Helen Thomas undone

Time to weigh in on Helen Thomas’ demise.

Thomas, who covered every president since the second Adams, was undone when the above footage surfaced online of Thomas telling the Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to “Poland, Germany … and America and everywhere else.”

I’ll discuss in a minute whether Thomas’ statement was anti-Semitic — it was — but first it’s worth looking at the caricature Thomas had long-since become. For this we turn to the master, Jack Shafer, whose deckhead for this 2003 column in the wake of President Bush dissing Thomas was “Helen Thomas used to ask questions in press briefings. Now she makes speeches.”

Bush’s double dissing of Thomas isn’t directly related to his basic contempt for White House beat reporters. Bush ignored Helen Thomas because she is no longer the Helen Thomas of yesteryear, a deadline artist writing news for tens of millions of UPI readers. She left the waning wire in silent protest, after convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s News World Communications rescued it from collapse in 2000, and took a job at the Hearst News Service. There, Helen Thomas the Pundit writes a sharply partisan syndicated White House column about what she thinks — as opposed to Helen Thomas the Reporter, who wrote about what she’d learned. How bad is the column? Only a couple of Hearst papers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Houston Chronicle, publish her pieces with any regularity.

I dare say that if you were Bush or his handlers, you’d pass her over at a press conference, too. Her loathing for Bush is palpable. “This is the worst president ever,” she told the Torrance, Calif., Daily Breeze in January. “He is the worst president in all of American history.” Though Thomas never masked her crush on Democrats when she worked as a news writer, she comes completely out of the closet in her columns, ripping “Bush’s headlong drive into war, his favor-the-rich economic policy and his campaign to put right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court.” As the child of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas knows exactly which religious button she’s pushing when she repeatedly condemns Bush’s plans for war on Iraq as a “crusade.”

But Thomas’ opinion columns are a model of restraint when compared with the snarky speeches she delivers in lieu of asking questions at White House briefings

In other words, the only surprise about Thomas’ comment was that she had such hate for the Jews. Lanny Davis, the former special counsel to President Clinton, was at least surprised, making an apt comparison about the substance of Thomas’ remark:

Davis, not mincing words, dismissed Thomas’s apology as “not direct,” and — comparing her statements to “asking Blacks to return to African” — said that “Helen Thomas, who I used to consider a close friend and who I used to respect, has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot.”

She has also revealed to herself to be ignorant at best. Without getting too deep into the intransigent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Thomas’ suggestion first overlooked the fact that there has been a Jewish presence in Jerusalem since the time of Cyrus the Great, 25 centuries ago. More importantly, Thomas could not have chosen a more painfully evocative destination for these Jews that she considers so unwelcome. I find it hard to believe Thomas intended no evocation of cyanide showers.

Of course, criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. Many great Jews attack Israeli policies all the time. In the past week, for instance, Israel has been eviscerated for its handling of the aid flotilla, which led to nine activists being killed and regional tension skyrocketing. But there is a big difference between saying, for example that the prime minister is too right-wing to find peace with the Palestinians and saying that he can’t negotiate peace because he is a Jew and therefore the leader of an illegitimate nation.

Here we find another element of Shafer’s 2003 column that suggests Thomas has long felt differently about Jews — or at least Israelis — than others. Shafer noted that at several press briefings before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Thomas asked “questions” of press secretary Ari Fleischer like:

Thomas: At an earlier briefing, Ari, you said that the president deplored the taking of innocent lives. Does that apply to all innocent lives in the world?
Fleischer: Well, Helen –
Thomas: And I have a follow-up.
Fleischer: — I refer specifically to a horrible terrorist attack in Tel Aviv that killed scores and wounded hundreds. And the president, as he said in a statement yesterday, deplores in the strongest terms the taking of those lives and the wounding of those people, innocents in Israel.
Thomas: My follow-up is, why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?

Indeed, at a 1991 press briefing with Bush’s father, Thomas suggested that Israel, which was not a party to the first Gulf War, got what one should expect when Saddam sent some scud missiles their way.

And the Society for Professional Journalists wants to keep honoring this woman with a lifetime achievement award carrying her name? Granted, the SPJ isn’t much of an organization these days — it’s no RNA or, I’d say, even LA Press Club — but … really?

