The knives are out for Helen Thomas.
There is more outrage in this country over some bumbling comments she recently made than over the murder of a US citizen and eight others by our ally, Israel, on the high seas. Never mind the fact that she has apologized while Israel still refuses to apologize.
Judging by any standard, Helen Thomas has enjoyed a long and illustrious career. She made history as the first female member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, covering the administrations of 10 U.S. presidents, beginning with Kennedy.
Helen Thomas epitomized the role of the people’s reporter, a woman who was not afraid to ask tough questions that other reporters were too meek or politically correct to ask, the sort of questions that sought to hold the nation’s highest elected official accountable to the people who put him there.
Thomas was a White House fixture, an American icon, earning a permanent front row seat and rights to the first question (in all but the George W. Bush administration).
But it only took one unfortunate comment made in her personal capacity to a video blogger last week to bring this long and remarkable career to a screeching halt. The comment came on the heels of the Israeli raid of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that resulted in the death of nine human rights activists and the wounding of many more.
“Tell them to get the get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people [the Palestinians] are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland.” She was asked where they should go and she answered, “They should go home, to Poland, Germany and America”.
The comment was made viral by rabbilive.com and it did not take long for Helen to face a backlash including calls for her firing by former White House spokesperson, Aril Fleischer (yes the same guy during whose tenure she was stripped of perks allowed her by other administrations).
Do I agree with Helen Thomas’ statement?
No, I do not. (For the record, I believe that the only way forward is for Israel to get the hell out of the occupied territories rather than for Jews to get the hell out of Israel).
It turns out, neither does Helen Thomas who has since retracted the statement and apologized for it.
I am glad she did. This article is not about defending her off-the-cuff comment; it is about defending her good person and questioning the motives of those who wish her ill.
Her comment was uncalled for; her apology was a welcome remedy. But curiously, that was not enough. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League – a group that has mutated over the years from defending Jews to politicking for Israel – did not like the apology and asked for a second longer one. The backlash did not let off and she was forced to retire.
It irks me that for an expedient cadre out there, a “few seconds” of emotional speech are seemingly enough to cancel out a 67 year long career of honorable service.
But let us not be so gullible as to miss the background on this story.
Helen Thomas has been a nuisance for the Pro-occupation lobby in this country since forever. Her unfortunate gaffe presented those who had long sought to silence her with the golden opportunity they had been waiting for. (It is rather telling that they had to wait this long, with Thomas turning 90 years this August).
It is particularly disingenuous that Ari Fleischer should be the one to lead the call for her head.
What moral authority does he have to call for the firing of a reporter who has served American audiences with integrity and honesty for decades while he himself was a mouthpiece of lies and propaganda that cost Americans their lives and treasures in a needless war?
If anyone should have been fired for offensive conduct, it was Fleischer, a man who duped – or allowed himself to be used to dupe – the American people.
Secondly, whatever happened to freedom of speech, the same freedom of speech that is championed (by the same people who called for Thomas’s firing) when the outrageous comment is about Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinians? More on that later.
Thirdly, while I don’t agree with Thomas as I’ve already stated, it makes a difference to me that her comment was not given in her official reporting capacity but in response to an off-the-job question. Like everyone else, she is entitled to a personal opinion. Those who question her professional integrity need to provide evidence from her voluminous work to corroborate their concerns of potential professional bias.
Fourthly, the notion that she is advocating genocide is a fabrication. Neither her personal history, professional track record, nor the comment itself, point in that direction. Notice her words, “should get out” not “should be gotten out,” they clearly indicate active and willful action on the part of the subject, not coercive objectification.
As such, whether you agree or disagree with her, it is a logical error on anyone’s behalf to accept the trumped-up allegation that this is “a call to genocide.”
Rabbilive.com adds spin to her comment with a video caption that “6 million Jews were killed at home.” But Thomas’ comment was made in 2010, not 1940, a time in which Germany and Poland are not killing Jews. Plus she mentioned America as home, too; Jews were never killed here.
Again, this does not make her comment right; it just absolves her of “calling for genocide” as Fleischer and others have charged.
Fleischer further argued that “if a journalist, or a columnist, said the same thing about blacks or Hispanics, they would already have lost their jobs.”
His comparison of Israelis to US Blacks and Hispanics is bizarre. Helen is not talking about American Jews, but about a foreign country. Her opinion as such is not as relevant or reverent to Americans as a comment made about African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or Jewish Americans, etc.
Lastly, if the same standard was applied to reporters and politicians who said things half as offensive as this about Palestinians, a significant portion of that workforce would be fired, including many who have defended Israel’s mass killing of civilians.
Having said all that, this episode is mostly significant in that it provides a revealing portrait of the hypocritical state of freedom of speech in America.
Many self-proclaimed defenders of freedom of speech are quick to hail the many derogatory Muhammad cartoons as a symbol of defiance against Muslim radicals who wish to deter free speech with death threats. But if we are in the business of challenging red lines, then it is hypocritical to obsess with the case of the prophet but turn a blind eye over the case of the gorilla in the room, Israel.
Those who venture to offend the pro-Israel lobby may not face death threats, but they likely will face enough pressure to hasten the death of their careers – a deterrent against free speech that is no less offensive and apparently more effective. Indeed if this were not so, American reporters and politicians would do a better job at presenting both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian issue rather than the abysmal one-sided track record Americans have been subjected to for so long.