The latest shameful episode involving Helen Thomas shows that emotions are important: either as the basis for advancing relations between Israelis and Palestinians, or causing yet another setback on the road to peace
The news this week that the PLO mission to the United States honoured the now infamous 91-year old veteran White House reporter, Helen Thomas, at a lavish journalism award ceremony, is incomprehensible just as it is outrageous. As a progressive-minded Israeli still defending the possibility of peace against impossible odds, this latest piece of news is yet another cruel slap-in-the-face, providing further ammunition for an ever-strengthening right-wing camp, bitterly opposed to peace at all costs.
For those who need reminding, back in 2010 Thomas shocked the American public and the “inside the beltway” crowd when she told Rabbi David Nesenoff of the website, rabbilive.com that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” When the Rabbi politely asked where they should go now after over 60 years of statehood, Thomas snapped back that they should simply go “home” to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”
From the moment that Thomas uttered her vitriolic, simplistic and highly insensitive remarks, there was widespread consensus that what she said went far beyond the pale. In Washington D.C, where the powerful AIPAC lobby and its message of unquestioning support for Israel is all-consuming, even informed and well-grounded criticism of Israel is rare. But to suggest that the Jews of Israel should return to Europe, the scene of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust strikes a visceral emotional chord with Jews everywhere and of all stripes. It doesn’t matter if we are of European (Ashkenazi) or Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) descent, left or right. Even in Iran, the only Jewish member of the 290-strong parliament, who describes himself as an Iranian first and a Jew second, openly condemned President Ahmadinejad in 2006 for similar statements on Israel and the Holocaust.
The point here is that Thomas’ comments were not just anti-Israel, they were anti-Jewish. How exactly her remarks represent a distinguished journalistic career of “supporting Palestine in the west” as per the PLO’s official statement, is a complete mystery to me. It seems that animosity between Israelis and Palestinians at the diplomatic level today means that anti-Jewish comments such as these are automatically interpreted as pro-Palestinian. They are not.
But, why does it matter that the once venerable “doyenne” of the White House press corps has been honoured by the Palestinian Authority in this way? The fact is, after decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, emotions matter. And what moment in history touches Jews the world over more than the Holocaust? Lets face it, we Middle Easterners are an emotional people: this can either manifest itself as unrestrained hatred and anger or unrestrained warmth and love. Anyone who has spent even a short amount of time here in Israel/Palestine knows that Scandinavia, it is not.
That is why new Palestinian voices such as those of Aziz Abu Sarah are so important. Recently he told a J Street audience that he doesn’t, “see us as Palestinians vs Israeli or Arabs vs Jews anymore, we are standing on the same side.” On a very basic level this is emotionally powerful for me as a Jewish Israeli. To see a Palestinian who has suffered so much personally, make the transformation in his own words from “anti-peace” to “pro-peace” while stating clearly that there is no contradiction between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, can only be described as inspirational. It is this emotional-inspirational basis which we need to capitalize on and galvanize our respective populations, in order to move forward. If we don’t, we risk leaving the news agenda to the hollow diplomatic ceremonies of the Helen Thomases of this world.