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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. PW

    Yet another person (Thomas) who blames everyone for the problems these "Arab Palestinians" have–except the "Arab Palestinians" themselves.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  2. Silence Dogood

    Bringing religion into any discussion about Judaism requires full disclosure.

    Naana pontificates about how the Jews were driven out of Palastine 2000 years ago and how bad that was. Why exactly was that? For the sake of completeness and accuracy, you're going to have to mention the story of Jesus. The Jews were out to kill Jesus, at any cost. Remember the Jews killing the first born child in everly home? How about the crucifiction of Jesus? So, if you're going to bring up ancient history then be prepared to discuss both sides of the story.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
    • Howard Barnes

      My understandng is that the Diaspora occurred long after the death of Jesus? And it was the Romans who drove them out. Do you have access to information that I'm not aware of???

      June 8, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
    • Kickstart

      Um, Jesus was Jewish. And according to Christian teachings, if he hadn't been crucified, then nobody's sins would be forgiven, and no Christians could go to heaven. So you should be thankful that the "Jews killed Jesus", just as God planned it. Jesus was just a wise peaceful dude who thought the world would be a better place if we were nice to each other instead of holding on to grudges, like about 2000-year-old assassinations.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  3. Kickstart

    A person can be anti-Israeli occupation without being anti-semetic. What happened to the Jews in WWII was tragic, but for the U.N. to establish Israel on already-inhabited Palestinian lands was short-sighted. There are no good answers, and both sides are to blame for the never-ending violence.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • Raffi

      Israel was not established on Palestinian-occupied land. In fact, it was established on a portion of british mandated-palestine. The arabs living in the country were offered their own land in the territory, but turned it down and instead prepared for war. They lost the war. Learn your history Kickstart.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
    • Kickstart

      @ Raffi – I admit I don't know as much as I should. I will do some research. It's a terrible situation, and I can't imagine how it could be resolved.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • oceans

      Part of the problem with criticizing Israel and then complaining of being called anti-semitic is that speakers often conflate "Israel" with "Jews." Israeli politicians are as representative of Jews in Israel as US politicians are of Americans. The other problem is that many people limit their education to junk like soundbites. The astonishing lack of formal education about Middle Eastern history is obvious on this board. People form deeply-felt emotional reactions to the situation although they understand almost nothing about it.

      June 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
  4. Michael Rutkowski

    Somehow it's amazing how Israel can wipe any criticism of their actions with calling it anti-semitic. What? You can't say anything bad about this country? Everything critical is a big taboo... Israel needs to stop playing a victim, it was 60 years ago... and now the hated Nazis turnout to be the Israelis. It's almost shocking to see this happen in my generation... victim becomes the victimizer... There was a Warsaw Ghetto now it's Gaza... same crap all over again. You are surprised that mothers and children walk to your doorstep with a bomb strapped to their bodies? It's an act of desperation, what they can do, throw rocks at the tanks? These people have no future, no chances for education, all they know it's a war, war, revenge, etc. Terrorists you call them, who were the first terrorist with strapped bombs to their bodies when Jews were fighting with Brits in Palestine for their State? Look up the history more... yes, Jews were called the terrorists then by the Brits so shocked by the suicidal attacks... that they withdrew. Somehow Israeli propaganda now changed the image so everybody thinks it's the arabs who started it all. Every nation in our history fighting with an oppressor was called terrorists. Nazis called terrorists underground soldiers during WWII, during Warsaw's Ghetto Uprising they were calling Jews terrorists, then poles during Warsaw Uprising as well. Thousands terrorists fighting for their freedom.... who says that what we or other oppressing others are in the right? History one day will be the judge, maybe Israel-US will be called the new Hitler/Stalin states? Sure, the way some people choose more barbaric ways to make the freedom statement... is it worst than seeing a Apache helicopter tearing people into bloody pieces from the distance, like a video game? You don't see this barbaric? This woman made a comment that was no politically correct... but it was not anti-semitic.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Hugo A

      Agree!!!

