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A Bittersweet Farewell to Helen Thomas

June 8, 2010

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Yesterday, Helen Thomas retired from her position as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and, consequently, as a member of the White House Press Corps. Her announcement was sudden and unexpected, and it appears to be a direct result of a remark she made in May regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked by Rabbi David Nesenoff if she had any comments about Israel, Thomas responded, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine. …Remember, there people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German. It’s not Poland.” When asked where Israeli citizens should go, Thomas continued, “They can go home [to] Poland…Germany…and America. And everywhere else.” She has since issued an apology for her words, explaining that “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.”

Thomas’ resignation has stirred up a mix of conflicting emotions and thoughts. On one hand, it is sad to see her long and historic career end so abruptly, particularly given the dearth of women remaining in the White House Press Corps. On the other hand, it is disheartening that Thomas chose to use her platform as a respected public figure to suggest that countries historically known for their anti-Semitic actions would be a better home for Israeli Jews than the country that has been their home for the last six decades. At 89 years old, perhaps Thomas was nearing voluntary retirement anyway — but this was not the right way for her to go.

I deeply admire Thomas for her strength, confidence and ability to speak her mind and challenge government policies. I do not, however, agree with her recent statement. Indeed, I agree with the consensus that her remark was insensitive and thoughtless at best and anti-Semitic at worst. What bothers me most about her words is that they undercut the very real and very legitimate criticisms of Israel that many are voicing in the wake of the flotilla attack. Though Thomas made this statement several days prior to Israel’s attack on a humanitarian aid ship, her belief (and what I hope was the intent behind her words) that something drastic needs to change in the way the people of Gaza live is a true and valid argument. However, by alluding to the Holocaust and offering a solution that, at this point, will not help anyone, her validity and credibility was greatly diminished. Tasha Fierce at Red Vinyl Shoes explores this further:

What’s unfortunate about the current Helen Thomas controversy is that these off-the-cuff anti-Semitic comments overshadow the many important confrontations she’s had with various White House Press Secretaries over U.S. policy on Israel, in which she has raised issues that are rarely discussed in the mainstream media. She hasn’t made a secret of her criticism of U.S./Israeli policies in the past. But these recent comments are disappointing because she included in her criticism the idea that European Jews should leave Israel. She makes the valid point that Israel is basically occupying much of the Palestinian territory, but sullies it with the statement that Israel should be dissolved and the land given back to the Palestinians, which is not only unfeasible but offensive.

Thomas was right to apologize for what she said, and she was rightly criticized for her statement as well. Ultimately, what she said did nothing to help the lives of Palestinian refugees and was deeply hurtful to Israelis and Jews, many of whom are openly opposed to the actions of the Israeli government. That being said, I don’t know that resigning was the correct solution. After all, as Anna Clark noted on Broadsheet, “Thomas has been working as a columnist, not reporter, for the last decade. So it isn’t the fact that she’s publicly editorializing on current news that is the problem here; her job is to have opinions. The uproar was inspired because people don’t like her opinions.” And Thomas’ opinions about Israel and Palestine are not news. It is fair to challenge her position and criticize her for her extremely poor choice of words, but encouraging the end of her career simply because she voiced an opinion that she had voiced numerous times in the past does not seem fair. Perhaps Thomas could have been encouraged to think more carefully about her language, or perhaps someone could educate her about the ethnic origin of Israel’s Jewish population, since only 35% is descended from Europe. But she should not be punished for her opinions, however accurate or popular they may be. Thomas’ legacy is that of challenging administrations and asking the hard questions. How will press coverage of the government change, now that we will no longer have her voice and influence?

I hope Thomas never again uses language that supports the expulsion of any group of people from any country. I certainly hope she fully understands why suggesting that Israeli Jews return to Germany and Poland, countries that called for the extermination of Jews seventy years ago, is deeply hurtful and offensive to Jews around the world. But, at the same time, I hope that Thomas is remembered for much more than this one statement, or even for this one opinion. No one can be reduced to a single statement or attitude, particularly not a woman who has broken countless barriers in the worlds of journalism and feminism alike. Helen Thomas will be missed and, for better or for worse, she will not be forgotten.

2 Comments
  1. joan mckniff permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:26 am

    agree; a very sad end to a ground breaking career.

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