Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Helen Thomas affair

Let us recall for a moment the salient facts from the Muhammad cartoons controversy of 2005. This uproar was triggered when twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted Muhammad, were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The editors indicated that releasing the cartoons was meant as a contribution to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and the question of censorship.

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.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Burk Braun said...

How about a third solution, which is that Israel unilaterally de-occupies the Palestinian lands, sets up and respects rational and minimally invasive borders, and lets its neighbors alone for a while.

Hatred is a two-way street, and Israel has induced the local atmosphere of hatred in recent times by its own actions, and despite the generally beaten-down and benign attitude of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have little sympathy with the Palestinians either.

It is absurd to propose that Israel pack up and leave- there are miles of policy options before they get to that pathetic point. And there is no South African solution if the Palestinians outnumber the Jews- ain't gonna happen before decades, even generations of reconciliation. Even the South African experiment is wearing thin with the beginnings of Zimbabwe-style land reform.

And about Helen Thomas's free speech, she was not shot or lynched, or otherwise mishandled. She spoke beyond the political pale, (as Trent Lott, etc. have as well), and paid the political price. This is completely different from the Danish cartoonists, who spoke within their own political culture's boundaries, which the Arab street then tried to alter by browbeating and ululation.

The Danes took a long look at themselves and decided that they didn't have anything to be sorry about, resign over, or anything else. Indeed, they usefully exposed a fascinating psychological complex of emotive tribalism, (and lack of humor), which was generally instructive.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

BB's comment contains much good sense. Yet I am disturbed by the idea that one can be sanctioned for speaking "beyond the political pale." Who establishes the boundaries of the political pale?

In fact we owe so very much to Voltaire, Diderot and the other French Enlightenment figures who refused to abide by the boundaries of the political pale as imposed by the establishment of their day.

In the US, AIPAC and other Israel lobby groups draw the lines of the political pale very narrowly. How is it that no columnist (outside of the likes of David Duke and a few Islamists) in this country dares to question, to the slightest degree, the legitimacy of the state of Israel? If one looks at the foreign press, from Britain and France to Italy, Germany and India, one will find much more freedom of expression.

One finds tremendous freedom of expression in the pages of the Israeli daily Haaretz. If only we could emulate that model!

9:25 AM  
Blogger Burk Braun said...

The political pale is established politically- that is what politics is all about! That is also why having a sniveling, lazy, kowtowing media is such a drag on a vibrant democracy, which could have a higher intellectual tone and content, as you cite.

Voltaire clearly had an audience in his day. Helen Thomas may find an audience in future books and articles. But being a white house correspondent represents a bit more buy-in to the system, not to mention sponsorship by a main-line news outlet, for better or worse. Was Voltaire court stenographer in France? No- he was a pet of France's enemies, Britain and Prussia, and even exiled from France. Should Helen Thomas retire to Russia to pen sarcastic screeds? That is certainly her right.

Perhaps what we need is more political repression, so that dissidents might gain some more respect! Russia shows this phenomenon- the stature of its dissidents plummeted after the fall of the Soviet system, while Russia's media is now as bad as ours, perhaps a little worse!

But more, what we need is less corporate control of our media, so the gatekeepers of mass media have intellectual standards, not financial ones. That is why public television and radio is so important, as well as blogging and other new media. Please support your local public stations!

9:55 AM  

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