The controversial mind and Lebanese soul of Helen Thomas

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As I have mentioned before here at GetReligion, at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks I was a member of a largely Lebanese and Syrian Orthodox parish in West Palm Beach, Fla. Our priest, as an Arab Christian, volunteered to be a grief counselor at the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. A few members of the parish had their grandchildren punched around on school playgrounds because they were Arabs, even with their gold baptism crosses hanging around their necks.

There was quite a bit of pain in that flock and much of it, to one degree or the other, was connected to the relatively recent history of the Middle East. The deacon’s family lost everything in Jerusalem after one round of fighting, including land that had been in the family for generations.

It’s hard for Americans to understand the geography of all of this. Christian Arabs didn’t start the fighting, yet with their neighborhoods so close to Christian holy sites, they were often among the first Arabs to suffer the consequences of war.

There was quite a bit of pain that South Florida flock and, over time, I learned to listen and — to be blunt — to learn some of the key differences between the anger of those who opposed Zionism and others who, in their pain, veered into beliefs that were clearly anti-Semitic. In both cases, the pain had content.

This brings me to the life and times of one of the most controversial members of the establishment press here inside the DC Beltway — Helen Thomas.

Were there any religious ghosts in her blunt opinions and her work? Was the pain and anger in that face linked, in any way, to her roots in the Middle East? I do not know. However, I think that was an angle worth explaining in the wave of coverage following her recent death at age 92.

Consider, for example, this language in The New York Times obituary, right after a reference to President Barack Obama giving her cupcakes on her 89th birthday:

At his first news conference in February 2009, Mr. Obama called on her, saying: “Helen, I’m excited. This is my inaugural moment.”

But 16 months later, Ms. Thomas abruptly announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany or Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.

In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, said that she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her “heartfelt belief” that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced “mutual respect and tolerance.”

“May that day come soon,” she said.

It was her reference to Poland and Germany that pushed this world-famous journalist — a trailblazer for women’s equality in the Washington news market — over the edge into career disaster. As former GetReligionista Brad Greenberg wrote at the time, in a post that sparked fierce arguments in the comments pages:

She has … 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.

The bottom line is that Thomas was, in fact, raised among Antiochian Orthodox Christian believers — my own adopted church.

Is that fact important? I do not know. I can find no information at all suggesting that this blunt, abrasive woman was herself a religious believer. Did she at some point fling the faith of her childhood? I do not know. Was this linked, in some way, to her fierce believes and opinions? I do not know.

But everyone agrees that the final controversy that ended her career was linked to her beliefs about Israel and the Middle East. To me, that makes the religion question relevant. She was from a Lebanese family and that’s that? When it comes to religion, everyone’s the same in Lebanon?

So, here in Beltway land, what did our local bible say? Here is the key passage from The Washington Post:

In 2000, she quit UPI and became a columnist for the Hearst News Service, a job she retired from in 2010 after she told a rabbi that Jewish settlers should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.”

She apologized, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced her comments as “offensive and reprehensible.” The White House Correspondents’ Association issued a rare admonishment, calling her statements “indefensible.”

The remarks ignited a controversy that had been simmering for years. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Ms. Thomas routinely questioned White House officials over U.S. policies toward Israel and the Middle East, which led some to complain she was too sympathetic to Palestinian and Arab viewpoints. Bush spokesman Tony Snow once famously answered one of her questions with, “Thank you for the Hezbollah view.”

Later on, there is another reference to Thomas being “one of nine children of immigrants from present-day Lebanon.” But that’s that (other than a reference to her quitting UPI after the wire service was purchased in 2000 by the conservative News World Communications, a company founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon).

Well, there is one other comment in the Post obituary that offers a bit of a religion twist, during a discussion of Thomas’ often cutting wit:

In China, she accompanied Pat Nixon to a farm, where the first lady wondered about the breed of some pigs in a pen. “Male chauvinist, of course,” Ms. Thomas piped up. And when a man told her that ladies were not allowed in a Bible study class taught by Jimmy Carter, she retorted, “I’m no lady, I’m a reporter.”

It will be interesting to see if her death is mentioned in any Eastern Orthodox publications.

Did her views about Israel and the Jews make news? Yes. Did that controversy deserve attention in the coverage about her death? Yes, of course. Was her own religious background relevant to that angle of the story or, in the end, do most mainstream journalists simply assume that all of that pain and tragedy in the Middle East just about politics? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that last question.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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