinian territory under international law) in 1967. Indeed, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cites “as obstacles to peace continued Israeli evictions and house demolitions in East Jerusalem … closure of Palestinian institutions there, and the expansion of settlements contrary to international law and the Roadmap peace plan espoused by the Quartet—UN, the European Union, Russia and the United States—that seeks a two-State solution to the conflict.” Despite being both legally and morally indefensible, house demolitions in East Jerusalem are routine. According to a report by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, Israel demolished 112 Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem in the first eight months of 2016—that’s in addition to 614 demolitions in the West Bank. The report goes on to state that ”[d]emolitions in and around Jerusalem are designed to ensure that Israel can take the entire city for itself and pressure the Palestinians to leave.”
Nevertheless, the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which came to pass under President Bill Clinton, asserts, among other things, that ”[s]ince 1967, Jerusalem has been a united city administered by Israel, and persons of all religious faiths have been guaranteed full access to holy sites within the city.” Accordingly, the bill’s express purpose is ”[t]o provide for the relocation of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem….”
So far no president has been stupid enough to effect the relocation, perhaps sensing that to do so would be to provoke a new wave of extreme anti-American sentiment throughout the Islamic world. Furthermore, if the US government does actually move the embassy, it can no longer even pretend (as it does now, albeit without a particle of credibility) to condemn Israel’s expansionist policies and support a peaceful resolution to the fifty-year-long conflict. Palestinian authorities have been clear on this point. Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, asserted that relocation of the embassy would signal “the destruction of the peace process as a whole” and bring “more chaos, lawlessness and extremism” to the region. Equally unequivocal was Palestinian ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour, who warned that if Trump makes good on his promise to move the embassy, “nobody should blame us for unleashing all of the weapons that we have in the UN to defend ourselves, and we have a lot of weapons in the UN.”
No doubt David Friedman would point to the forgoing comments as evidence of the malicious anti-Semitism informing Palestinian culture. As a dedicated apologist for Israel, it’s his job to find anti-Semitism behind every bush, burning or otherwise. Remember: included on his list of Jew-haters are Barack Obama and the kapos over at J Street. It’s curious, then—is it not?—that Friedman refuses to even acknowledge the truly anti-Semitic strain running through a sector of Donald Trump’s supporters.
Asked in October about the neo-Nazi tendencies at the heart of the “alt-right” movement—which gave Trump the full weight of its support throughout his campaign—Friedman was dismissive, declaring irrelevantly that “there is anti-Semitic sentiment among Clinton’s supporters.” “The danger [for Jews] in the US is on the left, not on the right,” he added. “I’m not saying that there aren’t neo-Nazis floating around in the United States, because I’m sure there are. But the movement we ought to be concerned about is on the left.”
Whence cometh Friedman’s blasé attitude in the face of classical anti-Jewish bigotry? How can he charge Barack Obama with “blatant anti-Semitism” while trivializing, or altogether denying, the alt-right’s neo-Nazism? This sort of contradiction, as it turns out, is nothing new. Nor is it difficult to understand. In his 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah, Israel-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein explains that:
Domestically, as institutionalized anti-Semitism all but vanished and American Jews prospered, the bonds linking Jews to their erstwhile “natural allies” on the left and among other discriminated-against minorities eroded. American Jewish elites increasingly acted to preserve and protect their class, and even “white,” privilege. Internationally, as Israel’s political intransigence and brutal occupation alienated public opinion and its alignment with the right in the United States (as elsewhere) deepened, American Jewish elites found themselves increasingly at odds with the political center and in league with the right.
In their new role as hardline neocons, American Zionists found the charge of anti-Semitism to be a powerful, and versatile, instrument of propaganda. It had the dual purpose of shoring up the state of Israel and demonizing the political left. “Practically,” Finkelstein writes, “this meant pinning the epithet ‘anti-Semitic’ on domestic challenges to Jewish class privilege and political power as well as on global challenges to Israeli hegemony.” The enterprise was a most unpalatable one: “American Jewish elites were, in effect and in plain sight, cynically appropriating ‘anti-Semitism’—a historical phenomenon replete with suffering and martyrdom, on the one hand, and hatred and genocide, on the other—as an ideological weapon to defend and facilitate ethnic aggrandizement.”
This is the sordid tradition in which our next ambassador to Israel is working; indeed, Friedman embodies the cynical appropriation Finkelstein speaks of. That such an ideologically compromised hack will have real influence over one of the world’s most pressing and flammable affairs is nothing short of a scandal. But then again, Donald Trump is our next president. Part of me is still waiting to wake up.