Is Tom Friedman a “Positive Voice” for Peace? You Decide

by James M. Wall Friedman Wikipedia

Thomas Friedman is the Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent and columnist for the New York Times. So what, in the name of all that is sacred in media land, are we to make of this news item that appeared August 12 in Ha’aretz:

Senior New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gave a lecture last week to a number of members of the IDF General Staff. He spoke to them about his impressions of his recent visits to Arab countries.

Friedman visited Israel and the territories last week and published a two-part column on the situation in the territories after most IDF checkpoints were removed and Palestinian security forces moved in.

Friedman met personally with IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi during his visit, and spoke to the deputy chief of staff, the head of Military Intelligence, the head of the Home Front Command and the head of the planning branch.

Helene Cobban, a veteran of Middle East journalism, was furious. Cobban was a long time Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. In her blog, Just World News,  she wrote:

Someone tell me why anyone should consider this guy a “neutral observer” of matters Middle Eastern?

Someone tell me whether him behaving like this is quite okay by the New York Times— sort of par for the course for the way they expect their very handsomely [paid] columnists to behave?

Someone tell me why anyone in the rest of the Middle East would even agree to meet with this guy, given that he sees his role as being a snoop for the Israeli generals?

Richard Silverstein is a tad more sardonic on his blog, Tikun Olam:

Now here I thought Tom “Terrific” Friedman was the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the N.Y. Times. Little did I know he’s carrying on a nice little consulting business on the side giving lectures to the IDF staff and passing on intelligence information to them he gleaned from visits to Arab states.

Silverstein also wonders when the Times’ ombundsman, Clark Hoyt, and Friedman’s editors,  will explain to his readers how this doesn’t violate the paper’s ethics rules.”

They won’t fuss at Friedman unless the objections expand beyond the passionate core of bloggers for whom Friedman is a constant irritant. Friedman’s perspective has never been a secret to the Times.  Why correct him now for sharing with the Occupiers information he gained from the Occupied and their Arab neighbors?

Friedman was 15 years old when he first went to Israel. It was a trip, he writes in his first book, that “changed my life”. Man, did it ever.

Philip Weiss went back to that first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, which Friedman wrote while he was serving as the Times Middle East correspondent.  One revealing item from Weiss: As a  high school senior young Tom “was giving lectures to his Minnesota classmates on Israel’s righteous tactics in the (four-year-old) Six Day War.”

For Friedman, then and now, reality in the Middle East is based solely on what is good for Israel. Such a passion is understandable in a 15-year-old.  It is a disaster in a professional journalist.

I was not surprised to learn that Friedman felt right at home lecturing the Israeli Defense Forces general staff.  I have long had my suspicions.

On November 4, 2002,  the Christian Century magazine, published a column I wrote under the title, “Prison of Hope”. The column focused on the damage I believed Friedman’s pro-Israel journalism was doing in the region.

In 2002, it should have been obvious to anyone who actually ventured into Gaza and the West Bank and talked with those who suffered under the Occupation, that Friedman was tightly locked into Israel’s narrative. He thought he knew the Palestinian narrative. But he only knew the words.  He did not know the music.

It was clear to me that Friedman saw the sufferings of an entire Palestinian population the way Southern Whites once viewed racial segregation: We will be good to you “Negroes” so long as you accept that we are the masters in this land.

Here are excerpts from my 2002 Christian Century column:

On the ground in Jerusalem, one can see how much [New York Times] columnist Thomas Friedman overlooks. Friedman, the premier media commentator in the U.S. on foreign affairs, would have us believe that–as a liberal Jewish thinker–he doesn’t think Israel should hold on to occupied lands, and he will indeed say that settlements in occupied lands are a bad thing.

But in fact he is not against all settlements–only against the “ideological” settlements in isolated pockets of the West Bank and Gaza. For him, the Israeli settlements in Gilo, Har Homa and Ma’ale Adummim (all built on land confiscated from Palestinians) are not really settlements; they are Israeli neighborhoods that conveniently surround the city of Jerusalem.

