Helen Thomas (and the long, anticolonial walk to freedom)

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Someone recently asked me whether I thought Helen Thomas was guilty of anything. My reactions were mixed.

Emotionally, I have to admit that there was something very gratifying about what she said, however flip it was. The fourteen year old boy inside of me loved it. Anyone who is an Arab or a Muslim who is honest will tell you that they had the same reaction. They probably emailed an article about it to a friend, approvingly, though they might deny having done so if asked. And it’s not just Arabs and Muslims who had a moment of private exhilaration at Helen Thomas’s words. Anybody who has ever stopped reading something by Marty Peretz or Charles Krauthammer or Barry Rubin or any number of other writers and analysts mid-paragraph, in quiet revulsion at their undiluted bigotry, or anyone who has been incredulous and felt powerless and angry when one elected official or pundit after another insouciantly talks about sending the Palestinians packing out of the West Bank, or expelling them from Israel, or anyone who has listened to some figure in a position of authority speak with exquisite ignorance, confidence, condescension and derision about Palestinian history and Arab culture will feel the same way.

I have heard the Palestinians demonized so much, called so many bad things (non-existent is actually relatively tame) in so many fora, in an unchallenged way that it felt really good to hear somebody say what she said. Even if it was only to quote her and damn her. The shoe was on the other foot—not even on the other foot, sort of in the vicinity of the other foot—for a split second in the national discourse, and there was some inexplicable sense of pleasure in that. Saree Makdisi’s piece in the LA Times was delicious because he chose just a few examples (many, many more could have been adduced) and he called out the hypocrisy. He held a mirror up to our cultural and political elite; I’m sure they looked away. 

A lot of this conflict, at least in the western media, boils down to the refusal in our discourse to acknowledge the equal humanity of Palestinians. I remember reading the NYT very closely every day during the Second Intifada. You could have done studies on the amount of ink and where that ink was spilled (p. A1 or p. A15?) in terms of its coverage of Jewish and Palestinian deaths. The valuation of human lives implicit in those decisions about space allocation communicated a lot about the relative worth of Arabs and Jews in American mainstream discourse. At Baruch Goldstein’s funeral, the rabbi there announced that a million Arabs weren’t worth a Jewish fingernail. The NYT and other news sources seemed to me to be different only in degree, not in kind, in the assumptions they brought to their coverage. I remember going to a protest once as an undergrad; the sign I held just said, "Arabs are People, too." I don’t think many Americans really believe it. And when I read about Israel funding therapy for pets traumatized by rocket attacks and at the same time that Israeli sonic booms over Gaza have caused a ‘malignant spread of deafness among children,’ I wonder whether the Israeli government really does, either.

At a non-emotional level, of course, I know that Thomas was wrong. To make Jewish Israelis leave would be to repeat the disaster of 1948. It would be to inflict upon Jews what the Zionists inflicted upon the Palestinians. It would be to do unto others what they did unto you, not as you would have them do unto you. It would be a mess and a huge human disaster. And, apart from the morality of it all, it would be totally foolish for the Palestinians to do just that. Israel has a highly educated population with a strong economy. It would be an act of national idiocy to try to make Jews leave. You can just look at the mess Mugabe has created in Zimbabwe if you need any more proof of this. (And with this said, I should add that I really don’t think anybody wants to ship Jews out or push them into the sea: this is nothing but a bogeyman that has been held up by Zionists for decades to shut down serious debate and discussion or change the subject away from Israeli crimes and misdemeanors. I hesitate to even mention this issue because in so doing, one plays to Zionist fear-mongering and the image of the Arab as the heartless, barbaric savage, capable of any cruelty). If Arabs and Jews could somehow learn to all get along, it would be one of the most amazing countries in the world. Just a phenomenal place.

Thomas’ words were gratifying in the same way that seeing a bully get punched in the nose is gratifying—like that scene at the end of Back to the Future when Biff gets decked—but it’s a dead end in terms of resolving the conflict in real life or in any real way. It’s also wrong because what you have now are generations of people who have been born there and grew up in that place.

I like what Ahmad Tibi says. He says I have no problem with Jews being here, but if you want to start talking about shipping people out—a common topic in Israeli mainstream political discourse—we should do it according to the principle that the last to come should be the first to leave. That seems most fair to me.

If there were a one-state solution, it would actually be a source of strength to make it a homeland for the Jewish people, even if they are a minority. But nobody is asking me. I’m like Will Rogers: all I know is what I read in the newspapers. But that’s usually pretty depressing, and predictably depressingly slanted. So now I check the blogosphere.

Which is often worse. I just read Jeffrey Goldberg’s take on the Helen Thomas controversy. In two paragraphs, he really piles on some hefty charges. Thomas is a foot soldier in a Roman-inspired war against the Jewish people and commits a sin that is "the first cousin of Holocaust denial": denying that Jews are a nation. Also, she seeks to deny Jews "the truth of their history" (whatever that means). He reels off the charges like a cop reading off of a notepad after arresting a perp.

A reading of Thomas’ statement that is much more charitable, plausible and also just simpler would be that Thomas probably doesn’t give a fig about his nationalist anxieties. What Helen Thomas cares about is Palestinians. I don’t know her and have never met her, but my suspicion is that she sees them as…human beings.