It’s a shock Helen Thomas lasted this long. Writing for FOXNews.com before Thomas retired Monday, Judith Miller, who had her own journalistic ethics issues, sheds a little light on what kept Thomas in the front row of the White House press room even after her devolution into opinioneering:

Thomas’ colleagues in White House press corps, however, have tended to be more forgiving of the 89-year-old press corps dean. They wink and nod with “there she goes again” forbearance, patronizing her by overlooking her increasingly anti-Semitic, ignorant rants.

Some “peacemakers” in the media, it seems, are determined to give free speech a bad name. And too many of us say nothing when they claim a right to have their own biases, as well as their own facts.

No more, at least not for Helen Thomas. Of course, her retirement brings with it an uncomfortable resolution for Jews. Who do you think anti-Semites are blaming for Thomas’ demise?

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  • James

    Religion ghost: According to Wikipedia, Helen Thomas’ parents were Orthodox Christian Arabs from Lebanon. It is not awfully uncommon to hear Arabic Christians voice against Israel resentments far more colorful than Thomas’ remarks.

  • Chris

    Thomas is 89, and her opinionated comments have become increasingly “ignorant rants”, suggesting that she can’t edit her own thoughts. Why does the press not consider the possibility that she has early dementia? Wouldn’t be unheard of–and these comments, although unacceptable now, were popular currency in her youth, the 30′s. Her Lebanese ancestry, as noted by James, is also a factor.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The telling mention of Poland and Germany certainly indicates to me that Thomas did speak with malice. But “comparing her statements to ‘asking Blacks to return to African’[sic]“ actually strikes me as backward. Wasn’t that essentially the logic that led to the founding of modern-day Israel where it is?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JAMES:

    I have been a member of an Orthodox parish in which the majority of the worshippers were from Lebanon and Syria or from families with immediate roots there. I know what you are saying. You are accurate to say that it is not “uncommon” to hear attacks on Israel. I have, however, rarely heard hateful remarks about the Jewish people. I have never heard someone say — with Hamas and others — that Israel should be destroyed.

    Also, I became convinced that many of this Christians were simply unable to give voice to their feelings about the persecution — even massacre — of their families by Islamists through the decades. Much of their anger was focused on Israel because it could not be voiced against others. It is a terrible source of pain. Period.

  • Dave

    Thomas suggested that Israel, which was not a party to the first Gulf War, got what one should expect when Saddam sent some scud missiles their way.

    That’s pretty opaque. Saddam fired Scuds at Israel to bring it into the war, which would have cracked the US-Arab alliance fighting him. I suppose one should expect Saddam to be Saddam and thus should expect Israel-bound rockets from him.

  • James

    Tmatt: You make an important distinction, and my own experience affirms it.

    Ray: Indeed, it’s more like asking Liberians to return to Georgia.

  • Sven

    Webmaster: If you take a posting down then explain yourself in an email. Otherwise, continue to scratch each others backs here in obscurity alone.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    What Helen Thomas said was pro-Palestinian, probably anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, but there is a difference between those labels and “anti-Semitic.” It’s a huge assumption to interpret her comments as meaning that Jews should abandon all of modern-day Israel to return to Nazi-era Germany and Poland. (If that’s what she meant, why did she say America and “anywhere else” in her remarks? We also don’t know what she meant by “Palestine,” for that matter — she could have been referring to the Jewish settlements.)

    Based on the exact question-answer exchange that took place and what has been going on in the region, it’s a safer assumption that she meant that Jewish immigrants/settlers who had displaced Palestinian families ought to have gone elsewhere instead, either to the homes that they had lost if possible, or somewhere else (America) that would not require displacing others. Just as Bosnian Muslims returned to Sarajevo, the Tutsis returned to Rwanda, etc.

    But, these are ALL assumptions. Helen Thomas may be an anti-Semite. But, it’s wrong to vilify her with that label based on these brief remarks, despite the flood of press releases I’ve received decrying them as such. Journalists must strive to use language correctly, especially with loaded terms like this — criticism of Obama is not automatically “racist,” criticism of Bush was not automatically “anti-American,” and criticism of Israel is not automatically “anti-Israel,” let alone “anti-Semitic.” Words matter.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Words do matter, and it’s reasonable to assume that Helen Thomas knew that when she mentioned Poland and Germany

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Sven, I did not remove your comment, but I can guess why someone did: it had nothing to do with journalism. A lot of people share opinions here, even deeply held beliefs about polarized conflicts, but it must be done within the framework of how media covers religion.

