Like any little girl growing up in the 1970s who dreamed of a career in journalism, I couldn’t but help but look up to Helen Thomas. There she was, front row to history, president after president, asking her questions and closing each press conference with her signature “Thank You, Mr. President” and earning the title of “Dean of the White House Press Corps.”
Those of us with Lois Lane fantasies who nonetheless doubted our ability to ever resemble the poised and perfectly groomed Barbie doll TV anchorwomen, drew hope from the determined dowdy, slightly kooky lady who dared to challenge presidents with her questions. She was the first woman officer of the National Press Club, the first woman officer and first female president of the White House Correspondents Association.
In my 20s, while the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, I had the opportunity to sit in the White House press room — albeit numerous rows behind Thomas and the other veterans.
I never approached her. By then, the Lebanese-America Thomas’ views on the Middle East were no secret to me. Her questions on Israel and the Palestinians, during the various crises were pointed enough that members of the Israeli press corps could guess what she was thinking. We didn’t find this shocking or unusual; there are plenty of working journalists in Washington who aren’t fans of Israel. And by that time, few took Thomas or her outlet (UPI) very seriously.
Despite my diminished expectations, seeing Thomas propose, while chuckling, that Jews “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home to Poland and Germany” was shockingly disconcerting.
I knew she was dotty, knew she disliked Israel — but this? Being 89 years old is no excuse for advocating ethno-religious cleansing, nor indifference to the millions of Jews who remained in their “proper place” in Germany and Poland and were exterminated.
Truly unforgivable — she’s a journalist — is how she got the facts wrong. Does she know that the majority of Israelis are of Middle Eastern origin? Does she suggest that the Yemenite, Syrian, Libyan, Egyptian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews “go home” as well? How does she think their “homecoming” will be received? These are questions we are unlikely to hear answered. Instead we have her boilerplate apology. It’s a sad conclusion to what I would have liked to have continued to view as an admirable career.
Obviously, witnessing so much history does not mean you learn anything from it.
Watch Helen Thomas’ statement to Rabbi David Nesenoff: