Monday, June 07, 2010

More On Helen Thomas

In my naivete, I thought it would be simple to condemn Helen Thomas's odious remarks. I knew that conservatives (on the Israel/Palestine question, that is; in American politics, at any rate, being conservative or liberal on this issue does not line up all that well with being conservative or liberal on other issues) would make hay out of her remarks, falsely implying that her odious remarks were in any way representative of those who critique the policies of Israel, or even those who critique having an ethnically-defined state (as, for example, a "Jewish" (or "Palestinian" or "Muslim") state).

But I didn't think that those on the left of the I/P issue would actually go and help them.

For the most part I've seen radio silence by the left on this issue, at least by those on the left who focus on Israel/Palestine issues. (To be fair, my reading on this & other political topics is pretty limited these days, so I probably missed stuff.) Some liberals, such as Steve Benen, simply condemned Thomas's remarks. So did Josh Marshall. But a lot of bloggers who advocate, from various viewpoints, for Israel to stop its ongoing oppression of the Palestinians simply didn't seem to touch the issue.

This is, I think, a pity, since I think that actively promoting human rights for all inhabitants of I/P -- Jews as well as Palestinians, each equally to the other -- is essential to solving the conflict. (That was sort of the point of my previous post.) This is true even if you set aside moral considerations (which I don't, and don't think anyone ever should), since simply as a practical matter making Israeli Jews feel further endangered is stupid for anyone who wants justice for the Palestinians: it will simply cause them to retrench further. (And, of course, the best way to make Israeli Jews not feel endangered is not to promote belief systems that would lead them to be endangered -- such as advocating the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Palestine.) So I'd have hoped to see those on the left on I/P issues condemn Thomas -- I mean, heck, calling for ethnic cleansing (even voluntary ethnic cleansing, to put the most positive spin possible on her remarks)? That oughta be an easy call.

And of course advocating, simply and straightforwardly, ethnicity-blind justice and peace and security for all inhabitants of I/P will, on balance, be a progressive position, since it is Palestinians far more than Israelis* who are currently denied these things (since, after all, millions of Palestinians on the west bank are currently under military occupation and have no vote in the country that rules their lives; more than a million in Gaza are held in an effective prison with Israeli (and Egyptian) control over their borders, letting in only enough food not to cause a humanitarian crisis; and since in the conflict, in general, far more Palestinians are killed than Israelis). But one should nevertheless do this consistently, even in cases where the call is for justice for Israelis not Palestinians. One should do this, above all, because it is the right thing to do; but it also happens to be the strategically smart thing to do. ("Politics and morality on the same side? That doesn't happen every day, Delenn." -- JMS [/SF Geek])

So, for example, I think Peter Beinart was right that opponents of the Gaza blockade should also advocate for the return of Israeli soldier Galid Shalit. Not to say that the focus should be even: 1.5 million Gazans are held in effective captivity; one Israeli soldier is held in Gaza. But still there should be calls for justice for both -- even disproportionate ones, giving Shalit more than 1/1,500,000 of the attention, since even morally his life is worth neither more nor less than that of the other Palestinians, practically it would do good to the cause by showing the Israelis that their lives too were of value -- all the while reminding them that not only their lives were of value, that the other 1.5 million people in Gaza were equally valuable. Again: the morality is paramount, but even if you look at it from the cold-blooded view of practicality it's an equally good call.

This practical viewpoint is what was expressed, I think, in Philip Weiss's comment on Helen Thomas's call for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from I/P (the sole exception I saw to my above comment about radio silence -- but then, Philip Weiss seems to write about every damn little news story that comes up even vaguely related to I/P (and even those that aren't he relates to I/P (the man is clearly a hedgehog not a fox.))) He doesn't quite say it was an immoral thing to say, but he clearly thinks it was unhelpful (hence his search for a "silver lining"). True, he does try to turn the issue around to his side in a way that seems to me to be propagandistic rather than truth-seeking -- and in a way that again violates the basic moral imperative to simply seek justice for everyone (genuinely, fully, without caveats). But he saw it was a bad thing for Helen Thomas to say at any rate.

To see why it was such a counterproductive thing to say, let's look at someone who is, from the U.S. point of view, on the center-right, Jonathan Chait (link via). I say "center" because (I believe -- I'm hardly an expert in his views or even an all-that-regular reader of his blog, so I might be wrong about what he thinks & says) he would argue for a two-state solution including the removal of all settlements & an equal territorial swap to return to something close to the 1967-lines. I say "center-right" because he seems to spend a lot more time attacking those who hold those views for being insufficiently pro-Israel than he does thinking of ways to advance them. (Same caveats apply, however).

