Robert I. Friedman was a Jew. That inconvenient fact may have stopped
fanatics like the extremist settlers who once beat him up on the West
Bank from doing much worse, due to their concern about religious proscriptions
against killing a fellow Jew. At one point, rumors circulated on the West
Bank that he was not, in fact, Jewish. Robbie feared they were started
by individuals who sought to remove for themselves this barrier to his
Many other West Bank settlers and their supporters would never condone
such a crime. They never doubted his Jewishness. For them, the journalism
produced by Friedman, who died last week in New York of a rare blood disease
at age 51, was the classic work of the kind of Jew they dismiss with the
epithet “self-hating” — in order to avoid engaging the issues he raised.
But for others who knew him well, Robert I. Friedman was a practicing
Jew. He practiced hard and indefatigably, worshipping at the shul of journalism
that has drawn so many Jewish congregants with its promise of the chance
to put the pursuit of truth above that of piety. And if any still doubted
his yichus, Friedman’s choice of topics for tough and unblinking journalistic
examination reflected his Jewish identity more deeply than most of those
leading more conventionally Jewish lives.
A native of Denver who reported for the Village Voice and New York magazine,
Friedman first focused on West Bank settlers and Palestinians during a
trip to Israel as a young man. In the Old City, he met Rabbi Moshe Levinger,
a founder of the Gush Emunim West Bank settlement movement, then at the
height of his activism and eager to explain his ideas to the curious and
ingenuous young aspiring journalist. Levinger who, among other things,
established the Jewish enclave in Hebron, both fascinated and horrified
the young Friedman; for Levinger made it clear that the core of Gush’s
ideology was not just to live in the West Bank among its indigenous Arab
population, but to see Israel rule over their land — and them, if they
chose to stay — on behalf of a messianic Judaism that saw this as central
to bringing on the long promised age of Jewish and universal redemption.
Friedman made chronicling the extreme means necessary to achieve this
absolute religious end — and the manner in which it often led the way
for Israeli government policy — the core of his journalistic mission.
And earlier than most, Friedman saw all of this as nothing but trouble
in the end for Israel.
And later, in Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, Friedman felt he met the
ultimate apogee of this worldview, a man who declared unhesitatingly what
it would actually take to achieve its goal: expulsion of the Arabs both
from the West and Gaza, and from Israel itself, due to the demographic
danger they collectively presented.
Friedman, whose Kahane biography “False Prophet” remains riveting reading
today, devoted himself to the Kahane story as no one else did. But even
Kahane’s strongest critics were shocked when Friedman’s investigative
zeal dug up the facts of Kahane’s secret life as an agent for the FBI
whose non-Jewish mistress committed suicide by jumping off a bridge after
he spurned her.
It was his tough treatment of Kahane that also probably influenced attorneys
for Sheik Abdul Omar Rahman to give Friedman access to the man convicted
of leading the first group to plot the destruction of the World Trade
Center and other New York sites. But Friedman’s commitment to follow the
story wherever it led made him one of the earliest writers to warn of
the much wider, more serious threat these U.S.-based fundamentalist posed.
Among other scoops, Friedman revealed that the FBI had obtained hundreds
of documents from the home of Said Nosair, the Palestinian fundamentalist
who assassinated Kahane in 1990, and that these documents revealed his
connections to this wider group and many of their plans — but that they
had sat, untranslated, for years in FBI archives after Nosair’s conviction.
In the last part of his career, Friedman used the same investigative zeal
to make himself the country’s premier journalistic expert on the Russian
mafia. But during much of this period, he was already very ill with the
exotic blood disease he contracted while investigating the lives of female
slaves and prostitutes in Bombay. Despite serious threats on his life,
desperate weakness and the effects of powerful drugs on his ability to
concentrate for long periods, Friedman completed “Red Mafyia,” today considered
the basic primer on the topic.
For those who knew Friedman during this time, this last feat, in a way,
mirrored the achievement of Franz Rosenzweig, who completed his most famous
work, “Star of Redemption,” despite being stricken with a deteriorating
form of paralysis that robbed him of all movement and power of speech.
Like Rosenzweig, Friedman depended mightily during this time on the aid
of his wife, Chris Dugas, to fulfill his mission. And maybe, in the end,
his work even embodied Rosenzweig’s theme: that God, with the help of
man’s creative work in the world brings about the act of redemption. And
that this is in no small part dependent on man’s striving to do good.