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Opinion

Opinion

Thomas shouldn’t get a pass on comments

June 13, 2010

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Here’s some bitter irony for you.

Back in April, I received the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award. Yes, diversity. And yes, Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent who recently nuked her career — and legacy — by telling a rabbi, following a Jewish heritage ceremony at the White House, no less, that the Jews of Israel should, in effect, go back where they came from.

Life sure takes some funny bounces. Two months ago, I was honored to receive an award in the name of a woman who has asked combative questions of every president since Kennedy. Two months later, receiving a Helen Thomas award in the spirit of diversity feels not unlike receiving a Kim Jong Il award in the spirit of diplomacy.

I sat in that ceremony on the campus of her alma mater, Wayne State University, listening as speakers lauded Thomas, who is of Lebanese heritage, as a path maker for women and Arabs. When it was my turn to speak, I recounted how I saw her at an office party once and how I, who don’t get starstruck, who have interviewed Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett and Barack Obama, could not bring myself to introduce myself.

It is — and the fact that I am the hundredth person to say this makes it no less true — sad to see such a storied career end in rubble. But given the mess she made, given the tidal wave of opprobrium that washed over her, last week’s decision to retire was pretty much the only option left. And how bizarre is it that Thomas, who asked so many tough questions over the years, was tripped up by an absolute softball.

“Any comments on Israel?” asked Rabbi David Nesenoff, in the video that is now all over the Internet.

“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” said Thomas.

A moment later, Nesenoff asked where the Jews should go. “They should go home,” she said. “Poland, Germany.”

It was a stunningly obtuse remark, given that the Jews were driven out of those nations seven decades ago by history’s greatest act of mass murder. When I was in Poland five years ago, it was still possible to walk on cobblestones made of grave markers looted from Jewish cemeteries and to see graffiti that read, JUDEN RAUS! Jews, out!

All that said, there is a temptation to let the 89-year-old legend slide, to give her what I will call the old-person pass. After all, which of us doesn’t have an Uncle Clint or Aunt Molly who still uses language or expresses opinions that were perfectly respectable back in 1935 but reprehensible today? You just shine it on. You don’t even bother correcting them anymore.

But Uncle Clint and Aunt Molly are usually removed from the workaday world. At the very least, they do not occupy the national stage.

For many years now, elder Americans have quite rightly resisted being shoved out of that workaday world just because they reached some arbitrary age. But the corollary is that you don’t get an exemption for that age, don’t get to use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, when you foul up.

Besides, we are told by Thomas’ peers in the White House press corps that there is nothing new about the anti-Semitism she displayed. To the contrary, it was apparently very well known to her colleagues. As Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online told Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, “She’s always said crazy stuff.”

So apparently, she’s already received the old-person pass. And the icon-of-journalism pass too, no doubt.

But if you consider bigotry a cancer of the human spirit, then at some point, you have to call people on their garbage. Even when they are old. Even when they are beloved. Even when they are legendary.

The spirit of diversity demands no less.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com

Comments

verity 3 years, 10 months ago

This too shall pass. I think she probably has enough saved up to live out the rest of her life in the style to which she is accustomed. It's not like she scuttled her career before she had one or quit mid-term.. She's 89, for goodness sakes.

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Pantoozo 3 years, 10 months ago

Does Thomas date Bob Etheridge?

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ivalueamerica 3 years, 10 months ago

Helen Thomas was forced to retire, and has suffered the slings and arrows from everyone from the far right to the far left, she has lost her status as sitting Budda of the press corps and has ended a brilliant career in shame.

Hardly sounds like she got a pass to me.

I am not arguing that she should not have been treated this way..when you are in the public eye and say something this stupid, you better expect to pay for it.

However, that does not justify the far right re-wording everything she said and adding extra meaning to it, that just makes them liars and .... they should not get a free pass for that either.

