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June 8th, 2010
03:18 AM ET

The rabbi whose question ended Helen Thomas' career

From CNN Senior National Editor Dave Schechter:

Most Americans have never heard of Rabbi David Nesenoff, but they now know his work behind the camera. Nesenoff is an independent filmmaker who asked columnist Helen Thomas the question that brought an end to her decades-long career.

Nesenoff was at the White House on May 27 with a media credential, representing his website www.rabbilive.com, to cover an event marking Jewish Heritage Month. He was accompanied by his 17-year-old son Adam, who also was credentialed – representing his website www.shmoozepoint.com – and a friend of his son.

They had attended a White House news conference at which Thomas, known as the dean of the White House press corps, was one of the reporters to question President Obama. Afterwards, Nesenoff and his son asked various people at the White House – from a TV reporter to a Jewish boxer to visiting rabbis – to offer thoughts on Israel.

It was in the driveway outside the north entrance to the White House where Nesenoff saw Thomas. “Let’s meet her, let’s learn something” Nesenoff recalled telling the boys. “I didn’t remember that she had pro-Palestinian thoughts, anti-Semitic feelings,” he said.

What followed has been viewed online more than one million times on various sites, Nesenoff says.

“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas told them. “Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland’s.”

That answer in and of itself might have caused a minor stir. Regular viewers of White House news conferences over the years have heard her ask questions that betrayed sympathy for the Palestinians, perhaps not surprising for a U.S.-born daughter of Christian immigrants from Lebanon. But Nesenoff followed up by asking where the Jews living in Israel should go.

“They could go home. Poland, Germany,” Thomas replied, “ . . . and America, and everywhere else.”

“I was hurt, I was shocked,” Nesenoff told me. He was less concerned about Thomas’ retirement. “There are bigger issues here,” he said, “of anti-Semitism tied into anti-Israel (sentiment).”

After Nesenoff posted the video online, Thomas apologized in a statement. “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."

It was not enough to quiet the uproar. Nesenoff is looking for something more personal. “She owes me an apology,” he says. “She owes my son an apology.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Israel • Judaism • Middle East • Politics

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soundoff (1,598 Responses)
  1. Frances

    Nice going Rabbi. Helen Thomas is 89 years old. The way you baited her was appalling, simpering like a child. You knew what her answer would be, and so did her so-called "handlers" who should be beaten with a heavy stick for letting her walk into that. What an end to a career...

    June 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  2. Jerry

    Has anyone seen the "We Con the Word" music video...priceless. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOGG_osOoVg

    June 8, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  3. Buzz Fluhart

    Knowing her.. she would have died in that press chair... Glad she's gone... They ought to get rid of everyone over 70 including people like Byrd - RE-ELECT NO ONE... and it sure is nice to see another liberal gone...

    June 8, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  4. David

    There is freedom of speech but there are consequences when people make statements that not very well thought out. Go back to Poland and Germany? These are countries that tried to exterminate the Jews. Also, Jews have populated these areas for thousands of years. I understand her compasion for the Palestinian people but there is an intelligent way to articulate this.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
    • Tim

      Lots of Jews emmigrate to Germany. This is 2010, not 1939.

      June 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  5. dfausett

    I believe the good Rabbi owes Helen Thomas an apology. He took advantage of her graciousness in granting him and his son an interview to destry her career and reputation. He does not have to agree with what she said. He is being vindictive and destructive against an elderly woman who made some unfortunate remarks. She has said that she regrets them. What more does he want? Helen Thomas is not obligated to be supportive of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. Let us pray for peace in Jerusalem.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  6. David

    There is freedom of speech but when people make statements that not very well thought out. Go back to Poland and Germany? These are countries that tried to exterminate the Jews. Also, Jews have populated these areas for thousands of years. I understand her compasion for the Palestinian people but there is an intelligent way to articulate this.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  7. Donice

    If you ask someone a question,there answer may not be what you want to hear.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  8. Dickerin

    Nesenoff reinforces the very worst stereotypes of Jews... as a 'reporter' demanding an apology from Helen... that is the most reprehensible act of chutzpah...

    June 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  9. Rabbi Lalo

    We never forget the oppressions imposed against us in the past as we move forward and impose our self – defense/justice on those who dare threaten our survival – period

    June 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
    • Rudolph Schmidt

      What about preemptive "defense/justice"?

      June 8, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  10. Isa

    Some years ago I met Ms Thomas at a Jewish event.and we had a brief conversation. I liked her then, and I am truly sorry of the way her professional life has ended. However, as a journalist, she should have been aware that not all Israelis are of European ancestry, a great number of them took refuge in Israel after they were kicked out of their ancestral homes in Arab countries. Many of them still carry the key to the house they will never see again. Injustices take place worldwide and what we should strive for is to try to reach compromises and peaceful solutions. What Ms Thomas said, reprehensible and uninformed as it was is not very important as it has no political effect. What we should all strive for is a peaceful solution in Israel without name calling, bigotry and hateful discourse on both sides of the conflict

    June 8, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
    • Tim

      She said theyshould go anywere, not just Germany or Poland.

