Nothing Diplomatic about an Ambassador Friedman

The presidency of Donald Trump has opened with some alarming blunders. The administration released a sweeping immigration and refugee ban that was halted by numerous federal courts, most definitively the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And the president made the fateful decision not to divest personally from his global business empire, a stubborn judgment that puts him sharply at odds with the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prevents collection of payments from foreign governments.

But the impulsive new president has launched yet another ill-conceived commitment that is likely to come back to haunt him. He has nominated his personal bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, as U.S. ambassador to Israel. A columnist for a rightwing newspaper in Israel and activist for a West Bank settlement, Friedman’s relentless denunciation of Democrats and liberal Jews mark him as a polemicist unfit to represent the American people as an ambassador anywhere, above all to Israel where he is a partisan actor in the conflicts of the day.

The posting to Israel calls for a skilled, prudent, tactful and accomplished diplomat. We have been blessed in the past with excellent ambassadors to Israel, both political appointees and career foreign service officers. Today, with prospects for the two-state solution dangerously slipping away, we need to send to Israel the very best diplomat that America has to offer.

But David Friedman is no diplomat, no statesman and no conciliator. He is a firebrand activist openly contemptuous of the two-state solution, which has been an official American policy commitment for decades. Friedman has called former President Barack Obama, who swept the Jewish vote in back-to-back presidential elections, a “blatant anti-Semite.” He has called presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the choice of 71 percent of Jewish Americans, “no friend to Israel.” As Daniel Kurtzer, who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, says of Friedman: “He has made clear that he will appeal to a small minority of Israeli — and American — extremists, ignoring the majority of Israelis who continue to seek peace.” The New York Times describes Friedman’s views as “far to the right” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Because he has vilified Palestinians, Muslims, liberal Jews, Democrats, Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry, Friedman is a terrible selection for ambassador to Israel. He has opined so passionately on so many Middle East issues — like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which he has loudly championed, and the two-state solution, which he ridicules — that he has essentially boxed Trump in on all of the main problems to be negotiated there. If it is true that Trump, a self-proclaimed master negotiator, wants to broker the “ultimate deal” in the Mideast, an Ambassador Friedman would impede the process because he long ago swept all the president’s bargaining chips off the table.

Meantime, Friedman’s selection is a wrecking ball in American politics and specifically the Jewish community, which needs reconciliation and dialogue, not more division and polarization. Friedman calls leading Democrats anti-Semites simply for taking public policy positions he disagrees with. For example, whatever one thinks of the Iran nuclear agreement, surely we can all acknowledge that there are decent people of good will on both sides of the issue, all of them seeking what they think is best for America, for Israel and for world peace and security. By accusing Obama and Kerry of “blatant anti-Semitism” for negotiating the Iran agreement, Friedman tells a preposterous and defamatory lie that distorts the meaning of anti-Semitism.

While lobbing the charge of anti-Semitism at leading officials who disagree with his foreign policy commitments, Friedman elaborately defended the Trump campaign’s infamous closing TV ad in November 2016 against criticism from the Anti-Defamation League that it trafficked in classic anti-Jewish stereotypes. This was the darkly ominous commercial which pictured billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein on the screen as Donald Trump warned that “the establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

Defending the ad as mere “fake anti-Semitism,” as opposed to the “real anti-Semitism” of Hamas and “the Palestinians,” Friedman said that the ad’s critics, like ADL and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, had lost “all credibility” and “sound like morons.” He then tried to displace attention from the makers of the ad by denigrating the people featured in it, questioning their Jewishness in the most arrogant and presumptuous way: “I doubt people even know that Janet Yellen is Jewish. She’s never done anything in her life to identify as a Jew. Other than the fact she happens to be born of a Jewish mother, she has done nothing to be Jewish.”

Of George Soros, a refugee from Nazism who has dedicated much of his life and fortune to defending liberal democracy, Jewish causes and the “open society,” Friedman wrote that “most people don’t even know that he’s Jewish. He doesn’t have a Jewish name. He’s done nothing to positively identify with the Jewish community at any point in his life. George Soros has done more to vilify the State of Israel and to fund anti-Israel propaganda machines than almost any individual on the face of the earth. The idea that by criticizing George Soros I am anti-Semitic, or I am indicating anti-Semitic tendencies, when George Soros is himself one of the great enemies of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, turns the world on its head.”

