Sunday, June 13, 2010

thoughts on helen thomas

Here is the exchange that got Helen Thomas into trouble and led to her "decision" to retire.

Rabbi DAVID F. NESENOFF (Founder, Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today, any comments on Israel?

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Former Columnist, Hearst News Service): Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

Rabbi NESENOFF: Ooh. Any better comments on Israel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Helen has one.

Ms. THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land. Not German. It's not Poland.

Rabbi NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?

Ms. THOMAS: They can go home.

Rabbi NESENOFF: Where is their home?

Ms. THOMAS: Poland...

Rabbi NESENOFF: So the Jews...

Ms. THOMAS: Germany.

Rabbi NESENOFF: You think Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

Ms. THOMAS: And America and everywhere else.

1. I believe in free speech. I'm even happy to live in a society where individuals are able to make bigoted remarks without legal repercussion as long as there is space for more progressive voices to call out bigots on their bs.

2. Unfortunately, in terms of mic access in the popular media, there is an imbalance and some voices are constrained while others are not. Most recently, of course, we see this in the recent situation involving Helen Thomas where she is "encouraged" to retire while on a regular basis (Patrick Buchanan, Mike Huckabee, and others are able to make bigoted comments, especially against Arab/Muslims, with a great deal of impunity.)

3. I actually didn't know that Helen Thomas was Lebanese-American until this controversy came up and I'm not sure how I feel about how it is being used now. Several of the articles, columns and pieces have been mentioning Thomas' background and one can argue that it is relevant to the subject matter. On the other hand, one could argue that it is an example of playing the "race card" in order to discredit her objectivity much in the same way that anti-Obama folks would emphasize his middle name.

4. Thomas' comments were so offensive, primarily because they evoked the memory of the Holocaust but in reality, that was entirely unintentional. TODAY, there is no Holocaust in Germany and Poland and there certainly isn't one in America.

5. In spite of the offense, I think there is something salvageable in what Helen Thomas said and it would be worthwhile trying to find ways to express it more diplomatically.

6. The simple question: Where are you from? can either be answered briefly with a country or city. Or it can be answered with a 5 minute historical ethnography. In the case of Jewish citizens of Israel, answering the question can involve a rather tangled story. The oversimplified version would be to say that Jews are originally from ancient Israel. They left for a while. And now they are back.

7. Of course, in most cases "a while" is the nearly 2000 year period book-ended by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD and the founding of modern Israel in 1948. So the ancient Jews spent hundreds, if not thousands of years, in different countries, learning new languages, intermarrying into new nations, adopting new cultures, etc. In addition, some Jews are descended from groups like the Khazars who converted to Judaism in large numbers and actually have little physical connection to the people of ancient Israel.

8. So how many centuries does it take to be "from" somewhere? Is 100 years enough? 500? 1000? 1500?

9. At least in the case of Ashkenazi (literally German) and Sephardi Jews (literally from the Iberian Peninsula), at some point, they became European and have been that way for centuries. So Zionist project is arguably the last vestige of European colonialism in the region. This would especially be true in the case of Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories which is actually a violation of international law (and is probably what Helen Thomas was referring to when she said that the Jews ought to go back home).

10. As a thought experiment, I wonder what the reaction would have been if , during apartheid, in the wake of some move by the South African government analogous to the flotilla attack, especially one where a US citizen was killed, an American journalist said that white South Africans needed to go back to the Netherlands. How would that have been received? How should that have been received?

(more thoughts later...)

Daily Kos: Helen Thomas Referring to Ashkenazi in "Poland', "Germany" Remark

Real News: Nader says reinstate Thomas

Huffington Post:
In Defense of Helen Thoms: On Apologizing to Apologists
If Helen Thomas, Then Why Not Pat Buchanan?
Good thing we've got a "free press" here

Jews should leave Palestine and return to Europe, top U.S. journalist says

Helen Thomas went over the top, but why is she gagged in the land of the free?

In Helen Thomas case, the world sees a taboo being enforced

The cautionary tale of Helen Thomas by Mark LeVine

100,000 Former Soviet Jews In Israel Return To Russia
Where Do France's Jews Belong?

Hebraization of surnames
Ashkenazi Jews
Sephardi Jews
Mizrahi Jews
Arab Jews

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