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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. Brigitte

    I commend Ms. Thomas for her comment and I agree with her. Why should the Palestinians who live today suffer because of an event 70 years in the past with which they had nothing to do. Why should they agree to lose their land because a bunch of people from all over the world should have a better right to it than they to whom it belongs? I therefore agree with Ms. Thomas that the jews should get the hell out of Palestine and go back to where they came from, Poland, Germany, the USA etc. These countries are safe for jews. LIke all refugees of war they have a right to return and should use it. Just as the Palestinians have a right to return which is guaranteed them by international law. Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, not to the Jews.

    Just because not everybody is convinced by jewish propaganda and brainwashing does not mean that they are anti-semitic. It is the jewish actions against the Palestinians themselves who revolt every reasonable person. And it becomes clearer every day that the jewish insistence on their suffering in the holocaust and the endless reproach of anti-semitism against anybody who disagrees with them is merely a deterrent from their own totalitarian actions which frighteningly resemble those of the Nazis. No amount of suffering in the past gives a right to crime in the present. No security concerns give a right to Nazism against innocent people.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
    • Arden

      "Just because not everybody is convinced by jewish propaganda and brainwashing does not mean that they are anti-semitic." No, just people who say things like this...

      June 8, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  2. CNN-Observer

    It's funny to hear people talk about Helen being forced into retirement.

    She is 89 YEARS OLD for the love of GOD.

    Her current job is just for fun!

    She has nothing to lose by expressing her opnion about Israel, etc...

    Even president Carter did not express his real opnions about Israel, IPAAC, etc...until he was fully retired.

    President Carter wrote his book after he felt he has nothing else to lose too!

    June 8, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
    • OldGirl

      There are people who have been waiting and hoping for that chair for DECADES. Let's get some new butts in the seats. Not a moment too soon.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
  3. yesnoyesno

    She could have been talking about Native American Indians. Same thing.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  4. Anyone

    What is amazing about our culture is that anything that has to do with the Jewish topic is extremely fragile. If one is sympathetic to the Palestinian's point of view one is automatically labeled Anti-Semitic. However, when one is sympathetic to the Jewish point of view what should one be called? Anti-Palestinian or Anti-Human? Both sides are wrong to an extent, but everytime someone favors the Palestinian struggle somehow one is thrown to the dogs. I personaly belief that both sides should look for peaceful ways of reaching some sort of compromise, but when Palestinians are killed it is seen as just, and when Israelis are harmed it is seen as devastating and wrong. Both are Humans, violent actions from both sides should be seen as wrong.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
    • Arden

      I don;t think it is "Automatic." Lots of Reasonable people and even many American Jews criticize Israeli policy. The question is, "The the speaker treat Isael in a grosssly unfair, disproportionate or hypocritical manner?" If yes = Racist Anti-Semitism. If no – Then not. Simple!

      June 8, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
    • oceans

      The problem is when people mash anti-Israel comments together with broad comments about Jews. The Israeli government doesn't represent the views of all Jews anymore than the US government represents the views of all Americans. If people critical of Israeli would stop using "Israel" and "Jews" interchangeably, they wouldn't come across as anti-semitic.

      June 8, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  5. J Harris

    Good to see intelligent discussion here!

    June 8, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  6. Cindy

    She didn't say anything about Blacks going back to Africa. And Blacks in America aren't attacking Aid ships.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
    • J Harris

      Bezalel
      was talking about Balcks 🙂

      June 8, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
  7. JC

    Everyone who can differentiate between the actions of the Israeli government and the entire jewish population of the world should help get this message accross:

    CRITICIZING ISRAEL IS NOT ANTI-SEMETIC. ANTI-ISRAEL IS NOT THE SAME AS ANTI SEMETIC

    Repeat it as much as possible. Maybe a few people will finally get the difference.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
    • Arden

      "CRITICIZING ISRAEL IS NOT [NECESSARILY] ANTI-SEMETIC. ANTI-ISRAEL IS NOT [NECESSARILY] THE SAME AS ANTI SEMETIC"

      When someone criticizes Israel, the question is, "Did they regard Israel in a disproportionately unfair way or do they criticize similar actions across the board regardless of who the actors are?" In Helen's case, she was OBVIOUSLY disproportionately unfair to since she herself lives on occupied territory (That of the Iroquois, Cherokee Navajo etc.). If she is willing to go back to Lebanon and turn her house over to a Native American, tehn was can be certain that she is not a racist anti-Semite. But that is very unlikely.... Thus, she is a Racist Anti-Semite. But in theory, I Agree, CRITICIZING ISRAEL IS NOT [NECESSARILY] ANTI-SEMETIC. ANTI-ISRAEL IS NOT [NECESSARILY] THE SAME AS ANTI SEMETIC."

      June 8, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
    • JC

      I still don't find her statement racist or anti-semetic just as I don't think it is anti-american to suggest that all americans should leave and give the land back to native americans. I personally don't agree that the Jews in Israel should leave at this point, but it's not racist to suggest that they give the land back, it's just an opinion. She didn't say anything bad about Jewish people.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
  8. tes

    I just wrote a note of congratulations to the Rabbi and suggested that if he keeps bullying away everybody who says something he doesn't like, he to can run for President...or would it be dictator? A real low point in freedom of speech. If you really want to be disgusted, visit the website and see hoe somebody altered Thomas' picture. Disgusting!

