The lady has been an old crone for more than half a century. So it was inevitable that some people in the profession would feel sympathy for Helen Thomas, even in her wicked quintessence. And not only merciful to her person but concerned for her lost job. Yes, Hearst pushed her, but Thomas, intuitively sensing that she would no longer be deferred to by the president or the press corps, went gently. Her wacky game was up.
But this is not comedy. And Thomas’s answer to a random question—from a rabbi, it is true—about her current thoughts on Israel were deadly serious. She suggested that the whole matter could be wrapped up if only the Jews of Israel would go home to where they came from, which in her narrative, she made clear, meant primarily Poland and Germany. And maybe the United States.
Now, the truth is that almost everyone was repelled by Thomas’s comments. The president said they were “offensive” and “out of line.” But he added that all this, meaning her resignation/dismissal, was “a shame, because Helen was ... really an institution of Washington.” Actually, I believe it is not a shame and that it is precisely because she had become, mirabile dictu, a Washington institution that her humiliation is deserved and just.
The president’s press spokesman, Robert Gibbs, also commented that her words were “offensive,” a descriptive term. But Gibbs added “reprehensible,” making his observations a bit more chilling and judgmental than Obama’s. The White House Correspondents’ Association called her wicked ramble “indefensible.” Her speakers agency cancelled her contract. And Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, called off her scheduled commencement address. (Why it invited her in the first place is a mystery since her nuttiness was no surprise to anyone, at least to any sentient adult and especially in the Washington area.)
The end of this career is not because of “the Israel lobby” or “the Jewish vote.” It is a consequence of the American people’s own sense of justice and their historic sense of justice for the Jews. This goes back to way before the Declaration of Independence, when Old Testament Protestantism was cutting through the brush to its own errand in the wilderness. The American nation, from the eighteenth century to this one, has seen in the homelessness of the Jewish nation an injustice that could only be cured by what the religious called the “restoration.” Hardly a Congress in history has failed to call for it, and, in the twentieth century, only two secretaries of state, John Foster Dulles and James Baker, and their presidents tried to betray it.
The public-opinion polls continue to confirm this loyalty of the American people to Israel. And there is something steadfast, almost heroic in that fealty. One reason that it sometimes seems brave is that it has to confront at once fashionable and unflinching antagonism to Israel, much of it actually raw hatred. The present season of disdain started with Walt and Mearsheimer. A second cause comes from two cognate sources: the declining “mainline” churches (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, etc., many of which, by the way, issued hysterical and grotesquely false condemnations of the Mediterranean confrontation) and the “non-political” NGOs like Human Rights Watch (about which Benjamin Birnbaum has published a scrupulous and withering piece in The New Republic). The blogosphere is the third place of origin for irresponsible information and opinion.
Right now and maybe for a few months more, these views are being bolstered by the pogrom of international rhetoric about the Mavi Marmara, the jihadist ship dressed up as a Mississippi River cruise boat. Of course, the onslaught of hostility to Zion comes daily from the United Nations; its recognizably degraded agencies; gangster governments like Iran with its allies Turkey and Syria; and, alas, over the last year, in the highest echelons—the very highest echelons—of the Obama administration.
Fouad Ajami, the great scholar of the Middle East and a frequent TNR contributor, has an essay titled “Iran and the ‘Freedom Recession’” in The Wall Street Journal. It is, as you can see from its title, not about Israel or imagined Palestine but about Persia and its present struggle for freedom and decency. He writes, “There is no guarantee that categorical American support would have altered the outcome of the struggle between autocracy and liberty in Iran. But it shall now be part of the narrative of liberty that when Persia rose in the summer of 2009, the steward of American power ducked for cover, and that a president who prided himself on his eloquence couldn’t even find the words to tell the forces of liberty that he understood the wellsprings of their revolt.”