  • John Willard

    After watching the video and looking the quote in context, I think it is a bit polemical to label her as an anti-semite. She is an old lady who didn’t pick her words very carefully.

    I don’t think that calling Israel an illegitimate nation is anti-semitic at all, as Mr. Greenberg implies in his post. The argument that Israel shouldn’t exist has a logic to it. It’s not a logic I agree with but there is a valid point there which should have a voice in the public square

  • bill kettle

    a remark, not intended to be published, ended a stellar career. that is what happened. it is difficult to support apartheid in israel. people have different ideas about middle east semitic politics. asking emigrant jews to return to their european homelands is not really farfetched.
    the modern nationstate of israel in no way resembles the israel of antiquity. Zionism is not representative of the whole in hebrew thought.
    In a way, Theodore Hertzl made sure that Antisemitism would continue in the Mideast. How could the Zionists of the 1930s-1948, not forsee the future Arab resistance??
    In america, if a Native american political/religious organization worked to supplant the US federal government, they would be deemed terrorists and subversives. That is what the current israeli government is- terrorists and subversives, using emigrant jews as human shields. in 1948, senior zionist politico’s overthrew a palestinian government with a military/religious coup. that is fact. and forced palestinians to flee the country under threats of religious genocide. it continues today.
    It would not surprise me to notice readers disagreeing with what i write here. but facts are facts. many of you blogging here seem so interested in helen thomas’ background, to exlpain her statements. perhaps reviewing your own background, could explain why there is partisan feelings toward israel, and not the rest of the arab world or even displaced peoples at large on our planet. the idea that modern political boundries are permanent fixtures to ensure national identity is losing credibility. berlin wall fell, apartheid regime collapse, israel’s apartheid wall is next, but it will take time. just like the iron curtain claimed thousands of lives fleeing west. and apartheid southafrican deathsquads did execute. so will the israeli’s suffer the palestinians with their walled concentration camps

  • Dale

    Nicole Neroulias wrote:

    It’s a huge assumption to interpret her comments as meaning that Jews should abandon all of modern-day Israel to return to Nazi-era Germany and Poland.

    It’s a huge assumption to interpret her comments as being anything else but anti-Semitic. She did not qualify them one iota. In fact, she said emphatically the Jews should get the “hell out of Palestine” and go “home” to Germany and Poland. Whether that means modern day Germany and Poland or otherwise, it most certainly invokes the shadow of the Holocaust, and is exceedingly offensive.

    If that’s what she meant, why did she say America and “anywhere else” in her remarks?

    If I told my Arabic neighbors to “get the hell out of America and go back to Iraq, Lebanon and ‘anywhere else’”, would that not be racist? How does including “America or anywhere else” change the import of her comments? Because she merely wants Jews ethnically cleansed from Palestine rather than exterminated? Either interpretation is clearly anti-Semitic.

    We also don’t know what she meant by “Palestine,” for that matter — she could have been referring to the Jewish settlements.)

    Except that the common meaning of “Palestine” is not the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Certainly Thomas retains enough of her faculties to distinguish between the terms “West Bank Settlements” and “Palestine”. You’re inferring a qualification to her comments that is not supported by the words she chose.

    criticism of Israel is not automatically “anti-Israel,” let alone “anti-Semitic.” Words matter.

    Indeed, and Helen Thomas’ words didn’t criticize Israel; her words emphatically demanded Israel’s destruction by removal of its Jewish population. If she meant something else, she certainly was capable of choosing words that would communicate a different meaning. She didn’t. Her words matter, and they are clearly anti-Semitic.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org/ Ivan Wolfe

    Davis, not mincing words, dismissed Thomas’s apology as “not direct,” and — comparing her statements to “asking Blacks to return to African”

    I see this analogy popping up a lot in media coverage and commentary on this topic. I think it’s the wrong analogy and actually lessens the impact of what she said. An equivalent statement would be more like “Blacks need to go back to plantations in the south.” Germany and Poland aren’t where they came from originally, and what happened there wasn’t something people would care to repeat.

  • http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/06/09/rabbi-receives-death-threats-helen-thomas-video/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+foxnews%2Fpolitics+%28Text+-+Politics%29 Carl Vehse

    Bill Kettle: “a remark, not intended to be published, ended a stellar career. that is what happened.

