Creating people's geographies
Veteran US press corp reporter Helen Thomas has announced her resignation in the wake of recent off-the-cuff comments she made to a roving rabbi with a camcorder. Add me to the list of those who are far more saddened by the overblown fallout surrounding her remarks than about the remark itself, only part of which was inflammatory. To recap, in the video clip she is asked whether she has any comments about Israel, to which she replies:
Tell them to get the get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people [the Palestinians] are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland.” [Where should they go?] “They should go home, to Poland, Germany and America.”
Not surprisingly, the part about the occupation gets buried in the brouhaha. My reading was that because she said Palestine she referred to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) — including East Jerusalem — and in that case the illegal settlers, for many of us, should indeed move back to Russia, Poland, Israel ‘proper’ (internationally recognized 1967 borders) and the US. Part of the problem is the ambiguity: was she referring to Palestine as the whole of Israel? She might have but I doubt hers was the maximalist position. Even those who still advocate a two state solution as tenable should give her the benefit of the doubt unless she indicates otherwise.
Now this gutsy, plucky character who for me embodied what the real spirit of US journalism is and should be, far more than stenographers-of-power Press Corps colleagues in their prime, meets an undignified end to her career, with ignoble reactions. George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer claimed her comments amount to “religious cleansing”, and others’ reactions have been worse, most notably from those who themselves could be considered apologists for past administrations. After being dropped from a number of things such as a speaker’s bureau, the Board of the White House Correspondent’s Association is to convene a “special meeting” on Thursday “to decide on the seating issue” because “the incident … revive(s) the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room.” (!)
To the rest of the world this will just add to the perception of hypocrisy and double standards applied to people who speak up about the Israel government’s reprehensible actions. The shift of focus from the core of the issue of military occupation to an off-the-cuff remark — which I think just reflects her growing anger — will be noted. I penned a quick dissenting piece in her defense a few days ago and am glad to see a number of others (Real News’ Paul Jay, Jack Ross at Mondoweiss) whose pieces I recommend. Glenn Greenwald also has a good piece contrasting the condemnation-fest directed at Thomas with the “total non-reaction in the face of the incessant and ongoing anti-Arab bigotry of The New Republic‘s Marty Peretz, or to the demands of then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey that the Palestinians leave the West Bank and go back to where they came from, and similar statements from Mike Huckabee (still gainfully employed at Fox News).”
All this plays into the hands of the Israel-right-or-wrong lobby. I realize part of what she said is offensive to a number of people because of the ugly connotations of the phrase ‘go home’ which has been allowed to overshadow and deflect attention from the core issue in her remark. Yet I would hope a sense of proportion and perspective prevails. The implications for freedom of speech in the US and for breaking a taboo about Israel in mainstream discourse are far greater than any offense part of her comment may have caused. The Press Corps will be all the poorer now and it will reinforce the Israeli-status quo bias as the only game in town.
In a storied career, she has been a rare critical voice in the mainstream media, particularly during the last Bush administration. As Paul Jay notes in his defense of Thomas, “Her apology was not enough to stop calls for her head from those who have wanted to shut Thomas up for years.”
Thank you for your service, Helen Thomas. May there be more like you to emerge in the media landscape. I hope you continue to speak up well after 90.
Cross-posted at PULSE
Share and Bookmark