I am a proud graduate of a women’s college. Smith College, Class of 1979. I came of age in the era of second wave feminism and I was so proud of so many women who were “firsts” back then – Smith itself had its first woman president, Jill Ker Conway, who became my advisor. Sally Ride, Sandra Day O’Connor – watching women take on new roles was inspiring and exhilarating. I don’t know that I specifically thought of Helen Thomas when I thought of these other women “firsts,” but I certainly knew that she held a powerful position as the first woman dean of the White House press corps, and that she didn’t shrink from difficult questions.
I guess I had come to think of her recently as an irascible older person, kind of a professional crank, and I guess I knew that she was no friend of Israel. But I was in no way prepared to hear coming from her lips what I saw on the YouTube clip (which was sent to me via Facebook – evidence that the world of print journalism that Thomas represented may truly becoming irrelevant.) Was I really hearing this? Jews should get the hell out of “Palestine?” Go back to Poland, Germany and the United States? These are remarks that I would find chilling, offensive and ignorant in anyone who uttered them, never mind someone as educated, articulate and admired as Thomas is. Anti-Semitism is always hard to accept, and for me, always harder to accept coming from someone who, one would think, has been exposed to the truth of history. Growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, I knew that there were places that the “summer people” had that weren’t open to Jews at that time, but I never encountered anti-Semitism from the everyday people my family and I lived among. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to Smith that I realized that there were people – smart, educated young women who I thought were just like me – who thought they were better than me, simply because I was Jewish and they weren’t, who were ready to stereotype me and use terrible terms to describe Jews. Listen, when I arrived at Smith in 1975, to be a brunette was to be in the minority, and the school was only 11% Jewish, so I don’t know why I was so surprised by what I found, other than it never occurred to me that allegedly intelligent women – women!! – could be anti-Semitic.
But here I am, over thirty years after leaving Smith, still shocked and horrified that hate and ignorance can come tumbling from the lips of a woman of alleged achievement. And even more concerned is the truth of history, that there have been Jews in our homeland continuously, despite expulsions, slavery and exile, that Jews returned to that homeland in greater and greater numbers starting in the late nineteenth century to build on land thought useless and left unwanted and untended and that Israel has been a legitimate, legal modern State for 62 years, can be so blatantly denied. Israel was not created as an attempt to assuage the horrors of the Holocaust, although it is certainly true that the few survivors of the Shoah couldn’t return to the homes in Poland, Germany, France or Hungary they once knew, and that they were murdered for trying to return in more than one instance. Israel was created as a modern, democratic Jewish state to fulfill a two-thousand year old dream of return to our ancient land, and to work toward the reality of a country founded and functioning on the ideals of Torah. Has Israel yet achieved those goals? Not entirely, but it is striving. And I will spend my last breath defending Israel against those who would try to eliminate that effort, no matter how revered or admired or even just intelligent they may seem.
Be strong and of good courage