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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. Justin

    I don't understand why everyone who says anything against Israel is somehow deemed to be bigots or anti-semites...
    A group of people – Jews – took over a piece of land after WW2 that had other inhabitants – palestinians, or whatever else you want to call the people there. Then the original inhabitants and their neighbors got upset, as logically they should, and had wars, skirmishes, fights. It is what it is, fine, and we are where we are where we have a country called israel – fine. But to say that just because you don't agree that israel should have been created in the first place, that this displacement of the original inhabitants is unethical – to say all of that is antisematic or racist against jews, always seem to be ridiculous to me. It is perfectly reasonable for reasonable people to doubt the legitamacy of the creation of israel, and I don't see why doing so is somehow morally outrageous.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
    • Sanjose Mike

      Not so. Jews lived in the ME for at least 3700 years, at least 1,000 years prior to any tribes that called themselves Muslims. Israel did not START in 1947. It was there for many centuries, in separate City States. It is a fallacy to consider Israel a "new" Country. It is not. There is archaelogical evidence all over the ME to prove it. sanjosemike

      June 8, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • moondoggie

      The Jews did not take over the land. There were already there. There has always been a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. Always.

      June 9, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  2. Sanjose Mike

    OK, SO WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN "CRITICIZING" ISRAEL AND ANTI-SEMITISM?

    Numerous posts here have complained that if you criticize Israel, you're branded anti-Semitic, and they feel that's unreasonable. Some have suggested that Thomas merely criticized Israel and she has a right to. So how do you tell the difference? Actually it's not very hard to.

    Anti-Semitic statements usually deny Israel's right to exist, and insist that all areas where Jews live are basically "occupied" Palestine. As part of this, they (naturally) complain that Israel is cruel and stole all of the land it has, which rightfully belonged to Palestinians. Thomas' statement was in that category.

    Criticizing Israel is quite another matter. Statements about its military actions, including those like against the U.S. Liberty (where it is alleged that the skipper of the Israeli attack ship was drunk at the time), and heavy handed enforcement against Palestinians, are in my opinion, fair game. That is not anti-Semitism. I too have criticized Israel. Israel is not always right.

    Critics need to understand that Israel is not perfect, and is usually held to a very high standard, much higher than any other country. Perhaps it should be. The shadow that is behind Jews contributes to this sense of "risk." Everyone who has said they would kill Jews, actually did...and sometimes millions.

    So...criticize Israel if you wish. You don't need my permission. On the other hand, understand that Jews lived in the ME for over 3700 years, at least 1,000 years prior to any tribes that called themselves Muslims. They have a right to be there, and a right to defend themselves.

    Finally, Israel contributes much to YOUR world, including everything from new vaccines, to technology, genetic research and cures for cancer. You should not be so sure that you want to get rid of Israel...ultimately that could be very bad for YOU if you need to go to a hospital...sanjosemike

    June 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
    • Nick George

      Interesting argument, but the fact is that the Israeli government has been behaving of late more like a Mafia than a government. And that needs to end, now. Also the formation of Israel was probably a bad idea, it should have never been just a Jewish state. It is a state founded on violence and human violations. So I disagree too. I am not antisemitic and I also think that Israel state as is should be dissolved. It has just created headaches for the world.

      June 8, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  3. mrzzini

    She sort of reminds me of those old washed up windbag politicians....Harry Reid, Boxer... P.... They had their moment in the bright light and now its gone out. Move on already.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  4. Adolph Frank

    At least she taugh Luke to use the force before she retired.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  5. StevieT

    Because she is an Arab Chhristian, I would expect Ms. Thomas to be a little more understanding of the Israeli's plight. I guess the insane arming of Hezbollah, and their control of Lebanon has all the respectable Christians scared out of their gourds.

    Interesting how self preservation can change peoples perspectives and alliances.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  6. Emma

    Why Americans are so afraid of Jewish?

    From an outsider I feel that if you say anything Jews don't like to hear, you are classified as an antisemitic.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • oceans

      No one is afraid. You get called anti-semitic when you negatively label all Jews. Just like you get called racist when you negatively label all black people or Asian people.

      June 8, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
  7. carolyn

    Since when do Americans have to apologize for their opinions.. it happened in a drive way I'm pretty sure she has a right to say what she thinks

    This isn't some country where we are gagged...

    Women can speak

    I'd be asking why there's a rabbi saying a woman can't run for office.. remember that story about a week ago... that a woman can't vote.. the husbands views are the households views, wasn't that in a small part of Isreal??????

