Last Wednesday, New York State Democratic Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer addressed the Orthodox Union, one of the United States’ largest Orthodox Jewish organizations, saying, “Since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense.”
Despite the scathing quality of his words, Schumer received little media coverage, much less outrage. This is disturbing considering that just one week prior, former White House Press Corps correspondent Helen Thomas was not only condemned, but openly shamed away from her career for perceived anti-Semitism.
When Schumer’s video began circulating through the liberal media blogosphere, someone on Think Progress commented that he did not want to “jump all over Schumer with the condemnations too quickly.”
While anyone can understand and appreciate a critic’s consideration of context and objectivity, it is difficult to morally justify economically strangling a specific population without being labeled as a racist or at least politically incorrect. Nevertheless, most major media outlets ignored Schumer, or highlighted his speech as “condemning Hamas” rather than “condoning terrorism,” thus justifying his bigotry.
Some types of bigotry are easier to evade than others. Fair and unbiased reporting seemed to go out the window for Helen Thomas, a woman renowned for her diligence as the unofficial “Dean of the White House Press Corps.” She was known for breaking gender barriers, and her “relentless and demanding” work ethic. However, during an exchange with Rabbi David Nessenhoff outside the Jewish Heritage Celebration Day event at the White House, she was asked about how she felt about Israel. Thomas responded with “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When later provoked to elaborate she continued that they should “go home to Poland, Germany, America, and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?”
Naturally, most media has ignored the last part of this exchange. Instead of questioning the political ramifications of the State of Israel, many emphasized and dramatized the “anti-Semitic” connotations of Thomas’s statement. In spite of her issuing a formal apology the following week, Thomas’ agency, Nine Speakers Inc., quickly dropped her as a client. Suddenly, many of her speaking engagements were canceled, and she decided to resign before the decision was made for her.
No one seemed hesitant to condemn Helen Thomas. It is rarely taken into account that as an Arab-American of Lebanese descent, she has a personal affiliation with the region. In the beginning of her career, she watched Israel establish itself by ethnically cleansing and displacing three quarters of a million Palestinians. In her later years, Israel repeatedly assaulted Lebanon, her parents’ homeland. Despite these unfounded acts of aggression, the United States government continues to pour money into the Israeli military, while silencing any debate surrounding Israel’s actions. Perhaps if these truths were analyzed, the public would accept her words an unfortunate, yet understandable visceral reaction rather than ignorantly denouncing her as a reprehensible anti-Semite.
As Thomas was shamed away from her career, Schumer was applauded for supporting the “economically strangling” blockade of Gaza. Not only are Schumer’s words offensive, they are also ironic, not to mention illogical. In advocating “economically strangling” policies, Schumer is supporting a ghettoized, open-air prison classified by the Geneva Conventions as “collective punishment.” While Helen Thomas is condemned for her insensitivity towards collective punishment incurred in Poland and Germany during the Holocaust, Senator Schumer can advocate for the literal and figurative starvation of Gaza.
What arbitrates a politically incorrect media fiasco from a passive, yet offensive political comment? Is freedom of speech nullified if one directs their racism towards the wrong group? Is it an issue of racism, or of alliances? Helen Thomas questioned Israel and the media ignored that she was pestered outside an event in the stifling heat, and only emphasized her Arab-American identity as a symbolic dissenting force in society.
Meanwhile, Senator Schumer spoke at a planned, public engagement openly condoning “economically strangling” a specific group of people and no major media outlets have labeled him as “offensive” or “bigoted.” This juxtaposition makes it clear that in the United States it is not about racism, but rather the harsh double standard between those who criticize and those who champion Israel that distinguishes who is vilified from who is accepted.
The fact that Helen Thomas became an unforgivable anti-Semitic phenomenon while Senator Schumer was accepted and even applauded says volumes about true political fabric of the United States. It does not matter who was more racist or offensive. Like the comments themselves, these interpretations depend on the interpreter’s personal background and beliefs. What is indisputably offensive, however, is how American media and cultural institutions treat politicians and citizenry alike like they are lab rats, giving them ideological rewards and punishments to shape an “acceptable” mass opinion. In the end, this opinion-shaping, debate-stifling process is the most offensive political statement of all.