With Congress back in session, Jewish organizations on both the left and right are gearing up to mobilize support or opposition in the Senate to David Friedman, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee as ambassador to Israel.
With a Republican majority in the upper chamber, it is likely that Friedman, a New York bankruptcy lawyer and personal friend of Trump’s, will receive the 51 votes required for confirmation.
Still, Jewish groups are issuing press releases, launching petitions and contacting senators to go on the record about their positions.
Friedman, 57, differs significantly from past U.S. ambassadors in that he has no diplomatic experience and does not support the longstanding U.S. position of the two-state solution as the best way to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
Friedman also has ties to Israel’s settlement movement. A Hebrew speaker, he was a commentator for Arutz Sheva, a media network affiliated with the movement. He was president of American Friends of Beit El Institutions, which supports the Beit El settlement near Ramallah.
Friedman has said Israeli settlements in the West Bank are legal, another departure from traditional U.S. foreign policy.
Liberal groups gear up to fight
While Friedman is likely to be confirmed, left-wing pro-Israel groups such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now (APN), Ameinu and the New Israel Fund are banding together to try to defeat the nomination by sending out a petition to their members, urging them to contact their senators with their concerns about Friedman.
The joint petition has been on the website of several liberal Jewish organizations for a couple weeks, including Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Peace Now. Ori Nir, a spokesman for APN, said this is the first time the organization has ever petitioned against the nomination of a U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“Unlike other ambassadors and many other people who have run for office, he has a very long paper trail, and that paper trail has a very long trail of things he’s written for Arutz Sheva,” he said.
APN cannot lobby due to its nonpolitical status as a 501(c)(3), but Nir thinks this is a fight worth fighting since it involves the American Jewish community as a whole.
“One of our main roles in this is to contact players in the Jewish community and try to put pressure on them to join our efforts,” he said. “It’s really important that the Jewish communitiy joins in this and takes sides.”
Daniel Sokatch, who heads the New Israel Fund, which advocates for civil rights in Israel, said his organization has never petitioned against an Israeli ambassador nominee before. But Friedman holds views directly in opposition to the organization’s values of tolerance and mutual respect.
“Here’s a person with no diplomatic experience, who’s been put in a position to be the ambassador to one of our most important allies and who holds extreme views,” he said. “It’s like throwing a lighted match into a tinder box.”
Sokatch said his group’s opposition to Friedman is a warning that it will continue to be vocal after Trump’s inauguration.
“Regardless of the outcome in the Senate, it’s very important to say that we don’t roll over every time the incoming administration does something bad for Israel’s neighbors and itself,” he said.
Right offers support
One of Friedman’s biggest backers in the Jewish community is Mort Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which, like Friedman, is aligned with Israel’s settlement movement.
Klein wrote in a statement that “no previous ambassador appreciates the political, historic, legal and religious rights of the Jews to Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem like David. Yet he respects and understands the beliefs and hopes and dreams of the political left in Israel and America.”
In an interview, Klein said he has known Friedman for six months and the two have spoken “dozens of times.” He said Friedman is “very smart” and has a “thorough understanding of the war against Israel’s existence.”
Klein said he has called a number of senators in the last week, both Democrats and Republicans, urging them to confirm Friedman.
The National Council of Young Israel has sent a statement to its members urging them to contact their senators and representatives in support of Friedman’s nomination.
“Although only the Senate is constitutionally tasked with confirming ambassadorial nominees, we seek bipartisan statements of support from elected leaders of both the House and the Senate,” it said.
Many are undecided for now
Sokatch said he has had conversations with center-right Jews who are opposed to Friedman’s nomination, but will not say so publicly out of fear they will be lumped in with the rest of Friedman’s opponents.
AIPAC, a bipartisan pro-Israel organization that is hawkish but supports the two-state solution, did not take a position on Friedman.
Nathan Diament, the Washington, D.C. director of the Orthodox Union, told Politico after Trump’s announcement that he understood the rationale behind the nomination.
“For those in the Jewish community who voted for Donald Trump — and largely did so because they wanted a change of direction, not to mention tone, in the U.S.-Israel relationship from the contentious one of the Obama years — Mr. Trump’s nomination of David Friedman is a step precisely toward that change of direction,” he said.
Diament would not comment further and for now is not taking a position on Friedman.
For there to be a chance of defeating Friedman’s nomination, all Democratic senators would need to vote against him. The Senate’s new minority leader, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), has not taken a position on Friedman. But Maryland Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin’s office released a statement last week expressing cautious optimism over Friedman, but not taking a position.
“America’s ambassador to Israel is a critical linchpin in the enduring U.S.-Israeli relationship,” according to the statement. “Senator Cardin looks forward to meeting Mr. Friedman to learn more about his views on the full range of issues central to our bilateral relationship, in advance of his confirmation hearing.”
Daniel Schere is a reporter for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.