In death, Helen Thomas’s long wonderful career (as feminist trailbreaker among other accomplishments) is boiling down to one episode, the Syrian-American’s anti-Zionist statements in 2010 (and sequel statements in 2011, which blurred into anti-Semitism). There’s a lot of vitriol being flung at Thomas, dead at 92, by the pro-Israel crowd.
Above is the famous video interview with Rabbi David Nesenoff at the White House in May 2010 after a Jewish heritage celebration. First, Thomas spoke to the rabbi about journalism. “Go for journalism, you’ll never regret it… Never stop learning.”
Nesenoff: “Any comments on Israel We’re asking everybody today?
“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.”
Nesenoff: “So where should they go? What should they do?”
“They should go home. Poland Germany, and America, and everywhere else. Why push people out who live there for centuries, see?.
Nesenoff: Are you familiar with the history of that region?
“Very much. I’m of Arab background.”
When Nesenoff published the interview on-line a week later, Thomas apologized:
“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” she said “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.”
But the apology was not enough for many supporters of Israel:
The Anti-Defamation League said in a written statement that Thomas’ apology “does not go far enough.”
“Her remarks were outrageous, offensive and inappropriate,” ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman said in the statement. “Her suggestion that Israelis should go back to Poland and Germany is bigoted and shows a profound ignorance of history. We believe Thomas needs to make a more forceful and sincere apology for the pain her remarks have caused.”
Her apology also was not enough for [Lanny] Davis, who served as special counsel to former President Bill Clinton.
“Helen Thomas, who I used to consider a close friend and who I used to respect, has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot,” Davis said. “This is not about her disagreement about her criticisms of Israel. She has a right to criticize Israel and that is not the same as being an anti-Semite.”…
“Helen’s statement calling for the religious cleansing of Israel is reprehensible,” said [Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for former President George W. Bush.] “If this isn’t bigotry, what is? What she said is as bad as someone saying all blacks should leave America and go back to Africa.”
Then a few days later Thomas announced her retirement.
Here are excerpts of the Playboy interview in 2011 by David Hochman, in which Helen Thomas identified herself as an anti-Zionist, stood up for the Palestinian right to resist colonization, and said that American Jews control the media and the White House and Congress and she’s old enough to speak the truth about it at last.
First some biography from that interview.
Born August 4, 1920, Thomas herself is of Arab descent. She was the seventh of nine children born in Winchester, Kentucky to Syrian-born emigrants from Tripoli, Lebanon. Her family soon moved to Detroit, where her father ran a grocery store even though he couldn’t read or write in English. News was often a topic around the house, and after college Thomas landed a job as a girl Friday at a Washington, D.C. newspaper toward the end of World War II. That led her to the copy desk and a cub reporter position and eventually to a job covering government bureaucracy for the wire service United Press International. She remained at UPI for much of her career.
Then some excerpts:
PLAYBOY: What was life like in the immediate aftermath as millions started viewing the video on YouTube?
THOMAS: I went into self-imposed house arrest for two weeks. It was a case of “know thyself.” Isn’t that what Socrates said? I wanted to see if I was remorseful—and I wasn’t.
PLAYBOY: Did the phone ring off the hook?
THOMAS: No. Nobody called. But I still have some friends in the White House press pool, who reached out to me. I understand they formed Jews for Helen Thomas at one point.
PLAYBOY: That’s interesting.
THOMAS: I also heard from Jimmy Carter. He called a few weeks later.
PLAYBOY: He did? What did he say?
THOMAS: Basically he was sympathetic. He talked about the Israelis in the Middle East, the violations. It was very nice of him to call, but I don’t want to get him into trouble.
PLAYBOY: His reaction certainly wasn’t typical.
THOMAS: No. Every columnist and commentator jumped on me immediately as anti-Semitic. Nobody asked me to explain myself. Nobody said, “What did you really mean?”
PLAYBOY: What did you really mean?