Friedman’s perspective haunted me as I traveled recently in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, talked with Palestinians who live under occupation, and met with Jewish officials who are a party to that occupation.

I thought about Friedman’s influence as my colleagues and I drove through a settlement [Ma’ale Adummin] with its swimming pool, shopping mall (Ace Hardware and Burger King signs prominently displayed), green lawns and palm trees transplanted from Palestinian farms.

I often receive copies of Friedman columns from readers who praise him as an American Jewish writer who is a voice for peace.  I don’t think he is a positive voice in the debate. On the contrary, he symbolizes what is wrong with American liberal thinking on this topic. Friedman is a voice of liberal political and media leaders who are intimidated and controlled by the propaganda machine of the American Jewish lobby in Washington. . . .

Defenders of Friedman would argue that he is a columnist, entitled to his strong opinions.  Which is certainly true.  But the hypocrisy in Friedman’s approach is that he begs the reader to accept him as someone who is genuinely concerned for the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, too many people believe him.

Consider the two columns he wrote for the Times before he briefed the IDF general staff.

Under the paternalistic heading, “Free Marriage Counseling”, Friedman began with one of his tortured metaphors, positing Israel and the U.S. as a married couple having “one of their marital spats they have had over the years”. Friedman assures us he knows “both families”.

Friedman claims to know both spatters, but he has a special fondness for Israel. This produces a myopia that guarantees failure.

The U.S., he writes, “is working on a deal whereby Israel would agree to a real moratorium on settlement building, Palestinians would uproot terrorists and the Arab states would begin to normalize relations — with visas for Israelis, trade missions, media visits and landing rights for El Al. If the president can pull this off, it would be good for everyone.”

Good for everyone? Friedman likes President Obama’s idea of a construction halt. He views a construction halt as a noble gesture. He fails to see that a construction halt is an insulting band aid over Israel’s real construction sins, settlements that have become cities of 40,000 people.

Israel, in Friedman’s view, longs for normal relations with Arabs, complete with “visas for Israelis, trade missions, media visits and landing rights for El Al.” Landing rights for El Al in Beirut and Damascus? Landing rights for El Al before refugee return, destruction of the Wall, and the end of home demolitions and stifling checkpoints.

Landing rights for El Al before family reunions for Palestinians? Landing rights for El Al before food and medicine is allowed to flow easily into Gaza? Visas for Israelis to travel to Beirut before visas for Palestinians to travel between Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jenin?

Friedman wants to be taken seriously as an economic analyst. In a second column written before he briefed the IFD generals, Friedman tells his readers about a new Arab Human Development report, which worries about the lack of security in Arab states:

. . .[The report was] triggered by a desire to find out why the obstacles to human development in the Arab world have “proved so stubborn.” What the roughly 100 Arab authors of the 2009 study concluded was that too many Arab citizens today lack “human security — the kind of material and moral foundation that secures lives, livelihoods and an acceptable quality of life for the majority.” A sense of personal security — economic, political and social — “is a prerequisite for human development, and its widespread absence in Arab countries has held back their progress.”

Which army has deprived the Palestinian Arabs of their “sense of personal security” and “held back their progress”?  Could it be the army run by the same generals Friedman briefed after his talks with Arab leaders?

It is the IDF general staff, now fully briefed by Friedman, that is maintaining what the Times‘ current Middle East correspondent Ethan Bronner described recently as a “tight embargo” of Gaza.  Is the embargo designed to give Palestinians a “sense of personal security”? Hardly. According to Bronner, the embargo has two purposes:

Israel continues a tight embargo on goods entering Gaza, partly as pressure to get back a kidnapped soldier held there for three years and partly to increase the gap in living standards with the West Bank. The idea is that once the Fatah-run West Bank is secure and better off and Gaza remains stagnated and mired in poverty, Palestinians in both places will support Fatah and its negotiated approach.

