Unconscionable. Offensive. Hurtful. Bigoted. Terrible. Hateful.
These are the words being used to describe Helen Thomas’ recent comment about Israel and Palestine. Editorialists across the country have condemned her statement that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back” to Europe.
Let’s agree that she should not have said those things, and that a just and lasting peace in the Middle East fundamentally requires reconciliation between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. We need also to agree on a formula that allows them both to be at home in the same land (I have long advocated the idea of a single democratic and secular state for both peoples; a state that treats all citizens as equals). Insisting that either people does not belong is not merely counterproductive; it lies at the very root of the conflict.
If, however, 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’ remark. And while the nation’s editorialists worry about the offense she may have caused to Jews, no one seems particularly bothered by the offense felt every day by Palestinians when people — including those with far more power than Thomas — dismiss their rights, degrade their humanity and reject their claims to the most elementary forms of decency.
Are we seriously to accept the idea that some people have more rights than others? Or that some people’s sensibilities should be respected while others’ are trampled with total indifference, if not outright contempt?
One does not have to agree with Thomas to note that her remark spoke to the ugly history of colonialism, racism, usurpation and denial that are at the heart of the question of Palestine. Part of that history involves vicious European anti-Semitism and the monumental crime of the Holocaust. But the other part is that Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homeland in 1948 to clear space for the creation of a state with a Jewish identity.
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.
But this callous carelessness, this dismissal of — and refusal even to acknowledge in human terms — the calamity that befell the Palestinians, and of course the attendant refusal to acknowledge their fundamental rights, did not end in the 1940s. It continues to this very day.
Mainstream politicians, civic leaders, university presidents and others in this country routinely express their support for Israel as a Jewish state, despite the fact that such a state only could have been created in a multicultural land by ethnically cleansing it of as many non-Jews as possible. Today, Israel is only able to maintain its Jewish identity because it has established an apartheid regime, both in the occupied territories and within its own borders, and because it continues to reject the Palestinian right of return.
Where is the outrage about that?
Where was the outrage in 1983 when Israeli Gen. Rafael Eitan looked forward to the day that Jews had fully settled the land, because then “all the Arabs will be able to do about it is scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle”? Or when Alan Dershowitz suggested in 2002 that Israel summarily empty and then bulldoze an entire Palestinian village as a punitive measure each time it was attacked? Or when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman claimed in 2006 to have discovered a “pathology” that caused some Arabs to “hate others more than they love their own kids”? Or when Avigdor Lieberman (who now serves as Israel’s foreign minister) said in 2004 that Palestinian citizens of Israel should “take their bundles and get lost”? Or when Israeli professor Arnon Sofer, one of the country’s leading demographic alarmists, said that to preserve the Jewish state, Israel should pull out of Gaza, though that would require Israel to remain at the border and “kill, and kill, and kill, all day, every day”?
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.
To accept this appalling hypocrisy is to be complicit in the racism of our age.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He is the author of, among other books, “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.”