Helen Thomas (August 4, 1920 – July 20, 2013) was an American news reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and author. She was the first female officer of the National Press Club and the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents Association. Her most recent book, co-authored with Craig Crawford is Listen Up, Mr President: Everything you Always Wanted Your President To Know and Do.
transcriptPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. Last May 27 in Washington, veteran journalist and the veteran of the White House press corps Helen Thomas was leaving the White House. Somebody came over and asked her a question. It turned out he had a video camera. She answered the question. And that led to what many people think was a forced resignation from the Hearst newspaper chain, an end to her career covering the White House, one of the most renowned careers of the White House press corps. I (just for full transparency) at the time wrote a piece called "In defense of Helen Thomas". If you want to see it, it will be on our website. And now joining us to talk about what happened that day and what happened since and her views about that and the Middle East is Helen Thomas, who I don't think needs further introduction. Thanks for joining us. So, Helen, talk a bit about that day, first of all. What was happening? You were leaving the White House, and what happens?HELEN THOMAS, COLUMNIST: I had a friend with me, and we were encountered by this rabbi. I didn't know him. He had a yarmulke and he had two.JAY: This is Rabbi Nesenoff, I think his name is.THOMAS: Yes. And he had two sons with him. He said they want to behe stopped me and said they would like to be journalists, and I said they should go for it, they'll really never regret it. And all of a sudden he says, what do you think of Israel? And he pulls out his cell phone, I thought, but I guess it was a camera. And I said they should get the hell out of Palestine. And I obviously was referring to them occupying all of the West Bank, Gaza, and all the places where they have come from nowhere to control and tyrannize the Arabs, Palestinians.JAY: Now, there's been some debate whether you meant the occupied territories, as they're referred to nowit's mostly essentially the West Bank and Gazaand/or did you mean Israel as defined by 1967 borders.THOMAS: Well, if we could get them back to the '67 borders it certainly would be a triumph, but they're not about to move anywhere. They keep taking and keep bulldozing homes on the West Bank. They have Jewish-only roads. They would never tolerate that here.JAY: So what was your frame of mind when you answered the question?THOMAS: I was free as a spirit. I had no idea that I was going to be interviewed. At the same time, I'm very blunt. I always try to answer honestly any question. I didn't know I was being interviewed. It was a sneak stealth attack.JAY: The debate that's taken place, or part of thethere's been various debates that took place about what happened that day and what happened to you afterwards. What is your view, in terms of theIsrael within '67 borders, Palestine in terms of West Bank and Gaza? What is your view on this?THOMAS: My view is that you should not create another nation in somebody else's country, and the Palestinians were 85 percent in the majority, until they began the immigration for the Jews and for the Zionists because they had designated Jerusalem as their home, that God gave it to them. Well, I mean, that'swhat God? Who? And so forth. Everything like that is just very debatable. Jews have been persecuted all over the world. There's no question about that. Certainly the NazisI mean, it's too horrifying to think of what they did and the silence in the world when it was happening. At the same time, they aren't the only ones who fought in World War II. I hadmy brothers, two brothers, were there. All my relatives. Every American was involved. So it isn't a question of the Holocaust was a simple thing going on. The Russians lost 25 million people.JAY: When the rabbi asked you, well, where should they go, you said, get the hell out. And he asked you, well, where should they go, and you said, Germany, Poland, America.THOMAS: They immediately, in their propaganda minds, considered it Auschwitz. I didn't say that, and they know damn well I didn't say that.JAY: Do you understand why it seemed to resonate?THOMAS: I understand why they're always the victim, nobody else is: it helps them.JAY: Do you understand why it sounded to some Jews who may not even be.THOMAS: I understand whatthey want to think what they want to think. But it's not true, and they can't face that.JAY: That being?THOMAS: Saying that I'm sending them to a concentration camp. I mean, come on.JAY: In terms of what you think should be done now, what the solution is now, what would you like to see?THOMAS: I'd like to see the occupation ended. I'd like to see the.JAY: And when you mean occupation, you're talking West Bank and Gaza.THOMAS: Israeli occupation of the Arab world, all, Golan Heights, everything, Gaza. What the hell are they doing there?JAY: And some people try to interpret what you said meaning the Jews should get out ofthat there essentially shouldn't be a country or a state of Israel, the Jews should get out of the region.THOMAS: Israel has already been recognized as a country by our country, and so you can't turn that around. It was recognized by Truman at three o'clock in the morning when the Zionists started knocking down the door and demanding. That's never beenno country's ever been recognized in that way. The debate was still going on in the UN, but that's past history. They should get out of all the occupied territories, the Israelis.JAY: Now, one of the accusations or one of the things that is said about Israel, especially there's people like Irwin Cotler and other people, they talk that Israel is the reflection or the product of a global Jewish identity, so