Helen Thomas retires over anti-Israeli Jewish remarks


I don’t doubt that Feministing will be addressing this news more in-depth, but in the meantime, via NPR:

Helen Thomas, is now the 89-year old former dean of the White House press corps, after announcing that she’s “retiring” as a Hearst columnist following controversial comments in which she said Israeli Jews should return “home” to Poland and Germany and give the land back to the Palestinians.

She released an apology about her remarks:

“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.”

I’m deeply saddened that a woman journalist who broke such incredible barriers in the field is retiring over something like this. As inappropriate and offensive as her remarks were to people, I just can’t help wondering with PunditMom about all the other newsfolks who have gotten away with the most racist, homophobic and abhorrent commentary for years without even a slap on the wrist. Adam Serwer also has a good take.
Initial thoughts? (Please be civil folks!)

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81 Comments

  1. SamLL
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Seems more like saying all Americans should leave North America and return to Europe, returning the land to the Native Americans.
    Obviously never going to happen, and fundamentally pretty dumb, but aimed at the powerful group in a big power disparity and out of frustration with a perceived injustice.

  2. Lydia
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Oh, how I wish I could “like” this comment 100 times. However, I am very happy to see that most of the posters on this thread seem to agree with you and also take issue with this post. Because it got me pretty steamed.
    “As inappropriate and offensive as her remarks were to people, I just can’t help wondering with PunditMom about all the other newsfolks who have gotten away with the most racist, homophobic and abhorrent commentary for years without even a slap on the wrist.”
    Really guys? Really? Personally, I can’t help wondering if, had Helen Thomas made a blatantly offensive comment about another group, Feministing would be dismissing it with a single clause and defending her. And “inappropriate and offensive to people? Yeah, because I guess it’s just our problem. Way to pull the “I’m sorry you were offended” trick, guys. Oh but wait? Others have gotten away with other kinds of bigotry so this is just no-fair! Because two wrongs (or 100) make a right!
    I like reading this website because it has a lot of really interesting content but this is not the first time I’ve been disturbed by how quickly and willingly it dismisses, ignores, or tries to explain away anti-semitism. For a second, upon seeing the title of this post, I thought they were actually going to take somebody to task but, alas, that is not the case. This is getting more and more upsetting for me.
    WTF, Feministing?

  3. Lily A
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    And I apologize for my spelling of those holidays
    Since you knew you did not know how to spell the names of two of the most important holidays of the Jewish calendar, you could have taken the two seconds to google them and find one of the several accurate English spellings before posting, instead of apologizing for not bothering to correct yourself. In a conversation about Jewish folks, it would be more respectful to try to get it right than to basically say “I know I got it wrong, but I don’t really care enough to fix it.”

  4. attentat
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m a little amazed that people are suddenly losing their shit over this.
    Her words need to be considered in two related contexts. (1) Her age and the time periods that she lived through and therefore (2) the relatively recent history of the area historically called Palestine.
    Helen is almost 90. That means she was born in 1920. At that time, there were still not many Jews in Palestine (the whole area was called Palestine then, and I do think this whole area is the Palestine she refers to) and many of them had been there forever and were as Arab as they were Jewish (the distinction is fairly new). It was under British rule and the continued “modernization” of land ownership system that the explosion immigration from other (mostly European) countries occurred.
    Helen has been around long enough to have “witnessed” (in the historical sense) the immigration from Europe and America followed by several wars of conquest and felt it was unjust. I agree, for the same reasons I think that European immigration to America in the 16th-18th centuries was unjust.
    The ignorance in Helen’s comments comes, I think, from the lack of recognition that this historic injustice (the usurpation of an indigenous people’s home) can’t simply be “corrected” by removing the immigrants (many of whom had no choice; WWII refugees were turned away from other ports, including American ones).
    So, ignorant and ill-thought? Yes, but then, she got more or less ambushed (though I don’t think it was an intentional “ambush”). Anti-semitic? Naw, it just sounds that way to many people because it’s so far outside the mainstream rhetoric on Israel and Palestine (which is pretty narrow).