Hear that, Thomas Friedman? Gaza is under a tight embargo run by your IDF friends for two reasons:

To force Hamas to release an Israeli prisoner and, to force the entire civilian population of Gaza to suffer until their government (Hamas) is shown to be inferior to the Fatah government of the West Bank.

Friedman chooses to forget that Hamas won the legislative election and its army defeated the Israeli-U.S. backed Fatah army. The next step? Lock the civilian population inside prison walls and apply pressure until Israel, like a cruel parent, gets what it wants.

Friedman must believe that the parent has an obligation to beat a child until he or she yields to parental orders. In a televised interview with Charlie Rose, Friedman told Rose the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a good thing.

This is the same Friedman who agrees with his Israeli friends that pushing for a “normalcy” for Israelis, is a good thing for the Middle East. A “normalcy” that is, that includes landing rights for El Al in all the Arab capitals.

Has it has come to this: Landing rights for El Al in exchange for our everlasting souls?

Photo above of Thomas Friedman is from Wikipedia.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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7 Responses to Is Tom Friedman a “Positive Voice” for Peace? You Decide

  1. The Rev. Daphne Grimes says:

    I have not been a follower of Friedman’s columns, but I see nothing “peaceful”, fair or just, nothing that would leaad to peace, in the above article. I go to Jerusalem almost every year. In fact, I am about to publish a book, a very personal account, of over 50 years of visits, Journeys to Jerusalem: Troubling Times in a Holy Land. which includes numerous visits to Gaza, Ramallah, Nablus and other parts of the Occupied Territories, and have deplored the injustice and violence perpetrated by the Israeli government and the IDF. I will be back again in Jerusalem in September, but so far, I don’t see any steps forward to a solution.

  2. Jeff Gates wrote in “Israel’s Fifth Column”:

    “Though misapplied in practice, the term remains an apt depiction of how internal influence can be wielded by a hostile force. In the Information Age, this fifth column focuses on those 
‘in between’ domains where modest numbers can wield outsized influence. Television news is optimal as modern-day media operates “in between” a populace and the facts they require for a system of governance reliant on informed consent.”

    Gates also reports that “While working as a Washington correspondent for Jerusalem Post (1973-1990), Wolf Blitzer served as an editor of Near East Report, a publication founded by Isaiah Kenen, a registered foreign agent of Israel, who also founded the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC coordinates a network of transnational political operatives known loosely as “the Israel lobby.””

    Neither AIPAC nor Blitzer has yet registered as a foreign agent in the US.[1]

    Neither has Thomas Friedman!

  3. Bill Gepford says:

    The problem with the Israeli/Palestine vendetta is that it has yet to form a political will to address all the end of status issues. Because the Israeli government refuses to take such issues seriously, no one else will, including the United States. All one has to do is review the numerous peacemaking efforts of the past 40-some odd years to understand the problem.

    In spite of all the sincere efforts of some of our leaders in Washington, over this period, Israel has never done anything “on the ground” that indicates an honest attempt at reconciliation and justice for Palestinians.

    President Obama is now trapped in the same problem: Israel will not sit down with anyone who might suggest that Israel first change its actions that belie any serious peace effort. The Zionist mandate of 1897 is still the controlling influence, regardless of what Friedman, or any of his ilk say.

  4. Abed Kouttainay says:

    Don’t blame Friedman…Weren’t we in the Arab World who accorded him the halo he is in? Wasn’t the present King of Saudi Arabia who called him to his palace and asked him to carry his “comprehensive ” peace plan to Sharon…still gathering dust in Sharon’s drawer until he wakes up from his coma? I never trusted Friedman nor will I ever do… a slimy, double faced hypocrit who has never been honest with the Arabs or even with himself. Apparently and unfortunately, many of the Arab leaders still think otherwise.

  5. Jeff wrote: “It is so sad to see such vitriol on a Christian Web site. Not to mention such utter nonsense.”

    The brutal truth is indeed a bitter pill to swallow for those that inhabit the land of denial.

