The Common Good

Outrage about Helen Thomas

Sometimes it feels like there's hardly enough outrage to go around. I started this post to condemn the recent, well, outrageous, words of Helen Thomas. The dean of White House correspondents infamously ranted that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" and return to Germany and Poland.

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It's not surprising that a daughter of Lebanese parents would be frustrated and angry at some of the more abusive and brutal actions of the Israeli military. It would even be understandable if she meant "get out of the Occupied Territories" when she referred to "Palestine." But nope, Thomas was clear. In response to a follow-up question, she continued, "Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land. It's not German, it's not Poland ..." She was asked, "So where should they go, what should they do?" Thomas replied, "They go home." The interviewer, Rabbi David Nesenoff, responded, "Where's the home?" Thomas said, "Poland. Germany." Nessenoff said, "So you're saying the Jews go back to Poland and Germany?" Thomas replied, "And America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?"

While Thomas' empathy for the people who have "lived there for centuries" is commendable, she's wrong -- dangerously wrong -- in her comments about Israel's home. In her obligatory apology a few days later, Thomas said that her words "do not affect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance." The beginning of that "tolerance" is for Israel's neighbors -- including the Palestinians, but also Syria, Lebanon, and other Arab states -- to acknowledge and affirm that Israelis are already "home," that the state of Israel is legitimate, and that Israelis have the right to be there.

That's a difficult thing for those who are connected to those who have lived there for centuries -- but it is an essential, non-negotiable component of building a foundation of peace in the region.

But unfortunately, the story doesn't stop there -- the Middle East seems to provide reasons for outrage almost daily. Yesterday The Washington Post reported the story of Emily Henochowicz, a 21-year-old Jewish woman from Montgomery County, outside D.C., who visited Israel to study at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy. Last week, Henochowicz participated in a demonstration at a West Bank checkpoint to protest the violent Israeli attack on the humanitarian flotilla heading to Gaza. During the demonstration, Israeli security forces fired a tear gas canister that struck Henochowicz in the face; she lost her left eye, and her jaw and cheekbone were fractured. "It sucks that I lost my eye. But I'm so happy that I did what I did," Henochowicz told the Post. "I don't regret it. I felt that it's what I had to do."

"I really feel like I love Israel, and just like anybody that I feel about deeply, if I see they're doing something that's harming people, then I feel it's my duty to say something out of that love," Henochowicz said. She added that Israel was "ultimately hurting itself" through its policies, the Post reported, particularly by allowing Jewish settlements on occupied land and denying equal rights to Palestinians.

It's right to condemn hurtful and offensive statements, like those of Helen Thomas. Words matter.

But our outrage must also be persistently focused on the ongoing violence and oppression that maintains an unjust and illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. Until that occupation ends, it's hard to imagine how progress will be made in the struggle for a safe, secure, and free home for all the peoples of the Middle East.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine. For more on the Middle East, check out the "Christians and the Middle East" discussion guide.

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