Cult of Personality

    As we embark on another election campaign that is certain to produce another uncertain outcome, it might be helpful to ponder how we reached this stage in our politics. And it is far deeper than pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi, the reason de jour and probably pour le futur.

    Consider this fascinating bit of political trivia. From 1948 through 1992, the ruling party in Israel’s governments (i.e., the party of the prime minister) always had at least 40 seats in the Knesset (reaching a high of 56 mandates with Golda Meir in 1969). But since 1996, the ruling party has never had 40 seats or more. That is a huge difference and reflects an enormous change in government, and its functionality and stability. In other words, the political situation is so unstable because there is a plethora of small parties. There always were small parties – many did not cross the threshold – but there were also big parties. For the last 25 years, without any big parties, there is instability, turmoil and even chaos built into the system.

     How did this come about? It is because our political system and its participating voters have moved from the world of ideas and values into the cult of the personality.   

     At a recent talk in the United States, I challenged my audience to deduce where I live. “In my country,” I said, “the leader of the right-wing party is immensely popular among his supporters and fanatically unpopular among his detractors. There is no middle ground. This leader is a punching bag for the leftist media and a relentless target of the legal establishment. When he was in power, the government was polarized. When he is out of power, the government and the electoral system are polarized. Many people who have worked for him hate him with a passion and have turned on him with a vengeance. Others swear never to work for him. Still, his allies are numerous and fiercely loyal and so he has a hold on the electoral system. His supporters are fervent, and would do anything for him, legal or otherwise. He has immense national pride, believes in strength, is conservative with traditional values, yet has been married several times and his personal relationships are challenging, to say the least. His party is stagnant until his future plans are resolved. He has been accused of crimes and of cutting ethical corners and his supporters deride those prosecutions as political witch hunts. So, where do I live to have such a leader?”

     From that perspective, the similarities between Israel and the United States are uncanny. Both countries live under a foreboding cloud or glorious sunshine, depending on one’s politics and the leader of the moment. Both countries political systems are paralyzed. That of the United States is in a slightly better state than Israel’s because at least in America there are regular elections. Israel is in a permanent state of turbulence and disorder because elections are irregular. Not since 1988 has a scheduled election in Israel occurred. But both Trump and Netanyahu, different in so many ways and alike in so many ways, hover over the electoral map like a Colossus. How did that happen? It can’t be a coincidence. It is that something has changed in both countries.

      As the political scientist Gene Healey noted in his book, “The Cult of the Presidency,” the American presidency has evolved in unanticipated ways. The founders feared a national leader who was too powerful, so quadrennial elections and the Electoral College (and impeachment) were checks against presidential overreach. For well over a century, the president was perceived as a mere administrator. Skip past the founders, and from Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt – more than six decades – the only memorable president was Abraham Lincoln, and he was routinely accused of overstepping his authority.   

     Teddy Roosevelt enlarged the position and its role (creating the “bully pulpit”) but it was Woodrow Wilson who gave it its imperial quality. The president who leads (domestically and globally), and seeks power and not just influence. The modern president is responsible for the nation’s soul, curbing inflation, bringing down prices, creating jobs, spending money, defining the culture, and infusing the nation with his personality.

      Until the 20th century, it was considered unseemly for a president to even campaign for the office. Subordinates spread his message. While William McKinley broke one barrier by delivering speeches from his front porch, Wilson began the tradition of frontal campaigning and directly asking for votes. In due course, candidates began to be marketed like cereal and soap and their images polished for prime time. Candidates, allegedly, appealed to voters if they could play the saxophone, and voters presumably wanted a president with whom they would be comfortable drinking beer. That has led to the modern era in which candidates are celebrities, and quickly become media stars or villains. With the process shallow and regularly becoming shallower, presidents are bound to disappoint and usually do. The presidency has become a cult of personality; ideas and policies are secondary concerns.

     Israel has traveled down this same path in a much shorter period of time. For example, neither Ben Gurion nor Menachem Begin had this same cultish following. Ben Gurion stepped down as prime minister in 1963 and hand-picked Levi Eshkol as his successor. When the two had a bitter falling out, Ben Gurion left his party and formed a new one, Rafi, taking with him eight disgruntled Labor MK’s. In the 1965 election, Labor with Eshkol and without Ben Gurion won 45 seats – three more than Ben Gurion’s Mapai had won in 1961. His Rafi party won only 10 seats and did not have a long shelf life in Israeli politics. In other words, the people who voted for Labor voted for Labor, not for Ben Gurion. It was the last time he ran for office.

