President Donald Trump’s nomination of lawyer David Friedman to be the next US ambassador to Israel has provoked alarm and outrage in some quarters, especially among many American Jews.
Objections to Friedman have been raised on several grounds. Critics cite the fact that he opposes a two-state solution and supports Jewish settlements in the West Bank (not to mention the fact he lacks any diplomatic or foreign policy experience).
My own objections come down to the way he relates to fellow Jews who disagree with his position on the Israeli occupation and the settlements. He has branded J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace organization where I have worked the past four years as “worse than kapos” — that is to say worse than the Jews who were forced to work for the Nazis in the concentration camps during the Holocaust, sometime acting with great cruelty toward fellow Jews. He has even suggested we are not truly Jewish.
For me, the use of the word “kapo” to describe me and the many good-hearted American Jews who want to see Israel make peace with the Palestinians and end the ongoing conflict — as well as ending Israel’s military control over another people – reveals a man who is totally uncompromising, intolerant, inflexible and verbally cruel–all dreadful traits for a diplomat. It shows that Friedman is willing to casually besmirch our people’s greatest, most sacred memory as well as our deepest trauma to advance his own narrow interests. This is not a person worthy of or qualified for the honor of representing all Americans — and not just Donald Trump — in Israel.
To understand my revulsion at his use of the word “kapo,” let me briefly relate some of my family history. In 1993, I took a trip with my father (whom I laid to rest in Israel in August 2015) to Russia and Poland to revisit some of the places he passed through during his own nightmare journey through World War Two for a book I was writing about his survival, which was eventually published by Yad Vashem. Our final stop was the site of the extermination camp of Belzec in eastern Poland where my grandparents, Adolf and Bertha Elsner, as well as many other relatives were murdered in 1942, among the half million victims of the gas chambers there.
I wrote in an article shortly afterward:
“The overwhelming effect is of neglect. There is not a single Jewish emblem … The place is overgrown with weeds and the symbolic structures, such as they are, are crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a short cut home through the camp.
“For my father, our visit to Belzec was clearly overwhelming. As soon as we entered he was overcome with great, shuddering sobs. ‘My mother, my poor mother,’ he kept repeating. Yet there was nothing there to give a sense of comfort or consolation. Instead, one had the sense of people that had been blotted out, leaving nothing, not even a simple Magen David, to memorialize their existence – and suffering.
“My own visit left me with a sense of anger. As the months have passed since my trip, this wound has only deepened. I can’t get it out of my mind. For the first time in my life, I had a sense of my grandparents as people who had loved and been loved and whose loss had been deeply felt. Their final hours had been unbelievably cruel and humiliating, their sufferings protracted and unimaginable. But the place where they died is overgrown with weeds and invaded by pop music.”
After that visit, I helped start a campaign to build a new, fitting memorial and that effort eventually bore fruit. A new, incredibly powerful memorial was consecrated in 2004. In the museum adjoining the memorial, one of the first things a visitor sees is a large photograph of my grandfather.
We get an idea of the incredible cruelty and violence of the Holocaust from the memoir of Rudolf Reder, one of only two Jews to survive the camp.
“The women, naked and shaved, were rounded up with whips like cattle to the slaughter, without even being counted — ‘Faster, faster’ — the men were already dying. Those women who tried to resist were bayoneted until the blood was running. Eventually all the women were forced into the chambers. I heard the doors being shut; I heard shrieks and cries; I heard desperate calls for help in Polish and Yiddish. I heard the bloodcurdling wails of women and the squeals of children, which after a short time became one long, horrifying scream. . . . This went on for 15 minutes. The engine worked for 20 minutes. Afterward there was total silence.”
This is what Friedman desecrates by invoking the Holocaust in political debates. In his view, we are worse than the people who shaved and undressed the Jewish victims at Belzec – including my own grandparents – and hustled them into the gas chambers to suffocate. Incidentally, the fate of the kapos at Belzec was ultimately no different than that of their victims. When the camp was dismantled, they were taken to another extermination site in Sobibor where they themselves, without exception, were murdered. They were tragically doomed, stuck in an impossible position, faced with a choice no-one should face – but I and my fellow supporters of J Street are, in the view of Friedman, worse than they were.
I cannot describe the pain and insult — the abuse — that is embedded in this word, which Friedman has used not once but on numerous occasions and refused to withdraw.
And so I ask, is this the quality of man we want representing our nation in Israel? I ask it of fellow Americans, fellow members of the Jewish community — and I ask it of all US Senators who will have to vote to confirm David Friedman as ambassador.
I implore our elected officials to think of my grandparents and the other victims of the Holocaust who deserve to be remembered with respect, that same respect we owe each other and which David Friedman has so signally failed to show in his own words and deeds.
Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President of J Street. Follow him on Twitter @AlanElsner