if you attack Israel, you're attacking Jews. What do you think of that?THOMAS: If they want to take that mantle for all the wrong things that Israel is doing now, so be it. I think they should deny that.JAY: No, well, I think the evidence is pretty clear that that position is not actually the view of a lot of Jews. So talk about what happened after you made the statement.THOMAS: Well, I think that I was misinterpreted in many ways of being anti-Semitic. I'm more Semitic than any of these critics. So it made me laugh, really. What is anti-Semitic?JAY: Well, you know that when they say anti-Semitic, they mean hatred of Jews. They don'tI know Arabs are Semites too, but the way the phrase is used, it means hatred of Jews.THOMAS: They use it. They use it themselves. It's horrible to say. But I can count so many Jews who are my friends and who do understand I'm anti-Israeli but I'm not anti-Semitic.JAY: Some of the people that support Israel say that you can't be anti-Israel and not be anti-Semitic. They say the twoone equates the other. If you're anti-Israel, you're.THOMAS: I could be anti-aggression, anti-occupation, and so forth. Is thatthey want to put that on their mantel? No, surely not. I knowI cannot believe that they would assume that.JAY: So what happened after your remarks went public? What was the next thing that happened?THOMAS: Retirement.JAY: So what's the story there? Why did you retire?THOMAS: Why did I retire? Never by my own volition. Everybody's being fired for what they say these days. You canbut not if you say anything about the president of the United States. You can call him anything in the book. But you can't say anything about Israel. That automatically makes you anti-Semitic.JAY: Well, so Fox News didn't offer you a job right away [inaudible] THOMAS: Not for $2 million.JAY: Yeah. This is a reference, obviously, to Juan Williams, who was fired at NPR and was immediately given a $2 million contract by Fox to protect his freedom of speech, they say. But no one rushed in to protect your freedom of speech.THOMAS: Well, I think I had some protectors. But, you know, it'sI don't want anyone to stick their necks out and getwalk this line.JAY: What did you make of the reaction of the White House press corps to your forced resignation?THOMAS: Shocked. Shocked.JAY: They issued a statement. Let me read the statement. This is an excerpt of the statement by the White House Correspondents Association. "Helen Thomas' comments were indefensible and the White House Correspondents Association board firmly dissociates itself from them."THOMAS: I didn't say the board wasn'tbelieved the same thing. And I can defend my remarks. People who are being brutalized every day. We all should be saying the same thing.JAY: In your experience at the White House, has the White House Correspondents Association ever issued a statement like this before?THOMAS: No, not that I know of. I've been there a long time.JAY: So, I mean, what has it got to do with them what a particular journalist has to say?THOMAS: Nothing. They want to take away my awards and everything else. Who in the hell are they?JAY: So when your employer, the Hearst chainsomeone must pick up the phone and say, Helen, you've got to resign.THOMAS: They were very nice to me. Very hard for any company to stand the kind of pressure. You know, I thinkI don't blame Hearst at all. Any company probably would have caved.JAY: But don't you think particularly a newspaper has to be able to stand up to this kind of pressure?THOMAS: If they have courage and if they don't mind losing a lot of money.JAY: Well, I guess that's part of the problem with the economic model of these news organizations.THOMAS: Especially when they're going down the drain. Poor newspapers. I love newspapers. I can't live without them.JAY: So in terms of your feelings now about what happened to you, about what was said, what's your takeaway of this? What conclusions do you come to?THOMAS: There's no real freedom of speech in this country if you mention Israel. You can call the president everything in the book, and nobody says anything. They're all. But somehow this is the no-no. This is off theyou've crossed the line when you talk about Israel.JAY: What do you make of how most of the media covers the Middle East and covers Israel?THOMAS: Very distorted. Very. I don't think it's fair at all. But at the same time, when it is fair, like AP would be fair, a wire service, people don't get it. They don't understand. The Palestinians are dubbed as terrorists and all the Muslims are terrorists. I mean, this is so unfair. I don't understand people who would fight for civil rights in this country and anywhere in the world, but when it comes to Semitism, then you can't say anything.JAY: Well, I know the blog I wrote, "In defense of Helen Thomas," which was on our websiteit was also on Huffington Postit got thousands and thousands of reads and thousands of comments, and the vast majority of comments were actually in defense of Helen Thomas.THOMAS: God. That's nice to hear.JAY: And a few days after you resigned, there was a poll taken in The Washington Post asking whether Helen Thomas should get her seat back in the White House press room, and apparently 92 percent of the people said yes, Helen should get her seat back.THOMAS: Good for them. Thank you!JAY: Did you ever consider fighting this?THOMAS: No.JAY: How come?THOMAS: Because I think employers have the right to keep you or fire you.JAY: Was your seat in the White House dependent on the job you had with Hearst?THOMAS: No, not at all.JAY: Could you have fought to keep the seat?THOMAS: No. Never.JAY: Why?THOMAS: Because it doesn't belong to me.JAY: Well, a lot of people think it did. So you still have an audience out there. Are you going to come out of retirement, perhaps? Are you going to do some writing?THOMAS: Absolutely. I have a lot to say.JAY: Thank you for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News.