    Kettle’s opinion is not congruent with the reported facts. According to the FoxsNews article, “Rabbi Receives Death Threats Over Helen Thomas Video:”

    “Nesenoff approached Thomas with a camera on May 27 following a celebration of Jewish heritage at the White House. Asked for a comment on Israel, Thomas called Jews occupiers and said they should “go home” to Germany, Poland and the U.S.”

    As for Kettle’s other opinions, Brad Greenberg’s Comment 10 should apply.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    My point is that what Helen Thomas said in this particular exchange should not be automatically labeled “anti-Semitic” by objective journalistic standards. A reaction to what she said that is based on your faith, ethnicity, or other relevant personal experience should be qualified as such.

    I don’t know what Helen Thomas believes, but consider the exact words and context of these remarks: she was talking about “Israel,” not “Jews” and she said “America” and “anywhere else” — not just “Germany” and “Poland.” If she were using Germany and Poland as synonymous with Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, why add “America” and “anywhere else” to her remarks? Isn’t it possible that she was using these countries as examples of culpable parts of Europe that should have welcomed the survivors back after World War II, as other countries have done with their refugees of genocides?

    Efforts to compare what Helen Thomas said to other racist or discriminatory statements, for reasons already explained by other commenters, are all problematic to one degree or another. But if you want to get American immigration into an analogy, a more relevant comparison would be to go back to the times of pioneers and Native Americans, not 20th century immigration.

  • Dale

    Nicole Neroulias wrote:

    My point is that what Helen Thomas said in this particular exchange should not be automatically labeled “anti-Semitic” by objective journalistic standards.

    My point is that they can not be honestly described as anything else. Your interpretation of Helen Thomas’ comments requires inferences not supported by the common meaning of the words Helen Thomas herself used, and thus can not be called objective– that is, your interpretation does not depend upon commonly held usages available to a general audience. Instead, you explain away the clear, objective import of her words by supposing idiosyncratic meanings that Helen Thomas’ may have given to those words. That’s subjective.

    A reaction to what she said that is based on your faith, ethnicity, or other relevant personal experience should be qualified as such.

    Only if that reaction depends on an idiosyncratic interpretation of Thomas’ words. I’d suggest that such advice applies more to your argument than mine.

    she was talking about “Israel,” not “Jews” and she said “America” and “anywhere else” — not just “Germany” and “Poland.”

    Verbatim transcript:

    Questioner: So you say that Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

    Thomas: And America and everywhere else.

    I think that’s pretty clear.

    If she were using Germany and Poland as synonymous with Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, why add “America” and “anywhere else” to her remarks?

    Again, calling for the purge of Jews from Palestine is just a lesser degree of anti-Semitism.

  • Jerry

    Speaking as someone who has a Jewish background, it’s a mistake to conflate Israel and Jews. Many orthodox Jews also don’t accept the current State of Israel because only the Messiah can establish the true Israel. For example http://www.jewsagainstzionism.com/

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    The Annoyed Jew adds this perspective:

    We shouldn’t rush to judge Helen Thomas.

    If this were a sitcom, her wisecrackin’ anti-Semitism would be positively precious. After all, now that the only Golden Girl left is the “dumb blonde,” we need someone to deliver Bea Arthur’s spice or Estelle Getty’s racism.

  • Chip Smith

    Also, I became convinced that many of this Christians were simply unable to give voice to their feelings about the persecution — even massacre — of their families by Islamists through the decades. Much of their anger was focused on Israel because it could not be voiced against others. It is a terrible source of pain. Period.

    This is interesting. Why do you think it is easier for these Christians who live in the US now to voice anger at Israel than at their Islamist persecutors? Is it fear for relatives back in Lebanon or Syria? Is it ethnic solidarity?To make this on topic, does Thomas identify herself as an Orthodox Christian?

    Except that the common meaning of “Palestine” is not the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

    This is not true. Of course those illegal settlements are in Palestine.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I don’t think, as some have claimed here, that you have to be Jewish to be struck by how anti-Semitic Thomas’s words sound. I’m Catholic and it struck me immediately as anti-Semitic.
    As for media coverage, a few comments:
    Virtually all the stories I read or heard in the MSM harped on the first part of her comment centered on the Middle Eastern political situation, but somehow the most horrendous part- where she wished them back to the homelands of Treblinka and Buchenwald -frequently got left out.
    Second no media outlet saw fit to correct Thomas’s population statistics. The majority of Israeli’s today are not originally from Europe or of European stock. Instead, the majority are Jews who were either forcibly kicked out of or terrorized out of Middle Eastern countries where they had lived for multiple generations.
    And, finally, she has been very liberal in her politics, but that has been barely mentioned in the media. In fact, the media has totally ignored the liberal-left movement toward both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes-especially on college campuses.