    “Financed with U.S. aid at a cost of $1.5 million per mile, the Israeli wall prevents residents from receiving health care and emergency medical services. In other areas, the barrier separates farmers from their olive groves which have been their families’ sole livelihood for generations.” [Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Page 43, Jan/Feb. 2007]

    In 2005, Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli activist and organizer for Anarchist’s Against the Wall said:

    “During the negotiations of the so-called Oslo Peace Process from 1993-2000, Israel simply imposed its will on the Palestinians, using its overwhelming military and economic power, and US support. During seven years of supposed peace, Palestinians saw 200,000 new Israeli settlers arrive in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the same number of settlers that had arrived there in the previous 26 years.

    “Although Israel marketed the Wall as a security barrier, logic suggests such a barrier would be as short and straight as possible. Instead, it snakes deep inside the West Bank, resulting in a route that is twice as long as the Green Line, the internationally recognized border. Israel chose the Wall’s path in order to dispossess Palestinians of the maximum land and water, to preserve as many Israeli settlements as possible, and to unilaterally determine a border.

    “In order to build the Wall Israel is uprooting tens of thousands of ancient olive trees that for many Palestinians are also the last resource to provide food for their children. The Palestinian aspiration for an independent state is also threatened by the Wall, as it isolates villages from their mother cities and divides the West Bank into disconnected cantons. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem conservatively estimates that 500,000 Palestinians are negatively impacted by the Wall.

    “Today, we are speaking together around the US because we believe that, as with Apartheid South Africa, Americans have a vital role to play in ending Israeli occupation – by divesting from companies that support Israeli occupation, boycotting Israeli products, coming to Palestine as witnesses, or standing with Palestinians in nonviolent resistance.”

    “We are confident that Israeli occupation will one day be defeated, as were other US government supported repressive regimes – Apartheid South Africa, Pinochet’s Chile and racial segregation in the United States. There is no price too great to pay for freedom, and nothing will deter us from achieving this goal.”-excerpted from “Memoirs of a Nice Irish American ‘Girl’s’ Life in Occupied Territory” by eileen fleming

  6. Awad Paul Sifri says:

    Thank you, Jim Wall, for your outstanding rebuttals to the New York Times.
    It amazes me that a few comments I read were devoid of any compassion because of they are influenced by the only one narrative that they have been listening to all their lives – the Zionist narrative on Israel.
    How can Palestinian Christians and Muslims respond to Israeli occupation? How would Jews under occupation in Europe respond? How would Americans respond to a Mexican or French occupation? How can the Christian World remain silent as they clearly see a Zionist regime in Israel expanding Israeli occupation of Palestine and enslaving its people? How come we do not have daily articles and interviews of Palestinians being besieged by illegal American and East European Zionist settlers who have taken Palestinian lands and forced their Palestinian inhabitants into open-air prisons in ther own Homeland? We read articles about the Holocaust, thankfully published on an almost daily basis, but nothing about what the children of the Holocaust are doing to another people, not more than 60 years ago, but right now, right under our own noses.
    The Israeli occupation and colonial settlements are the “original sin”, followed by Israel’s Apartheid Wall on confiscated Palestinian land, home destructions, endless checkpoints, deportation and exile of the native people of Palestine, not allowing Palestinian refugees to return to the lands of their forefathers, while simultaneosly allowing Jews – simply for being Jews – to come and usurpe our Palestinian lands, farms and orchards.
    The Israeli crimes over 61 years and the dispossession of the Palestinian people, Christian and Muslim, form an ultra radical category of usurpation of its own that should be addressed by the World Court, the UN, and by the remaining countries around the world that still have a conscience.
    Awad Paul Sifri

  7. Ali M. Bajwa says:

    as a relative new comer to this site and Mssr. Wall’s writings, i really appreciate the articles and commentaries from fellow readers.

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