By: Allan Wolper
Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas told a national conference of campus journalists that President Obama owes her an apology for his criticism last year of her comments about Israel.
“I want an apology from the president,” Thomas, 90, said Tuesday to the hundreds of student journalists and their advisers attending the keynote session of the annual spring convention of College Media Advisers (CMA) at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City.
Shin Inouye, director of specialty media in the presidential press office, said the White House would not comment on Thomas’ demand for a presidential apology.
The CMA is a 57-year-old organization that offers guidance to students and advisers at college and university newspapers, radio and television stations, and yearbooks across the country.
Thomas resigned last June as a White House columnist for Hearst News Services after the perfect storm of protest that followed the posting of a YouTube video in which she suggested that Israelis “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to “Poland, Germany…America and everywhere else.”
She made those comments last May 27 during American Jewish Heritage month on the White House lawn in a video interview with Rabbi David F. Nesenoff, an independent filmmaker who edited the piece for his website, RabbiLive.com.
In response to criticism that he ambushed her, Nesenoff emphasized that he was wearing White House press credentials around his neck when he approached Thomas. His one minute YouTube production included a video blackboard reminding viewers that Nazi Germany had shipped millions of Jews to concentration death camps in Poland during World War II.
The video was posted one week after the interview and soon went viral, recording more than 1.7 million hits by early March of this year.
President Obama soon afterward told NBC-TV’s Matt Lauer of “The Today Show” that Thomas did the right thing in resigning as a White House columnist.
“Her comments were offensive,” Obama said. “It’s a shame because Helen’s someone who has been a correspondent through I don’t know how many presidents, was a real institution in Washington, D. C. But I think she made the right decision. I think those comments are out of line, and hopefully she recognizes that.”
Thomas, a longtime critic of Israeli policies, also issued a mea culpa of her own on her personal website: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not affect my heartfelt 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 website with the Thomas apology was taken down on January 7, which some media organizations saw as a change of mind. However, Thomas had consistently criticized Israeli policies the entire fall, which, in effect, made her apology moot.
Thomas covered every American president from 1961 to 2000 for United Press International. She resigned in 2000 and went to work for Hearst, maintaining an ubiquitous presence in the first row of the White House press room – the only reporter who had a name on her seat. She lost her front row seat when she resigned from Hearst, and now must reapply for the White House press pass she had held for more than 50 years.
She is now writing a column for the Falls Church News-Press, a respected weekly newspaper that is distributed in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.
At the CMA convention, Thomas repeated her May 27, 2010 assertion that the Israeli government is an oppressor on occupied land. “They are building Jewish-only roads,” she said. “They are knocking on the doors of Palestinians and driving them from their homes.”
Thomas said her remarks last year in which she said that the Israelis should return to their native German and Polish lands was misinterpreted to give the mistaken impression that she was referring to concentration camps. At one point during the session, Shira Kaminsky, a 23-year-old student journalist at the University of Massachusetts, stood up and announced that she was a third generation Israeli.
“You said that Israelis should leave their country,” Kaminsky said, standing at the rear of the crowded room. “Where should we go?”
“Where are your grandparents from?” Thomas asked.
“Poland and Romania,” Kaminsky replied.
“Then come to America,” Thomas responded.
Kaminsky, who migrated to the United States on August 28, 2001, two weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, became an American citizen last year. She was stunned by Thomas’ reply.
“I didn’t understand what she was saying,” Kaminsky said Tuesday at the convention, and in a follow-up telephone call. “Helen Thomas is always talking about the Jewish lobby in the United States. What does she think the Jewish lobby would be like if six million people pick up, leave Israel, and come to America?”
“It’s not a rational argument to say that an entire country should be dismantled,” Kaminsky continued. “I came here to see her because she has been an inspiration to me. I really do admire her career and what she has done for women in journalism. I just don’t know what her problem is.”
Then Kaminsky paused, and said, “But I don’t think she is anti-Semitic.”
Thomas expanded on her call for a presidential apology in an interview at the convention, insisting that she wasn’t looking to change Israel’s status as a country. However, she insisted that the United Nations erred when it voted in 1948 to ratify Israel’s existence.
“It should have been one state, with Palestinians and Jews living together,” she said. “And I believe that any peace treaty should allow Palestinians who had to leave in 1948 the right to return to their homes.”
What should happen to the Israelis who live in those homes now, she was asked. “They should leave,” she said.
The convention session was moderated by Christine Tatum, a former reporter for the Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune, and 2006 national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Tatum is at the forefront of the movement to reinstate the SPJ Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award, which the journalism organization “retired” earlier this year. SPJ’s leadership acted after Thomas told a January conference of Arab journalists in Detroit that the media, Hollywood, and the White House are controlled by Zionists.
Wayne State University, Thomas’ alma mater, suspended its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award. As a partial reason, the university credited the reaction of journalists such as Leonard Pitts, Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald.
Pitts, who won the diversity award last year, expressed his view in a poignant column that was published right after Nesenoff’s video was posted. “Life sure takes some funny bounces,” Pitts wrote. “Two months ago, I was honored to receive an award in the name of a woman who has asked combative questions of every president since John F. Kennedy. Two months later, receiving a Helen Thomas award in the spirit of diversity feels not unlike receiving a Kim Jong-il award in the spirit of diplomacy.”
Allan Wolper, professor of journalism at Rutgers University, is the host of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a podcast on WBGO.org, an NPR affiliate in the New York area. He has won more than 50 journalism prizes. His ethics columns in E&P have been honored by The National Press Club and the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.