by James Abourezk
You remember Helen Thomas? She was the senior White House Correspondent who always opened Presidential press conferences and closed them by saying the magic words: “Thank you Mr. President.” Her Wikipedia entry cites her professional accomplishments:
“Helen Thomas (born August 4, 1920) is an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and opinion columnist. She worked for the United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau chief. She was a columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. She covered every President of the United States from the last years of the Eisenhower administration until the second year of the Obama administration. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She has written six books; her latest, with co-author Craig Crawford, is Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do (2009).”
Helen was cashiered from her position as a Hearst columnist after she answered a question by a Rabbi with a video camera who asked her to talk about Israel. She answered—honestly—that the Israelis should get the hell out of Palestine. The Rabbi’s follow up question was, “Where should they go?”
“Back where they came from,” she answered, citing Germany, Poland, and elsewhere.
Now, we all know that those countries that were so murderous and cruel to European Jews are not what they were in the 1940s. But, judging from the reaction of the media, and from Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, one would have thought that she was sending Israeli Jews back to the 1940s. It was a media firestorm that engulfed her, sending a message to anyone else who might stray from the official party line on Israel.
Helen was promptly fired by Hearst news, and her speaking agent, Nine Speakers,Inc. dropped her as a client. A scheduled commencement speech at a Bethesda, Maryland high school was canceled, and the White House Correspondents’ Association issued a statement calling her remarks “indefensible.
Her alma mater, Wayne State University, called her remarks, “Wholly inappropriate.”
President Obama called her remarks “offensive” and “out of line”. She had questioned Obama about American support for Israel and at one press conference that focused on Iran’s potential for creating nuclear weapons, she asked President Obama about Israel’s “secret” nuclear weapons, and why the White House did not condemn the Israeli attacks on the aid flotilla.
Wikipedia also wrote that a group of Holocaust survivors and relatives criticized the Arab American National Museum of Dearborn, Michigan for its plans to place a statue of Helen Thomas in its museum, saying that it would be immoral to honor her and that “American values are at stake.”
After a later speech, the Anti-Defamation League called for journalism schools and organizations to rescind any honors given to Thomas. The organization said that Thomas had “clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite” in the speech. Soon after, Wayne State University in Detroit discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award, which it had been granting for more than ten years, citing what it called her anti-semitic remarks.
Helen was tough on all of the U.S. presidents who held press conferences, but, unlike the cowering reporters who sat with her in the White House press room, she refused to allow either the Presidents or their press secretaries to slither out of answering her questions. Which, one supposes, is why Ari Fleischer led the charge to have Helen ostracized. It was Helen who refused to believe Fleischer’s lies about the Iraq War during press conference after press conference.
The latest outrage came from an unexpected source—the group organizing an anti-AIPAC meeting in Washington, D.C. Helen was first invited to speak to the group, which was preparing a counter-conference during the annual AIPAC funfest in Washington. AIPAC, which is perhaps the most powerful lobby operating in the nation’s capitol brings together their nationwide membership in an annual D.C. meeting to have Presidents, presidential candidates, and special friends of Israel who are in the Government grovel before that fountain of political money—AIPAC. It is an organization that is not a PAC as we think of money givers to politicians. It is one that can command contributions—or prevent them—for candidates who promise to vote for taxpayers’ money as aid to Israel, as well as to protect Israel from criticism for its many crimes during its occupation of the Palestinians.
Helen was first invited to the anti-AIPAC meeting, then was ceremoniously “disinvited” on grounds, she was told, that she would be a “distraction.” First of all, it is difficult to imagine how someone with similar views, such as Helen Thomas’s, would distract anyone from the presumed message of the anti-AIPAC group which would, we imagine, recite the political evils of AIPAC.
Without a more clear explanation, which was not provided to Helen when she was disinvited, we can only assume that the political cleansing operation started by Abe Foxman and his Anti-Defamation League, is ongoing, even using the platform erected by the stated enemies of AIPAC.
The clear intent of Israel’s apologists is to make the Helen Thomases of the world disappear, along with their views opposing what Israel is doing to those under its occupation, as well as those neighbors, such as Lebanon, which has suffered mightily from Israel’s aggression. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel resulted in the killing of some 30,000 Lebanese, primarily civilians, the wounding of thousands more, and destroying the homes of tens of thousands.
In such work, Helen is not alone. The Israel Lobby continued to work on South African Judge Goldstone until their pressure forced him to recant a major part of what he had written earlier. His UN-appointed committee wrote a report damaging to Israel, exposing and denouncing the criminal action of the slaughter of 1,200 Palestinian civilians during its invasion in 2008 and its indiscriminate bombing of the Gaza Strip. Hamas was also criticized, but ultimately endorsed the report. Gaza is known as the world’s largest outdoor prison with its borders fenced and guarded by the Israeli military, its airspace controlled by the Israeli Air Force, and its sea approaches patrolled by the Israeli Navy. “Shooting fish in a barrel,” is a phrase that comes to mind when one reads about what Israel did in Gaza.
My view is the major reason for the political cleansing of outspoken people such as Helen Thomas, Norman Finkelstein, Judge Goldstone and others is that the American taxpayer is footing the bill for Israel’s criminal activities, and Israel cannot afford to have this knowledge exposed to our public, to those who pay the taxes.
The question must be asked: Can America afford to have knowledge of Israel’s actions silenced? Can we afford to continue to ostracize people who speak out against America’s policy toward Israel barred from academia, and from public life? It is a form of thought control that we never hesitate to rail against when anyone else does the same.
Our continuing endorsement of what Israel does in the Middle East, and the silencing of its critics makes life more dangerous and more expensive for all Americans.
James Abourezk is a former U.S. Senator who practices law in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is the author of Advise and Dissent, a memoir of his life in South Dakota and in the U.S. Senate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published on Counterpunch.