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pace 3 years, 10 months ago

I think she got worked up and said something stupid, Now I am glad no one else has ever done that. It should wake us up to the idea, if we have thought one way on a certain position for a long time, it might be good to stop and consider the other side. No matter how we feel, we should be afraid to look. Positions and attitudes delude the mind from reality and change. She apologized, she has been right and powerfully candid on many issues. We are such an unforgiving populace, We need to look more at an entire body of work, be aware of both the strength and the weaknesses. She went to far out and now has to deal with it. For some pundit to try to write her off for this, is just desperate. He can't stand up to the same rigid and blind gaze.

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Abdu Omar 3 years, 10 months ago

All we hear for the last 65 years is how the land of Palestine belongs to the Children of Israel. Speaking out against Israel is anti-semitic ! I think that is bunk. Arabs are semitic as well and some of the Palestinians are the Children of Israel too. They converted to Christianity and Islam but they still are the decendants of Jacob. IF you read your Bible and others read their Quran, you will find that fact even though Scofield and Herzel tried to make it not so. Read history and you will learn it all.

SInce the Jews of Europe were treated so badly, why do they do that to the Palestinians? Don't they know how that feels? How can we fight against Hitler and the Nazis and not the Israelis for doing the same things?

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Ray Parker 3 years, 10 months ago

It's not against the law to be a leftist, hate-filled, venom-spewing, anti-Semite bigot. It's not even grounds for pulling press credentials, or we would lose at least half of our journalists in the USofA.

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Bad_Brad 3 years, 10 months ago

Someone needs to explain to me how telling Israel to get off Palestinian land is anti-Semitic.

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beatrice 3 years, 10 months ago

I understand what Pitts is saying, but Thomas has retired in disgrace after a long and storied career over her comments. How is that in any way to be perceived as getting a pass?

She did not speak "the truth," beoB, she spoke out of ignorance or bigotry, or both. It is, however, a sad end to a long, public career, even if she deserves the criticism the led to her retirement.

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beobachter 3 years, 10 months ago

Same think I'd always say, average right_thinker is a total, ignorant ahole. And actually there is no such thing as a right wing journalist. Beck, Foxnews and the druggie continually prove that fact. They simply cater to total idiots.

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Tom Shewmon 3 years, 10 months ago

And if some neo-nazi extremist/racist "journalist" said all blacks need to "go back home" what would you say beoB?

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beobachter 3 years, 10 months ago

She spoke the truth, therefore all rightwinger went ballistic.

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anon1958 3 years, 10 months ago

"Israel needs to fully accept and acknowledge the fact that their nation was founded on largely stolen land, and most of the folks they stole it from are still their neighbors."

Same as in the USA, except the newcomers were more skilled at exterminating the Natives. Hundreds of years later and we still havent come clean or made an honest attempt to redress our sins.

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Bob Kraxner 3 years, 10 months ago

beatnik: Mr pitts getting an award just goes to show that if somebody cries racism for an extended period of time, they may be commended.... in the hopes of shutting them up. However, in the case of mr "piss & moan" pitts, I 'm thinking it may have backfired.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 10 months ago

Given Thomas's Lebanese ancestry, and the thousands of Lebanese murdered by the Israelis, I can understand her clearly emotional response, even if it's an unrealistic expectation, and perhaps even bordering on anti-Semitic.

As stupid an idea as the establishment of Israel was, Israel is a fact, and it's not going to just go away, nor are its people going to just go "back where they came from." The Arab world needs to fully accept that fact, and the sooner, the better.

But for this conflict to end, Israel needs to fully accept and acknowledge the fact that their nation was founded on largely stolen land, and most of the folks they stole it from are still their neighbors. Israel is going to have to make some very painful concessions to the Palestinians if they expect to ever live in peace with their Arab neighbors.

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verity 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm not going to try to interpret what Ms. Thomas meant, but I do know that many Jewish people have emigrated recently from the U.S. to Israel in order to settle in the Palestinian areas of the country. They were not fleeing persecution, as did many from Europe. The ones I have seen speak on TV seemed quite fanatical and were there to push the Palestinians off the land and keep it for Israel. It seemed to be a religious thing. One would think they might have some sympathy.

Certainly my sympathies are with those who are fleeing persecution---and some of them still are from countries like Russia. But it seems that Israel thinks it's OK to treat the Palestinians the same way they were treated in Europe.

