It is hard to become much more influential than the doyen of the White House press corps, who is given a ceremonial front-rows seat at press briefings and press conferences. So when Helen Thomas suggested that the Israelis should leave their country and “go home” to Poland and Germany, this was not some obscure, eccentric anti-Semite, but a liberal insider who has come to enjoy iconic status and a sense of exemption from criticism.
Note that Ms. Thomas did not call for just a West Bank free of Jews. And she did not just wish for the elimination of the nation of Israel itself. Rather, Thomas envisions the departure of Israelis to the sites of the major death camps seven decades ago where six million Jews were gassed.
Turkey’s role in aiding and abetting the flotilla, and its subsequent anti-Israeli outbursts, were excessive even by the often sick standards of the Middle East — but not exactly new. State-run Turkish television has aired virulent anti-Semitic dramas like the 2006 Valley of the Wolves, in which a Jewish doctor harvests organs from captured Iraqi civilians. Former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan once claimed that the Jews had instigated World War I in order to create Israel. Israel, Erbakan further asserted, in full-blown Hitlerian prose, was a “disease” and a “bacteria” that needed to be eradicated. The current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, talks of sending in the Turkish fleet to confront the Israeli blockade, says he is sick of Israeli lies, and warns that his new Turkey is not “a young and rootless nation,” as Israel presumably is (note the code word “rootless”). So speaks our NATO partner and EU wannabe. This week, in reaction to criticism from the West, Erdogan labeled such concerns “dirty propaganda” — note well, not just propaganda but a “dirty” sort.
In an odd way, Thomas’s sick suggestions and Turkey’s new Islamist and vehemently anti-Israel foreign policy will have a liberating effect on Israel. After all, if the ceremonial head of the White House press corps wants Israel’s citizens either gone or dead, there is a legitimate suspicion that things are not quite right in the capital of Israel’s staunchest ally. And if the most secular, democratic, and pro-Western Muslim country in the Middle East wishes to pick a fight to prove its Muslim fides, then there is not much hope that Israel is going to win over anyone else in that region.
Anti-Semitism as displayed by both Thomas and Turkey’s leaders is not predicated on criticizing Israel, much less disagreeing with its foreign policy. Instead, it hinges upon focusing singularly on Israeli behavior, and applying a standard to it that is never extended to any other nation.
There are plenty of disputes over borders and land in the world. But to Helen Thomas or the Turkish government, Kashmir or the Russian-Chinese border matters little — although the chances of escalation to nuclear confrontation are far greater there than on the West Bank. Has Thomas ever popped off, “Why don’t those Chinese just get the hell out of Tibet?” or “Why don’t those Indians just get out of Kashmir?”
The Palestinian “refugees” — a majority of whom are the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of people actually displaced in 1948 — compose a small part of the world’s refugee population. There are millions of refugees in Rwanda, the Congo, and Darfur. Well over a half-million Jews were ethnically cleansed from the major Arab capitals between 1947 and 1973, each wave of expulsion cresting after a particular Mideast war. Again, few care to demonstrate for the plight of any of these people. Prime Minister Erdogan has not led any global effort to relocate the starving millions in Darfur, despite his loud concern for “refugees” in Gaza. The United States gives far more millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians than does their Muslim protector in Turkey, who saves cash in winning Palestinian support by practicing anti-Semitism on the cheap. Nor have I heard of any German suicide bomber blowing himself up over lost ancestral land in Danzig or East Prussia, although that land was lost about the same time as some Palestinians left Israel. Few worry that in 1949 tens of thousands of Japanese were forcibly expelled by the Soviet Union from Sakhalin Island.
The world likewise cares little for the concept of “occupation” in the abstract; it is only the concrete example of Palestine that earns its opprobrium. We can be assured that President Obama will not bring up Ossetia with President Putin. He will not raise the question of Tibet with the Chinese or occupied Cyprus with Prime Minister Erdogan. Will Helen Thomas ever ask, “How can Turkey be allowed to keep Nicosia a divided city?” Will she worry whether Greeks are allowed to buy property in the Turkish sector of that capital?
There is no European outcry over the slaughter of South Koreans in a torpedo attack by a North Korean vessel. I don’t recall President Sarkozy weighing in on that particular moral issue. The United Nations is angrier at Israel for enforcing a blockade against its terrorist neighbor than it is at Somalia for allowing pirates to kill and rob right off its coast. There was not much of a global outcry when Iran hijacked a British naval vessel; few in Turkey demonstrated when the French blew up a Greenpeace protest vessel.
