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With a Whimper

Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas retires after anti-Semitic outburst

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Helen Thomas. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Helen Thomas, the 89-year-old doyenne of the White House press corps, has announced her retirement, effective immediately, after sparking a furor with a YouTube rant about how Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to “Poland, Germany” and other countries.

Thomas’s rant was occasioned by an encounter with Rabbi David Nesenoff, who waved down Thomas outside the White House briefing room before last month’s Jewish Heritage reception for what he expected to be a polite, smiling quip about Israel for his camera. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas told Nesenoff, with a flippant laugh. “Any better comments?” Nesenoff replied, still jovial. “Remember these people are occupied, and it’s their land. It’s not Germany, it’s not Poland,” Thomas continued. “So what should they do?” Nesenoff asked. “They can go home!” Where, exactly, was that? “Poland. Germany,” Thomas explained. “And America, and everywhere else.”

Footage of the rant was posted late last Thursday on YouTube, where it attracted more than a million views, and unleashed a tempest in Washington, with former Clinton counsel Lanny Davis and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer publicly criticizing her remarks as hateful and anti-Semitic. Thomas posted a brief apology on her Web site Friday, conveying regrets and expressing her “heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.” This morning, Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz reported that she had told him she was “very sorry” for her remarks. “I think I crossed the line,” Kurtz quoted Thomas as telling him. “I made a mistake.” In a public statement today, the White House Correspondents association called Thomas’s comments “indefensible.”

It remains unclear whether Thomas thinks that her mistake was in suggesting that Jews should vacate Israel, or in saying so to a videographer. Her views on the Middle East conflict, indeed, are no secret: just last week, she tore into White House spokesman Robert Gibbs after Israeli commandos killed nine people in the raid on Turkish ships bound for Gaza, calling the episode “a deliberate massacre, an international crime.” Last year, after Obama stopped by the press room with cupcakes to celebrate Thomas’s 89th birthday—the same day as his 48th—she told a reporter for Haaretz that she thought “the average Israeli is very fine, very fair, and straightforward, but I think their treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem, where they continue to take their land, is wrong.” And, she added, “American Zionists certainly expect us to back up anything Israel does.”

Thomas’s tough questioning of the Bush administration over the Iraq war won her a new generation of fans, including many American Jews, and her legendary bluntness was recently captured in a 2008 HBO documentary, Thank You, Mr. President, that celebrated her journalistic credo, “If we don’t ask the tough questions, then they won’t get asked.” But Rabbi Nesenoff is hardly an important American public official, and her uninflected rant against Israel’s Jewish inhabitants seemed not a question, but rather a statement of deeply held beliefs that puts her in the company of racists like former Virginia Governor George Allen, of the infamous macaca joke, or radio shock jock Don Imus, who referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s.” After MSNBC suspended Imus, then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama said he’d have gone further: “I would also say there’s nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made a comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group.”

Lanny Davis, the former White House counsel during the Clinton years who now blogs for the Huffington Post, turned the lens on Thomas’s colleagues, some of whom initially shrugged off Thomas’s comments. “Helen Thomas, who I used to consider a close friend and who I used to respect, has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot,” Davis wrote in a widely disseminated statement. While he insisted that Thomas “has a right to criticize Israel and that is not the same as being an anti-Semite,” Davis pointed out that Thomas’s comments went beyond criticism to statements that echoed  old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews being aliens in the land of Israel and which would clearly be unacceptable if uttered about any other ethnic group. “If she had asked all Blacks to go back to Africa, what would White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials,” Davis wondered, “much less a privileged honorary seat?”

The initial public response from other White House correspondents was to suggest that Thomas is simply a harmless old coot. “Do you have an older relative who says crazy things?” MSNBC host Chuck Todd asked on Twitter. The association’s president, Bloomberg’s Edwin Chen, told Politico yesterday that he thought “policing the views of opinion columnists can start us all down a path that history suggests is best avoided.” Yet, while there is no shortage of opinion columnists and radio commentators who have been fired for airing racist views, history records no other example of someone airing similar views while retaining a front-row seat at White House press conferences.

Taking Thomas’s comments as evidence of senility also seems unfair, given her long history of outspoken support for the Palestinian national cause, and attacks on Israel. As the daughter of Lebanese Christian immigrants, she has never been shy about broadcasting her sympathies for the Arab world, which she once described to a Lebanese-American monthly as “the cradle of all religions.” Thomas does have some supporters among elements of the American Jewish community. After Obama gave a prime-time press conference about the economy, the commentator M.J. Rosenberg thanked Thomas for prodding the president to publicly acknowledge Israel’s nuclear capabilities. “I salute Helen Thomas,” Rosenberg wrote.