    Similarly, Begin languished in opposition with a very small but devoted party until Herut merged with other parties and formed a configuration called Gachal that won 26 seats in 1965, his best showing yet. No one was more beloved by his supporters and more despised by his adversaries than Begin but he had an undersized following until his party merged in 1972 with several other parties to form Likud. That party was formed by Ariel Sharon, and it was Sharon who, among other transgressions, established the cult of personality in Israeli political life.

     Until Sharon, Israeli leaders were politicians and members of parties, and party strength and solidarity were the critical factors in elections. Sharon was the first prime minister to leave his party and start a new one – Kadima. He was basically saying – vote not for the party, just vote for me. The party stands for nothing but me. Hence, the surfeit of Israeli political party names that are meaningless. Kadima…Forward? No thought at all was given to the name of Tzipi Livni’s short-lived party – Hatenuah…The Movement? And now our ruling party is Yesh Atid…“There is a Future.” We certainly hope so. Yamin became Yamina and I was hoping this time for Yaminist, but alas it was not to be, at least not in this round.

     The party names don’t matter because the parties don’t matter. Naftali Bennett, now on temporary hiatus from political life, ran through three or four party names. The point was to encourage people to vote for him, as it is to vote for Yair Lapid, or Avigdor Lieberman, or Benny Gantz, or Aryeh Deri. It’s not the party, it’s the person. Often, it is not even discernible what the party stands for (except for those that are extremely parochial and intend only to further the narrow interests of their base) or how it differs from any other party (the plight of the Likud offshoots, defining themselves only as antagonists to the current Likud leader, as well the Religious Zionist and Otzmah Yehudit parties that agree on everything). And oddly, unlike the big parties Likud and Labor (which once was a big party), the small parties never have primaries. They are controlled by the leader. He who doesn’t like it can leave. And if the leader would ever lose popularity, he would just go out and start another party. Most of the current parties are vanity projects.

     Politics has become a nasty trade and campaigns exercises in humiliation because the cult of personality demands unfailing allegiance. And, let it be said, it is difficult to let go and for politicians to bow out gracefully (and permanently). The Gemara (Menachot 109b) quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiah who reluctantly became the Nasi during the Second Temple era: “Initially, if someone said to me: Ascend (become Nasi), I would tie him up and put him in front of a lion [out of anger for his suggestion]. Now that I am the Nasi if someone told me to leave

the position, I would throw a kettle of boiling water at him.” He grew to like the position. And so

politics has become the art of throwing a boiling kettle at your opponent without getting scalded yourself.

     The cult of personality has had the effect of exaggerating the virtues and peccadilloes of our leaders. Until Nixon, no president was investigated for any appreciable length of time. Now,  every word and deed is scrutinized, and in Israel, we are witness to endless prosecutions of disfavored politicians that continue until something sticks, even momentarily, and which are widely perceived as politically motivated. These practices have become frighteningly normal.

     Policies don’t matter as much as personalities. Netanyahu was for the expulsion from Gush Katif and then against it, for a Palestinian state and then against it. And he is not the only such zigzagging politician. But he knows, as the others do, that people are voting for him, personally, come what may and whatever he might do.
     We must return to being a people and an electorate of ideas, not personalities. We should never be so charmed by one individual that we throw away our cherished beliefs and principles. We should never be so revolted by one person that we throw away our cherished beliefs and principles in the other direction and latch on to his or her opponent, just because… and regardless of what they will say or do.

     The good news is that, as frustrating as it seems, this indecision is the way it is supposed to be. It is what makes Moshiach stand out – a leader who is moral and unifying and even unimaginable to the generation that welcomes him, who sees himself only as an agent of God. He will be the leader who unites, inspires and exalts his generation. Until that day, may it come soon, we should vote based on ideas and values, and thus better secure our present and prepare for that glorious future.

I Denounce

Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Jewish movement, has demanded that “ultra-Orthodox Jews” denounce the recent attack at the egalitarian prayer site at the Kotel by young hooligans dressed in “ultra-Orthodox” garb. I speak for no one but myself but I denounce, condemn and repudiate those attacks that included harassment, destruction of prayer books and the like. I don’t know who the attackers were, from where they came or who instigated them (if anyone). My denunciation is unequivocal.

