By Harriet P. Gross
Waves from the recent Helen Thomas affair keep washing over me. I remember once standing up in a speedboat and watching its foamy wake heal into smoothness again. But I look back on this and, although many may have already sailed on, forgetting the once-revered journalist’s poisoned remarks about Jews and Israel, I have not. I still see roiling waters. Let me share a few of them with you.
First: Ralph Nader. The long-esteemed consumer advocate who has, since his early triumphs, trilled off into other areas, came quickly to Ms. Thomas’ defense, characterizing her career termination as “swift and merciless.” He called the action an “evisceration” launched by, among others, Ari Fleischer. In her defense, he offers quotes from a couple of Jewish journalists: Fox’s Ellen Ratner (“We all have said things that we wouldn’t want to see in print or on video…. Anyone who denies it is a liar. Give Helen a break…”) and Michael Freedman, formerly of UPI (“Who among us has not said something we have come to regret? Let’s not destroy Ms. Thomas now…”). He concludes that she has been fired “ostensibly for a gaffe, but really for being too right, too early, too often.”
(Should I [not] mention that Nader, like Thomas, is of Lebanese origin, and “perhaps” shares similar sympathies?)
In contrast: an open letter to Helen from a rabbi in New York, David Algaze — also of Lebanese descent. He’s sarcastic to the max when he begins with a “thank-you for the important service you rendered through your words about the Jews and their place in the world….” Discounting the theory of some that one of journalism’s formerly finest is now too old to be practicing her craft, he goes on: “I do not believe your words were the result of some incipient symptoms of Alzheimer’s; your words revealed what is in your mind, and that is why I am grateful for your honesty…. Now the mean, unforgiving and biased Helen Thomas has been revealed to us in full. It certainly is not flattering to you, but it is the true self, and we appreciate your allowing us to see the true Helen Thomas at last.”
The meat of the rabbi’s message comes next: “This is not to deny your right to your opinions. You have every right to defend the Arab claims … but to do it in such an ignorant and hateful manner reveals that under the patina of courteous speech and elegant demeanor, there lies beneath the skin … a measure of hatred, a desire for revenge, and a meanness of spirit. Your position is not just anti-Semitic; it is anti-human…. Thank you, Ms. Thomas, for allowing the world to see what an Arab sympathizer really is about … I hope the world is grateful to you for the candid revelation of the mind of a ‘progressive’ Arab.”
In the wake of my previous Thomas column and my reminiscent speedboat ride, a reader has sent me the words of Canadian writer Mark Steyn (not a Jewish Stein, notes my correspondent), whose post-Thomas piece in Macleans magazine is headed “The lesson of a Jewish cemetery,” one he visited recently in Tangiers, which once had a thriving Jewish community, he says. But now all of Tangiers’ Jews “live” in that burial ground… as do the Jews of many former communities around the world.
“Wherever a Jew is, whatever a Jew is, he should be something else, somewhere else,” Steyn says. “And then he can be hated for that, too.”
For this thoughtful commentator, everything today still comes down to one of the world’s oldest prejudices: “…that in the modern world as much as in medieval Christendom, Jews can never be accorded full property rights,” he says. On a patch of the Holy Land, they are certainly the current leaseholders, but they will never have recognized legal title…. That’s the reason the Palestinian question is never settled. Because, as long as it’s unresolved, then Israel’s legitimacy is unsettled, too.”
So I’ve been pondering Nader’s hatred along with Thomas’; wondering if Rabbi Algaze’s sarcasm can hit home or do any good; and considering the truth of Steyn’s bottom line: “There are a lot of Jews in Israel right now. But then, there were a lot of them in Tangiers and Baghdad and Bukovina and Germany and Poland, for a while. Why shouldn’t Tel Aviv one day be just another city with some crumbling cemeteries and a few elderly Jews?”
My metaphoric speedboat sails on in still-troubled waters.