It’s not metaphysical at all. Nor is it national. Nor is it about denying anything. It’s about affirming the humanity and dignity of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine and refusing to deny them rights and respect because of wrongs inflicted on Jews by Europeans (not by Palestinians), and because they didn’t have the good fortune of being born Jews and not Arabs. Tortured attempts by Zionists to use Hajj Amin al-Husayni’s interactions with Nazis to tar all Palestinians (including the large number of Palestinian Christians) as having been at the forefront of the Final Solution represent an implicit acknowledgment that the moral calculus of Zionism doesn’t quite add up. The journalist Bat Yeor’s polemical, pseudo-historical construction of the notion of dhimmitude represents a similarly deeply problematic effort coming from much the same place.

The real fault of the Palestinians is not that they were Nazis and flaming anti-Semites, it was that they were living in the wrong place at the wrong time and had the audacity to not compliantly go along with decisions about their fate that were made without their input and against their wishes in faraway European and American cities. They didn’t do what they were told to do. They didn’t behave as they were expected to behave. This is still the problem with the Palestinians. They will not do as they are told—by the Americans or by the Israelis—and this simply will not do. Good Arabs, those who will do what they are told, get a pass and a pat on the head. So Ahmedinejad (who is Iranian and not Arab) is rightly excoriated for his despicable Holocaust denial but nobody talks about Abu Mazen’s equally despicable doctoral work on Holocaust denial. Abu Mazen says things the Israelis and Americans (and Jeffrey Goldbergs) like. At least most of the time. If Abu Mazen falls out of line, be sure we’ll hear about the Holocaust denial. I guess Sadat being assassinated meant that he could never fall out of line; we remember him as a good Arab and forget that he was a Nazi, too.

Because Thomas herself has Middle Eastern heritage, she might be less inclined than other pundits, many of whose knowledge of Arab culture probably does not go much beyond buying Sabra Hummus at Costco, to see the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine as lesser humans than Europeans and somehow, some way, not entitled to the same dignity, self-respect and human rights, essentially because they had the misfortune of being born speaking Arabic and not English, French or German. If achieving and maintaining the Zionist dream means destroying a society, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, killing tens of thousands more, invading, bombing and attacking at least half a dozen countries, developing a large nuclear arsenal, denying minorities equal rights, maintaining a decades-long military occupation, reducing 1.5 million people to grinding poverty, giving aid and comfort to Apartheid South Africa, etc., then maybe that dream should be put into early retirement or atleast radically reconfigured. Something has gone terribly wrong.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Was it? 

There is a world beyond Europe, eastern and western. You might even say that the world is flat. Non-European peoples have had their own historical experiences and have their own histories of tragedy, suffering and struggle. These are no less vivid, painful, human and important simply because we in the US do not learn about them in school, best-selling popular histories are not written about them and Hollywood does not make movies about them.

It is not a coincidence that most of the wider, non-European world is generally more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than it is to the Zionist one. Helen Thomas’s comments raised ire in the US, but they would be seen as utterly unremarkable to much of the population of this planet. Now, this might be because the entire world is anti-Semitic and really just hates Jews. (And there is undoubtedly anti-Semitism at work in some criticism of Israel; and it should be deplored, denounced and shunned.) But chalking all such support up to an irrational, primal hatred of Jews is too facile and too self-serving. Global sympathy for Palestinians might perhaps be because much of the world was colonized by Europe and then went through decolonization. Much of the world recognizes in the Palestinian struggle things that resonate with its own long walk to freedom. Because much of that world, like the Palestinians, had little to do with inflicting suffering on Jews in Europe, it finds the self-pity and persecution complex which seems to animate wealthy, well-educated American Zionists to be bizarre, self-indulgent and totally alien to their own historical experience, not to mention contemporary realities. Netanyahu thinks this is 1938. It feels a lot more like 2010 to me. And I’ve been scratching my head and trying to recall the last pogrom that happened on the Upper West Side, and just can’t remember. It must have been before the Giuliani years. Yes, that’s it. Before Rudy. I’m sure he put a stop to them when he cleaned up the city.

With Apartheid over, Israel stands alone as an historical relic and curiosity—the last remaining example of European settler colonialism. And this is how much of the globe sees the question of Palestine, through the lens of anti-colonial struggle and liberation.

The French were in Algeria for 130 years and fought savagely to stay there. Israel is only 62 years old and it, too, has fought with a ruthless amorality to maintain its ethnocracy. Time will tell if the Zionists last as long as the French did. 

Attempting to re-frame the question of Palestine in terms of European persecution of Jews and calling Helen Thomas bad names will not make the anti-colonial narrative that she was giving voice to go away. How many Americans know that when the French left Algeria, almost all of the pied noirs went as well? How many Americans even know what a pied noir is? 

If the traffic police realize that people might be operating in narratives other than their own, they might realize that it’s possible to be pro-Palestinian and critical of the Zionist project yet not driven by the nefarious (Roman) motive of denying the Jewish people the truth of their history (whatever that means). And, one hopes, they might at least think twice before throwing the book at someone.

Palestinians aren’t denying anything. They just want their houses and farms and villages back.

Boulos lives in the US.  His grandparents were from Jaffa.

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