Friedman believes that “less than half of American Jewry” is pro-Israel because apparently you can’t be pro-Israel in his book if you favor a real two-state solution, which 78 percent of American Jews do. Friedman caused a storm of protest when he likened supporters of J Street — which calls itself the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” — to “kapos” in Nazi concentration camps who helped send fellow Jews to their deaths.

Friedman redoubled his criticism of liberal Jews and even upped the ante with this expansion of his critique: “Are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos?” he wrote. “The answer, actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos — Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? 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.”

In 2017, the world is aflame with political extremism, religious fanaticism, rising anti-Semitism and racism, and authoritarian attacks on freedom and human rights. Now is a moment that calls for maximum prudence and diplomacy in office, cultural bridge-building and creative political action to break the brutal logic of hatred and war. The confirmation of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel would be bad news not only for Israel and the Palestinians, but for solidarity and civility in the American Jewish community.

Jamie Raskin represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the House of Representatives, where he serves as vice-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee and sits on the Oversight and Government Reform and the House Administration committees.

At The Associated, Inclusion Is a Top Priority

In the nearly 10 years since February was designated Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), The Associated has made progress in raising awareness and fostering inclusion of people with disabilities.

In order for individuals with special needs to flourish, we must continuously learn about best practices and adapt our services accordingly.

This month, the JCC staff will participate in training to ensure that programs and services are even more inclusive. This training is built around current research that states that self-sufficiency and self-esteem come from full participation in mainstream society.

Nowhere is this more important than in our workplaces, where it’s critical we incorporate best practices. In the past, there was the belief that those with special needs thrived when working in environments with their peers. Today, we understand that meaningful employment is often achieved in a fully integrated workplace.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) is embracing this paradigm. Its career center has dedicated professionals who assist individuals with special needs. Not only does JCS work closely with Baltimore employers by identifying jobs and matching skills, it trains employees with special needs about workplace culture and self-advocacy. After a job placement is made, JCS professionals assist both the employee and employer in this transition.

From an educational standpoint, SHEMESH provides support for Jewish children with learning differences to reach their full intellectual, academic, emotional and social potential in a Jewish setting. The Macks Center for Jewish Education offers children with special needs and their families free educational advocacy services in public schools, including preparation for Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings.

The Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance (BJAA) website, launched in 2009, is a comprehensive tool that provides resources to individuals with special needs and their families. It showcases a full cadre of services, including local, state and federal resources.

JDAIM is a wonderful opportunity for our community to dialogue around our special needs efforts. Yet it should be a springboard for our efforts year-round to ensure that our entire community can fully participate in a quality Jewish life. As The Associated’s Caring Commission continues its work this spring, we will assess inclusive practices within our system and how to serve people with disabilities and their families.

Lynn B. Sassin and Howard Feldman are co-chairs of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Caring Commission.

Everyone’s Talmud

Until modern times, the Talmud was a major Jewish preoccupation. This sprawling compendium of the law, lore and commentary of successive generations of early rabbinic scholars provided Jews with a human map for following the law of the Hebrew Bible and the six books of the Mishna.

The fact is that not many Jews — then and now — immersed themselves in deep Talmud study, which requires knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic, an understanding of the Talmudic system of logic and an adeptness for reading a work devoid of punctuation. But the Talmud held the key to Jewish knowledge and living, which made the unlearned beholden to the learned.

With the spread of printing and the steady move toward egalitarianism, the opportunity for deep Jewish study and knowledge grew. With the internet, it seems that the Talmud — the product of an oral tradition that operated by association rather than linear arrangement — seems to have found its ideal medium.

That’s why the announcement that the website Sefaria has published the acclaimed Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud in English online, where it can be read for free and repurposed for users’ needs free of copyright concerns, is so exciting. Twenty-two tractates went live last week. The rest of the English edition of the Talmud, which is as yet unfinished, will be published online as it is completed. Sefaria will also publish a Hebrew translation this year.

