Why Helen Thomas mattered

Helen Thomas’ lost teaching moment

07/23/2013 22:17
Helen Thomas, the intrepid and longserving White House correspondent passed away earlier this week. She was eulogized as a “trailblazing” reporter, the first woman president of the White House Correspondent’s Association; “dogged” and opinionated in her questioning. Almost every report also mentioned her retiring from Hearst publications in 2010 following an incident involving Israel.

The Chicago Tribune noted that she retired after “comments she made about Israel and the Palestinians.”

Some reports mentioned her apology; “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. May that day come soon.”

The narrative presented is the one that many supporters would have liked.

It depicts her as merely being a punchy Israel-critic, forced from her job because of it.

The reality is more unfortunate, since the actual import of her comments could have led us to learn something about the power and nature of anti-Semitism.

On May 27, 2010 Thomas attended a White House American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day and was interviewed briefly by Rabbi David Nesenoff. He asked her if she had comments on Israel and she replied “tell them to get the hell out of Palestine…

remember these people [Palestinians] are occupied and it is their land, not Germany, not Poland.” Where the Jews should go? “Go home, Poland, Germany… and America and everywhere else, why push people out who have lived there for centuries?” In a subsequent interview with Playboy Thomas explained her comments. ”I knew I’d hit the third rail. You cannot say anything about Israel in this country… Everybody knows my feelings that the Palestinians have been shortchanged in every way. Sure, the Israelis have a right to exist – but where they were born, not to come and take someone else’s home.”

She claimed she went home after the interview, “I wanted to see if I was remorseful – and I wasn’t.”

“There’s no understanding of the Palestinians at all. I mean, they’re living there and these people want to come and take their homes…kill their children and kill them.”

Asked if she was anti-Jewish she claimed “They’ve [Jews] always had the heart for others but not for Arabs, for some reason. I’m not anti-Jewish; I’m anti-Zionist. I am anti- Israel taking what doesn’t belong to it. If you have a home and you’re kicked out of that home, you don’t come and kick someone else out. Anti-Semite? The Israelis are not even Semites! They’re Europeans.”

When the Playboy interviewer read her an oped critical of her comments, Thomas interjected “did a Jew write this?… Who are these people? Why do they think they’re so deserving? The slaughter of Jews stopped with World War II… And yet they carry on the victimization.

American people do not know that the Israeli lobbyists have intimidated them into believing every Jew is a persecuted victim forever – while they are victimizing Palestinians.”

It only got worse from there. “They [Jews] have power in every direction… power over the White House, power over Congress…

Everybody is in the pocket of the Israeli lobbies, which are funded by wealthy supporters, including those from Hollywood. Same thing with the financial markets. There’s total control.”

Asked about Steven Spielberg’s project to record Holocaust memories, “There’s nothing wrong with remembering it, but why do we have to constantly remember? We’re not at fault… But we didn’t do this to the Jews.

Why do we have to keep paying the price and why do they keep oppressing the Palestinians?” Asked about how such a small group of people could control so much, Thomas asked the reporter “of course they have power, you don’t deny that, you’re Jewish aren’t you?” Then, “some of my best friends are Jewish…

But what am I supposed to do, love every Jew because they want to take Palestine? It’s a real cause with me.”

Finally, asked about the Iraq war, “I think there’s an Israel connection. Our government feels compelled to protect Israel” and “We’re still not getting the full story on Israel… you don’t see these stories in the news.”

THOMAS HAD what might be described as a anti-Judeo-centric worldview, one where almost everything in the world has a Jewish or “Israeli” connection. Israeli in this case is interchangeable with “Jew,” since she argued that Israelis should return to where Jews, in her view, came from. She interposes the two, as in the construction “every Jew is a persecuted victim forever – while they are victimizing Palestinians.”

Every time someone accuses someone of anti-Semitism they get dragged into this “crying wolf” argument that the accusation should not be thrown around lightly. However the Thomas debacle was a perfect opportunity for what President Barack Obama always calls a “teaching moment.” Thomas displayed key aspects of anti-Semitic propaganda, including the lumping of all Jews into a single unit so that “the Jews” do X, as if everyone in the group is the same.

She drew connections between all Jews and a conspiracy of “total control” of Hollywood, financial markets and US politics. And in the defense of Thomas as “only an anti-Zionist,” one sees the perfect way in which hatred of Israel and “the Jews” is twisted around into “anti-Zionism” where “Jew” becomes interchangeable with “Zionists” and “Israelis,” all three working in concert.

Important questions could have been asked about this scandal, most importantly how much these rabid anti-Jewish views were permitted to color coverage of Israel under Thomas for more than 50 years.

She presented herself as standing up to a “lobby,” but the real lobby was likely in her own writing and the tremendous power she had to influence opinion.

Perhaps that is an irony; she accused a nefarious ethnic group of controlling America, but all by herself she lobbied and sought to color our understanding of events, much as she accused others of doing.

The teaching moment was lost because we are still unable to understand how to interpret comments about the “Jewish lobby” and the difference between anti-Israel and anti- Jewish rhetoric. Commenting on one left wing website about the Thomas issue, a woman named Danaa noted “The Jewish/Israel lobby does control the congress, the presidency, many court systems, US foreign policy, the financial markets, Hollywood, admission boards and faculties of many top colleges and/or departments, the media, the publishing industry and the labor union leadership.”

And earlier this week Haaretz ran an oped by Uri Misgav arguing “the American administrations are paralyzed by the Jewish lobby in Congress, who are indebted to Jewish donors and are held captive.”

HELEN THOMAS was lauded for asking tough questions and being dogged. But we are not dogged enough in our attack on these monstrous claims about the power of “the Jewish lobby,” even within our own media.

“Paralyzed by the Jewish lobby” because Congress is “indebted to Jewish donors” and “held captive.” No one asks what is meant by “Jewish donor”; does it constitute any Jew anywhere who gives to any politician? The writer doesn’t write “pro-Israel Jewish donor,” so evidently every Jew is now tarred as a “Jewish donor.” And how much do they donate? No one asks because we have not learned from our “teaching moment.”

These anti-Jewish outbursts come along often, the prime minister of Turkey reportedly accused Jewish “interests” of being involved in protests. Oliver Stone claimed there was “Jewish domination of our media.”

We must urge accountability, not blithe apologies, and we must urge media to ask tough questions of these haters, not just whisk things under the carpet with debates about “anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism.”

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