Ignorant and hurtful: those two adjectives just about sum up Helen Thomas's notorious remarks. Has she ever heard of Mizrahi Jews? Read my post on Comment is Free Watch.
If you still haven’t heard of Helen Thomas, you have not been reading The Guardian. Ever since the grande dame of the Washington DC press corps told Jews to ‘get the hell out of Palestine’ and ‘back home to Germany and Poland’ our favourite newspaper has run no less than seven pieces or blogs about her.
With an exquisite sense of timing, the veteran journalist made her ignorant and hurtful remarks to a rabbi with a video camera at a reception hosted by President Obama to celebrate Jewish Heritage Day.
We are told that Helen Thomas, who will soon be 90, shares a birthday with President Obama. Let’s hope he also does not share her antisemitic views. Although Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, did apologise, she was forced to resign her post with Hearst Newspapers. Critics were particularly stung at her reference to Germany and Poland. She could not have picked two places where Jews have suffered more in Europe. (Besides, as Richard Cohen pointed out in the Washington Post, 1,500 Jews did try to ‘go home’ to Poland after the Second World War, only to be murdered.)
As Amos Oz once wrote, before the establishment of the Jewish state antisemites were always telling Jews to go to Palestine. Now they tell Jews to get out of Palestine. Although most Jews living there were born in Israel and some have been in Palestine for generations – and Eretz Israel is the cradle of Jewish religion, culture and the Hebrew language – Thomas perpetuates the commonly–held Guardianista canard, aired below Roy Greenslade’s blog entry, that Jews are imposters from Europe who came to usurp the land from the native inhabitants.
Yet at the same time that Thomas’s controversial remarks were made public, the results of a genetic study were announced : not only were Jews from communities around the world genetically related to each other, but their DNA could be traced back to the Middle East. Not that genes alone determine peoplehood, but this news gives the lie to the favoured Guardianista myth that European Jews are converts descended from the Turkic Khazars.
In all the Thomas affair furore, however, few critics have actually pointed out that half of Jews living in Israel are Mizrahim, originally from Arab and Muslim countries. They are as indigenous to the region as any Arab Muslim – in fact more so, as most Jewish communities predated Islam by 1,000 years. As Naim Kattan writes in Farewell Babylon, ‘An Arab could not tell a Jew to go home as the Jew had been there before him.”
How and why did they end up in Israel? Simply because they were driven out by Arab and Muslim antisemitism. Their land and property was stolen by Arab governments for no other reason than they were Jews. Were Helen Thomas ever to acknowledge the fact, it would be just as perverse for her to suggest that Mizrahim ‘go home’ to such hotbeds of anti-Jewish hatred as Libya, Yemen and Syria, as to the killing fields of Germany and Poland.
Reacting to Zamalek’s comment that “Thomas therefore not only perpetuates the propaganda myth that Israeli Jews are colonisers from Europe, but ignores the Arab and Muslim antisemitism that drove a million Jews out of the Miiddle East to seek refuge in Israel and the West” the stock responses betray a parallel Guardianista universe:
*Jews of the Middle East are really Arabs (e.g. EndtheOccupation)
*Jews did not live in ghettos and intermarried with Muslims (e.g. ElliotCB)
* Zionism caused the great exodus to Israel (e.g. EndtheOccupation)
For most of their 14 centuries of ‘coexistence’ with Muslims, the status of Jews most closely resembled that of Jews in medieval Christendom. Jews were tolerated as long as they were useful to their Muslim hosts: they lived as a humiliated and subjugated minority (dhimmi) at the mercy of their rulers, to whom they paid protection money. They were ‘untouchables’ under Shia Islam. The religious communities were segregated and rarely intermarried. Jews in Morocco and Persia did live in ghettos until quite recently; the only time in history when Mizrahi rights were protected by law was under the colonial period. In truth, Jews are no more Arabs than Mexicans are Spaniards.
The ostriches of the Greenslade comments thread will not admit that Arab antisemitism predated the creation of Israel by centuries. They pretend that the dozens of blood libels, pogroms and forced conversions of the 19th and 20th century () did not happen. They refuse to acknowledge the rise of nationalist xenophobia and Nazi-inspired Jew-hating fundamentalism, mixed with anti-Jewish Islamic themes, in the 1930s. It was Arab governments, not Zionism, who conflated Jew and Zionist.
Zionism provided a response to Arab and Muslim antisemitism – it was not its cause. The non-Zionist Jews of Iraq, traumatised by the Farhud pogrom of 1941 in which 180 Jews were murdered, fled to Israel primarily because they feared another Farhud. The Jews of Libya, homeless after the 1945 pogrom in which in 140 died, left for Israel in droves in 1948. For the first time, they had a place to go – a Jewish state that would restore their dignity, security and rights.
But let’s return to Helen Thomas. Journalists have attributed her intemperate remarks to her Arab descent. Lebanese Christian Arabs have a long tradition of theological antisemitism. On the other hand, they have also produced such champions of Jews and Israel as Joseph Farah and Brigitte Gabriel.
In his incriminating video, Rabbi Nesenoff tries to engage Helen Thomas in Arabic conversation. She confesses she does not speak the language: “us children were too busy Americanising our parents,” she admits. I suppose Helen Thomas won’t be’ going home’ to Lebanon any time soon.