Thomas Friedman on what you should know about the Israel-Hamas war, and the biggest lessons he learned in 45 years of journalism.
Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times is perhaps America’s, if not the world’s, most influential foreign affairs columnist and commentator on media and at gatherings around the world. His ideas are read and sought out by significant leaders at capitals everywhere. His subject is global affairs in all its reality, from war and peace to politics, technology, climate, and biology, as well as the strategy and motivation of the leaders whose actions drives the forces that determine the future.
At 70 years old, Tom Friedman has never been more focused and powerful, as he calls on a lifetime of personal experience and connections to focus on the Israel-Hamas war that began on October 7, 2023 with the Hamas invasion of Israel from Gaza. Look at the title of his New York Times columns, the latest on the day before Christmas, 2023: “It’s Time for the U.S. to Give Israel Some Tough Love.” He is putting into it everything he knows, every lesson he learned, every conversation he shared with people whose life was on the line.
Friedman’s experience in the Middle East began after growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a B.A. from Brandeis, a Marshall Scholarship and a M. Phil in Middle East Studies from Oxford. He began reporting, a career ambition that began in high school and found him in Beirut, a correspondent for UPI. He was hired by The New York Times and came to New York as a general assignment reporter, later becoming in 1982 Beirut Bureau Chief reporting on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He received his first Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for reporting from Syria. In 1984 he moved with his wife Ann to Israel as Jerusalem Bureau Chief, where their two daughters were born, Orly in 1985 and Natalie in 1988.
In 1989, Friedman’s first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem was published and won the 1989 National Book Award, became a huge best seller, and has been updated twice.
From the Middle East, Tom returned to the United States in 1989 and became the Chief Diplomatic Correspondent covering the Bush Presidency and Secretary of State James Baker. Later, in 1994, he became Time’s International Economics Correspondent focusing on traditional global economics, but also the arrival of the internet. In 1995 came the job that has occupied almost 30 years of his life and bought him to his present place of global influence as the New York Times Foreign Affairs Columnist. He was reported to have said:
“I tried to do two things with the column when I took it over. First was to broaden the definition of foreign affairs and explore the impacts on international relations of finance, globalization, environmentalism, biodiversity, and technology, as well as covering conventional issues like conflict, traditional diplomacy, and arms control. Second, I tried to write in a way that would be accessible to the general reader and bring a broader audience into the foreign policy conversation—beyond the usual State Department policy wonks. It was somewhat controversial at the time. So, I eventually decided to write a book that would explain the framework through which I was looking at the world. It was a framework that basically said if you want to understand the world today, you have to see it as a constant tension between what was very old in shaping international relations (the passions of nationalism, ethnicity, religion, geography, and culture) and what was very new (technology, the Internet, and the globalization of markets and finance).”
Published in 1999, the book was The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization.
Next, after the attack of 9-11, Friedman turned to terrorism, which he saw as an outgrowth of the conflict he described between the old and new. Friedman received his third Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for the columns on 9-11 and its aftermath.
In any conversation about the Middle East, the existence of Israel and a state for Palestinians is never far from the table. In 2002, Tom Friedman accomplished one of his most noteworthy interviews, a conversation with then Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who at his ranch in Saudi Arabia laid out for Friedman, for the first time, his peace plan for resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It called for a full Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 war borders in exchange for recognition of Israel and normalization of relations and trade by all the members of the Arab League.
The Iraqi War, launched in 2003 after the invasion of Afghanistan, turned into one of Friedman’s most controversial periods as the conflict over the war and flawed intelligence flowed into politics, journalism and relationships. Friedman supported the war but, as he explained, was not for weapons of mass destruction reasons. Rather, on the argument that the only way to diminish the threat of terrorism from the Middle East was to try to foster democratic societies there and collaborate with them. His view was that if a multi-sectarian democracy could be born in Baghdad in the center of the Arab world, it would tip the whole region onto a different trajectory. Although Iraq has had numerous free and fair elections, a healthy democracy has not taken root. “I was just wrong—too optimistic, too much in a hurry to change history—painfully so,” he argues now. The costs of the disagreements within America were high and too detailed to lay out here. It clearly created a great deal of pain for many and also contributed to the nomination and election of Senator Barack Obama as President in 2008.
Tom Friedman is currently in the middle of writing his 8th book, which he says if the world ever slows down, a bit he might actually finish. It is tentatively titled: What You Say When You Listen. As Tom says in this interview:
“I learned that there’s two things happen when you listen, Charlie. One is what you learn when you listen. All the stories I got wrong were because I was talking when I should have been listening. But secondly, listening is a sign of respect. And it’s amazing what people would let me say to them, say about them. Ask them about if they thought I respected them. People think you respect them. They’ll actually let you ask anything. If people think you don’t respect them, you can’t tell them the sky is blue. So the biggest lesson I learned in 45 years in journalism is what you say when you listen.”
Tom Friedman is experiencing what makes all of us young: a story that demands of all his skills, all of his experience, all of his wisdom, all of his ability to connect the dots.
He has written with great passion and insight on many subjects (think of climate and technology) and also many different people—but no story engages all his passion, interests, hopes and fears as much as this unfolding drama of the Gaza war and its consequences.
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From the Middle East, Friedman turned to technology and the rise of the internet, a subject he had explored earlier in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, about the rise of globalization and the omnipresence of technology. He published in 2005, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty First Century. which also became a number one best seller. During the same time, he made a series of documentaries for the New York Times-Discovery channel joint venture that explored the new world opened by technology. Documentaries became a tool to use.
In 2008, as his attention was draw to climate issues, Friedman published Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America. The question of the environment has continued as a subject of huge concern as he has, in one column after another, raised the risks of environmental inaction.
He followed that concern with a book coauthored with Michael Mandelbaum in 2011, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. They focused on four imperatives: globalization, technology, debt and energy.
In 2016, Friedman’s book wrote, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, in which he reprised his role as a definer of the new world around him and suggests that to meet the acceleration of everything, all of us must adjust and cope, while at the same time, keeping close values that are essential to humanity.