The Human Spirit: Tom Friedman’s grocer
August 28, 2015
On the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the traditional Hebrew date of launching an intensified process of soul-searching, I find myself in my neighborhood grocery store in search of sweets. Later this morning, our oldest grandchild is to put on tefillin for the first time: a momentous event in our family life.
I need to buy the de rigueur wrapped toffees to throw while at the Western Wall.
Corner stores open early. Their proprietors meet the milkman and the bread distributors.
Many of the customers are children who pick up a roll and bag of chocolate milk on the way to camp. No cash necessary.
Nearly everyone has a charge account.
The grocer knows his vast inventory down to the last hummus container, as well as the wishes and whims of his customers.
His son, now in the business with him, has added trendy milk products in new refrigerated shelves. Despite the flourishing discount groceries in town, the institution has remained stable.
It’s so early that no other customers are there. Just the grocer and me. It dawns on me that this isn’t just my own grocer, but this is the grocer closest to The New York Times Jerusalem residence, where Tom Friedman lived when he was the Times correspondent. His children were born in Jerusalem.
I blurt out my question.
“Felix, what do you think of the agreement with Iran?” Friedman, the triple Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who specializes in the Middle East, has written a column speculating how he would feel about the Iran agreement if he were an Israeli grocer.
He must mean Felix! Writes Friedman, “If I were an Israeli grocer, just following this deal on the radio, I’d hate it for enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium, since Iran regularly cheated its way to expanding that capability, even though it had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. After all, Iran holds ‘death to Israel’ marches and in 2006 sponsored a conference to promote denial of the Holocaust.
Moreover, Iran’s proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, in 2006, started an unprovoked war with Israel, and when Israel retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets, Hezbollah fired thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets all across Israel. No – no matter the safeguards – I as an Israeli grocer would reject this deal.”
Felix hasn’t read Friedman’s column, but I summarize. Friedman says that if he weren’t a grocer but an Israeli general, he would be confident that Iran wouldn’t commit suicide and therefore wouldn’t strike Israel with its nuclear arsenal.
Friedman neglects to mention, of course, that Iran is a country with a population 10 times our own, that the death toll in the Iran-Iraq War reached hundreds of thousands (some say a million), and that among the dead were allegedly tens of thousands of child soldiers.
He also overlooks just how great are the sacrifices that the enemies of the Jews are willing to make to destroy us. Just as Hitler took trains from the front to pick up the Jews of Hungary for annihilation, hatred of us Jews isn’t a matter of logic.
Our generals – the same military persons who send text messages to Palestinians to evacuate before they bomb – Friedman says, know how to play by “Hama rules,” a reference to the 1982 massacre, perhaps with hydrogen cyanide, of his own people by the dictator father of the current dictator of Syria. Friedman instructs our generals that instead of arguing against the Iran treaty, they should be using their influence to get access to America’s new Massive Ordnance Penetrator bunker-buster bomb that in theory can get through 60 meters of hard rock and knock out a nuclear bomb.
Of course, there’s the small matter of having to find every bomb site first and drop MOP accurately and exactly on time.
Friedman ends with his usual bashing of the Israeli prime minister, sharing what he’d do if he were prime minister of Israel.
He’s so critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that you have to wonder if he’s planning to make use of the Law of Return and run in an opposition party. If only Netanyahu had his priorities straight. If only he understood the importance of a twostate solution. If only he’d get off this Iran kick and stop pressuring American Jews who live in a democracy to disagree with their elected president.
Writes Friedman, “Unfortunately, Israel has a prime minister whose strategy is to reject the Iran deal without any credible Plan B and to downplay the internal threat without any credible Plan A.”
“I understand that ‘grocer’ is a term for simple Israeli,” says Felix. “We may be simple, but we’re not simpletons.”
He thinks Friedman patronizes him and his fellow early-rising grocers who act from gut, not logic, and know only what they’ve “followed on the radio” about an issue that has such high stakes for their families and their nation.
For the record, Friedman’s Jerusalem grocer may not be a regular reader of The New York Times, but he reads widely and speaks five languages.
“It’s clear that this is a dangerous agreement and that we’re on the front lines,” he says.
“The United States is unique in importance, but when leaders fail to recognize America’s ability to stand up to Iran with a combination of sanctions and threat of force, they diminish the status and strength of the country.
“The Americans are a superpower, but the Iranians are super negotiators, as the substance and the details of the agreement make clear. Imagine an American and an Iranian at a bazaar. Even if the American is wealthy and brilliant, he doesn’t know how to make the best deal. This isn’t buying a carpet, but atomic bombs. When a country that leads the world waffles, the other side senses it. From my reading of history, only when America with its unparalleled economic and military position was unyielding about its national security, it did well and prospered. You can’t be desperate to make a deal. Pretending to be willing to back out isn’t enough. It’s no secret how much the Americans wanted this deal, not even to grocers.”
Likewise, it’s insulting that Friedman patronizes the democratically elected prime minister of the State of Israel and those of us old enough to vote.
Since when are we a backward nation? We do listen to the radio, but we still read more books per capita than Americans or any other OECD nation.
We’re assertive and emotional, but we have more scientists per capita, and more PhDs per capita, than any other country, too. We are the largest per-capita immigrant-absorbing nation, have more per-capita NGOs, and have long enjoyed a national health service that covers rich and poor, Jew and Arab, immigrant and old-timer, grocer or general.
Everyone has voting rights – a higher percentage of us rush to the polls than our American counterparts. Women can wear short-shorts or burkas in the polling booths or on the beach, unlike certain Western countries.
We spend more per capita than any Western nation to protect ourselves, not because we’re naturally paranoid – in fact, we’ve taken more risks for peace than anyone else – but because much larger countries and conscienceless terrorist groups issue proclamations about wiping us off the face of the earth. Given our history, we take threats seriously.
So why should anyone assume we’re so befuddled in continuing to elect a prime minister who, according to Friedman, just doesn’t get it, unlike the American president? Felix packages my purchases. He gives me examples to prove his points, but the store is filling. Felix doesn’t like the cantankerous political discussions that often fill a corner store. He hands me my purchases with his congratulations.
The sound of the shofar rings from every corner of the Western Wall Plaza, urging us all to wake up. Our grandson binds the Jewish pledge of allegiance to his arm and forehead in the ancient manner at the ancient Wall.
The toffee is warm and soft in my hand.
I take aim and pray that only sweet soft toffees will rain down on him as he takes on the yoke and blessings of his heritage.