Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman let his anger with Israel and its American supporters, including some Republican presidential candidates, get the better of him. In the course of a diatribe in which Friedman falsely claimed increasing numbers of American Jews were turning on Israel, he asserted that the ovations Congress gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” This invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard about a Jewish conspiracy manipulating American foreign policy earned him the rebukes of even liberal Jewish groups who normally laud his every utterance. That has caused Friedman to backtrack on his slur, though only just a bit. In an interview with the New York Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt, he said the following:
“In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to,” Friedman said. “It would have helped people focus on my argument, which I stand by 100 percent.”
But this weasel-worded attempt at walking back his brief foray into anti-Semitism shouldn’t convince anyone. There is no real difference between “engineered” and “bought and paid for.” Both terms seek to describe the across-the-board bi-partisan support for Israel that the ovations Netanyahu received as the result of Jewish manipulation, not a genuine and accurate reflection of American public opinion.
The interesting thing about Friedman’s rant and his subsequent clarification is not so much his dim view of the Republicans, Netanyahu or even his litany of Israeli sins that, at least in his view, justify American abandonment of Israel. Rather, it is the easy way in which a person who claims to be an ardent supporter of Israel slipped into the traditional themes of Jew-hatred.
Friedman rightly says that dissent against particular Israeli policies does not make him an enemy of the Jewish state. But what we are talking about here is not political give and take but engaging in rhetoric that seeks to smear the state, undermine its right of self-defense and brand those who do back it as acting against America’s best interests. Such rhetoric is anti-Semitic in nature and purpose.
Friedman may think the use of the offending phrase distracted readers from his argument, but he’s wrong about that. At the core of his piece — which contained the astounding suggestion that a left-wing campus such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison is more representative of American opinion than those elected by the people to Congress — is a belief that Israel must be put in its place and that those Americans who speak up for it are supporting a bad cause. He claims his “deep concerns” about Israel’s future and its democracy are well-intended. However, his resentment of Israel’s democratically elected leaders as well as his frustration with the support they are given by both Republicans and Democrats here is enough to blur the distinctions between such a friend of the Jewish state and its enemies. The applause that he has gotten from leftist foes of Zionism speaks volumes about how his writing has now crossed the line from friendly criticism of Israel to delegitimization.
What really ticks Friedman off is Israel’s decision to ignore his advice. That is something the Times columnist cannot abide. While he may not wish to see it destroyed, he clearly believes it should be punished for its temerity.
It remains to be seen whether his attempt to explain himself will allow Friedman to worm his way back into the good graces of liberal Jewish groups that have been paying him generous honorariums for speaking engagements for the last two decades. I wouldn’t bet against it. If groups do continue to honor Friedman in the future, it will be proof that even dabbling in anti-Semitism isn’t enough to wean some Jews from their worship of the Times and its liberal icons.