There are a lot of bad actors on both sides of this issue and, like in any conflict, it's the common people who suffer.

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irvan moore 3 years, 10 months ago

I was just surprised that Mr. Pitts had won an award.

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kugrad 3 years, 10 months ago

Having watched the film, I can't help but feel Thomas' comments are being mischaracterized and/or deliberatly misunderstood. It certainly does not appear that she is suggesting that all Jews go back to where they came from, as many pundits have interpreted what she said (for maximum shock value), but rather she is speaking of the occupied territory.

Here is what I think she was trying to say, and I may be wrong. I am also not saying I agree with this or anything, just trying to clear up what I believe she actually intended to say: I think Ms. Thomas was pointing out that there are two sides to the story in this region of the world and that she believes the palestinians have a legitimate right to the occupied lands. So she is saying that the people who live there, many of whom emmigrated to this land from America and other countries, have less claim to the land than the people who have lived there since before there was an Israel.

OK, now don't put words in my mouth and claim that I believe what she believes, but I think there has been both deliberate and widespread mischaracterization of her remarks.

I also feel we are not allowed to have free and open discussions relating to Israel, for anyone who questions their actions or suggests that they have not dealt fairly with Palestinians is instantly branded as an anti-semite, attacked relentlessly, and falsely portrayed as an extremist of some kind or worse. Israel is somehow off-limits in our free-speech society and THAT I do believe, but do not understand.

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tomatogrower 3 years, 10 months ago

I can see both sides of this issue. The Jewish people were forced out of their countries, and a place was created for them, but what I don't understand is why they weren't more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. Yes, there are many who just hate the Jewish people for being Jewish, but why not help the Palestinians find a homeland? Then maybe things will work out. I just see a whole lot of people in the middle east, Israel included, who live in the past and want to get revenge for this, then counter revenge for that, then counter counter revenge for the counter revenge and so on, and so on. They just refuse to build for the future, and let the past go.

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Leslie Swearingen 3 years, 10 months ago

“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” said Thomas. I agree with that part. That wall should come down along with the checkpoints and Palestine should be permitted free trade with any country that it chooses. Israel is an artificial country that was created after world war two. The Arab residents had short notice that their country was being turned over to someone else. It is a shame that the wealthy Arabs cannot set aside differences and help those displaced by the creation of Israel and give some aid and support to Palestine. Now that Israel is a fact, I think they have the same right to survive as any other country. Ideally, their neighbors would come to terms with reality and sign a treaty with Israel. Everyone involved in this dispute is going to have to accept truths they don't want to and give a little. Helen Thomas spoke her mind truthfully. I don't think she was having an old moment. I think she figured that at her age she just wants to speak her mind and not have to worry about offending someone. I am who I am, she is saying, take it or leave it. Over time worry about offending someone, or hurting someones feelings, can take a toll and you long for candor and truth in speech even if it is not what someone else wants to hear. I am saying what I want to say, not what you want to hear, so deal with it.

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tange 3 years, 10 months ago

Tom wins the award, setting the record for the longest running, marginally creative, self-entertaining tantrum thrown by a grown man in the wake of a Presidential election.

Guinness!

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Tom Shewmon 3 years, 10 months ago

To comment on UH the 3rd's post, as Bernie Goldberg has pointed out, they (the corrupt liberally biased media) don't really even know they are as such to a fault. He says it's not like they sit down and have a meeting to discuss how to spin the days news in favor of liberal Democrats----they just do it. It is just in their DNA.

This is why Fox News comes as such a shocking affront to them and to ObamaCo, Pelosi and Reid for that matter. They have a "How dare you!' attitude toward any other media that goes against their rigid liberal ideology, especially when Fox and other conservative outlets are blowing them out of the water with ratings. It upsets them to no end. They make me sick, the corrupt, Obama-worhsiping media that is. Sick to my stomach. Look at what we're stuck with now thanks to them and their incompetent and dishonest work ethic.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 3 years, 10 months ago

" As Jonah Goldberg of the National Review Online told Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, “She’s always said crazy stuff.”"