End of TranscriptDISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
IN DEFENSE OF HELEN THOMAS - On apologizing to apologists
by Paul Jay June 07, 2010
Helen Thomas was the dean of the White House Press corp. She has a fifty-year history of tough-minded journalism and is one of the very, very few journalists in the mainstream press who has had the guts to question US policy towards Israel. On Monday she was pressured into resigning, "effective immediately".
On Friday she was asked by a guy who stuck a video camera in her face, for any comments on Israel and she said, "Tell them to get the get the hell out of Palestine. Remember, these people [the Palestinians] are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany, it's not Poland." She was asked where they should go and she answered, "They should go home, to Poland, Germany and America". The video has been making its way around the Internet.
This was said days after the Israeli attack on the aid flotilla that killed at least nine activists as their boat sailed in international waters. [NOTE: When I originally wrote this article, I was mistaken about the sequence of events. The video was shot on May 27th, a few days before the Israeli attack. It was released on the Internet on Friday. Of course it was after the Israeli war on Gaza and the blockade].
She later apologized in a short statement on her website ""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."
Her apology was not enough to stop calls for her head from those who have wanted to shut Thomas up for years.
Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's press secretary, led the call in an e-mail Friday to the Huffington Post saying Thomas' comments amount to "religious cleansing."
"She should lose her job over this," Fleischer wrote. "As someone who is Jewish, and as someone who worked with her and used to like her, I find this appalling."
Perhaps Fleishcher should also add that he is someone who knows something about apologies . . . being the leading apologist for the Bush administration as their war led to the deaths of at least one million Iraqis.
But Lanny Davis, former special counsel to and White House spokesman for President Bill Clinton, went even further than Fleischer. He issued a statement on Sunday saying Thomas, "has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot."
Now, Davis should know something about apologies and apologists as well. TheHill.com reported that Davis led a lobbying effort against deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on behalf of Honduran business leaders. This is in defense of a regime that came to power in an illegal coup and is killing journalists and activists. Hmmm . . . defending those that kill activists . . .
Davis went on, "Her [Thomas] statement that Jews in Israel should leave Israel and go back to Poland or Germany is an ancient and well-known anti-Semitic stereotype of the Alien Jew not belonging in the 'land of Israel' -- one that began 2,600 years with the first tragic and violent diaspora of the Jews at the hands of the Romans," said Davis.
Thomas was not talking about Jews that lived in the region from Roman times. If she had been given more of a chance to explain herself, rather than the 30-second sound bite traveling around the web, she might have made it clear that she also wasn't referring to the thousands of Jews who lived in Palestine prior to 1948.
What Thomas clearly did say she was talking about was Jews that had come from Germany, Poland and America. Now it's likely that most of the Jewish refugees that came to Palestine from Europe just after the War, did so not because they "belong to the land of Israel", but due to fact that the American, Canadian and British governments wouldn't drop their anti-Jewish quotas even after the horrors of the genocide were fully exposed (let's talk about some real anti-Semites).
I don't know of any opinion polls taken at the time, but if those refugees had a real choice to go to some impoverished potentially war-filled land in the Middle East or join the Jewish community in New York, I know what I would have chosen.
The American Zionist organizations at the time did not fight for a more open immigration policy to allow Jews into America; they lobbied furiously for the Jewish refugees to go to Palestine as part of a move towards the founding of a Jewish state.
As is well known, this state was created in the process of expelling thousands of Palestinians from their lands, people who had nothing to do with the European genocide against the Jews. You cannot say the same about the Anglo-American countries that for much of the '30s were quite happy to equip Hitler with cars and machinery. Quite content to shut their mouths as Hitler began an ethnic cleansing that would end in barbaric genocide.
As far as the American Jews that went to live in Israel after 1948, it's difficult to believe they went to escape persecution, as many of the Jews from other places that went to Israel, in fact did. So, one can understand a certain specific resentment against American Jews who decided that it was ok, at someone else's expense, to work out their identity crisis and pick up some free airline tickets to boot.
Lanny Davis statement continued, "If she had asked all blacks to go back to Africa, what would White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials -- much less a privileged honorary seat?"
Our defender of illegal coups knows very well this is not analogous. The obvious comparison is asking all European Americans to "get the hell out", and leave the land to its rightful owners, Native Americans. One could argue Mexican Americans might have an argument to stay in certain parts of the country.
The European migration to America isn't such a stretch if one thinks about it. Colonialism makes use of people fleeing religious persecution to populate their new possession . . .
