What if Helen Thomas Had Emulated Powerful Right-Wingers and Said Palestinians Don't Exist?
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Mike Huckabee’s reputation didn’t take a nose dive when he said "There's no such thing as a Palestinian."
When Joe the Plumber made the same suggestion, the right wing crowed. There was no outcry when New Republic editor Marty Peretz said “Palestine is an utter fiction” or when Glenn Beck described the Palestinians as “Syrians …kind of wandering around, tending their flocks, walking around basically in the desert.” Supporters of the Israeli right make the argument all the time.
Helen Thomas lost her job, and ultimately her reputation, for an off-the-cuff, off-duty remark that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” -- and “go back” to Germany, Poland or the U.S. It’s a disgrace -- the tone and context of her comments were completely overlooked in the feeding frenzy that followed (she was speaking to a bunch of Jewish students, for example).
It’s important to understand the stunning hypocrisy in the overblown reaction to Thomas’ quip. The argument that there’s “no such thing as a Palestinian” -- that the Palestinians displaced in the creation of the state of Israel were just wandering Arabs who might simply be “absorbed” into neighboring Arab states -- is incredibly commonplace but not at all controversial. But if hundreds of thousands of Italians were living in exile in Europe -- if we were talking about Europeans rather than Arabs -- nobody would dream of suggesting they be "absorbed” by Spain and Portugal.
The narrative is specifically meant to deny that the Palestinians have a legitimate claim in the conflict. From there, it’s a small leap to the widespread, false and deadly belief that Palestinian violence stems only from an irrational hatred of Jews, which precludes the possibility of a negotiated settlement and justifies Israeli violence as a simple matter of self-defense. Obviously, the conflict is far more complex.
Helen Thomas was a great and honest journalist, but what her defenders don't grasp is that her comments were just as wrong as the idea that the Palestinian people are some kind of fiction, and just as dangerously so.
The first rule for evaluating views of the Israel-Palestine conflict: never take anyone seriously who doesn’t grasp the simple truth that both Israelis and Palestinians have various and competing claims -- historical, cultural and legal -- to the same chunk of sun-baked earth. To suggest otherwise is not only historic revisionism, it’s also a serious obstacle to peace. It’s 2010, and the world’s attention (and political pressure) must be directed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in some way that both sides can live with. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are going anywhere. Entertaining fantasies of ending this decades-long conflict with some mythical evacuation of an entire people is not only a distraction, it’s a dream that leads the combatants to believe they might eliminate their opponents instead of making the concessions necessary to finally negotiate a settlement.
That’s the intent of those who claim that Palestinians don’t exist as a people. While historian Rashid Khalidi has noted that Palestinian identity has been fluid over the centuries -- from biblical times through the era of Ottoman rule -- as a discrete national identity, it long predates the creation of the state of Israel. Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal traced the formation of Palestinians’ national identity to the Palestinian Arabs’ revolt in 1834. But historian Walid Khalidi wrote that while during Ottoman rule, which began in the early 16th century, the forbears of today’s Palestinians’ considered themselves to be subjects of the Empire, they were "acutely aware of the distinctiveness of Palestinian history." The Palestinians, dating back centuries, “considered themselves to be descended not only from Arab conquerors of the seventh century but also from indigenous peoples who had lived in the country since time immemorial, including the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites before them."