Helen Thomas: Freedom of Speech and the Zionist Albatross

On January 8 the Society of Professional Journalists’ Executive Committee voted to retire the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. The SPJ’s full board is expected to give their final approval within 10 days. In the meantime, amidst the unrelenting backlash, Helen Thomas has rebounded as a columnist for a North Virginian community paper, Falls Church News Press.

The core criticism against Helen Thomas is not so much her one comment captured on video May 27, 2010, or the subsequent round of comments shared at a diversity workshop in Dearborn on December 2 that both Wayne University and the Society for Professional Journalists assert is their reason for pulling her awards. Rather, it is what all of the comments symbolize –an opposition to Zionism. Please how long do many of us who fight against social injustice, including a growing number of anti-Zionist American and Israeli Jews, have to engage in this tireless defense that we are not against Jews or Israelis, but a racist ideology? A racist ideology that was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of three quarters of the indigenous population of Palestine in 1948 similar in impact to the catastrophe of the dispossession of American Indians and the redistribution of the tribal lands of the Five Civilized Tribes [1887 Dawes Allotment Act].

Hurling accusations of anti-Semitism do not work for people, like me, who have spent time in Gaza and the West Bank, and have experienced first-hand the devastating effects of the siege, occupation, and collective punishment.  I lived for four months in the Gaza Strip, teaching university students and analyzing survey data on post-traumatic youth and adults after what some refer euphemistically to Israel’s 2008-2009 War. In Bethlehem, everywhere I turned there was a sinuous, omnipresent concrete wall that separates Palestinians from their agricultural lands. Flashback images emerge where upon entering the Jewish settlement in Hebron I was greeted with the words, “Gas Arabs signed by JDL” scrawled on a retaining wall. Further on, there is Abraham’s watering hole where Palestinians are forbidden to take a dip. My Palestinian guide and a Palestinian student friend of mine could not enter, but the settlers not knowing I was of Arab American descent allowed me to descend the winding steps to the spring. The visceral racism sparked the recollection of my father’s stories about his experiences in the Jim Crow South when he would travel to the car auctions in Baton Rouge.

In the mid-1950s, Helen Thomas also had been to Israel.  She visited former Palestinian villages and met up with Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948. So, what explains her protracted criticism of Israel in front of Rabbi Nesenoff’s video-camera? Schechter’s interview with Thomas provides some insight that for fifty years “she censored herself as a reporter” but currently in her role as an opinion columnist she perceived that she had a freer rein. One observer opined that Thomas’ comments typify an oppositional response heard among persons of Arab descent .

Although not being in Helen Thomas’ skin, I can only offer a perspective as a fellow Lebanese-Arab American.  More than being oppositional, Thomas’ comments reflect an accumulative anger and ire at an America that has not only vilified Arab Americans in their media and immigration laws for over a century, but also with a U.S. foreign policy that for over 60 years biases Israel and is complicit in perpetuating the oppression against the Palestinians.

The criminal nonchalance of the international community in watching Lebanon go up in flames during the 16-year civil war, and in 2006 hearing Condoleezza Rice’s analogize Israel’s slaughter of 1,200 Lebanese civilians to “the birth pangs of the Middle East”. And, the piece de resistance the U.S. occupation and wholesale destruction of the high civilization of Iraq and the U.S. military’s abuse and torture of the civilian population.

Like other ethnic groups in the U.S., Arab Americans have transnational ties to their countries of origins. When Israel attacks innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon with American made and donated F16s, phosphorus and cluster bombs, Arab Americans psychologically absorb the assault and annihilation, because it is more than likely they have close relatives and friends residing in these countries.

With well over a century of emigration to the U.S., Arab Americans have proven themselves as loyal Americans, who like Helen’s parents and my paternal grandparents sought and became U.S. citizens. Shortly after 9/11, Noam Chomsky remarked that being anti-Arab, e.g., making overt racist comments against Arabs is considered legitimate; whereas, being anti-Black or anti-Semitic, is not. This is not to say, that racism does not exist against African Americans or Jewish Americans, just that if racist remarks are expressed openly it is rightly denounced as unacceptable. Lamentably, anti- Arab and anti-Muslim racism is not uniformly condemned in the U.S. or abroad.

For example, where was the public censure of Ann Coulter when she remarked that “press passes can’t be that hard to come by if the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas to sit within yards of the President”?

Numbering over three million in the United States, Arab Americans are asking for a fair shake like any other U.S. citizen and a more balanced foreign policy towards Palestine. Ms. Thomas’ outcry embodies a half century of frustration and mental occupation that Arab Americans feel as their voices of historical truth is pilloried, discredited, and dismissed as either delusional or Anti-Semitic. Are not Arab Americans a part of America’s participatory democracy that as an under-represented minority are penalized and ostracized when they speak out against social and political injustice perpetrated against them and their sisters and brothers in the Middle East? Ms. Thomas has apologized for her remarks to the novice interviewer/filmmaker Rabbi Nesenoff. Yet, while defending Helen Thomas’ freedom of speech, the Society for Professional Journalists deems her remarks as “inappropriate and offensive”. Why then is it not considered equally reprehensible when  Rabbi Nesenoff, a man of the Book, has not apologized to the Mexican American community after a widely circulated you tube, entitled “The Mexican Weatherman” pictured him delivering a hokey and racist impersonation of a Mexican priest. Nesenoff justified his off color comedy stint under the pretext of getting into the spirit of Purim. /1/ While for some of us he was fanning the flames of anti-immigrant rhetoric that helped to fuel the present climate of hatred behind the recent Arizona shootings.

In light of the enormous contribution that Helen Thomas has made to the field of journalism, the context in which she spoke candidly should be rightfully recognized and her media awards restored back to her name.  Or does our country’s unwavering allegiance to the Zionist ideology irrevocably trump and excoriate any truth-telling of Palestinian suffering?

DIANE SHAMMAS holds a Ph.D. in International and Urban Education and Policy, with a specialization in Arab American Studies. She is a lecturer in American Studies and Ethnicity. She can be reached at dshammas@usc.edu
1. http://www.consortiumnews.com/2010/122910d.html