WASHINGTON — More than 600 rabbis and cantors signed an open letter released Monday against US President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
The letter — which calls on either the president to withdraw the nomination or the Senate to reject Friedman’s bid if Trump is unwilling to take such action — comes three days before the bankruptcy lawyer’s confirmation hearing, in which he is expected to be grilled by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his controversial past statements and vocal support for Israeli settlement building.
Citing a piece Friedman wrote last year for the hard-right Israel National News website that accused J Street supporters of being “far worse than kapos” — referring to Jews who aided Nazis during the Holocaust — the signatories castigated his behavior as at odds with Jewish values.
“The Rabbis of the Talmud are adamant that we are to speak to and about other people — particularly those with whom we disagree — with love and respect. We are taught that shaming a person is tantamount to shedding their blood,” they said. “Yet Mr. Friedman seems to have no qualms about insulting people with whom he disagrees.”
The letter was orchestrated by a number of liberal American Jewish groups who have responded with horror to Friedman’s nomination since it was announced and have vowed to fight his bid, including J Street, T’ruah and Ameinu. Signatures were collected over a period of 2-3 weeks.
Friedman’s “kapos” remark, the rabbis and cantors said, was the very antithesis of the diplomatic behavior Americans expect from their ambassadors.
“An ambassador is charged with representing our entire nation. It is historically perverse and wildly insulting to characterize Jewish advocates for peace, including many of the signers of this letter, as no better than Nazi collaborators plotting to destroy the Jewish people,” they added.
The 57-year-old Long Island native has also drawn the ire of many on the American Jewish left for his opposition to a two-state solution and vocal and financial support for West Bank settlements.
In addition to being a bankruptcy lawyer in New York, Friedman serves as president of American Friends of Bet El Institutions, an organization that supports a large West Bank settlement just outside Ramallah.
That history, along with statements Friedman made on the campaign trail as one of Trump’s Israel policy advisers, created “grave policy concerns” with his nomination, the letter argued.
“Mr. Friedman vocally supports the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which American presidents since Johnson have seen as an obstacle to peace,” it said. “Moreover, Mr. Friedman opposes the two-state solution, which has been a policy cornerstone for Republican and Democratic administrations for the past quarter century. We are very concerned that rather than try to represent the US as an advocate for peace, Mr. Friedman will seek to mold American policy in line with his extreme ideology.”
To be approved for the post, Friedman will need to be confirmed by the full Senate, where he will likely face high scrutiny over positions he’s taken that go against decades of bipartisan policy, particularly on the settlement issue.
Since 1967, official US policy — during both Republican and Democratic administrations — has opposed Israeli construction in areas that the Palestinians claim for their future state.
Friedman’s nomination also divided much of the American Jewish community given his stated intent to facilitate Trump’s campaign pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move put on hold for now.
In a statement announcing the nomination, he said he planned to do the job from “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
But Trump has since backtracked on that promise, or at the least, delayed it. During a recent interview with the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, Trump was noncommittal on his plans regarding any relocation.
“I am thinking about the embassy, I am studying the embassy [issue], and we will see what happens,” Trump said. “The embassy is not an easy decision. It has obviously been out there for many, many years, and nobody has wanted to make that decision. I’m thinking about it very seriously, and we will see what happens.”
Nevertheless, the rabbis and cantors who signed the letter fear that Friedman’s confirmation could guide various White House policies that, they believe, run counter to Israel’s long-term interests.
“Mr. Friedman’s pro-settler positions and opposition to the two-state solution are in conflict with our views and the majority of American Jews who see settlement expansion as an obstacle to peace and who strongly support a two-state solution,” they said. “Mr. Friedman’s favored policies would weaken Israel’s security, democracy, and status as the national homeland of the Jewish people.”