Chait frames his argument as a way of arguing that Thomas shouldn't be fired (this was, I think, before she retired earlier today) because "[w]hile there's no First Amendment right to be employed by a newspaper chain, I think public debate is poorly served by summary firings of those who spout controversial views." I think he's right about the balance of considerations, and I don't know how that balance falls out -- I do think our public discourse would be improved by not automatically firing people who stray from a narrow consensus, but it's also true that marginalizing racist (and anti-semtitic) voices has probably ultimately been a plus in our culture, and how this particular case fits in to that balance depends on a lot of things and is (or was) finally up for Hearst to decide. I wasn't going to campaign for her firing, but I'm not going to mourn her going either.

But Chait takes his blog post in a totally invidious direction, and compares Helen Thomas's remarks to Tony Judt's famous & controversial call for a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Chait writes:
I also see little distinction between the views themselves. Judt advocates dissolving the state of Israel and replacing it with a a bi-national democratic state where Jews can live happily and peacefully as minority citizens of Palestine. It's an utterly fantastical proposition. Thomas's anti-Zionism entails a no more preposterous alternative fantasy (Israel's Jews will immigrate to Germany, Poland, and perhaps the United States.) The main difference is that Thomas is a little more forthright about the fact that her preferred solution is to turn a large chunk of the world's Jews into refugees. I find it morally abhorrent, but I don't think being an honest anti-Zionist should disqualify a person from working in journalism.
What is so insidious** here is his unfair and inaccurate eliding of anti-Zionist views -- Judt certainly holds those -- with anti-semitic views, which is what Thomas expressed. Judt's views may be, as Chait thinks, fanciful (although one might argue that Chait's imagined solution, in which Israel agrees to uproot all the settlers and is able to summon the political will to do so, and two states live peacefully side-by-side, is no less so). But he isn't calling for making Jews refugees. (Rather, Judt is calling for making currently refugee Palestinians able to return, as international law says they have a right to do, to the homes that Israel drove them out of in 1948.) Thomas, on the other hand, is actively calling for Jews to leave Israel/Palestine -- a view equally abhorrent as the view that Palestinians should be forced to leave (as, of course, many of them were in 1948).

Judt's views may be wishful thinking, but they are a fully moral position; Thomas's views are distinctly immoral. That's the difference between being anti-Zionist and being anti-semitic. Eliding the two is just a more subtle way of calling anti-Zionists anti-semites -- which is a pernicious falsehood. (And of course the problem with Chait's views is that they retroactively validate the actual ethnic cleansing that went on in 1948 by denying the Palestinian refugees the right of return. One might argue that such a denial is pragmatically necessary given the impossibility of a one-state solution, but it is clearly a moral compromise, a lesser-of-two-evils (for believers in that argument), not a good thing.)

So yeah, conservatives (even those who are liberal on other issues) have used Thomas's anti-semitic remarks to justify their attacks on anti-Zionists.*** Which is just one of the reasons that they were pragmatically objecitonable.

All the sadder, then, to see liberals justifying them.

One variety of justification is to downplay how bad the remarks are, or argue that worse is said on the other side, or simply to say that having Helen Thomas gone will deprive the world of a strong voice for justice on I/P (and/or other) issues. This is the sort of equivocating that liberals naturally disdain when conservatives do it, and we shouldn't copy them.

So Zandar at No More Mister Nice Blog says that while it was a "pretty horrible thing to say", Thomas deserves a "mulligan" because she's old and done other things, and anyway it's just the Village enforcing ideological rigidity again. Well, I do think the Village is too ideologically rigid on this issue -- I'd love to hear more from people like Ali Abunimah and, yes, Tony Judt (if he weren't too ill to do it) -- but this is an example of a justified exclusion. (As I said above, it might not be the right call, but it's hardly groundless.) Blaming the Village for excluding, say, Palestinian views generally is right and proper; but Helen Thomas was cast out because she said something vile. She is the one who caused the conversation to loose a voice by spouting bigotry with that voice.

Similarly, there is John Cole at Balloon Juice saying sarcastically that he is "quite relieved there is no one critical of administration or Israeli policy left in the WH press corpse". Well, yes, it would be nice if there were someone like that. But again, the person to blame is the reporter who spouted bigotry. I doubt that he'd be so kind to someone who said that, say, Mexican-Americans should go back to Mexico, or that Palestinians should leave Eretz Yisrael. In those cases he'd see the fault lay with the person saying something offensive and boneheaded.

And then there is Jack Ross at Mondoweiss, giving an "unqualified" (!!) -- that's his word -- defense of Helen Thomas.

