Nominee for Israel Ambassador Recants Rhetoric, But Soft-Pedals Extremist Ties
David Friedman was profusely apologetic about his incendiary rhetoric attacking liberal Jews, but was less than forthcoming about his involvement with a far-right West Bank institution.
David Friedman, President Trump’s controversial nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel, appeared to be extremely contrite and apologetic during his Senate confirmation hearing last week about his history of incendiary rhetoric, including his accusation that the State Department was anti-Semitic.
“From my perspective, the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over, and if I am confirmed, you can expect my comments to be careful and measured,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Even the Republican chairman of the hearing, Sen. Bob Corker, remarked on how wide-ranging his repudiation of his former views was: “You’re here today having to recant every single strongly held belief that you’ve expressed, almost,” he said.
However, Friedman was also somewhat less than forthcoming about some of his associations with extremists. Friedman is closely associated with the Beit El yeshiva, a controversial West Bank settlement school that is rabidly anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim; he is president of the American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva, a group that has raised over $30 million for the institution.
Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts asked Friedman about the school, which also trains students to "successfully delegitimize the notion of a two-state solution,” the longstanding American diplomatic approach to resolving the multigenerational dispute between Israel and Palestine – an approach that Friedman had earlier assured the senators he fully supports, despite previous concerns that he was hostile to the approach.
Friedman answered that his support for Beit El was purely out of support for education. “I should point out that my affiliation with Beit El as the president of the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center, we support a Talmudic academy and a boys high school and a girls high school,” he said. “And it primarily derives from my commitment to Jewish education, the quality of those schools are excellent and everything that we've given money to has been in the nature of gymnasiums, dormitories, dining rooms, classrooms, things like that.”
In reality, Friedman’s work with the school went well beyond promoting Hebrew education. His name is on a building at the school that, according to Haaretz, was constructed illegally in Palestinian land. He was also a star political columnist for Beit El’s news website, Arutz Sheva.
Indeed, it was while writing those columns that Friedman penned many of the words that landed him in hot water with Senate Democrats. In a 2015 column, he compared American liberal Jews to the Jewish “kapos” who served as helpers to Nazi concentration-camp commanders. “Unfortunately, hearkening back to the days of the Kapos during the Nazi regime and well before that, there is a history of a minority of Jews betraying their own,” he wrote.
He later attacked the Jewish liberal lobbying group J Street, calling them “far worse than kapos.” He also continued to defend calling both the State Department and President Obama “anti-Semitic.”
Late in the campaign, he chastised the New York Times for reporting on the audio tape on which Donald Trump was heard talking about coercing women sexually: “If only the Times had reported on the Nazi death camps with the same fervor as its failed last-minute attempt to conjure up alleged victims of Donald Trump, imagine how many lives could have been saved.”
Friedman’s hearing not only attracted tough questions from senators about those remarks and many others he has made over the years, but he also drew protesters from the Jewish liberal community. Some of them blew shofars, others shouted to interrupt his testimony, and were escorted from the room by security officers.
“David Friedman, you promote racism and illegal settlements,” one shouted. “We will not be silenced.”
Friedman’s associations with Beit El form the core of Jewish liberals’ objections to his nomination. Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, the founder and current dean of the yeshiva, is noted for his pronounced anti-LGBT views, which he explores on the yeshiva’s websites.
One of the more notable of these is a piece titled "Homosexuality – Sickness or Sanctioned?"
Torah ethics considers such behavioral tendencies the sickest of evils. This is an immoral and repugnant phenomenon which both the individual and society must go to war with. In the same manner that an individual must struggle not to covet the belongings of his neighbor – a sickness known as kleptomania – one must do battle with the homosexual urge: through education and law; and if that does not work, through psychological and psychiatric care. If there are certain individuals who have been born with such a strong homosexual drive that they are unable to overcome it, then this is very painful and their plight certainly awakens pity, but the fact that they are unable to overcome these desires does not rectify such behavior. This is a severe mental illness. It is a perversion of the healthy human sex drive which makes reproduction and continued life a possibility.
Melamed has voiced these views with great regularity, including at Arutz Sheva – with such columns as "Homosexuality: The Malady of Our Generation." Melamed also has called for Israeli Arabs to be stripped of their voting rights.
The settlement's spokesman and head of development, Baruch Gordon, who works closely with Friedman, has similarly written vicious attacks on the LGBT community. He has written favorably about so-called “gay reparative therapy” on several occasions. Gordon also has a record of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian extremism.
Gordon told the New York Times that Beit El was “proud to be closely associated with Mr. Friedman,” calling him “a pioneer philanthropist and builder of Jewish institutions and housing projects in Judea and Samaria (a.k.a. the ‘West Bank’) and throughout the country.”