Commentary Magazine


From Brandeis to Jerusalem

To the Editor:

In his review of Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, Daniel Pipes properly chastises Friedman for his superficial, even misguided, illusions about Israel [Books in Review, September 1989]. But beneath these apparently innocent “illusions” is the autobiographical myth of Thomas Friedman. Abetted by credulous colleagues, who have swallowed his autobiographical pronouncements whole, Friedman has created a myth of personal disillusionment with Israel that is designed to lend credibility to his indictment of the Jewish state and, not incidentally, to conceal its ideological sources.

As Friedman writes, and frequently reiterates, his is the story of “a Jew who was raised on . . . all the myths about Israel, who goes to Jerusalem in the 1980′s and discovers that it isn’t the summer camp of his youth.” Gullible interviewers have embellished the tale. One of them, breathlessly anticipating Friedman’s third Pulitzer prize, listened deferentially to Friedman recount his “much deeper identification with Israel” after the Six-Day War, as the Jewish state became “a symbol of my own identity.” Friedman’s faith in Israel’s moral rectitude endured, he claimed, until his “experiences as a reporter” in the Middle East finally undermined it fifteen years later. Then, according to another interviewer who was fascinated by his lost “illusion,” Friedman experienced “a remarkable transformation,” indeed “a personal crisis.” He watched “an Israel he had deeply believed in while in high school and college recede from gilded, heroic mythology to the shadows of bleak reality.”

In fact, Friedman has invented at least the timing of his conversion story, while remaining silent about the indisputable evidence of his own political bias that long antedated his journalistic career. If he actually did plunge into a Gethsemane of crisis and transformation, it occurred well before he went to the Middle East as a reporter. Friedman’s adolescent infatuation with Israel was distinguished by its brevity (although Daniel Pipes accurately detects traces of it still). 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 reflexively critical of Israel that it quickly became a pariah group within the American Jewish community.

During his final year at Brandeis, after returning from a summer of study in Cairo, Friedman belonged to the steering committee of a self-styled “Middle East Peace Group.” It vigorously opposed the mounting storm of protest among American Jews (to be expressed in a “Rally Against Terror”) over Yasir Arafat’s impending appearance before the United Nations General Assembly. In November 1974, on the day before Arafat’s infamous declaration that Zionism is racism, delivered while brandishing a pistol on his hip, the Peace Group published a statement in the Brandeis Justice. Co-signed by Friedman, it called for Israel to negotiate with “all factions of the palestinians, including the PLO” and stated that the issue of “Palestinian self determination,” a standard euphemism or a Palestinian state, was “one of the central issues blocking peace in the Middle East.” The statement acknowledged repeated acts of PLO terror against Jews, but claimed they were “clearly not representative of the diverse elements of the Palestinian people,” though the only evidence of such diversity presented was of those even more committed to terrorism than the PLO itself. It also asserted that “international condemnation of terrorist activities for which the PLO is responsible can have little effect. . . .” The group joined Breira, already notorious for its endorsement of Palestinian goals and for the blame it placed on the United States and Israel for Middle East instability, in urging “a more meaningful and constructive approach” than protesting against Arafat and the PLO.

The Middle East Peace Group continued to profess its “concern” for Israel by criticizing American “military and political elites” for reinforcing the strategic alliance with Israel. . . . Among all the impediments to peace in the Middle East, not the least of which was the unrelenting Arab hostility to Israel expressed exactly one year earlier in the Yom Kippur War, the group could only locate the “dangers of U.S. power as tool for forging peace.”

As a journalist in Lebanon, Friedman writes, he experienced “something of a personal crisis. . . . The Israel I met on the outskirts of Beirut was not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with.” Outraged, and determined “to nail Begin and Sharon” (a curious role for a reporter), Friedman wrote the article that won his first Pulitzer. A week later, he “buried” the Israeli commanding officer on page one of the New York Times, and “along with him evey illusion I ever held about the Jewish state.” That surely qualified him for his assignment to Israel; furthermore, his editor wanted, in part, “to dispense with an old unwritten rule . . . of never allowing a Jew to report from Jerusalem.”

Thus the myth of Thomas Friedman was born, to be nurtured after publication to propel his book up the best-seller list. His “personal crisis” of disillusionment with “heroic” Israel, by now a well-worked theme of leftist critics, was calculated to lend credibility to his updated version of Middle East Peace Group position papers. The confession of a conversion experience, after all, is far more compelling than the more mundane, if more accurate, revelation that Friedman the journalist was still following the old Breira party line.

