By Robert Scheer
The media tirade against Helen Thomas is as illogical as it is hysterical. The few sentences uttered by her were, as she quickly acknowledged, wrong—deeply so, I would add. But they cannot justify the road-rage destruction of the dean of the Washington press corps. Suddenly this heroic woman who broke so many gender barriers and dared to challenge presidential arrogance was reduced to nothing more than the stereotypical anti-Israel Arab that it is so fashionable to hate.
“Thomas, of Lebanese ancestry and almost 90, has never been shy about her anti-Israel views,” writes Richard Cohen in The Washington Post, in a non sequitur reference to a reporter born in Winchester, Ky., in 1920 when few—Jews included—supported a Jewish state in Palestine and whose parents were Christians. Obviously Cohen, who attacks Thomas for “revealing how very little she knew” about the history of Israel, is unaware that Lebanese Christians have been the staunchest allies of the Jewish state. Indeed, they provided the shock troops who, under Israeli cover, massacred the unarmed inhabitants of Palestinian refugee camps. To attribute Thomas’ views on Israel to her Lebanese parents is no less offensive than it would be to suggest that a Jewish reporter cannot be objective because, as in my case, his mother escaped anti-Semitism in Russia.
Thomas’ fall from grace as a media icon began with her daring to criticize the abysmal coverage of the buildup to the Iraq war. How ironic that her opposition to the U.S. invasion is offered as an example of hostility to Israel when that war did so much to increase the power of Iran, Israel’s most significant enemy in the region. After all, Israel claims that the presumed military threat from Gaza is fueled by Iran, which enjoys much support in Shiite-led Iraq—previously governed by Tehran’s archenemy Saddam Hussein.
As someone who has long supported a two-state solution for the historically disputed land of Palestine, I have no trouble condemning Thomas’ ill-considered remarks that Israeli Jews should go back to the lands from where they came. I am opposed to denying legitimacy to desperate immigrants seeking a better life anywhere, be they in Arizona or the Middle East. What I don’t understand is why this basic respect for human rights doesn’t apply to the people who call themselves Palestinian and who are illegal immigrants not as a matter of birth but only in the political calculus of those who find their indigenous presence at best an inconvenience and at worst an insolvable threat. Why is it morally acceptable to deny Palestinians the right to full citizenship in their birthplace and instead insist, as Israel’s leaders often have, that they should be content to live under the flag of nations like Egypt, Syria and Jordan that have long oppressed them?
Nor is it relevant to lecture the Palestinians that the current rulers of Jordan might be more benign overlords than when they slaughtered Palestinians in the Black September days of 1970-71. Or that they should be comfortable under the rule of Egypt, whose leaders had previously governed Gaza so oppressively and now join in the cruel blockade of its economy. Demands that Palestinians surrender their national aspirations are no more valid than Thomas’ outburst calling for Jews to trust the modern governments of Poland and Germany.
What the Thomas affair allowed was the repeat incantation of the Holocaust as the excuse for punishing not the Europeans who committed those unspeakable crimes, but rather the Palestinians, who had nothing whatsoever to do with what remains as the greatest moral stain on the history of people claiming to be civilized. It was not Palestinians or Muslim fundamentalists who ran the crematoriums, but rather highly educated and mostly Christian Europeans.
For that reason, one must support the right of Jews to live securely in the nation of Israel, the place they claim as their historical homeland. But not without consideration of the rights of their fellow Semites, the mostly non-Jewish Palestinians who happened to already be living there.
On that point the apology Thomas issued got it right: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.”
Now all that is left is for those in the media and government who have shown so little respect and tolerance for the Palestinian side of the dispute to offer some apologies for decades of indifference to, and often contempt for, those victims as well.
AP / Charles Dharapak
Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas sits front and center in 2006 as she waits for President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Tony Snow, to arrive for the daily briefing in the West Wing of the White House.