  5. davenj
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t make Helen Thomas’ comment any less bigoted. By saying that all Israeli Jews should go back to Europe she purposefully ignores Middle Eastern anti-semitism, the impetus for a mass migration of Middle Eastern and North African Jews that eclipsed the Palestinian refugee population, and which lost more land in those nations than the Palestinians did. The formation of Israel had a negative impact on Middle Eastern Jews, too, turning the relatively latent anti-semitism in the region into purposeful expulsion.
    There will be no right of return, ultimately, for either the displaced Palestinians or the displaced Jews. It just won’t happen.
    No, we ought not ignore the effect of the formation of Israeli on Palestinians. But we also shouldn’t whitewash Israel. It’s not a European country. Contrary to your assertion, less than half the Jewish population of Israel claims European descent. That 40% is just the descendants of the Jewish Nakba. Once you add in other non-European Jews the figure rises. European Jews have played a large role in the formation of Israel, but so have Jews from many other places.
    Telling an Ethiopian Jew to go home to Poland is the height of inanity.

  6. davenj
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    “There’s no nice solution and there never has been.”
    Such logic would seem to be able to justify just about anything. And your train of thought implies that Jews had a home elsewhere in the world when they came to Israel, which has been shown in just about every country Jews have resided in not to be the case. That was Diaspora Judaism.
    What should happen to the Jews ethnically cleansed from the Middle East in this relocation scenario? I’m sure Moammar Gaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are super pumped to give them equal rights and their property back in Libya and Iran, right? But hey, there’s no nice solution.
    Presenting Israeli Jews with the option of mass expulsion to areas that were never their homes will not create peace. It will create a siege mentality that will invariably hurt Palestinians and Israelis.
    So yes, there are no totally nice solutions, but there are nicer ones than telling all Jews to leave the Middle East, and those ones are a bit better than Helen Thomas’.

  7. davenj
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Nothing, on the face of it, until you look at the actual answer to the problem of Zionism, which involves expelling a huge amount of Jews from their homes in the Middle East to places that were never their homes.
    I sincerely doubt the viability of sending about three million Jews to Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, etc., where they will assuredly be treated with hate, violence, and be, at best, second-class citizens.
    Zionism has its flaws. Unfortunately, the world has provided no better options than Jewish nationalism.

  8. davenj
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    “I tend to find the institution of Israel objectionable because it sets one group up on a pedestal at the expense of the others in the region.”
    Completely unlike the Islamic republics of the region, right?
    /snark

  9. Ayla
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    The fact that so many people jumped on me for this really just proves that it is taboo to criticize Jewish people. Just because people actually do it doesn’t mean it’s not taboo.
    The Jewish people she was criticizing were the government. They’re Jewish just like their citizens are.
    Obviously she should not have said what she did about Jewish citizens going back to Poland and Germany. I do not wish to defend that. But I do stand by my assertion that men get away with this kind of shit ALL THE TIME and that criticizing Jewish people, and especially Israeli Jewish people, is taboo in the US.

  10. Katie
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Why is it that when one fights for Palestinian rights, and says that the Israelis should get out of Palestine, they become anti-semitic? Isn’t that just Pro-Palestinian, or anti-Israeli occupation, or anti-Zionist? Why must we call them anti-semitic, and sometimes even racist?

  11. LivingOutLoud
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Right…except those countries don’t call themselves democracies…
    I often hear people say, ‘why is there such constant criticism of Israel and not North Korea, Iran or China?’ While there is plenty of criticism of the practices of these governments, none of them claim to be democracies or upholders of international human rights standards – but Israel does.
    Iran doesn’t claim to be a democracy AND an Islamic nation, it claims to be the latter. Israel chooses to try and be both a democracy and a Jewish state(which is philosophically impossible in my opinion) and therefore automatically subjects itself to a more critical lens in the international sphere.

  12. Hrovitnir
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    1. Hell no, your age does not mean you can make remarks quite that fucked up. Israel is not
    alone in blocking piece by any interpretation.
    2. Even if her comment was in any way a “solution”, it’s not up to her. The situation is incredibly complicated and if there was an easy solution it would have happened already.
    3. No. No no no. Never. Are you absolutely kidding me? Everyone here must have made racist statements before? I have sympathy for people who were brought up by racist people and now regret stupid statements made in their youth, but that is the only excuse I can think of.
    I am sorry you project your racism onto everyone around you.

  13. Suzann
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    It would be like that IF you also thought ALL NATIVE AMERICANS should leave as well. She did not say ‘all recent arrivals from Europe – she said ALL JEWS should depart. Including those jewish families who had been their for centuries. In other words – she was planning a FINAL SOLUTION to the problem.

  14. W. Kiernan
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    …Jews were exterminated in Germany and in Poland during the Holocaust so naming those two particular countries was horrific…
    So what all happens if an Jew decides to immigrate to Germany today? Germany’s Nazi-era crimes against the Jews were indeed staggeringly horrific – so horrific that three generations later, Palestinians continue to pay for them. Palestinians, not Germans.

