Helen Thomas has had a long and venerable career. For generations, she has spoken her truth to power, and for most of my adult life, she’s been one of the only journalists in the White House Press Room who’s dared to call it like she sees it, irregardless of the political stripes of the current administration.
“When are you going to get out of Afghanistan?” she challenged President Obama two weeks ago. “Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.’ ”
(quoted by Dana Milbank, online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/07/AR2010060704184.html?hpid=topnews)
As it happens, I often “see it” the same way Ms. Thomas does. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the flap this week that’s resulting in her retirement. She spoke her mind and its gotten her branded an anti-Semite, and after years of sitting in the front row of the White House press room, she’s bowing out. I always thought she’d die before she retired, but apparently in the contemporary media and political climate, one controversial statement is enough to end an honorable and 60 year plus career.
So what did she say?
Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home.”
Her words have been widely interpreted as an anti-Semitic suggestion that Jews return to the European countries in which their families were slaughtered during the Holocaust.
I am a woman of Jewish descent, and there are numerous branches in my family tree that were violently broken off in the second World War. I’ve read transcriptions of firsthand family Holocaust stories that will make the blood run cold, and there are many more stories we will never hear, stories buried in mass graves in Eastern Europe. One of the women in my family who did escape the Holocaust resettled in Israel, so there is a branch of my family tree growing in that Middle Eastern soil. I wish them peaceful, fulfilling lives, and I do not believe they should (or can) pack up and return to the place their matriarch fled, a village which was largely destroyed, the site of which doesn’t even exist in the same country it did then. As a woman of Jewish descent, I am sensitive to words or actions that defame the memories of my ancestors. As a historian, I believe in truth-telling about history above all else.
As a teenager, I thought the Jewish refugees who sailed to found the state of Israel were heroic. As an adult, I believe that they, like every generation of displaced people who have struggled to create a new, safe home for their children, were heroic. The problem was, the place they chose to claim for themselves was already occupied. The problem is, they never found a way to coexist with the people who were living there. The problem is, over time, the state of Israel made it policy to displace other people, creating new generations of refugees and angry children. The problem is, the state of Israel proved useful for Western superpowers as a strategic military base, resulting in outside funding of the Israeli military so exorbitant it made that tiny country the fourth most well-armed nation in the world. The problem is, the state of Israel has used that military to brutally occupy and oppress the people of Palestine, creating conditions, crises, and conflicts that resemble precisely the conditions of the ghettos of the Holocaust. Warsaw and Gaza, described without dates or references to ethnicity, sound pretty much identical.
This offends me. This, in my estimation, is a reality that defames the memories of those in my family who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis. I am as offended by Holocaust deniers as any Jew, or any other moral, intelligent person for that matter, but what of this kind of historical forgetting? What of the Jews who would oppress others using the precise strategies the Nazis used to oppress their ancestors? I am not condemning the people of Israel. There are many Israeli Jews who’ve spoken out and continue to speak out against the policies of their own country. They believe that it is possible to peacefully coexist with their Palestinian neighbors, but they believe the way to do so is through dialogue and respect, not military action and oppression. (Check out http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/) Like them, I care about the sins of the past, but nothing makes my blood boil faster than using those sins to rationalize the sins of the present. I believe the policies and actions of the state of Israel defame the memories of my family.
Helen Thomas is an intelligent woman. She’s also an elder, and understandably tired and frustrated by the years of conflict she’s learned about and reported on. I think she’s earned the right to be cranky, the right to speak her mind and be given the chance to explain herself after.
I suspect she knows full well that once you’ve been displaced by war, poverty, or environmental changes, once you’ve picked up what’s left of your family and moved somewhere for a better life, you can’t really Go Home again, because you can’t be an immigrant forever. You can’t be a displaced person forever. You have to call someplace home. And the difficult fact of human history is, there’s never a blank space for you to claim. There will always be someone who was there first. Immigrants, and the descendants of immigrants, people the entire planet, and the ensuing ethnic conflicts are playing out in every corner of the world. Imagine the debacle of sending everyone back to the place where their ancestors came from! We’d have to move a good portion of the Mexican population into the American Southwest. I’d have to send my torso to eastern Europe, and a few severed limbs to Germany, Holland, and France. Half of my husband would get shipped off to Ireland, and since his mother was adopted, we’d probably have to stick the rest of him in some giant camp for “untraceables.” Where, truth be told, he’d have lots of “American” company.
Speaking of historical forgetting; Helen Thomas may have misspoken about Jews going home, but politicians and members of the American media are committing their own serious misstep. They’re falling all over themselves asserting, as columnist Dana Milbank did, that her statement was an “anti-Semitic suggestion that Jews should… ‘go home’ to Poland and Germany — where they were slaughtered by the millions.” Its true that Jews were slaughtered by the millions in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere. Its true that if the attitudes that led to genocide manage to persist in a community in the generations following that genocide, these communities have a responsibility to address those attitudes, swiftly and with great moral force. But if we continued to mark the sites of genocide as poisoned for all time, we’d find that there was no unbloodied ground for any of us to stand on. Residents of the United States in particular ought to mind their words when throwing around statements about remembering the grounds of genocide. We walk on the ground of genocide every day.
Helen Thomas spoke the words she did because she is tired of learning and reporting about the suffering of the people of Palestine. She doesn’t hate Jews. She doesn’t want the people of Israel to move their children into refugee camps set up on the sites of concentration camps. She wants the conflict in the middle East to end, and like every moral person in the 21st century, she sometimes despairs that there’s a way the end of that conflict can be achieved. So she spoke without thinking, out of passion and frustration, as we have all done many times. She should have known that, as a journalist, someone would probably be listening, or filming. Her statement was a misstep, as she later admitted on her website. “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt 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.”
I think if we gave her a chance to really engage in conversation about the subject, a chance she’s earned after covering every American president since Eisenhower, she might say something worth listening to. Perhaps we could all discuss why her offhand comment has received roughly triple the press coverage of Israel’s attack on a flotilla of aid workers attempting to bring desperately needed food and medical supplies to the beleagured citizens of Gaza?
What frightens me about this debacle is not anti-Semitism. Its the willingness of so many people to see things in black and white, in the oversimplified terms the media feeds us. It is my prerogative as a woman of Jewish ancestry to speak out against the policies of the state of Israel without being branded an anti-Semite, and just as it should be my prerogative as a historian to write about the treatment of Native Americans without being branded anti-American. It is the prerogative of moral people everywhere to speak out about the injustices we believe are happening in the world, and to engage in thoughtful dialogue with each other about the history and effects and possible remedies to those injustices. Watching politicians, citizens, and those in the American media fall over themselves in their race to condemn Helen Thomas scares me. This sort of oversimplification, this rush to judge, this willingness to believe things are as we’ve been told, will not make the world a better or more tolerant place.
I will continue to honor Helen Thomas as a journalist, and I will continue to welcome thoughtful conversation on this subject.