Weighing in on Western Wall crisis, new US envoy calls for Jewish unity
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'We will defeat our enemies. The question is: Can we survive ourselves?'

Weighing in on Western Wall crisis, new US envoy calls for Jewish unity

In first public speech since taking office, Ambassador David Friedman slams unnamed Jewish organization for questioning ongoing support of Israel

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Ambassador David Friedman delivering remarks at 2017 B’nai B’rith World Center Award for Journalism ceremony, Jerusalem, June 27, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
US Ambassador David Friedman delivering remarks at 2017 B’nai B’rith World Center Award for Journalism ceremony, Jerusalem, June 27, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Wading into the current crisis between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Tuesday denounced an unnamed Jewish organization for questioning its ongoing support for Israel and called for unity among all Jewish people.

Delivering his first public speech since taking office on May 16, Friedman admitted that he himself in the past made derogatory remarks about Jews he disagreed with, and pledged to henceforth treat everyone respectfully.

“Yesterday, I heard something that I thought I’d never hear before. And I understand the source of the frustration and the source of the anger. But I heard a major Jewish organization say that they needed to rethink their support for the State of Israel,” Friedman said at a B’nai B’rith journalism awards ceremony in Jerusalem. “That’s something unthinkable in my lifetime, up until yesterday. We have to do better. We must do better.”

It was not clear which Jewish organization the US envoy was referring to.

On Sunday, Israel’s cabinet voted to renege on their earlier commitment to significantly upgrade the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall. It also approved legislation critics say grants the ultra-Orthodox a de facto monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel. Both moves drew vehement criticism from Diaspora Jewish leaders, including the Jewish Agency and the Reform and Conservative movements, and Israeli politicians across the political spectrum.

However, despite scathing criticism on the government’s decision, neither the Jewish Agency nor the non-Orthodox streams said they would reconsider their support for Israel.

The Haaretz newspaper on Monday published an article entitled “Outraged at Netanyahu Over Western Wall, Jewish Agency to Rethink Ties With Israeli Government,” but the text offered little to support that headline.

New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)
New US ambassador to Israel David Friedman kisses the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on May 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

It quoted a senior Jewish Agency official saying that the “government of Israel has taken certain actions that threaten the Jewish people, and we want our communities back home to understand that support for Israel does not necessarily mean support for the government of Israel.” However, the official also stressed that his organization will “continue to support Israel” despite the criticism.

“There’s plenty of room to cast blame, whether it’s on the issue of the Kotel [Western Wall], whether it’s on the issue of conversion — there are so many other issues that separate us,” said Friedman, stressing that he was speaking not as a diplomat but as “a member of the Jewish faith and the son of a rabbi.”

The envoy, who took the unusual step — for a foreign diplomat — of making the Western Wall his first stop upon arriving in Israel in May, said he was not going to take a position on the matter. “But I can tell you that we can only resolve these issues by mutual respect and understanding.”

The key to Jewish unity, he went on, is “that nobody ever has to win. This is not question of winning. This is a question of mutual respect and coexistence. And as soon as someone wants to win, everybody is going to lose.”

‘It’s not enough to unite behind common enemies. We should unite behind the miracle of the State of Israel’

Speaking at an award ceremony for the 2017 B’nai B’rith World Center Award for Journalism Recognizing Excellence in Diaspora Reportage, Friedman said he just returned to Jerusalem from a tour in the Golan Heights, where he received a security briefing on various Syrian terror groups.

“There was ISIS, there was the Syrian regimes, there were the rebels — 30 different rebel groups. They hate each other, but if you want to ask them one thing they agree upon? They all hate us.”

He added: “We have plenty of enemies. But I would suggest to you that it’s not enough. It’s not enough to unite behind common enemies. We should unite behind the miracle of the State of Israel… We can united behind the richness of the Jewish tradition, whether we’re religious or not.”

“We will defeat our enemies. I have no doubt that we will defeat our enemies,” Friedman continued. “The question is: Can we survive ourselves?”

Friedman admitted that in the past he has been “as guilty as anyone else of having entered the partisan divide that has unfortunately to some extent fractured the Jewish community.” He was likely referring to derogatory comments he made about left-wing American Jews, including calling them “kapos.” He later apologized for his controversial comments.

“But it has to end,” he said, pledging to “treat the Jewish people of whatever stripe, of whatever political views, with the same dignity and respect as they all deserve… We have to turn the page.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (2nd-L), President Reuven Rivlin (3rd-L), First Lady Melania Trump (C-L), US President Donald Trump (C-R), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-R) and Sara Netanyahu (2nd-R) seen at Ben Gurion International Airport during a ceremony marking American president's departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)
US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (2nd-L), President Reuven Rivlin (3rd-L), First Lady Melania Trump (C-L), US President Donald Trump (C-R), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-R) and Sara Netanyahu (2nd-R) seen at Ben Gurion International Airport during a ceremony marking American president’s departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

Although organizers billed his speech as his “first policy speech since arriving in Israel,” Friedman did not address the Israeli-Palestinian peace process the US administration is currently trying to jump start.

“We’re working very hard on a peace process,” he said. “There’s an expression in English: Those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk. So here I actually know so I won’t talk. I don’t see any real purpose in jumping the gun on some sensitive discussions.”

He merely said that Donald Trump is “very pro-Israel,” stressing that he was the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall and this his administration is supportive of the Jewish state “in unprecedented ways.”

Yet, he added: “Let’s play that out. It’s too soon to be congratulating ourselves. We have a long way to go. But I can assure you that you have people in the American administration whose hearts are very much in right place.”

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