     Yet, it cannot rest there. I noticed that amid the plethora of Reform Jewish fulminations against the US Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe. v. Wade, which sent the determination of the legality of abortion back to the state legislatures, I do not recall hearing of even one Reform Jewish criticism of the violent attacks on Christian pro-life clinics in America nor any censure of the relentless, illegal and dangerous harassment of the Supreme Court justices. Call this selective outrage. Well, now you know what happens when people feel that their sacred institutions are trampled upon, in Reform’s case, abortion, and in our case, the Kotel.

     It is possible to unequivocally condemn the assault at the Kotel and still recognize the Reform provocation that fomented the assault. It is absolutely true that even vulgar provocations are no excuse to lose control and commit despicable acts of violence against property and harassment against people. Torah Jews, if that is who they were, should know better. And there is a long history of provocations from the non-Orthodox including those of the Women of the Wall, who have long violated halacha, Israeli law, and even common decency (smuggling a Torah under someone’s dress) with their monthly antics, and thereby disturbed the prayers of thousands of faithful women coming to this hallowed site. Certainly, the provocations of these adult women should be held to a higher standard than the immature, senseless and wrong actions of a bunch of teenagers. The pain caused to religious Jews is real and is not going away, even as the criticism of the Reformers is wrapped in waves of sanctimoniousness.

       Here is the bottom line. We love you, Reform Jews, but we despise the qualifier that you have placed before “Jews.” We are not angry but sad, sad at the destruction you have wrought to Jewish life, and sad at the sheer inability to recognize the harm you have already caused and persist in causing. You are asking – sometimes demanding – for modifications that we cannot grant. Here are some examples.

 You are asking us to rewrite the definition of Jewishness. We love you all, but even you, Rick Jacobs, once conceded that a majority of “Reform” Jews are no longer Jews according to Jewish law. You have taken an identity that is God-given and emptied it of meaning and import. This action, born of the necessity of keeping members affiliated due to the astronomical rate of intermarriage in your movement, has grievously injured Jewish unity and peoplehood. Rather than admit this historic error, you double down, and pretend that you are retaining Jews instead of repelling them. But the definition of Jewishness is not changing. It is immutable.

 You are asking us to rewrite the Torah. We love you, but we resent your grievances against our God-given Torah, if you even believe that God gave us the Torah. The Torah is “perfect” (Psalms 19:8) but you reject that foundational principle of Judaism. You have renounced the core of Torah and have jettisoned those practices that mark our uniqueness, our “wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations (Devarim 4:6). In so doing, you have stripped Judaism of its majesty and reduced it to a series of platitudes. You interpret Judaism through the prism of Western values that you deem superior. In the United States, you have been labeled with justification “the Democratic party with holidays.” Your Torah bears a faint resemblance to the Torah. But we are not reforming the Torah in order to accommodate your value system. Our Torah is immutable.

 You are asking us to ignore the desecration of our holy places. St. Peter’s Square does not contain a Protestant church, just like Mecca does not offer a variety of mosques to service every Muslim denomination. They possess self-respect. But you insist after many decades of acquiescence in changing the status quo at the Kotel. In the shadow of the holiest site in Judaism – the mountain that housed two Temples, for whose rebuilding you do not pray – you demand that your reformed service, with its mixed seating, singing and dancing, all done without a modicum of modesty, be not just tolerated but even celebrated. At the very place from which we derived the necessity of gender separation during prayer, you brazenly clamor for worshipping in your own style and then wonder why that should be provocative. But we are not denuding the Kotel of its sanctity or transforming it into some national, historic tourist site devoid of holiness in order to satisfy your needs.

     It is two minutes to midnight. You are close to causing an irreparable schism in Jewish life. Insiders know that the Reform movement’s detachment from Israel results not from a shift in values (maybe that too) but primarily from a shift in demographics. So many “Reform” Jews are no longer Jews that it is unsurprising that support for Israel has waned. We know as well that these provocations are necessary to generate interest and fund-raising.

      We are pained by your historic error and want nothing more than your return. We perceive you as desecrating our Torah, our peoplehood, and now our holy places. One sin begets another. Your rejection of Torah and mitzvot necessitated a redefinition of Jewishness that has now eventuated in a demand for a place at the Kotel, remnant of the Holy Temple, to appease your egalitarian impulses that are antithetical to the Torah. We do not want to witness your celebration of intermarriages at the Kotel on Tish’a B’Av, but you know that will invariably occur.