  • Ira Rifkin

    On the question of being an anti-Semite as opposed to being an anti-Zionist:

    Its a very fine distinction that tends to get lost in the Middle East – and for those of Middle East extraction – because Arabs tend to refer to Israelis solely as Jews and Arab/Muslim media overflow with ugly and conflated comments about the perfidious Jews and Zionists.

    Sectarian identification as the sum of one’s humanity is huge in the Middle East (I offer Lebanon and the Sunni-Shia divide as evidence) in a way that most Americans raised on a steady diet of multi-cultural live-and-let-live often cannot comprehend.

    Moreover, to Israeli Jews it makes little difference if someone wants them dead because they are Israelis or Jews. They – as well as many Jews in the US – see anti-Zionism as a convenient PC cover for what is too often latent anti-Semitism.

  • Dale

    Chip Smith wrote:

    Except that the common meaning of “Palestine” is not the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

    This is not true. Of course those illegal settlements are in Palestine.

    That’s not the point, Chip. When Helen Thomas said that “They should get the hell out of Palestine”, she did not limit that sentiment to the West Bank settlements, as Ms. Neroulias inferred. Thomas’ words clearly included all of Palestine, including the proper state of Israel; to interpret her words any differently requires hermeneutic gymnastics.

  • Ira Rifkin

    One more thing:

    Did Helen’s (or is that being too familiar?) “where ever they came from” include Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen – all nations from which Jews were forced to flee because of Arab/Muslim outrage over Israel’s legitimate re-establishment by the UN?

  • Chip Smith

    Moreover, to Israeli Jews it makes little difference if someone wants them dead because they are Israelis or Jews. They – as well as many Jews in the US – see anti-Zionism as a convenient PC cover for what is too often latent anti-Semitism.

    I agree with this last sentence both as far as it being description of the way some try to cover their anti-Semitism AND as a way some Jews (and some evangelical Christians and most members of Congress) dismiss any criticism of Zionism or Israel. Both the anti-Semitism and the PC attempts to stifle any criticism of Israeli governmental policy present huge landmines for journalists.

    That’s not the point, Chip. When Helen Thomas said that “They should get the hell out of Palestine”, she did not limit that sentiment to the West Bank settlements, as Ms. Neroulias inferred.

    The only way to know that is if you have already concluded that she is anti-Semitic and therefore interprete everything she says as confirmation of what you already know. This short conversation is far from providing evidence one way or the other on the anti-Semitic question. There might be other evidence out there (I don’t see it in that exachange with Fleischer in which he tries to make the conversation about “those” Jewish lives when she was talking about Iraq) but it is not here.

    This video does raise plenty of questions, and I would have thought that GetReligion’s take on it would be to encourage more investigation. What is Thomas’ religious background and how does that play into her thoughts about Israel? Who is she saying should leave Palestine? (All Jews? The settlers in the various illegal settlements? Everyone who immigrated to the area from Europe and the US after WWII? Any of those are reasonable possibilities for what she meant and they each have very different connotations.) And what does she mean by Palestine? (That’s a word that means different things to different people in this debate. She might have meant either the entire area west of the Jordan river or perhaps something based on the 1967 borders. It is not at all clear from this clip.)

  • Dale

    Chip Smith:

    The only way to know that is if you have already concluded that she is anti-Semitic and therefore interprete everything she says as confirmation of what you already know.

    No, Chip. I know that because it’s what the woman said, without qualification. Any other interpretation requires me to infer meaning to words (like “Jews” and “Palestine”) that are not consistent with their general usage.

    Really, it’s not that difficult. Helen Thomas has abused her standing in the press corps for years to push her own brand of left-leaning politics, cheered on by “progressives” who have little care for journalistic integrity and objectivity in reporting. Now she has been caught making clearly anti-Semitic statements, and the chickens have come home to roost.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2010/06/stephen-colbert-tackles-flotilla-raid-helen-thomas-remarks-with-israel-ambassador-michael-oren.html Nicole Neroulias

    On a lighter note, it’s funny that there’s a debate going on in these comments between “Chip” and “Dale.”

