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Times columnist speaks about his passion for journalism and Israeli politics

By Emily Belowich

Section: News

March 6, 2015

When Thomas Friedman ’75 was a kid, he wanted nothing more than to be a professional golfer. He was the captain of his high school team at St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis, and in 1970, he caddied for Puerto Rican professional golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez at the U.S. Open. Rodriguez placed 27th in the tournament, and that was the closest that Friedman would ever get to professional golf. But on Sunday afternoon, a group of approximately 100 students, faculty and board members quickly learned that while being a professional golfer was Friedman’s dream at the time, shortly thereafter, one high school journalism class and a trip to Israel would completely transform his life.

In Levin Ballroom this Sunday, March 1, the award-winning New York Times foreign affairs columnist spoke about how he formed his passion for journalism, followed by a discussion about the current state of Israeli politics, U.S. relations with Israel and other controversial issues in the Middle East. Friedman, who has won three Pulitzer Prizes and has authored six national bestsellers, was interviewed on stage by Chen Arad ’15 and Rivka Cohen ’17, both of whom ask him not only about his time at Brandeis, but also about his career of international reporting and his personal views on the state of Israel. The event was organized by Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World (BVIEW), a group of students committed to “revolutionizing how students discuss Israel on campus,” according to its website. BVIEW is a nonpartisan, independent student organization that brings together thought-provoking speakers and facilitates student discussions to develop a “forward-looking outlook for Israel’s future.”

Friedman grew up in the 1960s in a small suburb right outside Minneapolis. In 10th grade, Friedman signed up to take journalism with Ms. Hattie Steinberg, who he claimed was “legendary” in changing students’ views of the world.

“Her journalism class was the only journalism class that I’ve ever taken,” Friedman said. “Not because I was that good but because she was that good.”

In that same year of 1968, Friedman’s parents took him on a trip to Israel to visit his sister who was studying abroad at the time in Tel Aviv. After being “swept off his feet” in Israel, he spent his high school summers there living on a kibbutz. He started out at the University of Minnesota, but was still drawn to Israel, so he spent his sophomore year of college attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Friedman transferred to Brandeis in the fall of 1973, writing a few op-ed pieces for The Justice. In trying to gain a greater understanding about the Middle East, he travelled back overseas but this time he landed at the American University in Cairo and subsequently spent time over the next years at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

While walking down the street one day, in 1975, Friedman noticed a headline on The Evening Standard that read “Carter to Jews: If Elected, I Promise to Fire Dr. K.” President Jimmy Carter was running against Gerald Ford for president, and Friedman had a strong opinion about this.

“I thought to myself, ‘Isn’t that interesting? He’s trying to win Jewish votes by promising to fire the first-ever Jewish Secretary of State,’” Friedman said. He does not know what inspired him to do so, but he immediately went back to his dorm room and wrote up a column. He gave it to his future wife, also studying in London, to bring home on spring break, and it landed in the hands of the editorial page editor of The Des Moines Register. “I had been walking down the street, I had an opinion, I wrote it up, and someone paid me $50,” Friedman said. “And thus a columnist was born.”

Friedman transitioned the discussion into speaking about some of his own personal views on Israel. “I’m a huge believer in the two-state solution,” he said. “And I have believed that ever since I was here [at Brandeis]. There’s no mystery on my views; they’ve actually never changed, and they have never evolved. The only thing that’s changed is the possibility of it.”

He then went on to speak about the meaning of objective reporting, as well as how this plays out in Middle East politics. “When it comes to the Middle East, if you want to be a reporter there, the thing you have to understand is everyone wants to own you,” Friedman said. “Everyone’s a partisan … And it’s not about journalism. It’s about politics, and everyone wants you on their side.”

When asked about his opinion on Prime Minister of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu coming to speak before Congress this Monday, March 2, Friedman said it would “directionally be part of a broader erosion.” He said that this indicates that Israel should become a conservative Republican issue, even though he believes Israel should always be a bipartisan issue.

Friedman briefly spoke about ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. He said that when looking at the region of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, it is a “pluralistic region that lacks pluralism.” From 30,000 feet above, he said what the world is seeing is a region whose pluralistic character is governed vertically.

“Therefore, that region can only be stable if the constituent communities forge social contracts for how to govern themselves, not vertically but horizontally, where they live as equal citizens,” Friedman said.

The discussion ended with questions from the audience, ranging from topics about the “death” of journalism to advice for Brandeis students. Friedman thinks that journalism will continue to survive as long as the quality of the content can remain the same.

“There’s only one thing in journalism that hasn’t changed, and that’s what makes for a great column,” Friedman said. “Great reporting, great analysis, great interviewing and great writing. I tend to be totally platform-agnostic because to me it’s all about journalism.”

Friedman ended the talk with some advice for Brandeis students. “Whatever it is, you have to be passionate and persuasive about your ideas,” Friedman said. “I’m a little Jewish guy from Minnesota, and I’ve learned that the secret of life is being a good listener. Listening to someone is a sign of respect, and if you truly listen to someone, it is amazing what they will let you see.”

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