From Dismay to Jubilation, Trump's Pick of David Friedman as Israel Envoy Splits Jewish Response

Appointment of pro-settlement David Friedman, who this year called J Street supporters 'worse than kapos,' alarms dovish Jewish groups. ZOA, meanwhile, lauds potential of 'greatest U.S. Ambassador to Israel ever.'

Alon Ron

NEW YORK — Some American Jewish leaders are exceedingly worried about President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Friedman, an attorney and advocate of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, has been advising Trump on Israel for months. Some other American Jewish groups which share Friedman’s enthusiasm for Jewish settlement in “Greater Israel” are pleased.

“The position he advocates is more extreme than any government of Israel has stated,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the nation’s largest Jewish denomination, in an interview with Haaretz, citing Friedman’s public statements favoring Israeli annexation of the West Bank rather than pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Israel’s official policy continues to favor two states for two peoples. “We have serious concerns about someone who says annexing the West Bank to Israel is a viable way to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic essence,” Jacobs said.

Friedman’s personal views have long been clear. Writing in Arutz Sheva last June, he called President Barack Obama an anti-Semite and supporters of the left-wing J Street “far worse than kapos,” referring to the Jews who informed on their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

“The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas – it’s hard to imagine anyone worse,” Friedman wrote.

Billionaire real estate developer Donald J. Trump, center, his daughter Ivanka Trump, right, and attorney David Friedman exit U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden, New Jersey, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010.
Bradley C. Bower / Bloomberg

Friedman is president of the American Friends of Bet El, a Jewish settlement just north east of Ramallah. Arutz Sheva, which hosts his columns, is owned and operated by Bet El institutions, according to its Facebook page. 

There and elsewhere he has expressed the view that a two-state solution isn’t a workable resolution to the conflict between the two peoples. The headline to a Friedman essay published in August in Arutz Sheva reads: “End the two-state narrative. It was never a solution, just an illusion that served both the U.S. and the Arabs.”

Friedman also wrote, in a Jerusalem Post-published piece shortly before the U.S. presidential election: “Under president Trump, Israel will feel no pressure to make self-defeating concessions.”

In a statement, the New Israel Fund, which raises money for progressive causes in Israel, wrote that David Friedman “stands for neither democracy nor the Jewish value of tsedek, [justice] that are so desperately needed in these times. 

Courtesy URJ

“He represents extreme fringe views that are appalling to most American Jews,” wrote the NIF. “Those of us concerned about Israel and the cause of peace there should be alarmed that Mr. Friedman will be representing America's interests.”

IfNotNow, an anti-occupation Jewish-American group, strongly opposed Friedman's appointment and called on the Jewish establishment to condemn it. "This is just the latest indication that President-elect Trump intends to further entrench the occupation and pursue policies that will continue to deny freedom and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians," Yonah Lieberman, a spokesperson for IfNotNow, told Haaretz.

It comes as no surprise that J Street is “vehemently opposed” to Friedman’s being America’s ambassador to Israel, wrote the left-leaning group, in a statement. 

“As someone who has been a leading American friend of the settlement movement, who lacks any diplomatic or policy credentials and who has attacked liberal Jews who support two states as 'worse than kapos', Friedman should be beyond the pale for Senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel. This nomination is reckless, putting America's reputation in the region and credibility around the world at risk,” wrote J Street in a statement.

In an interview with Haaretz, J Street CEO Jeremy Ben-Ami said that his organization will lobby senators from both political parties to vote against approving Friedman’s appointment.

“We will be lobbying all Democrats and Republicans that this is a nomination that simply should not go through,” Ben-Ami told Haaretz. “The orthodoxy of the Republican party in the mainstream of American foreign policy has been recognition that there has to be a Palestinian state. George W. Bush was the first president to call for the creation of a Palestinian state,” said Ben-Ami. “Will our Republican senators stand up and be counted, and say ‘this is counter to American interests, and we’re going to take a stand’?”

It also comes as no surprise that those on the right are celebrating Friedman’s nomination.

“My friend David Friedman has the potential to be the greatest U.S. Ambassador to Israel ever,” Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told Haaretz. “He thoroughly understands the detailed tragic reality of the Arab-Islamic war against Israel. He has a powerful grasp of Israel’s defense needs, the dangers they face, and the danger now of a Hamas-Palestinian Authority State,” said Klein. “No previous ambassador appreciates the political, historic, legal, and religious rights of the Jews to Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem like David.”

“Yet he respects and understands the beliefs and hopes and dreams of the political left in Israel and America,” Klein continued. “This, in addition to his heartfelt love of Israel and all its people, makes him uniquely qualified for this position.”

Some American Jewish leaders strived for balance in their responses to news of Friedman’s nomination.

"We congratulate Mr. Friedman on his nomination as our country's next Ambassador to Israel, and shall look forward to getting to know him,” said David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement which reflected a great deal of uncertainty about what the Trump administration’s positions on Israel and the Middle East will actually be. 

“As to Mr. Friedman’s strongly expressed views on Israel-related matters, we know going forward, that his stance will necessarily reflect the Administration he serves. In that spirit, we shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special U.S.-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord — which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict.”

Haaretz reached out to AIPAC and its outside spokespeople for its perspective, but at press time had not received a reply. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations likewise did not respond. 

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, also did not get back to Haaretz. Danon was the keynote speaker at the Bet El fundraising banquet in Manhattan on December 4. 

The gracious tone Friedman struck when responding to an open letter written by the URJ’s Jacobs last July, after the Trump nominee told CNN that the two-state solution may not be the only resolution to the conflict, may offer hope for a fruitful future dialogue between the wide spectrum of Jewish organizations and the Trump administration’s ambassador to Israel.

Friedman offered detailed, measured — if right-wing — responses to Jacobs’ challenges to his views. Friedman concluded his letter by inviting the rabbi to continue their conversation over a cup of coffee — or a glass of Israeli wine. 

Taly Krupkin contributed to this report