    As a media watchdog, I hope GetReligion would analyze coverage of this and other stories related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict from a more objective standpoint, rather than just echoing press releases from Jewish organizations. This is an extremely complex conflict, often covered quite differently in American outlets (secular and religious) than in Europe and other parts of the world. Plus, it’s lazy journalism to slap loaded labels like “anti-Semitism” for any view that criticizes Israel, just as it’s inaccurate to frame the Middle East situation as a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. (Palestinians are also Christian, for example.)

    We can agree to disagree, but let’s try to keep the journalism as objective as possible.

    (That’s it for me here. I’ve written a bit more about this over at my Belief Beat blog — my name on this post serves as a link — and a lot more has been said in the comments to Robert Scheer’s piece over at Huffington Post and Rod Dreher’s Beliefnet blog.)

  • Ira Rifkin

    Nicole:

    I know you’ve declared yourself finished here, but please cite your “objective” evidence that anyone here is “echoing press releases from Jewish organizations” rather than stating conclusions they believe to be true and reached through their own observation and reasoning.

    To be fair, we ALL – no matter how much we claim to be onjective journalists – come to the table our biases, information gaps and world view.

  • Ira Rifkin

    that’s objective journalists; sorry for the typo.

    and of course with is missing in the second sentence.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2010/06/stephen-colbert-tackles-flotilla-raid-helen-thomas-remarks-with-israel-ambassador-michael-oren.html Nicole Neroulias

    Ira — you’re right. Certainly, someone could review Helen Thomas’ remarks, words and context alike, and conclude that they were “anti-Semitic.” But as a journalist, I’ve concluded that I can’t make that determination, based on what I understand to be the definition of anti-Semitism, along with my professional experience covering Judaism, the Holocaust and the Middle East.

    Dozens of organizations like B’nai B’rith, the JCPA and Jewish media outlets promptly labeled what Thomas said as “anti-Semitic,” and I am afraid that too many journalists took this at face value, without independently reviewing the entire exchange (including the “Israel” and “America” parts, which are repeatedly ignored), considering the full context and any of the other ways she could have meant those remarks. (Her sisters say Thomas was talking about the settlers in the Palestinian territory, which is certainly a different interpretation than what has been assumed here.)

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a uniquely complex, emotional situation. It’s very, very difficult to cover, for religion reporters and journalists in general. GetReligion could help by offering the kind of in-depth analysis — complete with religion ghost-busting — that it usually does to other news. Unfortunately, this post just presented one point of view. Maybe next time…

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I can only speak for myself, and I came to the conclusion that Thomas’ comments were anti-Semitic without the assistance of any advocacy organization.

    As I said above, there is a big difference between criticizing Israeli policies, or even attacking Israel’s existence, and doing what Helen Thomas did, which is blame “The Jews” for the problems in the Middle East. It really was a Mel Gibson moment.

    Like I said … It’s hard to imagine a veteran journalist could have accidentally been so sloppy with her words

  • Ira Rifkin

    Curiosly, at least to me, is that were Thomas a blogger her comments would be routine for that arena.

    What does that say about the new internet journalism and society?

    Since she’s knowm to have no life outside her work I would not be surprised if she became a blogger or, if that’s technically beyond her, began to show up on likeminded blog sites.

  • Chip Smith

    No, Chip. I know that because it’s what the woman said, without qualification. Any other interpretation requires me to infer meaning to words (like “Jews” and “Palestine”) that are not consistent with their general usage.

    Sorry, but there is not a universally agreed upon meaning for the word “Palestine.” You are assuming that by “Palestine,” she means all of the land east of the Jordan River, which I would submit is a less common usage of the word in the US . Most, but not all, Americans mean something like the occupied territories or the territories delineated by the 1967 borders when they use the word “Palestine.”

    As I said above, there is a big difference between criticizing Israeli policies, or even attacking Israel’s existence, and doing what Helen Thomas did, which is blame “The Jews” for the problems in the Middle East.

    Actually, she was blaming Jewish immigrants from Germany and Poland and America and everywhere else. I agree with you that she was sloppy, and perhaps follow-up questions would have revealed that she really was blaming “The Jews,” but you are making an assumption.

