Helen Thomas is a long-time, award-winning, ground-breaking reporter and columnist for the Associated Press, one of the remaining news services. She has, for many years, lead the press conferences at the White House, asking the first question and often ending the press conferences. She is not technically a member of the White House press corps association, although she may have been at one point. She is 90 years old and many of her accomplishments were achieved before there was a White House press corps association even contemplated.
She and the Associated Press made the right decision in deciding that it may be time for her to retire. Her comments, albeit to a Rabbi holding a video camera (what was that about?) on Israel were really not proper for someone who is considered a reporter on White House issues and activities. The reporters in the White House press room, with the clear and obvious exception of Fox News, clearly should be strictly impartial in their public comments as professionals.
The reason is clear. We need people who, while they will always have their own personal opinions, try to report the truth and the facts as clearly as possible to the American people. We have too little of that today. Helen Thomas said that the Jews should get out of Palestine and go back to Poland or Germany “where they came from.”
That statement itself, though politically very unpopular in the United States, does reflect a point of view that may be surprisingly popular. Our opinion is that it is wrong, but it should not be brushed aside because it is the central, core issue of international diplomacy today..the most pressing issue facing the world. That is why such a prestigious and highly respected individual should not make those kinds of comments.
The Rabbi inadvertently raised the issue that we need to discuss. Should the Jews have their own state in Palestine? Should Palestinians be second-class citizens in Palestine? And what is the truth about whether they are and whether the Jews have a right to be there in such great numbers?
Let’s take a look at the history. One might think that if we were to revisit all the timelines and the conflicts that we could sort out the situation and find one side or another in the majority of right decisions and the other in the minority. But that will in all likelihood not be the case.
Here’s why. In the aftermath of the huge and catastrophic events of the Second World War, the long history of oppression of the Jews finally had to be addressed. The United Nations, many Jewish organizations in the United States and many, many Americans were in favor of a homeland for the Jews. Six million Jews…there is not the remotest shadow of a doubt…there are clear records…were literally exterminated.
While it was the most horrific example of Jewish persecution and also the most egregious example of persecution of any group in the history of the world. But it was only, if one can say “only” about a holocaust, by degrees of magnitude the same kind of attack on a people that had happened time and time again, from Russia and Poland and Spain to some areas of the Middle East.
So it was natural that, in the wake of a war that took 20 million people world wide, that the United Nations would want to handle this situation of a place for the Jews to live. Hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Palestine, or Southern Syria, along with many Arabs continuously for literally thousands of years. The country had been overrun so many times and played such an insignificant role in world affairs as to be merely a backwater of the Middle East.
From the end of its domination by one empire or one Middle East government or another, until the British Rule, Palestine was a land of few if any borders, organized government or sovereign identity
and so was a logical place, a former homeland of the Jews, a place of may religious sites pertaining to Hebrew religious history, and a place where Jews had lived in concert with their Arab neighbors for centuries, often under common oppressors.
Let’s just take a second or two…it should be days or weeks…to remember the millions of Jews who were persecuted and massacred in waves of persecutions around the world, lest we forget that it did not happen only in Germany and only in the 20th Century.
Persecution of the Jews began as early as 250 C.E. in places like Italy, where they were expelled or had property confiscated or had their places of worship burned. It continued in the middle ages when early passion plays began to direct the guilt for the death of Jesus specifically at the Jews and in France and Visigoth Spain they began to be expelled or massacred.
By the time of the Crusades in the 11th, 12th and 13th Centuries, antisemitism was an established practice along the routes to and from Jerusalem, and many Jews were massacred. Blamed in the 14th Century for the Black Death which killed at least one-third of the population of Western Europe, many Jews were expelled from France and Germany and they fled to Poland and Western Russia.
Life was no easier for Jews in Muslim lands than in Europe. In Moorish Spain they were persecuted with as many as 6,000 at a time murdered, often burned to death. Earlier eras in the Middle East saw Jews and Christians considered “Dhimmis” or “protected people” not required to become Muslims, yet singled out and thus subject to the vagaries of individual rulers as they came along, who wrote their own policies resulting in huge massacres from time to time. In the later periods, for example from roughly 1864 to 1880, as many as 300,000 Jews were killed in Marrakesh, Morocco.
When the wave of antisemitism, in the 19th Century made the western lands beyond the Pale in Russia and even parts of Poland less safe for the Jews, many immigrated to America. Finally, there was a place that Jews could go, North and South America, including places like Argentina, to escape large-scale persecution, torture and death.
In Western Europe, civilization began to take hold. Disreali was Prime Minister in Great Britain. Emile Zola in France defended Dreyfuss against the anti-Semitic attacks of the military. French, German and Austrian culture seemed to have come to a sometimes uneasy but nonetheless relatively benign acceptance of Judaism within their borders. Then came the First World War which set loose the baser nature of man, in which over a million and a half Frenchmen died and two or three million Poles. The number of atrocities and genocides among many different ethnic groups increased worldwide.
In the unsettling period between the First World war and the Second World War, antisemitism grew. We all know what happened when Hitler and Stalin came to power. Genocides of untold magnitude wreaked upon a people who had been so long persecuted, leaving over six million Jewish dead, most simply turned to ashes. It was a wake-up call for the world and for Jews. Jews needed a homeland, where they could not be persecuted.
The logical place was Palestine. It was the ancient home of the Jews, long before Rome and long before Muhammad. Several hundred thousand Jews remained there, living among Arabs in an area not particularly claimed by anyone except the British who were glad to give up the place which had little benefit. Palestine was a place not particularly coveted by any particular group, something of a backwater in history.
