It’s a question Israelis and Israel advocates of all political stripes have been asking in recent months.
What has caused Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and pro-market liberal, to lurch from centre-left defender of the State of Israel to increasingly shrill basher of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government, and the state itself?
We are familiar with the trajectory of jaded leftists. First, there is the revolutionary spirit of youth then the growing realisation that the theory doesn’t quite work as well as it once seemed. Unpalatable doubts rise like searing gorge in the throat and, mini-epiphany by mini-epiphany, the mental cement begins to crack and crumble. The edifice of accepted truths starts to shake; it’s coming down. Radicalism gives way to liberalism which, in many cases, leads to an evangelical conservatism that damns former comrades while seeking moral succour from erstwhile ideological foes.
This is, more or less, the story of Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Paul Johnson, Melanie Phillips, Ronald Reagan, and countless other politicians, writers, and thinkers. Some may dispute the conservative label, opting for ‘Western liberal’ or ‘neoconservative’, but they are all united by their divorce from the Left.
Tom Friedman, it would seem, has gone the other way, and spectacularly so.
He was once the pre-eminent liberal pamphleteer for Israel, willing to criticise where he felt it fitting but sharing none of the enervating moral relativism that typically attends ‘progressive’ media coverage of the Middle East conflict. For his troubles, he was attacked by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, and Norman Finkelstein. Srebrenica genocide denier Herman called Friedman ‘a racist’, ‘an enemy of democracy’, ‘an open proponent of the commission of war crimes’, and ‘a long-standing apologist for Israeli state terror and ethnic cleansing’.
Things change. Friedman now intones menacingly about how ‘the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s’. Bibi Netanyahu’s ‘strategy‘ involves ‘encouraging Jewish leaders to suggest that Obama is hostile to Israel and is losing the Jewish vote’. He claims there is a ‘Republican competition to grovel for Jewish votes’. Netanyahu’s administration is ‘driving drunk’ and ‘the most inbred, unimaginative government’. And as for the warm reception for Bibi’s speech to Congress? ‘That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.’ Those quotes could as easily have been pulled from the column of Pat Buchanan as from the missives of the New York Times‘ Mr Liberal Internationalist.
There is the possibility that Friedman is merely beefed at Netanyahu. Israel’s supporters in the United States have traditionally come from the liberal, Democrat tradition and have been more comfortable defending a government of the Left, like Avoda or Kadima. So maybe if Likud is defeated at the next election and Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich, or – God help us – Yair Lapid heads up the next coalition, Friedman will be happy to return to his previous pro-Israel stance.
Then there is another, more disturbing, explanation. The last decade has witnessed the rise of a more radical, European-style American Left which rejects many of the settled assumptions of American liberalism. Free markets, economic growth, and personal responsibility have been edged out by an embrace of big government, wealth redistribution, and a politics of envy that wouldn’t be out of place in the French or Spanish or Portuguese Socialist Party. (The Left’s rejection of American exceptionalism apparently doesn’t extend to the economic sphere; Democrat politicians, by dint of their Harvard educations, are able to make collectivist economic policies that have proved a disaster around the world work just dandy in the US.)
The most noticeable turnaround, though, has been in security and foreign policy. Where John Kerry and other Democrats worked hard to sell their national security credentials in 2004, Barack Obama got elected by promising to shut Guantanamo Bay, withdraw from Iraq, rein in American military activities oversees, and sit down for a latte and some biscotti with America’s sworn enemies. That his presidency has been a mixed-bag has if anything inspired greater zeal among those in his party, in the words of Politico, ‘working to remake the Democratic Party’s approach to national security’.
The case of Josh Block is instructive. Block – a Democrat, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and former spokesperson for the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee – was recently fired from his position at the liberal Truman National Security Project for questioning the increasingly shrill and bigoted rhetoric of two left-wing pressure groups. The Centre for American Progress and Media Matters for America, which seek to reposition the Democrat Party as a European-style social democratic party, are openly contemptuous of Israel, its security concerns, the threat from Iran, and the Democrats’ support for the Jewish state.
Block pointed to the extreme pronouncements coming from CAP and MMFA, and their affiliated ‘scholars’ and bloggers, about warmongering ‘neocons’, sinister ‘plots’, conspiracies orchestrated by AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which campaigns for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and monitors antisemitism, is described as ‘the far-right Simon Wiesenthal Center’. Matt Duss of the Centre for American Progress accuses writers supportive of Israel of being ‘Likudnik hacks’. Zaid Jilani, also of CAP, tweets: ‘Obama is still beloved by Israel-firsters and getting lots of their $$‘. MJ Rosenberg, a senior fellow at Media Matters, tweets that Americans shouldn’t ‘visit #Israel unless you are a rah-rah Likudnik‘ and calls David Mamet an ‘Israel First Likudnik‘.
After accusing Jewish conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin of ‘dual loyalty’ – the antisemitic canard that Jews harbour divided loyalty between America and Israel – he rebuffed Rubin’s complaint thus: ‘Jennifer Rubin thinks being accused by me of dual loyalty is an insult. Why. I say DUAL which is generous.’
The fact that Block, rather than the ‘progressive’ bigots he exposed, has been fired for his troubles at least puts paid to the conspiracy theory that the ‘Israel lobby’ will have anyone who criticises Israel sacked, marginalised, and anathematised. That James Kirchick has since revealed the neo-Nazi origins of the ‘Israel Firster’ and ‘dual loyalty’ libels has inspired no repentance from the Left. It does, however, draw the battlelines for a fight that could prove as momentous as the struggle between the McGovernites and the mainstream of the Democrat Party in the 1970s. The outcome will decide what kind of Democrat Party America will have: a liberal movement that can win the support of Main Street USA to advance progressive goals – or a party of dogma and division that mimics the EuroLeft’s fondness for clientelism, redistributionism and class warfare demagoguery at home and appeasement, isolationism, and relativism in its dealings with the world.
What’s the matter with Thomas Friedman? Perhaps he’s just pissy at Netanyahu. Or maybe, sage that he is, he’s seen the future of the American Left and decided to throw in his lot with what he predicts will be the winning side.
Feature image © Chatham House by Creative Commons 2.0.