    My guess is that by calling for European and American immigrants to leave, she is attacking the founding of Israel (she talks about occupation and how it is not their land), which as you note, is different from blaming “The Jews.” However, neither of us know for sure because it does not seem that any journalists have done follow-up to this extremely brief conversation.

  • Chip Smith

    In the above, by “east,” I of course meant “west.” :)

  • kristy

    Wow,
    Brad, you surely are putting a LOT of assumed meaning into Helen Thomas’s mouth. I agree with Nicole and some of the other, (perhaps less personally invested?) folks here. That she is an older woman who failed to choose her words carefully. Honestly, you’d think that some of you folks here don’t ever believe you’ll grow old and let anything stupid slip out of your mouth. What I believe, however, is not the journalistic point. The real point is that you have to make several assumptions to reach that ‘anti-semite’ level. Is that real journalism, or is it advocacy journalism?

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Like many in the west Thomas ignores the large number of Jews who came from Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. The Jews of Iraq were highly limited in what they could take and were stripped of citizenship as they left.

    She might as well say that Mexicans should “go back” to Mexico, and include people wose grand-parents or further back fled the disorders of the Mexican Revolution that started in 1910. These people still even post-date the First Aliyah.

    This is a perfect time to give press to the Moroccan, Yemeni, Iraqi and Egyptian Jews, who along with other Jews with no European-heritage come close to making up half the Jewish population of Israel.

    Then there are the really complicated group, one of Israel’s most recent immigrant groups. French Jews, who actually are mainly Algerian Jews who lived in that country for at least 400 years and probably longer, fled when they were considered foriegners in the wake of Algerian independence and who are now feeing France for Israel in the face of their Algerian-immigrant neighbors periodically attacking them for being Jews.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Greenburg,
    I think you are 100% right on Germany and Poland. She might as well have said Dachau and Auschwitz. The Jews who came to Israel from Germany and Poland to a large extent escaped directly from Nazi oppression, much more so for Germany.

    Those Jews who went back to Poland after the war faced attacks from Catholic Poles and many were killed. This is why they flooeded into the DP camps in Germany demanding to be allowed to go to Israel.

    I would guess at least 30% of Israel’s Jews, and possibly higher than that, have deeper ancestral links in Israel than Thomas has in the US. I would guess at least that high a percentage have at least one parent who was born in Israel.

    It is quite sad that journalists did not explore these issues. Somehow I think a call to deport Muslims from the US, which I would class as the bigoted and hateful statement it would be, would be more attacked in the press. Especially if it was a call to send the Muslims back to Serbian-controlled parts of Bosnia and to India.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I’m not sure what “less personally invested” means, Kristy, though it sounds like an attack on objectivity. It’s naive, though, to think that Thomas’ words were not abjectly anti-Semitic — no inference really needed.

    More importantly, if a journalist has reached the point where they can’t choose their words carefully, well, then maybe it’s time to hang it up. In that sense, Thomas did the proper thing.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Ivan,
    You plantations in the south analogy is fairly good. It would work a bit better if she had said Russia and Spain. The Holocaust, so central to Jewish memory of Germany and Poland, and the last interaction with those countries for any sizeable Jewish community, is something so destructive and horrenndous, that comparing anything to it does not work.

    The line about going “back” to America seems particularly ludicous because Amerian Jews have only contributed a very small number to Aliyah. The immigration of Jews from Israel to the US may actually have been more numerous than the movement the other way around.

  • Chip Smith

    It’s naive, though, to think that Thomas’ words were not abjectly anti-Semitic — no inference really needed.

    But your conclusion relies on the inference that Thomas blames “The Jews” when she is clearly talking about immigrants. I know you try to get around that in the post by conjecturing that Thomas does not know that there were Jews living in the middle east for centuries, but your argument is undercut if that conjecture is wrong. So your inference is based on an assumption that Thomas is ignorant of basic facts that anyone even slightly interested in the history of the middle east knows. That’s a shaky basis upon which make such a definitive charge.

    It is possible that she is an anti-Semite, but her words here are not abjectly anti-Semitic. Unclear? Yes. Sloppy? Yes. Open to be misinterpreted? Obviously. Confirmation that it is past time to retire? Yes. Anti-Semitic? There is not enough here to come to any conclusion.

  • John Willard

    Brad,

    Perhaps your right that her words were abjectly anti-semitic. However, I and a large number of other readers apparently think you are wrong. In other words, there is a debate, and those who think her words were not necessarily anti-semitic constitute, if nothing else, a significant minority.

