Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Kooky Rabbi Misquotes Helen Thomas

In an op-ed published by The Washington Post, Rabbi David Nesenoff ascribes this incendiary opinion to the legendary journalist Helen Thomas, who was recently forced to retire after the rabbi posted an impromptu interview he had conducted with Thomas on the internet:

“The Jew has no connection with the land of Israel.”

Nesenoff then writes: “And why? Because, as Thomas went on to explain to me, ‘I’m from Arab descent.’ That’s it? That’s all you got? Do we all travel with only our parents’ stereotypes to guide us, never going beyond them to get to a peaceful destination?”

In reality, Thomas didn’t even use the word “descent.” What anyone who watches the video of the infamous Nesenoff-Thomas encounter can easily verify for themselves is that Thomas actually said: “I’m of Arab background.”

Granted, the meaning of “Arab descent” and “Arab background” is the same. But when quotes are used, it’s supposed to represent the exact words that were spoken. Paraphrasing is perfectly acceptable, but it requires the absence of quotation marks.

Nesenoff’s error, undetected by Washington Post editors, underscores how a nation of drama queens is bizarrely eager to destroy Thomas without regard to fairness or accuracy.

Even worse, Nesenoff blatantly distorts the context in which Thomas referenced her ethnic heritage. Again, the video (or transcript) of the pertinent part of the exchange reveals the truth:

Nesenoff: Are you familiar with the history of that region and what took place?

Thomas: Very much. I’m of Arab background.

Clearly, Thomas didn’t invoke her background “to explain” or justify any beef she has with Israelis; she mentioned it only to indicate why she is “familiar with the history of that region.”

Lest I be accused of mere parsing, let’s remember the case against Thomas is based on interpreting her words in the worst possible light while conveniently ignoring several factors that suggest a relatively benign intent:

1. Thomas has previously published columns in which she criticizes Israel for militarily controlling the occupied territories, but has never expressed the opinion that Israel shouldn’t exist.

2. Thomas said: “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, and it’s not Poland.” She said it as if she were referring to a familiar viewpoint. She used the word “occupied,” which typically refers to only the areas known as the occupied territories, not all of Israel. Her point there – which provoked no objections, by the way – was that Arabs don’t owe Jews “reparations” for what happened in Germany and Poland. It seems to me she had Germany and Poland on her mind because of that comment, and unfortunately blurted out an answer that was offensive but not necessarily revealing of bigotry, to the question (“So where should they go…?”) that followed.

3. Nothing about her apology suggests that Thomas believes Israel shouldn’t exist. No reasonable person would interpret calling for “mutual respect and tolerance” as advocating the destruction of Israel.

4. Thomas is not known for pretending she didn’t really mean what she had said after her comments generate controversy. To the contrary, she has always been fearless and has never backed down.

5. While making off the cuff remarks, anybody could say something he or she doesn’t mean, or inadvertently omit something he or she would typically include as a clarifier.

Isn’t it believable that an 89-year-old woman simply got confused while speaking extemporaneously?

Should such a mistake be punishable?

Jeff Norman is the Director of The Veterans Project, a non-profit group that promotes and supports organizations that help veterans – primarily those who fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan – reintegrate into society when they come home. Its mission is to help remove the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress, and to raise operating funds for organizations providing psychological care and job training to veterans in the aftermath of war. He blogs at Citizen Jeff. He can be reached at jeff@citizenjeff.com.

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