THOMAS: Well, there’s no understanding of the Palestinians at all. I mean, they’re living there and these people want to come and take their homes and land and water and kill their children and kill them. How many are still under arrest in Israel—never been charged, never been tried, never been convicted? Thousands. Why? Meanwhile, we keep giving Israel everything. Our government bribes the Israelis by saying, “Please come to the [negotiating] table and we’ll give you this and we’ll give you that.” Obama’s last offer to the Israelis was $22 billion in new fighter planes [Editor’s note: The offer was actually just under $3 billion], a veto at the UN for anything pro-Arab or pro-Palestinian and a three-month freeze on the colonization and settlers. I mean, what is this? They gave away the store, just as Reagan and every other president did. Why do you have to bribe people to do the right thing? I don’t want my government bribing anybody. I want them demanding. Stop all this aid to Israel when they’re killing people!
PLAYBOY: It was your follow-up comment, when you said the Jews should go back to Poland, Germany and America, that really infuriated people.
THOMAS: Well, that immediately evoked the concentration camps. What I meant was they should stay where they are because they’re not being persecuted—not since World War II, not since 1945. If they were, we sure would hear about it. Instead, they initiated the Jackson-Vanik law, which said the U.S. would not trade with Russia unless it allowed unlimited Jewish emigration. But it was not immigration to the United States, which would have been fine with me. It was to go to Palestine and uproot these people, throw them out of their homes, which they have done through several wars. That’s not fair. I want people to understand why the Palestinians are upset. They are incarcerated and living in an open prison. I say to the Israelis, “Get out of people’s homes!” It’s unacceptable to have soldiers knocking on a door at three in the morning and saying, “This is my home.” And forcing people out of homes they’ve lived in for centuries? What is this? How can anybody accept it? I mean, Jewish-only roads? Would anyone tolerate something like that in America? White-only roads?
PLAYBOY: You mean Israeli-only roads, not Jewish only, right? [Editor’s note: Israel closes certain roads to Palestinians, but roads are open to all Israeli citizens and to other nationals, regardless of religious background.]
THOMAS: Israeli-only roads, okay. But it’s more than semantics because the Palestinians are deprived of owning these roads. This is their land. I’m sorry, but we’re talking about foreigners who came and said, “God gave this land to us.” [Former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin said, “Where’s the deed?” I mean, come on! Do you know that an Arab Palestinian trying to go home to see his mother has to go through 10 checkpoints and then is held there, while an American tourist can go through right like that? The Palestinian people have to carry their kids to hospitals and are not allowed to drive cars and so forth. What is this? No American Jew would tolerate that sort of treatment here against blacks or anyone else. Why do they allow it over there? And why do they send my American tax dollars to perpetuate it?
PLAYBOY: Do you acknowledge that some Palestinian behavior over the years, including hijacking and the use of suicide bombers, has been wrong and has added to the problem?
THOMAS: In an ideal world passive resistance and world disarmament would be great. Unfortunately we don’t live in that world. Of course I don’t condone any violence against anyone. But who wouldn’t fight for their country…
PLAYBOY: Do you have a personal antipathy toward Jews themselves?
THOMAS: No. I think they’re wonderful people. They had to have the most depth. They were leaders in civil rights. They’ve always had the heart for others but not for Arabs, for some reason. I’m not anti-Jewish; I’m anti-Zionist. I am anti Israel taking what doesn’t belong to it. If you have a home and you’re kicked out of that home, you don’t come and kick someone else out. Anti-Semite? The Israelis are not even Semites! They’re Europeans, and they’ve come from somewhere else. But even if they were Semites, they would still have no right to usurp other people’s land. There are some Israelis with a conscience and a big heart, but unfortunately they are too few.
PLAYBOY: In the wake of your anti-Israel comments, a blogger from The Atlantic argued there’s really no distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. He wrote, “Thomas was fired for saying that the Jews of Israel should move to Europe, where their relatives had been slaughtered in the most devastating act of genocide in history. She believes that once the Jews are evacuated from their ancestral homeland, the world’s only Jewish country should be replaced by what would be the world’s 23rd Arab country. She believes that Palestinians deserve a country of their own but that the Jews are undeserving of a nation-state in their homeland, which has had a continuous Jewish presence for 3,000 years.…”
THOMAS: [Interrupts] Did a Jew write this? [Editor’s note: The writer is Jeffrey Goldberg.]
PLAYBOY: “…and has been the location of two previous Jewish states. This sounds like a very anti-Jewish position to me, not merely an anti-Zionist position.”
