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It’s time for Tom Friedman to face the contradictions of liberal Zionism, and move on

Media Analysis
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It’s becoming more and more difficult for liberal Zionists to balance their support for human rights and global justice in Trump’s America with their support for Israel. But liberal Zionists in the U.S. still believe they can.

This tension is evident in Thomas Friedman’s June 19, 2018, opinion piece in the New York Times, “Trump to Dictators: Have a Nice Day.” Friedman compares Trump to dictators and defends human rights, but Israel is left out of the column, and it feels like a glaring evasion. “What’s terrifying about Trump is that he seems to prefer dictators to our democratic allies everywhere,” Friedman rightly suggests, and uses North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his examples. These dictators don’t just “crush their revolutionaries or terrorists but even their most mild dissenters,” Friedman writes.  There’s no “space for even loyal opposition.” Friedman is correct, of course, that dissent is criminalized in these countries, and that Trump’s administration puts no limit on these dictators.

When looking at Friedman’s column with a non-Zionist lens, however, the alliance between Trump and Netanyahu seems simply too obvious to leave out.  Netanyahu’s dictator-like behavior is clear. The recent murder of 135 Palestinians at the Gaza border (and the wounding of more than 14,000), the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem that Netanyahu pushed, Israel’s decision to ban 20 groups who support BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) from entering Israel, and the ongoing occupation and colonization of the Palestinian people that Israel has never taken responsibility for, are just a few indicators of Netanyahu’s desire for total control.

That Netanyahu is left out of this column speaks to this growing tension between a universal liberalism and liberal Zionism; to reconcile the two, Friedman is forced to avoid the topic altogether.

Similarly, Friedman can only sound as though he supports human rights if Israel is not mentioned.  He cites Human Rights Watch to show the changes occurring in Egypt:

Take Egypt. On May 31, Human Rights Watch reported that the Egyptian police had ‘carried out a wave of arrests of critics of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in dawn raids since early May 2018.’ Those arrested included Hazem Abd al-Azim, a political activist; and Wael Abbas, a well-known journalist and rights defender; as well as Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon; Haitham Mohamadeen, a lawyer; Amal Fathy, an activist; and Shady Abu Zaid, a satirist.

Again, Friedman accurately warns of increased censorship among Egypt’s citizens.  But a site like Human Rights Watch becomes a convenient and valid source for liberal Zionists as long as it is not used to criticize Israel.  When it does, it is accused of perpetuating an anti-Israel bias, rather than being a source that has authority and shows human rights violations by Israel. But Friedman’s liberal Zionism prevents him from acknowledging that Israel might violate the very rights he insists all people should have. For liberal Zionists, however, the only way Zionism and human rights can coexist is to erase Palestinian history and give Israel a pass.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch–the same website Friedman uses to talk about Egypt– criticized the U.S. decision to pull out of the Council, underscoring the U.S. promise to protect Israel:

“The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy in which the US defends Israeli abuses from criticism above all else.”

John Sifton, an advocacy director also at Human Rights Watch, said pretty much the same thing:

“All this administration seems to care about when it comes to the council is defending Israel.”

Why is it so difficult for Friedman to make this connection?  Why is he unwilling to use the higher-order skills of application and synthesis to draw obvious parallels?

I understand Friedman’s position because I used to be a liberal Zionist, but it just doesn’t work anymore. Liberal Zionism has become a mythology; Friedman is still operating as though it’s a reality. To shift requires a change in one’s worldview. When I was a teenager, Friedman articulated my love for Israel; I thought he had a keen sense of the country and its people, and he gave me permission to both love Israel and to believe that I could support peace with Palestinians. He made it sound possible that these two ideas were completely compatible.  It seemed as though he was on the inside of the idea of Israel and Zionism–one that included Palestinians–and it spoke hugely to me.

But the truth is that Zionism and human rights are incompatible. And this evasion among liberal Zionists becomes dangerous because it stifles any attempt at a constructive discussion about Israel and Palestine.  It perpetuates the status-quo by protecting Israel. It furthers the colonization and occupation of Palestine. And Friedman has the liberal Zionist orthodoxy–and the U.S. mainstream media–behind him to back him up.

In spite of Friedman’s commitment to perpetuating Zionist discourse, however, the contradictions of liberal Zionism are being made clearer under Trump’s America in other journalistic venues. Eric Levitz’s April 26, 2018, piece in New York Mag’s Daily Intelligencer, for example, “Natalie Portman and the Crisis of Liberal Zionism,” speaks about this growing friction:

There have always been tensions between liberal universalism and Jewish nationalism. But the rise of the Trumpist right has heightened such contradictions. To remain true to both AIPAC and progressivism, a liberal Zionist must now lament border walls in Texas but defend them in the West Bank; condemn Republicans who suggest that nonwhite babies pose a threat to American civilization as proto-Nazis and endorse Israel’s right to defend itself against the “demographic threat” that is Palestinian children; decry Donald Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees and apologize for Israel’s imprisonment of African ones; abhor the president’s indifference to civilian casualties and ignore that Israel’s defense minister believes every man, woman, and child in the Gaza Strip is an enemy combatant.

