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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. always 2 sides

    Helen spoke the trust, they are occupying Palestine and why is no American able to question them? Goes to show how much freedom we have in American today.

    June 8, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
  2. parsa

    What really happened to free speech?

    June 8, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
  3. yesnoyesno

    The anology isn't with African Americans. Go ask a native American indian if they understand what she was saying. I bet they could give you a lesson or two about being occupied.

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

    Leave her alone. She said what she believed. Sorry if your feelings got hurt, Rabbi. The expressed feelings and thoughts of Helen count because to say our beliefs is a right we have. Your politically correct "outrage" really is a pandering to your small mindedness. What a jerk.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
  5. ReagansaDemNow

    Anyone see the video of this Rabbi mocking Mexicans?

    June 8, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
  6. andalusa

    So Israel just gets to invade and occupy another country and somehow Helen thomas is a anti semitic for pointing that out? Wish my countries gov't wasnt just a mouth peice of the Israeli govt, and this country would answer for their abuse of people.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
  7. Blessed Geek

    With the abundance of your heart, your mouth speaks.

    We did not know that your heart was so abundantly filled with hatred for Jews and Israel until now. You have been very skillful in hiding those sentiments which were in such abundance in your mind and heart.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
    • Naana

      What blindness... spare us, the Jews and Jewish supporters are the ones who are spewing intolerance and hatered here.

      June 8, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  8. Thinking Man

    While I do support Israel’s right to exist in peace, I also believe that they need to follow the rules like everyone else. The problem is that they don’t have to because the Jewish special interests controls our foreign policy here in the US. They make the NRA look like Cub Scouts. Your average American is ignorant of this fact (however, they can name off all of the contestants and stats to “American Idol”). Any criticism about Palestinian oppression is met with an emotional response along with the accusation (implied or overt) that the critic is anti-Semitic. A good example of this was the withering vilification of Jimmy Carter for his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. I have never heard a credible response to why Israel just doesn’t simple stick to what they have already agreed to. Some basic facts: UN Resolution 242 mandates Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories and is the cornerstone of the Middle East peace agreements. This obligation was reconfirmed by Israel’s leaders in 1978 (Camp David) and again in 1993 at Oslo, for which the received the Noble Peace Prize. Both times these agreements were ratified by the Israeli government. The settlements you read about in the West Bank, the announced apartment projects when Biden was there a few months ago, incursions into Lebanon, the blockade of Gaza, etc. are all violations to this agreement. A few radicals blowing themselves up or lobbing old crappy missiles at them does NOT nullify the obligations under this agreement. Radical Islamists are definitely part of this problem but Israel’s lack of willingness to honor their agreements simply feeds this bad cycle of violence and incites poor Islamists to become radicals.

    Our Israeli policy distracts our foreign policy objectives. Wasn’t there some kind of fundamental concern that our Founding Fathers had concerning the separation of church and state? Perhaps they were on to something there...

    June 8, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
  9. Jonathan

    I agree with others who perceive Helen Thomas' words as anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic. The terms are not synonymous.

    I also have not seen any background research into those public figures who have decried Helen Thomas' words the loudest. Aside from Rabbi Nesenoff, who was a relative unknown Zionist until he published his on-the-street interview, CNN has also published quotes from Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary under G. W. Bush., and Lanny Davis, former White House special counsel under Clinton.

    Ari Fleischer is quoted as saying: "Helen's statement calling for the religious cleansing of Israel is reprehensible...If this isn't bigotry, what is? What she said is as bad as someone saying all blacks should leave America and go back to Africa."

    Lanny Davis is quoted as saying: "Helen Thomas, who I used to consider a close friend and who I used to respect, has showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot...This is not about her disagreement about her criticisms of Israel. She has a right to criticize Israel and that is not the same as being an anti-Semite...If she had asked all Blacks to go back to Africa, what would White House Correspondents Association position be as to whether she deserved White House press room credentials – much less a privileged honorary seat?"