Freedom of association, of course, is a constitutional right, which Friedman, no less than any other American, enjoys. But full disclosure of a consistent ideological bias, sustained over fifteen years, might be considered a minimal gesture of journalistic integrity. Friedman concedes—for he could hardly do otherwise—that he was “not professionally detached” when he wrote his prize-winning articles after Sabra and Shatila. But his self-serving claim that his outrage at Israel “made me a better reporter” is a preposterous assertion, which has yet to receive critical scrutiny from within his own profession.

Friedman, moreover, has virtually disqualified himself, in public, as even a remotely objective analyst. Back in 1985, after the Shiite hijacking of the TWA airliner, he vigorously attacked Israel (on Israeli radio) for not releasing the 700 terrorists whose freedom the hijackers were demanding. Israel’s refusal, he claimed, “certainly contributed” to the hijacking (as, certainly, a victim’s body contributes to rape or homicide). Again in 1989, after Israel’s capture of the terrorist Sheik Obeid in Lebanon, followed by the grisly home movie of the hanging of Colonel Higgins, Friedman declared on Nightline that “both sides [sic] have really used Higgins . . . and exploited him in a very tragic way.” For sheer vulgarity, such characterizations of Israel are exceeded only by Friedman’s own description of the Jewish state, in his book, as “Yad Vashem with an air force.”

As for the “old unwritten rule” at the Times about not sending a Jew to Jerusalem, that, too, is a myth. During the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine, the slaughter of more than 100 Jews in Hebron and Jerusalem produced a stream of Times articles as hostile to the Zionists as they were indifferent to the Jewish victims. The correspondent who wrote them was Joseph Levy, . . . an American Jew, conversant in Arabic and Hebrew, who had spent years in Beirut before coming to Jerusalem, where he wrote for the Times, conceding that if his efforts toppled the Zionist administration in power, so much the better. . . . But who remembers Joseph Levy?

As for Thomas Friedman, in reality if not mythology, he has followed the same ideological path that he chose as an undergraduate. . . .

Incidentally, a mere two weeks after the New Republic published a brief letter from me about Friedman’s undergraduate enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause, the magazine took the almost unheard-of step of apologizing for having done so, claiming I had distorted the statement Friedman signed in 1974. To the contrary: I accurately represented his position and I have challenged the editors of the New Republic to print the 1974 text in full so that readers may decide for themselves. I have also invited them to acknowledge that the letter for which they apologized was solicited by the editor-in-chief, with advance knowledge of its contents and the supporting evidence.

Jerold S. Auerbach
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Massachusetts

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Daniel Pipes writes:

Thomas Friedman writes in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, that he had been for years a fervent and uncritical supporter of Israel. Then, according to his account, disillusion set in as a result of Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon. The key passage comes on page 164, where he writes that the massacre at “Sabra and Shatila was something of a personal crisis for me. The Israel I met on the outskirts of Beirut was not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with.” The emotional language of the next two pages confirms Friedman’s intense experience during the unhappy days of September 1982.

The timing of his disillusion is critical to Friedman’s story. Coming at the nadir of Israel’s international standing, and when the author was an eyewitness to atrocities, it validates his credentials among those who yet share his once-friendly feelings for Israel. Take away the drama of this disenchantment and Friedman becomes just another writer with an anti-Israel bent, though an unusually talented one.

As Friedman is a highly reputed journalist holding positions of great responsibility, it simply never occurred to me to doubt his autobiographical account. Further, I have talked with Friedman several times and he always struck me as trustworthy.

But Jerold S. Auerbach provides compelling evidence to establish that there is something disingenuous about Friedman’s professed Zionism in the late 1970′s. It appears that the disillusion he claims for himself in September 1982 took place long before he began reporting from the Middle East.

Mr. Auerbach uses the word “myth” to describe Friedman’s rewriting of his past. But his evidence raises the question of whether Friedman has been guilty not of an innocent myth but of a significant deception.

A rewriting of one’s own biography has devastating implications for anyone’s integrity. It has even greater weight when perpetrated by a journalist—a writer who provides no footnotes and who nearly always has to be taken at his word.

The charges against Friedman call for an answer from him. Specifically, is it true that—as a member of the Middle East Peace Group, of Breira, and as a co-signer of a statement in the Brandeis Justice—he adopted his current highly critical attitudes toward Israel in the early 1970′s? If so, how does he account for the claim that he lost faith in Israel only during 1982?

In the absence of a satisfactory answer to these questions, readers are forced to reconsider Thomas Friedman’s continued credibility as a correspondent.

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