    June 8, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
  9. guntotingliberal

    BREAKING NEWS- Ms. Thomas choice of words were not as controversal as one would like to think. First of all what HT said was not bigotry (please see the difiniton dictionary.com), nor was it anti semetism. She did not say anything to imply that the Jewish people go back to the ovens, or face concentration camps. History has told us time and time again of the great prosperity that the Jewish communities had. To date there are millions of dollars of lost assets and treasures that were stolen from the Jewish people in Germany, France , Poland and other parts or Europe. Many of those Jewish people who went to Israel in the 40's were from European countries, so it is not logocal that they go back to reclaim what was once theirs? Where is the hatred in that? I read the transcripts and don"t see one ounce of bigotry, anti semetism or racism. The only bigotry I see is from those crying foul when indeed it is not. Jewish people, message from a black man: you have endured far too much pain and suffering in your history, someone in Jewish community needs to step up and and tell folks to back off, this is a persons opinion and there are millions who feel the same way. You can't change that nor should you try to. HT to date has been very consistent: she asked questions other reporters were affraid to ask and has made her viewpoints clear all the way back to when she covered the Kennedy's . SHe was the real deal and it is a shame that people are so angry over what she said, there is some truth to it. I guess we can't stand the truth sometimes. The real bigots are the ones who forced her to retire. Because she had an opinion that a community didn't agree with, she is punished that is not right and Jewish people of all should know this. What a shame. I guess from here on I will be labeled an anti-semite because I disagree...

    June 8, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  10. Don

    Who cares what her views are, or if the guy asking them was offended. You dont want to be offended stay home, lock ur door, and definately dont ask any questions. Not everyone agrees with everything you think. Shes a reporter, and unless ive missed something they to have the right to free speech, he!! they invented it. So what if she thinks they should get out, so do alot of others, and others still think they should stay, big deal. Differing views are a pi$$ poor reason to force a person to retire. She was asked, and she answered, plain and simple.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  11. E

    Empathizing with the Palestinian cause should NOT be labeled anti-semitic. Disagreeing with a certain political movement, such as the establishment of Israel as a state, does not mean she hates all Jews.

    Also, at her age...why should she retire? Isn't that one of the perks of being old? Being able to say whatever the heck you want regardless of who it might offend?

    June 8, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  12. _nder

    way to completely flip a week of negativity towards Israel.. well played.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  13. Mr. Southpaw

    Cracks me up reading the liberal comments about Israel not affording the Palestinians rights. Maybe you'd like to compare their rights to a Muslim woman. Funny thing, liberals don't like to talk about that.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
    • JC

      Your ignorant statement assumes all Muslim women are in the same situation. I'm aware of some Christian cult communities in the US were women are treated very badly. This is more common in the US than you think.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  14. Bezalel

    I will bet you that all the people tha agreed with Helen Thomas would be upset if she said all teh Balcks should go back to Africa. !
    You are supose to be Objective .. NOT subjective

    June 8, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
    • JC

      The blacks didn't take land from anyone. Originally they were forced to come here. Big difference.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
    • Marlon

      Beelzebub...You're statement is a reflection of your ignorance and prejudice! Sir, the descendants of Africans here in America were forced to come here. Blacks are just as American as any other race in America. If not, more American than most. Nevertheless, you should stop using insipid statements to justify your flagrant opposition to someone's truth through bigotry. Leave blacks out of this! They have nothing to do with it.... If the Israelis would stop isolating and killing the original inhabitants of that land we wouldn't be having this conversation.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
  15. DF

    I hope I did not misunderstand Nesenoff when he said "I didn’t remember that she had pro-Palestinian thoughts, anti-Semitic feelings." Was he implying that any empathy towards Palestinian people is equivalent to anti-Semitism? I hope he is separating the two. Frankly, I do not think that criticizing the policies of a government is the same as demonizing a race of people.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  16. Cliff Vegas

    This event proves that the public discussion over this issue has turned unhealthy for this country. Since when does frank and honest debate kowtow to "Kremlinistic" rules of engagement? Fear now trumps the First Amendment.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  17. Andres

    Last time I check Palestine was occupied by Israel. They should take the land from Germany, not from the Palestinian...

    June 8, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  18. jimmothy

    he and his sons dont deserve an apology...they asked a question they werent ready for the answer...thats their problem not hers. if anything he owes her an apology for ending her career

    June 8, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
  19. Hernan

    What Thomas did wrong at her age and seniority was apologize when you make a PR mistake as she did just keep going do not back up.
    What is amazing is that we can ridicule Arabic, islamist, muslims all the time and nothing really happen just a bomb threat or a video that promise to bomb us but if we say something potentially true about Israel or Jews people lost their jobs. Do you know why Israel do use suicide bombers or terrorist against USA because with a phone call the get what they want Helen thomas is gone after 50 years the only mistake she did say something against Israel, Nixon lost his job for the same thing, If Bush instead to bomb Iraq bomb Israel wont last a day in office Israel have WMD Iraq don't Israel have Nuclear power Iraq don't, Israel commits human right violations all the time no ones care and if you question any of this you are accuse anti-Semitism. You reading this probably are already accusing me of anti-Semitism
    Israel is a criminal state when we will accept that even jewish people who live in Israel think Israel is a systematic criminal state that get away with murder paying the holocaust card any time coming handy. For the loving memory of those who brutally died in the holocaust Israel should stop being a criminal state worse that Iraq Iran North Korea and other usual suspects

    June 8, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  20. Michael

    Helen Thomas said that the Jews residing in the State of Israel would do well to "go home!" What she didn't seem to realize is that for the first time in 2,000 years, thank G-d. Jews can go home – home to the land in which Abraham, Issac, and Jacob lived most of their lives.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:00 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.