Sunday, 13 June 2010

on helen thomas

so another action-packed weekend. spent yesterday at labour party regional conference, then at the AGM of the waikato multi-cultural council (used be waikato ethnic council, but it seems that nationally, people don't like the word ethnic to describe ethnic & racial minorities, hence the name change). then spent time on skype with my overseas connections, and had a dinner engagement in the evening. today was a bit quieter, with only a shama board meeting and some work on funding applications for another community organisation to get done.

i want to carry on just a little further with the whole freedom of speech thing today. i know it's probably a little boring by now, but various things just keep leaping out at me, demanding my attention, and i just feel like i gotta share. this week, it was the speech of white house correspondent helen thomas, when she said [and i paraphrase] that jews should get out of palestine and go back to their european countries of origin. if you missed the whole thing, you can see the youtube clip here.

now i can't say that i agree with what she said. the kindest thing i can think to say about her comments is "not helpful", particularly in the current environment. as to whether she should have resigned (retired?) over these comments, yeah, i'd think she should have to face consequences. there is an interesting take at the huffington post here, particularly the fact that she has not had the opportunity to clarify or explain what she meant.

but the thing that strikes me most about this whole incident is that no-one is saying "lighten up", which is the most common response to the whole abusive cartoon drawings of Muhammad issue. there aren't arguments about freedom speech being made and her comments are predominantly seen as the hurtful words that they were. maybe if she drew what she'd said in a cartoon, then we would be having a different discussion? somehow, i don't think so. the sort of people who would defend a comment like paul henry's "cheeky darky" and tell us not to be so sensitive or PC are pretty silent here.

i'm not saying that i want to see helen thomas vigorously defended. i think people should be careful with what they say - not overly careful, but there is "bleeding obvious" and then there is "just crossing the line". the comments from ms thomas fall more in the former category, and even if she was the subject of a "gotcha" sting, i think that a person in a position of infleunce needs to be careful. i think she could have made points about the injustice of the occupation and the theft of palestinian land in a more helpful way, and i'm sure she would still have been lambasted far and wide for it, but this was a step too far.

i'm sorry that she has retired, simply for the fact that she was so brave and strong in holding various administrations to account, and a pioneer for women in journalism. at her age, there's little chance of a comeback. nor is there anyone else like her who will fill the gap.

but the next time someone tries to tell me that i shouldn't be so sensitive about drawings of Muhammad, i'm just going to say "helen thomas".


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but why should Helen Thomas resign, exactly? It seems that what she said is only common sense - that people who have invaded a country and stolen land from its indigenous people should give back that land and leave.

Utter common sense, and the only reason I can see that somebody would think otherwise is that they are Zionists - which I know you, stargazer, are not.

So once again I don't understand. What is wrong with what Helen Thomas said?

stargazer said...

well, there are a couple of reasonable points of objection. one is that not all the jews in palestine/israel are european or american immigrants. there was a population of locals who had lived there for many years. her comments totally ignore those people. secondly, i do agree that the proposition that they should be sent back to countries where they were persecuted is offensive.

i agree with the notion that they should get out of the occupied territories, as defined by the 1967 boundaries. i'd say they should go back to israel, and the israeli government should find space for them, given that the israeli government has had a policy of actively trying to get jewish people from around the world to come and settle in israel.

in any case, a "get back to where you came from" is so similar to what i've had to hear from bigots in various ways throughout my life, that i don't react well to it when i hear someone else saying the same thing. it's not a viable solution to a very difficult problem.

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree regarding what you said about Jews who were there before emigration, but I think Helen Thomas specifically said European jews for that very reason.

I also think the idea that they should return to the countries were they were persecuted is not such a terrible idea. These are no longer the countries they were before World War II. France, Poland, Hungary, even Germany herself are now all functioning democracies that do not discriminate against Jews. (Muslims, yes, but not Jews). So the idea that they face persecution if they leave Israel seems incorrect.

Finally, it's true that this 'get back to where you came from' language resembles that used by bigots in Europe and America, but I don't think that means nobody should ever have to leave an area they are not entitled to. Sometimes that is the only viable solution. And I think Ms Thomas was quite careful to use language that did not resemble that of the bigots.

Your point about Israel's 1967 borders is interesting but I can't agree. It's true, Israel seized the West Bank by force - but it seized Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Negev and everywhere else by force too! Why do Israelis have rights to land they seized violently from Palestinians in 1949, but not in 1967?

So with respect I think the issue with Helen Thomas is that she was unfairly forced to resign and, as you say, a strong progressive feminist voice was lost. The fact that she was forced to resign for giving the progressive feminist viewpoint only makes it more tragic.

stargazer said...

