The silencing of Helen Thomas and the First Amendment
On May 27, 2010, during a Jewish heritage celebration at the White House, Rabbi David Nesenoff approached Helen Thomas, 89, and asked if she would like to comment on the state of Israel.
Whether Nesenoff was deliberately casting juicy bait in front of a prize catch is anyone’s guess, but Thomas bit – hook, line and sinker, remarking, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine… Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land; it's not German, it's not Poland's.”
Asked where the Jews should go, Thomas replied: “they should go home” to “Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.”
Suddenly, media headlines were no longer dominated by Israel’s disastrous clash with an international aid boat on its way to the Gaza Strip that left nine people dead, but rather with the “anti-Semitic” rant by the White House press pool’s leading lady (courtesy of website rabbilive.com).
Friends, colleagues and enemies of Helen Thomas suddenly resembled a stony-faced session of a Soviet Politburo meeting as they unanimously condemned the woman whose personal experience with American presidents exceeds even that of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Yes, the United States can mindlessly tolerate a dozen or so firebrand news pundits, but an octogenarian who dares speak her mind, even if it incites shock and awe, is duly dispatched to retirement village gulag without so much as a peep of public protest.
“If Helen Thomas had been working for FOX News,” speculated Joanne Bamberger, founder of PunditMom political blog, in the Huffington Post “she'd probably still have a job.”
Bamberger may have included “a cartoonist who has a knack for scribbling pictures of the Prophet Muhammad.” After all, how can we preach to the Muslim community about preserving the freedom of speech when we cannot bear to hear an “opinionator” speak her mind – however flawed the logic may be?
Thomas, clearly stunned by the storm of bad publicity, issued an apology on her website, saying “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.”
Thomas, however, had already passed the point of no return. Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush's White House Press Secretary said “she should lose her job over this,” while Lanny Davis, former Clinton White House counsel, released a statement, calling her an “anti-Semitic bigot.”
On June 7, Thomas tendered her resignation from Hearst Newspapers, thus bringing her remarkable career to a close.
Were Helen Thomas’s comments “anti-Semitic”?
Now, the Internet is ablaze with every sort of hysterical, demonizing screed against Thomas, labeling her and her comments indefensible, shameful and, of course, “anti-Semitic.” But not everybody agrees.
Sam Sedaei, international affairs contributor at The Huffington Post, went so far as to suggest that the critics of Helen Thomas are the real anti-Semites. His argument demands some consideration.
“The state of Israel was established following World War II and the wake of horrific crimes against the Jews by the Nazis and other Axis powers,” Sedaei writes. “It was created as a Jewish state based on the rationale…that historically, Jewish people have always been the subject of persecution, and hence, they can never be safe anywhere else but in a Jewish homeland.”
Sedaei then asks: “Why else would one believe that Jews and only Jews can never be safe anywhere in the world and must have their own homeland? Isn't one really then arguing that there is something that is different about Jews, which makes them subjects to persecution?”
In other words, by saying that Jews must go back to Europe, “Thomas actually demonstrated that she was anything but an anti-Semite because she believed Jews can be safe in all countries and do not need a religious state to protect themselves. She showed her belief that anti-Semitism can, should and will be eliminated.”
This may or may not have been what Thomas had in mind when she uttered her provocative comments, but to say that she is “anti-Semitic” for stating what is at most a provocative political observation based on her personal interpretation of historical facts is an exaggeration. Moreover, Thomas is – or rather was – an opinion columnist of Arab-American descent who was paid for her wry observations of the American political scene, but obviously not where Israelis are concerned.
Yet Jews today are thriving happily in the diaspora, and perhaps most of all in the country that once upon a time spawned the biggest threat to their existence: Germany.
“The feeling that it's somehow wrong to visit Germany is irrational and purely emotional,” commented Cori Cascione in the website Jewsy.com (“Jews and Germany: Why you should go even if it makes your grandmother angry”). “The Nazis are dead or dying and their children, as a whole, haven't committed any crimes against humanity. You can buy a cappuccino from a middle-aged man and not have to worry that he voted for Hitler – or worse.”
