TEL AVIV – U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on Tuesday slammed a Jewish group for doing the “unthinkable” and reconsidering its support for the Jewish state following Sunday’s controversial decision regarding mixed-sex prayer at the Western Wall.
In his first public speech as envoy, Friedman said Jewish unity was the most important thing to focus on. “We will defeat our enemies, the question is if we can survive ourselves,” he said at a B’nai B’rith World Center award ceremony in Jerusalem.
“Yesterday, I heard something that I thought I’d never hear before. And I understand the source of the frustration and the source of the anger. But I heard a major Jewish organization say that they needed to rethink their support for the State of Israel,” Friedman said. “That’s something unthinkable in my lifetime, up until yesterday. We have to do better. We must do better.”
The U.S. envoy declined to name the organization. However, President of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs was quoted as expressing a similar sentiment following Sunday’s cabinet decisions on the Western Wall and on conversion, saying the incident has “caused an acute crisis between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry.”
“There is a limit to how many times you can be delegitimized and insulted,” Jacobs was quoted as saying.
On Sunday, Israel’s cabinet voted to freeze an earlier decision to upgrade the mixed-sex prayer platform at the Western Wall as well as approving another bill that would mean conversions outside of the rabbinate will not be recognized. The move drew heavy criticism from American and other Jewish groups, including the Jewish Agency.
Friedman, who was the first foreign diplomat to make the Western Wall his first stop upon arriving in the country to take up his post in May, said he was not taking sides on the matter but stressed that “we can only resolve these issues by mutual respect and understanding.”
“There’s plenty of room to cast blame, whether it’s on the issue of the Kotel [Western Wall], whether it’s on the issue of conversion — there are so many other issues that separate us,” said Friedman on Tuesday.
“We have to get back to those basic principles of Jewish unity,” he said. “And the key to Jewish unity is that this is not a question of winning, it is a question of mutual understanding, respect and coexistence.”
“We should unite about what is wonderful about our common existence,” he added.
“It’s not enough to unite behind common enemies. We should unite behind the miracle of the State of Israel. We are living through the incredible miracle of the birth and growth of the State of Israel.”
In a speech riddled with quotes from the Torah and jokes, Friedman stressed that he was speaking not as a diplomat but as “a member of the Jewish faith and the son of a rabbi.”
The envoy continued by saying he had just returned from a security briefing on the Golan Heights.
“There was ISIS, there was the Syrian regime, there were the rebels — 30 different rebel groups. They hate each other, but if you want to ask them one thing they agree upon? They all hate us,” he said.
“We have plenty of enemies,” he added, but “we can unite behind the richness of the Jewish tradition, whether we’re religious or not.”
“We will defeat our enemies. I have no doubt that we will defeat our enemies,” Friedman continued. “The question is: Can we survive ourselves?”
Friedman admitted that in the past he has been “as guilty as anyone else of having entered the partisan divide that has unfortunately to some extent fractured the Jewish community.” He was likely referring to derogatory comments he made about left-wing American Jews, including calling them “kapos.” He later apologized for his controversial comments.
“But it has to end,” he said, pledging to “treat the Jewish people of whatever stripe, of whatever political views, with the same dignity and respect as they all deserve. … We have to turn the page.”
Although organizers billed his speech as his “first policy speech since arriving in Israel,” Friedman did not address the Israeli-Palestinian peace process the US administration is currently trying to jump start.
“We’re working very hard on a peace process,” he said. “There’s an expression in English: Those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk. So here I actually know so I won’t talk. I don’t see any real purpose in jumping the gun on some sensitive discussions.”
He added that Donald Trump is “very pro-Israel,” stressing that he was the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall and his administration is supportive of the Jewish state “in unprecedented ways.”
Yet, he said, “Let’s play that out. It’s too soon to be congratulating ourselves. We have a long way to go. But I can assure you that you have people in the American administration whose hearts are very much in the right place.”