  15. davenj
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    “Iran doesn’t claim to be a democracy”
    Yes. Yes it does. Do you not remember the “elections” of last summer. Many Islamic republics in the region claim to be both democratic and Islamic. Now, as to how democratic they are is subject to question, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make the claim.
    England, secular as it is, officially has the Church of England.
    As long as Israel provides equal rights to its citizens there’s really no way to single it out for criticism compared to Iran, Syria, etc. And given that it has the largest religious minority in the entire Middle East, that says something. The Ba’hai faith has its world headquarters in Israel. Christians of a variety of types have freedom of worship at their holy sites in Jerusalem. Muslims have more rights in Israel than anywhere in the Middle East.
    If you’re so keen on advocating for real change in the Middle East it’d probably be best to focus on the ruthless dictatorships first, not the one liberal democracy.

  16. davenj
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    “The Jewish people she was criticizing were the government.”
    No. She didn’t. She said all Jews should essentially leave the Middle East. Helen Thomas said Jews should leave their homes to go “home” to Germany and Poland, something that’s demonstrably racist both in the fact that most Israeli Jews aren’t from Germany and Poland, as well as the fact that Europe was never “home” for Jews.
    It’s not taboo to criticize Jewish people. A huge chunk of American comedy is strictly about Jew jokes. And anti-semitism still exists.
    Legitimate criticism of Israel is one thing. Calling for the mass expulsion of over six million Jews from the Middle East? That’s taboo for a very good reason.

  17. davenj
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Because they are arguing that Jews, or a majority Jewish nation, has no place in the Middle East, purely out of religious or ethnic reasons. That’s religious/ethnic racism.
    Now, had she said Israelis should leave the West Bank that would be different. But Helen Thomas here said the exact same thing that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Al Qaeda say all the time: Jews have no place living in the Middle East.
    That’s racist. That’s a racist statement. It’s plain as day.
    Unless you consider it a Palestinian right to live in a Jew-free land what Helen Thomas actually advocated was massive ethnic cleansing.

  18. VickyinSeattle
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    So, if people disagree with you, that means what you believe is inherently taboo (and the hidden truth that only you dare call out)?
    The reason so many people have responded to your comment is because we simply disagree with you. No one is telling you to shut up for daring to say something forbidden. This is a forum for debate, and that’s what we’re all doing here–debating, discussing, etc.
    You’re reminding me of the white men who complain they can’t make fun or put down anyone these days. E.g., a man makes a misogynistic comment, and when several women call him out on it, he says, “See? No one can say anything bad about women these days b/c the feminazis created this PC environment!”

  19. Lydia
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I could have written this comment.
    I share your frustrations of being a liberal Jew who is critical of Israel but who also often feels abandoned by the progressive community. It is very lonely and often extremely painful for me. Reading your post made me feel a little less lonely though, and I hope me expressing solidarity makes you feel a little less lonely too.
    Feministing was not here for us, but I guess it did incidentally bring out people who could be here for each other.

  20. davenj
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Yep. Not all taboos exist for a bad reason. It’s taboo to say stuff like what Helen Thomas said because it’s extremely racist.
    Also, it’s clearly not THAT taboo to be prejudiced against Jews if Helen Thomas gets this much support on a site that purportedly opposes ethnic and religious hatred.
    Take the quote “As inappropriate and offensive as her remarks were to people”. Now, this is the same site that was up in arms over the Arizona immigration law, and a site that would never qualify screams of “go back to Mexico!” as being offensive “to [other] people”.
    It’s not just that the statement Thomas made was racist, it’s also that, as much as people claim it’s taboo, it really doesn’t appear to be so at all, at least not on Feministing, where apparently combating racism only goes so far.

  21. Vanessa
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Apologies to those who are upset or disappointed by this post – I was trying to broaden the conversation and point out potential hypocrisy, not excuse Thomas’ comments.

  22. makomk
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    It’d be nice if the Jews who had been there for centuries could stay in this scenario. The trouble is, it turns out that they generally feel far more common cause with the other Jewish immigrants than their non-Jewish neighbours – to the point of largely supporting the ethnic cleansing of said neighbours in order to establish a Jewish religious state. This took a lot of the Arab population of Mandate Palestine by surprise and not in a good way.
    There’s enough anti-Muslim racism in Western countries over the mere suggestion they’re going to invade and create an Islamic state. Imagine what would happen if they actually did so successfully, and you have some idea of just how thoroughly bridges have been burned.

