In the Arena

Thomas Retires

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That was fast. The temptation here is to wax nostalgic about all the years Thomas worked the beat and so on…but sorry, ever since she made her back to Poland statement, I’ve been thinking about this:

I was in Israel during the first Gulf War, lugging around a gas mask, in case Saddam fired Scud missiles with poison payloads–indeed, the whole country was. When the first scud attack came, in the middle of the night, I hustled into a designated safe room, put on my mask and looked around at the others huddled behind their masks. Several were elderly people–they reminded me of my grandparents–who were obviously holocaust survivors from eastern Europe. I wondered what it was like for them to be threatened by poison gas yet again. One couple was tending to their grandchild, who was too young for a mask and was sequestered in a preventive tent, terrified.

It was an image I’ll never forget. It was the first thing I thought about when Helen Thomas said that the Jews should go back to Poland. Back to Auschwitz. The second thing I thought about was the fact that a great many Jews in Israel now are refugees from Islamic countries that kicked them out–something like 30% of Baghdad was Jewish in 1940; there were huge Jewish communities in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Iran as well.

I’ve tried to be fair when it comes to Israel. I’ve criticized the Likud leadership–and their American parrots–when it was called for. I believe that there has to be room for Jewish and Palestinian states, with sections of Jerusalem as the capital of both if Israel is going to survive. But Israel exists for a reason. It rectifies a global crime–not just the Holocaust, but centuries of second-class citizenship even in relatively enlightened Islamic governments like the Ottoman Empire and Spain under the caliphate. It is not going anywhere, and shouldn’t–and certainly not back to Poland.

Update: For those commenters who are outraged and way too literal, the sentence “Back to Auschwitz” is not meant to imply that Helen Thomas wanted Jews to return to gas chambers that no longer exist. It was meant to denote the strong–very strong–association in the minds of most Jews, especially Ashkenazis living in Israel, that links Poland with the death factories that were situated there and which led, rather directly, to the establishment of the state of Israel. If ┬áThomas had said, “Hungary and Russia” rather than “Germany and Poland,” her statement would have been no less offensive–but it also wouldn’t have summoned the egregrious associations that it did.