I also think the idea that they should return to the countries were they were persecuted is not such a terrible idea. These are no longer the countries they were before World War II. France, Poland, Hungary, even Germany herself are now all functioning democracies that do not discriminate against Jews.

there are a couple of things here. first is around post-traumatic stress factors - going back to a place of severe persecution, even though it happened in the past, would be a very nasty experience. trying to build a life there again would probably be beyond the capacities of even the immediate descendents of those who lived through these events.

second, if people were forcibly repatriated back to europe, i very strongly suspect that the europeans would be less than welcoming. even now, and more so given the recession and financial strife currently facing the european union. that they should take responsibility for a problem they created is something i'd agree with you on. but the fact is that they won't, and the people who will suffer most are the repatriated ones.

It's true, Israel seized the West Bank by force - but it seized Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Negev and everywhere else by force too! Why do Israelis have rights to land they seized violently from Palestinians in 1949, but not in 1967?

if you go back to an earlier post, which i don't have time to find now, you'll see that i've said that i don't believe israel has an inherent right to exist. but that the loss of life involved in trying to dismantle the state is just not worth it. in terms of practicalities, i think the 1967 borders are the best solution, and i think palestinian negotiators are pretty much at that point as well. now if only israel could even think about coming close to that point, we might have hopes for peace talks resuming. at this stage, i'm not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

Hello Stargazer

Could you please link me to this earlier post so I can read it before I respond?

stargazer said...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Stargazer

A very interesting post. I'm not sure I agree though. Given that the Palestinians have repeatedly stated they simply want their homes back and have no interest in harming anybody, where do you think this violence would come from?

Unless you're referring to the violence the Israelis themselves would use against the people of Palestine. And if so, it simply becomes the same question - why is the need to avoid Israeli violence in defense of their 1949 borders greater than the need to avoid it in defense of their 1967 borders?

I'm sorry about the need to tax you on this, but it's an issue that's v. important to me and it seems you have thought deeply on it, so maybe you have missed something I haven't. I just can't understand why anybody would accept Israel's existence.

stargazer said...

the violence would come from israel's allies who have a strategic interest in having israel in the middle east. they would move in to protect those interests. other countries would support the palestinians, so that the conflict would be very much larger than just israel and palestine.

Anonymous said...

So if the USA was prepared to militarily defend Israeli occupation of the West Bank, you would not support Palestinian independence? That's quite sad.

I understand the need to be realistic but there is a difference between realism and giving up a morally upright fight whenever violence is threatened.

If Mohammed had been realistic in this fashion when his followers were threatened by the heathen Islam would not exist.

stargazer said...

anon, nice misinterpretation. i said neither of those things, and you know it. you think i'm wrong to care about the damage to be done by a particular course of action, that's up to you. as for Muhammad being realistic, i'd refer you to the treaty of hudaibiya. look it up.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I've misinterpreted you but I guess I have your position wrong after all.

You say that you don't support the return of Palestinians to what is now Israel because of the risk of violence, specifically the risk of violence by Israel's allies.

But if Israel's allies were prepared to bring violence to the Palestinians over the West Bank, you would stick to your current position, of support for Palestinian statehood?

Why is the violence in the first place decisive, but the second not?

The treaty of Hudaybiyyah is an interesting analogy. I would say that the situation we are in is similar to that after the treaty was broken. After all the Zionists have broken agreements with the people of Palestine many times.

And I believe that when the Quraishi violated the treaty Muhammed stated he had 'no option' but to march on Mecca. Even though he knew violence would ensue.

stargazer said...

when it comes to violence, particularly in the modern world, i go back to basic islamic principles. no civilians should be hurt. the crops in the fields should not be destroyed. people in monastries should not be touched etc etc. you may be familiar with the particular verse in the qur'an. we live in a world where bombs are indiscriminate, and infrastructure is deliberately targetted. we particularly saw this in the gaza attack of december 2008, but also majorly in iraq. we see the use of white phosporous and depleted uranium, know to cause long-lasting effects.

i don't think that these kinds of attacks comply with islamic principles, and i can't imagine that Muhammad would have approved of them. the fact that the other side is doing it doesn't make it ok.

what i think is that the 1967 boundaries are a more achievable target, more likely to get international support, less likely to cause the kind of widespread and horrific violence that the dismantling of the israeli state would require. i also believe in incremental change.

and incidentally, violence didn't ensue in the takeover of mecca. in fact, there was forgiveness and sanctuary given to people who had been responsible for some pretty nasty torture and harassment of muslims. as an example in moderation, that is a particularly good one.

i'm now beginning to suspect your motives as your comments are starting to look like baiting, and i'm also getting a little tired of this discussion. the post is actually about freedom of speech issues, and if you have anything further to say about that, i'll let it through.