  23. Ayla
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Finally someone with some sense. Thank you.

  24. Lily A
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    One more chiming in.
    This article made me feel a lot less lonely — turns out there are a lot of us: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/

  25. davenj
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Yeah, because racism and ethnic cleansing in majority Muslim nations of their Jewish populations had NOTHING to do with the reaction of Jews in Mandate Palestine, and later Israel.
    The reason why Jews felt the need for a Jewish majority state needs to be addressed. When every neighbor treats you like a second class citizen, expels you, and steals your property what response do you expect?
    I mean, I could ask why the Palestinians aren’t keen on asking Egypt to make financial restitution for the Jewish Nakba, but the answer is obvious: they don’t care.
    Jewish ethnic nationalism in Israel rose to prominence because of a lack of any real alternatives, and that includes “peaceful” “coexistence” in a majority Islamic nation. Just ask the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
    As for burnt bridges, you presume such bridges existed and were stable. But tell that to Jews from Tunis to Tehran who found out that, when push came to shove, they were never really citizens of majority Muslim nations.
    Some bridge.

  26. makomk
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Let’s be clear: the European Jewish immigrants to Palestine from the 1920s onwards didn’t exactly believe in peaceful co-existence in the usual sense. They were aiming for a Jewish state all along, they just thought that the rest of the population would be happier under Jewish rule because they were so much superior to the Arab natives and could make their lives much better – the same as all the other colonialists from Europe, in other words. Take a look at the actual words of some of the early Zionists if you don’t believe me. (Well, the ones who didn’t consider the area effectively uninhabited, anyway.)
    In fact, you can trace the start of the really unpleasant anti-Jewish stuff in Palestine to the point when it became clear that the Zionists were likely to be able to pull this off (via large-scale land purchases and a certain amount of political clout in Britain). Note that this back before the Second World War and the rise of the Nazi party, back when British colonialism was still viable.

  27. davenj
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    “In fact, you can trace the start of the really unpleasant anti-Jewish stuff in Palestine to the point when it became clear that the Zionists were likely to be able to pull this off”
    Oh. Well I guess as long as the racism that pre-dated that stuff wasn’t REALLY unpleasant then the whole notion of Zionism is pointless. Because Lord knows if Jews want to live in the Middle East they have to put up with at least a little bit of racism and second-class citizenship, right?
    Jews were never legal or cultural equals to Muslims in the rest of the Middle East, not before European Zionism, and not after the formation of Israel.

  28. makomk
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Generally, racism is supposed to be about, y’know, race and not religion – remember that the Jews, Muslims and Christians living in these areas were for the most part of the same race as each other, and the racial boundaries were and are not the same as the religious ones. And yes, the various Islamic states and their Muslim citizens were remarkably tolerant of Christians and Jews, at least compared to the level of religious tolerance in every other country ever (including nominally secular states). Some of the post-Enlightenment secular states may now be better, but that’s a fairly high standard.

  29. makomk
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Also, to be quite honest I doubt anyone is in a position from which they can safely criticize the treatment of the Jewish population of Palestine, especially prior to Zionism bearing fruit – it’s just most of its critics are nice and ignorant of events closer to home. To be frank, it was an awful lot better than the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities in Europe and the US – but the way we mistreated and still mistreat them either seems normal or can be blamed on Other People who Aren’t Like Us.

  30. davenj
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    “And yes, the various Islamic states and their Muslim citizens were remarkably tolerant… Some of the post-Enlightenment secular states may now be better, but that’s a fairly high standard.”
    And again, the case for Zionism. Generally benevolent second class citizenship interspersed with sporadic violence and the ongoing threat of expulsion and loss of all property is not, at least in my mind, remarkable.
    If and when the world meets the “fairly high standard” of real equality then perhaps this could be a discussion. Until then I really wouldn’t expect to make headway by touting the (significantly) better of two awful options as “remarkable”.
    None of that disavows the West’s history of prejudice. But it does show why Jewish nationalism is, in the minds of many Jews, the only alternative to being forced to choose between varying degrees of prejudice.

  31. makomk
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    So allowing every formerly oppressed group the opportunity to become an even worse oppressor is your solution to the problem of racial and religious hatred? That’s not only one of the most horribly cynical ideas I’ve come across – it’s also impossible, unless you subsequently redefine the oppressor as the oppressed. Which thankfully we have in this case.

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