New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said this week that efforts to prevent him from addressing an Anti-Defamation League function were “not about my views, but whether certain elements can tell us what to think and who has the right to talk.”
“I can take care of myself,” Friedman told the 1,500 ADL supporters attending Sunday’s dinner here. “But what about you? Your Jewish newspaper? Your organization?”
Friedman’s appearance came after a two-week fracas, marked by harsh exchanges between two national Jewish organizations, before escalating to involve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
The controversy surrounding the Jewish columnist, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his Middle East reporting, began when the ADL invited Friedman to be the keynote speaker at its regional dinner in Los Angeles.
The invitation drew sharp criticism from Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, who accused Friedman of a long record of anti-Israel statements. Klein asked the ADL to cancel the appearance.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, rejected the request and upbraided Klein.
Eventually, each of the two leaders asked the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to censure the other.
The controversy went international when Netanyahu’s communications aide, David Bar-Illan, joined the fray by telling a reporter that Friedman was an “anti- Zionist” and should not be given a platform by an American pro-Israel organization.
Bar-Illan’s statement drew immediate criticism in the Israeli media and apparently from his boss as well.
The result was that Bar-Illan, who as editor of the Jerusalem Post had frequently criticized Friedman, called the journalist. It was the first time the two men had ever talked directly.
Bar-Illan said that in labeling Friedman an anti-Zionist and suggesting that his ADL speech be canceled, he had spoken as a private person, not as Netanyahu’s close adviser.
The prime minister, he added, did not feel that “the Israeli government has a right to express an opinion about such matters.”
Friedman, in turn, insisted that Bar-Illan put the statement into writing, on the stationery of the Prime Minister’s Office, and send it to the ADL and to The Forward, the newspaper that had first reported Bar-Illan’s criticism.
Bar-Illan sent the letter but did not apologize to Friedman for the original attack.
Addressing Sunday’s dinner, Friedman praised Netanyahu’s intervention as “the decent thing to do” and that he accepted the prime minister’s “complete disassociation from attempts to shut down this dinner.”
Friedman praised the ADL for resisting the pressure to cancel his appearance.
“I am thankful that ADL fought this with all the vigor that it fights intolerance,” he said. “I will gladly get into the trenches with ADL. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Abe Foxman and David Lehrer,” the ADL regional director in Los Angeles.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.