At an event at the White House for Jewish Heritage Day, Thomas was asked on camera if she had anything to say about Israel by rabbiLIVE.com owner Rabbi David F. Nesenoff. The White House Press Corps veteran responded with:
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine… Remember these people are occupied, and it’s their land; it’s not German, it’s not Poland’s.”
Asked where the Israelis should go, she answered: “they should go home … to Poland, Germany before adding America and everywhere else.”
Her comments went relatively unnoticed until a few days ago, when the video was posted on the American right-wing online publication The Drudge Report.
The subsequent media frenzy has seen Thomas lose her place at her speaker’s agency and her columnist position at Hearst News Services. Even her appointment as the keynote speaker at a Washington high school graduation has been cancelled, a quickly prepared Sunday email stating that graduation celebrations are no place for divisiveness.
Not even a quickly prepared blanket apology on her website was enough to put a damper on things — too little, too late.
The director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, released a statement saying that her apology was insufficient.
“Her suggestion that Israelis should go back to Poland and Germany is bigoted and shows a profound ignorance of history. We believe Thomas needs to make a more forceful and sincere apology.”
Foxman had more to say about Thomas though, this time in an interview with The Washington Post. “There was a permissiveness about the questions she asked. Nobody ever challenged her. She always coloured the news — she was always bigoted about Israel. This is better late than never, but it should have happened earlier,” said Foxman. “She got that seat (in the White House press room) because she was an icon, a trailblazer … not because she was brilliant or an objective reporter. I’m glad she’s gone, period. It will be better for everyone not to have a bigoted journalist sitting at press conferences asking the first question.”
Whether or not you consider her a bigot, her outspoken nature has gotten the best of 89-year-old Thomas. Michael Tomasky of The Guardian explains why the soundbite was so wrong: “Now I know a lot of you are going to say well, she only said what’s factually true about the land, but she didn’t only say that. It’s that Germany and Poland business. Without that, these remarks wouldn’t have been nearly as controversial as they are. And those were really terrible things to say (while kind of laughing, as if it were a joke; check out the video).”
However, says Tomasky: “I’m not sure she should lose her job. That may be a little extreme when you’re thinking of a 50-year career. But she should certainly face some kind of sanction for saying this. An appropriate step would probably be losing her seat of privilege.”
Strangely enough (or not), Thomas’ enemies seem to have jumped upon the opportunity to destroy their strongest critic. Dana Milibank of The Washington Post made this point: “Given that history of hostility, it’s not surprising that one of the first to push Thomas out the door was Bush’s former press secretary, Ari ‘Watch What They Say’ Fleischer, who temporarily left his sports marketing business to hustle over to the Fox News set and demand Thomas’s firing. The most recent recipient of Thomas’s heckling, Gibbs, used the words “offensive and reprehensible” when asked Monday about the matter.
In her 50 years on the Press Corps, Helen has never been known as an easy personality; she was once described by former US President Lyndon B. Johnson as a mixture of acupuncture and journalism, and is well known for her rocky relationship with the younger President Bush. Around the White House since the Kennedy years, she has reported on nine US presidents and revolutionised the role of women in print journalism. She has always been known as the hard questioner; when Fidel Castro was asked what the difference was between American and Cuban democracy he responded: “I don’t have to talk to Helen Thomas.”
But Thomas’ detractors are now coming out of the woodwork — Jonah Goldberg of the National Review wrote: “Can we do away with all of the shock and dismay at Thomas’ statement? Spare me Lanny Davis’ wounded outrage. Everyone knows she is a nasty piece of work and has been a nasty piece of work for decades. And when I say a nasty piece of work, I don’t simply mean her opinions on Israel. She’s been full-spectrum awful. I’ve known a few people who knew her 40 years ago, and she was slimy then too.”
Richard Cohen of The Washington Post had this to say: “Thomas, of Lebanese ancestry and almost 90, has never been shy about her anti-Israel views, for which, as far as I’m concerned, she is wrong and to which she is entitled. Then the other day, she performed a notable public service by revealing how very little she knew.”
Michael Landauer of the Dallas Morning News had a slightly more sympathetic opinion: “I am in no way excusing what Helen Thomas said. But it was the kind of thing that someone says when they just are not as sharp as they used to be. I think some older folks do get a little tone def (sic), a little less sensitive of others. That certainly doesn’t describe Helen Thomas through most of career, although she was never one to be anything less than blunt.”
Roy Greenslade of The Guardian has raised the question of hypocrisy in the move to silence Thomas: “So, in the land of the free, where freedom of speech is guaranteed under the constitution, a person who expresses what are deemed to be controversial views is effectively gagged.”
Ali Younes agrees in the Arab News: “Helen Thomas’ forced resignation will further cow the mainstream media into not criticising or questioning Israeli policies in the Middle East. It will also serve as a chilling reminder that the US media is not really free.”
And Dana Milbank goes on to point out: “…the White House press corps will be diminished without Helen front and center, and not only because she was in that job before the current president was born. She brought a ferocity to her questioning that has eluded too many in subsequent generations. At a time when others were getting cozy with sources, her crabby, unrelenting hostility was refreshing.”
In the end, it was Michel Martin from NPR that best reflected the widespread feeling of disappointment that Thomas’ career had to end on this note: “When I was a White House correspondent I appreciated Helen because she would back you up, even if you were a little baby reporter trying asking a tough question, maybe especially if you were. I feel sad that no one told her when it was time to stop talking, but perhaps protecting her legacy was not as important to her as it was continuing to have her say, however offensive. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.”