Robert I. Friedman, whose uncompromising investigative stories appeared in The Nation from the early 1980s onward, died July 2 in Manhattan at the age of 51. In an era of timid, corporatized journalism, Robbie was the real thing: a courageous reporter who, operating freelance, made headlines exposing how the thuggish and the greedy, in all their guises as politicians, bankers, revolutionaries and mobsters, were preying on the weak.
Robbie came to prominence reporting from the Middle East, starting with a gutsy scoop from Beirut revealing Israel’s relationship with the fascist Christian Phalange, a harbinger of its Lebanon invasion. Then came hard-edged portraits of Jewish fanatics like Moshe Levinger, leader of the militant Gush Emunim settlers, and Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League. Detailing the support those fringe elements were getting from US Jews and predicting they’d drive Israel far to the right, Robbie’s reporting provoked a barrage of attacks. The Anti-Defamation League (which he called the Jewish thought police) maligned him, death threats poured in and he was once beaten up by West Bank settlers. To Robbie the worst was being called a self-hating Jew, since it was the humanistic tradition of Judaism that inspired him, and he feared, as he said in his last Nation article (“And Darkness Covered the Land,” December 24, 2001), that Israel was dangerously close to becoming a right-wing apartheid state–something, he wrote, “Israel did not set out to be.” Although his sympathies were with the Palestinian people, he reported on the duplicity of PLO leaders and described how Islamic extremism oppressed Palestinian women. He followed the truth, wherever it took him. Branching out, he presciently warned that the FBI was ignoring the broader threat posed by the first World Trade Center bombers and delivered cutting-edge reports on the international reach of the Russian mafia (which put a $100,000 contract on his life); it was the subject of his last book, Red Mafiya. Robbie was proudest of his Nation story “India’s Shame” (April 8, 1996), which detailed how sexual slavery and political corruption in Bombay had created an AIDS catastrophe. Alas, while reporting it, Robbie contracted the rare blood disease that ultimately took his life.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism has established an award in his name: Box 60184, Washington, DC 20039-0184.