Choosing when to be outraged and when to give Israel a pass is a lot to keep track of. Oh, it’s rather exhausting to be a liberal Zionist and to keep it all straight!

Others, in addition to Levitz, are also noticing the hypocrisy among U.S. liberal Zionists who say they support human rights but ignore the dehumanization of Palestinians.  In her June 24, 2018 Haaretz piece, “So Easy for U.S. Jews to Disown Stephen Miller,” Amira Hass points out the contradictions between U.S. liberals’ positions on Trump and their positions on Israel. Jane Eisner, the editor in chief of The Forward, for example, criticized White House adviser Stephen Miller for promoting “dehumanizing policies that violate Jewish values,” referring to the U.S. immigration policy that has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents. Hass notes the inconsistency:

In Gaza, in Hebron, in Area C in the West Bank (60 percent of that territory) and in East Jerusalem, Israel separates families, expels people from their homes and lands, promotes a policy of white-Jewish supremacy and impoverishes others while dehumanizing them. Within Israel’s borders, non-Jews are discriminated against and persecuted…Thousands of Millers live in Israel, and they have thousands of willing and enthusiastic collaborators along with hundreds of thousands of passive collaborators–all of whom are violating Jewish values as Eisner understands them.

That Eisner and other American liberal Zionists don’t see this incompatibility pointed out by Hass and others, is a testament to the blind spots inherent in the liberal Zionist mythology.  And the tension is growing under Trump’s America.

Sadly, Friedman’s New York Times piece is a perfect example of this incompatibility.  Friedman has to selectively choose when to include and exclude Israel from his arguments so that he doesn’t have to face the predicament of reconciling these contradictions.  Because of this, his argument does nothing more than maintain the status quo and help liberal Zionists feel good about this growing opposition that they don’t want to face, either.

Of course, Friedman could stop using the liberal Zionism template.  He could give himself permission to experience a paradigm shift and change his understanding and perspective.  Given that he’s devoted most of his career to writing about the Middle East, he could have far-reaching influence in changing the discourse of how we talk about Israel and Palestine.  He could also stop writing about Palestinians as though they are an abstract theory in a graduate seminar, but are human beings with an entire history. Their history just hasn’t been given the air time that his has been given. And he could write about Netanyahu for what he is, too.

Friedman’s way of thinking became a template for how to understand Israel when I was young. I was on the inside of liberal Zionism, like I thought he was: I believed deeply that Israel could be a Jewish democracy and that it had been a desert and that Palestinians and Bedouins lived there and that somehow everyone got what they needed and everyone was equal. I believed in the Israeli leadership that there would be peace.

Over time, though, I found myself trapped in the dilemma of liberal Zionism. I realized that none of these things were true–that I hadn’t been living inside of anything but a mythology that made no sense and kept Palestinians down. I simply could not reconcile the hypocrisy that is so glaringly obvious–and ignored–in Friedman’s logic. He’s trying desperately to have it both ways. The mythology is unraveling and the reality is going to, ultimately, force Friedman and other liberal Zionists to choose.  You just can’t keep wagging your finger at injustice without looking in the mirror first.



Liz Rose

Liz Rose is a Chicago teacher.

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27 Responses

  1. Kay24 on June 27, 2018, 4:13 pm

    This is a incurable sickness prevailing in pro Israel pundits, journalists, members of congress, and reporters in the media. It is a sickness that prevents them from speaking negatively about Israel, and even when they criticize human rights violations, or the killing of unarmed civilians by others, stating examples of others committing the same crimes, strangely, the name Israel, never, ever, comes up, even if hours before Israel has killed unarmed youth, women, or the disabled. They dare not utter it.
    Today I heard Steve Schmidt, who just left the Republican party criticize Israel, and I almost fell off my chair! It is such a rare event.

    • US Citizen on June 29, 2018, 1:37 pm

      The man is an idiot. Let’s send him and every pimp for Israel in our US Congress the movie –
      “The Occupation of the American Mind” – It’s time for progressive politicians to put Palestinian rights on the agenda, stop being bullied by AIPAC, and get with the program, or else they are going to lose the support of the constituents they need to get elected- if not today, then tomorrow.

      • Kay24 on June 30, 2018, 6:33 am

        Thanks for reminding me. I purchased the movie, and need to watch it.

