Helen Thomas, Israel and a graduation speech that won’t happen

Update: JTA is reporting that Thomas has retired, effective immediately.

Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD, a prosperous Washington suburb, had a graduation speaker all lined up for the June 14 event. But then the proposed speaker was caught on camera saying Israels should “get the hell out of Palestine” and maybe just go back where they came from – presumably places like Germany and Poland.

That was Helen Thomas, the Hearst Newspapers columnist and a member of the White House press corps for 60 years.  Her comments produced the predictable reaction, with some Jewish groups calling for Hearst to give her the ax because of her  blatant bias against the Jewish state and some Jewish Republicans trying to lay the controversy in the lap of the Obama administration.

According to the Washington Post, Whitman’s principal canceled Thomas’ speech, saying in an email “Graduation celebrations are not the venue for divisiveness.”

Thomas, long regarded by pro-Israel activists as one of the most hostile members of the mainstream press, issued an official apology on her Web site.

“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.”

The reaction to her apology from Jewish groups: yeah, right. The ADL, in a statement, said the apology did “not go far enough.”

Abraham Foxman, the group’s director, said “Her remarks were outrageous, offensive and inappropriate…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.”

Well, maybe they caused pain, but they also generated some satisfaction; some pro-Israel activists have long argued that media critics like Thomas aren’t just critics of Israeli policy but opponents of the Jewish state itself, and her recorded comments gave them a lot of new ammunition.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America issued a statement on Monday calling on Hearst to “discipline” Thomas.

"Helen Thomas has showed herself to be a bigot and her ‘apology’ fails to address the anti-Semitism of her comments. She has no place in the White House briefing room and should at the very least be suspended," said Jerry Silverman president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America and Rabbi Steve Gutow president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in their statement.

ZOA president Morton Klein was characteristically blunter.

“Helen Thomas’ long record of hostile questioning and grandstanding speeches in the guise of questions regarding Israel at White House press conferences over many years indicates only too clearly that Thomas has long harbored deep hostility towards Israel which she has now revealed to go even further – denying Jewish nationhood and the Jewish right to a sovereign state,” Klein said in a statement. “She is clearly an anti-Semitic bigot.”

What about the fact Thomas was chosen in the first place as graduation speaker for a high school with a big Jewish student body?

The ADL’s Foxman said he wasn’t surprised.

“Look, she’s gotten every journalism award imaginable; she’s an icon," he said.

But that doesn’t excuse her anti-Israel outburst, the ADL leader said.

According to the New York Times, Thomas was also dropped by her speakers’ agency.

And on Monday White House spokesman Robert Gibbs took a shot at Thomas, calling her comments “offensive and reprehensible…Obviously, those remarks do not reflect the opinion, I assume, of most of the people in here and certainly not of the administration.”

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.