The cautionary tale of Helen Thomas

Journalist’s words a sign of things to come as US grows weary of conflict, says Mark LeVine.

helen thomas
The White House journalist retired after making controversial remarks about Israel [GETTY]

“The Jews should get the hell out of Palestine.”

So said legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas, to a rabbi no less, at a Jewish Heritage Month celebration on May 27 – even worse.

There was, needless to say, no way Thomas was going to remain in her job after that remark.

Why did she make remarks that would so clearly bring her illustrious career to such an ignominious end?

Maybe, at 89 years old, she just did not care anymore and let some hidden feelings of anti-Semitism leak out.

Maybe, as so often happens in this age of constant in your face “citizen journalism,” someone with a camera caught her off guard, asked her a leading question, and she vented frustration at a situation she, more than perhaps anyone else in Washington, has seen drag on and on without end. Generations of administrations decry Israel’s intransigence – only off the record, of course.

We will never know, for rather than explaining or even justifying her remarks, she issued a seemingly heartfelt apology and retired from public life.

‘Any comments on Israel?’

But there are two issues raised by Thomas’ remarks that are worth considering regardless of whether she further clarifies (or perhaps obscures) them.

One is what she actually meant when she said them. The second, and more important issue, is what these remarks herald for the way the American public will view Israel in the future should the situation in Israel/Palestine continue as it has.

Thomas’ response was to a question by Rabbi David Nesenoff about the protesters in front of the White House who were chanting against the seizure of the Gaza aid flotilla and the killing of nine activists on the ship by Israeli commandos.

The question was: “Any comments on Israel? We’re arresting everyone today. Any comments…” But, before the questioner could finish, she looked straight at the camera and said: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”

“Ooooh,” he replied, in shock. “Any better comments on Israel?”

It is hard to know if by “better” he meant more favourable, or at least less hostile, or even more provocative, guaranteeing that the video would become a youtube sensation. Thomas took the latter path.

Laughing at his response, she continued: “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland…”

“Where should they go?” Nesenoff asked.

“They should go home … Poland, Germany … and America. And everywhere else.”

What did she mean?

Her words helped Netanyahu by seeming to confirm that ‘the world is against Jews’ [GETTY]

Perhaps Thomas was thinking of the West Bank settlers when she made her remarks. If so, she seems to be confused about where most Jews come from who live in the settlements, mixing together waves of pre-second world war immigration from Central and Eastern Europe with more recent immigration from the US.

Today, hardly any come from Germany and Poland, most of whose Jews perished in the Holocaust. The pre-1948 Zionist immigrants from these countries tended to stay in the primary areas of Jewish settlement, in Tel Aviv and along the coast and central plain.

Today’s ideological settlers are most likely to come from the US or are third or fourth generation Israelis. Other settlers consist of more recent immigrants from around the world who have little choice but to take advantage of the numerous government incentives for moving to the settlements.

But what exactly did Thomas mean by “Palestine” and what era is she talking about?

Given her mix of countries “they” should return to, it seems more likely that, at least in that moment of unreflective – or un-self censored-comment, she was stating a desire to see all the Jews of Israel/Palestine “go home”.

Helen Thomas, it seems, had entered a time machine and was adopting the rhetoric of Palestinians circa the 1960s, before the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) changed its ideology to declare that Israelis could remain in Palestine as citizens in a unified, democratic Palestinian state.

Home of free speech

Of course, these sentiments could not be allowed to stand.

This might be the US, the home of free speech, where The New York Times editors see no threat to journalistic integrity in having as their Israel bureau chief a reporter whose son serves in the Israeli army (to his credit, The Times’ public editor did argue against such a move, but was ignored), but should a reporter with half a century of distinguished reporting, make one anti-Israel statement she can no longer be considered capable of reporting honestly on any issue.

And sure enough, after profusely apologising for her remarks and declaring her belief that “peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognise the need for mutual respect and tolerance,” Thomas retired.

The fact that the entirety of the mainstream US media has blatantly put forward the Israeli propaganda narrative surrounding the justifications for and legality of the commando raid on the aid flotilla requires no soul searching.

Helen Thomas has proved that the whole world is against Israel, even the hyper-liberal US media, so there is no point trying to offer a more accurate account of what happened that deadly night.

Repeating story lines

Some Americans are growing tired of the official Israeli narrative [GETTY]

Thomas might have been forced to fall on her sword, but her words should serve as a cautionary tale.

Quite simply, people are getting tired of the occupation and its endlessly repeating story lines.

Like a long-running soap opera that has clearly run out of steam, once reliable friends are slowly turning off the official Israeli narrative, even in the US.

