Yalla Peace: Fire them all

That the differing cases of Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr yielded the same result exemplifies a failure to make the necessary distinctions amid the nuance of American Arab thought.

helen thomas 311 (photo credit: Rabbi David F. Nesenoff)
helen thomas 311
(photo credit: Rabbi David F. Nesenoff)
When Pope Innocent III ordered a crackdown on Christian heretics called the Cathars in 1210 CE, he applied a reasoning that was not so reasonable: “Nulla salus extra ecclesium” or “Outside the Church there is no salvation.”
The Cathars were living among the Christian faithful in a French city called Beziers. During the assault, when the pope’s general was asked how the soldiers would determine who was a believer and who wasn’t, he responded, “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” More than 100,000 people were slaughtered, mostly Christians not part of the Cathars.
We’ve seen this form of political strategy repeated many times in history since. Most recently, it was former president George W. Bush who launched his war of vengeance against Iraq in 2003, declaring: “You are either with us, or against us.”
In the Hollywood version of the real life story of the rise of the Mafia in Las Vegas, the accused mobsters were sitting in a federal court conference room worrying about who the witnesses against them might be. They went through a list and came across the name of one of their most loyal. But the decision to murder him came down to one final thought, “He’s a stand-up guy, but, why take a chance?” Israel and its allies have viewed the Arab world in much the same light. It’s not how you criticize Israel, but the fact that you criticize Israel at all that is important. Even if you don’t criticize Israel, but are like those who do, well, “Why take a chance.”
LET’S TAKE the differing cases of Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr.
Thomas was a veteran White House correspondent who covered eight presidents. When she became the dean of the press corps, opening and closing presidential press conferences, she often led with question about the unfairness of American foreign policy toward the Arab world and Palestinians.
Last month, a rabbi activist interviewed the 79-year-old journalist outside the White House with a video camera and asked her: “Any comments on Israel?” Thomas’ response was a crude critique: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”
Then she added: “Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland.”
Where should they go, asked the rabbi? “They – go home.”
“Where’s their home?” Thomas: “Poland.”
“So the Jews can...”
Thomas: “Germany.”
“You’re saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?” Thomas: “And, and America and everywhere else.”
Thomas was immediately fired by the Hearst Newspapers.
In fairness to Thomas, and while her choice of words left a lot to be desired, I think she meant to criticize Israel’s occupation and not to express anti-Semitic feelings.
But contrast her case with that of Nasr, the senior Middle East correspondent for CNN, and a 25-year journalism veteran, who was forced to walk the modern-day Beziers plank of anti-Israel Cathars. Also Lebanese American, Nasr was considered pro-Israeli and not so sympathetic to Palestinian causes, according to CNN colleagues who knew her well.
But when she learned of the death of Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a founder of Hizbullah denounced as terrorists by Israel and the US, she wrote on Twitter (the Internet social networking site that limits comments to a total of 140 letter characters or about 30 words): “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hizbullah’s giants I respect a lot.”
CNN didn’t have to have a meeting with the pope. After a firestorm of protests from many, including Israel’s strongest Jewish American supporters like the Simon Weisenthal Center, Nasr was fired.
Later, and too late, Nasr explained she was referring to Fadlallah’s views toward women’s rights and his opposition to honor killings, a practice in which women accused of infidelity and bringing shame to their families are murdered, often by other family members who are celebrated for the killings and protected by laws.
Neither his progressive views on women’s rights nor his break with Hizbullah over the group’s growing embrace of the fanaticism of Iran’s extremist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was taken into account.
IN THE United States and among American Jews at least, too often there are inadequate discernable levels of distinction when it comes to supporting or opposing Israel.
Moderates, extremists, Arabs and Muslims are often all lumped together.
That failure to understand the nuance of American Arab thought – as exemplified in the cases of Thomas and Nasr, different cases that yielded the same result – works well with the fear-mongering that defines how American Arabs are understood in the new era of post- September 11, 2001 terrorism. You are either with us or against us.
Whether you support peace or not does not matter. If you criticize Israel in any fashion, that’s more than enough. Say something nice about Israel’s bitterest enemies, watch out.
Outside of the pro-Israel debate, there is no salvation. In the firings of Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr, and criticism of other leading American Arab journalists, there is only one fate: “Fire them all, let God sort it out.”
The writer is an award-winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. www.YallaPeace.com