The Electronic Intifada is pleased to publish this excerpt of Belén Fernández’s new book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, which is also reviewed today by David Cronin.
Thomas Friedman’s predilection for double standards favoring Israel is visible time and again, as is his predilection for calling attention to double standards not favoring Israel. When Turkey and Brazil broker a fuel swap deal with Iran in 2010 with the aim of peacefully defusing the Iranian nuclear issue, Friedman declares the maneuver to be “as ugly as it gets” and asks how two alleged democracies can embrace a “Holocaust-denying” president who “uses his army and police to crush and kill Iranian democrats.”
He never questions how the United States can embrace a nation that crushes American peace activists with bulldozers, and his own recommendation for dealing with Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions appears to be for the United States “to stop saying … publicly” that Israel will not strike Iran, and to instead follow the example of former Vice President Dick Cheney in order to “keep alive the prospect that Israel could do something crazy” – an obvious prescription for regional stability. In the same article in which he accuses Turkey and Brazil of supreme ugliness and teetering democracy for ignoring human rights violations and “violently repressed labor leaders” in Iran, meanwhile, Friedman parrots the assessment by his friend Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy, that Colombia is “one of the great democratic success stories” of Latin America. This is the same Colombia, of course, that presently enjoys the worst human rights record on the continent, and where more trade unionists have been assassinated in the past two decades than in the rest of the world combined.
As for other bouts of hypocrisy, consider Friedman’s reaction to the revelation in the late 1990s that Swiss banks are withholding the assets of Holocaust victims after having tolerated Nazi use of their services during the Second World War. Friedman declares that “some of the Swiss people’s most cherished national self-images [are] myths,” that it is necessary for the Swiss to “have an accounting with themselves – one in which they acknowledge that just because they host the Red Cross and the UN doesn’t absolve them of moral responsibilities in the world,” and that it is up to the current generation of Swiss to counteract this “moral bankruptcy” by using “some of their money … to build a Holocaust memorial in Switzerland that would teach the Swiss about their own unspeakable, and unspoken, chapter of history.”
Now consider Friedman’s analysis of the moral responsibility of the nation that, in addition to regularly targeting Red Cross and UN installations and vehicles in Arab areas, continues to this day to pursue the ethnic cleansing project it began in 1948: “Israel doesn’t have to assume explicit responsibility, but it should be generous in saying to Palestinians that they have suffered a historical injustice and have a moral right to return to their original homes,” because “for Palestinians to limit themselves they need to feel that their narrative as a dispossessed people struggling to recover their homeland is also affirmed.” Thus the Swiss, who did not perpetrate the Holocaust, are morally accountable to its victims and urged to erect a memorial, while the Israelis are merely encouraged to charitably allow the Palestinians the amount of gratification required for them to abandon their demand for a literal rather than moral right of return for refugees.
The idea that justice can be sufficiently approximated via symbolic concessions from Israel is advanced in less politically correct terms in Friedman’s 1988 interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, in which he announces: “I believe that as soon as Ahmed has a seat in the bus, he will limit his demands.” Noam Chomsky has questioned whether journalists can also achieve promotion to the post of New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent by suggesting Sambo or Hymie be given a seat in the bus.
Ahmed’s promotion to a bus seat meanwhile appears to be a more complicated matter, seeing as he resurfaces – this time with a friend – in the section of Friedman’s 2002 book Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 in which Friedman is gleaning post-11 September 2001 insights from the Israeli army on how to deal with suicide terrorism: “There is no way [the Israelis] will ever know Ahmed from Mohammed the way Ahmed and Mohammed do.” It is possible that Friedman has already understood the importance of co-opting members of the terrorist-producing population during Ahmed’s original apparition in 1988, when Chomsky notes that Friedman also “proposed the brutal Israeli-run regime of south Lebanon as a model for the occupied [Palestinian] territories” – clearly not the bus seat envisioned by Ahmed.
During the second intifada in 2002, Friedman declares that “the Palestinians have long had a tactical alternative to suicide: nonviolent resistance, à la Gandhi,” which “would have delivered a Palestinian state thirty years ago.” Given that Friedman resided in Jerusalem at the start of the first intifada in 1987, he is well aware that the Palestinians have long employed tactical alternatives to suicide, something he confirms with his suggestion in his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem that stone-throwing is compatible with “the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.” Friedman elaborates on the Palestinians’ “operational” adoption of stones, “encouraged and exploited by Yasser Arafat and the PLO leaders”:
“What the Palestinians under occupation were saying by using primarily stones instead of firearms was that the most powerful weapon against the Israelis was not terrorism or guerrilla warfare … The most powerful weapon, they proclaimed, was massive non-lethal civil disobedience. That is what the stones symbolized.”
The sudden possibility in 2002 of a thirty-year-old Palestinian state is also called into question by the fact that 2002 minus thirty years is 1972, which is sixteen years before Friedman advises giving Ahmed a seat in the bus. Moreover, Friedman goes to great lengths in From Beirut to explain that the Jew who “got a seat” on the “subway of life” in 1948 has now “gotten used to the whole seat” and thus “keeps The New York Times locked in front of his face,” while the little old shopping bag-laden lady (played by Arafat) shouts in reference to the seat: “I am ready to share. I am ready to share.” In 2004 Friedman nonetheless claims that, had Arafat informed Palestinians that “Palestine will have to be divided with the Jews forever,” and “had he ever adopted the nonviolence of Gandhi, Arafat would have had three Palestinian states by now – Israel’s reckless settlements notwithstanding.” Although this is presumably not what Friedman intends, the statement is accurate insofar as reckless settlement patterns ensure the foundation of any Palestinian “state” on multiple, noncontiguous plots of land.
Additional doubts are cast on the feasibility of a thirty-year-old state in 2002 when Friedman pens the following passage around the time of the hypothetical state’s 26th birthday in 1998:
“In May, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in London, presented them with a carefully balanced US peace plan and told them each they had until the next week to say yes. If they did, the president himself would oversee the opening of final-status talks between them. If they said no, reporters were told, the US would make clear publicly its plan and who was blocking it. Mr. Arafat said yes, Mr. Netanyahu said no. Ms. Albright has barely been heard from on this issue since.”
Friedman’s historical revisions also excise from the record his own previous reports on Israeli brutality, mass arrests and other forms of popular suffocation such as the fact that, “by simply pressing a few buttons on a computer, an Israeli officer could restore or revoke all the documents a Palestinian needed to survive under the Israeli occupation.” Despite reporting that “there was a real attempt [during the first intifada] by Palestinians to set up their own schools and food-sharing and communal-support programs” but that the “Israeli system was too powerful for the Palestinians to elude its grasp easily,” Friedman blissfully decrees in 2002 that Palestinians “would have had a quality state a long time ago” had they announced: “We are going to build a Palestinian society, schools and economy, as if we had no occupation.” According to this newfound logic, nothing in the world is really impossible, and cities can be built in the middle of the ocean simply by pretending the water is not there.
The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is published by Verso Books. This excerpt is reproduced here with permission.
Belén Fernández is an editor at PULSE Media and writes for Al Jazeera and various other venues.