By Jeremy Ben-Ami
As the Nazis rolled into Vienna in 1938, my father was helping boats full of Jews escape down the Danube River.
He had been sent to Vienna by Menachem Begin and the Irgun, the Jewish freedom fighting movement, to save Jews from the Nazis. The operation he ran is credited with saving thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of lives.
At the same time, my mother and her family escaped Vienna in 1938, not down the river, but over the Swiss mountains. Her grandmother and many cousins weren’t so lucky. They are among the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust.
So when David Friedman, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel, attacks me and Jews who share my politics on Israel as “worse than kapos” and not really Jews, it’s not only a horrific insult to my parents’ memory but also a stinging indictment of the character and the fitness to serve of the man who uttered those words. The term “kapo” refers to Jewish prisoners who were elevated by Nazi guards to supervise concentration camp operations.
What views do I hold that could evoke such hate?
I believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an existential necessity if Israel is to remain a Jewish homeland and that expansion of West Bank settlements risks Israel’s security and its democratic character.
As important, I believe ruling as an occupying power over millions of Palestinians for 50 years while denying them their rights is not only strategically unwise but also morally unjustifiable.
Friedman, on the other hand, thinks the idea of two states is “an illusion.” He played a role in erasing support for the idea from the Republican Party platform this summer. He has actively worked to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank as president of an American nonprofit that raises money, with U.S. taxpayer support, to expand the West Bank settlement enterprise.
It’s an understatement to say that Friedman and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
I recognize that Trump has the right to choose ambassadors who share his views.
Even though Friedman’s views completely contradict bipartisan U.S. policy for the past five decades, that’s not sufficient reason for the Senate to reject his nomination.
Friedman’s lack of any policy or diplomatic experience (he has been Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer) is also not, alone, a basis for rejection.
The appointment of political allies to ambassadorships is common, and we can be grateful that at least Friedman knows where Israel is. But never before has a diplomatic novice been placed in this sensitive post, where a single wrong word or move could pour fuel on fires already burning in the region.
The Constitution requires that the Senate provide advice and consent for presidential appointments, including Friedman’s.
Throughout the campaign, senators from both parties did provide advice to Trump. Many saw his words and style as unacceptable, urging him to strike a more unifying, presidential tone. Yet senators’ votes count no more than the rest of the citizenry’s in a general election.
When it comes to the appointment of Friedman as ambassador to Israel, however, Senate votes are the only ones that do count.
Senators have the opportunity to say that the tone and the nature of the discourse that people such as Friedman engage in have no place in U.S. government. The Senate should take this opportunity to deliver this message to future generations about the nature and the limits of acceptable political discourse in a healthy democracy.
No one should serve as an ambassador of this great country after leveling baseless charges of anti-Semitism against a sitting president, as Friedman has, accusing a senior aide to a former secretary of state of being an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood or engaging regularly in offensive religious attacks, even when they’re against his own people.
On behalf of my father-in-law, who drove trucks through gunfire in 1948 to break the siege of Jerusalem, and my parents, who are buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, I will do everything I can to expunge rhetoric such as Friedman’s from my community’s debate over Israel.
And as an American, I will do everything I can to ensure that my country is never represented in my family’s homeland by someone who treats people in a way that is anathema to the Jewish and democratic values on which I was raised.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is founder and president of J Street.