On May 27, long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas made remarks that have caused an uproar.
At the time, she was outside the White House, which was hosting a Jewish heritage event. An interviewer asked her if she had any comments on Israel.
Her reply was, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”
She went on to say that “they” (meaning the Palestinian people) are an occupied people and that Palestine is “their land.”
When asked where Israelis should go, Thomas said that they should “Go home” and went on to identify “home” as “Poland, Germany . . . and America . . . and everywhere else.”
Thomas’s remarks caused an uproar in which many have called her remarks offensive, disgusting, anti-Semitic, hateful, and so forth. Some have been demanding that the White House strip her of her press credentials. Others have suggested that she should be fired from Hearst Newspapers, for which she currently works.
I’d like to look at one characterization of her remarks—that they were anti-Semitic.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a long-standing disapproval of Helen Thomas. I don’t like her reporting. She strikes me as excessively partisan, mean, rude, and unpleasant. But if she’s anti-Semitic, I don’t see sufficient evidence of it in this clip.
Watch for yourself and then let’s discuss . . .
There are anti-Semites in the world, but “anti-Semite” is a term that one has to use with caution. After the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, calling someone an anti-Semite is to throw them in league with the Nazis. It has the emotional punch of calling someone a racist. In fact, anti-Semitism can be seen as a form of racism: racism directed toward Jewish people.
Terms like “anti-Semite” and “racist” are such damning terms that they should only be used when the facts justify them. They should not be tossed around willy-nilly, at whomever you happen to dislike. However convenient they may be for torpedoing your opponent’s reputation, indiscriminate use of these words only cheapens them and takes the focus off the horrors of real anti-Semitism and real racism.
So is Thomas an anti-Semite?
I don’t know. I don’t know her heart (or even her track record of publicly expressed opinions about Jewish people), but I don’t see evidence of anti-Semitism in the clip.
Why do I say that?
Well, for a start, she never even mentions the term “Jew.” Her comments are directed at Israel, which is not synonymous with the Jewish people as a whole. Her problem—at least as she articulates it in the clip—is not with Jewish people in general but with those Jewish people who are present in the modern state of Israel and who, in her view, are oppressing the Palestinian people.
That’s not anti-Semitism. It may by anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism, but it is not racism directed toward the Jewish people.
Her complaint in the vid is of a political and historical nature, not a racial or even a religious one.
She does not display hostility to Jews outside of Israel. If they went to other countries—“Poland, Germany, and America, and everywhere else”—then she would not appear to have a problem.
And note that she includes America in the list of where he wishes the people of Israel would go. It seems she would not mind more Jewish neighbors right here in her own country.
So I’m not seeing evidence for anti-Semitism—hatred (or whatever) of Jewish people as Jewish people. She is expressing—cantankerously (and taking delight in her own cantankerousness)—a historical/political opinion that is common among many people with her background.
For those who may not know, Thomas is a Maronite Catholic [UPDATE: I’ve since run across additional claims that say she is Greek Orthodox, so I’m not sure what is accurate here] whose parents were immigrants from Lebanon (so technically she is a Semite, though ironically not as the term is used in “anti-Semitic,” where “Semite” is improperly treated as a synonym for “Jew”). She was born in 1920 and growing up as a girl and a young woman hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were immigrating to Palestine, with increasingly tense relations between them and the Palestinians. She was a grown woman—age 28—when Israel became an independent state, and subsequently has seen—and felt in a personal way—the subsequent history of pain and violence of the region, including in particular the horrors that have befallen Lebanon on account of its proximity to Israel.
There is another side to that story—the Jewish side. (In fact, there are many sides to this story, including multiple ones within each ethnic group.) But it is understandable if someone like Thomas were to think, “Y’know, things would have been better off if all those immigrants and refugees had never come to Palestine. I wish they’d all go back to their previous homelands.”
Actually deconstructing the state of Israel and returning its citizens to other countries is not something that is presently on the table (though who knows what will happen if Middle Eastern states start getting nukes), and I don’t know that Thomas was literally proposing it. She may well have just been giving voice to an angry wish or fantasy scenario.
But that kind of thing is not uncommon or unexpected. In history people have conflicts, some people lose, and those who lose often harbor such wishes—sometimes for generations. It’s human nature.
Beyond that, the opinions one might reasonably attribute to Thomas on the basis of the clip—that it would be better if the Jewish migration to Palestine had never occurred and the state of Israel had never been founded, that the Palestinians have some kind of still-existing claim to the territory of Israel, and that it would be better if the Israelis migrated to other countries—are opinions which one could reasonably hold.
That’s not to say that they’re right, just that one could reasonably hold them. (I.e., they don’t flatly contradict the clear dictates of reason.) One also can reasonably hold diametrically opposite views. These are subjects of a historical and political nature that people can disagree about.
Were Thomas’ remarks inopportune? As they were made outside of a Jewish heritage celebration, oooooh yes.
Were they phrased with unnecessary cantankerousness? Uh-huh.
Was she foolish to make them? Most definitely.
Should she lose her job or White House credentials over them? One may reasonably hold this opinion.
But was she being anti-Semitic in her remarks? Not from what we see in the clip.
You can hold that Helen Thomas is as hateful, offensive, mean, venomous, outrageous, embarrassing a woman as you wish, but if you want to accuse her of anti-Semitism, you’ll need more than this clip. One can be angry about a historical situation without hating an entire people.
She is clearly an anti-Zionist—and an angry one!—but Zionism and the Jewish people are not the same thing. An angry anti-Zionist is not the same thing as an anti-Semite.
Unless evidence emerges that she hates Jewish people as an entire people (not just those Jewish people she views as occupiers of Palestine), let’s not call her an anti-Semite. It cheapens the word and thus makes it easier for real anti-Semitism to occur.
What are your thoughts?