Now the grounds of his defense is something pretty standard in cases in which a formerly-respected public voice says something vile: namely, to deny that they said what they plainly said. Ross writes that Thomas's comments
telling Israelis to leave Palestine and "go home" to Europe do not reflect a desire to see Israel/Palestine judenrein, but rather an ominous sense of what a dangerous place Israel has become, and will only increasingly be, for its people.
Ok, well, if what she had said was that Israel was becoming a dangerous place for its people and will be increasingly dangerous, that wouldn't have been a scandal; it would have been a banality. Hell, I bet that most right-wing Zionists would've signed that statement. But it's not what she said. What she said was that Israelis (presumably only Jewish Israelis? (see footnote below)) ought to "go home" to places like Germany, Poland and America.

If she didn't want to express a desire to see I/P judenrein, she shouldn't have suggested that all the Jews ought to leave.

Then Ross changes the subject to the crimes of 1940's Zionists -- which has nothing to do with what Thomas said a few days ago.

What Ross said would have been simply wrong if he'd offered it up as a "qualified" defense, along the lines of "Thomas may have phrased what she said badly, but I think what she was getting at was --". But that's not what he said. He offers an "unqualified" defense of what she actually said. Which is an appalling thing to do -- signaled, perhaps, by the fact that he needs to pretend she said something other than what she said to make his case.

Then there are the comments on his post. As my people would say: oi vey. (Yes, I'm aware that I'm verging into nutpicking territory here, and I don't mean to say that these comments are reflective of anyone other than the individual who wrote them.) One commentator, Kalethia, said:
Not only was [Thomas] deliberately trapped by the Rabbi, but her words were directed specifically at “Israeli” Jews, and had she spoken those words about South African whites and how they should be deported to their country of origin if that’s what it would take to stop Apartheid, there would not be a peep of outcry from the Jewish community. Instead so-called LIBERAL Jews are crucifying at the stake even calling her a “witch”!
The line about being "deliberately trapped" is ridiculous -- it's like Sarah Palin saying she was "trapped" by reporters asking her straightforward questions. The Rabbi in question was reportedly dressed in traditional Jewish garb, so it's not like she wouldn't know where he was coming from; and he had a !@#$% video camera for pete's sake. Asking someone a direct question is not a trap; it's a question.

Then there's the bit about it being directed specifically at "Israeli" Jews. So? Most anti-Arab racism in Israel is not directed at Arabs from far-off countries. So what?

As for the Afrikaner scenario, it's hard to say with hypotheticals. But certainly there should have been an outcry, since the anti-Apartheid movement was about equality and justice, not about ethnic cleansing of whites. And certainly liberals -- and many (although not enough) Jews -- object when Israeli Jews say that Palestinians should all leave Israel, a morally equivalent remark to what Helen Thomas said.

Finally, in the context of objecting to anti-semitic remarks, "crucifying" is about as unfortunate a choice of words as one can imagine.

...I could go on. There are more defenders of Thomas in the comments to Ross's post; and some critics, too. But it shows an ugliness among those on the side of justice for the Palestinians that those of us who believe in that cause would do well to call out and argue against. For the positions Thomas articulated are just as immoral as their counterparts on the other side. And even if some particular pro-Palestinian activist doesn't care about that (as they ought to), they're still wildly counter-productive for what they do care about.

Anti-semitism is -- among other things -- bad for the Palestinians.

Update: Matt Yglesias presents Matt Welch's take on what Thomas said, spinning it in an interesting direction: against the notion that objectivity requires the suppressing of one's own views. Definitely an interesting view, if somewhat skew to the obvious issues Thomas's statement raises.

Update 2: And of course Adam Serwer and Gabriel Winant are right that there is a lot of parallel anti-Arab bigotry in the American media (links via), which does not result in firings. But to always bring up the worse sin on side A when a person (purportedly on) side B says something foul smacks of trying to exculpate by contrast. I think that rather than rush to point out the anti-Arab bigotry of a Martin Peretz, for instance, we should simply condemn what is vile -- when Helen Thomas makes anti-semitic comments, then condemn that; then, when someone makes anti-Arab comments, condemn that, without having to say anything about how of course people are anti-semites too.

Plus, as I said, it will help the Palestinians, if the people oppressing them understand that those on the other side want coexistence and peace, not revenge and displacement. And the best way to have people understand that is for it to be true.

And, of course, all this aside, bigoted remarks are immoral and ought to be called out. And really that's enough.