The translation’s publication was made possible by a multimillion-dollar deal with the Steinsaltz edition’s publishers, Milta and Koren Publishers Jerusalem, and financed by the William Davidson Foundation, a family charity. The Davidson Foundation deserves honors for making the Talmud’s accessibility almost limitless. In making this knowledge available to anyone with a computer or mobile device, the potential for more Jews (and interested non-Jews) to reach a deeper, richer relationship with their heritage is breathtaking.

We said “potential,” because that is precisely what this opportunity presents. Traditionally, the Talmud isn’t studied in a vacuum.

Students work in pairs — chavruta — to unpack the texts. They attend shiurim (lectures), where the mysteries of the text are analyzed and explained. Indeed, the Talmud itself calls on everyone to provide for himself and herself a teacher.

How will the online Talmud affect these dynamics? In the most traditional settings, very little if at all. Students and scholars at yeshivas and batei midrash (study halls) will continue to study the Talmud as they have for generations. But for the vast majority of Jews who have little or no experience with the Talmud, accessing the knowledge in the text will take work and will not be as simple as checking a Twitter feed. We hope new groups, independent ones and others sponsored by congregations and other conveners, will emerge to take advantage of this technological innovation and use it to elevate our Jewish lives.

Cracks in the Wall

Will we or won’t we get a wall?

As a candidate, President Donald Trump repeatedly promised to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico and pledged that it would be paid for by Mexico. As the commander-in-chief, he has repeated that promise — even if he has waffled a bit on exactly how the cost of the wall will be financed. But although he has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, GOP legislators are not falling fully in line behind Trump’s vision.

Last week, CNN reported on a “wall of resistance” from the GOP. The price tag of a wall across the southern U.S. border, estimated from $12 billion to $15 billion, is apparently giving Republicans sticker shock. Many members of the party’s caucus in the Senate told the network that they would not support the wall unless the cost was offset by spending cuts elsewhere. “If you’re going to spend that kind of money, you’re going to have to show me where you’re going to get that money,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Others were skeptical of whether the country would get its $12 billion-plus value for its investment in the wall. “I don’t think we’re just going to be able to solve border security with a physical barrier because people can come under, around it and through it,” said Sen. John Cornyn of the border state of Texas. Yet others, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another border state, noted that the expense of a wall would only be part of any comprehensive security effort, since “if you only build a wall, only a ‘wall,’ without using technology, individuals, drones, observations, etc., you’re not going to secure the border.”

Still others don’t believe that Mexico will or should pay for the wall. “I don’t count on Mexico to pay for our national security,” said Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma. “It’s the responsibility of every nation to take care of their own security.”

Fiscally conservative members of the GOP are properly raising real-world concerns about the projected cost of building a border wall. Together with the Democratic minority, which has voiced strong opposition to the proposed wall, the Trump administration faces a steep climb to get congressional approval for the plan. And that’s how it should be. The system of checks and balances built into our democratic government prevent any one branch from improperly exerting its power and ruling by fiat. Some degree of consensus needs to be reached.

Which is to say that if and when we do get a wall, we anticipate that it will have been properly studied, weighed and financed, instead of being simply willed into existence by a president committed to deliver on his campaign promises.

The Value of Humility Parshat Yitro

Ours is nothing if not a tradition of speaking truth to power. Abraham does it to God near Sodom and Gemorrah. Moses does so to Pharaoh in Egypt. And in this week’s portion, Jethro speaks truth to Moses in the wilderness.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro admonishes Moses for hoarding his power. “You cannot do it alone.” Fearing that the centralization of power will cause a rebellion and wear Moses down besides, Jethro advises Moses to delegate authority by creating a more layered, and shared, system of government.

Even so, Jethro’s admonition invites some skepticism. After all, hadn’t Moses already succeeded (with God’s and Aaron’s help) at bringing the people out of slavery?

The answer is contained in another question that Moses himself once put to Pharaoh: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?”

The premise of the question reveals two important facts. First, it tells us that Pharaoh, by his refusal to acknowledge God’s might, is almost intractably stubborn. Second, it shows that Pharaoh is a narcissist, utterly devoid of humility. Taken together, it is not hard to conclude that Pharaoh’s sense of self-importance is what ultimately dooms him as a leader. His absolute power corrupted him absolutely.

And so, just as Pharaoh became hard-hearted and self-important, so too does Jethro fear Moses (however humble he was at the outset) doing the same.

