What if Helen Thomas Had Emulated Powerful Right-Wingers and Said Palestinians Don't Exist?

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." 

Thomas’ suggestion that Israeli Jews are all descended from refugees who fled Europe after World War II and have no connection to the region is no less ahistoric. The archeological record shows that there have been Jews in Israel/Palestine continuously for thousands of years. According to historian Alexander Scholch [subscription required], Jews made up about 4 percent of the population of Ottoman-era Palestine in 1850. That was probably a low point, but more migrated to Palestine over the following few decades. 

They didn’t kill anyone or steal anyone’s homes. According to records kept by the Ottomans, at the turn of the 19th century, decades before the Holocaust almost annihilated European Jewry, around 10 percent of the population of Palestine was Jewish. The British mandate period followed, during which the Jewish population increased to around a third, again through immigration (most of it legal). This was not always smooth by any means, but at least in the early period of the mandate, the new Jewish immigrants were greeted with little resistance by the Arab majority. 

By the closing days of the British mandate, around a third of the population was Jewish. What followed was what the Israelis call the War of Independence and the Palestinians describe as the Nakba, or “disaster.” There was an often bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian Arabs. There were massacres, notably in the Arab village of Deir Yassin, where women and children were among the more than 100 dead. Many Palestinians fled in panic, and many more were forcibly expelled by Israeli forces -- turned out from homes their families had occupied for generations.  

The first Israeli government then passed a law forbidding their return. In 1946, the non-Jewish population of Palestine is estimated to have been about 1.3 million, and 750,000 are believed to have fled (the exact numbers are subject to heated debate). Many of their descendants make up the longest standing refugee population in the world. You can pick a number of starting points for the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, but this is when it became the seemingly irresolvable mess it is today.  

The reason Helen Thomas was wrong, historically, is that over the next few decades, Arab governments across the Middle East expelled Jewish populations that had lived in the region for centuries and had no connection whatsoever to Europe. These are known as Mizrahi Jews; many migrated to the new state by choice, but many more fled riots and state-sanctioned violence, as had many Palestinian Arabs. They can’t “go back to Poland” because their ancestors never set foot in Europe. Today, their descendants represent about 50 percent of the population of modern Israel. 

People say they want a balanced view of the Middle East conflict, but more often than not they want confirmation of their belief that the other side is motivated not by legitimate historical claims and concern for their communities’ health and safety in the future, but by monstrous and irrational blood lust that cannot be negotiated with and must be met with violence. And so the conflict continues. 

Central to Holocaust “skepticism” is the denial of a historical fact critical to Israel’s claim to legitimacy. It is, rightly, relegated to the fringe of our public discourse. But Alan Dershowitz can publish a book in which he argues that during the height of the Nakba (which he calls a “pack of lies”) only 2,000 or 3,000 Palestinians were expelled from Israel, and retain his credibility as a serious commenter. (Dershowitz cited historian Benny Morris’ estimate of the number of Arabs who fled between April and June of 1948, but Morris actually estimated the number at 200,000-300,000; when called on it, Dershowitz said it must have been a typo.)  

While the Palestinian Nakba didn’t even begin to approach the Holocaust in terms of horror and bloodshed -- there’s no moral equivalent -- denying the fact of it is just as intellectually depraved, and the purpose is the same. Yet that denial is common in Israeli society; in 2009 the far-right party led by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman floated legislation that would have outlawed Palestinian observations of Nakba Day, a traditional day of remembrance. 

Ultimately, the Helen Thomas imbroglio tells us a lot about how narrow and one-sided the range of acceptable public discourse over the Arab-Israeli conflict really is. In an offhand remark, she revised history to erase Jews in Israel prior to the Holocaust. Her career is over, and her legacy lies in tatters. Yet Mike Huckabee can tell a Fox News audience that there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people, and remain a credible candidate for the White House in 2012. 


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