    Because of this, don’t you think it would be more appropriate to approach the issue with journalistic objectivity?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Oh come on. If we can’t call Thomas’ comments anti-Semitic what in the world would get that designation? This comment thread is unbelievable. It’s not like these words were uttered in a historical vacuum.

    And I say that as one of those people who’s frequently asking people to refrain from calling all criticism of Israel “anti-Semitic.”

  • Ira Rifkin

    There is no such thing as journalistic objectivity because all journalism is produced by subjective humans. The best we can hope for is fair-minded, contextualized reporting.

    To argue that someone you disagree with is less objective than you are is, well let’s just say a suspiciously subjective call and ad hominem.

  • http://www.entertainmedaily.com EM!!

    Well, of course there’s no such thing as journalism subjectivity. So the only thing left to do is to find a reliable, balanced source.

    I liked this guy’s commentary, funny as hell but also smart and witty:

    http://www.entertainmedaily.com/2010/06/helen-thomas-deserves-a-punch-in-the-face-but-rabbi-david-nesenoff-should-be-kicked-in-the-balls/

    What do you guys think?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    There is no such thing as journalistic objectivity because all journalism is produced by subjective humans. The best we can hope for is fair-minded, contextualized reporting.

    So true, Ira. That’s one of the first lessons I impart to new student journalists at UCLA.

    As for Thomas’ objectivity, I discussed that when referencing Jack Shafer’s 2003 media criticism column about her devolution from hard-charging reporter to pulpit-pounding opinioneer.

    To the people who don’t think what Thomas said, in the context of our world, was abjectly anti-Semitic — and, like Mollie, I have criticized the term’s overuse and am not morally opposed to American Jews who disapprove of the Jewish state — I’m just curious: What would you think if Thomas had said that all Mexicans, whether American citizens or illegal immigrants, should get the hell out of California. Would that not be racist?

  • Chip Smith

    I agree with Shafer’s criticism of Thomas, but the point of your post is not about Thomas’ lack of objectivity, it is about her being anti-Semitic. Nothing in his article indicates that she is anti-Semitic.

    Why do you believe that she meant “all Jews” when she is clearly talking about immigrants? A better analogy would be a Hispanic resident of California 150 years ago saying all immigrants from the East Coast ought to get the hell out of California. I’d say that they might have a point in an ideal world, but that horse has long ago left the barn. And I’d say that a racist might very well agree with that speaker’s perspective, but that there is nothing inherently racist about wanting immigrants who have taken over one’s land to go back to where ever they came from. That is clearly her perspective.

    It makes perfect sense to me that someone of Lebanese descent of Thomas’ generation (she was alive before the state of Israel was founded) would think that the problem in the Middle East stem from the creation of Israel. (I don’t agree with that sentiment, but you acknowledged that such a perspective is not necessarily anti-Semitic)

  • Sven Kennedy

    My posting here was removed two days ago, but I will post it here again following these comments, separately of course, so that if need be it may be removed again.

    The gatekeeper himself admonished me that it wasn’t jounalistic and did not fit the framework of how media covers religion. I took it to heart and stood down. But, 40 postings later, I now realize that the definition here of journalism is simply whatever favors the gatekeepers point of view (not), and that the entire page is void of any religious discussion in the theological sense.

    I will admit that my choice of words is a bit harsh (which never bothered club members Lenny Bruce or Sarah Silverman), but the topic is commensurately harsh and time and space are precious. My opposition and denunciation of the legality of an independent Jewish state in Palestine is not based in bigotry, but steadfast defiance in the face of injustice.

    Nazi Germany claimed their blockade of occupied France was valid under international law until thousands of Allied soldiers died proving them wrong. It is ironic that on the day we commemorated those soldiers this year (Memorial Day), brave men died defying the ‘lawful’ blockade of Gaza.

    So as my namesake said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, I too say… like all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Palestine, and, therefore, as a free mann, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Palaestinenser!”

    And I think Helen Thomas feels the same way.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    It’s beyond me, Sven, to see how you could read the above comment thread and interpret it as nothing but a bunch of fellow travelers making each other feel good about the beliefs they share. And, yes, the above comments are about journalism — they are largely about whether it is journalistically appropriate or sloppy to identify comments like Thomas’ as anti-Semitic.


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