By now it is old news that veteran journalist and White House correspondent Helen Thomas was forced into retirement over comments she made ridiculing Jews in Israel. The Hearst News columnist apparently broached the third rail of American politics by castigating Israelis and the state of Israel for its ongoing conflict with Palestinians. Coming on the heels of Israel’s deadly assault on a ship carrying humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, Thomas’ “retirement” once again shines the spotlight on a conflict in which almost any opinion expressed, even those far more benign than Ms. Thomas’ tirade, that is not favorable to Israel will be summarily denounced. Even President Jimmy Carter experienced such when his book – was widely criticized as being anti-Semitic.
While we can agree that Thomas was harsh in her condemnation of Jews, what is troubling is that she was well within her right as a columnist. No longer bound by the journalistic code of news reporting, Thomas’ writings are her personal opinion and she has license to express her feelings in the manner she chooses. You can disagree, and you can object and make your feelings known to her employer and companies that advertise in Hearst newspapers. However, it does not take away her right as a columnist to express a point of view that is contrary to popular opinion or critical of a specific group.
I write from the experience of taking on conservative talk radio host Bob Grant. I led the charge against Grant during his days on WABC radio in New York City when I was with the New Jersey NAACP, and was joined by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton. For years Grant had used the airwaves to launch a “scorched earth” assault on Blacks, even demeaning an icon such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My position was that he was within his First Amendment right to do so, but I was also within my right as a consumer to challenge his employer, at the time the Walt Disney Company, WABC radio’s parent corporation, as well as companies that advertised on Grant’s show. I made that point in a nationally televised debate with Grant on a late night show hosted by one of his conservative compatriots Dennis Prager. WABC radio eventually fired Grant after advertisers dropped his program, but he was later picked up by another New York City radio outlet. Meanwhile, Grant made certain to express his feelings about me in a book he later penned, titled “Let’s Be Heard.”
Helen Thomas was certainly within her right to be heard. The manner in which she was shunned is troubling because it fits a pattern of condemnation of anti-Israel speak that really has no parallel. Blacks have grown accustomed to talking heads regularly expressing patently racist views and rarely being held accountable. While shock jock Howard Stern left terrestrial radio over his stupid comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, he has found new life on satellite radio. In much the same way as Bob Grant, Stern got a second chance despite his obviously ignorant point of view. Then there is the case of conservative stalwart William Bennett, who made a deplorable comment suggesting abortion of Black babies as a solution to crime, but he is still prominent on the airwaves. Likewise, political consultant Ed Rollins is regularly featured on news programs despite the ruckus he caused in New Jersey in 1993 when he inferred, as a consultant to Republican gubernatorial candidate and eventual winner Christine Todd Whitman that Black ministers had been paid to suppress the Black vote. In all of these instances the offending voice got a second chance, but not Helen Thomas.
What would help the crisis in the Middle East is some honest dialogue in the United States. I don’t expect that out of Israel or the Palestinian authority. I do expect that in this country where freedom of the press is a Constitutional hallmark and even the First Amendment rights of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan has been defended and upheld. You don’t have to agree with Helen Thomas’ perspective, nor do you have to read it. However, the time has come to acknowledge that Israel cannot be off-limits for criticism, no matter how harsh. Countless articles have been written and commentary spoken criticizing corruption and human rights in sub-Saharan African nations but it has not been equated as anti-Black. Why then is any criticism of Israel deemed anti-Semitic?
For his part, President Obama is attempting to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand he denounced Helen Thomas for her comments and then announced an increase in U.S. aid to the Palestinian authority. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is tiptoeing around the Israeli blockade of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza while the international community has widely condemned Israel’s use of force on the high seas. The government’s acquiescence to Israel may actually invite Iran to intervene on behalf of the humanitarian effort and allow its government to claim moral authority. That would be an unmitigated disaster for the United States. The Obama administration should offer humanitarian groups a military escort to break the back of the blockade and force Israel to either stand down or fire upon U.S. vessels.
There is much more to the Helen Thomas saga than meets the eye. What is at stake is our nation’s relationship to the entire Middle East, including oil producing Arab states, the Muslim world and the potential growth of anti-U.S. terrorist cliques in Africa. Are we really willing to roll the dice, and invest energy and political capital in shielding Israel from criticism, fair and not fair, when bigger issues loom on the horizon?
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