Robert I. Friedman was a Jew. That inconvenient fact may have stopped fanatics like the extremist settlers who once beat him up on the West Bank from doing much worse, due to their concern about religious proscriptions against killing a fellow Jew. At one point, rumors circulated on the West Bank that he was not, in fact, Jewish. Robbie feared they were started by individuals who sought to remove for themselves this barrier to his elimination.
Many other West Bank settlers and their supporters would never condone such a crime. They never doubted his Jewishness. For them, the journalism produced by Friedman, who died last week in New York of a rare blood disease at age 51, was the classic work of the kind of Jew they dismiss with the epithet "self-hating": in order to avoid engaging the issues he raised.
But for others who knew him well, Robert I. Friedman was a practicing Jew. He practiced hard and indefatigably, worshipping at the shul of journalism that has drawn so many Jewish congregants with its promise of the chance to put the pursuit of truth above that of piety. And if any still doubted his yichus, Friedman’s choice of topics for tough and unblinking journalistic examination reflected his Jewish identity more deeply than most of those leading more conventionally Jewish lives.
A native of Denver who reported for the Village Voice and New York magazine, Friedman first focused on West Bank settlers and Palestinians during a trip to Israel as a young man. In the Old City, he met Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a founder of the Gush Emunim West Bank settlement movement, then at the height of his activism and eager to explain his ideas to the curious and ingenuous young aspiring journalist. Levinger who, among other things, established the Jewish enclave in Hebron, both fascinated and horrified the young Friedman; for Levinger made it clear that the core of Gush’s ideology was not just to live in the West Bank among its indigenous Arab population, but to see Israel rule over their land (and them, if they chose to stay) on behalf of a messianic Judaism that saw this as central to bringing on the long promised age of Jewish and universal redemption.
Friedman made chronicling the extreme means necessary to achieve this absolute religious end (and the manner in which it often led the way for Israeli government policy) the core of his journalistic mission. And earlier than most, Friedman saw all of this as nothing but trouble in the end for Israel.
And later, in Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, Friedman felt he met the ultimate apogee of this worldview, a man who declared unhesitatingly what it would actually take to achieve its goal: expulsion of the Arabs both from the West and Gaza, and from Israel itself, due to the demographic danger they collectively presented.
Friedman, whose Kahane biography "False Prophet" remains riveting reading today, devoted himself to the Kahane story as no one else did. But even Kahane’s strongest critics were shocked when Friedman’s investigative zeal dug up the facts of Kahane’s secret life as an agent for the FBI whose non-Jewish mistress committed suicide by jumping off a bridge after he spurned her.
It was his tough treatment of Kahane that also probably influenced attorneys for Sheik Abdul Omar Rahman to give Friedman access to the man convicted of leading the first group to plot the destruction of the World Trade Center and other New York sites. But Friedman’s commitment to follow the story wherever it led made him one of the earliest writers to warn of the much wider, more serious threat these U.S.-based fundamentalist posed. Among other scoops, Friedman revealed that the FBI had obtained hundreds of documents from the home of Said Nosair, the Palestinian fundamentalist who assassinated Kahane in 1990, and that these documents revealed his connections to this wider group and many of their plans: but that they had sat, untranslated, for years in FBI archives after Nosair’s conviction.
In the last part of his career, Friedman used the same investigative zeal to make himself the country’s premier journalistic expert on the Russian mafia. But during much of this period, he was already very ill with the exotic blood disease he contracted while investigating the lives of female slaves and prostitutes in Bombay. Despite serious threats on his life, desperate weakness and the effects of powerful drugs on his ability to concentrate for long periods, Friedman completed "Red Mafyia," today considered the basic primer on the topic.
For those who knew Friedman during this time, this last feat, in a way, mirrored the achievement of Franz Rosenzweig, who completed his most famous work, "Star of Redemption," despite being stricken with a deteriorating form of paralysis that robbed him of all movement and power of speech. Like Rosenzweig, Friedman depended mightily during this time on the aid of his wife, Chris Dugas, to fulfill his mission. And maybe, in the end, his work even embodied Rosenzweig’s theme: that God, with the help of man’s creative work in the world brings about the act of redemption. And that this is in no small part dependent on man’s striving to do good.