      June 8, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  11. John

    Israel is a big lie and will end soon.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
  12. Joe from IL

    This is simply ridiculous! She never said a single word about Jews. There are non-Jews living in Israel. She simply said that the Israelis are occupying Palestinian lands (true) and that they should go back home. She doesn't believe the State of Israel should exist, and neither do I. She is ticked off about Israel's treatment of Palestinians, not Jews. This has been blown way out of proportion and she should get her job back. She has a right to her opinion just like everyone else!

    June 8, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  13. Adam

    People need to really read this artcile and what our esteemed Rabbi says: “Let’s meet her, let’s learn something” Nesenoff recalled telling the boys. “I didn’t remember that she had pro-Palestinian thoughts, anti-Semitic feelings,” he said... also note this quote: “I was hurt, I was shocked,” Nesenoff told me. He was less concerned about Thomas’ retirement. “There are bigger issues here,” he said, “of anti-Semitism tied into anti-Israel (sentiment).”
    What the Rabbi tells us is that if we are "pro-Palestinian", then we are "anti semetic". The bigger issue is "anti-Semitisim" ties into anti- Israel sentiment.
    There can never be peace in the middle east when radicals like the Rabbi here can equate pro-Paelstinian feelings with anti-Semitism. The fact of the matter is most Arab Palestinians have no rights in Israel, they live in overcrowded ghettos or refugee camps, are rountinely harrassed at checkpoints, are treated as thrid class citizens, and are perodically blockaded and bombed by high tech US backed or supplied Israeli ships and aircraft.
    Thousands upon tens of thousands of Palestinians, including children, have been killed by Israeli military and occupation operations since the 6 day war. Whole families have been wiped out, children on their way to school have been murdered by Israeli snipers, it has been one of the worst human rights tragedies of the modern day. Isareeal has seized productive lfarmland, Israel controls the flow of water and food, the Paelstinian Arab has been denied almost everything in Israel.
    Granted their have been Arab terorist attacks, sucide bombings and the like, but it does not change the fact that after the second world war millions of Jews migrated to Israel and displaced the people that had already been living there. and Israel has enjoyed a free reign to do as it pleases.
    Wake up people, educate yourself on this conflict. Dont buy into the Zionist propaganda and hype.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  14. Christy

    Bravo israel, even a 91 years old American Christian can't win against you in America. America needs to wake up and review real careful its relationship to the israelis.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  15. Interesting

    I can not say that I agree with her comments. But the fact still remains she has just as much right to her opinion as anyone else does. Unless of course Hussein has changed that too without us knowing about it.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  16. Rudolph Schmidt

    Statehood does not require a clean conscience – just recognition of other states. Unfortunately, once a state has been widely recognized, it ends most consequential debate over legitimacy. Do I think Israel is a state? Yes. Do I think Jews need a state of their own? Yes. But I also think it is worthwhile to point out that there is a difference between anti-semitism and anti-zionism. You do can be anti-zionist without being anti-semitic or racist. I also believe that there can be a semantic difference between the connotation of the term 'anti-semitism', and the connotation of the term 'racist'. Judging SOLELY on Thomas' comments, I'd say she crossed the line from purely anti-zionist to racist.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  17. mastersam2000

    The lady is old maybe demented. she kept her opinion in the closet for a long time but when her brain got mushed that morning she could not control it, as she have problems controlling her bladder. this lady looks like a witch and act like one possibly lost her broom. done at age 88 not so bad ,quiet a run

    June 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  18. ginsburg

    “Let’s meet her, let’s learn something” Nesenoff recalled telling the boys. “I didn’t remember that she had pro-Palestinian thoughts, anti-Semitic feelings,” he said.

    Perhaps he doesn't remember it because she wasn't anti-Semitic or pro-Palestinian. After 50 years of reporting Thomas simply wanted peace in the Middle East. I am distressed that she has had to retire because of this highly partisan interviewer. Thomas looked for the truth, asked the questions other journalists were afraid to ask and was the epitome of a journalist.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  19. Sammy

    Everyone is missing the point. The land of Israel belongs to the Jews. READ THE BIBLE!

    June 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
    • Joe from IL

      READ THE QUR'AN, the land belongs to Arabs!

      June 8, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  20. Cutie

    lol...why doesnt helen go back to where her ancestors were from? Why dont immigrants all over the world returned to where their heritiage originated from? Israel is surrounded by enemies..people who want them wiped off the planet...just because they're different then their Muslim neighbors. Their muslim neighbors chased their own countrymen out of the country because they have different religious beliefs. I dont blame them for protecting themselves.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.