THOMAS: This is a rotten piece. I mean it’s absolutely biased and totally—who are these people? Why do they think they’re so deserving? The slaughter of Jews stopped with World War II. I had two brothers and many relatives who fought in that war against Hitler. We believed in it. Every American family was in that fight. But they were liberated since then. And yet they carry on the victimization. American people do not know that the Israeli lobbyists have intimidated them into believing every Jew is a persecuted victim forever—while they are victimizing Palestinians.
PLAYBOY: Let’s get to something else you said more recently. In a speech in Detroit last December, you told an Arab group, “We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that. Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question, in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is. We’re being pushed into a wrong direction in every way.” Do you stand by that statement?
THOMAS: Yes, I do. I know it was horrendous, but I know it’s true. Tell me it’s not true and I’ll be happy to be contradicted. I’m just saying they’re using their power, and they have power in every direction.
PLAYBOY: That stereotype of Jewish control has been around for more than a century. Do you actually think there’s a secret Jewish conspiracy at work in this country?
THOMAS: Not a secret. It’s very open. What do you mean secret?
PLAYBOY: Well, for instance, explain the connection between Hollywood and what’s happening with the Palestinians.
THOMAS: Power over the White House, power over Congress.
PLAYBOY: By way of contributions?
THOMAS: Everybody is in the pocket of the Israeli lobbies, which are funded by wealthy supporters, including those from Hollywood. Same thing with the financial markets. There’s total control.
PLAYBOY: Who are you thinking about specifically? Who are the Jews with the most influence?
THOMAS: I’m not going to name names. What, am I going to name the Ponzi guy on Wall Street [Bernard Madoff] or the others? No.
PLAYBOY: Then how do you make the claim that Jews are running the country?
THOMAS: I want you to look at the Congress that just came in. Do you think [New York Democratic senator Charles] Schumer and Lehtinen—whatever her name is—in Florida [Republican representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a strong supporter of Israel] are going to be pro-Arab? No. But they’re going to be very influential. Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the Republicans, do you think he’s going to be for the Arabs? Hell no! I’m telling you, you cannot get 330 votes in Congress for anything that’s pro-Arab. Nothing. If you’re not in, you’re eased out, just as Senator William Fulbright was in the 1960s [after claiming that millions of tax-deductible dollars from American philanthropies were being sent to Israel and then funneled back to the U.S. for distribution to organizations with pro-Israel positions]. Congressman Paul Findley from a little old rural district in Illinois made the mistake of shaking hands with Yasir Arafat years ago. It ended up costing him his reelection. He later wrote a book called They Dare to Speak Out about how impossible it is to have a position in this country that takes on Israel. Maybe there is a handful that can, but in general you cannot speak against any Zionist movement in this country.
PLAYBOY: Do you begrudge people like Steven Spielberg? He created the Shoah Foundation to chronicle the life stories of Holocaust survivors. What’s your feeling about him?
THOMAS: There’s nothing wrong with remembering it, but why do we have to constantly remember? We’re not at fault. I mean, if they’re going to put a Holocaust museum in every city in Germany, that’s fine with me. But we didn’t do this to the Jews. Why do we have to keep paying the price and why do they keep oppressing the Palestinians? Do the Jews ever look at themselves? Why are they always right? Because they have been oppressed throughout history, I know. And they have this persecution. That’s true, but they shouldn’t use that to dominate.
PLAYBOY: In America you’re talking about a relatively small community. Jews make up roughly two percent of the U.S. population. On a worldwide level, the percentage is well under one percent. Those numbers don’t exactly spell domination.
THOMAS: I get where you’re leading with this. You know damn well the power they have. It isn’t the two percent. It’s real power when you own the White House, when you own these other places in terms of your political persuasion. Of course they have power. You don’t deny that. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?
THOMAS: That’s what I thought. Well, you know damn well they have power.
PLAYBOY: Why did it take you so long to speak out like this?
THOMAS: It hasn’t taken that long. I’ve told all my friends and so forth. This has been an issue for me since I first came to Washington.
PLAYBOY: You’ve kept quiet publicly since the 1940s?
THOMAS: It was certainly on my mind back then. The United Nations Partition Plan was being debated at the UN and in the Arab community, and I knew what the Arabs were going through since I have an Arab background. I was part of that community. Like I said, I’ve never hesitated to tell my views to all my friends. They knew exactly where I stood. But I finally wanted to speak the truth. And I think I’m old enough to get away with it. Well, almost. Not quite.