Even among Israel’s harshest critics, I’m not aware of anyone serious who believes or espouses what veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas said recently—that Israeli Jews should return to their nations of origin in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, where they or their ancestors resided prior to World War II. Such a statement grossly ignores the almost unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and Thomas should be ashamed and embarrassed for even making it.
But if we are to be honest, Thomas’s sin had more to do with who she dared to criticize than what she actually said. For instance, what if Thomas had suggested white Australians should return to where they came from, out of respect for the occupied Aborigines? Or perhaps white Americans should vacate parts of the Southwest United States that once belonged to Mexico, or even go back to Europe altogether, giving the Chicora and the Cherokee back their rightful land? Of course, these suggestions are as silly as what Thomas said, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being forced to resign over them. It’s also not hard to imagine some pundits on the Left, or perhaps leaders for Hispanic-advocate groups, making such statements about the U.S. in particular, with little or no repercussions.
Writing for the LA Times, UCLA professor Saree Makdisi notices a blatant double standard concerning the Thomas controversy, “(If) it is unacceptable to say that Israeli Jews don’t belong in Palestine, it is also unacceptable to say that the Palestinians don’t belong on their own land… Yet that is said all the time in the United States, without sparking the kind of moral outrage generated by Thomas’s remark.” Makdisi notes that when Israel was created in 1948 “Europeans and Americans were, at the time, willing to ignore or simply dismiss the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians, who, by being forced from their land, were made to pay the price for a crime they did not commit.” Makdisi then goes on to outline many instances of well-respected pundits and politicians making the same sort of harsh and unreasonable—and outright racist—comments Thomas did, only with the criticism directed at the Palestinians, concluding, “An endless deluge of statements of support for the actual, calculated, methodical dehumanization of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular goes without comment; whereas a single offhand comment by an 89-year-old journalist, whose long and distinguished record of principled commitment and challenges to state power entitles her to respect — and the benefit of the doubt — causes her to be publicly pilloried.”
My purpose here is not to defend Thomas, or even Israel or Palestine, but free speech. Being politically incorrect should mean more than a politician’s willingness to oppose some liberal policy or some shock jock’s eagerness to make a crude remark. Political correctness implies many things, but perhaps the best definition is that some subjects are so beyond reproach that to even “go there” means the inquisitor should be immediately discredited, read out of polite society, or as in Thomas’ case, forced to end their career. Challenging the status quo—the alleged role of the press—necessarily requires questioning the very premise upon which our conventional wisdom rests. How can anyone possibly challenge the status quo without occasionally saying, thinking or writing things that sometimes stray outside the limits of respectable opinion? The very notion seems impossible.
While I don’t condone her controversial comments I also don’t condone the overreaction to them, and I’d rather have an army of Helen Thomas’s speaking their minds and saying plenty of stupid things, than a press so constricted by fear that it never challenges convention. Liberal columnists at the New York Times and elsewhere have made sport out of saying horrible and nasty things about white Southerners—people like me and my family—and pundits on the Right have been known to say horrible and nasty things about blacks and gays and others. Yet, it’s hard to recall a reporter of Thomas’ stature being taken down for one admittedly dumb comment, which leads me to believe her greatest sin was “going there,” or going too far, on a subject that is widely considered no-go. This is unacceptable and like white Southerners, blacks, gays, and all the rest, Israel too, should not be beyond reproach.
Defending the importance of having a free press if not Thomas, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart recently asked, “When does America’s unwavering defense of Israel begin to compromise our unwavering defense of free speech?” Answer: with the forced resignation of Helen Thomas.