New York Sun Hits Tom Friedman Distortions

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has longed displayed his animus toward Israelis whose opinions differ from his, but on Sunday, May 16, 2004, he affronted many New York Times readers with an absurd comparison of Jewish settlers in Israel to the violently radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and his Mahdi army. Friedman began his column:

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 God. The big question in both Iraq and Israel today is also similar: Will the silent majorities in both countries finally turn against these extremist minorities to save their future?

In an equally distorted column on Thursday, May 13, Friedman accused U.S. President Bush of double standards in condemning Arafat but never lifting a finger or uttering a word against Israel’s West Bank settlements.

While many readers wrote to express their outrage at Friedman’s invective, a May 18, 2004 editorial in the New York Sun identified in detail Friedman’s outright factual errors. The Sun editorial documents numerous occasions on which Bush pressed Israel for action on settlements and he even rescinded almost 300 million dollars of American-backed loan guarantees for Israel as a penalty for illegal construction in the West Bank.

The Sun similarly points out Friedman’s error in labelling settlements illegal. There is no international law or American law that prohibits Israel from building settlements.

In his eagerness to tar those whose views run counter to his, Friedman has produced a sloppy, inaccurate column. The New York Times‘ editorial page editor, Gail Collins, has acknowledged that even pundits are required to be factually accurate. And if one of them makes an error, he or she is expected to promptly correct it in the column. The New York Times should now insist that Friedman correct his many errors.

The New York Sun editorial is below:

New York Sun
May 18. 2004

Friedman’s Folly

On a day when the wires are moving photographs of mounted Israeli police forcibly ejecting Israeli settlers, our thoughts turn to the foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, Thos. Friedman. The Israeli democracy is making its political calculations, but what can account for Mr. Friedman’s latest campaign against Jews who live where they aren’t wanted? And against President Bush, to boot. “Why did the administration always–rightly–bash Yasir Arafat, but never lift a finger or utter a word to stop Ariel Sharon’s massive building of illegal settlements in the West Bank?” Mr. Friedman wrote Thursday. “Because while that might have earned America credibility in the Middle East, it might have cost the Bush campaign Jewish votes in Florida.”

On Sunday, Mr. Friedman followed with a column claiming that “the extremist Jewish settlers in Israel” have “more in common” with “the Shiite extremist leader Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army” than your might 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 God,” Mr. Friedman wrote.

It’s journalistically inaccurate, even for a pundit, to assert that the Bush administration “never” lifted a finger or uttered “a word” about Israel’s West Bank settlements. Here’s Mr. Bush in an April 14, 2004, statement on “Israel’s obligations”: “The Government of Israel is committed to take additional steps on the West Bank, including progress toward a freeze on settlement activity.” Here’s Mr. Bush on July 25, 2003: “I’ve constantly spoken out about the end of settlemnents I have done so consistently.”

Here’s Mr. Bush at Aqaba, Jordan, on June 4, 2003: “As I said yesterday, the issue of settlements must be addressed for peace to be achieved.” At Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on June 3, 2003: “Israel must deal with the settlements.” At Columbia, S.C., on May 9, 2003: “as progress is made toward peace, Israel must stop settlement activity in the occupied territories.” At the White House on march 14, 2003: “As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end.”

Here’s Mr. Bush in his June 24, 2002, policy address: “Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop.” The “Road Map” to Middle East peace that America, under President Bush, sponsored and got Israel to accept, albeit with reservations, states that the government of Israel “immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001,” and “freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements.)”

Lest it be said that this is all mere rhetoric, consider a news article in Mr. Friedman’s own newspaper on November 26, 2003. It began, “The Bush administration, in a rare rebuke to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has decided to rescind $289.5 million in American-backed loan guarantees for Israel as a punishment for illegal construction activities in the West Bank.”

It may be that Mr. Friedman thinks that tougher economic or military sanctions would have been appropriate while the Jewish state was in the middle of fighting off a terrorist onslaught. Maybe he thinks Mr. Bush should have criticized Israel 30 times instead of seven. But it’s not playing straight to claim that the Bush administration never lifted a finger or uttered a word about the settlements.

Massive Increase?
Date       West Bank Israelis Prime Minister
Dec. 31, ’93       111,600 Rabin
Dec. 31, ’94       122,700 Rabin
Dec. 31, ’95       133,200 Peres
Dec. 31, ’96       144,500 Netanyahu
Dec. 31, ’97       154.400 Netanyahu
Dec. 31, ’98       166,100 Netanyahu
Dec. 31, ’99       177,500 Barak
Dec. 31, ’00       191,600 Barak
Dec. 31, ’01       201,300 Sharon
Dec. 31, ’02     &nb sp; 212,900 Sharon


Mr. Friedman’s inaccuracies run deeper than misstating the record of the administration. He refers to Mr. Sharon’s “massive building” in the West Bank. Since 1993, the number of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria has grown by between 11,000 and 14,000 a year, no matter who is prime minister of Israel, as indicated by the adjacent chart, based on data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. It’s hard to construe an increase of some tens of thousands of Jews amid millions of Arabs as a “massive” building campaign.

Mr. Friedman mocks the settlers as having “certain disdain for man-made laws, as opposed to those from God.” Then he claims the settlements are “illegal.” Such building, however, is illegal under neither international, American, nor Israeli law. If it were illegal, it’d be reason to question the law. We’d have disdain, too, for a law that said a Jew, on account of his religion, has no right to live in a place – like Hebron – where Jews have lived for thousands of years.

Nor is there any logical comparison between the Jewish settlers in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza and Moktada al-Sadr. Most of Israeli settlers are willing to live in peace with the Arabs. There’s no sign that the Mahdi Army in Iraq is willing to live in peace with Americans or Jews or even with Iraqi Muslims who prize freedom and democracy. Mr. Friedman’s penchant for blaming the Jewish victims of Palestinian Arab violence waxes and wanes. It may be waxing again, but it’s as inaccurate as ever.  

© New York Sun


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