Helen Thomas has walked back her statement that Jews should leave Israel and go back to Germany and Poland. Well, sort of. It was one of those peculiar, second order non-apology apologies, the one where you go “I said something stupid, but I didn’t really mean it” while failing to note or correct any errors. (The first order non-apology apology is the one where you “deeply regret that my statement may have offended someone,” without admitting that you said anything wrong.) Let’s look at her statement, shall we?
“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. 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.”
No admission that Jews have been living in what is now Israel for centuries, no hint of what was so offensive in her first statement, and not even an inking of what happened to Jews the last time they were living in Germany and Poland. I’m trying to think of a way to make Thomas’ statement more offensive without her just coming out and stating (as so many Palestinians have) that all Jews should be completely exterminated. Maybe saying it at the Holocaust Museum. Or perhaps suggesting that all Israelis be given arm tattoos to make their transit to Europe (ideally by rail) more efficient…
I’m trying to think of a similar statement that achieves the same dazzling level of insensitivity of Thomas’ comment, but I’m coming up blank. Certainly, any Republican politician suggesting that “all blacks should go back to Africa” would be forced to resign in very short order, but at least he wouldn’t be suggesting their extermination. Hell, I’m even having a hard time imagining Al Sharpton, that paragon of tact and grace, making the same speech.
In politics, a gaffe is when a political figure accidentally tells you what they actually think, and I think that’s the case here. I believe Thomas, and a significant number of liberals, find Israel deeply inconvenient. As Charles Krauthammer put it so succinctly:
The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, six million—that number again—hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Zionists—Iranian in particular—openly prepare a more final solution.
Certainly there’s the prosaic political history: When the Soviet Union started backing Arab client states like Syria and the U.S. became a firm ally of Israel, many in the New Left went from being pro- to anti-Israel almost overnight. Also, while the early Israeli state included many left-wing elements, such as the explicitly socialist kibbutzim, these elements were all eventually (like all experiments with socialism, if allowed to run long enough) abandoned as unworkable. Likewise, years of terrorism from the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah as resulted in the withering of the dovish Israeli left, resulting in American liberals’ ideological hostility to the conservative governments of Benjamin Netanyahu. Finally, liberalism’s cult of victimology has made martyrs of the Palestinians, despite their tolerance (on the West Bank) or outright embrace (Hamas’ electoral victory in Gaza) embrace of terrorism and organizations calling for the extermination of all Jews.
But all that is only part of the reason.
For another part, take a look at this very interesting Benjamin Kerstein essay in The New Ledger, discussing the relationship of liberalism and Zionism, which is itself a response to a long Peter Beinart piece on the same subject (from a liberal perspective) in The New York Review of Books. Kerstein elucidates the mindset of the Helen Thomases of the world, and the problem with that mindset, so clearly that I’m going to have to quite a goodly portion of it:
It should be noted first that, ideologically speaking, Zionism is not necessarily opposed to liberalism; it does, however, assert that liberalism, in and of itself, is not enough. It is not enough to provide safety and security for the Jewish people, let alone the kind of cultural and political renaissance that Zionism sought to create. It is not a coincidence that Theodore Herzl was moved to found political Zionism by the Dreyfuss trial in France and the rise of organized political anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. What drove Herzl—originally a liberal not unlike Beinart himself—was the realization that liberalism was failing, and inevitably would fail completely. The promise of liberalism in that era was that, if the Jews became good liberals, they would be left alone to pursue happiness as best they could. “But I do not think,” Herzl wrote ominously, “that we will be left alone.” For Herzl, the promise of liberalism, which for him was much as it is for Beinart, could only be realized for the Jews within the framework of a Jewish state.
That liberals then and liberals now find this uncomfortable should not be overly surprising. Liberalism has always been, generally speaking, a form of middle class secular messianism; an edifying millenialism for those with much money and many guns between them and reality. Once everyone becomes liberal, liberalism has always assumed, we will all be happy. Beinart, not unlike his predecessors, clearly believes more or less the same thing. Zionism asserts that not only will the Jews not be happy under liberalism and liberalism alone, but they will not even be capable of surviving the depredations of the modern world. For that, a stronger force is needed; namely, national independence and political sovereignty. Of course, there is a strongly messianic element to Zionism as well, especially in its religious form, but it is a competing and different messianism than that of liberalism. Liberalism asserts that for the Jews to be good and free, they must become liberal. Zionism asserts that for the Jews to exist at all, let alone be good and free—or liberal for that matter—they must first have a Jewish state.
It is worth asking what, one hundred or so years after Herzl, the verdict of history has been in regard to liberalism and the Jews. Despite the fervent belief of many Jewish liberals that liberalism is the one thing standing between them and the abyss, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that liberalism’s actual legacy is decidedly mixed. More than anything else, liberalism has said much and done little at the moments when it really mattered. It failed to save Dreyfuss until a very belated and largely meaningless exoneration; it failed completely to stop the rise of anti-Semitism, Nazism, and the Holocaust; it took an equally belated stance on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet Union; it has tended to regard Israel with, at best, ambivalence (even pre-1967 democratic socialism, ironically, had a better record); and during the most recent outbreak of anti-Semitism it took two equally disreputable stances—first, that it wasn’t happening at all; and second, even it was happening, it was the Jews’ fault.
One could theorize for days about the reasons for this, and it may simply come down to the fact that liberalism, in the end, is essentially an ideology of ineffectiveness. But there is no doubt that it is the case, and those who subscribe to it do not like being forced to admit it. To admit that Zionism is a viable and just ideology would mean admitting that its critique of liberalism is, to some extent, true; and this would in turn require the kind of self-reflection at which liberalism has never excelled. It is easier, then, to see Zionism as the problem, to tell oneself that Zionism is “uncomfortable,” rather than admit that it is, to a great extent, an answer, and not a bad one, to liberalism’s own inherent failures.
A final tidbit: Seeing Thomas’ unlovely visage in that video reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.
Then I realized: She bore a striking resemblance to The Witch of the Waste in Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle:
Maybe if I cropped out the respective necks…
Hat tip: Powerline.