Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, crossed a line in his recent op-ed, "Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir."
Shockingly, he wrote: "I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."
We submitted a letter-to-the-editor to the Times the very same day.
The good news is the paper published an AJC letter, the only one about Friedman's column, as it surprisingly turned out.
The bad news is they cut out the heart of it.
Here’s what we wrote:
"Tom Friedman is entitled to his opinion about the pro-Israel statements of Republican presidential candidates. But his assertion that the standing ovation Congress gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a few months ago was 'bought and paid for by the Israel lobby' is both inaccurate and shockingly insidious. Public opinion polls consistently show a high level of American (and, yes, American Jewish) support for and identification with Israel. This indicates that the people’s elected representatives are fully reflecting the will of the voters. Friedman's identification of a rich and powerful 'Israel lobby' conjures up the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes. Does he identify with those who traffic in such rhetoric, notably Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who coauthored a book by that name? One surely hopes not."
Compare it to what was actually published:
"Thomas L. Friedman is entitled to his opinion about the pro-Israel statements of Republican presidential candidates. But we strongly object to his assertion that the standing ovation that Congress gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few months ago 'was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.' Public opinion polls consistently show a high level of American (and, yes, American Jewish) support for and identification with Israel. This indicates that the people’s elected representatives are fully reflecting the will of the people."
In other words, the paper sanitized the letter, preventing any discussion of the toxicity of Friedman's actual comment.
Predictably, it didn't take long for Walt – of the Walt-Mearsheimer tag team cited in our original text – to laud Friedman. If that's the company Friedman seeks on Israel-related issues, he's now gotten it. Of course, this is the very same Walt, who, together with Mearsheimer, launched an Israel-bashing industry that has reaped huge media opportunities for them, in large part—ironically—because they insistently claim that their very right to speak up has been prevented by the so-called "Israel lobby."
But let's return to Friedman's "bought and paid for" assertion.
First, if I were a Member of Congress, I'd be outraged. After all, a noted columnist in a widely-read newspaper has questioned the integrity of all senators and congressmen who show support for Israel, suggesting that they vote against their true convictions in return for money.
Indeed, here's New Jersey Democratic Congressman Steve Rothman on the subject:
"Thomas Friedman's defamation against the vast majority of Americans who support the Jewish State of Israel, in his New York Times opinion piece today, is scurrilous and harmful to Israel and her advocates in the U.S. Mr. Friedman is not only wrong, but he's aiding and abetting a dangerous narrative about the U.S.-Israel relationship and its American supporters. I gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a standing ovation, not because of any nefarious lobby, but because it is in America's vital national security interests to support the Jewish State of Israel and it is right for Congress to give a warm welcome to the leader of such a dear and essential ally. Mr. Friedman owes us all an apology."
Incidentally, if Congress were "for sale" on the Middle East, the Arabs would win hands down. Saudi Arabia alone could arrange to bankroll the purchase of all 535 voting members of the Senate and House, not to mention the other well-oiled Arab nations and their friends in the energy industry and elsewhere here in the U.S. It's not that they haven't tried, but they've discovered that on some issues, including the U.S.-Israel link, principle does trump profit.
Second, Friedman, like Walt and Mearsheimer, doesn't seem able to accept the fact that, on this issue, he is in the minority. But rather than acknowledge that most Americans, and their elected officials, support the U.S.-Israel relationship and stand, literally and figuratively, with a friend, he pretends otherwise, summoning conspiratorial theories of an "all-powerful" Israel lobby that's somehow pulling the strings.
In reality, there's no big secret about American, including Congressional, support for Israel. Sure, there are other "lobbies" actively working against that relationship, but they haven't succeeded – and not for lack of effort or funds.
Rather, it's because a majority of Americans consistently get the central point. They identify with Israel's narrative, past and present. They understand there are no easy answers to Israel's quest for a two-state accord and lasting peace. They recognize the nature of Israel's unenviable neighborhood. And they value Israel as a stable, steadfast ally of the United States in an increasingly turbulent and, for now, Islamist region, even as Friedman waxed rhapsodic – surely a bit too breathlessly – about the future from Tahrir Square earlier this year in "Postcard From a Free Egypt."
Lastly, Friedman should understand the historical resonance evoked by the very words he used.
No doubt, as an experienced journalist, he does. That makes his willingness to do so all the more troubling.
He insists he is fearful of the direction Israel – joined by its supporters here – has taken. If so, as a skilled wordsmith, there are other ways for him to express his concern.
Meanwhile, I'm fearful of the direction he's taken.