Reconciling Helen

Written on Monday, June 20th:

Scrolling through Facebook Sunday morning and reading the statuses regarding Helen Thomas’s death presented the range of opinion and emotion one would expect with approximately 800 friends on Facebook. Pro-Israel advocates shared their various forms of “Ding-Dong the witch is dead” opinions, contrasted with my pro-Palestinian associates praising her search for truth and unabashed way of expressing her opinion. Journalistic friends took the high ground, celebrating the overall career of a woman who changed the face of White House pressroom.

So, after thinking about it much of yesterday and today, reading a dozen or so op-eds and obituaries, not to mention a Wikipedia page and President Obama’s remarks, I seem to be right back where I started when trying to summarize how a journalism student, a Zionist, the grandchild of holocaust and pogrom survivors, and an observant Jewish student have all contributed to my conflicted opinion about the life and death of Helen Thomas, the woman who in 2010 was forced to retire her post at the White House Pressroom for Hearst Newspapers for saying Jews should “Get the hell out of Palestine…go home…to Germany or Poland…or America or everywhere else.”

Unlike other criticisms, the late Thomas’s was different. It felt targeted, pointed, bitter and raw. While she may have always been critical of Israeli-American relations, this was not simply a criticism; it was attack on Jewish legitimacy as a people and a veritable death sentence, returning to Germany and Poland, as if to open an old wound. It was like those few words encompassed the two millennia of anti-Semitism we so often feel but rarely see in this day and age.

As a journalism student, I cannot help but respect Helen Thomas.  You dream of having the balls to stare down authority the way she could. She turned the most tepid pressroom in the country into a level playing field, asking the tough questions we all wish we could. She had a reputation for being grandmotherly to the newest members of the press corps, stern yet welcoming. She had a passion for underdogs and the moxy and intelligence to give them a fighting chance. She stood for telling the whole story, not just the pieces that are convenient.

All these characteristics garner from me nothing but admiration, which is why her infamous 2010 comment has me so vexed and perplexed. As an Observant Jew and a Zionist I have always felt one fact to be true: the Jewish people are just that, a people. Not only are we a people but we are a people in exile from our homeland, the land of Israel. Call me a optimistic but I long for that day that, as Hatikvah dreams, we are “a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem”.

I am not naïve; I don’t believe that the state of Israel’s path to equilibrium has been the purest, but that’s a story for another time. Like any relativist, I weigh each side and think clearly and positively. So up to 2010, even with the tendency to be heavily anti-Israel in her rhetoric, I took what Thomas would say with a grain of salt.

What really burns me about Ms. Thomas’s remarks is that they go against the grain of everything she sought to stand up for. It shows complete ignorance with regard to the Jewish dilemma within this world. These lands that we reside in are not the lands of the Jewish people. Germany and Poland showed us firsthand the dangers of becoming too comfortable in the diaspora. I know that we live in an age where, thank G-d, we are protected by law and can practice Judaism freely almost anywhere, but I do believe that a Jewish state is necessary for its people in our ancient homeland of Israel. To ignore these basic necessities and instead spit the very instigators of the greatest reminder of the dangers of the Jewish Diaspora back in our faces is not only insulting and anti-Israel, but truly the remarks of an anti-Semite.

So how am I supposed to remember this journalistic giant? Do I ignore years of trailblazing because of one insidious remark and a differing opinion? Does one comment destroy the reputation of an otherwise golden record?

Pirkei Avot (The Tractate of the Mishna containing sagely wisdom of talmudic era) states “One who is bashful cannot learn (Avot 2:6)”. Helen Thomas was anything but bashful and refused to let anyone give her anything but the truth. I’d like to think she would have fared well in a Yeshiva, going toe to toe with a Rabbi over a tractate of the talmud. Perhaps it’s in this weird way that I do find myself relating to her, since my want to study journalism comes from Talmudic study and a desire to ask the tough questions and seek truth. I find myself at odds personally forgiving Helen Thomas because she let me down with her incendiary remarks. They were narrow minded and one-sided, ignorant of the true issues at stake. That was not the Helen Thomas I want to remember. So rest in piece to the woman who taught the White House to stay on their toes, and good riddance to the woman who refused to behave with the same thoughtfulness she expected out of our world leaders.

About the Author
Gabriel Felder is a rising senior at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. He has also served multiple positions in the GWU Hillel and has largely focused on faith based dialogue on campus.
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