President Obama’s failure to find the right words is not a failure of eloquence. It is a failure of truth and a deliberate aversion to the truths of history. Obama’s disregard for Zionist achievements in building a real society in Palestine and preparing for statehood from the fin de siècle until the eve of the Jewish catastrophe cannot be a result of ignorance, although it may well be a willed ignorance. The fact is that the president has his own narrative, and it is essential to his view of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and of how to settle it. The one major problem with his perspective is that it is largely untrue or, to be more precise, it is maybe 20 percent true. For one, it is untrue in that he omits the essential Zionism of the Jewish religion. But faith is only faith, and prayer kept the vision alive. What it did not do is build a real polity in the Holy Land and in the Diaspora and, from that, a state. Zionism did that.
Zionism was part of the “springtime of nations” that burst out in the middle of the nineteenth century ... as an aftereffect. Liberal nationalism in Europe did not quite admit the Jews to its rights or did so only on the conditions of utter assimilation and cultural self-denial. Indeed, progressives almost everywhere picked up anti-Semitic tropes and made them their own. Here begins the history of modern Jewish nationalism.
I will not recite this history just because President Obama fails to acknowledge it. But the history of Israel cannot be understood without grasping its Zionist essence: the holiness of the land, the religion of work, the law as foundation of justice, the discipline of science, the connection of every Jew to another, the centrality of Jerusalem as the physical and spiritual pivot of “the return.” You may think it corny. Still, the prayer: “next year in Jerusalem.” And the reality: already this year.
Why am I discussing the ugly ruminations of Helen Thomas in tandem with the president’s views of and policies toward Israel? Not because they are kindred. Obama is not a stupid or a malicious man. But I also happen to think that, almost across the board, he is not wise in his conduct of foreign policy. His incompetence in the Middle East and especially with reference to Israel-Palestine derives from his utter coolness to the Jewish nation and his intellectually distorting emotions about the Arab and Muslim orbits.
With his arrival in Turkey on his first overseas trip during his presidency, Obama came down on the side of the “world of Islam,” with which liberal Muslims have been struggling for decades. It is a struggle for the nation-state, with incipient liberalizing aspirations, against the doctrine of the Islamists, which was best expressed by Sayyid Qutb, “A Muslim has no nationality except his belief.” In his visits to Ankara and Istanbul, he was more concerned with courting the Turks as part of Islam than the Turks as a nation. This certainly pleased Prime Minister Erdogan, who has since shown just how much further he wants to go in that direction.
Islam was even more the core of Obama’s visit to Egypt than it was in Turkey. It was not just his historic distortions of Muslims and Islam and their institutions. Or, for that matter, his exaggerations about how many Americans are Muslims. And his tacky misrepresentations of the relations between Muslim countries and the United States throughout history. He also chooses to pick between factions in an intra-Islamic religious debate. He even took a swipe at our French allies, who are weighing whether a woman should be able to wear hijab, jilbab, niqab, khimar in the street. I find the proposal a bit silly. But I am not French. OK, the American president thinks the choice of clothes a civil liberty. The truly endangered and coerced women, however, are those in Muslim countries—in the Muslim world, as Obama would have it. But he has not spoken up for them.
So back to Helen Thomas. She hates Jews. The president does not. But, as he couldn’t find a suitable voice for Iran, he cannot find a suitable and truthful voice for Israel. And, if President Obama thinks, as he seems to, that there was no century of Zionist democratic state-building or 20 years of crimped and “temporary” frontiers until, in 1967, three neighboring states, with tangible support from across the Arab world, sought to dissolve even these, why should he not give his heart to the Palestinians and his back or back of his hand to the Israelis?
Thomas believes that Israel only exists because of its refugees from Germany and Poland. The president is not so coarse. And he must know that nearly one million Jews escaped from horrific Arab and Islamic realms immediately at the dawn of independence, and a considerable number did so before that.
In fact, insofar as Obama reads his history, as he seems to do, as a transaction between the Holocaust and what the Arabs call the nakba, the disaster, it is distorted history. It is not only that the traumas of two people are not at all similar or compassable in weight and depth. It is ridiculous to have to argue this elementary point. For almost 100 years, the Arabs of Palestine and the Arabs beyond thought they could simply dismiss Zionism and the vital liberal society it built. They can’t. And the president shouldn’t either.
Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic.