Did Trump's Israel Envoy Support a Radical-right Kahanist Group?

David Friedman headed a foundation that was quite generous to a movement whose leaders are anti-gay and support the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank

David Friedman at a hearing for his nomination as U.S. Ambassador in Washington, U.S., February 16, 2017.
\ YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

In February last year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the nomination of David Friedman as the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman was asked to clarify controversial statements he had made in the past, among them his description of members of the left-leaning, pro-Israel lobby J Street as being “worse than kapos.”

The proposed envoy was also asked about his public and philanthropic activity involving the Friends of Beit El Yeshiva foundation. Friedman, a religiously observant Jew with saliently right-wing views, explained that, as president of the Friends organization for six years, he had supported “a Talmudic academy and a boys high school and a girls high school, and it primarily derives from my commitment to Jewish education.” He added, “Everything we’ve given money to has been in the nature of gymnasiums, dormitories, dining rooms, classrooms and things like that.” His personal philanthropy, he told the committee, had nothing to do with political activity in Beit El, a settlement in the West Bank, which “I really have no part in.”

But Friedman’s words were not accurate. The Friends organization, it turns out, supported not only institutions and projects connected with the yeshiva but was also quite generous to a nonprofit called Komemiut (full name in English, “Independence, Spirit and Heroism for Jewish Israel”) which has clear political affiliations: Its founders and key activists include Bezalel Smotrich (now an MK for Habayit Hayehudi), and it is currently headed by a Beit El resident, Mousa Cohen.

Komemiut aspires to turn Israel into a state bearing a Jewish-religious character in the spirit of the precepts of the Torah, and advocates weakening “secular institutions” such as the media and the courts. Heading the list of Komemiut rabbis that appears on the organization’s website is Dov Lior. A consistent supporter of the “transfer,” or expulsion, of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria, Rabbi Lior praised Baruch Goldstein – who perpetrated a 1994 massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron – as “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust,” and customarily takes part in memorial ceremonies for Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was outlawed in Israel almost 25 years ago.

After Lior was summoned for questioning by the police in 2011 concerning his support for “The King’s Torah,” a controversial book by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, Komemiut organized a solidarity meeting for him that was addressed by the group’s other rabbis, including Zalman Melamed and David Chai Hacohen.

The latter two rabbis also identify with principal tenets of Rabbi Kahane’s doctrine. Hacohen was a key speaker in a Bat Yam meeting in 2010 at which a call to Jews not to rent apartments to Arabs was issued, after a religious ruling to that effect had been handed down by Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu. Melamed has said of Kahane that he was “wholly selfless devotion and martyrdom.” Komemiut also initiated, in conjunction with activists of the far-right Jewish National Front, the so-called “march of the beasts” in Jerusalem in 2007, in protest against the Gay Pride Parade held in the city.

Between 2008 and 2013, Friends of Beit El Yeshiva donated 372,000 shekels (approximately $93,000) to Komemiut. Those were years when Friedman was very active in the Friends organization, even before he became president of the Friends organization. That occurred in December 2011, and Friedman remained in the post until his ambassadorial appointment.

Friedman might claim that this was only a symbolic title, that he served in that capacity on a volunteer basis and that he was not involved in administering the foundation, and in particular had nothing to do with allocation of its resources. However, Ran Cohen, from the Democratic Bloc – a new Israeli NGO that describes its mission as “exposing the lies, dubious interests and funding sources that fuel the right wing’s prolonged campaign of incitement and instigation,” and which has compiled material about Komemiut, believes that Friedman must not be allowed to hide behind any such claims.

According to Cohen, “The president of a foundation bears responsibility far beyond an honorable title and [attending] gala dinners. Throughout his years as president of Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, Friedman enjoyed full credit for the foundation’s activity and reaped public benefits from it. Just as he took credit for its successes, he must now take responsibility for its support for neo-Kahanism and for racism.”

Haaretz submitted a long list of questions to Ambassador Friedman, including the question of whether he was aware of the connection between Komemiut and his organization when he served as its president. A reply couched in general terms was received from his office: “The Ambassador is not familiar with the Qomemiut Foundation, nor is he aware of any connection between those entities and American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva Center.”

For his part, Mousa Cohen told Haaretz that he is not aware of direct involvement by Friedman in the transfer of funds to his nonprofit group, and added that “the connection was between the two organizations.”