Does Helen Thomas Work for Israel?

When I was a graduate student, a professor once told me “there are no coincidences.” Last week I believed him. In the wake of the Gaza Flotilla disaster (it was a disaster any way you look at it, pro-Israel, pro-Palestine), Israel was engaged in a fight it has not known for some time: international condemnation and a US administration that was tepidly protecting it, albeit without the reflexive muscle it once did in the Bush years. Even the staunchly pro-Israel New York Jewish Week (the largest Jewish weekly in the United States) could not bring itself to fully justify Israel’s failed mission, to say nothing of the relentless criticism of the government’s action in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The story remains complex; all parties claim to be justified in their actions. This is no longer about the occupation writ large but about the legitimacy of Israel’s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, something that has gotten scant attention outside Israel and the Arab world—until now. Israel is claiming the flotilla was a trap set by militants (some even claim “terrorists”), and that they acted in self-defense. Those on the flotilla do not deny they used violence (with the Israeli video clips it’s hard to deny that) but they claim Israel shot first and that they were acting in self-defense. He said/she said, with nine civilian corpses in the middle.

In the midst of all this comes Helen Thomas, the groundbreaking octogenarian White House correspondent of Lebanese descent who, in a little-known interview later posted on YouTube, made the stupid comment that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine… go home… to Poland, Germany… and America.” Is Thomas an anti-Semite? I doubt it. Her old friend Ari Fleisher who, on CNN, denounced the comment as despicable did not claim that she was an anti-Semite. But the comment was surely anti-Semitic. As the video circulated sparking outrage the Hearst Corporation, a corporation with its own dubious past when it comes to Jews (I know, my father worked for them in the 1960s), terminated her contract.

While I agree with Fleisher and almost everyone that her comment was despicable, let’s parse what she said and what she did not say. I have heard some people claim she was advocating genocide. However, she wasn’t saying Jews should return to Germany and Poland circa 1939, but Germany and Poland, 2010. And Germany and Poland in 2010 are quite different than in 1939.

In fact, Germany has one of the largest Israeli diasporas in the world, only exceeded by the United States. Israel has better relations with Germany than any other country in the EU, while ultra-Orthodox Jews have been returning to Poland and Hungary and purchasing property once owned by Jews before the war. The famous Yeshivat Hokhmei Lublin, for example (which became a Nursing School during and after the Nazi occupation), is now in Jewish hands again. Head for the Jewish quarter in Budapest and you will have no problem finding a kosher restaurant, synagogues, Judaica shops, and even a mikve. There is plenty of anti-Semitism in both countries, but Jews—including thousands of Israelis—still choose to live there. None of this legitimates what Thomas said, of course, but she was not saying “go back to the concentration camps.” That is simply a self-serving misreading of a despicable comment.

So what was so despicable about her comment? First, the language itself; “go back to Germany,” whatever she meant by it, is simply beyond the pale. Words matter, and as a seasoned journalist who parses other people’s words for a living, Thomas should know better. But more substantively, Thomas knows that Israel is a legitimate nation-state created by the United Nations, the only international body we have.

Her comment was not about “the occupation,” it was about the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. And that legitimacy is not merely a “Jewish claim” (though it is that also); it is an international declaration. Israel did not conquer Palestine in a war. The Arab world rejected partition in 1948 and Israel accepted it. The state was created with the sanction of the global community. “Stolen land” is simply picking garbage out of the dustbin of history. The occupation is a different matter. Israel’s treatment of its Arab population is a different matter. The use of excessive force by the IDF is different matter. But Thomas seemed to be pointing to something beyond that.

So why is it that I ask whether she is working for Israel? Because Israel has decided to portray the flotilla episode as another example of international anti-Semitism—in this case promulgated by Turkey. Israel has portrayed it as another example of defending itself against an “existential threat” (notice Netanyahu’s immediate description of Gaza as an extension of Iran) deflecting questions about the legitimacy of the blockade and any humanitarian crisis that may, or may not, have been created by it.

Critics cry foul! This is not about an “existential threat,” this is about an illegitimate blockade of 1.5 million people! Then, here comes Helen Thomas basically affirming the Israeli government’s argument by making a remark that, in fact, speaks to the very existential threat Israel is deploying to deflect its behavior! And if such a remark comes from a highly educated and well-respected White House correspondent how much more so by the so-called activists who confronted Israel’s naval commandos. Thankfully, her employers and sponsors acted appropriately and terminated their relationship with her. Maybe Israel can use her as a covert agent to bolster their case that every act against them constitutes an existential threat? Better yet, maybe Israel can help terminate this rhetoric by acting differently when that threat is not imminent.