White House correspondent Helen Thomas has gained respect simply for living a long public life, one that finally ended this week with her resignation over her opinion that the Jews should leave Israel.
Was it a gaffe as some on the Left claim? A gaffe is defined as saying “something that is true, but inappropriate.” By this definition her statement is a gaffe, because it displayed her belief that Israel has no right to exist.
It isn’t the first such statement she has made. Over the past decade she has shown an intense hatred of Israel. In 2002 she asked then White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, “Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?” Years later she confronted White House Press Secretary Tony Snow in a an anti-Israeli tirade that ended with Snow thanking her for “the Hezbollah view” (video). The Guardian’s Dan Kennedy in a piece titled “Helen Thomas: Good Riddance to a Garden Variety Antisemite” noted that no one read her. Thomas main role in the White House briefing room “was to take advantage of her position as the senior White House correspondent in order to engage in a kind of performance art.” Kennedy notes that “Robert Zelnick told Politico that Thomas’s ‘bias regarding Israel has long been known to anyone – including this commentator – who has spent five minutes in her company.’”
Condemnation originated among conservatives but later spread across the political spectrum. Former White House spokesman under President Bill Clinton Lanny Davis equated her statements on Israel to those by racists who believe that African-Americans should return to Africa, and former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that her comments reflected religious cleansing. In the end, she did the only sensible thing and fell on her pen.
The controversy highlights an important philosophical change. For most of the past century antisemitism has come from the Right. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the bigotry that would eventually culminate in the Holocaust festered in the US on the Right in the sermons of Father Coughlin, and Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. After World War 2 William F. Buckley Jr’s cleansed the Right of its bigotry, and the movement became a staunch defender of Israel. Religious Christians viewed the continued existence of Israel as ordained by scripture, while neo-conservatives recognized the strategic importance of the nation as a natural ally in the volatile Middle East.
But the bigotry didn’t die. Today the millennia-old hatred has taken up residence in Leftist thought and literature. This new anti-semitism has made its way into the mainstream as shown by a recent study that found more Democrats than Republicans believed Jews were responsible for the recent financial crisis. Actions by Israel to defend itself are filtered through a Left-wing media sympathetic to the suffering of Palestinians more than the Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorism, adding support to the Leftist antisemitism.
The infection of modern liberalism with Jew hatred presents Jews with a dilemma. The vast majority of American Jews are liberal and lean to the left. 78% voted for Obama in 2008, and 70-80% regularly back Democratic congressional candidates. Zionism and the Israel state itself have strong socialist underpinnings, perhaps due to the communal living their survival depended on during the Diaspora. Even today the most right-wing Israeli political party would fall to the left of the American Democratic party on the political spectrum on economic issues. The laissez-faire and small government policies espoused by the American Right, with its foundation in the frontier individualism and the libertarian core this experience created, are anathema to most Jews and Israelis.
The Obama Administration’s actions to isolate Israel and appease its enemies have had an impact on its Jewish support base. Obama has lost almost half his Jewish support. But that support hasn’t moved to the Republicans nor is it likely to. As the Republicans move towards the Right and their libertarian base under the prodding of the Tea Party* – and following the Democratic party’s playbook of 2006-08 which saw that party move hard to the Left to win elections, it is unlikely that American Jews will find the Republican party platform palatable as a whole. But if Israel experiences a spate of terror attacks or is threatened by a nuclear armed Iran, it is possible that the Republican support of Israel will trump their other concerns and American Jews will support the Republicans.
It is a difficult choice for American Jews: to embrace libertarian ideals in order to support Israel, or align with anti-Semites who share your belief in socialism.
The ultimate solution is for the Left to purge itself of antisemitism just as the Right did after World War 2. The Holocaust opened the eyes of many on the Right, and the power and veracity of William F. Buckley jr. purged the movement of the paleo-conservatives who believed hating Jews was acceptable. The Left may need the equivalent of both in order to reform itself.
*Many of those Buckley Jr. chased out of the conservative movement in the 1950’s found themselves among libertarians at the far right extreme. One of the dangers of the Republican Party’s movement towards the libertarian Right is that these discredited beliefs including Jew hatred may be taken in and infect the party. As History as shown, antisemitism shows a remarkable resilience.
UPDATE: The Progressive Movement’s unqualified support of the Palestinians against the Israelis is covered by Abraham Miller here. It leads to absurdities such as gays in Madrid banning gays from Tel Aviv for the latter’s refusal to condemn the seizure of ships attempting to break the Gaza blockade, put in place to isolate Hamas – a radical Islamic group that believes in killing homosexuals whether Jewish or not.