Chen’s predecessor as President of the White House Correspondent’s Association, ABC News’ Ann Compton, had said that any punishment of Thomas would be up to Hearst, not the Association—which presumably implied that Thomas would continue to occupy her traditional front-row seat at the White House , with all the uncomfortable symbolism that her presence would have entailed. Hearst, in turn, suggested that it was satisfied by Thomas’s ambiguous apology—if that’s what it was. “We deeply regret Helen Thomas’ remarks, which in no way reflect the views of Hearst Newspapers or its employees,” a company spokeswoman said in an email. “Helen has expressed her own profound regret over the incident.” By Monday morning, the toughest public consequences had come from a Bethesda high school, which rescinded its invitation for Thomas to appear as a commencement speaker. She was also dropped by her agent, Diane Nine, and the co-author of her most recent book, Craig Crawford, said he won’t work with her again.

Surprisingly, the Anti-Defamation League—which remained silent on the issue until late Sunday—did not call for Thomas to be fired. “We believe Thomas needs to make a more forceful and sincere apology for the pain her remarks have caused,” the group’s director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement. Thomas absented herself from this morning’s press briefing, where White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called Thomas’ remarks “offensive and reprehensible”—and added that he didn’t believe they reflected the views of “most of the people in here, and certainly not of the Administration.”

In a meeting on Monday morning, the White House Correspondents Association board condemned Thomas’s remarks as “indefensible” despite earlier statements from its president, Chen, and some of its more prominent members, who initially said Thomas alone was responsible for what came out of her mouth. While noting that the Association does not police the speech of its members, it also said that Thomas’ offensive remarks did raise the question of “whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room.” Thomas announced her retirement moments later in a statement issued by Hearst.

As for Nesenoff, the rabbi whose question precipitated Thomas’s public implosion, the correspondent’s behavior still seems unforgivable. “Can someone be rehabilitated, can someone do teshuva? Yes, but not overnight,” Nesenoff told Tablet. “It’s not just saying I’m sorry. One has to return what was stolen.” He stopped and explained that his teenage son Adam had accompanied him to Washington, and been present for the video interview. “He’s been in every state except five,” Nesenoff said, “but he’d never heard such anti-Semitism until he got to the White House lawn.”

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She has a seat next to Hitler in the hereafter, I think they may end up roomies.

John says:

The article subhed says Helen Thomas gave “an anti-Semitic outburst.” No she didn’t. It was mostly certainly anti-Zionist. And pretty unseemly. But anti-Semitism as we’ve long known it argued that Jews don’t belong in places like the U.S., Germany, or Poland, and that Jews are forever “foreign.” As an American I know that Jews belong here, and in Europe, and in the Middle East, like any other group.

And anti-Zionist Jews up to the founding of Israel argued that Zionism’s strange agreement with anti-Semites — i.e., that Jews don’t belong, and must leave non-Jewish lands — is bad for Jews, and will be bad for the native population of Palestine.

Perhaps in a moment of pique and inarticulateness, Ms. Thomas was saying that the way Jews are living in Palestine now — dominating another population — is creating lots of trouble. You don’t have to be anti-Semitic to agree with that.

Who knows if Helen Thomas is an anti-Semite. Her comments in themselves didn’t tell us. But one thing is for sure. While we get angry about Thomas’s remarks, which bear no relation to the real politics of the Levant, Arabs _right now_ are getting kicked out of their homes in east Jerusalem, and not given the right that Jews have to make claims to property.

howard says:

Who knows? “Who knows if Helen Thomas is an antiSemite?” Oh oh oh! Can I say? I know! Can I?!

Helen Thomas is an antisemite. Lots of her kind keep it inside for most of their lives, confining their real feelings to their friends and family. But she got old, a little uninhibited, and the truth slipped out, the truth that unites antiZionists and antisemites, and that is the idea that Jews are illegitimate… one says they have no place in Europe or in other polite societies, the other that they have no place in their own homeland. They all agree that Jews are just a little too…. fill in the blank.

Yeah, yeah, heard it all before. I’ll bet it feels good to get it off your chest, doesn’t it Helen? And hell, you were ready to retire anyway.

I’ll give you this, once or twice you gave Bush some trouble, so thanks for that, but go home now.

elisheva says:

Despite her passionate interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Helen Thomas is woefully ignorant of basic facts (or perhaps simply lies and misconstrues). Almost half the Jewish population of Israel hails from North African and Middle Eastern countries (ie Arabic and Persian). I wonder where she would send my Israeli husband whose grandfather comes from a long line of Jews living in Jerusalem, grandmother from Isfahan (Iran) and father from Egypt? Perhaps she would split him in three? And what of our children?