Moreover, there are Jewish groups that would fervently agree with Thomas on the idea of the Jews leaving Israel.
The Neturei-Karta, according to their official website (http://www.nkusa.org/aboutus/index.cfm), “is a group of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who refused (and still refuse) to recognize the existence or authority of the so-called ‘State of Israel’ and made (and still make) a point of publicly demonstrating their position, the position of the Torah and authentic unadulterated Judaism.”
This group refuses to recognize the right of anyone to establish a “Jewish” state during the present period of exile. They oppose the “State of Israel” not because it operates secularly, but because “the entire concept of a sovereign Jewish state is contrary to Jewish Law.
It is doubtful that anybody would accuse the Neturei Karta of being anti-Semitic.
Please keep in mind that the purpose of this article is not to defend Helen Thomas’ outrageous suggestion that all Jews “go home” to Germany, Poland and America, or that the State of Israel should not exist. Such assertions, of course, are patently absurd. But what needs to be defended is Helen Thomas’ right to make such statements without sacrificing her press credentials at the altar of political correctness, not to mention being branded an “anti-Semite.” Such a repressive atmosphere of coercion defeats the entire purpose of journalism, which is to promote discussion and debate on important social issues. And nobody would doubt the need for a big debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which involves a host of connected problems, including the security of thousands of US troops now fighting – and dying – in the Middle East.
Controlling the press
Just last year, Thomas herself launched a five-minute attack against the Obama administration for attempting to control the way reporters present their questions during the White House press conferences.
Chip Reid and Helen Thomas gave White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs a lengthy tongue-lashing over trying to “control the press” in a way that Thomas said was worse than even Richard Nixon.
Thomas and Reid slammed Gibbs for extreme policies that attempt to use social media to limit and “tightly control” the content of town hall meetings and media briefings. The heated debate kicked off when Gibbs suggests that Reid submit his questions via Facebook and Twitter to be answered “tomorrow” as opposed to opening the conference to unscripted questions.
Gibbs tells Reid to “get on his e-mail address,” while Reid maintains that a refusal to answer questions isn’t open or transparent. Gibbs’ evasiveness only proved that the two frustrated reporters were right in their assertions.
Helen Thomas finally let Gibbs have it, saying, “I’m amazed… I’m amazed at you people who call for openness and transparency,” yet go to extremes for “controlling the press.” She tells Gibbs that the Obama administration’s “formal engagements are prepackaged,” and says that “calling reporters the night before, telling them they’re going to be called on – that’s shocking.” When asked if she sent in a question, she snapped back, “I don’t have to email it – I can tell you right now!”
Unbeknownst to Thomas, she would soon fall victim to the mainstream media machine that she perceptibly foresaw as becoming obsessed with prepackaging a canned message for public consumption, as if reporters were producing another batch of Coca-Cola. But crushing the freedom of speech due to a conformist mentality will only harm the republic in the end.
“Despite the American mainstream media that continues to treat us like children by ‘protecting’ us from certain debates and conversations,” Sedaei concludes, “it is only by discussing these questions in free and fair forums that we can avoid the pitfalls of becoming the victims of religious ideologues who pushed such an esteemed and legendary journalist as Helen Thomas into her ignominious end.”
“A huge sundae of hate in America”
Meanwhile, Rabbi David Nesenoff said he is facing an “overload” of threatening e-mails stemming from his brief yet explosive interview with the now disgraced Thomas.
“This ticker tape keeps coming in,” Nesenoff told FoxNews.com. “We got one specific one saying, ‘We’re going to kill the Jews; watch your back’.”
Nesenoff said he was shocked not only by Thomas' remarks – which he labeled anti-Semitic – but also by the threats he has received since his videotape brought about the end of her 50-year career at the White House.
“This is something that I thought was a couple of people here or there, [but] it's mainstream and it's frightening,” the rabbi said.”"[Thomas] is just a little cherry on top of this huge, huge sundae of hate in America.”
What Helen Thomas would say to that comment is anybody’s guess.