Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Helen Thomas Resignation and What it Tells us about Ourselves

Helen Thomas, the dean of White House reporters, has resigned amid controversy over her statements about Israel. Thomas has been covering the White House for fifty years. CNN reported the comments like this:

Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent, made the comments to Rabbi David Nesenoff of Rabbilive.com, who told CNN his hand-held camera was in plain sight on May 27 when he asked her for "Any comments on Israel?"

"Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," she responded.

"Any better comments on Israel?" Nesenoff asked.

Thomas replied, "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land, it's not German. It's not Poland."

Nesenoff asked where the Jews should go, and Thomas responded, "They should go home," which the White House reporter identified as "Poland, Germany ... and America and everywhere else."

Thomas has had a long and storied career which has now come to an end at the age of 89. However, the situation should give us some pause and highlight some things we might want to think about. Before I start, this is not intended to be a defense of her remarks, but rather an understanding of some things they bring to light in our society.

First, we should remember that Thomas' statements are not factually inaccurate. The lands owned by Israel currently were taken over from Palestine through terrorism and civil conflict. Yes, the conflict has dated back for millenia, but the current conflict is over Israel taking this land and the fight for control of religious sites that both religions find meaning in.

Before you have some knee-jerk reaction, this is how many states are formed. Israel's efforts are not that unusual in terms of history. I have always wondered why people have to believe in some fairytale about the origins of their nation instead of dealing with the truth. I guess it has something to do with their roles in the narratives of good versus evil.

Killing a bunch of people to take over a nation probably doesn't make one feel very "good" when told without the spin of "rising up" or "manifest destiny." Such is the problem when dealing with feelings versus the reality of situations. After all, we celebrate Columbus Day in America, when Columbus was a pretty brutal guy, and the Spaniards were pretty brutal compared to many civilizations.

That history does not undermine the great things that America has done, the greatness of the Hispanic and Latin cultures throughout the Americas and their influence around the world, it simply explains some of our origins.

In the case of Thomas and Israel, it does something else: It exposes a real thread throughout America in regards to the state of Israel. Whether it is World War II guilt, the number of people of Jewish origins in America, or some other factor; in America, it is almost impossible to make an honest and fair assessment of Israel without getting attacked.

Books about Israel or the Israeli lobby in America have been attacked and shunned. Articles and authors who speak critically of Israel, whether right or wrong, have been painted with a broad stroke of "anti-Semite," whether it applied or not. Don't get me wrong, there are some people who are real anti-Semites, just as there are people who are true racists. However, the parallel of overuse of the terms racist and anti-Semites is probably more true than either group would like to admit.

Thomas was Lebanese born, and as a result, she would potentially have strong anti-Israeli feelings. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone anymore than an Israeli born person might have anti-Palestinian or anti-Muslim feelings.

In her case, it was not something that was said in her writings and no one has found anything anti-Semitic in her work. I guess that begs a third point: Do people with strong feelings deserve to have a job? Especially if they do it well enough to be thought as highly of as Thomas was for so long?

Conservatives really have a bad taste in their mouths from Thomas' remarks and dealings with President G.W. Bush; and her harsh questioning of President Obama recently over the Iraq war probably didn't give anyone an incentive to step up for her.

Isn't that what a White House reporter is supposed to do? Shouldn't they put the President's feet to the fire for the people a little? In today's age where reporters look to make politicians look good in trade for perceived access, Thomas' "toughness" was a breathe of fresh air.

In an age where partisanship rules the day of pundit journalism, Thomas held both a Democrat and a Republican's feet to the fire over key issues like going to war. That isn't to say Thomas didn't have opinions because reporters are human and have them too. But she wasn't attacking to score political points, she wasn't sucking up to get an interview with the President, and she actually had built up sources to issues outside the "staged" insider "leaks" that most live on today.

Helen Thomas was no saint, but she was no devil either. What she will be is missed, most by those who don't even realize her impact, though her impact probably impacted them most. She was old school. In the end, that may have been what got her pushed out the door.

It should leave us with pause and questions about how we look at history (as Texas tries to re-write history to make it sound "better" and add a partisan spin to it), how we look at our politicians (as we hold up icons like Sarah Palin who is more dog and pony show than substance), and how we look at our assumptions about the world around us (as we refuse to allow questions of our actions, of Israel's actions, and we ignore serious discussion of our assumptions of good and bad).

People like Helen Thomas will be missed because they weren't afraid to ask those questions and to search for those answers. Thank you for fifty good years Helen Thomas, you will be missed.

1 comment:

David Lowry said...

Very thoughtful Tony. I'll miss Helen too. Still at 89 she had a good run.