Thomas shouldn’t get a pass on comments

June 13, 2010


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


jaywalker 7 years, 11 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.

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 11 months ago

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

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 11 months ago

"..outrageous zealotry"..and followed by Bible verses. You're showing your true colors, Nancy-Tom.And "bigotry". I'm surprised your brain even let that one out.BTW, she's of Lebanese descent.And has done very well for herself in her 50 year career.What can you list as your accomplishments?

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 11 months ago

You're always so quick to criticize and call names. You couldn't be a pimple on her butt. Can't come up with any? Just like your rant about Obama "shredding the Constitution". All fluff and no substance. And you have the nerve to call someone else an "outrageous zealot".

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 11 months ago

And that makes it okay, cus everybody else does it.You sound like a 3 year old.And I'm still waiting for you to back up your comment.

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 11 months ago

The part where you claim Obama is "shredding the constitution." You made that comment yesterday and a lot of us are still waiting to be shown how that could possibly be true.You have conveniently forgotten that.All fluff and no substance. Blowhard.

Liberty275 7 years, 11 months ago

The part where you claim Obama is "shredding the constitution."

Simple. Nowhere in the constitution does it call for American citizens to be forced to buy corporate products they don't want. In fact, being forced to buy health insurance can be an abridgment of first amendment rights because insurance is a form of gambling and many religions forbid gambling.

vega 7 years, 11 months ago

Shewmon says :"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. "

She is of Lebanese origin. By "Arab" Shewmon probably means "Muslim". However, Thomas' parents are Lebanese Christians.
Also, there is nothing genetic about racial, ethnic, ideological, political intolerance and hatred. If there is, would all Germans be genetically anti-Semitic?

Dan Eyler 7 years, 11 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.

thatonedude 7 years, 11 months ago

Since when was the White House anti-Israel? Every president in my lifetime has been criticized for being too supportive, if anything.

John Hamm 7 years, 11 months ago

You might remember that president (non-cap intentional) Obama showed the soles of his feet to the Prime Minister of Israel during a telephone conversation. In the Arab world this is an insult. Obama, having at least some Muslin education, was well aware of this fact when he did it. That's a pretty good answer to your, "Since when..." question.

Liberty275 7 years, 11 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?

sourpuss 7 years, 11 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?

Scott Drummond 7 years, 11 months ago

"Is any and all criticism of Israel considered to be racist?"

In this country, yes. Go anywhere in the world outside of the US borders and you discover the extreme bias of our right of center, corporate media.

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

To your last,puss, of course not, regardless of scott's personal dementia.

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

To your opening query, puss, read the article again. Ms. Thomas has apparently been known for quite some time to spout anti-semitic remarks. If dementia played a part in this last instance, it seems it was only that she forgot that she was speaking to a rabbi and on tape for good measure.

thatonedude 7 years, 11 months ago

The comment about getting out Palestine wasn't the part considered racist, it was the idea that all the Jewish residents of Israel should just pack up and go back to a few European nations their great-grandparents were driven out of.

georgiahawk 7 years, 11 months ago

In the past thousands of years the Jews have been driven out of Isreal more times than the once they were driven out of Europe. So what exactly is your point?

thatonedude 7 years, 11 months ago

That any time it is suggested that a group of people be driven from their home, it's offensive.

Charlie Bannister 7 years, 11 months ago

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

newmedia 7 years, 11 months ago

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

Uhlrick_Hetfield_III 7 years, 11 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.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 11 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?

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

Since when did Lenny state he was, bozo?

Liberty275 7 years, 11 months ago

I take it you weren't paying attention after dubya spanked algore in 2000 and traitor john in 2004. Every liberal in America was regurgitating tantrums for 8 years.

tomatogrower 7 years, 11 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.

kugrad 7 years, 11 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.

irvan moore 7 years, 11 months ago

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

beatrice 7 years, 11 months ago

Try looking at his bio. That Pulitzer thing mentioned ... its an award.

verity 7 years, 11 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.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 11 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.

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

BS. Israel could give the Palestinians everything they want, but then that would include every Israeli to up and die, bloodily if possible. Shame you just can't seem to get your mind around that fact.

jafs 7 years, 11 months ago

So I guess the only solution would be for them both to keep fighting until someone wins?

It's been 60 years - I think if someone was going to win, they would have done so already.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 11 months ago

"So I guess the only solution would be for them both to keep fighting until someone wins?"