    Did you notice how both Davis and Fleischer use the same example? It's no coincidence. Both Lanny and Ari know how to spin media and by repeating the same "all blacks should go back to Africa" mantra, the public will subconsciously associate the statement with Thomas and make her look even more racist when her actual sound bites about Israel are repeated.

    Are Lanny and Ari doing this out of spite for the years of tough questions she asked during press conferences? Or could it be because Ari Fleischer is on the Board of Directors for the Republic Jewish Coalition and Lanny Davis is a senior advisor and spokesman for The Israel Project, a non-profit Zionist organization with several politicians on its advisory board, whose purpose is to "help correct misinformation and misstatements in the media" about Israel; or, as it's called in the trade, spin?

    When the State of Israel came into being, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were displaced, and Israel passed laws confiscating Palestinians' land for the influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe and the US.

    Helen Thomas' parents were immigrants from Lebanon and she was in her influential 20s when the UN created the State of Israel. Many of the uprooted Palestinian Arabs had to move to neighboring states, like Lebanon. I'm sure that came up in a few family dinner discussions.

    So, let's look at what Helen Thomas said, but this time in context. She was saying the immigrant citizens of Israel should get out of Palestine and that the Palestinians are an occupied people in their own land; a land ruled by immigrants (or decedents) from European countries like Germany and Poland and these occupiers should return to the countries from which they came.

    Is what Helen Thomas said politically correct? No. Was it something an 89-year-old daughter of Lebanese immigrants might say? Sure. Are people overreacting? I think so.

    My point here is not to defend Helen Thomas' remarks, nor to pass judgment on Zionism or the state of Israel's affairs. My point is to exemplify that one needs to do their own digging sometimes to see who the players are and what their motives may be for the things they say.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
  10. Lawrence

    I'm sure Ms Thomas, a liberal press icon, retired rather than being fired. She was of an age, it was probably time.

    When you suggest that people 'go back' to countries that starved, beat, performed medical experiments, gassed you and your children, families, wives, 6 million of you in acts of genocide, these words aren't just 'opinion'. They are hate speech. They are racist. They indicate a support for genocide. 'Go back to Germany, Poland', indeed. (sigh)

    I am a Jew who absolutely supports a two state solution and hope we get there soon. The history of my people is one of struggle and the experience of being a stranger in a strange land. I want to see Israel find a solution, but any logical person has to be aware that a diplomatic solution involves two parties, and that Hamas' stance in negotiations has been pretty belligerent, to the extent of not recognizing Israel as a nation, and repeated avowals that it will destroy Israel. I dont live there, constantly under threat of attack. I'm not about to dictate how Israel should defend itself-but know this-it WILL defend itself, with or without American support.

    Oh, speaking of that, if someone needs to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities,who would you trust to do so?

    June 8, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
    • Joe

      Hopefully without our aid.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
    • ElloIsJewThere

      Wow dood you are the epitome of the perpetual persecution card. Last time I checked Germany, Poland the US and other countries mentioned were not experimenting on Jews or gassing Jews or enslaving Jews – and I'm pretty sure there are currently Jews living in those countries (some that despise Isreal for what they have done) So your statement reeks of "dwelling on the past" – Were done with it, no one cares anymore – it happened – ALOT of things have happened in the PAST – STOP DWELLING and wake up.

      June 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
    • Brian

      Lawrence. People who do not agree with what a government is doing does not make them racist. I am racist and don't like Jewish people. Jews are the problem in the middle east and it is my hope that it is destroyed. 🙂

      June 8, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  11. Joe

    I don't see why this means she hates jews. I think it was a bad idea to take one people and 'give' them land occupied by other people. Guess that means I can finally be labelled as some kind of racist lol.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
  12. Eric

    I am more interested to know what Rabbi David Nesenoff's position regarding what Israeli people shall do about the occupied territory?
    Love my Jewist friends to death but hate what Isralie government did & does to the poor Palestinian people. If disliking the actions that Israle did to the Palestinian is anti-Semitism, then yes, come me in. I believe the vast majority of the population in the world have the same feeling as I do. I truly believe Jewish people are smart enough to differentiate Anti-Semitism from anti-Israle.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
  13. Kreczk

    I love it when Israelis make the huge lament "Oh it's awful, you made us kill some more women and children...look what you made us do !!! it's all your fault...."

