Despite Helen Thomas’s apology and resignation, the controversy over her call for Israel’s Jews to be thrown out of their country and “go back” to Germany and Poland isn’t quite over. Not to be outdone by the anti-Semitic octogenarian scribe, radio talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell defended or at the very least rationalized Thomas’s slur on her radio show, the audio of which can be heard on YouTube. The comedian and her “friends” on the show think Thomas’s remarks are merely “politically incorrect.” O’Donnell claims that in 2010, no one could possibly believe that Thomas thinks Jews should go back to Auschwitz (as one of the Gaza flotilla “humanitarians” allegedly told the Israeli navy) and that her main point was justified because “What she was saying was, the homeland was originally Palestinian and it’s now occupied by Israel.”
O’Donnell’s rants are not particularly significant, but her assertion about whose land the Israelis currently occupy is important because it represents a common misconception about the Middle East conflict that often goes without contradiction.
Indeed, even those pundits that reacted appropriately to Thomas’s remarks, such as the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who wrote an admirable column about what happened when some Jews did, in fact, attempt to go back to Poland after the Holocaust, failed to point out that Jewish rights to historic Palestine predate the tragic events of the 1940s. Cohen described the Kielce massacre, in which Poles slaughtered returning Jews, as well as the hostility of even some Americans, such as General George Patton, toward displaced survivors. He rightly noted that the plight of these homeless Jews helped galvanize support for Zionism at that crucial moment in history in the years leading up to Israel’s independence.
But as with President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, which posed a false moral equivalence between the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust and the displacement of Palestinian Arab refugees, the idea that Jewish rights to the land are merely a matter of compensation for events in Europe is a pernicious myth that must be refuted at every opportunity. Jews need not be required to leave Israel for Europe not only because to do so would be insensitive but also because the place Arabs call Palestine is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Despite the dispersion of the Jews, the Jewish presence in the land was never eradicated. For example, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority in the 1840s. Palestinian nationalism grew not as an attempt to reconstitute an ancient people or to solidify an existing political culture but strictly as a negative reaction to the return of the Jews and does not exist outside the context of trying to deny the country to the Zionists. That is why even moderate Palestinians find it impossible to sign a peace agreement legitimizing a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn.
The idea of Jews as colonists in the Middle East is a staple of anti-Zionist hatred, but it surfaces even in respectable forums and in the work of writers who are nominally sympathetic to Israel. Earlier this week, Ross Douthat wrote a column in the New York Times comparing the State of Israel to the Christian Crusader kingdoms that sprouted in what is now Israel during the Middle Ages before being swept away by a Muslim tide. Douthat doesn’t seem to wish the same fate for the Jews and acknowledged that the analogy between the Crusaders and Israel is one invoked by Arabs who wish to wipe out the Jewish state. But his analogy between Israel’s demographic and strategic problems and that of the Crusaders is itself specious. Unlike the Christian noblemen who ruled the country and its mainly non-Christian inhabitants from castles that are now historic ruins, the Jews settled on the land en masse and developed it in an unprecedented manner. Contrary to his evaluation of Israel’s current position, its economy has flourished despite war; and though it has many problems (as do all countries), it is no danger of being swept away except by the sort of cataclysmic threat that a nuclear Iran poses. Moreover, and contrary to the land grab of European knights who massacred Jews in Europe on their way to further atrocities in the Holy Land, the Jews came back to their country as a matter of historic justice, as a people reclaiming what was rightly theirs.
Friends of Israel and those representing the Jewish state generally ignore the need to point out the myths about Zionism that have resulted in all too many people accepting the idea that the Jews are “occupiers” of an exclusively Arab land. They fear boring their listeners or seeming too strident. But the costs of this neglect are to be measured in the growing numbers of people in the West who accept the lies spread by Palestinian propagandists or who don’t know enough to challenge them.