I’ve always been a huge admirer of Helen Thomas, both of her barrier-breaking career and her dogged determination to ask hard questions and speak truth to power. She was even dubbed an Honorary Harpy on this site.
So I was extremely disturbed and pained when video went viral of Thomas making anti-Semitic remarks on camera during an impromptu interview outside the White House after the Jewish Heritage celebration last month. Thomas was fired from her job at Hearst News Services and dropped by her speaker’s bureau. Video here.
Michael Tomasky of the leftist, generally pro-Palestinian Guardian writes:
In recent days a video surfaced of Thomas saying, outside the White House on May 27, that “the Jews should get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Germany and Poland “and America and everywhere else,” adding that the land belonged to the Palestinians. Uh-oh.
Now I know a lot of you are going to say well, she only said what’s factually true about the land, but she didn’t only say that. It’s that Germany and Poland business. Without that, these remarks wouldn’t have been nearly as controversial as they are. And those were really terrible things to say (while kind of laughing, as if it were a joke; check out the video).
Roy Greenslade, also writing for the Guardian said:
…it was her reference to Germany and Poland that did for her. It was, quite simply, a disgraceful, thoughtless and indefensible statement. She went way over the top.
I do not believe that all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic, nor is support for the Palestinian people.
But telling anyone to “go home” or “go back where you came from” has always been shorthand for ethnic hatred, no matter which group is on the receiving end. The references to “it’s not Germany, it’s not Poland” and “go back to Germany and Poland” are incredibly, deliberately offensive given the fate of German and Polish Jews. They’re also a dead giveaway for Thomas’s bias and ignorance—similar to racist Americans who call all Latinos “Mexican” and all Asians “Chinese”—since only a fraction of Israelis are descended from pre-war communities in Poland and Germany.
What’s also alarming is that if you read about Thomas’s ouster on various news sites, you’ll see many, many people in the comments section lauding Helen Thomas for “telling the truth” and using this incident as an excuse to air the worst kind of anti-Semitic hatred. I won’t link to them because they make my blood boil but suffice it to say you’ll see the usual hateful canards about “Jew-controlled media”, “Jews are too powerful”, “Jews are enemies of freedom,” etc.
Paul Jay posted a rambly, poorly reasoned HuffPo apologia about how Helen Thomas wasn’t being anti-Semitic and we should all just give her a break, especially given her age. Greenslade’s Guardian piece—while admitting the offensiveness of Thomas’s words—still casts her as a victim: it’s titled “Why is Helen Thomas Being Gagged?”, as though this was a case of media censorship. He completely ignores the fact that she wasn’t gagged—she was fired. That’s not a violation of free speech—as Greenslade seems to believe—it’s the natural consequence of saying stupid, offensive shit that discredits you and embarrasses your employer and colleagues.
As for Thomas herself, Sarah.of.a.lesser.god and I both thought that the video made her appear a few noodles short of a kugel. Perhaps her age was a factor—it’s hard to say for sure.
Regardless, Helen Thomas is an expert on the media, politics and what it means to speak on camera. She not only should have known better—she did know better. She said it anyway. Even those inclined to blame encroaching senility should remember that senility—like intoxication—only reveals what was already there all along.