Trump’s Israel envoy pick rattles U.S. Jewish status quo

When President Barack Obama was set to elevate Dan Shapiro, one of his top emissaries to the Jewish community, to the Israel ambassadorship nearly six years ago, Shapiro asked for — and got — the endorsement of one of Obama’s fiercest pro-Israel critics.

“Dan has always spoken to us, patiently and carefully explaining the administration’s position, and he does so with aplomb, with concern, and with intense appreciation of the other side’s position,” Morton Klein, the Zionist Organization of America president, said at the time.

Don’t expect J Street, or the Reform movement — or anyone on the liberal side of the pro-Israel spectrum — to extend that embrace to David Friedman, one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top emissaries to the Jewish community, who has been nominated to be ambassador to Israel.

An “intense appreciation of the other side’s position” does not describe Friedman, who has denigrated J Street as “not Jewish” and “worse than” Jewish collaborators with Nazis, called Obama “blatantly anti-Semitic,” and lamented that more than half of American Jews are not pro-Israel.

The nomination has sent shock waves through a chunk of the organized Jewish community because of the signal it sends to the 71 percent of American Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton: one of marginalization, not of outreach. While Friedman’s nomination was hailed by a hawkish but influential minority as a sign that Israel will get the U.S. support it deserves, it possibly sidelines a pro-Israel mainstream that believes moderation best builds a pro-Israel consensus.

“We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this administration,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “But the notion that someone who would represent the United States would describe people as ‘not Jewish’ and ‘kapos’ [the Jews who collaborated with the Nazi death machine], what does that say about respect for civil discourse, and what does it say about temperament in a particularly volatile region?”

There are a handful of ambassadors who must navigate domestic constituencies as assiduously as they do their host countries, and who are chosen with both audiences in mind. They include the envoys to Israel, Ireland and, occasionally, Greece and Italy.

Donald Trump and attorney David Friedman, left, exit the Federal Building following their appearance in U.S. Bankruptcy Court Thursday, Feb 25, 2010 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo/JTA-Bradley C Bower-Bloomberg News)
Donald Trump and attorney David Friedman, left, exit the Federal Building following their appearance in U.S. Bankruptcy Court Thursday, Feb 25, 2010 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo/JTA-Bradley C Bower-Bloomberg News)

American Jewish leaders have long expected a warm reception from their ambassador when their delegations pay a visit to Israel.

“It’s a very multifaceted position, they do a lot of outreach to Jewish communities in the United States,” Ron Halber, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said of ambassadors to Israel. “It’s more than diplomatic; it’s symbolic. I’m concerned that symbol could be tarnished by someone who has staked out extreme ideological positions on internal Israeli matters.”

Those positions include a rejection of the two-state solution and unchecked expansion of the settlements — the former counter to the stated position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter also a challenge to longstanding U.S. and international policy.

Friedman did not return a request for comment.

A range of liberal Jewish groups have already denounced Friedman, citing the bankruptcy lawyer’s online history thick with broadsides against liberals, many appearing on the pro-settlement Israeli news site Israel National News, as well as his extensive fundraising for the settlement movement.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a Jewish congressman known for his close ties to the organized community, said in a statement that Friedman’s “extreme views and use of such hateful language is an insult to the majority of American Jews.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, joined a number of groups in pledging to do its best to keep the Senate from confirming Friedman. “Friedman should be beyond the pale for senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel,” the group said in a statement last week.

The New Israel Fund has launched a fundraising appeal based on what it called Trump’s “dangerous” nomination of Friedman.

Hawkish Jewish groups have welcomed the appointment, most pronouncedly Klein’s ZOA, which remarked that Friedman “has the potential to be the greatest U.S. ambassador to Israel ever.”

The Union for Reform Judaism stopped short of saying it would oppose Friedman but expressed concerns about his past statements and his rejection of the two-state solution.

Larger groups were treading carefully around the nomination. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in response to a request for comment, stuck to its longstanding position of not pronouncing on nominees. The Anti-Defamation League also was not forthcoming.

The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that it was noteworthy that nominating a Jew for the job no longer raised hackles (although that’s been the case for close to three decades) and that it wanted to know more about what the pick said about Trump’s Israel policies.

“We shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special U.S.-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord — which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict — and, of course, the larger regional context in which Israel lives,” the statement said.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief