Comments on Israel and Jews
Thomas retired abruptly on June 7, 2010, following negative reaction to comments she had made about Israel, Jews, and Palestine during a brief interview with Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com. Nesenoff was on the White House grounds for an American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day, and he questioned Thomas as she was leaving the White House via the North Lawn driveway:
Nesenoff: Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today, any comments on Israel?
Thomas: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.
Nesenoff: Ooh. Any better comments on Israel?
Thomas: Hahaha. Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not German, it's not Poland...
Nesenoff: So where should they go, what should they do?
Thomas: They can go home.
Nesenoff: Where's the home?
Thomas: Poland, Germany...
Nesenoff: So you're saying the Jews go back to Poland and Germany?
Thomas: And America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?
Nesenoff: Are you familiar with the history of that region?
Thomas: Very much. I'm of Arab background.
Nesenoff: I see. Do you speak Arabic?
Thomas: Very little. We were too busy Americanizing our parents... All the best to you.
—May 27, 2010, RabbiLive.com
A one-minute excerpt of the May 27, 2010 interview was posted on Rabbi Nesenoff's site on June 3, 2010. View the video here; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQcQdWBqt14
On June 4, Thomas issued an apology on her personal web site:
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.
However, in October 2010, while being interviewed by Scott Spears of Ohio radio station WMRN-AM, Thomas stated that while her comments had touched a nerve, they were "exactly what I thought." She said she realized soon afterward she would be fired, stating, "I hit the third rail. You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive." Thomas added that she issued an apology because people were upset, but that ultimately she "had the same feelings about Israel's aggression and brutality."
Again on December 2, 2010, shortly before a speech, Thomas told reporters that the comments she made to Nesenoff were "the truth", "I stand by it, I told the truth". Then referring that it led to the end of her decades-long career in journalism, she said "I paid a price, but it's worth it to speak the truth", adding "the truth is always a casualty in disputes like that". In her speech Thomas told about how she was jokingly referred to as "Hezbollah," "Hamas" and a "terrorist" by White House press officials. She said she didn't protest the comments because "I know who I am".
Reactions and repercussions
Thomas's agency, Nine Speakers, Inc., dropped her as a client because of her remarks. Craig Crawford, who co-authored Listen up, Mr. President, said "I will no longer be working with Helen on our book projects.” Her scheduled delivery of a commencement speech at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, was canceled by the school. The White House Correspondents' Association, over which she once presided, issued a statement calling her remarks "indefensible". On June 7, Thomas abruptly tendered her resignation from Hearst Newspapers.
Paul Jay, CEO and Senior Editor of The Real News Network, suggested that the acrimonious reactions related to the previous instances on which Helen Thomas had questioned American support for Israel; Thomas had previously asked President Obama about Israel's "secret" nuclear weapons, and why the White House did not condemn the Israeli attacks on the aid flotilla. Others saw it as recrimination for past questioning of "Zionist" tactics within America.
On June 8, in an interview on NBC's Today Show, President Obama called her remarks "offensive" and "out of line", and said her retirement was "the right decision". He remarked that it was a "shame" her celebrated career had to end in such controversy, and at the same time he recognized her long service covering U.S. presidents, calling her "a real institution in Washington." Her comments also garnered rebukes from numerous others, including White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, former special counsel to and White House spokesman for President Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson.
Helen Thomas' alma mater, Wayne State University strongly condemned what it called her "wholly inappropriate comments."
Thomas' defenders either supported her comments or tried to put them into what they felt was a proper context. These arguments included the belief that she was completely correct and should not have felt any repercussions (Hezbollah called Thomas' comments "courageous, bold, honest and free opinion," while Hamas said she had "told the truth." Others opined that Thomas was only referring to the West Bank when she talked about Israelis getting the hell out of "Palestine", or that her comments could not be explained away but should not erase what she had achieved in her memorable career, such as Sam Donaldson, another former White House correspondent who did not agree with what Thomas said. Donaldson, however, praised Thomas' achievements as an early woman journalist, and said her comments likely reflected the view of many people of Arab descent).
After Thomas' resignation, her coveted front row center seat in the White House Briefing Room was awarded to the Associated Press (AP), while Fox News moved from the second row into the AP's former front row position.
In August 2010, a group of Holocaust survivors and relatives criticized the Arab American National Museum of Dearborn, Michigan for its plans to place a statue of Helen Thomas in its museum, saying that it would be immoral to honor her and that "American values are at stake."
The president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Kevin Smith, said in June that Thomas's comments were "offensive" and "inexcusable."The society was later asked why it decided to continue the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement after Thomas's comments. Smith's successor as the society's president, Hagit Limor replied in December: "We discussed the issue at our exec board meeting in July 2010. The majority believed this to be a one-time slip that didn't change Ms. Thomas's lifetime of service, which is what we were honoring." However, on January 14, 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement; stating that it staunchly defends the right to free speech, but that "the controversy surrounding this award has overshadowed the reason it exists". "...No individual worthy of such honor should have to face this controversy. No honoree should have to decide if the possible backlash is worth being recognized for his or her contribution to journalism.""SPJ will simply not give a lifetime achievement award (anymore)" said Scott Leadingham, spokesman for SPJ.
December 2010 speech controversy
On December 2, 2010, in a speech for the eighth annual "Images and Perceptions of Arab Americans" conference at the Byblos Banquet Center on Chase, Thomas said: "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion." Thomas defended her comments on December 7, telling Scott Spears of Marion, Ohio AM radio station WMRN, "I just think that people should be enlightened as to who is in charge of the opinion in this country."
The next day, the Anti-Defamation League called for journalism schools and organizations to rescind any honors given to Thomas. The organization said that Thomas had "clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite" in the speech. Hours later, Wayne State University in Detroit discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award, which it had been granting for more than ten years, citing what it called her antisemitic remarks. The school issued a statement saying: "As a public university, Wayne State encourages free speech and open dialogue, and respects diverse viewpoints. However, the university strongly condemns the anti-Semitic remarks made by Helen Thomas...". Speaking for the school, Matthew Seeger said: "The controversy has brought a negative light to the award, which was never the intent of the award."
Thomas herself reacted with scolding remarks saying that "the leaders of Wayne State University have made a mockery of the First Amendment and disgraced their understanding of its inherent freedom of speech and the press." She also stated that "the university also has betrayed academic freedom—a sad day for its students." The university's Arab American Student Union held a protest on campus December 10. In a news release the Palestine Cultural Office of Michigan made a call for concerned individuals to contact the university. Also, members of the Congress of Arab American Organizations held a meeting with university officials on December 7 in an attempt to make them repeal their decision. In a later response the university said it would not reverse its position. Asked by The Detroit Free Press how she'd respond to people who say she's anti-Semitic, Thomas responded: 'I'd say I'm a Semite. What are you talking about?'" referring to the fact that her parents were Arab. However while the term's etymology might suggest that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic peoples, the term was coined in the late 19th century in Germany as a more scientific-sounding term for Judenhass ("Jew-hatred"), and that has been its normal use since then.
Thomas has received numerous awards and more than 30 honorary degrees. In 1976, Thomas was named one of the World Almanac's 25 Most Influential Women in America.
In 1986 she received the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas. Thomas received an Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the Freedom Forum in 1991. The White House Correspondent's Association honored her in 1998 by establishing the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000, her alma mater, Wayne State University, established an award for journalists in her honor, the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award, but in December 2010, the award was discontinued by Wayne State citing her renewed remarks that she stands by what she had said earlier in May to Nesenoff. Speaking for Wayne State, Matthew Seeger, its interim dean said, that the award is given to promote the importance of diversity in the media; but this award “is no longer helping us achieve our goals”. In 2007, Thomas received a Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women & Families.
In October 2010, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) honored Thomas with a lifetime achievement award.