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BY Jimmy Akin
So Helen Thomas has resigned.
Fine with me. I always found her obnoxious, abrasive, partisan, rude, and mean-spirited.
But don’t count her out just yet. She previously resigned from UPI in 2000 but had a new gig at Hearst Newspapers within a few months, so we may see her again.
Though she is gone (at least for now), the question remains: Was what she said in the video clip anti-Semitic or merely anti-Zionist?
In the combox of my previous post, many commenters disagreed with me and said that the clip did provide proof of Thomas’s anti-Semitism.
That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with disagreement.
Other commenters agreed that the video didn’t provide proof of anti-Semitism and said that I was right to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.
That’s fine, too. I also don’t have a problem with people agreeing.
Even though Thomas has resigned, the issues involved in the exchange are still with us—and will be in the future—and that makes them still worth talking about. So I’d like to explore them a little further.
Specifically, I’d like to evaluate the following claims by critics:
1) That wishing a group of people would leave a particular land automatically constitutes racism
2) That the Jewish people have legitimate title to the land of Israel
These issues were not created by Helen Thomas. They have been with us for a long time, and they will be with us for a long time in the future. I can’t treat them in a single post, but let’s tackle the racism charge in this one.
Some commenters suggested that “Go home!” is the unmistakable cry of the racist, and at first glance, this seems plausible. But does this claim hold up to careful consideration?
It certainly doesn’t apply to all racists. Some racists don’t want those against whom they are prejudiced to leave at all. The runaway slave laws that used to exist in America are proof of that.
But what about the reverse? If you do want a group of people to leave, does that automatically make you a racist?
As is often the case, a matter of principle like this can be demonstrated by changing the scale of the problem. Suppose that we aren’t talking about a whole nation full of people, like Israel, laying claim to a particular territory. Suppose it’s just one person and a much smaller territory.
Specifically: suppose that you are in your house and one night someone breaks in. Further suppose that you are a member of race X and the home invader is a member of race Y. You naturally want the person to leave. But—and here is the key question—why do you want him to leave?
Is it because of his race? Because you don’t like race Y as a whole and don’t want its members around? If so then you are a racist with regard to race Y. No doubt about it.
But the reason you want the person to leave may have nothing to do with the home invader’s race. You may want him to go because you don’t want people invading your home. In that case, your motive is not racism but anti-home-invasion-ism.
Now let’s scale the issue up to where groups of people large enough to control national territories are in play.
Suppose, that you are a citizen of Vichy France and the Nazis have rolled in on their tanks and taken control.
If you want the Germans to leave, are you a racist?
It depends. If you hate all Germans and want them to leave simply because of that fact, then yes, you are an anti-German racist. (Be sure to remember that the word “race” originally applied not just to skin color but to national/ethnic/cultural origin, as in “the German race,” “the British race,” “the Japanese race,” etc.)
If you want Germans out because they are Germans, then yes, you are a racist.
But if you want them out because you don’t like people occupying your homeland—and if you would object whether they were German or British or Japanese—then you are not a racist. You are an anti-occupationist.
In the same way, if it’s 1800 and you are a Native American and you don’t like people of European descent—British, Spanish, or Portugese—occupying your homeland then you are a racist if you hate all British, all Spanish, or all Portugese—even the ones who aren’t occupying your homeland; but you are not a racist if you just hate foreign occupiers.
Or if it’s A.D. 60 and you are a Jewish person in Jerusalem, you may well hate the Romans occupying Judea and Galilee. If you hate all Romans everywhere, then you are an anti-Roman racist. But if you don’t mind Romans that aren’t supporters of the occupation then you are just an anti-occupationist.
They key is whether you want someone to leave because they are an occupier (of whatever race) or whether you want them to leave because they are of a specific race, apart from the occupation issue.
It should be pointed out that hating occupiers and lead to racism.
* If you are a Jew in second century B.C. Judea and you hate the Greek occupiers, you may be led to hate all Greeks.
* If you are a Jew in first century A.D. Judea and you hate the Roman occupiers, you may be led to hate all Romans.
* If you are a Native American in the nineteenth century A.D. Americas, you hate the European occupiers, you may be led to hate all Europeans.
* If you are a twentieth century Frenchman and you hate the German occupiers, you may be led to hate all Germans.
* If you are a twentieth century Palestinian and you hate the Jewish occupiers, you may be led to hate all Jews.
If so, your hatred of occupiers has led you into racism.
But just because occupation can lead one into racism doesn’t mean that it always does lead one into racism.
Should we assume that Maria von Trapp became an anti-German racist just because the Nazis perpetrated the Anschluss and seized control of Austria?
This seems implausible.
We can’t just assume racism on the part of a person who opposes a particular occupation. We can’t just leap to conclusions. We must strive to be fair and accurate about others, even if we don’t like them.
Specifically, we need to watch out for potential offenses against the Eighth Commandment (“Thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor”; Exodus 20:16). One commits calumny who “by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them”; also, if on the basis of an emotional reaction one leaps to an unwarranted conclusion, one commits the sin of rash judgment who “even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2477).
I understand how easy it is to get caught up with emotion when one encounters the kind of venom that Thomas displayed in her recent remarks (even chuckling—or as some have said, cackling—at her own provocation). That’s human. But it is at precisely such times that we have to check ourselves and make sure we are not being misled by our emotions (see above on rash judgment).
That’s why Scripture is full of exhortations like:
* “Reckon others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)—i.e., give them the befit of the doubt
* “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12)—would you want to be given the benefit of the doubt, or to have people stop and check their emotions before lashing out at you?
* “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31)
These are part of the Jewish tradition as much as the Christian, as illustrated not just by the quote from Leviticus, but also by Hillel the Elder’s teaching a Gentile, “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a).
The ethical requirements of both Judaism and Christianity thus require us to be careful in this area and make sure that we are not being swept up by our emotions. But that’s not the only consideration here.
In America today, in the wake of the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany, there are few more damning things that one can say against a person than that they are an anti-Semite.
The only things that compare with it are calling someone a racist, a sexist, or a pedophile.
But that’s changing . . . rapidly . . . because the word “racist” is loosing its punch. The word has been so over-used that its force is wearing off, just as “Help! Wolf!” lost its punch in the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
If you use an emotionally-charged term too often, when it isn’t clearly warranted, it will lose the charge it has. People will start rolling their eyes when you use it, and their sympathies will shift from those who make the accusation to those against whom it is made.
If you don’t want that to happen to the word “anti-Semitism” then you don’t want it over used.
So there is one more reason we should be careful when charging someone with anti-Semitism.
This applies especially to Helen Thomas when you look at the things she said in the video, because she specifically suggests that Israelis who immigrated from America should return to America.
America is Helen’s native country. It’s her own neighborhood. Her own back yard.
And by saying that Israelis who came from America should return to America, she’s saying, “Let’s have more Jews here!”
If she hated Jewish people in general and wanted them to “just go away” on that basis then she wouldn’t be inviting them here. She’d want them to all die or something—or move to Antarctica, or the moon. But none of those is what she says. She just wants them out of a particular plot of ground in the Middle East, and she’s happy to have those of American origin come back to America, where she lives.
That shows she’s anti-occupationist, but it does not show that she’s anti-Semitic.
You can argue that what’s going on in Israel isn’t an occupation. That goes to the issue of who has proper title to the land in question (the subject of an upcoming post). But Helen perceives it as an occupation, and that’s what she’s objecting to.
So at least from what we see in the video, Thomas is clearly an anti-Zionist, but if you want to charge her with anti-Semitism, you’ll need to provide additional evidence.
What are your thoughts?