“Disproportionate” is a term used to condemn Israeli retaliation. It does not apply to other, far more violent reprisals, such as the Russian leveling of Grozny, or the Turkish killing of Kurds, or occasional Hindu mass rioting and murdering of Muslims in India. Does Prime Minister Erdogan wish to allow “peace activists” to interview Kurds detained in his prisons, or to adjudicate the status of Kurds, Armenians, or Christian religious figures who live in Turkey? Can we imagine a peace flotilla of Swedish and British leftists sailing to Cyprus to “liberate” Greek land or investigate the “disappearance” of thousands of Greeks in 1974? And if they did, what would happen to them? About the same as would happen if they blocked a road to interdict a Turkish armored column rolling into Kurdistan.
Nor do human-rights violations mean much any more. Iran executes more of its own citizens each year than Israel has killed Palestinians in the course of war in any given year. Syria murders whomever it pleases in Lebanon without worry that any international body will ever condemn its action. I have heard a great deal about the “massacre” or “slaughter” at Jenin, where 52 Palestinians and 23 Israelis died. Indeed, the 2002 propaganda film Jenin, Jenin was a big hit on college campuses. But I have never seen a documentary Hama, Hama commemorating the real 1982 slaughter of somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians by the criminal Assad regime in Syria, with which we now so eagerly wish to restore ties. I find a 1,000-to-1 fatality rule generally applies: Each person killed by the Israel Defense Forces warrants about as much international attention as 1,000 people killed by Africans, Russians, Indians, Chinese, or Arabs.
I used to think that oil, Arab demography, fear of Islamic terrorism, and blowback from its close association with the United States explained the global double standard that is applied to Israel.
But after the hysteria over the Gaza flotilla, the outbursts of various members of the Turkish government, and Ms. Thomas’s candid revelations, I think the mad-dog hatred of Israel is more or less because it is a Jewish state. Period.
Let me explain. Intellectuals used to loudly condemn anti-Semitism because it was largely associated with those deemed to be less sophisticated people, often right-wing, who on either racial, nationalistic, or religious grounds regarded Jews as undesirable. Hating Jews was a sign of boorish chauvinism, or of the conspiratorial mind that exuded envy and jealousy of the more successful.
But in the last two decades especially, the Left has made anti-Semitism respectable in intellectual circles. The fascistic nature of various Palestinian liberation groups was forgotten, as the “occupied” Palestinians grafted their cause onto that of American blacks, Mexican-Americans, and Asian-Americans. Slurring post-Holocaust Jews was still infra dig, but damning the nation-state of Israel as imperialistic and oppressive was considered principled. No one ever cared to ask: Why Israel and not other, far more egregious examples? In other words, one could now focus inordinately on the Jews by emphasizing that one’s criticism was predicated on cosmic issues of human rights and justice. And by defaming Israel the nation, one could vent one’s dislike of Jews without being stuck with the traditional boorish label of anti-Semite.
So an anti-Semitic bigot like Helen Thomas could navigate perfectly well among the top echelons of Washington society spouting off her hatred of Israel, since her animus was supposedly against Israeli policies rather than those who made them. Only an inadvertent remark finally caught up with her to reveal that what she felt was not anger growing out of a territorial dispute, but furor about the nature of an entire people who should be deported to the sites of the Holocaust.
Finally, as I say, all this may have a strangely liberating effect on Israel. We know now that whatever it does, the world, or at least its prominent political and media figures, is going to damn it. Its longtime patron, the United States, now sees not much difference between Israel’s democratic achievement and the autocracies around it, which we are now either subsidizing or courting. As a result, the global censors have lost leverage with Israel, since they have proven to be such laughable adjudicators of right and wrong when Israel is involved.
Israelis should assume by now that whether they act tentatively or strongly, the negative reaction will be the same. Therefore why not project the image of a strong, unapologetic country to a world that has completely lost its moral bearings, and is more likely to respect Israel’s strength than its past concern for meeting an impossible global standard?
How odd that the more the activists, political leaders, and media figures issue moral strictures against Israel, the more they prove abjectly amoral. And the more they seek to pressure Israel, the more they are liberating it to do what it feels it must.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.