What Ambassador David Friedman Means for American Jews

J.J. Goldberg, Editor-at-Large, The Jewish Daily Forward

Trump's choice of ambassador to Israel is exactly what it looks like: a national interest in the changing relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state.

If the purpose of Zionism was to restore the Jewish people from victimhood to an active role in history, it has succeeded.

Three of the past five American ambassadors to Israel have been Jewish: Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer and Dan Shapiro. Friedman is the fourth.

Of the 14 envoys before Indyk, going back to Israel’s founding, none of them was Jewish. There was a time when being Jewish disqualified you from participation in managing America’s official relations with Israel, because your loyalties were suspect. Now, being Jewish is an asset.

It is a shift in American Jewry’s political-religious map, which the Friedman nomination has brought to the surface. His elevation is a sort of coming-of-age moment for an emerging stream of Orthodox Judaism that hasn’t previously stepped onto the national stage. ... Friedman is its first national office-holder.

What is this movement? It is – in supercharged form — religious devotion to the State of Israel as a harbinger of the messianic era.

One thing that unites this movement in a self-conscious way is the attachment to the institutions and leaders of its counterpart in Israel, known as Hardal. Like the American version, Hardal has moved rightward toward Haredi Orthodoxy in ever-more stringent ritual observance, while retaining Religious Zionism’s engagement in modern society.

What most defines Hardal is its radical take on Religious Zionism, seeing Israel as a divine miracle and the West Bank as sacred Jewish patrimony, which Israel must rule forever or risk divine punishment.

The movement first emerged in the 1970s as the religious ideology of the West Bank settler movement. It later spread more widely as the settler movement gained popularity. To this day, its main strongholds are in the hard-line settlements and yeshivas that dot the territory’s central ridge. The nerve centers are in Kiryat Arba, the Jewish township on the edge of Hebron, and Beit El, the biblical Bethel, 20 miles north of Jerusalem.

Most settlement yeshivas have American fundraising organizations. Known for their annual gala banquets, those organizations serve as a primary hub for the community life of the emerging American Hardal movement.

The largest is American Friends of Bet El Institutions. Its president is David Friedman.

Beit El’s yeshiva serves in some ways as a Hardal settler operations center. Under the entrepreneurial leadership of its founder and dean, Rabbi Zalman Melamed, the yeshiva created and owns the settler movement’s main media network, Arutz Sheva, also known as Israel National News. It was a pioneer in the tactic of expanding settlements by taking over nearby hilltops and creating new neighborhoods that amount to new settlements — often without government permits and on private Palestinian-owned land.

One such expansion, built by Melamed’s yeshiva to house a girls’ seminary, was the center of a decade-long legal battle, ending in 2012 when the buildings — 30 units in all — were moved under order of Israel’s Supreme Court. At the time, Melamed negotiated a deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build another 300 units as compensation. Today, claiming that Netanyahu broke the promise, the rabbi is leading the opposition to another high-profile, court-ordered evacuation at the Amona outpost. He’s also emerged as a leading rabbinic advocate of soldiers refusing orders to evacuate settlements.

Hardal’s mix-and-match combination of Haredi and Modern Orthodoxy is reflected in its name, a compound of Haredi and Mafdal (the Hebrew acronym of the old National Religious Party). The name was coined in the late 1990s, apparently as a joke: Hardal is an everyday Hebrew word meaning “mustard.” But it’s no joke: Today’s Mafdal, renamed the Jewish Home party, has become a political powerhouse under the leadership of Naftali Bennett. It’s the main coalition partner to Netanyahu’s governing Likud party, while at the same time Netanyahu’s main rival on the right.

Jewish Home has a hard-line Hardal faction that’s known as Tekuma (“Revival”). It holds three of the party’s eight Knesset seats. In effect, it’s the gadfly right flank of the right-wing partner in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.

And now, one of its main American backers of the Hardal-Tekuma settler fringe of Israeli religious politics is about to become America’s ambassador to Israel.

Post a comment

Private comment




Search form
Latest Journals
Latest comments
Monthly archive
Friend Request Form

Want to be friends with this user.