WASHINGTON — Two prominent American rabbis recently urged the leaders of liberal Jewish groups to give US President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel designate David Friedman a chance to explain himself as he undergoes the nomination process.
“Rather than opposing now by petition, we humbly request that you allow Mr. Friedman his opportunity to appear before a Senate confirmation hearing and allow him to better articulate his views and answer any and all questions asked of him,” the letter asks J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami and T’ruah’s executive director Rabbi Jill Jacobs.
The message was authored by vice president of the New Jersey Board of Rabbis David-Seth Kirshner and vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis Elie Weinstock.
The letter sought to ease misgivings, particularly over Friedman’s past harsh comments against the liberal groups, noting that two recipients’ “worries and concerns are valid.”
In June, Friedman, 57, penned a column for the far-right Israel National News website, accusing J Street’s supporters of being “far worse than Kapos,” referring to Jews who aided Nazis during the Holocaust. “The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one?” he wrote.
“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.”
While seeking to convince Ben-Ami and Jacobs to extend an open mind toward Friedman, Kirshner and Weinstock also condemned his comments.
“It is unacceptable to use painful Nazi imagery in describing J Street or other Jewish organizations that do not align with a personal approach,” they said. “It was wrong and divisive.”
Nevertheless, the two rabbis said they met with Friedman in his Manhattan office several weeks ago and walked away from that gathering believing he should be given an opportunity to articulate his vision for serving as US envoy before being dismissed by a wide portion of the American Jewish community.
“While there was healthy disagreement around the table and difficult questions were posed, the meeting was direct, substantive and respectful,” they said.
The meeting was off the record and the rabbis were not at liberty to share the details of what was said, but they did tell Ben-Ami and Jacobs that they left “with a strong sense that Mr. Friedman understands what his role as US ambassador to Israel is, as well as being willing to engage respectfully with all segments of the American Jewish and Zionist community.”
Since Trump announced Friedman’s selection, Ben-Ami has promised to fight his nomination vigorously. His organization currently has a petition on its website in which supporters can urge their senators to oppose the appointment.
“This nomination is reckless, putting America’s reputation in the region and credibility around the world at risk,” Ben-Ami said shortly after the announcement, in which Friedman suggested the Trump administration would carry out the president’s campaign promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a proposal seemingly put on hold for now.
The dovish group also oppose him for his vocal support and financial backing of West Bank settlements, along with his open skepticism of the possibility or prudence of a two-state outcome to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The two also said the ambassador’s job would be to convey the policies of the president under which he served. “It is not a forum for individual ambassadors to exercise their personal agenda,” they wrote.
One of the two rabbis who wrote the letter, Weinstock, is also one of the clergy members of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a prominent New York synagogue where President Trump’s daughter Ivanka underwent her conversion process under the tutelage of Haskell Lookstein.
Noting the US Jewish community “seems more divided than ever before,” Kirschner and Weinstock urged unity amidst the early days of an administration seeking to upend the American political landscape.
“Regardless of background or organizational leanings, we need each other now more than ever,” the letter closed.