On Helen Thomas–you know, when people are 90 (or 89, actually), they don’t always say what they mean, or mean what they say. If she meant that Israel should be dissolved and everyone there go somewhere else, then that’s clearly preposterous. If she meant that Israel should pull back from the occupied territories and stop the building of new settlements, that’s something else entirely, and sounds like a good debating point. One that a number of Americans seems curiously unwilling to have, but that may or may not be another story. Funny that no one has asked her what she meant. And now she has been forced to resign. But Thomas’s major error here was not mis-speaking, or anything as unlikely as anti-Semitism–it was that she let her anger seep through.
Here’s the background—on May 27, outside the White House, Rabbi David Nesenoff asked Thomas if she had any comments on Israel. Let’s see, what was happening on May 27? Just the usual, actually—we hadn’t even got to the flotilla madness, which came several days later. About the only news of note, in fact, had been the story a couple of days earlier in The Guardian that Israel had offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa during the apartheid era. Denials all around afterwards, of course, but did anyone really believe the denials? Probably not, but this is just everyone going through the motions anyway. The only other story of note, if anyone noticed it at all, was the IDF indicating that they were prepared to stop the Gaza flotilla. We know how that turned out.
Anyway, Thomas came back with a rather surprising comment: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” Nesenoff was probably a but surprised by this. Thomas followed up with a comment that Palestine was Palestinian, “not German, it’s not Polish.” And when asked where Jews should go, Thomas replied with “Go home…. To Poland, Germany…and America and everywhere else.”
Since then, Thomas has issued a statement on her website, on June 4: “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.” This, of course, has not stopped calls for her resignation, and presumably tarring and feathering is too good for her at this point. Ari Fleischer, that model of integrity and probity, has called for her resignation. Lanny Davis, another gem, has as well. So has B’nai Brith, which at least has a lot more credibility than either Fleischer or Davis. And of course, the Anti-Defamation League is hot on the trail for Thomas’ scalp as well. But still. How much of this is deserved?
Davis, for example, now calls Thomas an “anti-Semitic bigot.” This does not surprise me, of course—we now live in a time when any questioning of Israeli policy in whatever shape or form is taken as prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. But is that what Thomas was doing? To me, this is just Thomas, like so many of us, being fed up with Israeli intransigence over its settlement policies and the potential damage it is doing to its own, and American, interests in the mideast. These are familiar arguments, of course, but not ones that the Washington press corps is enthusiastic about pursuing, even several years after the publication of Walt and Mearshiemer’s The Israel Lobby. I might be misinterpreting her remarks, but it seems to me it’s to easy to lapse into anti-Semitism to characterize this outburst.
Now, one of the interesting things here is the time line—Thomas made these comments on May 27. But no one apparently noticed, or maybe cared, until a couple of days ago, although it may be that the video has only become available in the past few days. And the past couple of days have been coloured by the flotilla incident, since which defenders of Israel have been rallying round the cause of defending the indefensible, yet again. You would think this would get tiresome, and for some, apparently, it has. But as far as I can tell, this was a fairly low burner issue until June 5, when Fleischer, and then Davis, started calling for Thomas to be fired by the Hearst Organization, for which she is currently a White House correspondent. This is the sort of story that always generates lots of interest once out there. For example, the Sam Stein story about Fleischer calling for Thomas’s firing, which appeared in The Huffington Post on June 5, seems to already have 17,691 comments as of this writing (that’s 273 pages—and rising, presumably).
I suspect there is an increasing polarization around Israel that will come to rival Iraq as a splinter point in American politics, and the more aggressive supporters of Israel are doing everything they can to forestall this. So we get comments about Helen Thomas being anti-Semitic from the usual sources, and even from the normally reliable Steve Benen. But even in the comments on his post one can find the almost irreparable split between those who will let nothing tarnish the motives of the Israeli government, and those who want some genuine movement on the Palestinian issue. This is all so depressing. I see that both Democrats and Republicans think it’s perfectly ok for Israeli commandos to kill an unarmed American citizen in international waters now, and that the White House appears reluctant to address this. Ironically, it was Thomas who pressed White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on the issue. Senator Schumer now wants the flotilla investigated for Al Qaeda links.
So Thomas had to go. After the events of the last week, one has to wonder what it will take to get a substantive discussion going in the American political sphere on whether Israel’s current policies are counter-productive to American’s interests, and whether the need now is, as both Mark Kleiman and Nicholas Kristof have suggested, saving Israel from itself. It’s not looking likely.