Thomas Friedman’s Folly


thomas-friedman-ny-timesBy Jerold Auerbach

Thomas Friedman’s boyhood infatuation with Israel following the Six-Day War quickly faded. During his undergraduate years at Brandeis in the mid-Seventies he belonged to the steering committee of a “Middle East Peace Group” affiliated with  the notoriously anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, organization Breira.

Posted in Beirut by The New York Times during the first Lebanon War, his unrequited love turned to fury after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. “Boiling with anger” at Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Sharon, and determined to “help get rid of them,” Friedman wrote the four-page Times article that won a Pulitzer Prize. A week later, after an interview with the Israeli commanding officer, he proudly “buried” the general on page one and “along with him every illusion I ever held about the Jewish state.” Even Friedman subsequently admitted: “I was not professionally detached.”

Nor was he detached once he left Beirut for Jerusalem. As the Times bureau chief during the mid-Eighties his primary instructors were Meron Benvenisti, the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem who castigated Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and advocated a bi-national state; political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, who lacerated Zionism for disregarding liberal democratic values; Rabbi David Hartman, whose rabbinic and academic commitment was to building “a more pluralistic, tolerant, and enlightened Israeli society”; and Ari Shavit, columnist for left-wing Ha’aretz. It was not exactly a representative sampling of the Israeli political spectrum.

Friedman returned to the United States, he wrote, believing that Israel was “a Jewish South Africa, permanently ruling Palestinians in West Bank homelands.” And, as he  memorably described it in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem,  Israel had become “Yad VaShem with an air force.” Arrogantly certain that he knew the solution for Middle East peace, he  presented Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah with the Friedman peace plan in 2002. In this “simple, clear-cut proposal,” as he described it theTimes (February 17, 2002), Friedman urged “a total withdrawal by Israel to the June 4, 1967 lines, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, in return for “full peace” with “the entire Arab world.” It came to naught, predictably, but Friedman was not deterred.

Seven years later he tried again, drafting a proposal for now King Abdullah to send to the new American president, Barack Obama. Friedman warned that “Zionist settlers would devour the rest of the West Bank and holy Jerusalem” if nothing was done to stop them. The solution, once again, was an Israeli agreement “to withdraw from every inch of the West Bank and Arab districts of East Jerusalem.” Egypt and Jordan would “maintain order,” while Saudi Arabia would fund Friedman’s “5-State Solution.” Like the previous Friedman plan, it went nowhere.

Fast forward to the most recent Friedman column (November 17),  imagining a conversation between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu about Israel’s double strategic dilemma – trading settlements for peace with the Palestinians and trading sanctions on Iran for nuclear restrictions. Friedman recommended a new book for them to read. Entitled My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, its author is his old Ha’aretz friend Ari Shavit, “one of the handful of experts whom I’ve relied upon to understand Israel” for thirty years, once a committed leftist who has moved to the center since the Oslo failure.

It is evident why Friedman is such an admirer. Shavit grasps the double truth of Zionism that Friedman finds so compelling: a miracle of national restoration for the Jewish people that produced the “nightmare” of Palestinian defeat and exile. The centerpiece of his story of Jewish triumph and Palestinian tragedy is “Lydda, 1948,” recently excerpted  in The New Yorker (October 21). The mass expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from that strategically vital city, located only a few miles from Tel Aviv, near the international airport and on the road to Jerusalem, was tragic. But it was an Israeli response dictated by the decision of Arab governments to ignore UN truce proposals and renew their effort to exterminate the fledgling Jewish state within any borders.

Shavit understands that “Lydda does not make Zionism criminal.” But “it is my moral duty as an Israeli to recognize Lydda and help the Palestinians to overcome it” by working for a Palestinian state. He remains convinced that post-1967 “occupation was a moral, demographic and political disaster.” Friedman chimes in: the Jewish state “must find a way to separate from the West Bank . . . otherwise the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel.” To remain democratic, Israel must terminate “an endless occupation [that] will lead to Jews being a minority in their own home.”

But the demographic warning issued by Shavit and Friedman is erroneous. Jews comprise two-thirds of the population between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, while Jewish birth rates rise and Palestinian rates decline. Neither journalist mentions the ninety-year-old international guarantees to Jews, never rescinded, for “close settlement” west of the Jordan River. But Shavit, at least, still marvels at the “miracle” of Zionism. That is one lesson of history that Thomas Friedman still seems reluctant to learn.

Jerold S. Auerbach is author of the forthcoming Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy.


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  1. I read the Shavit piece in the New Yorker a few weeks ago and marvelled at the level-headedness of the author. He was able to describe the tragedy, as he saw it, without descending into a fit of anti-Israel condemnation.