At the end of the Second World War, world leaders, frankly, wondered what to do with the Jews. Most of them had been rounded up in France, in Germany, Belgium, Holland and everywhere the Nazis had control and shipped off to concentration camps. Their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers had been murdered and their bodies turned to dust. Most had no possessions and many no living relatives. While six million were murdered, millions remained, homeless. No one wanted them. In Poland, which at one time had been a place of refuge, Jews were being killed.
The First World War effectively ended the rule of the Ottoman Empire which had controlled the area that became Palestine. The British assumed the administration of the area, and, with the other members of the League of Nations tried, after the war, to sort out some kind of equitable partition.
The Balfour Declaration and later a mandate by the League of Nations proclaimed that the area known as Palestine would become an area which would be a home for the Jews. Eventually, areas for Arab and non-Arab populations to live side-by-side were designated. One area was specifically designated as a home for the Jews. This did cause unrest, for political and religious reasons, as early as 1921 and continued periodically throughout the rest of the 1920s and 1930s and up to the creation of the State of Israel.
The British had controlled Palestine and other areas of the Middle East that are now Iraq and Jordan, for example, and they were directly in the middle of a decision that was handed down by the United Nations in 1948 that said that the area of Palestine would now be divided into a Jewish state and a Muslim state. The Arabs living in Palestine rejected this. By the time the country of Israel was legally a sovereign state, the Arabs were already involved in organized attacks. The Arabs lost the 1948 war that ensued. Israel continued as a separate country and it had actually gained more land.
About 700,000 Arabs left Israel in 1948 but some did remain. Almost all the Jews in the surrounding Arab states either fled to or were expelled to Israel. So why did the Arabs leave? One can only assume that they did not like living in a Jewish state or they knew that more wars were coming and they did not want to remain in a country that would not be safe. That turned out to be true.
The outcome of the first war, which was really prompted by the dramatic increase in Jews immigrating into the Jewish part, the new country carved out of Palestine, was disastrous for the Palestinians. They lost half of their land and many refugees were forced by the adjacent states to which they fled, into holding camps, from which many never really emerged.
Subsequent military clashes and wars in 1956, 1967-1970, 1973, 1978 and later have killed large numbers and left the Middle East, as well as certain Arab countries in particular wallowing in self-pity, anger and ethnic hatred. Billions upon billions of dollars in weapons and military operations have been wasted by the Arabs, by Israel, with a knife at its neck, and by American citizens who have defended Israel from its inception.
Many positions have changed. The Israelis, coming from a generation that were led to their deaths in gas chambers, have vowed never to permit themselves to be led passively to their deaths because some bigot or some society has decided that this is what they want. What the Israelis want is to be left alone.
But after some sixty years, positions have hardened. The Israelis take the position that if you bomb us and if, as Iraq did, you kill our people with missiles, when we respond, we will keep the territory we take. We will not return to our former borders from which you can continue to kill our children. This is not an unreasonable position.
In 2006, the political party Hamas took over the Palestinian government. They refuse to recognize the government of Israel, and The Arabs, the Muslims, in Palestine, continue to say that they should have their territory returned. Land for peace it is called.
The hatred of Jews has continued unabated for the entire sixty years since the end of WWII, with over 900,000 Jews having fled to Israel from Arab countries, leaving less than 10,000 remaining in the Middle East outside of Israel.
Millions and million of Jews…persecuted, expelled, murdered…and we wonder why the Israelis are so good at self-defense. If they had not become experts in self-defense, they would have been completely exterminated, annihilated. Early in the 1940s, there were plans in Egypt, Iraq, and other places in the Middle East to kill all the Jews in those countries should the Axis powers have succeeded. So this is not merely an argument among shopkeepers or rug dealers. This is serious business.
And where are we now? The Israelis have become so proficient at military affairs that their confidence may have overtaken their common sense. The hatred that must reside in many whose parents merely wanted to live in peace and practice their religion but are still persecuted appears to be quite understandably influencing some of their actions.
It would seem that the Israelis now feel that there is no hope of ever coming to a rational conclusion to the persecution that they have endured. It is unfortunate that Israel is located amidst the most backward countries in the world, with the most backward cultures, dictated by an outmoded religious relic of the Middle Ages. In addition, the Israelis themselves follow an ancient superstition, whose origins and historic writings, while good theater for the imagination, make no sense whatsoever.
Many of us look at the Jews and say, how rational and how much the portrait of the “good man” they represent. Perhaps it is their religion. Or perhaps it is three thousand years of understanding the lash end of human cruelty. Perhaps it is three thousand years of suffering with just a dash of religion. It is, after all, a religion that tends to endlessly debate solutions to morality. But it is still a religion, like all others a superstitious belief, the myth of a personal God.
As Americans, we view the Israelis not only as a civilized people who have experienced and continue to experience unreasonable persecution that was felt from these same Middle Eastern countries long before a Jewish homeland was anticipated. Consequently, our sympathies lie primarily with Israel. But that should not blind us to the fact that, for the safety of Israel, we must find ways to both accommodate and educate the Palestinians and their allies. Continued centuries of strife will result in only more poverty and misery among Palestinians and an ever growing militaristic posture among the Jews in order to maintain their defense.
What Helen Thomas, a very informed and intelligent woman, knows she mistakenly said was that Israelis should go home again to Germany and Poland. Well, first of all those were not their homes. In Israel, whether the world likes it or not, they are home. The problem now is to find a home for the Palestinians that they can accept and welcome and take as their own and in which we can all help them prosper.