    Howcome everything comes down to Jews.... not people.. humans are all equal...in America anyway

    That reporter does not need an apology he's Just trying to get hits on his website.. gotta make a Buck right

    June 8, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  8. rosebud89

    all i waould like to add is that clearly this woman has had these feelings for a long time now and they have never affected the way she does her job before...yes she may have hurt people with her statement but come on people suck it up, is this not america? why do we have to censor ourselves to spare other peoples feelings? sticks and stones people!!!

    June 8, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  9. Don

    Of course Captain Gort would consider this an infringement of Ms. Thomas free speach.
    All raving liberals consider it infringement of free speach when someone they agree with is held accountable
    for something they say. As opposed to people who say things they don't agree with, who shouldn't be allowed
    to speak at all.
    Why "Captain" and not "Admiral" or "General"? I mean since you would never have the balls to put on any uniform
    at all you might as well pick a higher rank.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  10. Erena

    It is clear that American Government does'nt respect capable people ,even when they are old.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  11. Roguey

    Even this article is biased against the Palestinians. Quote: questions that betrayed sympathy for the Palestinians. The word "betrayed" has the meaning that her sympathy for the Palestinians was an evil fact that she would be strive to cover up.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  12. praymoney

    I agree. Self-Determination for Palestine. She should not have been forced to retire. Nesenoff get over it. Why should anyone apologize to you for how they feel about israel? You asked the questions you should be able to deal with the responses you get. You're lucky you didn't ask me in front of your impressionable son. If you can't take the heat, etc.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
  13. My2centsworth

    I thought it was her response that cost her to lose her job. Apparently CNN thinks it was the question. The Rabbi asked several other people the same question. Did these other people also loose their jobs?

    June 8, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  14. Erena

    Does that mean that Helen works for Israeli boss?!!!

    June 8, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  15. robert nassar

    if an Israeli said and I have seen them say that the Arabs should leave (Palestine) Israel nothing would had happened, just like the attacks on the aid ships from Turkey. Not one government stood up to Punish Israel for their acts, But if a Palestinian would have defended his/her home from becoming a part of the jewish settlements then it would be a problem. Lets get real and give these people a home too.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  16. stephen

    my grandmother is also 89 and lately has been saying the most outlandish things, many of them very hurtful. I know she does not mean to hurt. I just think perhaps the first signs of senility are appearing and I have to deal with it.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  17. EC

    The Jewsih own this country thru Media,Politictions,lobbists,Hollywood. What did you expect was going to Happen?

    If there is anything said negatively about hispanics, Blacks or asians it's the norm and not an issue . it's done all day long in all medias. The media depicts whats is politically correct.But mention someting negative about jews and Isreal ...then here we go OMG! the holocoust! ( which yes, was terrible) but its okay for the palestinians to be extermintated land parcel by land parcel daily??? The Palestinans are now in the ghettos as the jews were in Poland, where there was a blockaid to stop basic supplies from coming in. Does anyone see the perrallel here? Wake up America! get Isreal out of Palestine. ( no I am not palestinian or even arab for that matter)

    June 8, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
    • Rick Salomon

      Amen to that EC! Just look into the immigration issue in the US. So many hateful things have been said about immigrants and Mexicans and no one bats an eye. It shows who has the power in the world. Whoever controls the money controls the world.

      June 8, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  18. abu ibrahim

    where to start, she has a right to her opinion. she actually did not say anything against jews, she make a political statement on whether they should be claiming a homeland in Palestine or whether they should return back to their original homeland. so how is that antisemitic? you can still love jews but still tell them give back the land they took, why cant Americans or Jews for that matter reconcile that , whey should an opinion be considered hateful if its truthful. ?

    June 8, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  19. mstras

    I don't have the time to read all the comments but I did go to the site all watched the interview.
    I'm the son of a Austrian Jewish mother. she/we are non-practicing. Basically secular folks, my family
    AND I don't think Thomas' comments are offensive at all.
    Jewish folk had been out of the land in question for almost 2000 years. Sure it is complicated. Sure the Jews should have their own country just as the Iroquois, the Mohawks, the Sioux, etc. and many other ethnic and cultural groups I'm sure I never even heard of. and the Jews should know better after their centuries as outcasts and all the Arabic world needs to do a ton of growing up themselves.
    Helen Thomas will, in my book, always remain a heroine for speaking truth to power.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  20. Lee

    This is a classic case of the Israel Merry-Go-Round. Israel receives a double standard and if anyone questions it they are labeled as anti-Semitic, even though their comments had nothing to do with Judaism. So round and round we go, and the double standard remains. I think its about time someone mustered up the courage to point out the 800 lb Gorilla in the room.

    June 8, 2010 at 4:36 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.