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.