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Journalist Thomas Friedman reaches right and left on Israel
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Journalist Thomas Friedman reaches right and left on Israel

Views Jewish state in context of global politics

Both hawks and doves on the issue of Israel were among the 900 who heard a talk by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman April 22 at The Jewish Center. 

Ruth Schulman was pleased with the enthusiastic response to the 31st lecture hosted by the Amy Adina Schulman Memorial Fund, which Ruth started in 1987 in memory of her 20-year-old daughter who died suddenly while a student at Rutgers University.

“I felt we were able to establish a civil conversation,” Schulman said. “We don’t agree on everything, but we have to listen to each other and understand where people are coming from.”

Although the deep complexity of Friedman’s understanding of the world and the Middle East was apparent throughout, his responses to difficult questions confirmed his belief in creative solutions.

When a questioner expressed concern that Iran might influence the Palestinians in the wake of a two-state solution, should it occur, Friedman suggested that Israel should project the creativity and imagination it has shown in the tech sector onto the peace process. In the meantime, he said, he supports an end to settlement expansion outside the settlement blocs, because, without that, “you’re stealing hope for any kind of solution.”

To a question on how Palestinians, who continue teaching their children “that they are entitled to the right of return and that all of Israel is Palestinian,” could be a partner for peace, Friedman responded that Israel has two choices: “There is no partner and never will be, so we should settle all the land,” or “There is no partner, but maybe if I try to put creative ideas out there, maybe it will encourage people out there.”

While acknowledging that the questioner’s concern is legitimate, Friedman urged her not to “use it as an excuse to do nothing, because nothing leads to a one-state solution.”

Although he presents himself as an optimist, Friedman indicated that he is deeply aware of the hurdles that Israel faces — citing in addition to the demographic challenge the Iranian threats, Natalie Portman’s refusal to go to Israel to accept her $2 million Genesis Prize in protest over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, and challenges to Israel’s legal system. Noting that many Jewish college students share Portman’s angst about Israel, Friedman observed, “They don’t know how to defend this government and so they have given up trying. They don’t want to join the BDS movement, but they are vexed and depressed and uncertain on how to represent Israel.”

“This is the heart of American Jewry,” said Friedman. Portman “still loves Israel, but feels she cannot defend Israel any longer. That to me is an existential threat.” 

Acceptance of paradoxes is the key Friedman offered to understanding and appreciating Israel. Anyone who supports Israel, he said, needs to hold three seemingly conflicting thoughts in one’s head: “Israel is an amazing place; Israel sometimes does bad stuff; Israel lives in a really dangerous neighborhood.” 

“Unfortunately, all three are true but fewer young people on college campuses can keep those three thoughts in their head at the same time, especially when challenged in a college debate,” Friedman said.

Agreeing with Friedman, Steven Weinberg of East Brunswick took it one step further, expressing concern about the black-white mentality he sees in some of the old-time radicals who took over his alma mater, Columbia University, 50 years ago. “It’s difficult,” he summed up, “for leftists to criticize Israel without hating it.”

Friedman explained the necessity of understanding Israel in the context of three accelerating planet-wide forces — the global market, Mother Nature, and technological change — that are fundamentally reshaping the world. 

He looked in particular at the effects of climate change, especially drought, on geopolitics. In Syria, the parched land sent a million herders and farmers to the cities, where they “formed the kindling of the Syrian revolution.” In northern Senegal, a rise in temperature sent able-bodied men looking for work to Europe, where they were vulnerable to recruitment by Al Qaida.

Mother Nature is also affecting Gaza, which, Friedman said, “has been pumping its aquifers at 200 million cubic meters a year, where 60 million is the natural replenishing rate. There is no potable water and little desalination.” Gaza’s failed waste-management system pours waste into the Mediterranean that eventually clogs the filters of Israel’s biggest desalinization plant in Ashkelon. Mother Nature’s message, according to Friedman? “I will kill you so much faster than you kill each other if you don’t get your act together.”

For Friedman, unless there is a two-state solution, through which both Israelis and Palestinians “can take off their shoes and feel at home,” nothing will change. To help facilitate a solution, he said, “we need to recover our voices.” 

To him that means, saying, “If you’re not for a two-state solution, you’re not my friend. There is only one way forward.” But, he added, American-Jewish organizations are afraid to say this, “because next time they are in Israel, they won’t get their appointment” with those in power.

Friedman also addressed the demographic threat to Israel posed by the population parity just reached between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, as well as the fact that for the first time, 51 percent of Israeli kindergarten students are non-Zionists — either Israeli Arabs or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Dan Schulman, Ruth’s son, said Friedman’s talk had “a real expansiveness that is not easily compartmentalized. He tries to rationalize conflicting thoughts in a way that makes us think and, most important, question our assumptions” and various political movements “in a way that nobody gets defensive and they can think more expansively.”

Dan Fishman of Irvington, N.Y., whose daughter was a close friend of Amy Adina when his family lived in Princeton, said, “We live in an enormously complex world [and] Friedman, in a uniquely accessible way, is able to capture that complexity and suggest positive directions for improving our chances of global survival.”

Friedman’s ideas about Israel, said Fishman, “are a breath of fresh air in the highly polarized debate that presently envelops the Jewish community.”

In an email to Ruth Schulman, Shulamith Gross wrote that Friedman “displayed a combination of love and admiration for Israel, with modest critical evaluation of its settlement policies, while being very careful when answering people who clearly wished for more emphatic criticism of Israel.”

Attendee Suzanne Levin of Princeton appreciated Friedman’s balanced approach on a topic that is “often discussed from one partisan point of view.” The columnist, she said, “has enough perspective that he sees the context. Because there is so much emotion and tribal loyalties tied up in these issues, it is rare to find someone with common sense and a lot of information.”

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