US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman called himself an “unapologetic right-wing defender of Israel” Wednesday during a speech to North American Jewish leaders.
“I will bet that there are people in this room who disagree with me on Israel policy — I am an unapologetic right-wing defender of Israel. I’m a security hawk. That’s who I am,” he said at the Jewish Federation of North America’s annual General Assembly, which took place this week in Tel Aviv.
Friedman has been an outspoken advocate of Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He also been criticized for making partisan remarks, such as when he told The Times of Israel in May that “Republicans support Israel more than Democrats.”
The US administration in general, and Friedman in particular, are perceived by the Palestinians as biased toward Israel and have vowed to reject the peace proposal the White House has said it will publish soon.
Friedman acknowledged Wednesday that there may be “people in this room who disagree with me on Israeli policy.” His response to these people is to say, “I value your thinking, I respect your views and, most importantly, I’m grateful that you care, that you care enough to form an opinion on this incredibly important subject, and we can now have a discussion.”
During his Senate confirmation hearing in February 2017, Friedman had vowed to refrain from making partisan comments, such as when he denounced leaders of the dovish pro-Israel lobby J-Street as “kapos.”
“Partisan rhetoric is rarely, if ever, appropriate in achieving diplomatic progress, especially in a sensitive and strife-torn region like the Middle East. From my perspective, the inflammatory rhetoric that accompanied the presidential campaign is entirely over, and, if I am confirmed, you should expect that my comments will be respectful and measured,” he said at the time.
During Wednesday’s speech to 700 delegates from Jewish communities across the US and Canada, Friedman also said that ideological gaps between Israel and Diaspora Jewry may be unbridgeable.
“Here’s the bad news: They are never, ever, ever going to go away,” he said. “It’s just not possible given the extraordinary difference of perspectives, all legitimate.”
Said Friedman: “To paraphrase the famous saying, Israel is from Mars and the Diaspora is from Venus. But as they also sometimes say about the original subject of that phrase, ‘Viva la difference.’”
While the US has a strict separation of religion and state, “in Israel, religion and politics, for better or worse, are intertwined,” Friedman said. “Is that a good system? Is that a bad system? We can debate, but it’s the system.”
He warned that the true problem of the Jewish people are those who don’t care about their Jewish identity at all.
“Apathy is our enemy, not disagreement,” he said.
Fighting disinterest requires a “concerted and multi-layered effort to inculcate unaffiliated Jews with the wonders of Judaism and the State of Israel,” according to Friedman, himself an observant Jew.
“Programs are out there to address apathy and they need to be supported.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke at the event took the podium and echoed Friedman’s concern about the loss of Jewish identity.
“Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state, if we defend our state. But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities in the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew, having the contact of young Jews coming to Israel.”
What is needed is a new approach, suitable for the internet age, that will help Diaspora Jews “understand that their own future as Jews depends on continuous identity,” Netanyahu said.
“It’s protecting Jewish identity and developing Jewish consciousness that is the most important thing. It transcends politics; it touches on the foundations of history,” he concluded. “We’re one people. Let’s make sure that every Jewish child in the world knows how proud they should be to be Jews.”