The Book of Deuteronomy recognizes the risk Jethro foresaw when it requires the king of Israel to keep a copy of the law and “read it all his life so that he may learn to revere the Eternal, his God . . . [and] not act haughtily toward his fellows.” The mandate to know and keep the Israelite constitution, and thereby share power, teaches the king humility and that no one, not even he, is above the law.

Not long ago, after declaring that our nation is in crisis, a certain candidate for the presidency went on to proclaim: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”

Jethro teaches otherwise, for none of us alone can judge, or govern or “fix” an entire nation. A government of laws and not men depends on the humility, good faith and participation of us all.

Rabbi John Franken is the spiritual leader at Bolton Street Synagogue and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

Surviving Trump

I am ashamed and disappointed for my country electing a depraved sociopath as our president (“The Great Divide,” Feb. 10). I pray for my country that we survive his reckless narcissist temperament in a volatile world. I know the election is over, but we and the press have to keep the protests going and hopefully bring sanity back to our government in the near future. America has been great and is still great and will remain great if we can survive this administration. We need to call out for change starting with the next mid-term elections.

More Than Just ‘Mere’

“The Great Divide” cover story (Feb. 10) characterizes Ruth Goetz as a mere “registered  Republican.” In point of fact, she is a Maryland GOP state  official, being a member of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, representing District 2. A huge (quoting Goetz’s godol) difference.

Respect for Others

Several weeks ago, I was having one of those great conversations with my son, daughter-in-law and 11-year-old grandson. We covered a range of subjects including sports, movies, the state of the world and, of course, politics. It was one of those special moments for me, realizing that everyone was capable of carrying on such an intelligent, thoughtful discussion and that, in some small way, I was responsible.

Upon reflection, I realized why my contempt for Donald Trump was so pronounced (“The Great Divide,” Feb. 10). I understand that people will disagree on many things politically, and I think I have the ability to respect and understand others’ opinions. That said, everything I have tried to instill in my family in terms of values and how you treat others is the antithesis of what I hear from our president on a daily basis. Respect for others, particularly those who may be different from you, is just one critical example of what we as Jews want to convey to our kids.

How can I explain to my grandson why our president talks in such a demeaning way about women, people with disabilities and those desperately trying to escape violence and horror? How can I explain to him that telling the truth, being a good winner and not being a braggart are values we hold dear, but not our president? I know what my responsibilities are as a father and grandfather. I hope and pray our president will someday understand his responsibilities to all those he influences.

People of the Book Donald Trump: Goy

It feels like Donald Trump’s been president for almost three years, not three weeks, and even now that he’s committed so many executive orders — which are really decrees — it’s absurd to consider the effects of a Trump Presidency when they’re yet so unknown.

But there’s a biblical three-score and 10 to consider of the life he’s already lived. Never has there been a president whose live is so public and documented. There’s so many facets to consider of Trump, but in the JT, only one matters.

A commentator on Fox News’s website wrote that if Bill Clinton was the first black president, Donald Trump’s the first Jewish president. Queasy as you might feel, it’s hard not to see why people think that. Endless hard work? Check. Speaking his mind regardless of consequence? Check.  New York real estate? Check. Winter house in Florida? Check. Children in his business? Check. Daughter gone frum? Check.

No president’s ever seemed 18 percent as Jewish as Trump. Yet his values are as goyish as early American furniture. But they’re not goyish in the way we good-naturedly rib our non-Jewish friends; they’re goyish in the term’s original meaning — a biblical epithet, a curse, hurled upon barbarous heathens who oppress the righteous without mercy.

The Trumps made their fortune not in Manhattan but in Queens. Long before racial resentment dominated the thinking of Iowans who’d barely met a black person, Donald Trump was found guilty in civil court of refusing to lease housing to African-Americans with “such frequency…” The history of refusing to pay contractors for services rendered to the Trump organization is voluminous and legendary — when contractors sue, they settle for cents on dollars promised. New York City auditors found his properties missing basic financial records.

Even in eighth grade Bible class at Schechter, Dr. Shualy would drill Talmudic passages about ethical business practice into our heads. As adults, why he did it is no mystery. If Jewish businessmen conducted business like our president, their names would be exemplars of everything loathsome about us. They would be disgraces to Jews everywhere, and the president’s association with us is exactly that.

