New York Times columnist Tom Friedman told The Jewish Week Tuesday that he regrets writing in his Dec. 13 column (“Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir”) that the standing ovation Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received in Congress this year “was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
“In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to,” Friedman said. “It would have helped people focus on my argument, which I stand by 100 percent.”
That argument, he said, was about the need to distinguish between American and Israeli interests at times, and to note that many American Jews “are deeply worried about where Israel is going today.”
Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is used to both criticism and praise in the Jewish community for his writings on the Mideast, which often are disapproving of Israel’s settlement policies and of the Netanyahu government. But he came under strong verbal attack from a wide swath of Jewish leaders for the Dec. 13 column. It expressed concern about political and cultural shifts in Israeli society of late, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calling the recent Russian elections fair, Jewish extremists attacking an Israeli army base last week, public buses providing segregated seating for men and women, and a series of proposed Knesset bills that critics say will weaken Israel’s democracy.
But most of the criticism of the column from Jewish leaders focused on the reference to Netanyahu’s congressional ovation being “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote in his blog that Friedman “crossed a line” with the Israel lobby statement, which he called “inaccurate and shockingly insidious,” conjuring up “the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
Friedman maintains that he has not changed in his unswerving support for the State of Israel, despite his sometimes sharp criticism of Jerusalem’s policies. He has noted that his was a lonely voice of support for Israel in the mainstream press during the Israeli army’s military campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah.
“I’m still the same person,” he said, “but I’m reflecting some deep concerns.”