The 89-year-old pioneer woman journalist Helen Thomas, among the first in the White House press corps to challenge President Bush on war, torture and Middle East policy, retired last week. The sad ending to her legendary career came after a firestorm resulting from offensive remarks she made about Jews and Israel.
Thomas, the "dean" of the White House press corps, served for 67 years as a UPI correspondent and White House Bureau chief. The entire nation watched her cover every president since John F. Kennedy.
Many remember with pride how she was the only officially accredited White House correspondent to uphold the American tradition of a free press when she grilled President Bush relentlessly during the build-up to the Iraq War.
She argued passionately in those days that the mass media in the United States could have saved lives if it had questioned what Bush was saying rather than simply echo his pronouncements in print and on the air.
Thomas was the first mainstream journalist to question the lack of evidence about weapons of mass destruction and the cost of the war in dollars, lives and resources.
The purpose of this article is not to determine whether Thomas, when she said, "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine," meant get out of occupied territories or get out of Israel altogether. Thomas was wrong to say anything that could be interpreted to mean Israeli Jews should go back to the lands from where they came. It is a grave violation of human rights to deny the rights of desperate immigrants anywhere - whether they were Jews fleeing fascism in Europe, Mexican workers in Arizona or Palestinians being pushed around the Middle East. The two-state solution to the Middle East crisis, a solution resisted by the right-wing Likud Party in Israel and the Bush-Cheney neo-conservatives in the U.S., requires mutual understanding and respect between Jews and Palestinians.
Many of those who are leading the charge against Helen Thomas, whose remarks, by her own admission, ignored the right of Jews fleeing genocide to seek freedom and a new life in Israel, are less than willing to extend those rights to other victims in the Middle East.
Don't human rights apply also to the Palestinians who live under an illegal occupation of their territory in the West Bank and Gaza?
Don't human rights apply also to Arabs born in Israel? Right-wing Israeli politicians try to make Palestinians born in Israel into illegal immigrants. Some of those in the U.S. who have jumped into the campaign to vilify Helen Thomas also openly support rounding up of Israeli Arabs and expelling them to surrounding Arab countries.
The Helen Thomas affair must also not be used to justify demands in some quarters that Palestinians must surrender their national aspirations. Such demands are no more reasonable than suggestions that Jews should trust their aspirations to modern day governments in Europe.
The just approach is to support the right of Jews to live securely in the nation of Israel.
The just approach is to recognize that the Palestinians too have a right to a state of their own.
The just approach is to recognize too that Palestinians living within the state of Israel also have rights.
The Thomas apology was on target:
"I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance."
It's time now for all those who oppose the right of Israel to exist, for all those who oppose the two-state solution and for all those who oppose equal rights for Palestinians living in Israel to cease and desist. After they apologize for the decades of violence, war and death that have resulted from each of their respective roles they should join civilized humanity in the hard work of building a lasting Middle East peace.
Photo: Pacifica's Sonali Kolhatkar, left, introduces the legendary Helen Thomas at the 2006 Reclaim the Media conference in Memphis, Tenn. (Teresa Albano/PW)