(OTOH, Digby's got a point about the hypocracy of people crying about this who "are in the process of trying to revoke the citizenship of people who were born in this country to "send them back" to where their parents come from.")

Update 3 (Tuesday, June 8): I keep thinking that I spent too much time on this... feeling guilty, because of points like that of Kevin Drum (another liberal who does condemn her remarks) who says that media "windbags" are using the Thomas story "as an excuse to grind every axe ever invented and suck media attention away from actually important stories". Yeah, he's right: we've got a lot more important things to worry about than what Thomas said.

And then I see the sheer number of people defending Thomas in one way or another (this post at Mondoweiss is another example, and links to more). And I think, no, this is important. There is an idea afloat in anti-Zionist circles that is not only counterproductive, but deeply immoral. And it's really !@#$%ing disturbing.

Let me pause for a minute on the defense by Ann El Khoury (linked above in its reprint at Mondoweiss), because it's another category of defense that I didn't touch on above. Ann writes:
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.
The problem is that this reading is totally tendentious and unconvincing. Yes, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem and Gaza) are occupied... but irredentist Palestinians, and their supporters, also at times use "occupied" to refer to all of mandate Palestine. So that's ambiguous... or would be, except for the context of the rest of the statement. If she'd actually said that the settlers should move back to Israel proper, as Ann helpully rewrites her as saying, then that'd mean she was referring to Palestine in a "occupied territories" sense. But the very fact that she didn't, and listed places that Jews used to live before they (or, in most cases, their ancestors) moved to I/P, shows that's not what she meant. The reading of Thomas's statement as referring just to the occupied territories (post-67), in the context of her entire statement, is simply not plausible.

Then there's Philip Weiss (in the process of linking to a piece that does a better-than-usual job of pointing out the hypocracy of those who make parallel anti-Palestinian statements criticizing Thomas for her anti-semitic one (a tendency which I still think is a bad one, which shows an inability to simply see the wrong on all sides rather than try to excuse it by contextualizing; but which at least sees the wrong)), who in his most recent post (as of this writing -- the man posts more often than most people breathe) asks whether "Are people rallying around an American icon demolished for one statement?" -- which is, of course, what a lot of Republicans complained about when Trent Lott infamously praised the segregationist 1948 campaign of Strom Thurmond in a birthday tribute. (Yes, Lott had a lot of other questionable past activities that were raised in light of that sentence; he was still burned for basically one sentence.) The current standard in American discourse is that a single racist statement gets you burned. As I said above, there are very legitimate reasons to question this standard... but you have to be consistent about it; if Lott was wrong, so was Thomas. (And so, of course, is Huckabee and all the others who call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.)

Anyway, I know I should let this go. (I've got some !@#$%ing work to do, after all.) But I'm bothered by all this. Paul Jay (in another piece linked by Mondoweiss) ends by saying that "I said in my last blog, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism - but some is. Helen Thomas' isn't." Well, no. Tony Judt's isn't; Ali Abunimah's isn't. But Helen Thomas's was. The line is pretty clear -- it's between calling for equal rights for all, and calling for ethnic cleansing. This isn't complicated. So it's disturbing to see so many people treat it as if it were. (A fair number of his commentators are pretty apalling too.)

We need to be better than this.

Update 4: Matt Yglesias has a characteristically level-headed and reasonable take on the whole 'condemning-while-noting-the-other-side-is-as-bad-or-worse' phenomenon, with his key point being "with hypocrisy we should be trying to level up—to hold everyone to higher and better standards of conduct—rather than to level down by using observations of hypocrisy to minimize bad behavior." Exactly. Some people seem to use the comparisons to say that what Thomas said shouldn't be a big deal; much better to say that it was -- and so was what Huckabee said, in precisely the same way.

* This is awkward to talk precisely about, since, of course, some 20% of Israelis are Palestinians, i.e. the "Israeli Arabs" who have citizenship in Israel. I try to not generalize and equate "Israelis" with "Israeli Jews", because it's simply inaccurate (and probably offensive to boot). But I may fail here and there simply because untangling this is complex.

** Yes, I looked up both words in the dictionary to be sure that I wasn't getting them backward, but yes, that is what I meant: "invidious" in the earlier sentence, "insidious" here. After all, both God and the Devil lie in the details.

*** This gets a lot uglier that Chait. Jeffry Goldberg's remark that "One gets the feeling [Thomas]'d rather have the Jews, or at least certain Jews, leave Washington, D.C. for the delightful Polish town of Oswiecim [i.e. Auschwitz]" -- is as baseless as any distortions of Thomas's remarks made by her defenders. Thomas's remarks were ugly enough without distorting them to make them uglier.

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