      These words are written in genuine sorrow and anguish. You can still save the remnant of your followers. And I can denounce the assault on you and the sanctity of the Kotel and denounce as well your provocation that induced it.  Focusing on the shameful actions of a group of unruly teenagers is deflecting from the real issues that involve the shameful actions of unruly adults who should know better.  It is great PR within the echo chamber and good for fund-raising but it is no way to bring Jews together in these perilous times. Let us all reflect on what is wrong, and what can be rectified, and salvage the honor of the Torah, the Kotel, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel.

A Dose of Reality

      What is celebrated as “Pride” Month should not be allowed to pass without injecting a small dose of reality into the bacchanalia. Despite the merriment, the relentless adoration of the media, the parades and the provocations, the conduct of the “Pride” community remains forbidden according to the Torah, defies traditional norms that have sustained civilization since antiquity and threatens to undermine the family, which is the bedrock of civil society.

Let us give credit where credit is due. In the most successful marketing campaign in history, within a span of just a few decades, advocates went from a situation in which their preferred private conduct was a crime to where same sex marriage is legal in much of the world. What began as a quest for equality and tolerance has metamorphosed into a vehement demand for the silencing of all critics, a denial of their rights and liberties, and ongoing attempts to cancel and destroy them. In the United States, from a request two decades ago that same sex partners be granted visitation rights in hospitals, we have now reached the stage in which seemingly intelligent people who possess advanced academic degrees and prestigious titles become tongue-tied and incoherent when asked to define the nature of a woman. That is a marketing success.

     It was engendered first by co-opting language. Traditionalists were automatically deemed “phobic,” as if our commitment to moral norms makes us “afraid” of those who do not share those commitments. That is preposterous. Delightful words like “gay” or “pride,” and stirring ideas like “tolerance” and “freedom” were kidnapped by advocates for an agenda long rejected as inimical to society. Take, for example, the incomprehensible use of the term “pride.” Pride, as I understand it, is an internal feeling generated by a sense of accomplishment or achievement.  As the dictionary would have it, it is the “pleasure or satisfaction taken in something done by or belonging to oneself or believed to reflect credit upon oneself.” One feels pride in completing the Daf Yomi, winning the Nobel Prize or the World Series, or finding the cure for cancer. These are considerations that are external to the self.

     It is true that I take pride in being a Jew, in the sense that I feel blessed to be part of a nation divinely chosen to represent God’s morality on earth (however flawed we might be in executing that task) and entrusted with the Torah and the land of Israel to achieve that goal. But do I feel pride in being a tall, white, green-eyed male heterosexual? That would be absurd. I did nothing to attain any of that. A desire to copulate with the same sex is not an accomplishment – for that matter, nor is the same desire towards the opposite sex an accomplishment. Yet, we are incessantly lectured that this condition is innate, whether or not that is true. If so, what is the attainment that should evoke this pride? It is both linguistically and psychologically misplaced – but it is effective.

     The campaign has also been successful because it is always on the offensive.  Most rabbis – especially in America – have been intimidated into silence stemming from fear and compassion (in varying degrees for each person). People are threatened, jobs are lost, personal attacks are normative, and social media campaigns are ruthless and unyielding. They only cease when good people just ignore them. For many people, it is not worth the effort to address the issue.  “Pride” advocates have become intolerant bullies who cannot even hear another view, even if that view is divine and rooted in the Torah’s morality. So good, moral people are forced to be silent, swallow their opinions in the public domain, and try to salvage some semblance of morality in their private lives and families. There are three problems with this.

     Firstly, the Torah becomes mangled and distorted. Yeshivot today, especially in the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist worlds, struggle with moral instruction on what is a fundamental Torah concern. They are coerced into avoiding or tap-dancing around the issue. Rebbeim are instructed to eschew talking about it for fear of offending someone, somewhere. Profiles in courage, it is not.

     Secondly, the effect on the family is devastating. Families dealing with this issue need compassion and support; what they don’t need is to be lied to or to coerce others to join in their charade. It is increasingly common in the Modern Orthodox world to invite friends and relatives to same-sex weddings, essentially forcing others to violate Torah principles in order to make the parents feel better about their situation. That is unequivocally wrong. Modern Orthodoxy is especially under siege today – and fighting for its viability – because the gap between “modern” and “Orthodoxy” is a yawning chasm that cannot be navigated. It wasn’t like that fifty, not even twenty, years ago. It is like that today. Within the movement, it is undeniable that for a variety of reasons, when these challenges arise, “modern” always trumps “orthodoxy.”

