Friedman’s Apology Tour Has Persuaded Some. But J Street Isn’t Buying It

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David Friedman, nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
David Friedman, nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.Credit: Susan Walsh/AP

NEW YORK – The fiery, roaring David Friedman who has for years excoriated left-wing Jews and high-level elected officials ranging from President Barack Obama to Senator Chuck Schumer was nowhere to be seen at his Senate hearing Thursday. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Friedman made clear that he hopes it will result in his being confirmed America’s next ambassador to Israel. 

Though interrupted repeatedly by yelling and shofar-blowing protestors, Friedman didn’t blink an eye and, in an understated voice, said he regretted some of the language he had previously used. 

But President Donald Trump’s longtime bankruptcy attorney, who advised the presidential candidate on Israel, stopped short of directly apologizing. He had earlier called J Street followers “worse than kapos” and “smug advocates of Israel’s destruction.” He had also said that leaders of the Anti-Defamation League sound like “morons” and during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal and said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York “is validating the worst appeasement of terrorism since Munich.” 

“Some of the language I used during the highly charged presidential campaign that ended last November has come under criticism, and rightfully so,” he told the committee. 

In response to pointed questioning by Democratic senators, who noted that many of his statements were written in publications, rather than said off the cuff at heated moments, and that some preceded the presidential campaign, Friedman said, “these were hurtful words and I deeply regret them. They are not reflective of my nature or my character.” 

“Apology is the first step toward atonement,” Friedman said. " have profound differences of opinion with J Street. My regret is that I did not express my views respectfully."

Friedman also said he has reached out in recent months to some who were offended. He contacted the ADL and Reform movement. But not J Street.

Friedman called ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt Wednesday morning, Greenblatt told Haaretz. On Thursday Greenblatt Tweeted, “we accept his apology and appreciate his outreach we will be prepared to work with him to advance our shared interests.”

Though he had not publicly derogated Reform Jews — Friedman himself is Orthodox — he also reached out to the head of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the URJ’s chief program officer, Mark Pelavin, met last week with Friedman at his midtown Manhattan law office.

The meeting “was respectful, candid, far reaching and honest. There were no surprises. We heard his views on issues and he heard ours. We talked a lot about how we might work together if he were confirmed,” Pelavin told Haaretz after the Senate hearing. 

Asked if he thought Friedman was being sincere, Pelavin said “I’m not going to sit and judge. That’s not my job. I also think it’s fair to point out that he’s had a lot of opportunities since he made those comments to walk them back, and he chose to wait until today.”

At a divisive time in American and Israel-related politics, Friedman is proving to be perhaps the most divisive Israel ambassador candidate ever nominated. He is a long-time supporter of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and currently serves as president of the fundraising arm for the Beit El settlement, which is north of Ramallah in the heart of what would likely be a future Palestinian state.

In the Beit El-run Arutz 7 publication Friedman wrote just last August that the two-state narrative, as he calls it, is “an illusion.” He also wrote, “the U.S. State Department – with a hundred-year history of anti-Semitism – promotes the payoff of corrupt Palestinians in exchange for their completely duplicitous agreement to support a two-state solution.”

Now he would be an official representing that State Department.

Several letters from large numbers of prominent figures were sent to the Foreign Relations Committee. One from five previous U.S. ambassadors to Israel who served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, said that Friedman has staked out “extreme, radical positions.”

Another letter asking senators not to confirm Friedman was signed by more than 600 rabbis and cantors. It said, in part, “Mr. Friedman’s inflammatory comments about Jews, Palestinians and Muslims and the peace process itself are precisely the type of comments that can ignite further conflict and drive deeper wedges between parties.”

A few weeks back Friedman also met with vice presidents of the New York and New Jersey Boards of Rabbis. The two rabbis then wrote a letter to J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, asking them to not stand in the way of Friedman’s getting a full airing by the Senate committee. Jacobs had earlier published a piece in The Forward pledging to, “marshal the power of our 1,800 rabbis and their communities to block your appointment. In the meantime, we also invite you on an up-close tour of the reality you have helped create through your funding of settlement projects.”

Friedman did not respond to T’ruah’s invitation, or to the letter that Jacobs and Ben-Ami sent him after the Board of Rabbis representatives spoke with them. “We offered to meet with Friedman and haven’t gotten a response,” T’ruah’s Jacobs told Haaretz.

J Street President Ben-Ami, for his part, attended the Senate hearing, but isn’t buying Friedman’s apparent bid for forgiveness.

“He did not do much apologizing” at the hearing, Ben-Ami told Haaretz afterward. “It had to be pulled out of him.”

“It is so clear that the person on display today has nothing to do with the person who is going to serve in this position,” Ben-Ami said. The phone calls Friedman placed to the ADL and URJ “don’t even begin to do justice to the level of repentance needed here.” 

Now, said Ben-Ami, “it is up to senators to determine if three hours of testimony can undo a lifelong track record, both in terms of what he actually believes and how he conducts himself.”

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