At any rate, we all know what's going on here. The hyper-pro-Israel lobby, in both parties, hasn't much liked the fact that Helen Thomas dares to speak up and question that most sacred of topics, and right from the front row of the White House Press Gallery. Heck, she had the gall to ask President Obama about Israel's "secret" nuclear weapons. She even asked the current White House spokesman why the US had not condemned the Israeli attacks on the aid flotilla. No wonder they want her the hell out.
Do I think all Jews (that came after 1948) should get out of Palestine? Well, no more or less than Europeans should get out of North America, or the Portuguese should get out of Brazil, or the British should get the hell out of Australia. There does come a point where such things are simply not possible.
There's really no need anyway, there's plenty of land and resources. The only issue is, are the rights of the people who owned the land before colonization going to be respected now; is there proper compensation; do they have the right to self-determination and so on.
In the case of the Palestinians, what Israel needs to do has been made very clear in UN resolutions and in the demands of the Palestinians. In spite of the illegal blockade of Gaza, almost no one, including the Hamas representative I interviewed a few weeks ago, says the Jews have to get out. Ok there are some that say it, people get very angry after 62 years in a refugee camp, but what most Palestinians want is to live as equals with Jews in a truly democratic state.
It's way past time that we can discuss Israel and Palestine without the McCarthyite witch hunt atmosphere that has ruled for sixty years.
I said in my last blog, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism - but some is.
Helen Thomas' isn't.
BEYOND THE PALE - The murder of Furkan Dogan
by Paul Jay June 04, 2010
Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.
But some is.
All one has to do is read some of the comments on this blog that were not published, to know that Judenhass ("Jew-hatred") is alive and well.
It cannot be overestimated how thousands of years of hatred and Nazi genocide weighs with a nightmarish grip on the psyche of Jews around the world.
The narrative that led to the foundation of Israel was built on the reality of the European onslaught against its Jewish population. Many of the early immigrants that fled to Israel were victims who had nowhere else to go.
Without doubt there are forces within Israel and outside of it that use this history to pursue economic and political power. They brandish 'Judenhass' as an ideological weapon to suppress opposition. That being said, this fact does not diminish Jews' anguished memory of suffering from monumental barbarism.
It's not hard to understand why so many Western Jews feel attached to a place they think of as their mythical home. For Jews that live outside of Israel, as secular as their countries might appear, as assimilated and successful as a Jew gets - the West is still more or less a Christian world and Jews (and Muslims and people of other non-Christian faiths) still feel outsiders. But most Jews know the hatred they were subjected to over the centuries, although dressed in religious or mystical garb, had economic roots.
While one cannot minimize the extent to which the German population either supported or looked away when heinous crimes were committed, any decent history of the period makes clear it was the German elites that helped create Hitler and he made them rich. He expropriated Jewish property and plundered the countries of Europe. Whether it was Jews or Slavs, racist ideology made it "acceptable". We dehumanize those we want to exploit or kill. We call them animals, vermin, rats, and parasites. We are human and you are, well, less human.
It cannot be denied that there is a tradition of 'Judenhass' in the Arab world as well (although never on the scale of Europe). There are horrible racist books in some Arab classrooms and there are television shows that reek of hatred. While there are members of Hamas that see the issue in political terms and are not racists, I met Hamas members that would like to see all Jews leave the region.
Yet during my recent visit to Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and the West Bank, I often heard, "it's not the Jews, the enemy is the occupation." Most Palestinians are aware of the Jewish activists who put their bodies and lives on the line in solidarity with their struggle. I heard strong critiques of tactics that target Israeli civilians. There is a growing civil rights movement amongst Palestinians whose objective is to live equally with Jews in one state. Many people see the struggle against elites, including their own.
Of course, in the West Bank, one can find vicious angry words against "the Jews". But I have never experienced anything like the hatred and profound systemic and mainstream racism that I found in Israel. I can only imagine this must be what it used to be like in the American South or in the early '30s in Germany. From a foreign minister who can openly talk about expelling citizens of his own country based on their ethnic origin; to the widespread acceptance of civilian deaths in Gaza and Lebanon - far too many Israeli Jews have internalized the language of 'Palestinian hatred'. I guess decades of occupation and war does that to a people.
When a Jew can pick up the paper and read that Furkan Dogan, a 19-year-old Turkish-American on a ship loaded with food was shot at close range by an Israeli commando four times in the head and once in the chest and believe this boy was an al Qaeda terrorist and so it's all justified (a claim the Israeli army had to withdraw); that it's ok to turn Gaza into a ghetto where the object is to make the population's life miserable so to better bring down a political enemy; that illegal settlements and the occupation of another people's land is justified because 'they're terrorists who hate us' which makes them less human than we are - then the process of dehumanizing 'the other' has gone far beyond the pale.