Dani Levi says:

I heard not only anti-Zionism, but also anti-semitism. I doubt that the ladies opinions are as nuanced as others make them out to be. Sending six million Hebrews to Central Europe from Israel, you gonna hide behind “anti-Zionism”? It is like Himmler, he cried while witnessing mass murder, but ‘it’ had to be done, nothing ‘wrong’ with the Jews, it is just that they get in the way of the greater Aryan idea. HEY! Nothing personal! You dig?
It is very educational that someone who was one of the nations most high profile journalists turns out to be a Jew hater. I wonder what else is out there?

Helen Thomas’s sin is to rip the mask off “polite” hatred of Israel. If she had only said that “the Zionists should get the hell out of Palestine,” she would have been fine. If anyone had dared to complain, she could have become another Well-Paid Martyr Of The Elders of Zion. And plenty of professional Jewish distinction-makers (“of course, you can hate Israel without hating Jews!”) would have run to her defense.

Larry says:

Just the tip of the iceberg.
The “polite mask” will soon drop altogether. Too many people who wore the mask are tired of kow-towing to the JEWISH state.
Zionism is not a political movement. It is a 2,000 year old tradition of be’shana habah: “You wait for Moshiach. I want a family lineage that can be traced back, simply, more than 3 generations.”
And, when American Jews declaim their brothers, it is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
“This too shall pass,” said the established non-, or weakly affiliated Jews of Germany. It’s those stinking, filthy Jews of Poland who give US a bad name.”
Find Heine’s essay after his return from “visiting” the last of the bastions of Yiddishkeit.
Wake me when the prejudice of the human nature of humanity(?) of Jews and non-Jews changes; then, history might not continually repeat itself.
Until then, govern yourselves accordingly.

irit says:

Helen Thomas is 89 Years old. You can not condemn a person by an outburst that in this case was led on by questions from whoever interviewed her…listen well.
What is the problem really about? It’s not about Helen Thomas…people do falter. If you play into the anti-Semitic game, you are just like the Israeli government, who does not see, does not hear, locked in its “See evil everywhere” policy. Soon, only goats and monkeys will be welcomed in Israel, everybody else will be a persona-non-grata.

Jacob Zeder says:

Irit, huh?

Brad says:

Well, well, well….
It would seem that she truly has opened up a lot of doors for herself over the years, through her job and connection to various people.
I wonder how many of these people will want to be near her now that she has brought such a black cloud down upon herself?
Also, if she is to follow her own ‘advice’ and return ‘home’ to the country of her family’s origin, shouldn’t she surrender any property she possesses in the United States back to the closest Native American reservation, and return to Lebanon?

I hope, as Rabbi Nesenoff suggests, that she will make t’shuva for her comments and t’shuva to her roots.

she is a disgrace and her “apology” was anything but – just a bunch of mealy-mouthed crap she would not allow a President or Press Secretary to get away with.

When an Arab says Palestine should be purged of its Jewish inhabitants, she gets fired from her job.

When a Jew says that eretz yisrael should be purged of its Arab inhabitants, he gets to be foreign minister of Israel.

Jews: gotta love the hypocrisy.

Saad Hariri says:

Come home now to Lebanon, Helen, habibi!

michael says:

replace Jews and Israel with Blacks and America, Native Americans and America… would you defenders of HT still defend her words? As a life-long Democrat (54 years, never voted for a Republican) I have to say that this administration has sanctioned anti-SEMITISM (get over it, it’s the truth), and all sense of fairness and balance has been lost.

Jan says:

By using “Palestine,” Thomas didn’t mean to suggest that Israelis should get out of the West Bank; she meant to say should Jews leave Israel proper, too. Surprisingly, this Christian Arab is no different than many of her Muslim brethren and wants Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to be Judenrein.

Steve says:

As a Jewish-American if I take Helen Thomas advice to go back “where I came from,” I will be “back” in Israel.

It wasn’t really a “burst.” She had previously expressed some of these sentiments in an interview in March 2010.!

During the latest uproar against Israel, this one brought about by Helen Thomas’s unfortunate invective, we’ve heard again those dirty words, Zionist and Zionism, used in an extremely negative posture. The dictionary’s definition of those “naughty” words, however, tells us only of Israel’s pride in its heritage and its privilege of living in this world as all other nations feel they have a right to do. In this country, we fought a revolution for that prerogative, and our versions of those “dirty” words are American and Americanism.

David Sucher says:

I have no idea if Thomas is an “anti-Semite.”

What I do know is that she acted stupidly and injured the Palestinian cause.

Obviously it was unwise career-wise but most important — more for Palestiniabs than anyone — is that she has just raised the ante on Jewish paranoia, (which paranoia is not irrational.)

Palestinians need to see, if they can, Israelis (and sensible Jews) that a Palestinian state is not a threat to Israel.

And so what did Thomas do? She reinforced all the possible fears that Jews everywhere might have. Thomas may dislike Jews but she sure did injure Palestinians even more.

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With a Whimper

Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas retires after anti-Semitic outburst

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