Beit El surrounded by Palestinian communities
David Friedman has close ties to West Bank settlement
Nearly 6,000 miles separate Washington D.C. from Beit El, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and yet the two have never been closer.
A direct connection runs between the White House and this small religious community perched on a windswept hill, near Palestinian communities.
US President Donald Trump’s name may not adorn any of the buildings here, but the mark of his administration is clear.
“I think he loves Israel,” said Chaim Silberstein, a spokesman for Beit El who moved to the settlement in 1985, where he has raised seven children. “I think he loves the biblical heartland of Israel, which is here.”
In 2003, Trump donated $10,000 to the settlement’s schools, according to tax records for the Trump Foundation. The Charles and Seryl Kushner Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family, donated $10,000 in 2011 and 2013 to the schools, tax records show.
But it is Trump’s controversial pick for US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who has the deepest connections to Beit El.
The personal ties between Friedman – whose confirmation hearing takes place Thursday – and the settlement, coupled with his past statements about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, have critics questioning his suitability for the job.
Beit El: A mission derived from faith
The history of the Beit El settlement goes back 40 years or 4,000 years, depending on your perspective. The settlement was established in 1977, near the grounds of an Israeli military base. A small group of settlers moved near the base and stayed, and Beit El grew slowly over the years. Today, it numbers 6,500 settlers.
If you ask the settlers why they came here, many will reference biblical history and quote the Book of Genesis. According to the Bible, God promised Jacob the land of Israel in a dream. That dream occurred while Jacob was sleeping on a rock nearby; when Jacob awoke, he called the area Beit El (or Bethel).
To the religious settlers of Beit El, this 4,000-year-old story is a mission derived from faith and history. “This is the very essence and the very cradle of Jewish civilization, going back to the very beginning of the bible,” said Silberstein, who moved here after studying at the settlement’s religious school, called a yeshiva. “This provides the legitimacy of us sitting in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, and Netanya.”
Controversy over Friedman
The settlement’s schools have a well-established fundraising arm in the US called the American Friends of Bet El Institutions (AFBE). The organization’s annual gala is a who’s who of conservative speakers: Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and ex-US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton have all spoken in recent years.
The most recent gala, held in December, advertised a new program: “Our exciting new initiative inspires and trains students with the tools to successfully delegitimize the notion of a “two-state solution” and to engage the most political active – and often the most hostile – students on their campuses.”
According to tax records, AFBE raises millions for the settlement’s many schools and programs, including a pre-army prep school.
Friedman has served as the president of AFBE. His parents were ardent supports of the settlement’s schools. The computer science school is named after his father, Rabbi Morris Friedman. In addition, David Friedman dedicated the Friedman Faculty House to his father.
Friedman is also a frequent contributor to Arutz Sheva, the conservative news outlet run from Beit El and partially funded by AFBE. In his articles, he has advocated for settlements and against a Palestinian state.
His views have courted controversy.
He compared liberal Jews to Kapos, Jews who worked for the Nazis during World War Two, writing in 2015 that “hearkening back to the days of the Kapos during the Nazi regime … there is a history of a minority of Jews betraying their own.”
He accused the US State Department of having a “hundred-year history of anti-Semitism,” despite the fact that he will be a State Department employee if confirmed. And he called the two-state solution an “illusion” for a “non-existent problem.”
During Friedman’s confirmation hearings, he said he regretted his language and that he believed a two-state solution was the best way forward, directly contradicting his earlier statements. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez wondered aloud whether it was a “nomination conversion.”
The settlement connection is especially problematic for a US Ambassador. For years, the US has tried to position itself as an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians, and has opposed settlements as an obstacle to a two-state solution. The US State Department under both Democrats and Republicans has pursued peace deals in which settlements would have to be evacuated.
The Friedman Faculty House, along with eight other buildings near it, have a standing demolition order against them, issued in 2002.
According to Kerem Navot, an Israeli human rights organization that monitors land policy in the West Bank, the homes were built on private Palestinian land.
It is the land of Diyaa Ghaleb’s father.
Ghaleb shows us paperwork from the Israeli military’s District Coordination and Liaison Office, which shows that his father owned land where Beit El now stands.
The land was seized for security reasons by military order after the 1967 Six-Day War. The military order was upheld by Israel’s High Court, and the settlement was later approved on this land by the High Court. But some of the building in Beit El went beyond the established boundaries, the High Court has since ruled.
Ghaleb, 61, lives in the nearby Palestinian village of Dura el-Kari’a, about one mile from Beit El.
“I still remember the land full of grapes,” Ghaleb said. “It’s all full of ugly occupation houses now.”
“Whether [Friedman] is an ambassador or a king or anything else on earth, he has no right to steal land from its owners. This is injustice,” Ghaleb said.
Settlements such as Beit El are illegal under international law and opposed by virtually the entire international community since the West Bank is considered occupied territory, which Israel disputes for historic and religious reasons.
In addition, Beit El is outside of the major Israeli settlement blocs – areas in the West Bank that have a high concentration of Israeli settlements, few if any Palestinian villages, and have been discussed as remaining under Israeli control as part of a peace deal.
Beit El is surrounded by the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the villages of Bir Zayit, Jalazun, and Baytin, among others. In any final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, it will be difficult to create a contiguous Palestinian state while trying to connect Beit El to Israel.
“A new era”
Israeli leaders see hope in Trump, hailing his election as a “new era” for Israel and for the settlements. Many right-wing politicians, critical of former President Barack Obama, believe Trump will be far more sympathetic to Israel’s presence in the West Bank, despite Trump’s request for Israel to stop settlement construction temporarily.
In Beit El, the optimism is more tempered.
“I think it’ll be easier for us to live normally. It’s been very difficult when we can’t even build a house for our children to live near us,” said Yehuda Zaks, who moved to Beit El from South Africa.
“But I’m not expecting a quantum leap from one end to the other,” Zaks said of the change from Obama to Trump. “I think we’ll just be able to get back to normality. That’s what I hope to get from this era.”
The White House did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on Beit El.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Israel approved 2,500 new settlement homes. One hundred of those new homes are in Beit El. But the settlement has plans to expand far beyond that. They hope to number 10,000 residents within 5 years, a nearly 50% increase, according to Silberstein, the Beit El spokesman.
To the settlers of Beit El, it is less important who sits in the White House – what’s more important is who lives here.
CNN’s Victoria Eastwood and Michael Schwartz contributed to this report.