That's the John-Wayne way, and I'm sure that for all those Israel-right-or-wrong folks, it'll have a satisfying Hollywood ending (which, of course, wouldn't show any footage of dead Palestinian babies or bombed-out villages.)

anon1958 7 years, 11 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.

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

Give it a rest. If you're feelin' guilty, find an uninhabited rock in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Drivel like the above won't be missed.

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

Go away, beo. You've yet to contribute anything whatsoever to these boards...EVER....and you're overt racism on this issue is despicable.

jafs 7 years, 11 months ago

Again, you conflate popularity with reliability as a news source.

beatrice 7 years, 11 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.

Bad_Brad 7 years, 11 months ago

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

bill_the_kat 7 years, 11 months ago

Exactly: Suppose someone said "You European-Americans leave North America and go back to Serfdom in Europe. "

HA! Make us!

Abdu Omar 7 years, 11 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?

Liberty275 7 years, 11 months ago

I've always thought Israel reacts the way it does because they don't want anyone to ever get the impression they can be victimized again like they were by the Nazis. When half the world has tried to exterminate you and you are surrounded by countries that would try the same thing again if they could I imagine it turns you vicious.

OTOH, I think the Israelis have exercised extreme restraint. If Mexico tried taking Texas back by killing athletes, bombing busses and restaurants and firing rockets into America, we'd be 1000 times nastier.

Liberty275 7 years, 11 months ago

The UN gave them a chunk, and they took some more fighting off several neighboring arab countries that wanted to kill every jew in the region.

But really, what other than "god" gives them the right to the land? Easy. They are willing to fight anyone that tries to take it. You might hate this little fact because it doesn't fit your flowery world view, but in the end, might makes right. Period.

jafs 7 years, 11 months ago

The Palestinians also see their own actions as fighting someone that wants to take their land.

Liberty275 7 years, 11 months ago

Those are just desperate people looking for work and drug runners. They have no political motive. When you start seeing suicide bombers killing women and children in el paso to force America into giving up Texas, don't expect juarez to receive any mercy.

Abdu Omar 7 years, 11 months ago

Liberty. what you responded is exactly what I meant. Read, man, read! In a book, entitled "By Way of Deception" the author, Ostrow, a Jewish Mosad Agent, tells us of the plots and successes of Israeli intelligence to blame the Palestinians on horrendous acts they did themselves. Read it and you will see. Achille Lauro, the Olympics, bombing of the Marine Barracks in lebanon, and the list goes on. These are not people who are protecting their land as this isn't their land. They are thieves stealing land and using a made up verse in the old testament to support their claim. If you read your Bible, you will see where God tells the Children of Israel to change their ways. Stop charging high interest, stop using other people for your own ends and worship Him. They didn't. God sent Jesus and Muhammad, but they didn't convince the CoI to do what is right and that is partly why we have a conflict today. The Christians are on the wrong side.

Liberty275 7 years, 11 months ago

I don't read fiction, be it the bible or the book you mention.

Abdu Omar 7 years, 11 months ago

Maybe it isn't fiction. I won't point you to religious books, but if you read the "By way of Deception" you will be astonished.

pace 7 years, 11 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.

ivalueamerica 7 years, 11 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.

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

Who's re-wording anything exactly? Any examples? Yeah, I didn't think so. Ya gotta re-name yourself 'cuz you obviously don't represent what you pretend to.

beatrice 7 years, 11 months ago

So, on this story alone, jaywalker thinks IVA doesn't value America, feels that both BeoB should go away and Anon1958 should go live on an unhabited rock in the middle of the ocean, and claimed that scott3460 has "personal dementia."

Wow jay, and you have the nerve to call others childish?

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

Just you, bea. Care to actually back up any of those posters comments or you just gonna keep on bein' you?

beatrice 7 years, 11 months ago

Care to support your claim of someone having dementia, or is it you just having an over inflated opinion of yourself again?

jaywalker 7 years, 11 months ago

Sooo, that would be a "no, jay, I have nothing substantial to add whatsoever."

To be fair, it was a rhetorical question to begin with. We both know you got nothin'. Which is why I'll be done with you here, dear heart. Hate to see you go on another temper tantrum that gets your comments deleted over and over and over again. But just for a parting shot, careful on the "childish", little girl. Your responses to Shewmon alone far surpass anything you can come up with for me. Bye bye child.

beatrice 7 years, 11 months ago

I see. So you will be defending Shewmon's "Whites are powerless now"?

verity 7 years, 11 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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