I don’t need to tell you about Trump, you all lived through 2016, most of you lived through 30 years with this waste of space on your television. But I do think there is one point worth making.

I’m sure there are many JT readers who find the ubiqutous Trump-Hitler comparisons outrageous in the extreme. Any Jew should be sympathetic to you. Every progressive who ever told a Jew that invoking the Shoah automatically invalidates any defense of Israel now compares Trump to Hitler when the president’s policies barely yet killed a single person. Trump was compared to Hitler when he was just a primary candidate.

I agree, Hitler comparisons are outrageous, but Hitler’s the one name Trump’s called that doesn’t bother him. The candidate bothered by every insult never answers it. Louis CK called him Hitler, and Trump didn’t complain on Twitter, he asked a rally the next day “Who here likes me?” and told everybody to raise out their right arms to show they do. As of June, Trump retweeted white supremacists 75 times, then deleted it every time as though it were a mistake. At one point, Trump falsely claimed that he had the support of 88 generals — Farvertz noted that 88 is white supremacist code for Heil Hitler. Ivana Trump once said her ex-husband would sleep with a book of Hitler speeches by his bed. In his inaugural speech, Trump invoked the phrase “America First” at his inauguration, which every American History buff knows was the slogan of fascist fellow travelers. Perhaps the most famous quote from The Art of the Deal is “You tell people a lie three times, they will believe anything.” That’s almost a direct reference to Goebbels’s famous dictum: “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie repeated a thousand times becomes truth.”

In terms of the oppression perpetrated, it’s absurd to call Donald Trump Hitler, and would be for a long time yet. It’s just as absurd to consider him a dictator, or compare him even to your average 19th century monarch. As of yet, he is no Hitler. Rather, he is an incarnation of Satan who’s taken it upon himself to bring the worst of trials upon the United States, which has until now known little but blessings from God just as Iyov did. And as Iyov did, whatever our trials, we will bear them in the hope that one day He will restore His favor to us. Naked came we out of our mothers’ wombs, and naked shall we return thither: Hashem gave to America, and Hashem took away from America. Blessed be His name forever and ever.

Speak for Yourself

Joshua Runyan

Joshua Runyan

If you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ve probably noticed the propensity of Israelis to adorn their cars, their bus stops — even their street signs — with all manner of bumper stickers. Seen as a reflection of the diversity of those who call the Jewish state home, these political — and even apolitical — statements represent a multitude of views: The people are with Gaza, the people are for peace, the people believe in a strong secular judiciary, the people are pro-environment, etc.

This uniquely Israeli phenomenon was popularized in 2004 by Hadag Nachash, the Hebrew-speaking rap group whose “Shirat Hasticker” (“The Sticker Song”) evoked a society of disparate identities and beliefs that was either coming apart at the seams or held together inside a cauldron of boiling-over tensions. But the spoof didn’t make the situation any less real, which is why anyone who claims to speak for “the Israeli view” is fooling himself.

The same can be said for the American Jewish community. Although most of us back here in the United States do not exhibit the same fondness for bumper stickers as our Israeli cousins, the multitude of our identities, religious values and political beliefs means that anyone who claims to speak for “the Jewish view” is being foolish.

As you’ll read this week in the JT, Baltimore — home to a microcosm of the wider American Jewish community — is not of one mind when it comes to the refugee ban, the border wall, defense spending, the economy, education … the list is almost endless. We split along denominational lines, we split along political lines, we split along socioeconomic lines. Some of us support President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order on immigration; others, predictably, do not.

The debate pits concerns over religious-based discrimination against fears for public safety, the sovereign right of countries to protect their borders against an implied duty of all nations to protect those fleeing war zones and near-certain death.

In the background, of course, are the other immigration- related concerns of job growth, wage stagnation, economic productivity and national character.

Especially since these and other issues will now be weighed by the judicial system — starting with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that on Tuesday heard oral arguments over a federal judge’s Feb. 3 temporary restraining order striking down Trump’s executive order — perhaps all of us should remember that no one among us speaks for the whole of us. At best, each of us only represents a part.

Like our loved ones across the Atlantic, we will only be able to enjoy the company of our neighbors and friends if we grant them the room to disagree.

jrunyan@midatlanticmedia.com