Helen Thomas is far more than a renowned author, celebrated civil rights leader, and award-winning journalist. She is also a Semite. While many Americans are unaware of her ancestry, the Lebanese American leader draws her ancestry back to the very roots of those of her staunchest rivals, who have recently branded her “ant-Semitic” because of her stance against Israel.
But who qualifies as Semitic? The term is intricately linked to Jews and Judaism, but truly encompasses a range of other groups, including Arabs like Helen Thomas.
The Webster Dictionary definition of “Semitic” is only partially understood in the American sociopolitical and media lexicon. Important segments of the term’s anatomy have been eliminated, while the emphasis on “Jews” and “Judaism” has been positioned to be synonymous with Semitic. To be “anti-Semitic” in the United States, and indeed the globe, according to many organizational and media entities is to have a particular animus toward Jews, Judaism and most commonly, the State of Israel.
The formal and Biblical denotation of the word also sets forth that discrimination toward “Arabs and related races” is indeed anti-Semitic. Therefore, racial profiling measures targeting Arabs or Assyrians, who are likewise descendents of Shem, for instance, are anti-Semitic according to universally accepted definitions. Yet, the script has flipped in America, and we have segregated Arabs from the popular imagination of who is Semitic.
Helen Thomas, however, embraces her Semitism. On December 2nd, Thomas addressed a metropolitan Detroit audience. While making extemporaneous remarks, Thomas stated, “The whole question of money involved in politics: We are owned by propagandists against the Arabs – there’s no question about that. Congress, the White House, Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists – no question in my opinion; they put their money where their mouth is – accounts…”
Thomas had previously had an encounter with Rabbi David Nesenoff on the White House lawn following a late May function; her May comments concerned her vehement opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Those comments were immediately pegged to be anti-Semitic and Thomas branded an anti-Semite. Those allegations followed her into the December 2nd presentation, and led to intensified re-allegations following the above quoted remarks made in Dearborn.
Underlying the political struggle between proponents and opponents of Zionism in America is a definitional context. Thomas, a Semite in her own right, delivered politically charged remarks against a political entity, Zionism. Thus, one must ask, is a Semite who makes non-ethnic or non-racial remarks against a political entity anti-Semitic? The answer is clearly no. However, the denotation of “Semitic” advanced by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) not only extracts Arabs, such as Thomas, from their unilateral definition, but also narrows it to only include Jews. This may be politically expedient for organizations in America, such as the Anti-Defamation League, but is ultimately an incorrect usage of the term.
Arab Americans acknowledge themselves to be a Semitic people, in line with their ancestral lineage – without question. Whether in the Arab World, or the United States, Arabs are descendants from the very tribes other Semites hail from, making us an archetypal Semitic people.
Therefore, allegations should be made against the ADL for being anti-semantic. Thomas, whose work paved the way for Arab Americans and other communities of color, is herself a member of the group she is alleged to vilify. If Helen Thomas cannot be called anti-Semitic because of her Semitic roots, then this should be applied to others who identify as Semites. She may be an anti-Zionist, but she is not anti-Semitic.
Thomas, a Semite American of Lebanese-Arabic heritage, is not condemning, demonizing or disparaging Jews. She was targeting the political practices of a political entity – Zionism, which does not overlap or monopolize with Semitic.
Thomas’s record of service to Americans of every nationality, faith and color speaks volumes. In fact, the glass ceilings she shattered for women in the journalism industry, or the inroads she created for Arab Americans as well as other journalists, are contributions that cannot be silenced by misguided or mis-defined allegations.
The select community of civil rights luminaries in American history has all endured the trials Thomas faces today. Thomas is the target of many pro-Israel proponents, who are committed to slandering her character and undermining her legacy. The battle is simply political; and her antagonists are misusing the word Semitic, which is definitional simple and includes Helen Thomas.
Helen cannot be an anti-Semite, because she is Semitic. Anti-Zionist? – perhaps. Pro-Palestinian and a humanitarian? – without question. Her opponents should reexamine the merit of their allegations; explore the cross-community contributions made by Thomas; and pick up the dictionary.
Abed A. Ayoub is Legal Director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
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