      June 8, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • Aadil

      couldn't agree more. It's like...oh, we don't like these people, lets call them terrorists. The entire Palestinian population are not terrorists anymore than the entire Israeli population are terrorists. In recent years, according to United Nations Office of for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2007, 25 Palestinians were killed for each 1 Israeli. That's 1,000 palistianian deaths per every 40 Israelis. The Israelis not only continue to occupy Palestine and without them from getting basic necessities, but they continue to build and develop more and more on Palestinian soil, while kicking out the people that are currently living there. In protest many women, children, and men die. This creates more and more hatred. Imagine if someone came to your neighborhood and said this land now belongs to us and doing so in a hostile fashion, at times leveling homes while people are still inside, killing families, and then to get away with it, they just report that they were militants. And while the world sits and blames some nice old lady for saying the truth. They need to get the hell out of Palestine.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  5. kefftedde

    if that's the case, sarah palin should have been fired from her job from day one, what with all the ridiculous stupid bs that comes out of her yap. i do hope she enjoys her days going forward. as for the rabbi, what a moron. the territory IS occupied. this is the problem with separate communities or relgions or whatever (gay, black, jew, latin, etc) – they are all territorial and defensive by nature – mixing and mingling and everyone getting along amongst each other is the ONLY way to have true peace.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
  6. Arden

    What she said was racist and anti-Semitic because she seems to feel that Jews alone do not deserve to live in their ancient homeland and should go "home" to the countries where their relatives were gassed just for being themselves. She is also ignorant because she seems not to realize that Israel is the ancient Jewish homeland and that the majority of Israelis are descended from Middle Eastern Jews who were expelled by Arabs and that the vast majority of Jewish citizens of Israel were born their. One can reasonably be pro-Palestinian or against Israel's policies without being an ignorant racist anti-Semite. But one cannot ignore the fact that Israel is the ancient Jewish homeland and that Europe is obviously not without being such. It is by definition impossible. She certainly has her right to freedom of speech and I would support her right to say what she did, but Hurst Corp. would be tainted by her racism if they kept her and she had no right to retain her private employment. Hurst was absolutely correct to let her go...

    June 8, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
    • toxictown

      Of course it depends on how far you want to go back. Everyone in the Near East is decendantly a semite, probably coming from the African continent via the Arabian peninsula or another so. west > n. east migratory route. Much later, the Jews of the Abraham story migrated from what is now Iraq (Ur) so...where do you draw the line? It's all he said/she said turf foolishness "backed up" by the shoddy record keeping and "divine word" in thousand year old books.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  7. relieved...

    I have a Pakastani family to the left of me, Indian to the right, Yeman's across the street and Kenyan's next to them and Hispanics a few doors further down, yet..... we all water our lawns together, talk of sports and work, raise our kids to play together, we see each other at the mall and we pass each other on the way to and from work with a wave. There are parties on the street for the fourth of July with lots of fun and food for all of us. Everyone participates. We share and respect all the various holidays we each celebrate. We all are enjoying each others company and laughing together as a neighborhood. We help each other. We nuture each other.....

    Thomas knows of what I speak, she has experienced all of what I wrote about first hand.... She has been offered and taken more kindness in her lifetime by the people around her for the last 50+ years than she ever deserved. It's the American way. In return, she presented a front of hope and love in all of her good works, but in reality, in the end when tested, she delivered only hate. How many millions are like her. Obviously all in middle earth; they are alone....... God Help and Bless the USA.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
  8. JC

    I have an emense amount of sympathy for Jews and the result of WWII, but Isreal needs to be punished for what they have done. They are unflexible bullies that without our money and support wouldn't be half of what they are today. We have facilitated masacres and turned our heads when the Isrealis act without consequence. This is unacceptable. All that we have heard for the past few days is about Thomas and not about the murders of defensless unarmed aid workers. Anywhere in the world that would have been condemmed with the force of the rest of the world. Instead we are sitting back and allowing Thomas to be the scape goat and media drain for this outrageous act. Killing without the presence of declared war is murder. The men who pulled the triggers and their superiors that ordered the operation need to be executed. We cannot allow Isreal to act without consequence. This is a joke. And Isreal wonders why people hate them. Oh, and the real dick thing is that they were forcing the halt of humanitarian efforts.......and we just turn our heads.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  9. john dus

    ENDED HER CAREER? i find that absolutely hilarious. come on folks. she's 89 years old. lol. she is correct on alot of things, and the palestine point is dead on. nobody can deny that palestine got screwed on that deal. she just wasnt very elegant in presenting her case, lol, might have something to do with her age.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  10. Ammie

    I fail to see why this is a hate crime. I've frequently been called "goy" and "shiksa" by Jews. Now, that's a hate crime . . . in my opinion.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
    • Sandy W.