    June 8, 2010 at 6:45 pm |
  14. Andy

    Freedom of speech where is it in us when you force an old lady to retire after her speech i am deeply sorry for her !!!!

    June 8, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  15. Sophie

    The Jewish people I know in the US are kind, tolerant, and champions of justice. However, we have to face the fact that the Israeli government is controlled by the Jewish ultra-orthodox, who do not tolerate gay lifestyles, consider women as “unclean,” steal the land and bulldoze homes that have been owned by Palestinians for centuries, to build settlements to accommodate the never-ending influx of Jews from all over the world, and openly discriminate against non-Jews. A young American woman, Rachel Aliene Corrie, was actually crushed to death when she acted as a human shield protecting a Palestinian home against an Israeli bulldozer. However Israel’s most horrendous action is that it created a ghetto in which millions of Palestinians are held captive and impoverished by Israel’s blockade. On more than one occasion Israel has gone into Palestinian refugee camps and slaughtered unarmed Palestinian citizens. A youtube video search shows Palestinian women and children being abused by Israeli Jews and a google search will reveal Israeli citizens who denounce the abuse of Palestinians by the Israeli government and other Jews. The Israeli government is well armed and funded by the US due to the strength of the Israeli lobby’s influence in the US, which exerts exorbinate influence over our press and our government and prevents Americans from realizing the truth. The 9/11 attack on the WTC came as no surprise to me since the US has supported Israel in wreaking so much havoc in the Mideast, but only the most courageous are terrified to publicly criticize Israel for fear of being characterized as anti-Semetic. Shockingly, the organs of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army have been taken and used without permission by the Israeli medical community. The Jewish people keep reminding us of the holocaust to prevent it from ever happening again – but it does seem to be happening again – this time perpetrated by Israel. The American government, the Jewish people and all who are champions of justice must demand that Israel immediately stop its abuse of Palestinian citizens. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
    • Joe

      Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Very well written.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
    • Arden

      Jews and non Jews have and should have learned different lessons from the Holocaust. One lesson is "One should treat all people with dignity and respect and racial and religious prejudice is evil and ends poorly.". This is a reasonable lesson but it is not the only one. Another lesson is "When someone says they want to kill you, believe them and protect yourself.". I think it's completely reasonable to expect non-Jews to learn the former and equally reasonable to expect Jews, particularly survivors and their descendants, to learn the latter.

      June 8, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
    • oceans

      What about Israeli children killed by Palestinian terrorists? did they and their families deserve it? I don't agree with a lot of what the Israeli government says and does, but they face a threat to their very existence that few of us can imagine.

      June 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
  16. Get over it

    The reality is that Helen's comments were right on – much like the little boy who yelled out about the Emperor's New Clothes.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  17. Kreczk

    Asked a question....got an answer. I'm not even sure what a rabbi is either....I guess all you need to do is call yourself one and suddenly poof your a rabbi. Thanks Helen for a great answer.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  18. Murlowe

    Palestinian deserve a homeland. This rabbi was a "Jerk". The People of Palestine was removed from their homes for people coming from Poland, Germany, Russia and the US. She was abosultely right, the people who claim to be Jews are not indigines to that area God bless Palestine.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
  19. Fred

    I guess the old adage that old people and kids get to tell the truth in their opines without consequences is a lie afterall.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:39 pm |
  20. ThatDudeRob

    religion & government really need to be kept separate everywhere.

    June 8, 2010 at 6:38 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.