Friedman Visits and Vouches for Israel

by James M. Wall


Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem Lithograph

by Louis Haghe from an original by David Roberts.



When New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman travels to the Middle East, he brings with him a deep devotion to the state of Israel, and a longing for what he thinks ought to be.

In a recent column he addresses that longing in these opening paragraphs:

At the Syrian Border, Golan Heights — Who knew that the future of warfare would present itself with such serene beauty — like one of those warm 19th-century David Roberts landscapes of the Middle East.

How so? I’m traveling along the Israeli border road at the intersection of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and off in the distance there’s a freshly snow-capped Mount Hermon, begging for skiers. It’s framed by Lebanese and Syrian villages nestled into terraced hillsides, crowned by minarets and crosses. The only sound you hear is the occasional rifle burst from Lebanese hunters.

With his quiet opening of what ought to be, Friedman sets a mood designed to lure his readers into a quiet David Roberts painting. As frequent travelers know, Roberts was the Englishman who captures a tranquility from the 1800s, a tranquility which Friedman quickly dispatches:

But this is no Roberts painting. It’s actually the second-most-dangerous spot on the planet — after the Korean Peninsula — and it’s the idyllic backdrop to what 21st-century warfare looks like.

Because hidden in these villages, hillsides and pine forests you can find a state — Israel — trying to navigate a battlefield with a rival state’s army (Syria), a rival regional superpower (Iran), a global superpower (Russia), super-empowered mercenaries and maniacs (Hezbollah and ISIS) and local tribes and sects (Druse and Christians).

Hold up there, Brother Thomas, do you expect us to buy this one-sided Friedman word- portrait that describes the state of Israel as a peaceful neighbor forced to live in “a tough neighborhood”, a favorite Friedman phrase?

Parse that “hidden in these villages. . . ” paragraph. View it “realistically”, as Reinhold Niebuhr should have done when he was alive.

The “battlefield” Friedman describes is filled with a “rival states’ army (Syria), [and] a rival regional superpower (Iran)”, two “rivals” that were established as states within borders drawn by the British. They were there long before invading Zionist colonialists arrived in the neighborhood and moved in with their peaceful Jewish villagers.

Friedman sounds like Donald Trump when he identifies Hezbollah and ISIS as “super-empowered mercenaries and maniacs”.  As for the Druse and Christians, they are tossed aside as “local tribes and sects”.

Come now, Thomas, “tribes and sects”? 

I have labored under the impression that the Christian community has a pretty strong religious claim on land where Jesus was born, lived, died and was raised from the dead, to save the world. 

Christians of the world provide Israel with tourist profits, and many of them deplore the treatment of Christians in Palestine by Israel’s occupation army.

Show a little respect, Thomas. 

I would also advise you, Thomas, that by lumping Hezbollah and ISIS in the same list of undesirables, you are exposing your Zionist bias. Hezbollah has a legitimate role in Lebanese politics. ISIS is a dangerous force distorting Islam in a quest for political power. 

Israel would have the world, with your help, see the Middle East as a potentially peaceful region, but only with the modern state of  Israel as its unchallenged power center. 

Your description of the players in your “tough neighborhood” omits one major player, Palestine, whose land Israel seized by force and on which it has grown into a world military power.

In your column, you tell us you rode “along the Israeli border road at the intersection of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, [where] off in the distance there’s a freshly snow-capped Mount Hermon”.

Brother Thomas, you looked at Mount Hermon, and referred to skiers, but you did not tell your readers that the state of Palestine is located just down from the heights of that famed Mount, which is on Syrian land.

You did not tell them that your beloved Israel has held on to that Syrian mountain land for “security” reasons. And you did not mention that the Palestinian people have lived in the grip of a military-enforced occupation for more than a half century.

During the visit which took you along the Israeli “border”, you would have benefited from an interview with a Palestinian peace negotiator who could give you a more realistic view of the state you ignored in your column.

Saeb Erekat (right), the leading Palestinian peace negotiator, is the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization. On Tuesday, he wrote an Op Ed for The New York Times under the headline: “Forget Trump’s U.S. as the Mideast’s Mediator”.