      As a Jew-by-Choice I would be more than happy to leave this country. It ain't all that since Bush was elected to screw the pooch. But since I'm also part Native American, I invite all of you pro-Palestine nitwits to get the hell off my land. And bite me.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Aaron

    Wow, the Truth really does hurt doesn't it everyone?
    "Kill the messenger" totally.
    Pro-peace, anti-illegal occupation, pro-palestine, and suddenly your anti-semetic? I didn't hear one joke or stereotypical comment from her in that piece. Go back to Europe wasn't a joke. What gives anyone the right to move to Israel, take over someone else's land illegally and build your home? And if you don't like it, well these new comers will just starve you out. Such BS over there... such short-sighted and historically blinded by anger and greed. How "holy" indeed.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • oceans

      Wow, talk about "blinded by anger." Please try reading some history before you jump in with this kind of silliness.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  12. katy

    The facts are important here. Israel was created by the U.S. after WWII from lands taken from arabs. U.S. taxpayers currently fund Irael. WIthout our money, Israel could not exist on it's own. The largest congressional lobbying groups in the U.S. are for promoting Israeli interests (financed by U.S. taxpayers).

    There is creditble evidence that indicates that the CIA has used Israeli agents to assasinate informal CIA operatives, (active and former U.S. military personnel who became disenchanted with working for the CIA). For example, in the Iran-Contra affair and in CIA organized drug smuggling of Cocaine from Columbia into the U.S.

    There is wide spread belief that Israel investigates U.S. Congressmen to dig dirt that can be used to influence their decision making to benefit Israel.

    It is perfectly okay for people to disagree with shaddy and illegal practices committed by another country. And to responde by saying, "You're just prejudice against Jews." is irresponsible and ignorant.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • oceans

      Yes, katy, facts are important. Try learning some. The US did not "create" Israel. Britain, administrator of the protectorate over Palestine since the end of WW I, gave the land to Jews who had been dispossessed of their own land. Some Jews who had tried to return to their homes in Europe after WW 2 had been murdered. Another fact, the grant of land creating Israel included a "two-state" solution which Arabs at the time rejected. The US was the first to diplomatically recognize the State of Israel.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  13. Kimmie

    Way more information than I need to know. There's no problem here. Rabbi Nesenoff asked a question and received an answer. Just because he didn't like the reply doesn't mean he's owed an apology. Americans need to get over the fact that prejudices will always remain. I don't HAVE to like someone; I just have to treat them equally.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  14. Owen thompson

    I applaud Helen Thomas' candor and respect her right to free speech. The problem as I see it is that anytime anyone has the "audacity" to question Israel's policies, excessive war tactics, human rights abuses, and the history of its founding (60 years ago!) at the expense of the indigenous peoples whose roots date back thousands of years is immediately labeled anti-Semitic. Yes, Helen's tone maybe questionable, but she stated the facts, the Palestinians are an occupied people who had there land stolen from under them from Jews of European descent and now find themselves living in Apartheid-like conditions. Simply put, the truth hurts. I am just sorry that Helen didn't use this as an opportunity to engage in some serious truth-telling and subsequent dialogue. This is exactly why America continues to live in denial about its racial history with regard to black, brown, and red skinned peoples.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  15. Hays

    Helen Thomas, while not necessarily showing great tact, which is her custom, makes a valid argument. The problems of the Middle East are not one-sided, as the pendulum swings both ways and both are at arms against the other over fundamental rights. These are things which are so delicate and hard to come to any commonality. Both sides use arrogance and violence over and over. Israel must get off its high horse and remove the chip off its shoulder because past suffering does not justify modern day retribution. Israel has become the little kid in class that was always picked on, who now has grown up and seeks close-minded vengeance (it is a metaphor, do not harangue me for making such a point who believe everyone is anti-semitic).

    June 8, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  16. Faisal

    Has the first amendment been amended.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • John D

      ...Well, the Fourteenth Amendment broadened its applicability. I doubt that's what you're getting at, though.

      I suggest you take a look at the actual text of the First Amendment at some point, though. It says "Congress shall make no law... abriding... the freedom of speech."
      This was clearly complied with. Thomas is not being punished under the law of the United States or of any State.

      She's being punished by her employer.
      Unless she works for Congress, what happened is perfectly fine.

      There's a difference between state-imposed and privately-imposed consequences for speech.
      Generally, there is no legal restriction placed on the latter.

      June 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  17. jr

    the Jews control the wall street,the congress,the senate,the withe House......................i wish thy cud control the sky...,we cud safe thousands life's

    June 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  18. Jim

    I wonder if Helen Thomas would have been fired if she had said, "The Palastinians need to be removed from Israel."

    June 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • Ammie

      Someone should try it. Let's see what happens.

      June 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  19. Allie

    Why am I being edited out by CNN? I did not say anything, just tried to express myself the way all others do.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  20. Ozzie Garcia

    Why don't we just accept the fact that what Israel is doing is wrong; plain and simple. By the way;the Palestinians are not saints either. As a society we should all call it as we see it. It does not matter who is carrying out wrongful acts. If it's wrong it's wrong.

    June 8, 2010 at 2:32 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.