  2. CigarGod on June 27, 2018, 4:45 pm

    Since Tom can’t help
    rationalizing bad behavior…
    I think he should consider writing a story on
    Hitlers Better Qualities.

  3. JWalters on June 27, 2018, 9:11 pm

    On his deathbed Thomas Friedman may very well say – “Please forgive me for not having the courage to tell the truth.”

  4. Maghlawatan on June 27, 2018, 9:13 pm

    Stephen Miller is a Nazi.
    Now is the same as the 30s. Breeding ground for far right insanity. Israel is ahead of the curve. bringing the US up to speed. I think Fried man still thinks it’s 1997.
    Here’s a very interesting nugget.




    I was skeptical until I verified these clippings at @nytimes. In 1934, influential religious figures in US argued that Germans did not hate Jews but only supported Hitler out of economic anxiety, & that Jews would be fine if they’d just be civil to Nazis & show good will.

    • Elizabeth Block on June 28, 2018, 12:24 pm

      Thank you for this. I’ve been wondering what people were saying about Hitler before Kristallnacht, before he became Hitler, so to speak.
      I’ve just read Adam Hochschild’s wonderful memoir, “Half the Way Home.” He quotes from something he found among his father’s papers after his father died, something he wrote in 1940. He was afraid that pogroms might start in America, and thought it might be the Jews’ own “shortcomings” that would be partly responsible – too loud, too apt to call attention to themselves, women who wear too much jewelry and too colourful clothes, businessmen “not properly educated in American business and social standards.” This fear coloured his father’s whole life.

  5. Maghlawatan on June 27, 2018, 9:28 pm

    Heres a quote about now.
    “All sides in current politics — even the radicals — are sticking to what they know. At some point we will all have to let go.”

    The whole article is super.

    We are in a war- plutocracy versus humanity.
    Bennett versus Hillel
    The Israeli Army versus Gaza
    Yiddish versus Hebrew
    Trump versus a Guatemalan 3 year old

    Nazism is like Ebola- too lethal to be efficient long term.
    This is also yin versus yang. And it can’t last

    A lot of Friedman’s Weltanschauung has collapsed.
    And when this happens cognitive dissonance multiplies.

  6. JustJessetr on June 28, 2018, 9:46 am

    Here’s an interesting contradiction. Some Iranians, normally the most strident supporters of Palestine, shouting “Death to Palestine”.

    Why? Possibly because Iran is diverting badly needed funds towards militias like Hisbullah, Palestinian Jihad, and Hamas. When people say the Middle East is complicated, they aren’t kidding.

    • CigarGod on June 29, 2018, 10:05 am

      De-stabilization protests funded by outside groups is not an “…interesting contradiction.”

  7. festus on June 28, 2018, 11:48 am

    When I have read Friedman in the past (cannot take it any longer), I have oft come away with the impression that he is insane, or perhaps the dumbest human being I have ever been aware of.

  8. genesto on June 28, 2018, 7:08 pm

    It’s always gratifying to see Zionists, particularly Jews, evolve into human beings that make no distinctions about who does and who doesn’t qualify for basic human rights. As difficult as I believe it is for them to come to that realization, it has to be a truly liberating transformation for which I have nothing but the highest regard. Mazel Tov!!

    • JWalters on June 29, 2018, 8:53 pm

      Totally agree. Each such “coming out” or “great escape” is an event to celebrate, both for the individual and for humanity.

  9. JWalters on June 28, 2018, 7:32 pm

    Shortly before a Tom Friedman appearance on MSNBZ’s Morning Joe –

    Joe Scarborough: I read on a blog the other day somebody saying we’re Zionist patsies. Is that accurate? Are we Zionist patsies?

    Mika: What exactly is a patsy? Lee Harvey Oswald said he was a patsy.

    Mike Barnicle: Oswald was definitely a patsy. A patsy is somebody set up to take the fall. We’re more like Zionist stooges.

    Willie Geist: You mean like the Three Stooges? So we would be the Four Stooges?

    Voice: On air in ten, people!

  10. John G on June 28, 2018, 11:08 pm

    Why bother with Friedman? The man is an idiot. His columns and books are unintelligible, childish drivel.

  11. gamal on June 29, 2018, 5:16 pm

    “that I hadn’t been living inside of anything but a mythology” Liz Rose

    “Because man dare not live with men alone,

    But always with another fairy-tale”

    Abu al ‘Ala al Ma’ari,

  12. Walker on July 1, 2018, 8:12 pm

    Tom Friedman is a liberal Zionist? I thought he was just a butthead.

  13. David Green on July 2, 2018, 2:05 am

    “Why is it so difficult for Friedman to make this connection? Why is he unwilling to use the higher-order skills of application and synthesis to draw obvious parallels?”

