As I wrote earlier, the latest column from the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is more than just his usual rant about Republicans or his particular bête noire: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By alleging that the support of American politicians, from the Republican presidential candidates to the bipartisan coalition in Congress, has been “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby,” he has slid down the slippery slope from legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and the arguments of the state’s friends to a position indistinguishable from the anti-Semitic smears of Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
But Friedman doesn’t stop there. He goes on to enumerate various Israeli sins that should, he thinks, cause American Jews and our leaders to distance themselves from the Jewish state. While Israel, like the United States and any other place on earth is not utopia, neither is its democracy or its basic decency in question. To make such an assertion is not, as Friedman would have it, an expression of friendly concern, but a blow intended to delegitimize both the country and those who are devoted to its survival.
Some of the items he lists are troubling. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s closeness with the Putin regime in Russia is a mistake. But can a small nation that is under siege be blamed if one of its leaders sees the value in maintaining relations with a powerful nation? I think Lieberman is making a terrible mistake, but many Americans, Friedman included, have at times criticized similar opinions or decisions made by our own secretaries of state. Disagreeing with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton isn’t considered a good reason to abandon support for America’s continued existence and security, so why should it be so for Israel?
The violent actions of a tiny band of extremist settlers are also unsettling. But it’s a stretch to say such activities are representative of the Jewish communities in the territories, let alone that of the entire country. It is especially galling to read such copy in a newspaper that did its best to downplay the widespread violence and extremism on display at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations so as to burnish the image of a movement with which the Times clearly sympathized.
Even less credible are Friedman’s citing of ultra-Orthodox attempts to segregate buses in their neighborhoods by gender and the Knesset’s consideration of bills that make it harder for foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to pursue propaganda campaigns that support Israel’s enemies.
The fight over the buses is ongoing, but it is a struggle conducted by competing groups in a democratic society. Though Americans — and most Israelis — have little sympathy for the ultra-Orthodox, let’s understand that any effort to portray an overwhelmingly secular Israeli culture as one that is dominated by the Haredim bears little resemblance to reality. It also bears pointing out that no one at the Times would think of demanding that the Muslim countries that surround Israel abandon the religious customs those states impose on their citizens without, as is the case in Israel, going to the courts or the ballot boxes.
The attempt to skew the debate over the legislation about the NGOs or even efforts to reform a court system (whose power far exceeds that of the United States) as anti-democratic is equally off the mark. The lively debates on these issues that represent efforts to impose some accountability on foreign bodies as well as on an out-of-control judiciary is a sign of a healthy democracy. Those Israelis and Americans who have attempted to argue the contrary are merely engaging in partisan bickering that has little to do with the truth about the Jewish state.
Israel is an imperfect society, but the idea that its imperfections should cause American Jews or Americans in general to back away from it are without substance. More than that, it reflects an urge to judge it by a double standard that would not be applied to our own country or any other. Treating the one Jewish state in this manner is indistinguishable from any other variety of the prejudice that we rightly term anti-Semitic.
It is one thing for open Israel and Jew-haters to speak in this manner. For a writer such as Friedman–who regularly trumpets both his Jewish identity and his wish to be considered a friend of the Jewish state–to use such arguments is evidence of the depths to which opponents of both Israel’s government and its supporters will sink in order to undermine the alliance.