Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, 57-year-old bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, is not one for subtlety. In a 2016 column for far-right publication Arutz Sheva, he declared that supporters of J Street—a pro-Israel advocacy group that supports a two-state solution—are more depraved than Nazi collaborators.
“They are far worse than kapos—Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps,” wrote Friedman. “The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”
“You have a U.S. ambassador who is, in theory at least, to the right of the Israeli political system,” says Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist for +972 magazine. “We have never seen such a thing.” In the wake of the U.S. policy shift that led Israel to announce a plan for thousands of new settlement housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, settlers “sense what they call ‘a historic opportunity’ for a complete paradigm shift” that Sheizaf believes will inevitably lead to an increase in Palestinian expulsions.
This month, the Israeli Knesset passed a bill allowing the seizure of privately owned Palestinian land, which will protect thousands of settlement homes. Since Trump took office, Israel has approved roughly 6,000 settler homes, prompting Netanyahu to brag that no other government had done as much to protect settlers. With Friedman’s appointment, the Trump White House just might give them a run for their money.
This February 16, the Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee will review Friedman’s qualifications, or lack thereof. Though Congress is known for its bipartisan, drone-like consensus around everything Israeli, Friedman’s confirmation hearing might be the most contentious of any candidate for U.S. ambassador to the self-proclaimed Jewish state. One of the major issues Friedman may have to contend with is his personal and financial investment in the illegal settlement enterprise in the occupied West Bank.
Arutz Sheva, Friedman’s platform of choice, is a media company based in the illegal West Bank settlement of Beit El that serves as a mouthpiece for pro-settler views. The company began in 1988 as a pirate radio station before expanding to include a website and the weekly newspaper B’Sheva, which boasts the third-largest circulation in the country.
Not only does Friedman serve as a columnist for Arutz Sheva, but as president of the nonprofit American Friends of Beit El Institutions, he also helps raise nearly $2 million a year for an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, or religious school, in the settlement. As Josh Nathan-Kazis reported, that yeshiva oversees the operation of Arutz Sheva, making Friedman a de facto business associate of an extremist settler website.
Friedman is also deeply involved in expansionist moves that even Trump says “don’t help the process.” Last week, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that a planned five-story, 20-unit apartment building funded by Friedman’s charity was among the several thousand recently approved settlement buildings—a possible nod by Israel’s far-right government to the next ambassador.
According to Beit El co-founder Yaakov Katz, who says he and Friedman are “like brothers,” Trump donated $10,000 to American Friends of Beit El Institutions in 2003. Some of the charity’s money goes to a yeshiva run by Rabbi Zalman Melamed, a rabid nationalist and founder of the far-right Tkuma party. Among the charity’s donors is the Kushner Foundation, run by the parents of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, which donated $20,000 in 2013. His parents, Charles and Sheryl Kushner, were on the organization’s founding board of trustees.
A long record of Islamophobia and fanaticism
Looking back through Friedman’s columns, one sees a clear desire to import the brand of official Islamophobia in which Israel specializes. He writes that Americans must “make sure that law enforcement is given the resources to ban all Muslims whose words or deeds present the slightest risk of terrorist activity,” an intentionally vague criteria designed to suppress dissent. “There’s no need to worry about the First Amendment,” Friedman assures anyone having second thoughts about curtailing civil rights based on religion, “the rights of free speech and privacy do not apply to immigrants applying for entry to the United States.” In the wake of Trump’s executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, Friedman’s words acquire a chilling, prophetic resonance.
In another column, Friedman excoriates Obama for his defense of the Iran deal, comparing Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer—a critic of the deal—to Alfred Dreyfus and painting him as a victim of “blatant anti-Semitism emanating from our President and his sycophantic minions.” He goes on to accuse the Obama administration (which included many Jewish members) of “casting its opponents as wealthy and traitorous Jews.” The hysterical tone belies a deeply racist and Islamophobic outlook that places Friedman in a more extreme position than Netanyahu, whose anti-Palestinian incitement has become commonplace.
Like all arguments in favor of the occupation, Friedman’s defense of settlements relies on a willful rejection of reality. “As a general rule, we should expand a community in Judea and Samaria [the preferred term for the West Bank among people whose understanding of history ends in the second century] where the land is legally available and a residential or commercial need is present,” Friedman writes in a column on settlements, “just like in any other neighborhood anywhere in the world.” Except that in most neighborhoods, the homes of the indigenous population are not being continually destroyed over half a century to make room for housing available only to Jews. And unlike in most neighborhoods, West Bank construction is carried out in direct violation of international law, fueling violence and exacerbating the refugee crisis.
