Pro-Palestinians disrupt Friedman hearing

February 17, 2017
Sarah Benton

An anti-settlement demonstrator interrupts David Friedman as he spoke at a hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Feb. 16. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The confirmation hearing for Trump’s ambassador to Israel was a total circus

David Friedman’s controversial positions on Israel prompted protests and scepticism.

By Sarah Wildman,
February 16, 2017

David Friedman, President Trump’s pick to be the next US ambassador to Israel, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday for his confirmation hearing.

It was anything but routine.

As Friedman began his opening remarks, a young Palestinian man stood up and shouted, “Mr. Friedman said that Palestinian refugees don’t have a claim to the land. … My grandfather was exiled, was kicked out, by state officials. And I’m right here, holding up the Palestinian flag!” Minutes later, another young man with a Palestinian flag stood up and declared, “David Friedman is supporting the theft of Palestinian land!”

Pro-Palestinian protester. Photo by Reuters

But it wasn’t just Palestinian activists disrupting the hearing. At one point, If Not Now, a left-wing Jewish group that protests Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, began singing, “olam chesed yibaneh,” which is Hebrew for “we will build this world with kindness.” One activist blew into a shofar — the ceremonial ram’s horn used on the Jewish new year as a symbol to Jews to wake up.

That a Jewish group was protesting is no surprise. Indeed, the most aggressive debates over Friedman have actually been taking place within the Jewish community, and the Jewish press, ever since the Long Island–born bankruptcy lawyer was named to the post in December.

For a community that often lacks consensus, Friedman’s appointment has been uniquely contentious among both American and Israeli Jews

The Jewish community has no shortage of positions on Friedman. Those on the political right have celebrated the positions of such a hard-line, pro-settlement figure, while those on the left view have described them as “anathema to values that underlie [the] US-Israel relationship.”

An editorial in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, titled simply “David Friedman Is Unfit to Serve as U.S. Envoy to Israel,” called him “a man with a simplistic, dangerous worldview, a member of the extreme right who supports annexing territory on the West Bank to Israel.”

Meanwhile, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America crowed that “Friedman has the potential to be the greatest US Ambassador to Israel ever.”

Friedman’s positions are well-known from his time as columnist for the right-leaning online Israeli magazine Arutz Sheva. It was there that he casually pointed to a “hundred year history of antisemitism” at the US State Department, and it was in Arutz Sheva that he said, “Peace will come if and when Palestinians learn to stop hating us and to embrace life rather than worship death.”

Friedman’s opposition within the Jewish community does not stem solely from his far-right positions on Israel. It comes, as well, from the often combative ways he has expressed those positions.

He has been particularly scathing and brutal in his name calling of those on the opposite side of the political spectrum with whom he disagrees. He has called the Anti-Defamation League “morons.” He accused Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) of “validating the worst appeasement of terrorism since Munich” for considering approving the Iran nuclear deal. He also accused former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry of “blatant antisemitism.”

Most infamously, he called supporters of J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel (“and pro-peace,” as their tagline goes) lobby group “far worse than kapos — Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” For Jews, especially those who are descendants of Holocaust survivors, there can be no worse accusation. It is a violent description, even a form of incitement, and it is meant to be.

Indeed, his use of that term raised the ire of dozens of Holocaust survivors themselves, who along with 29 Holocaust historians and a number of rabbis wrote letters to the senators involved in his confirmation hearing, calling on them to factor Friedman’s use of the term into their considerations.

For all these moments and more, Friedman was called upon again and again during his hearings to repudiate his language. It was pointed out that diplomats are required to be judicious in their speech, and their positions, as a mechanism of diplomacy. Friedman claimed during the hearing:

Some of the language that I used during the highly charged presidential campaign that ended last November has come in for criticism and rightfully so. While I maintain profound differences of opinion with some of my critics, I regret the use of such language.

I want to assure you that I understand the critical difference between the partisan rhetoric of a political contest and a diplomatic mission. Partisan rhetoric is not appropriate in achieving diplomatic progress, especially in a sensitive and strife-torn region like the Middle East.

But being forced to walk back each contentious comment resulted in some dry scepticism from the senators at the hearing. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) asked why Friedman even wants the ambassador position if it means he has to “recant every single strong belief you’ve had.”

It is rare to choose someone with such a specific, well-defined, and controversial political opinion about an area of the world to be an ambassador to that region. Indeed, until the Clinton administration, it was thought that the US ambassador to Israel should not necessarily even be a Jew. Martin Indyk, the first Jewish person to serve in the role, was seen as an unusual pick at the time, both for his faith and because he was not a career diplomat.

A pick like Friedman, a Jewish lawyer from Long Island with no diplomatic experience and extremely divisive views on some of the most controversial issues he’ll be dealing with on a daily basis, is far more unusual.


Protesters from If Not Now – #Jewish Resistance to the Occupation,  heckle at Friedman’s Senate hearing. Photo from Reuters

Trump pick for ambassador to Israel has contentious Senate audition

By Anne Gearan and Ruth Eglash, Washington Post
February 16, 2017

President Trump’s choice to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel sought Thursday to assure sceptical senators that he can be fair-minded despite previous public statements doubting a Palestinian state and supporting Jewish home building in the West Bank.

“Some of the inflammatory language I used during the highly charged presidential campaign … has come in for criticism, and rightfully so,” New York lawyer and staunch Trump supporter David M. Friedman said.

“I regret the use of such language and I want to assure you that I understand the important difference between a political contest and a diplomatic mission,” Friedman said. “From my perspective, the inflammatory rhetoric used during the election campaign is entirely over and you should expect my comments to be respectful from now on.”

Asked about insults he lobbed at then-President Obama, Sen. Chuck Schumer and others about support for the Iran nuclear deal, Friedman said he regrets them.

“There is no excuse. If you want me to rationalize it or justify it, I cannot,” Friedman said. “These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them. They are not reflective of my nature or my character.”

A pro-Palestinian demonstrator interrupted Friedman before he had finished his first sentence, and another followed after the nominee had introduced his family behind him.

“We are there, we will always be there,” the man shouted.

The hearing began with an acknowledgment from all sides that it was going to be contentious. Committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) began by warning would-be protesters that he couldn’t keep them from being arrested.

Former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) helped introduce Friedman and urged colleagues troubled by Friedman’s past public positions to ask the nominee about them but to keep an open mind.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, read through a highlight list of some of Friedman’s most controversial statements, including likening a U.S. Jewish group to “kapos,” or Jewish Holocaust collaborators.

“I have questions about your preparedness to this post,” Cardin said.

The liberal group Friedman had attacked, J Street, is generally critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited the White House on Wednesday.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) also helped introduce Friedman.

“Mr. Friedman is very passionate. He has said some things I don’t agree with, but I never doubt that he did it based on what he thinks was the right things to say at the time,” Graham said.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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