    Because Friedman has always been and will always be a complete tool, a fool, and utterly subservient to a U.S. establishment that is now vilifying Trump for all the wrong reasons. That same establishment is uncritical of Netanyahu and Israel at bottom.

    It’s the author of this piece that needs a “paradigm shift” in order to understand what worlds the U.S. elites, Trump, and Netanyahu are living in.

    • Keith on July 2, 2018, 11:38 am

      DAVID GREEN- “It’s the author of this piece that needs a “paradigm shift” in order to understand what worlds the U.S. elites, Trump, and Netanyahu are living in.”

      Yes, and that Thomas Friedman is a member of the imperial elite engaged in perception management, not in providing insightful information to his readership. I suspect, however, that the author is aware of this but is a member of the loyal opposition who attacks the symptoms while supporting the systemic disease.

  14. rafa santisteban on July 2, 2018, 1:26 pm

    The one problem I have with this article is that it is poor, psychologically. As most readers here, I imagine are well-positioned to know, the pro-Zionists, like I presume Friedman and AIPAC and Adelson, are very *dedicated* people – dedicated to the support and survival of Israel and Jewry against the siege of potentially deadly antisemitic foes. They have a besieged mentality, derived of course from the Holocaust and centuries of Jewish persecution. And most if not all of the standard pro-Israel arguments portray Israel and the Jews as *victims*. They almost can only think about the Israel-Palestine situation from one side.

    So perhaps in arguing against them, you have to first acknowledge this partisan dedication – Zionism is one of the most astonishingly dedicated, relentless networks the world has ever known – and then point out what this dedication has led to – one of the world’s most ghetto-ised people in history becoming the world’s premier ghettokeepers. today.

  15. Boomer on July 2, 2018, 2:02 pm

    re: “It’s time for Tom Friedman to face the contradictions of liberal Zionism”

    Thanks for your essay. What you say about TF is true. But one could have equally well said the same 10 years ago,

    or 20 years ago,

    or 30 years ago,

    or 40 years ago,

    or 50 years ago.

    That takes us back to ’68. TF has written often about the impact of the ’67 war on him, and on many other American Jews. Considering his youth at the time, I guess he may deserve a break for initially getting swept up in that for a few months, maybe even a few years. But I don’t see any excuse for him subsequently. He knows the facts, as his reporting from the region once upon a time demonstrated.

    • Boomer on July 2, 2018, 2:37 pm

      PS re “Tom Friedman once gave me permission to believe in Israel and believe it wanted peace with Palestinians. ”

      It has been his job to do precisely that for Liberal Zionists. His personal and professional success have been built on doing that. He may well be sincere . . . I’m not suggesting that he isn’t. But his message on this topic isn’t some unfortunate, minor facet of his body of work. It isn’t an exception.

    • echinococcus on July 2, 2018, 3:27 pm

      But one could have equally well said the same 10 years ago…
      or 50 years ago.

      Thank you, Boomer. That seems to be a very frequent defense mechanism in “liberal” Zionists when they realize (to their credit!) that something is very wrong with Zionism itself. They somehow step out but they need some way to excuse what they have been doing for years, so they live in the often unconscious or unformulated illusion that Zionism was somehow more justifiable in the good ol’ times.
      The other spot where this thinking comes to the fore is in the front page blurb:
      “Tom Friedman once gave me permission to believe in Israel and believe it wanted peace with Palestinians. That liberal Zionist world is over…”
      Assuming as reality their imaginary “world” of yore.

      That has a lot to do with their being “liberals”, too: most continue to have no major objections when the crimes against humanity are committed by Labor (Z) or the Democrat party but they only wake up if the same thing happens under Likud or Trump/Repukes.

  16. Boomer on July 4, 2018, 7:28 pm

    PPS re: Tom Friedman

    On reflection, I think perhaps I was a bit too ungenerous. I wish that all liberal Zionists could bring themselves to the kind of epiphany and moral growth that Liz Rose describes. But that is hard for reasons we all can understand. Particularly for people who went through the stress of the Holocaust, or whose family members perished in it, it is normal to focus one’s empathy inward exclusively on one’s own group.

    I was reminded of this forcefully today, while slowly working my way through Robert Sapolsky’s “Behave.” Slowly, because I am only devoting a little time to it each day, and because it is (thus far) fairly dense, more so than his earlier explanation of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.”

    In one section he describes the effect of stress on the brain, and in particular on empathy. When one considers as well the potential for multigenerational effects via epigenetics as well as via culture, one may speculate that any group that has been exposed to extraordinary stress may be somewhat lacking in empathy for others.

    On the other hand, lots of people in the world today are, or have been under as much stress as are Israeli Jews. Palestinians, for example. The trauma of an earlier generation can’t be a permanent dispensation. And Tom Friedman, in particular, is hardly a victim
    of any sort

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