It is safe to assume Friedman has read the essay. It is also possible that he arranged for its publication.  But did he really read it. Here are a few pertinent parts of that Op Ed:

The Trump administration, which blames the Palestinians for the recent stalemate, does not mention that our president, Mahmoud Abbas, tried to constructively engage with the [Trump] administration. Last year, between Feb. 7 and Nov. 30 we had over 30 meetings with administration officials, including four between the two presidents. Throughout that period, a Palestinian team took initiatives in presenting detailed and thought-out positions, maps and responses to the other side’s positions.

It brought us little. Instead, President Trump broke with decades of American policy and stopped criticizing Israel’s human rights violations and continuous settlement construction. The administration’s excuse for not endorsing a two-state solution — that it would make Americans biased — changed quickly to a possibility of approval if both sides accepted one. But that was no concession; it gave Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, veto power over the two-state solution.

Further along, Erekat offers details for a brighter future:

[W]e support making Jerusalem an open city with free access for all, and a sovereign Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Instead, President Trump decided last month to take Jerusalem “off the table” — a step that encouraged Israelis to pursue policies in occupied East Jerusalem that seek to forcibly transfer the Palestinian population out of the city. 

President Trump, for the wrong reasons, has put the issue of Palestine back on the international agenda. If his administration’s inability to be an honest broker opens the way for other parties to become mediators, Palestine can engage in meaningful discussions on a just and final peace.

This must begin with a time frame for ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital — a proposal offered and reaffirmed often by the Arab League. Palestinians would attain their inalienable rights, and Israel would enjoy normal relations with the region.

Only such an international effort can address the unequal power balances, uphold international law and present a clear future of hope, freedom, justice and peace.

While in Israel, Thomas Friedman had to be aware of the pending trial of 17-year-old Ahed Tamini, who along with her mother, are in an Israeli prison for reasons related to the incident in which a frustrated Ahed tried to push Israeli soldiers from her front yard.

The family trials are being postponed for unknown reasons. The latest trial date is scheduled for March 11. 

From what we know, the only threat the Tamini family poses for Israel is the damage to Israel’s standing as a democracy. That so-called democracy is already on international bad paper for its continued occupation of Palestine. 

Are you listening, Brother Thomas?

The David Roberts watercolor is from Wikipedia. The picture if Saed Erekat is from Facebook.

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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4 Responses to Friedman Visits and Vouches for Israel

  1. Excellent (perfect pitch!), Jim. You have outed the execrable TFriedman far better than I would be able despite (or because of?) my decades-long revulsion for the man. He has inveigled himself into MSM discourse by playing both sides against the middle…I’ve noted many observers giving Friedman accolades for his “temperate,” even-handed treatment of and undoubtedly gifted prose attending to various and sundry geopolitical issues. You have admirably exposed him in just your few written words of riposte to his innuendos, clever distractions…and deliberate omission of anything that hints of “Palestine” and “justice.”

  2. Daniel Creed says:

    It would be great if you could get this published in a major news/current affairs publication as an article, op-ed, or letter to the editor.

  3. David says:

    The true nature of the beast:
    Zeev Sternhell**
    Jan 19, 2018 – Haaretz
    Opinion: “In Israel, Growing Fascism and a Racism Akin to Early Nazism”
    “I frequently ask myself how a historian in 50 or 100 years will interpret our period. When, he will ask, did people in Israel start to realize that the state that was established in the War of Independence, on the ruins of European Jewry and at the cost of the blood of combatants some of whom were Holocaust survivors, had devolved into a true monstrosity for its non-Jewish inhabitants. When did some Israelis understand that their cruelty and ability to bully others, Palestinians or Africans, began eroding the moral legitimacy of their existence as a sovereign entity?”
    ** Zeev Sternhell is a Polish-born Israeli historian, political scientist, commentator on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and writer. He is one of the world’s leading experts on fascism. Sternhell headed the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and writes for Haaretz newspaper.
    “54 Palestinians die’ as Israel refuses medical permits”
    by Farah Najjar – 13 Feb 2018

    “Israel was responsible for at least 54 Palestinian deaths last year as it rejected hundreds of medical permit requests it received from Gaza residents seeking treatment outside the besieged strip, rights groups have said.

    “In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), and Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), highlighted the immediate need for Israel to end its decade-long siege of the Gaza Strip.”

  4. Kyle says:

    As always, Jim, thanks for your insights. At the very least, of course, Friedman is ever so disingenuous in his portrayal of the current state of affairs in Israel.

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