     Thirdly, advocates have intimidated the legal and political establishments in banning (in many jurisdictions) what is intentionally and misleadingly called “conversion therapy.” Same sex attraction has become the only psychological concern on planet earth that cannot be dealt with therapeutically. It was done by highlighting rare cases of bizarre therapies – more a problem of the therapist than the therapy – and completely vitiates behavioral modification therapy which has been known to work for same-sex attraction as for other maladies. It is peculiar, indeed it is actually evil, to tell a person who wants help in overcoming a particular proclivity that the law prohibits any change. Even assuming that it doesn’t always work and that no one should be forced to undergo such therapy, it is immoral to tell people that they cannot change or better their lives if they so desire. It is pure malevolence to tell those individuals that they are not allowed to change their orientations – but encouraging young children to mutilate their bodies to change their sexes is somehow reasonable, even laudable. It is an insane, dangerous and harmful world.

     There is a playbook that advocates follow in order to stifle dissenting opinions. It has several elements. First, traditionalists are told that their objections will “kill people” and “instigate violence.” Cause and effect are never demonstrated. Obviously, any such violence, however limited, is condemnable. But in today’s cruel world, whites, blacks, Hispanics, heterosexuals, Jews, Christians, Muslims, doctors, lawyers and accountants, are all victims of violence. Homosexuals have no monopoly on victimhood. There is no inherent or rational reason why opposition to the “pride” agenda should provoke violence. This is fear-mongering, promoted by provocative bullies. (It is ironic that much thought went into changing the route of the Yerushalayim flag march so as not to provoke the Arabs, while no thought went into changing the route of the “pride” parade – a blatant provocation to the sensibilities of the majority religious population in the Holy City.)

    Second, traditionalists are told that their objections will lead to suicides, which is all the more reason why therapy is warranted for those who live in this predicament. Ironically, a recent Heritage Foundation showed that there is a much higher suicide rate among teens who are medically transitioning than among those who struggle with sexual confusion but are not medically transitioning. 

    Third, traditionalists are called names – “bigot” or “hate-monger” being the most common epithets. Traditionalists are lectured that they are being cruel, insensitive and intolerant. These lectures are proffered by those who, without even the slightest bit of self-awareness, have become cruel, insensitive and intolerant to those who disagree with them. “Live and let live” has become “Live and I will force you to agree with me or you shall die.” Name-calling, as always, is a poor substitute for reasoned argument but it makes for good placards and sound bites. Good people who hear the name-calling should yawn and tune out. it is meant to intimidate, not to persuade.

      Fourth, traditionalists are told that they cannot “impose their morality” on others. Indeed, public coercion is lamentable and ineffective. But should the bullies have the privilege of imposing their immorality on others? Who would have thought that a quest for “equality” and “freedom” would become a macabre circus in which dissenting views are suppressed, dissenters are persecuted and business people – photographers, bakers, florists, caterers, hall owners and others – would be coerced into violating their own religious beliefs or be sued into submission. 

     The United States Supreme Court has, to date, upheld the religious liberties of dissenters, at least in some limited cases but as yet without a clear forceful statement of individual rights. Israel lags behind in protecting religious freedom.  A catering hall owner in Beersheva who refused to host a same sex wedding paid a settlement of 80,000 NIS. The Rav of the Technion was assailed for criticizing the decadence of a drag party.  An Israeli organization that supports the traditional family is basically construed as a hate group. A lower court in New York City ordered Yeshiva University to open a “pride” club, as its denial violated the City’s human rights law and ruling that YU is not a “religious institution.” YU will appeal, and even if they lose in the State’s appellate courts, a federal lawsuit is warranted. The  US Supreme Court has become the leading legal defenders of religious liberty. Nevertheless, the well funded bullies are still winning, religious freedom remains under attack and traditionalists are castigated and canceled. They are pilloried on social media and their employers are harassed into firing them. Advocates must learn to accept that people are entitled to disagree with them on moral and religious grounds, and they should be tolerant of that.

