Helen Thomas’ recent comments that Jews in Palestine should go back where they came from (‘Poland and Germany’) were irresponsibly framed and worded, and the overtones of anti-Semitism are hard to ignore. But the reaction has bee disproportionate and obscures the real point she was trying to make.
Dan Kennedy in CiF writes that Thomas’ ‘anti-Israel bias’ has been known for some time. This is the classic problem with expressing criticism of Israel – criticism of Israel is equated automatically with ‘bias’, a serious charge. Thomas has long been critical of Israel’s actions, but this does not necessarily mean she is biased, just holds opinions which differ from the Israel-right-or-wrong media narrative which dominates much of the US press. This should be obvious, but unfortunately the muffling of opinion on Israel continues in a climate of accusation and recrimination where pejorative words like ‘bias’ are used beyond their true meaning to describe any opinion that does not follow this narrative. Kennedy’s examples of recent ‘challenges’ to this narrative are laughable (Hitchens? Really? And, with a few exceptions, Haaretz’s coverage of the flotilla attack hasn’t presented a notable challenge either).
The way in which Thomas expressed this opinion struck many as repulsive. True, it was a violent remark, and to justify it by saying it is similar to Zionist rhetoric calling for Palestinians to be expelled and distributed round various Arab countries is slightly disingenuous – to sink to such level of discourse doesn’t help anything, as obviously neither solution is practical or foreseeable. But it feeds into a debate which needs to take place on the nature of the Israeli state, a debate which so often is stifled by assumptions and ‘truths’ which no-one dares challenge. The view that the Jews should not be in Palestine is not just the preserve of anti-Semites; as Jack Ross writes, some notable Jewish thinkers have criticised the concept of Israel as a concession to the genocidal movement that drove them from their homes in Europe. Whatever you think of such views, the kneejerk response to Thomas’ statement obscures a valid argument. (To be fair, so does Thomas’ statement.)
Finally, not only has Thomas taken a very speedy retirement, but she has lost several speaking engagements and apparently the person who cowrote her last book has announced he will not work with her again. This, as Roy Greenslade writes, is disproportionate. It’s an example of how dissenting voices are marginalised and the dominant narrative is perpetuated. Thomas is not a ‘batty’ woman who goes around ‘badgering’ politicians (a couple of the more distasteful words used on her in the media recently) – she is someone with strong views who recently went over the top in her expression of them. This does not merit her total exclusion from discourse. How many right-wing commentators in the US could we force to take ‘retirement’ if the Thomas principle applied to them? The cable channels would be suddenly, mercifully, silent.