ESSAY- Free speech: Helen Thomas learns it's just a myth
This is why a lot of people think Jews control the media.
Not me. I've worked in the media most of my life. So I know that the media is controlled by morons. Still, what happened to Helen Thomas will feed the rants of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists.
On June 7th, the long professional life of Helen Thomas came to an end. The acid-tongued "dean" of the White House press corps since the Kennedy Administration got fired by her newspaper syndicate, dumped by her speakers' bureau, and disinvited by a Bethesda high school that had asked her to address its commencement ceremonies. The White House Correspondents Association condemned her. President Obama took time out from not doing anything about unemployment or the Gulf oil spill to weigh in.
Chastened, reviled, and subjected to the kind of national opprobrium normally reserved for international terrorists and blind baseball umpires, Thomas apologized and announced her retirement.
All in one day.
So what did Thomas do to merit such derision? No, it wasn't that journalistic career killer, plagiarism.
Actually, in America today, stealing people's words and ideas and pretending they're yours is A-okay. Mike Barnicle, fired by the Boston Globe for ripping off a column from a George Carlin book in 1998, landed on his feet at the New York Daily News and now works for the Boston Herald. And he's on MSNBC. Monica Crowley, who plagiarized in the Wall Street Journal in 1999, is now at Fox News and the Washington Times. (Jayson Blair has yet to reappear in print, but that's different. He's black.)
No, Helen Thomas didn't participate in the attempt to throw a presidential election. Unlike George Will.
The right-wing columnist may or may not have stolen President Jimmy Carter's 1980 debate briefing book and handed it over to the Reagan camp, as Carter has claimed. But Will did admit in a 2005 column that he had seen the purloined document at Reagan economic advisor David Stockman's house during the campaign. Will had a legal obligation to describe what he had seen to the police, and an ethical duty to his readers to report a blockbuster story to his readers. He did neither. Yet Will still works for Newsweek and the Washington Post, publications whose readers must not care about the truth.
No, Thomas didn't say anything racist. But racism doesn't get you fired from journalism. Just ask Pat Buchanan, another MSNBC regular.
Here's what killed Thomas' illustrious career: "Tell them [Israelis] to get the hell out of Palestine," she told a rabbi in a spontaneous video interview. "Remember, these people [Palestinians] are occupied, and it's their land; it's not German, it's not Poland's." Asked where Jewish Israelis should go, she replied, "They should go home" to "Poland, Germany... America and everywhere else."
No doubt, Thomas' comments were simplistic. Three generations of Jews have made their homes in Israel. Asking them to back up and "return" to places where they've never visited– much less lived– would be inhumane, not to mention impractical. Of course, this is no different from current U.S. immigration policy, which calls for the arrest and deportation of undocumented people whose parents brought them here as small children.
Her words also demonstrate historical ignorance. Surely Thomas, who is 89, ought to know that most Israeli Jews were born there. As for the rest, many came from the former Soviet Union, not Poland or Germany (which murdered most of their Jews during, and even after, the Holocaust).
But are these remarks so beyond the pale that their utterance ought to mean the end of your professional life?
Ari Fleischer, who ought to be in prison for defending torture and concentration camps as press secretary for George W. Bush, called Thomas a fan of "religious cleansing." Equating opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism, ex-Clinton spokesman Lanny Davis called Thomas "an anti-Semitic bigot."
"If she had asked all blacks to go back to Africa," Davis asked, "what would White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials– much less a privileged honorary seat?"
Davis is entitled to his opinion. But so is Helen Thomas. Not that you'd be able to tell by reading the avalanche of self-righteous yowling by politicians and editorialists.
Thomas isn't unusual. Like it or not, supporters of the State of Israel should understand that Israel's creation was and remains highly controversial– and not just among anti-Semites.
The postwar decision to establish a Jewish homeland by seizing land from Arabs who had nothing to do with the Holocaust– instead of, say, Germany– continues to bewilder. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are living in refugee camps, where old men and women still wave the deeds and keys to their old homes when they see a reporter, attests to the freshness of the wound. Feeling sorry for them and taking the position that they have a right to be compensated doesn't make you a Jew-hater.
Moreover, the might-makes-right tactics of Israeli political leaders doesn't make them any friends in the world. Acting above the law, they ignore resolutions issued by the same U.N. that made their country possible. Dissembling about their own "secret" (and illegal) nuclear weapons, they bomb an Iraqi nuke plant and threaten to do the same to Iran. Mossad operatives travel to Dubai to assassinate political opponents.
Israel's policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians turn off a lot of people who don't have a bigoted bone in their body.
Settlements in the occupied territories, apartheid-like economic planning, bulldozing the homes of the relatives of accused Palestinian terrorists, the Berlin Wall-esque "security fence," and now the outrageous blockade of Gaza have angered millions of Americans. What makes these acts even more appalling is that Israel, as the number-one beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid, is America's de facto representative in the Middle East.
Lanny Davis' attempt to draw an analogy between Israelis and African-Americans is historical nonsense. Blacks were brought to the U.S. forcibly as slaves. Israel is occupying Palestine, and not just in Gaza and the West Bank. Eventually, the world– even Muslim countries– will come to accept the existence of the State of Israel as a fait accompli. But that will require the passage of time, as well as Israeli politicians who work harder to accommodate themselves to the Arabs inside and outside their borders.
So is Helen Thomas an anti-Semite? I don't know. I do know that her comments were not inherently anti-Semitic. The bigger question is: What if she were? Should she have been fired?
Of course not. Free speech must be defended no matter what– even that of cranky anti-Semitic columnists (if that's what Thomas is/was). Unless we are truly free to say what we think– without fear of reprisal– free speech is not a right. It is merely a permission.
Besides, if every American columnist or politician lost his job over bigotry, what would that mean for all those "family values conservatives" who bash gays, not to mention the nativists who attack Latino immigrants and Muslims? We owe Helen Thomas an apology.
Ted Rall's most recent book is "Wake Up, You're Liberal! How We Can Take America Back from the Right" (Soft Skull Press).