     Finally, the playbook suggests that traditionalists be badgered that if the “pride” agenda is not accepted, then the advocates will go “off the derech.” They will leave Orthodoxy. If parents do not celebrate their marriages, and invite their friends, they will “cut off all relations.” There is certainly merit to the argument that even if they sin in this area, they should still try to perform all the other mitzvot. Yet, we must distinguish between people who succumb to sin – all of us – and people who celebrate sin and demand others celebrate with them. That is no longer a personal violation but a rejection of the system. In a real sense, they have already rejected Orthodoxy, tradition, the Torah and their families. Besides, blackmail is unbecoming, and a moral argument that is founded on blackmail is both hollow and unappealing.

     What is the way forward?  Traditional Jews are not abandoning or reforming the Torah.  The pride agenda should be countered, with love and joy. We should declare May or July to be “Traditional Family Month” with parades and floats, and an orange flag that is emblazoned with the blue images of father and mother, son and daughter. We should speak –yes, with pride – about the delights of the traditional family, the core of the Jewish home and the Jewish state.  We should acknowledge that this movement is a driving force of the execrable modern craving to publicize even the most private aspects of one’s life; that alone must be reversed in all its dimensions. We should be unafraid to articulate the values of the Torah, without any rancor, hatred, mockery or condescension but with an abundance of love and compassion. My guess is that most people feel sorry for those suffering in this plight rather than feel any rage or antagonism.

     And we should be candid and forthright. Sometimes the truth can sound insensitive, which doesn’t make it any less true. The Torah is not changing. Homosexual conduct is and will remain forbidden, and no number of parades or floats will change that. Traditionalists will not celebrate it, which doesn’t mean they love their children any less.  Those who face challenges in this area and neither succumb or celebrate are Jewish heroes.  Rabbis who unabashedly preach the Torah morality should be extolled and defended. The Torah was given to us, and the Jewish state exists, not to parrot the debauched morals of the nations but to be a beacon of light as to what is best for mankind. That is why the Torah is always countercultural, in every generation.
Most people would be content with live and let live, with keeping private conduct private, and with restoring some semblance of decency and propriety in public life. Tolerance is a two-way street. Advocates must abandon the power high that convinces them they are entitled to tell people what they are allowed feel, think,  say, do and legislate.  No,  thank you! For that, good Jews have the Torah. And that is another dose of reality whose acceptance by all would calm these turbulent waters and make us all better people.

A Man of Consequence

A Man of Consequence

     One thought kept occurring to me as I read and enjoyed David Friedman’s account (“Sledgehammer”) of his years as the United States Ambassador to Israel: Friedman is arguably the most consequential ambassador that the US has ever had to any country in its history. There have been famous ambassadors, usually because they were celebrities appointed to these positions for political reasons having no diplomatic backgrounds at all, but none were consequential. George F. Kennan, anonymously authored the famous “Long Telegram” that created the containment policy that shaped US-Soviet relations for decades and was later celebrated for it, but that was several years before he became US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Most ambassadors just execute the policy they are given and try to improve trade, cultural or diplomatic relations, or put out fires, between the two countries.

     David Friedman stands alone as the most consequential ambassador in American history. That is because he not only shaped US foreign policy to Israel but he helped execute a sharp reversal of America’s policy in ways that benefited the United States, Israel and the Middle East. In retrospect of even just a few years, those were amazing achievements, which to be sure, he credits President Trump, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and others who worked on it. But as ambassador he was the driving force.

     Under Friedman’s watch, gone were the days when the State Department would lament “violence on both sides” when Israel was the victim of Arab terror and responded forcefully or preempted such attacks. Gone were the days when the Palestinians received generous American funding regardless of their nefarious conduct, duplicity, support for terror, subsidizing terrorists, and inimicality to American interests or values. Gone were the days when Palestinians were given a veto over US foreign policy initiatives with its friend Israel or its allies in the region. Gone were the days when the US feared the reaction of the “Arab street” – meaning, the most violent actors in the region, even if it was not really the “Arab street” – if America recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital city, moved its embassy there, recognized the Golan Heights, unequivocally supported Israel’s right of self defense, closed down the PLO mission in the US and its consulate in Yerushalayim, isolated the PA diplomatically, dampened the ardor for the two-state illusion, etc. Gone were the days when Israel could not enter into agreements with other Arab countries with which it has shared interests and no basis for hostility, all because the Palestinians did not like it.

     Those were sea changes in American foreign policy, and none came easy. The proof is the ferocious resistance each of these changes ignited in the State Department, whose policy towards Israel remained essentially unchanged for a half century trapped as it was in circular reasoning, illogic, assertions without evidence, wishful thinking and occasionally overt hostility to the Jewish national home. Many presidents have learned over the years that the “striped-pants set” (as Truman, who also suffered this, derisively termed them) in the State Department conducted their own foreign policy whether or not it coincided with that of the President.

