Remembering the real Helen Thomas
AP File Photo
Helen Thomas, left, then a UPI reporter, laughs with President Richard Nixon and AP reporter Douglas Cornell in September 1971.
On July 21 the Herald and Times Argus prominently featured a remembrance by David Stout in that day’s New York Times of journalist Helen Thomas, who had died the previous day at the age of 92. Rightly, the detailed obituary recounted Thomas’ role as a female pioneer in a field that had previously been heavily dominated by men and the esteem in which fellow members of her field held her for most of her career.
Yet very little ink told of the scandal that marked her final years. It is a sad tale, but any true assessment of this woman’s life is woefully deficient unless it takes center stage, especially as the episode and the many opportunities for Ms. Thomas to recant her screeds were not in the distant past.
For those who missed it, on May 27, 2010, while on the White House grounds, Ms. Thomas was asked for a comment on Israel and she replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When asked where Israeli Jews should go, she replied they should “go home to Poland or Germany or America and everywhere else.”
While Thomas posted a response a few days (June 4, 2010) later purporting to regret her remarks, in subsequent interviews, she substantially repeated her charge that the Jews of Israel ought to return “home” to Poland and Germany.
Not only did she reiterate this absurdity several times in nationally televised interviews, she took the foot she had placed in her mouth and swallowed it whole. In one interview with Joy Behar she preposterously claimed that ever since World War II, Jews have not had any problems in their old “homes” and thus, they ought never have come to “Palestine” to begin with. She further suggested that Jews ought also to have returned to the Soviet Union, as they were treated just fine there.
As anyone with an iota of historical knowledge knows, for those Holocaust survivors attempting to return to the villages from which the Germans had taken them, such “homecomings” were rarely happy. Dozens of violent pogroms broke out upon such Jews. Often, Jews would return to their towns in Poland (and the same could be said for any number of other counties, especially Hungary, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and all across central and eastern Europe) and find that their former home was occupied by non-Jewish former neighbors who were not exactly thrilled that the homeowner had survived.
It was rare for Jews to be able reclaim their previous houses, farms or businesses. Most were fortunate to escape with their lives to displaced-persons camps, whence they eventually were able to resettle in either a number of other countries or in Israel. Thousands of others were murdered in these pogroms, all of which took place long after World War II had ended in the “homes” to which Helen Thomas thought the few walking skeletons who survived the Third Reich ought to have returned.
Thomas’ suggestion is made even more preposterous when one recalls that the majority of Israeli Jews are not of European descent, but are from Arab countries from which they were forcibly expelled in the 20th century. Should Israeli Jews go back to Iraq or Egypt?
For readers who doubt that the otherwise respected journalist could make such insipid, offensive and hate-filled claims, such skepticism is easily resolved by going to YouTube and finding, among many other such reiterations of her venom, her interviews with Jon Stewart (who could muster only incredulity) and Joy Behar. Thomas never recanted and indeed repeatedly amplified her ludicrous and hate-mongering claims. Thus, her initial diatribe was not merely an excusable, isolated incident; it reveled her deeply hateful, nasty character.
Shortly after her initial anti-Semitic rant, Thomas was dropped by her speakers’ bureau, the Hearst newspapers for which she wrote, had honorary degrees rescinded and was subject to the opprobrium of her colleagues. Even President Obama, usually deferential to Ms. Thomas, in an interview on the Today Show a few days later called her remarks “offensive” and “out of line” and said her sudden 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.”
I share the sense of most well-meaning people that it is uncouth unnecessarily to sully the memory of the dead. Such niceties work well in ordinary circumstances. Funeral eulogies rightly don’t try to be a report card of a person’s life; with rare exceptions we let our loved ones’ flaws fade and let their memories be burnished and even romanticized over time. But public figures, along with the acclaim they enjoy in life, are held to higher standards.
How do we remember John Wilkes Booth? In 1865 he was known as an actor. How do we remember Lee Harvey Oswald? As a wonderfully skillful marksman? When he eventually passes away, will people recall how great a receiver Aaron Hernandez once had been? Whatever skills any of these men displayed, all will be rightly remembered for their foul deeds.
This whole sad tale would be merely pitiful if Helen Thomas had suffered some form of dementia in her old age, but no such claims were made. Her statements were clearly the product of a fully functioning, hateful mind. Perhaps in her old age she granted herself license to express the malice that had always been present in her slanted anti-Israel writings over the years. Helen Thomas, in the guise of her persistent Israel-bashing and distorted coverage lived as an anti-Semite and should be remembered as such.
Young women seeking role models ought turn their eyes elsewhere for such inspiration, for there are now so many better professional women to emulate. The only places where reverential portraits of Helen Thomas belong are in the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan or perhaps Hezbollah.
Doug Weber is the rabbi of the Rutland Jewish Center and also teaches at Castleton State College and the College of St. Joseph.