The Helen Thomas affair
In whole or in part, the cartoons were reproduced in more than fifty other countries. The publicity led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with police firing on the crowds. There were at least one=hundred deaths. Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran were attacked, and Muslim boycotts of Danish products were initiated.
Critics of the cartoons labeled them Islamophobic and racist. For their part, supporters of the right to publish the cartoons hold that they illustrate an important point in a period that has witnessed the rise of Islamic pressure groups and violence. They argue that their publication was a legitimate exercise in the right of free speech. They questioned the assertion that images of Muhammad per se are offensive to Muslims, in as much as thousands of illustrations of Muhammad have appeared in books by and for Muslims.
In the aftermath I still believe that the basic issue was one of freedom of speech and opinion, hard-won values that we in the West must uphold.
Now comes the Helen Thomas affair. Born in 1920, Thomas is a venerable White House correspondent and columnist. In a May 27 interview recorded on camera, she was asked her views about Israel. Harshly, she replied that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Poland, Germany, America and "everywhere else."
Later she issued a retraction of sorts. Then she resigned, bringing her long career in journalism to an inglorious close.
My question is this. Why don’t the principles of freedom of speech, rightly invoked in the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy, apply to Helen Thomas? Should she have been driven from her job?
As Andrew Sullivan pertinently remarks, who now will ask such questions as this: "When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse? And don't give us this Bushism, 'If we don't go there, they'll all come here.'"
Such perceptiveness aside, what she said about Israel amounts to recommendation for ethnic cleansing, which is deplorable wherever it occurs.
There is irony in the fact that Helen Thomas is of Lebanese Christian origin. Once comprising as much as 20% of the Middle East, Christians now make up only some 5%. Increasingly, Christians are not regarded as full citizens in Arab lands, and they are being encouraged to emigrate by various means. Before long, the Middle East, Jesus’ birthplace, will be completely de-Christianized. This emigration amounts to a soft version of ethnic cleansing.
Despite the difficulties they have encountered, it is striking how common it is for Lebanese and Palestinian Christians to take the Muslim side, instead of the Jewish one. After all, it might seem that one threatened minority would instinctively sympathize with another. Perhaps Christians still living in those lands are afraid to speak out. This is not the case, however, with Palestinian and Lebanese Christians living abroad. One need only think of the late Edward Said and his younger Columbia University colleague, Joseph Massad, both vehement critics of the state of Israel.
Now that I have spoken up for freedom of speech, perhaps I may be permitted to venture myself on this difficult terrain. What, in the coming decades, are the prospects for Israel? History suggests that the present situation, with an alien body surrounded by hostile neighbors, cannot continue indefinitely. Outremer is the general name applied to the ensemble of Crusader states maintained by Western (mainly French) knights in the region from 1097 to the final extinction with the fall of Acre in 1291. It began and it ended.
What then are the prospects for Israel? Some opinion in the country holds that when things get desperate Israel should pull out all the stops, including resort to the nuclear option. This would spell Armageddon.
However, there are two less horrific scenarios.
1) The Jews can in fact leave as the French left Algeria, the British and Indians East Africa, and so forth. Since things of this kind have happened, why is it so unacceptable to at least pose the possibility?
Or (2), much the best solution, the Israelis can follow the path of the white South Africans. This would mean a one-state solution with a single body of citizens living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. In this new dispensation, Jews would be a minority. Yet like white South Africans, they would be a productive and wealthy component of a new multiethnic state.
Labels: Helen Thomas journalism