June 10, 2010
On June 7, the professional life of Helen Thomas came to an end. The acid-tongued “dean” of the White House press corps since the Kennedy administration got fired by her newspaper syndicate, dumped by her speakers’ bureau, and disinvited by a Bethesda high school that had asked her to address its commencement ceremonies. The White House Correspondents Association condemned her. President Barack Obama took time out from not doing anything about unemployment or the Gulf oil spill to weigh in. Chastened, reviled and subjected to the kind of national opprobrium normally reserved for international terrorists and blind baseball umpires, Thomas apologized and announced her retirement. All in one day.
So what did Thomas do to merit such derision? No, it wasn’t that journalistic career killer, plagiarism. … No, Helen Thomas didn’t participate in the attempt to throw a presidential election. Unlike George Will. … No, Thomas didn’t say anything racist. Racism doesn’t get you fired from journalism. Just ask Pat Buchanan, another MSNBC regular.
… No doubt, Thomas’ comments were simplistic. Three generations of Jews have made their homes in Israel. Asking them to pack up and “return” to places where they’ve never visited, much less lived, would be inhumane, not to mention impractical. Of course, this is no different from current US immigration policy, which calls for the arrest and deportation of undocumented people whose parents brought them here as small children.
Her words also demonstrate historical ignorance. Surely Thomas, who is 89, ought to know that most Israeli Jews were born there. As for the rest, many came from the former Soviet Union, not Poland or Germany (which murdered most of their Jews during, and even after, the Holocaust).
But are these remarks so beyond the pale that their utterance ought to mean the end of your professional life? Ari Fleischer, who ought to be in prison for defending torture and concentration camps as press secretary for George W. Bush, called Thomas a fan of “religious cleansing.” Equating opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism, ex-Clinton spokesman Lanny Davis called Thomas “an anti-Semitic bigot.”
Davis is entitled to his opinion. But so is Helen Thomas – not that you’d be able to tell by reading the avalanche of self-righteous yowling by politicians and editorialists.
Thomas isn’t unusual. Like it or not, supporters of the state of Israel should understand that Israel’s creation was and remains highly controversial – and not just among anti-Semites. The postwar decision to establish a Jewish homeland by seizing land from Arabs who had nothing to do with the Holocaust – instead of, say, Germany – continues to bewilder. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are living in refugee camps, where old men and women still wave the deeds and keys to their old homes when they see a reporter, attests to the freshness of the wound.
Feeling sorry for them and taking the position that they have a right to be compensated doesn’t make you a Jew-hater. Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians turn off a lot of people who don’t have a bigoted bone in their body. Settlements in the occupied territories, apartheid-like economic planning, bulldozing the homes of the relatives of accused Palestinian terrorists, the Berlin Wall-esque “security fence,” and now the outrageous blockade of Gaza have angered millions of Americans. What makes these acts even more appalling is that Israel, as the No. 1 beneficiary of US foreign aid, is America’s de facto representative in the Middle East.
… Besides, if every American columnist or politician lost his job over bigotry, what would that mean for all those “family values conservatives” who bash gays, not to mention the nativists who attack Latino immigrants and Muslims?
We owe Helen Thomas an apology.