LOS ANGELES (Dec. 3)
When the Anti-Defamation League’s regional chapter hosts its annual dinner-dance here on Sunday, the usual good fellowship will be spiced by a controversy over the evening’s keynote speaker.
He is Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ well-known foreign affairs columnist, whose appearance has been sharply attacked by Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
In a letter to Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, Klein described Friedman as a man “who regularly defames Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” and asked that the journalist’s appearance be cancelled.
Klein appended a list of 13 alleged anti-Israel statements and actions by Friedman, starting with a recent Friedman observation that “all Netanyahu has done is polarize Israeli society and lead it into a dead end,” and going back to 1974, when Friedman was a student at Brandeis University.
In a sharp response to Klein, Foxman said ADL was proud to present Friedman, “a responsible, knowledgeable, and incisive commentator” of the Middle East whose “opinions are always expressed within the context of support for the State of Israel.”
Foxman upbraided Klein for his repeated personal attacks, not only on Friedman and the ADL director himself, but on U.S. diplomats Strobe Talbott and Martin Indyk, and writer Leonard Fein.
In his next move, Klein issued an “Action Alert” to ZOA leaders and “Friends of Israel Around the U.S.,” urging them to protest Friedman’s appearance to the ADL.
That did it for Foxman, who urged that Klein be expelled from the organized Jewish world.
“Mr. Klein can invite anyone he wants, but we don’t need this kind of thought police in the Jewish community,” Foxman said in an interview. “He has lowered the discourse to a new level of personal intolerance and it is time that people stood up to this kind of behavior.”
Klein characterized Foxman’s statement as “hysterical.”
Eight current and past ZOA leaders asked the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to reprimand Foxman for his statements and request an apology to Klein.
The letter charged that Foxman had violated an agreement, signed last year by most Jewish organizations, to assure “civility of debate and behavior” and refrain from “verbal violence” and demeaning characterizations” that “violate basic Jewish tenets.”
Signatories to the letter, including five past national ZOA presidents, said they found it “ironic that an organization devoted to fighting defamation is now itself engaged in defamation.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said the matter had been referred to a committee recently formed in part to arbitrate differences between member-organizations over their roles and responsibilities.
“It’s a new process but we hope to move as expeditiously as possible to review the matter and see what’s appropriate,” Hoenlein said. “We would like to see it contained rather than have it escalate further.”
Meanwhile, what might have passed as a tiff between two outspoken men of different political views, took on an international flavor when David Bar Illan, Netanyahu’s communications director and one of the prime minister’s top aides, also weighed in against Friedman.
“Friedman’s whole history is that of an anti-Zionist,” Bar-Illan said by phone from Jerusalem. “Any organization that purports to be Zionist should not give him a platform.
“His whole writing indicates a patronizing attitude toward the `natives,’” Bar- Illan said, referring to the Israelis. “It would perhaps be palatable for the ADL to present him in a debate with a pro-Zionist.”
As editor of the Jerusalem Post before joining the Netanyahu administration, Bar Illan wrote a regular column, “Eye on the Media,” which was generally highly critical of the way the foreign media reported on Israel.
Told of Bar-Illan’s remarks, Foxman responded that “it’s a sad day for Israel, when the prime minister’s spokesman issues an advisory on who is or isn’t an appropriate speaker.
“Is he ready to issue an enemy’s list? And were we wrong to give a platform to Mr. Netanyahu when he was in opposition to the Israeli government?”
In a phone interview, Friedman spoke generally off the record, indicating that he did not want to elevate some “fringe individuals” by getting into a public debate with Klein.
He said he looked forward to speaking at the ADL dinner, at which 1,500 people are expected.
Meanwhile, Klein’s attacks apparently are having some effect. Foxman said he was being deluged by an organized campaign of phone calls, faxes and e-mail opposing Friedman’s appearance.
In Los Angeles, David Lehrer, the regional ADL director, said he had received a few anti-Friedman calls “from the usual suspects.”
In addition, two full-page ads, both citing from the ZOA’s indictment of Friedman’s “anti-Zionism,” are scheduled to appear in the Dec. 6 issue of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
But according to Foxman, with few exceptions, ADL supporters on the East and West coasts appeared to back their leadership in inviting Friedman.