Friedman’s extremism was on full display during a June 2016 pro-Trump rally in Jerusalem. Before a crowd of far-right Israeli-Americans, he launched into a bizarre diatribe against Max Blumenthal, an editor of this website, accusing him of being one of the world’s leading anti-Semites and a secret adviser to Hillary Clinton, then claimed that Huma Abedin, a close Clinton aide, has “close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Lurching toward a single state
Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Woodmere, New York, Friedman is the son of an influential rabbi who once hosted Ronald Reagan for a Shabbat lunch at his home. Like his father, Friedman has proven himself willing to be used by right-wing politicians eager for Jewish support.
But Friedman is more than just another toady—his embrace of ethno-nationalism is far more solid and fully formed than any of Trump’s free-floating and often contradictory positions. It wasn’t long ago that Trump found himself an unlikely source of cautious optimism among Palestinian advocates for declaring that he planned to be “neutral” on Israel-Palestine.
The optimism was short-lived, however, as Trump quickly backpedaled from his off-the-cuff statement and fully embraced settlement expansion. Despite some weak criticism—in a statement to the Sheldon Adelson-owned tabloid Israel Hayom, Trump said settlement expansion was “not good for peace”—Trump does not seem to be rushing to halt the explosion of new construction already occurring on his watch.
Friedman owns a home in Jerusalem, where he says he plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. Sheizaf says the current word in Israel is that the administration is quietly backtracking from that goal, or at least postponing it. “If this is true, there is something strange about showing your hand before engaging negotiations, so I am not sure what the administration is hoping to achieve,” Sheizaf told me. “I wasn’t a big fan of Obama’s policies on the conflict, but at least there was some consistency there. With Trump, we simply don’t understand what he wants.”
It’s possible that, as with the executive order recently shut down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump simply hasn’t thought everything through.
Like an easily distracted child hopped up on Diet Coke and self-delusion, Trump remains a largely unpredictable figure. “We should remember that the Second Intifada, as well as other clashes on the ground, broke over Jerusalem,” notes Sheizaf, warning that the embassy move could be a “transformative event, not just here but in the region” if it comes to fruition.
As with the possible embassy move, a shift from a two-state to a one-state framework has transformative potential. Two-state enthusiasts tend to paint a one-state solution as a dead end, the ultimate victory of hardline Jewish nationalists over the dream of Palestinian self-determination. But another one-state solution is also possible, as remote as it seems: A secular democratic state that treats all citizens equally and refuses to discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity. Though such a state should theoretically appeal to those who believe in liberal democracy, liberals often dismiss one-staters on the left as naive dreamers, even as the two-state alternative is continually exposed as a mirage.
Ayman Nijim, a human rights activist from Gaza currently living in Vermont, says moving the embassy would be “a declaration of war against the indigenous Palestinian people.” Though he admits the U.S. was far from a neutral mediator under Obama, he believes a Trump administration will give free rein to the far-right’s most ruthless leaders. “Avigdor Lieberman said in January, ‘we have to occupy a quarter of the Gaza strip’—he means the north. They are giving them the green light to murder.”
He also believes Trump will provide “demagogues and extremists” with recruitment fodder. “ISIL and other groups will be very happy to enlist and tell their own guys, ‘this is a culture war, a Judeo-Christian war against Islam.’” In other words, an American demagogue will inspire Israeli demagogues to inspire Muslim demagogues to commit terrorism, thereby providing the U.S. and Israel with excuses to start the whole vicious cycle back up again.
After decades of stalled negotiations and dishonest messaging from the U.S. and its client state, it might finally be time to acknowledge that a two-state solution (which would carve the West Bank into Palestinian bantustans) is a rotting corpse propped up by dishonest politicians as an empty gesture toward peace. Instead, an American public weaned on the promise of two states might be forced to acknowledge the one-state reality that already exists and start envisioning a single state founded on egalitarian principles alternately opposed to the colonial vision embraced by Friedman.
Like Trump, Friedman plays a dual role. On one level, he moves the discourse rightward by embracing fringe positions that had previously been considered taboo by the American political elite. On another level, he lays bare the fear and bigotry underpinning the status quo, even as he subverts it. With his appointment, those who have sought to cloak Israeli racism behind an endless peace process may have the most to fear.