I understand why universities boast about their most famous graduates. But should a university boast about a graduate who has claimed that members of US Congress are “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby?”
Brandeis University, where my daughter Alisa was a student when she was murdered in a suicide bombing in Israel in 1995 and where another one of my daughters graduated a few years later, recently took out a two-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times headlined “University Quotas Were a Polite Way of Telling Jews Where They Could Go.” The ad recalled the rise of antisemitism in the United States in the 1940s — which led to the founding of Brandeis — as well as “the dramatic rise in antisemitism” in recent years.
It then proceeded to list a handful of its most famous graduates — and one, ironically, is a newspaper columnist whose writings have, on occasion, echoed some of the most notorious themes in contemporary antisemitism.
I am referring to longtime New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
To be clear, I am not referring to Friedman’s incessant criticism of Israeli government policies, going back to the 1970s (when he was a student at Brandeis), and which he aimed at Labor and Likud governments alike. Yitzhak Rabin was the first prime minister of Israel whom Friedman publicly chastised, back in 1974. But that was perfectly legitimate.
And I am not referring to times when Friedman resorted to simple pettiness or ugly name-calling. For example, in his 1989 book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” he derided Israel as “Yad Vashem with an Air Force.” (That was during the years of a Labor-Likud coalition government, by the way.)
Rather, I am referring to the times when Friedman’s legitimate criticism took a dark turn and crossed the line into something else entirely.
In 2004, he wrote in the New York Times that Israel “had George Bush under house arrest in the Oval Office.” (Feb. 5, 2004)
In 2011, Friedman wrote that the standing ovations Israel’s prime minister received in Congress were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” (Dec. 13, 2011)
And in 2013, Friedman asserted in his column that “many American lawmakers [will] do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.” (Nov. 19, 2013)
The idea of the “Israel lobby” and the Israeli government paying and controlling Congress has been condemned by Jewish groups across the board as antisemitism.
When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) made her infamous “all about the Benjamins” statement — something extremely similar to Friedman’s “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” statement — Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, responded:
“Words matter. At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the US and abroad, Rep. Omar is promoting the ugly, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews have an outsized influence over politics. The notion that wealthy Jews are controlling the government is a longstanding anti-Semitic trope and one of the pillars of modern anti-Semitism, a retread of ideas spread by bigots from David Duke to Louis Farrakhan.”
And when Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) claimed that Jewish members of Congress and other congressional friends of Israel “forgot what country they represent,” the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, called Tlaib’s statement “antisemitic.”
What the ADL said about Omar’s statement and what the Conference of Presidents said about Tlaib’s statement apply precisely to what Friedman has written — repeatedly — about “the Israel lobby.”
I understand why Brandeis boasts about its best-known alumni. That makes sense. It makes the university look good. But when an alum is known for raving about Jews controlling Congress — well, that is not the kind of person about whom you want to be boasting.
It doesn’t make the university look good at all.