Friends often commiserate with me over my miserable job. It must be terrible having to read all the attacks on Torah Jews and Judaism, they tell me. Well, yes. But there is another side of the coin to being a columnist and running a media resource organization on behalf of the Torah world.
In a world gone mad, I’m not forced to seethe alone, with no way to let out the steam. I can always write a column. In the best possible scenario that column may even be read and have an impact by those not immediately inclined to share our viewpoint. And in the worse case, I can at least give expression to the views of many others who do not have access to the media.
If Thomas Friedman writes some nonsense in The New York Times, the most the average reader can do is write a letter to The New York Times not in excess of 150 words and hope that his or her letter will be one of the 15 selected out of the more than a thousand that The New York Times receives every day. A columnist only needs to worry about meeting his deadline and not exceeding the allotted word count.
I was reminded of the plus side of being a columnist by some particularly arrant nonsense written by the aforementioned Friedman last week. Friedman, the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, is unquestionably the most overrated columnist in the world. It is not that he is never right, but even when he is right, others have always made the point better and with considerably more depth. His major gift, aside from an extensive Rollodex and an apparently unlimited expense account from the Times, is for the clever apercu. The problem with his clever vertelach, however, is that they are almost always wrong.
Last week’s column was a case in point. Here is how Friedman began: "Question: What do the Shiite extremist leader Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army have in common with the extremist Jewish settlers in Israel. Answer: More than you’d think. Both movements combine religious messianism, and a willingness to sacrifice their followers and others for absolutist visions, along with a certain disdain for man-made laws, as opposed to those from G-d."
Friedman is particularly fond of this particular analogy between religious Jews and radical Islamists. Two days after 9/11, he informed his readers that the battle is not between the West and Islam, but between fundamentalists of all religions – Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islam, and Jewish – and those whose religious beliefs are ‘progressive’ and up-to-date." An empirical examination of that particular insight would provide a good measure of the overall quality of Friedman’s thought. As I pointed out at the time ("What is a Fundamentalist?"HaModia, October 26 2001), Friedman would be hardpressed to point out any other religion besides Islam that has produced thousands eager to blow themselves to smithereens or millions more who celebrate their actions.
His more recent analogy holds up no better to scrutiny. Beyond the pejorative label "extremists" what exactly is Friedman’s criticism of the Gaza’s Jewish residents? What could be more natural and normal than not wanting to be uprooted from one’s home? Over more than three decades, and in some cases three generations, the Gaza settlers have turned barren sand dunes into highly productive agricultural enterprises, while building up communities in which they live surrounded by those who share their strong faith and commitment.
When did they show their disdain for man-made laws? Prime Minister Sharon, who after all holds office only by virtue of having headed the Likud parliamentary slate, sought Likud Party approval by referendum of his plan for Gaza withdrawal. No one forced him to take that decision. He could have simply sought cabinet approval for his initiative and then presented it to the Knesset for approval. He wisely chose not to do so because he recognized that he would face a wide-scale revolt by Likud MKs and likely Knesset defeat. He hoped to win the referendum and thereby bind Likud MKs.
True, many settlers, who had previously registered with the Likud, participated in the referendum, but they by no means constituted the majority of Likud voters. Polls taken immediately after the Sharon-Bush press conference showed the Prime Minister winning the referendum handily. That he ultimately failed to do so had little to do with the settlers having foisted any Greater Israel ideology upon the Likud, and a great deal to do with the cold-blooded murder at close-range of a pregnant woman and her four young daughters and with the prime minister’s failure to answer basic security concerns connected to the withdrawal. Among those concerns are fears that the Gaza withdrawal would be read by the Palestinians as proof that terrorism succeeds and that Gaza would become a launching pad for missile attacks on Israel.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s assurances that Israelis will be made safer by the Gaza withdrawal failed to convince Likud voters, as they convinced Friedman. Perhaps because the former know that Mofaz, who is not an MK and who holds his post only at Sharon’s sufferance is not exactly an impartial expert.
Friedman quotes the usually level-headed Ari Shavit, who writes that the 13 Israeli soldiers who fell in the last two weeks in Operation Rainbow, "are no longer the victims of extremist Islam. They are no longer the victims of Arafat’s insanity. They are the victims of the settlement enterprise. The attempt of the organized settlement movement to force on the citizens of Israel as war that is not their war. . . . "
That claim, however, is patently false. Those soldiers did not die defending Gaza settlements; they died defending Ashkelon and Ashdod from missile attack. Operation Rainbow’s goal is to prevent advanced missiles and other sophisticated weaponry from reaching Gaza via tunnels from Egypt. Prime Minister Sharon promised that Israel would maintain control of the Rafiah sector even after withdrawal from Gaza to prevent the free flow of high-powered weapons into Gaza.
The only thing about which Friedman is right is that polls show that a majority of Israelis support withdrawal from Gaza. But is he advocating plebiscitary democracy for Israel, in which every important public issue is placed before the voters in a referendum? The relevant issue is whether the prime minister can gather a majority of Knesset members for withdrawal without losing his job.
Those working against him are perfectly legitimate participants in Israel’s representative democracy. They have nothing in common with Moktada al-Sadr, who is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Shiites in Iraq, whom he is attempting to hold captive at gunpoint.
In his final paragraph, Friedman writes, "I am a firm believer that what a culture or a society deems to be shameful and illegitimate is the most important restraint on how its people behave." But the only thing shameful mentioned in his article is not the behavior of Gaza’s Jewish residents, but his baseless comparison to Islamic fanatics.
If Friedman wants to find the real messianic minority that has led the people of Israel to the point of destruction, he could point instead to the supporters of the Oslo process, who convinced themselves against all evidence and over more than a decade that the Palestinians truly want to live in peace with the Jews of Israel.