Opinion » Ted Rall

Bad Mouth

Helen Thomas learns that free speech is a myth


NEW YORK—On June 7, the professional life of Helen Thomas came to an end. The acid-tongued "dean" of the White House press corps since the Kennedy administration was fired by her newspaper syndicate, dumped by her speakers' bureau, and disinvited by a Bethesda high school that had asked her to address its commencement ceremonies. The White House Correspondents Association condemned her. President Barack Obama weighed in. Then, Thomas apologized and announced her retirement. All in one day.

So what did Thomas do to merit such derision? It wasn't plagiarism. She didn't attempt to throw a presidential election. She didn't say anything racist.

Here's what killed Thomas' illustrious career: "Tell them [Israelis] to get the hell out of Palestine," she told a rabbi in a spontaneous video interview. "Remember, these people [Palestinians] are occupied, and it's their land; it's not German, it's not Poland's." Asked where Jewish Israelis should go, she replied, "They should go home" to "Poland, Germany ... America and everywhere else."

No doubt, Thomas' comments were simplistic. Three generations of Jews have made their homes in Israel. Asking them to "return" to places where they've never lived or visited would be inhumane and impractical.

Her words also demonstrate historical ignorance. Surely Thomas, who is 89, ought to know that most Israeli Jews were born there.

But are these remarks so beyond the pale that their utterance ought to mean the end of her professional life?

Ari Fleischer, press secretary for George W. Bush, called Thomas a fan of "religious cleansing." Ex-Clinton spokesman Lanny Davis called Thomas "an anti-Semitic bigot."

"If she had asked all blacks to go back to Africa, what would White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials—much less a privileged honorary seat?" Davis asked.

Davis is entitled to his opinion. But so is Thomas—not that you'd be able to tell by reading the avalanche of self-righteous yowling by politicians and editorialists.

Thomas isn't unusual. Like it or not, Israel's creation remains highly controversial.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are living in refugee camps, where old men and women still wave the deeds and keys to their former homes, attests to the freshness of the wound. Feeling sorry for them and taking the position that they have a right to be compensated doesn't make you a Jew-hater. Israel's policies turn off a lot of people who don't have a bigoted bone in their body.

So is Helen Thomas an anti-Semite? I don't know. I do know that her comments were not inherently anti-Semitic. The bigger question is: What if she were? Should she have been fired?

Of course not. Free speech must be defended no matter what. Unless we are truly free to say what we think without fear of reprisal, free speech is not a right, merely a permission.

Besides, if every American columnist or politician lost his job over bigotry, what would that mean for all those "family values conservatives" who bash gays or who attack Latino immigrants and Muslims?

We owe Helen Thomas an apology.