In Defense of Helen Thomas: Scholarly Pitfalls of “Everything is Religious”

By Ashley Gnat  

Since written, Hearst Corporation announced 7 June, 2010 that Helen Thomas has retired “effective immediately.”  

Recently Helen Thomas was asked to comment on Israel.  Her response was to “tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”  She followed up this statement with: “remember, these people [Palestinians] are occupied and it’s their land, it’s not German, it’s not Poland.” When asked what the Jews living in Palestine should do, Helen suggests that they “go home, … Poland, Germany… and America, and everywhere else.” 

Already, Helen Thomas’ agent has dropped her and former Bush administration White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is suggesting that she should lose her column with the Hearst News Corporation as well as her seat in the White House Press Room.  

Thomas with President Kennedy

Before we go into details of the out lash against Ms. Thomas, let’s think exactly about what she means and her background in the pressroom.  If you have admired Helen from afar (as I will admit I have, and thus reveal my bias), then it would not be a stretch to sell you on the admittedly general statement that Ms. Thomas’ questions have the reputation of reminding everyone that we are in two wars and to remind us of our ethical duties to those we occupy as well as our troops.   The same is true of her questions and comments regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine: when Ari Fleischer was Press Secretary, she notably reminded him that there were two sides to the conflict during the second Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000, a reminder that stemmed from then-President Bush having met with Israeli officials but only peripherally talking to supporters of the Palestinians.  

Keeping this in mind, Helen’s comment doesn’t seem menacing.  She could be referring to a specific, recent event in Palestine: the recent surge in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  If this is the case, she is speaking to a particular set of Jews: those living in what Palestinians see as illegal settlements in Palestinian land. 

Yet in the age of soundbite clips and taking things out of context, this juicy moment of political vulnerability will not go unnoticed.  In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Fleischer compared Thomas’ comments to those suggesting that all blacks should go back to Africa.  However, later in the interview, Fleischer said 

but this is so different.  This is in a unique category.  And if people can say this and get a basic pass at it, and put out a statement later, as she did, calling for tolerance, when she herself engaged in one of the most intolerant statements anyone can make, people should not sit by silently.   

Fleischer

While I find the contradiction pleasantly ironic (it’s like this other thing, but it’s unique), I am able to chalk it up to interview gitters.  

I would only like to point out that in order for Ms. Thomas’ statements to be anything like suggesting that all blacks should go back to Africa, the situation would need to look something like this: North America is desperately over populated; in an attempt to relieve some strain on struggling cities, the United States government has decided to build American settlements inside the Canadian border and has displaced nearly two million Canadians; Americans approve of this venture because politicians have been explaining that Manifest Destiny gives them right to the entirety of the North American continent; Canadians are outraged at the removal of their land, the land they have lived on with their families and fellow countrymen longer than family tales will go back; by a mixture of dumb luck and politics, the majority of settlers are black.  In this situation, then yes, Helen’s comments would be similar enough to the present situation in Palestine to bring up the comparison of suggesting that blacks should go back to Africa.  Of what use is this comparison? 

It is after this analogy that Ari Fleischer’s response gets more interesting.  

Hearst should not continue to employ her.  Even the signal that should be sent if they gave her a two week suspension, would be very powerful about telling people what is right and what is wrong and how far people should go to express their political views.  It is abhorrent to say that any ethnic group, racial group, or religious group should have to leave to go home where they came from.  It’s a terrible thing to say. 

Before Helen Thomas is punished too harshly and condemned to the opinion that she told any ethnic group, racial group, or religious group where to go or where to stay, think about what she could have meant: that group of people who is living in contested settlements in Palestine should go home.  Thomas reveals her position about the state of Israel when she suggests where they should go, but her expression when she made the suggestion reveals her sentiment: to her, it doesn’t matter where they go, just don’t go there.  

However Fleischer’s comments leave no room for interpretation: he is concerned about what should happen to Helen Thomas’ career, but he is more concerned that it tells “people what is right and what is wrong and how far people should go to express their political views.”  Scholars more versed with American law will be able to describe how this statement does or does not conflict with freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but my message is more simple: in the current age, we tend to focus more on religion, and are more offended by statements of religion, than anything else.  Thomas’ comments seem to have in mind a political crisis, not a religious group.  As scholars of religion, we are often expanding the category of religion and using what we have learned to instruct us on other things.  Yet in this instance, I think we should leave religion well enough alone.  This seems to be an example of a political criticism of Israel more than the condemnation of all Jews.  

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a religious and political conflict over the years, but comments about such a conflict can remain either religious or political and must not necessarily do both at the same time.

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