It started with General David Patraeus’ remarks that Israeli intransigence was putting the US’ strategic position in the Muslim world in jeopardy and costing American lives. This from a leader of an institution, the US military, that has profited handsomely from the regional imbroglios, arms races and wars to which the Israeli occupation has contributed.

Next came voices from within the Jewish community, from scholars like Peter Beinart who has recently written that the failure of the American Jewish leadership to criticise Israel is leading younger Jews increasingly to “check their Zionism” rather than their liberalism at the door, and even politicians like Barney Frank, who declared after the flotilla raid that he was “embarrassed to be Jewish”.

If a congressman can declare that he is embarrassed to be Jewish, what is to stop non-Jewish Americans from increasingly declaring their embarrassment and even disgust with Israeli policies, and losing any sense of nuance about this ultra-complex conflict in the process.

“Yitzhar? Beersheva? Gush Etzion? Tel Aviv? What is the difference? Just go away, stop taking our money, and leave us alone!”

In other words, Thomas’ seeming confusion of the homelands of most Jewish settlers in the West Bank could well be a harbinger of what will happen in the US more broadly – as people grow weary of this conflict, as the economy continues to remain weak, as aid to Israel in the context of an endless ‘war on terror’ seems increasingly strange and unjustifiable when the Israeli government routinely defies the US’ wishes.

A gift

Intended or not, Helen Thomas issued a warning to Israel and to the American Jewish leadership. If this conflict is not resolved fairly and comprehensively soon, more Americans – including American Jews – will not just start thinking like her, but speaking like her.

They will not bother trying to understand why Israel is acting as it is or what the differences are between Israel within its 1967 borders, which are recognised by most of the world, and the “Greater Israel” that encompasses large swaths of the West Bank.

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy put it best in a brilliant piece of satirical commentary entitled Netanyahu was right, arguing that: “Netanyahu said the whole world is against us. Wasn’t he right? He also said we live under an existential threat. Isn’t it beginning to look like that? Give it another minute and Turkey will be at war with us too. Netanyahu said there’s no chance of reaching an agreement with the Arabs. Wasn’t that spot on? Our prime minister, who saw danger lurking in every alleyway and enemies waiting around every corner, who has always taught that there is no hope, who has drummed into us that we shall forever live by the sword (just as his father the historian taught him), knew what he was talking about.”

Levy is spot on. The only way the occupation can continue indefinitely and Israel can avoid the seemingly inevitable if sisyphean task of disentangling itself from the settlements and territorially separating from Palestinians is for Israelis and their supporters to feel, deep down in their core, that no matter what they do, the world will always be against the Jews and will want to destroy Israel.

If that is the case, then there is no point risking civil war by making incredibly painful territorial concessions that will do little to assuage the animosity against Israel, and Jews more broadly; to stem the belief that Jews, the world’s ultimate homeless nation, should leave its mytho-historical and present home and return to countries like Germany and Poland, where they were slaughtered by the millions.

Thomas’ words were an unexpected but certainly welcome gift to the Israeli government and its supporters, at least for the moment. Now instead of talking about the 30 plus shots fired into the bodies of activists on the high seas, the media has to bend over backwards to demonstrate its commitment to Israel’s narrative. Instead of demanding better access to Gaza, it has to refute the liberal anti-Israel bias of the media.

A warning

Few will distinguish between settlers and those living within the 1967 borders [GETTY]

But her words were also an admonishment. Israel can continue its occupation and defy world opinion because it is still perceived as a strategic and political asset by the American establishment and crucial political and economic constituencies.

Israeli leaders are betting that their best chance of continuing the status quo indefinitely is for the US to remain embroiled in so many conflicts abroad that no administration has the energy or political capital to seriously challenge Israel’s actions even when they contradict the assessment of generals and policy-makers about the best interests of the US.

But if things keep going badly in the US – a double-dip recession, weak job numbers, increasing casualties in distant battlefields, more oil and coal mining disasters, another, this time successful, terrorist attack (to name but a few possibilities) – Americans are going to start looking for people to blame. And historically, we all know who tends to get the blame when things go wrong ….

This is what Helen Thomas’ words, however intemperate and even prejudiced, were telling us. And needless to say, this is precisely what the leadership of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran would love to see happen – let Israel go about the business of destroying itself while they look on, waiting to pounce, just as Israel did to Palestinian society during the worst years of the al-Aqsa intifada, when the pressure led to widespread chaos and infighting among Palestinians.

The question is will Israel play according to their script and continue to defy world public opinion, slowly alienating the population of its only (until now) unequivocal benefactor, or will its leaders and so-called friends change course before it is too late?

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera