I've never been to Israel, and would love to spend a good, long time in Jerusalem. This was the city in which Jesus was crucified; the ancient stones bleed history. But when I mention this to my wife, she worries. Israel is a dangerous place. When I try to explain to her that the world is simply dangerous, she gives only nominal assent. She worries, as perhaps only a person whose family has been persecuted on account of their ethnicity can. My wife's family, you see, comes from Eastern Europe. She is Jewish.
I, by contrast, am an American mongrel. My father snuck into the country from Crete; my mother is French Canadian, the daughter of a logger turned rod buster. When I grew up, my cultural roots ran no deeper than Saturday morning cartoons and limpid stereotypes about America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.
But I don't feel very brave today. Helen Thomas was run out of a job for uttering a simple and perhaps unavoidable truth. The Jews, Ms. Thomas said last week, should get out of Israel and go home. This once said, the wolves descended on this now infamous and former White House correspondent. She has been forced to resign because she picked on God's tribe. Score one for righteousness, I suppose.
Thomas uttered her remark in the wake of yet more bloodshed in Israel, this time at the Gaza strip. Israeli soldiers killed Palestinian activists engaged, most likely, in a new form of mayhem: suicide theater, high-stakes martyrdom designed to elicit sympathy. Feint at Israel's border in moves just this side of aggressive and hope someone gets killed. Unlike a suicide bombing, no innocents get killed. And of course, Israel obliged.
Thomas well knows that the Jews have no home. The diaspora began long ago, in the first century of the Common Era, after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and then destroyed the city itself in the face of persistent uprisings. Scattered communities of Jews spread throughout Europe. A long and bitter history of anti-Semitism lies just beneath the surface of European history, bursting forth in the shocking and undeniable violence of Hitler's holocaust. During the twentieth century, Zionists decided to return to their ancient home.
Their return is a story that can be told in romantic terms, a sort of world historic version of the conquest of North America by Europeans. Except these romances betray a sinister truth. In the case of neither Israel nor North America did displaced refugees seek homes in vacant lands. In North America, indigenous peoples were deracinated, and now live scattered shamefully on reservations. In Israel, Palestinians were run off, and are now crowded into refugee camps. Only in a version of history written by the winners, those who took land belonging to others, is this God's hand at work in the world; to the losers it feels and looks like simple theft. The Old Testament fed Israel's dreams of conquest; the New Testament fed our visions of destiny in North America. Oh, what a tangled web we did weave.
I understand Palestinian rage at displacement. But I also understand the cynicism of neighboring states, some of great wealth, who refuse to make room to assimilate their brethren because it suits their political purposes to keep a metastasizing hatred festering in Israel. The temperature in Israel is always a little too hot. Things are ready to explode. Death is always in the air.
Helen Thomas' remark was naive and ignorant. There is no home to which Israelis can return. The historic fact of Zionism has made Israel the home now to generations of Israelis. Palestinian aspirations to reclaim the land sound a little to my ear like the hopes of Native Americans to reclaim Manhattan. Sure, they have historic title to the land. But time changes things, and people change with time.
Ought we here in North America to go home, and return a land taken at gunpoint to the descendants of ancient tribes? I suspect that sentiment seems real at places like the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. But it isn't happening any time soon. I am a stranger to Crete and to the Quebec. I am as unwelcome there as Jews are in the lands they fled. It is naive to believe that there will be some great migration of population restoring some status quo ante. A golden age of innocence is mere myth.
Thomas is a dreamer. But her dreams are merely the flip side of Manifest Destiny, and there's the rub. We pretend to love Israel in the United States because we have imagined a shared destiny as pioneers. Most of our forebears came here in search of a new life, fleeing poverty, displacement and persecution in our lands of origin. We like to forget what was done to the native Americans. We pretend the continent was empty.
Israel, too, reclaimed a wasteland, or so we say. It made the desert bloom with irrigation projects. It formed communities of those seeking simply to breathe freely. But the Palestinians have proven harder to ignore than American Indians. They are fighting back still. General Custer faces suicide bombers.
Helen Thomas is guilty of nothing more than naivete. Just as Israel wants the world to believe it has historic title to a land from which Jews fled millennium ago, Thomas wants the weights tipped toward the claims of those recently displaced. She has, frankly, the better and more compelling argument. But it is an argument we cannot really hear in the United States. We buried our conscience at Wounded Knee.
Hounding Thomas from her work as a journalist for being honest enough to express her frustration over the quirks of history chills me to the core. The movement of peoples, the building of nations, the hard work of destiny makes playthings of us all. In a world growing smaller as population presses against the Earth's capacity to sustain, what's needed is less proud tribalism. What's needed is a global ethic of respect for persons.
Thomas may not have reflected that ethic in her sniping about Israelis. But we responded in kind with a primitive sort of hatred all our own. Helen Thomas told the truth. Israelis should go home. But the truth she told is merely a half-truth. The larger reality is that they cannot go home because there is no longer a home to which they may return. None of us can return to our places of origins. We find ourselves where we are amid a pressing need to learn to live together. Turning on Thomas in rage for expressing a half truth is mere atavistic rejection of the complexities of our time. It bespeaks a self-righteous orthodoxy that obscures much.
This week Helen Thomas was a victim of our inability to take a hard dose of the truth. We hate the truth because it teaches that all have sinned and do sin. We do so daily. Hence my wife's fear that if we spend next year in Jersusalem, that year might well be our last.
NOTE: Thanks, Marilou!