     Friedman made clear to the first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson who embraced the traditional State mindset, that Friedman responds to the President and executes his wishes, not those of State. It not only made for contentious exchanges with State before Mike Pompeo became the Secretary and wholeheartedly endorsed the shift in policy, it also almost derailed his nomination. Friedman became ambassador only after winning confirmation by a razor-thin margin and enduring vicious and malevolent personal attacks from Democrats.

     Fortunately for the reader, Friedman spares none of his critics. He was accused of being a “right-wing supporter of settlements” (horrors!), and an opponent of the two-state delusion (double horrors!!). New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand challenged him privately as to the propriety of American providing “humanitarian aid” in abundance to Israel whose people “live well,” and so little money to Gaza. She apparently was unaware that the US provides zero humanitarian aid to Israel. New York’s other Senator, Chuck Schumer, the self-styled “shomer” of Israel, told Friedman he is a “pretty good guy” but could not vote to confirm him. “I’m not giving Trump the win. Sorry.”

     New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker, whom Jews gush over (like the two above) because he patronizingly tosses Hebrew phrases at them even while voting to allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons with US money, told Friedman “yihiyeh b’seder,” it will all be good – in private. When the hearings started and the cameras switched on, he attacked Friedman for all the pain he caused and for the “ugly words” he used (Friedman had castigated J Street for their opposition to Israel’s right of self-defense during one of the Gaza wars in vituperative language that invoked self-hating Jews during the Holocaust). And Booker then voted against confirmation. One Jewish congresswoman urged Friedman to promise that the US embassy would not be moved to Yerushalayim – even though she had repeatedly voted in favor of moving the embassy. Did I mention that politicians are deceitful or is that a redundancy?

     His relationship with Donald Trump went back decades; Friedman was his bankruptcy lawyer in a number of failed deals. It is fair to say that he saw Trump as sort of a lovable rogue with a history of hondling merchants and suppliers and threatening to withhold any payment after the work was done. (He doesn’t mention it but this approach failed once when Trump realized he was dealing with one vendor who was mob-related.) In an amusing anecdote, Trump’s approach also failed with Friedman when after one deal closed, Trump tried to re-negotiate the legal  fee, not realizing that Friedman (anticipating this “technique”) had already taken his fee from the money distributed at closing. Despite all that, it was clear that Trump always had Israel’s best interests in mind. It was also clear that Friedman wanted only one thing from Trump’s victory: the ambassadorship to Israel so that both countries could benefit from the planned policy changes. It worked.

     Yet, it was complicated and controversial at times. In a vignette  not related in the book, it seems that Mike Pompeo made a practice of inviting every new ambassador to his office, taking him to the big round globe near his desk, and asking the ambassador to point to the country he now represents. Invariably, the new diplomat would find the country on the globe to which he had been dispatched and point to it. And Pompeo would turn the globe, point to the United States, and say “this is the country you represent, and don’t forget that.”

      Well, Friedman was routinely accused by his enemies at State and other Arabists of representing Israel to the detriment of America. He unabashedly visited the Kotel (duchaning there – he is a kohen – at every opportunity) and Judea and Samaria. He accompanied the President to the Kotel, something which was supposed to be outlandish. The dual loyalty canard was raised.  And in one acrimonious encounter, a State staffer admonished Friedman and told him: “Don’t be so Jewish. You represent the United States of America. Tone down the Judaism in your work.” Friedman furiously lambasted him for the thought, and for using language he would never use towards any other ethnic group. Such was life in the big leagues.

     It is incontrovertible that Friedman represented America, and not Israel, but he did perceive that what was good for Israel was generally good for America. The Abraham Accords were the most prominent outcome of that notion and it is also true that America’s standing in the Middle East improved dramatically compared to what it was under Obama, and even today under Biden, when the US is again perceived as an unreliable ally.

     How consequential was David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel? He was instrumental in effecting such momentous changes in American foreign policy that even the Biden State Department is finding it nearly impossible to reverse all of them, and not for lack of trying. And it came from taking a fresh look at what had failed and not simply repeating it and what might work and nurturing it. It came from loving America and Israel, and appreciating what two essentially decent countries could accomplish working together.

    America, Israel and the world are in a better place because of it. That is a man of consequence.