Wayne O’Leary

Thomas Affair and Beyond

Helen Thomas should have known better. The emotional rant she unleashed about Israel following its controversial May 31 raid on Gaza-bound relief ships in international waters was bound to end her long, distinguished career in journalism, and it did. Thomas defied one of the unwritten laws of American life. Political correctness dictates that Israel can never, ever be criticized by any American public figure, no matter how provocative its conduct, as former President Jimmy Carter found out. In suggesting Israelis “get the hell out of Palestine,” the dean of Washington’s White House press corps violated that precept in spades.

By venting her spleen on camera, moreover, Thomas ignored a cardinal rule of the contemporary “gotcha” media landscape: Never say what you really think when recording devices are around, as they always are in the modern high-tech era. This is a maxim persons of a certain age can’t seem to grasp, Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown being two prominent recent examples. There is no longer any zone of privacy, nor any such thing as down time; every utterance will be taped or filmed, edited for maximum personal embarrassment, and immediately released.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge Helen Thomas’ feet of clay. Notwithstanding Israel’s outrageous behavior on the high seas off blockaded Gaza, her intemperate comments were over the top, particularly the reference to Jews returning to Germany and Poland, sites of World War Il’s worst Nazi atrocities. At the same time, this was obviously the visceral, uncalculated response of a justifiably exasperated Arab-American reacting instinctively to the latest in a long string of abuses aimed at her ancestral people by Israel’s occupying government. Given that, as well as her half-century of commendable service, Thomas might have been cut some slack, but not in today’s media climate and, especially, not in light of the history of American-Israeli relations.

The White House was particularly smarmy in its response, calling Thomas’ outburst “offensive and reprehensible,” words not used even about the management of BP, which has despoiled the Gulf of Mexico, or, indeed, about Israel itself, whose commandos killed nine civilian relief workers in the Gaza attack. The Obama administration was, in the first instance, covering its collective backside. A substantial minority of Americans (6.5 million) are of Jewish heritage, many concentrated in the politically key states of California, New York, Florida and Illinois; they represent votes and, above all, campaign donations crucial to the Democratic party. Arab-Americans, by contrast, make up a much smaller fraction of the population (1.5 million), an easily dismissed demographic. Were the numbers reversed, America’s perspective on the Middle East would be considerably different.

This isn’t the first time the ethnic makeup of the US has influenced its public affairs, and it won’t be the last. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Washington’s foreign policy was impacted by the sensitivities of Irish-Americans, whose antipathy towards England prompted the diplomatic phenomenon known as “twisting the [British] lion’s tail.” But for now and for as long as we’re embroiled in the Middle East, it’s America’s Jewish community that must be placated, especially the nonsecular, religiously conservative members most attuned to latter-day Zionism. Their ranks are augmented by another sizeable minority, conservative evangelicals, whose Biblical dogmas regarding the End Time place them in the position of being Israel’s self-appointed guardians until such time as they displace the Jews and inherit greater Palestine from an approving God.

The inordinate hold Israel exerts over US Middle-East policy derives from more than ethno-religious identity politics, however; it’s a historical phenomenon whose genesis extends back to the founding of Israel in the mid-20th century. Almost immediately upon Britain’s relinquishment of its Palestinian mandate in 1948, President Harry Truman, motivated by Zionist pressure, personal considerations (his former business partner and close friend was Jewish), and the felt need to exculpate Western civilization’s collective responsibility for the Holocaust, overruled his own State Department and recognized the newly created state of Israel on behalf of the US.

Unknown to most Americans was the opposition to Truman’s initiative of much of the country’s diplomatic corps, concerned with maintaining good Arab relations and access to oil established during the war years. Among those reluctant to instantly and unilaterally endorse a Jewish homeland in the midst of someone else’s homeland were foreign-policy guru George F. Kennan and Secretary of State George C. Marshall of Marshall Plan fame. They and others of the “realist” school perceived that sponsoring a Jewish state in the Arab Middle East would inevitably make Israel’s Star of David our cross to bear, figuratively speaking. That’s exactly how it’s turned out. Even contemporary American observers, such as prominent Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, himself Jewish, have retrospectively concluded that “Israel itself is a mistake,” a historic miscalculation producing a half-century of war and terrorism as its byproduct.

It’s hard to undo history, and Israel’s existence is now an established fact, something its Arab neighbors are struggling to come to terms with, so far unsuccessfully. Part of the reason for their failure to face reality lies with Israel itself — its fortress mentality, its militant belligerence, its unwillingness to compromise for peace. And part of the reason lies with the US, which proclaims its neutrality but backs Israel’s actions, including the latest transgression, to the hilt. This blinkered outlook is the product not just of historical precedent, but of years of relentless pro-Israel propaganda, symbolized perhaps by the Hollywood film Exodus, which set the tone as early as 1960.

At least Exodus celebrated the first generation of Israelis, the democratic-socialist idealists of the kibbutz. Today’s Israel is an outgrowth of over three decades of mostly hard-line conservative government, which since 1977 has created something close to a rogue state. Internationally, Israel does what it wants when it wants, and the US tacitly approves with continued billions in military aid and sanctioned private political donations that disproportionately benefit the extreme rightist Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s past time to restrict the flow of money that enables Israel’s intransigence, or at least condition it on an acceptable level of Israeli cooperation in formulating a regional peace. Otherwise, the festering sore that is the Palestine question will keep the US mired in the Middle East forever.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2010


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