Assailing and Defending Helen Thomas

Two writers present two different sides

The People vs. Helen Thomas

The overnight implosion of her sixty-year career is a metaphor for the changing media landscape.

Reporter Helen Thomas had been a fixture of the White House Press Corps since the Eisenhower administration, making the diminutive 89-year-old journalist a feminist pioneer.

In recent years, however, Thomas was also derided by her colleagues as a hostile and distracting presence in the briefing room; “They think I’m intrusive and they think that I shouldn’t have my opinions and so forth,” she acknowledged in a 2008 interview. “Well, that’s their problem.”

Fellow reporters resented the fact that Thomas was the only correspondent with her very own designated seat (in the front row, no less) even though she was an opinion columnist and not, as Time‘s Joe Klein put it, “a working reporter.”

Others were irritated by her abrasive personality

Thomas’ vitriolic expression of hatred toward the Jewish state touched a nerve… At the end of the day, Helen Thomas couldn’t escape the chorus of outrage from her colleagues in the media, and from ordinary TV news viewers, blog readers and talk radio callers.

and obvious bias. In a 2006 New Republic piece, Jonathan Chait accused Thomas of delivering “unhinged rants,” while CBS correspondent Mark Knoller acknowledged that “sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters.”

Indeed, “colleagues sometimes rolled their eyes at her obvious biases,” said Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. But, unlike the outspoken Helen, her colleagues mostly kept their feelings about her to themselves, out of deference to her seniority.

Longstanding resentments finally broke the surface this month, when a few seconds of video, captured on a tiny flip camera, sped around the Internet and ultimately cost Thomas her job.

No one was more surprised than the man who shot the film. Rabbi David Nesenoff of Long Island had visited the White House on May 27 to celebrate “American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day” with his teenage son and the boy’s friend. In the spirit of the occasion, the trio wore yarmulkes and tzitzit. That they were Jewish was unmistakable, making what happened next all the more astonishing.

Spotting the easily recognizable doyen of the White House press corps, Nesenoff and the boys approached Helen Thomas, pointed the camera and asked her opinion about Israel.

Without missing a beat, Thomas replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” Clearly taken aback, Nesenoff pressed further.

“Remember,” Thomas continued, “these people are occupied, and it’s their land; it’s not German, it’s not Poland.” Asked where the Jews of Israel should go, she replied: “They need to go home” to “Poland, Germany” — and, as an afterthought, “America and everywhere else.” On the longer (thought still brief) version of the video, Thomas explains to Nesenoff that she is “of Arab descent.” (Her parents were Christian immigrants from Lebanon. Presumably, Thomas didn’t feel she and her relatives should be obliged to leave American and “go home.”)

Amazingly, over a week passed before Nesenoff posted the short video to his site,, and to YouTube.

“My 17 year old son is my webmaster,” Nesenoff told reporters later, “and this week was finals, so we had to wait.”

Ironically, the delay made the video even more relevant when it finally went viral. Its release coincided with the international (over)reaction to the Israel Defense Forces’ killing of nine individuals with ties to terrorist groups, aboard a “humanitarian” ship bound for Gaza. With Israel once again the target of worldwide condemnation for the “crime” of self-defense, Thomas’ vitriolic expression of hatred toward the Jewish state touched a nerve.

A chorus of outrage

Thomas subsequently issued an apology of sorts on her personal website: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

It was too late. Many pundits on both sides of the aisle had condemned Thomas’ remarks.

Former president George W. Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, wondered aloud if she would have opined that “blacks should go back to Africa” during Black History Month. Meanwhile, former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis said that Thomas “has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot.”

At the end of the day, Helen Thomas couldn’t escape the chorus of outrage from her colleagues in the media, and from ordinary TV news viewers, blog readers and talk radio callers. Eventually, even President Obama was moved to call her remarks “out of line.”

In short order, her prestigious speakers’ agency dropped her. She quickly tendered her resignation from Hearst Newspapers, and Helen Thomas finally entered into (a very reluctant) retirement.

Thomas’s fall from grace at the speed of light, and from such a high summit, is nothing less than a metaphor for the changes that have taken place in the media since she first started out as a reporter in the 1950s.

No longer do Americans rely upon three big TV networks for their daily news. YouTube, Twitter, the Drudge Report and countless bloggers can spread information (and sometimes misinformation) in the blink of an eye.

