The talk of Helen Thomas' alleged anti-Semitism has often been marked by an unforgivable sloppiness. Contrary to what people have said about her statements, she has criticized "Zionists," not the Jewish people.
The charge of anti-Semitism is of course deeply serious. Indeed, the "Jewish Question" — agonized over by the likes of Bruno Bauer, Karl Marx, Emile Zola and countless others — is a long-standing and difficult one.
It was this very dilemma that led Theodor Herzl to write the 1896 pamphlet "The Jewish State" — a key work of the Zionist movement. It called for the re-establishment of Israel in Palestine or Argentina. Zionism, which grew out of a legitimate concern, is nonetheless a political position and should thus be subject to the same scrutiny applied to any other political position.
There are plenty of criticisms that can be made of it. As the history of the U.S. demonstrates, nation-states are often formed in blood and heartbreak. Roughly 750,000 Palestinian refugees were created in 1948, the year Israel was established. Historic Palestine has, more or less, been wiped off the map, and the colonization of the mainly Palestinian area known as the West Bank continues.
In fact, the issue of settlement expansion — a practice which continues to kick Palestinians out of their ancestral homes — has brought the current "peace talks" to their predictable standstill.
And so Zionism can be seen as a response to the Jewish Diaspora that created a Palestinian diaspora. As an ideology, it has been adopted by Jews and non-Jews alike; it also has its share of Jewish opponents. Pointing out its flaws and its dominance in U.S. politics and culture need not be motivated by anti-Semitism.
To flippantly employ the term "anti-Semitic" is to denigrate the inherent seriousness of the Jewish Question and to insist that "Zionist" is the same as "Jewish" is to offer easy refuge to some true anti-Semites.
Arthur Balfour, a one-time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was a Zionist. He was also anti-Semitic.
He was a supporter of the Aliens Act of 1905, which was in part an attempt to stifle Jews' ability to immigrate to the UK at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant throughout Europe. He supported Zionism because it was a political proposition potentially useful to his nation's waning empire.
Jerry Falwell, a Christian Evangelist, claimed that the Antichrist is a Jewish male. He was also a Zionist.
If we can acknowledge that Zionism is a political ideology, how do Thomas' statements hold up?
'Palestine' a political liability
To answer that question, one should examine how Zionism's foremost victims — the Palestinians and many Arabs — are regarded by the media and the U.S. government.
When the Middle East was being discussed by Joe Biden and Sarah Palin in the 2008 vice presidential debate, the words "Palestine" and "Palestinian" were not mentioned once. Is that because expressing concern for the Palestinians is a political liability?
Well, during that same election season, Palin smeared an old acquaintance of Barack Obama's, Professor Rashid Khalidi, as a "spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization." Khalidi was shortly thereafter compared to neo-Nazis by John McCain. Apparently it's a political liability to even know a Palestinian.
Last year, CNN fired longtime employee Octavia Nasr for lamenting the death of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a Hezbollah ayatollah who held, in Nasr's view, admirable views on women's rights in Islam. CNN's claimed that Nasr's "credibility" had been "compromised."
But Wolf Blizter also holds opinions on the Middle East: he spent the 1970s as an employee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobby group. Far from being accused of having compromised credibility, he has been given his own show.
These are just a few of many examples that make clear the ground rules set in mainstream U.S. discourse on this complex subject matter. So, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. populace is largely destitute of any real knowledge of the Palestinians.
As evidenced by WSU's decision to pull Helen Thomas' award — an action which actually lends credibility to Thomas' statement — institutions in the U.S. commonly regard the words "Zionist" and "Jewish" as synonymous.
Since Zionism's purpose has traditionally been the development of a Jewish nation-state called Israel on partitioned and occupied land, such a practice immunizes Israel from legitimate criticism and automatically demonizes Palestinian and Arab voices on the matter.
In order to be intellectually honest, one must extend this standard to every corner of discourse. If we criticize the Russian government, we hate Russians; if we criticize the Chinese government, we hate Chinese people; and if we criticize our own government, we hate ourselves. Approach international affairs in such a way and very soon the whole subject will be off-limits.