Since when has Jonah Goldberg become the spokesman for the Washington Press Corps, Lenny?

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Uhlrick_Hetfield_III 3 years, 10 months ago

How can we trust the media when they are silent about a bigot in their own ranks? How many other kooks are there in their ranks that they're well aware of that we don't know about? Thomas is a disgrace, and it shouldn't have taken an outsider to expose her bigotry.

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Steven Gaudreau 3 years, 10 months ago

Does Pitts get a pass for his ageist remark "she’s already received the old-person pass"?

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newmedia 3 years, 10 months ago

She should have been gone years ago. Anyone that paid any attention to anything she said got just what they deserved...

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Charlie Bannister 3 years, 10 months ago

Hey MacHeath, it is anti-semitic, not anti-semantic.

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Iam Tired 3 years, 10 months ago

No surprises here. The only reason Pitts won the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award is that Pitts had nominated Thomas to receive the Leonard Pitts' Obama Apologist award.

"Two months later, receiving a Helen Thomas award in the spirit of diversity feels not unlike receiving a Kim Jong Il award in the spirit of diplomacy."

It is sad that Pitts did not recognize that before; It was not a difficult observation to make. However, Wayne State University still fails to see a problem with honoring the bigoted Thomas. They intend to continue the Spirit of Diversity award named in honor of Helen Thomas. http://www.freep.com/article/20100610/NEWS05/6100419/Helen-Thomas-prize-to-go-on-at-Wayne-State

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sourpuss 3 years, 10 months ago

Has anyone considered that, at her advanced age, Miz Thomas could be suffering from dementia? Many intelligent, verbal people are able to disguise the onset of dementia for a long time until they say or do something so out-of-character and inappropriate that people around them finally take notice. I'm not excusing what she said, but I think it is a shame to destroy lifetime of work over something that may not even be her "fault" per se.

However, it also scares me that no one is allowed to voice any negative opinion of Israel without getting raked over the coals. While superlatives such as the one Thomas said do not help the debate, are we all not allowed to have opinions about what is going on over there, one way or the other? Is any and all criticism of Israel considered to be racist?

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Liberty275 3 years, 10 months ago

Back in April, I received the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award

Does everyone that wants to send jews to Gerany and Poland against their will win that award? Do you award winners have camps waiting for them?

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Dan Eyler 3 years, 10 months ago

Anti-Semites, Anti-Zionists, racists, call them what you want. One thing is clear, the American media is awash with racists such as Helen Thomas. The press is so close to the White House that our policy toward Jews are changing. The American policy is a double edged sword. Both edges are anti Jewish. The west is against the State of Israel but has no issue with the Jew. This is clearly a dangerous place for both Jews and the nation of Israel. Jews better wake up. Christians better take notice before we repeat ourselves and ignore our history of standing on the side lines as Jews fall under the boot of the growing Fascist media who fans the flames of those evils Zionists. This is going to get out of hand and the pattern of the late 30's which ushered in a propaganda campaign by a government controlled media that ended at the gates of death camps in Poland and Germany. The very places Helen Thomas suggested Jews return to.

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MacHeath 3 years, 10 months ago

It is sad to see Helen Thomas blow it. I was not aware of her previous anti-semantic remarks.

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Tom Shewmon 3 years, 10 months ago

The anti-Semitism on full display in the world and this nation will provoke more and more Jews to come together. The far-left always seems to see their plans blow up in their face due to their outrageuous zealotry and this time; bigotry of the charts. Helen Thomas is part Arab----it must be genetic coding to hate Jews so much you extinguish a 50 year career with a couple off-the-cuff sentences.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west.

I will say to the north, “Give them up!” and to the south, “Do not hold them back.” Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—

everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

-Isaiah 43:5-7

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grammaddy 3 years, 10 months ago

That is some bitter irony alright! Congratulations on the award, Mr. Pitts.

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jaywalker 3 years, 10 months ago

Curious. The White House press corps knows she's known for saying "crazyanti-semitic stuff" but there's never been an article about the hypocrisy of the sponsored award? Just makes the story all the more sad.

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