This isn’t the first time an amateur outsider with a website has taken down a media icon. Fabled anchorman Dan Rather, a contemporary of Helen Thomas, was fired after a blogger’s investigation revealed that he used forged documents to question President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard.

For better or worse, the age of citizen journalism is upon us, and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. In this realm at least, the world is becoming a more democratic place.

Should Israel Exist?

[Pullout: ]When I heard about Helen Thomas’ remarks the other day, I cannot say I even flinched. These statements about Israel’s existence have been an ongoing controversy spoken publicly among politicians, celebrities, Jewish and non-Jewish citizens alike.

Rabbi Simcha brings up an interesting point in his piece about today’s world and how our technologies can release what is inside people’s hearts and minds. The rude remarks made by Helen Thomas have trickled through the web like a Pamela Lee sex tape and now everyone is in shock. But when all is said and done, are we really that surprised?

The difference, as I see it, is we are living in a time when anything politically incorrect is considered racist. The questions I would like to address here are: Was Helen Thomas wrong in saying what she said? and Is saying something against Israel anti-Semitic?

Was Helen Thomas wrong to make such a statement? Yes… But does speaking critically of Israel equal anti-Semitism? … when people criticize the politics, the warfare, the hate, they are entitled to their opinion. Not all Americans agree with America. Not all Jews agree with Israel.

When my parent’s grew up in the Ukraine, anti-Semitism was on the tongue of everyone who passed by. There was a clear distinction between the “Yid,” the Jews, and the “Goyim,” the non-Jews (in disrespectful language). My mother was forced to memorize anti-Semitic poetry to recite in front of her class. How is that for not being discreet?

Today, saying anything about slavery, the Holocaust, and now even Israel, has become linked to one’s feelings about the group of people associated with it. While I am by no means defending Helen Thomas, who chose her words unwisely — and was quite ignorant in saying them to a rabbi and two teenagers in the midst of the American Jewish Heritage Month celebration — these words are thought often and even spoken out loud by all groups of people — even those who take pride in their own Jewish identities.

A nonevent

In my opinion, saying that Israel should not exist and that Jews should go back to where they “came from” is about as ignorant as one can get. It lacks an understanding of why the rebirth of Israel and the Jews’ escape back to this Holy Land took place. People like Helen Thomas, whose influence and career are based on unbiased communications, should think through their words wisely. These types of statements, no matter the apology, can never be taken back, truly. I still think anti-Semite when I think Mel Gibson. Can’t help myself.

So, though in today’s world it is more shocking to say our thoughts about another group of people out loud, that does not mean we don’t think and feel them. If anything, Helen Thomas opened a can of worms. Her clip was originally placed on, where the comments of hate and anti-Semitism poured in. Just take a look here. Caution: Not for the faint of heart.

I am not naïve enough to believe anti-Semitism is in our past. In my hometown, where religious Jews have moved with their families over the past five years, I hear about hate crimes more than ever.

Was Helen Thomas wrong to make such a statement? Yes. In her position as a reporter: Yes. As a person of influence: Yes. But does speaking critically of Israel equal anti-Semitism? In many ways, I see Israel separate from its people. Israel is a nation, a people and a land. And when people criticize the politics, the warfare, the hate, they are entitled to their opinion. Not all Americans agree with America. Not all Jews agree with Israel. And more so, not all Israeli Jews — religious and non- — agree with Israel.

To me, the statement made by Helen Thomas was a nonevent. I’ve heard this before: “Israel should be given back to Palestine. Jews should go back to where they came from.” I’ve heard the debates before. And the question of whether Israel has a right to exist will be a question up for debate, provoking passionate opinions and hateful statements alike, always and forever. Helen Thomas’ voice is just one. She is, in some ways, a scapegoat for all others who feel the same way.

Do you believe Jews should leave Israel? Do you believe in Israel’s existence? Do you believe the Holy Land belongs to Palestine or the Jews? What would you say if someone asked you on camera? And off?

Helen Thomas’ confession on camera has definitely awoken some strong feelings — both pro- and anti-Israel. Now it will be interesting to see how America responds.

Monica Rozenfeld is a freelance writer living in NYC. She is the author of Busted Halo’s Rendezvous with G-d blog and is founder of the edgy, Jewish-culture blog The Jew Spot.