Deconstructing Thomas L. Friedman

Tom Friedman is one of those folks Jews love to hate. On one hand, he is invited to speak and given awards by Jewish organizations, and, on the other, he is vilified by other Jews as anti-Israel. I have always told audiences that they should read the “From Beirut” part of his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, because the rest stinks. Now, I think I’ve finally figured out what my problem is with Friedman.

First, there is no question that Friedman is one of the preeminent journalists writing today. And I have no problem whatsoever with anything he writes as a columnist. It is his job to express opinions, and he’s entitled to whatever views he wishes to espouse.

My problem with Friedman was when he was a reporter, whose job was to sublimate his personal views and present the facts, it was my perception that his news stories were thinly disguised op-eds. He typically injected his views into articles about Israel by slanting the reporting. It’s not difficult to do. For example, one need only quote from sources who share your point of view and then the reporter is not technically expressing their opinion.

Many Jews aren’t bothered by Friedman’s opinions because they agree with him. He is center-left and habitually critical of Likud positions. He is part of the “settlements are an obstacle to peace” crowd that does not let the contradictory facts on that particular issue get in their way. A few of the community’s right-wing pit bulls routinely attack Friedman, and he is occasionally accused of being anti-Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is critical of some Israeli government policies, but I believe it is clear his intention is to make Israel a better place and therefore he is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic.

Most Jews love his reporting on the Arab world because it is factual and consistent with what most of us believe. He tells it like it is when he blasts Arab leaders’ lack of tolerance or democracy, and highlights the anti-American policies of the Arab governments. This is true of his book, and why I readily endorse the first half of From Beirut to Jerusalem, which brought us the classic description of Arab justice that he refers to as “Hama Rules.” (For those unfamiliar with the reference, this was how Friedman described the way Arab leaders deal with dissent. Then-Syrian President Hafez Assad had a problem with Muslim dissidents and solved it by destroying the entire city of Hama, where they were based, killing an estimated 20,000 people.)

After reading his work for many years, I have now concluded that Friedman is basically the same as every other American Jew: He thinks he should be the prime minister of Israel. When the actual government takes positions consistent with the views of Prime Minister Friedman, then he writes sympathetically, but if government policy veers from Friedman’s preferred policies, he savages it. In the “to Jerusalem” part of his book, it was clear that Prime Minister Friedman didn’t agree with Israel’s prime ministers and, therefore, he criticized Israeli policy.

This also explains Friedman’s more accurate and unbiased coverage of the Arab world. He has no personal agenda or interest in the Arab states; therefore, his reporting isn’t colored by what he wishes their policy to be. Sure, he’d love the Arabs to be Western-style democracies, but he doesn’t really care. As a Jew, however, he is concerned about what kind of nation Israel is — and will become.

In the end, the only thing that really distinguishes the columnist from the rest of us is that he has one of the world’s most visible platforms from which to promote Prime Minister Friedman’s agenda. If any of the rest of us had a column in the New York Times, we would probably be viewed in much the same light because our prime ministerial agendas would anger some part of the community.

Oh, there is one other difference between Friedman and most of us; he’s a hell of a writer.