Saturday, June 12, 2010

Why Helen Thomas Was Wrong

On June 3rd, three days after the flotilla attack, veteran Arab-American White House reporter Helen Thomas was approached by a rabbi with a camera at Washington DC’s Jewish Heritage Celebration. “Any comments on Israel?” he asked her.

She replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When the rabbi asked, “Where should they go?” she replied, “Go home! Poland, Germany, and America, and everywhere else.”

Four days later, Thomas resigned over the outrage her remarks elicited. Four days after that, this letter appeared in my hometown newspaper, The Des Moines Register:

Helen Thomas spoke up like more Americans need to do. This whole fiasco started back in 1947 when the United States supplied Israel with the war materiel to drive the Palestinians out of what is called the Jewish state.

What the United States did was continue to inflame the discourse that had been going on for centuries.

Thomas is a true American, just a shame there isn't more Americans like her.

- Clarence Swartz, Orient
A letter to the editor is just a letter to the editor, but I think this letter represents some feelings and beliefs that shouldn’t go unaddressed.

First, let’s look at Clarence’s claim that “the United States supplied Israel with the war materiel to drive the Palestinians out of what is called the Jewish state” in 1947.

This is simply false. The United States did not supply Israel with any “war materiel” until 1964, when we gave them a handful of F-4 fighters. Before the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israel ranked twenty-fourth among nations receiving aid from the United States. Today, it is the largest recipient. (See Aaron David Miller, The Much-Too-Promised Land, p. 80).

True, President Truman recognized the State of Israel within minutes of its declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, but that was mostly because the Soviet Union also recognized and supported the infant state, and Truman didn’t want the Soviets to get an exclusive foothold in the Middle East. (Israel’s founders had strong socialist leanings.) The Jews did the actual fighting bit mostly on their own.

This is an important point, because Clarence’s commonly-held misconception has led to Israel being portrayed as a creation of the West, when in reality, it was forged by Jews fleeing from the West (and Russia and the Muslim world). In the latter decades of the pre-state Zionist movement, Jews fleeing to Palestine had to sneak past the British occupiers, who were determined to keep the Jews out to placate the Arab Palestinian population. Eventually, Britain found itself at war with both the Zionists and the Arab Palestinians, and called it quits in 1948. Israel is not a tool of the West. (After all, what purpose could “the West” possibly have for angering the world’s largest oil producers by staking out an outpost in an oilless tract of land smaller than New Jersey?) It is a country in its own right.

But the larger misconception that lies behind Clarence and Helen’s call for the Jews to “go home” is the idea that the wrongs of 1947-1948 can somehow be righted today by yet another mass expulsion. It is all too tempting to think of history only in terms of nations: “The Jews,” “the Arabs,” “the Americans,” etc. This line of thinking has apparently led both Clarence and Helen to conclude, “Well, this whole mess started when the Jews came and took land away from the Palestinians. The Jews should just leave!”

Who are “the Jews”? The Jews who settled Palestine from the 1880s until 1948 are long gone. There are six million Jews living in Israel today. Many of them were born there, have lived their whole lives there. Their great-great-grandparents are buried in Palestine. Whatever the crimes of 1948 were, they are innocent. Sending all six million of them packing (a mass expulsion that would exceed the Palestinian expulsion by nine times) would fix nothing. What Helen Thomas said wasn't simply "taboo." It was a call for ethnic cleansing.

History is littered with massive crimes that cannot be undone. Even if one regards the creation of the state of Israel as a great crime (I do not, for the record), we cannot fix the past by destroying the future.

And really, considering the history of human population movements, no one, except possibly the Africans, has a right to disagree.

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