Since this blog was first posted this morning, Helen Thomas has announced that she is retiring from her role as a correspondent for the Hearst newspapers, effective immediately.
Towards the end of last week, a shocking video began circulating on the internet featuring that cranky veteran of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas. Ms. Thomas is known for being a tough questioner of American Presidents. She is also known for being exceptionally critical of Israel. Yet few were prepared for her latest outburst.
The video, originally filmed on May 27th, shows a reporter asking Thomas if she has “any comments about Israel.” She responds by saying, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When asked to elaborate, she says of the Palestinians, “Remember these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not German and it’s not Polish.”
Asked what the Jews in Israel should do, Thomas says that they should “go home.” And when asked exactly where their home is, she replies: “Poland. Germany. And America and everywhere else.”
While Thomas’ comments were outrageous in their content and angry in their tone, they were hardly unique. This pernicious idea that Jews are outsiders who have stolen Arab land is widespread. In this version of history, the Western powers decided that after killing six million Jews they should give the survivors a state in Palestine as some sort of consolation prize. Overjoyed, a bunch of ethnic Europeans left their ancestral homes in Berlin and Warsaw and set sail for a strange and exotic new land where Jewish feet had never before tread.
Sadly, President Obama helped to promote this myth in his speech in Cairo back in June, 2009. There Obama noted that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” He then proceeded to discuss the European anti-Semitism “which culminated in the Holocaust.” By completely ignoring the fact that the Jewish right to a homeland in Israel is rooted in a long and deep connection to that land, and by focusing only on the “tragic history” that convinced some Jews to exercise that right, our President seemed to be suggesting that Israel’s right to exist is rooted solely in the Holocaust.
Let me be clear. If the Jewish people had no connection to the Land of Israel, I could not in good conscience support the building of a Jewish state there. If the sole Jewish claim to the land was that Europeans had selected it as compensation for the Holocaust, I could not be a Zionist. If the Jews had as weak a claim to Israel as let’s say the pilgrims did to Massachusetts or the Australians to Australia or the New Zealanders to New Zealand, I would be an anti-Zionist of the first order.
I am a Zionist today because the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is ancient, deep, unbroken, and unbreakable. I am a Zionist today because rarely in the course of human history has the bond between a people and a land been so strong and so profound and so central to that people’s very being. I am a Zionist today because Israel’s cause is just.
To assert the Jewish claim is not to deny that other people migrated to Israel over time – including large numbers who came after the Jews began their modern return — and have likewise developed a deep attachment to that land. To assert the Jewish claim is not to oppose mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians. On the contrary, most Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel provided that this state would recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce terrorism.
But precisely because so many now seek to deny it, asserting the Jewish claim has become essential to the cause of peace and mutual recognition. By denying the Jewish ties to the land, Israel’s enemies seek to reinforce the dangerous idea that the creation of Israel was a massive theft and injustice of historic proportions. This lie drives the very terrorism and rejectionism that has prevented peace in the Middle East ever since the day Israel was reborn. The only way Israel’s enemies can one day recognize and respect Jewish rights is if they are made aware of them.
So let’s review the bidding. This summary is as brief as it is general, but it suffices to make my point.
The Jewish people was born in the Land of Israel. It is in the land of Israel that the Jewish people lived out and wrote down the events of the Hebrew Bible. It is in the Land of Israel that the Jewish people lived out and wrote down the key events of the New Testament.
It is in the Land of Israel that the Jewish people lived as an independent nation for centuries. The only time in history that this small stretch of land was ever an independent entity – and not merely a backwater in someone else’s empire – was when Jews have ruled it centuries ago and again today. It is in the Land of Israel that the Jews lived for additional centuries as an autonomous region under the foreign rule of the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.
After the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD and sent the first wave of Jews into exile, Jews remained in the land. Even after the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD and forced an even greater exile, Jews remained in the land. The Mishnah – a foundational text of Judaism – was written by Jews living in the Land of Israel in the third century. The Jerusalem Talmud – another bedrock text of Judaism – was written by Jews living in the Land of Israel in the fourth century. When the Persians invaded the Land of Israel in 614, they found hundreds of thousands of Jews living there willing to join them in the fight against the Byzantines. When the Arabs invaded the Land of Israel later that century, they found hundreds of thousands of Jews living there who could be taxed to support their regime.
Even those Jews living outside of the Land of Israel never forgot it. Three times a day every day, observant Jews face Jerusalem and pray for that city to be rebuilt and for the Jewish people to return to it. More importantly, repeatedly throughout the centuries, wave after wave of Jews were not satisfied by praying for their return. They decided to pack up and go. Yet these Jews often met with great hardship, persecution and violence upon their arrival.
Yehuda Halevy, one of the greatest poets in Jewish history, was living in Spain in the twelfth century when he famously lamented that “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.” Rather than continue pining, he decided to join his heart in Jerusalem. Legend has it that when he arrived in Jerusalem, he got down on his knees and thanked God that he had lived to see the holy city. Then an Arab horseman slew him where he prayed. Whether or not the story is true, such hostile receptions did indeed occur, and these cautionary tales discouraged many from making a similar journey.
Yet Jews nevertheless continued to return home. And Jewish communities continued to subsist in the Land of Israel despite the adverse conditions. Sometimes, these communities were even able to resume making contributions to Judaism and humanity. The Shulhan Aruch, the leading compilation of Jewish law, was written by a Jew living in the Land of Israel in the sixteenth century. In the late 1800’s – well before the Holocaust and the birth of modern Zionism – Jews comprised a majority of the population in the city of Jerusalem. And a majority of Israel’s Jews today are actually refugees from Arab countries and their descendants, not the Europeans of Ms. Thomas’ imagination.
It was because of this historic bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel that the British government committed itself to the creation of a national home for the Jewish people there in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. It was in recognition of this historic connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel that the League of Nations committed itself to the creation of a national home for the Jewish people there when it gave a mandate over Palestine to Britain in 1922.
It was in recognition of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel as well as the presence in Palestine of hundreds of thousands of Jews who had already returned there prior to the Holocaust that the United Nations voted to create a Jewish state in Palestine in 1947. And it was in recognition of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel that President Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state a mere eleven minutes after it had declared its independence in 1948.
In a public apology issued after the offensive video came to light, Helen Thomas noted of her intemperate remarks that “They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”
Amen and amen. But until that day comes, the effort to deny the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel will serve only to encourage the rejection and terror that has prevented the mutual respect and tolerance that Thomas claims to seek. We must fight such lies whenever and wherever we hear them. And we must pray for the peace of Jerusalem like never before.