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. Irony

    Who "stole" which land? The Jews were in that area 3000 years ago. The Greeks then took it over. Israelites came back, then Romans grabbed it. Then Arabics. Then Christians, then Arabs again. Finally, the Jews were allowed to go back into their original, 3000-year-old, homeland. These Palestinians are relative newcomers who were just the most recent land-grabbers. They have no more right to that space than the Greeks and Romans.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  2. JHCM

    She should have retired 30 years ago...and she should make sure that the door doesn't hit her on the way out.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  3. John

    You people who keep talking about some occupation have no clue. Israel left all the previously occupied lands, including Gaza 4 or 5 years ago. If Gaza was "occupied" do you think Hamas would have been elected? There is no "occupation", so you can throw that stupid excuse out the window. The rest of the world donates about a billion dollars a year to the palestinians, so they are not starving. the Arabs are the real reason for any suffering the Palestinians have endured for the past 60 years. They don't want them. Gaza is actually part of Egypt. The Egyptians built a huge wall the keep the Palestinians inside. Now... tell me again, who is causing any of this suffering???

    June 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  4. ltb

    It is interesting to see people shouting down, ridiculing, and otherwise attempting to minimize any voice that attempts to defend Ms. Thomas' opinion. I've seen a number of posts re-defining what she said in order to support their own views, or just throwing out 'racist' or other pejorative term instead of putting any thought into their post. I may not agree with Ms. Thomas' answers, but she does have the right to express her opinion. If her opinions of the Israel/Palestine issue were truly as well known as is noted in some of the posts, then Rabbi Nesenoff should have been expecting a reply similar to what he got. Don't go asking for apologies when you get an honest response to a question, and not the politically correct answer that you want. You have the right to free speech in this country, but there is no right to not be offended by the free speech of someone else.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  5. Texan

    In 1948 Israel was established as a country by the UN. From 1912-1948 the UN mandated that a Jewish state be established from the defeated Ottoman Empire. Jordan was to be established as the palestinian state, but the arab countries
    refused and declared war. Mark Twain visited the land that is now Israel in the late 1800's and said it was a desert and wasteland. There were no indiginous people called palestinians there, but bedioun nomads. Only when the Jews cultivated the lands and grew agriculture did neighboring arabs come to pick the crops. They stayed and were gainfully employed. Invented history doesn't create generations of native inhabitants. Archeological ruins prove Jewish presence to this land thousands of years before christianity and islam. The world didn't start 2010 years ago, ask the Chinese. It seems ever since islam was invented 1,500 years ago, the world has been moving backwards. When you wish for the demise of Israel, get ready to say goodbye to your cell-phones, military un-manned drones, medicines, agricultural drip irrigation systems, desalinization, computer components, advanced optics, alternative energy technology, the monatary system, etc. etc. The Jews have contributed more to humanity than any race on this planet. No race of human beings can be attributed to having survived thousands of years of persecution, yet have come out with the smallest and most prosperous country. With the new natural gas discoveries off their coast, they will not need any US aid. Egypt receives the exact amount of US aid each year, but there is never a peep regarding that. Iran and Turkey will soon learn not to mess with G_d's chosen people. Ask the ex-Great Britian, Spain, Holland, Rome, and any other country that was once a world power; what happens to them when they persecute Jews. With Obama at the helm, the US could be doomed to the same fate. Better learn to choose the right side of history or get a prayer rug ready to pray five times a day toward mecca.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
    • Aboriginal

      Hey Texan; why don't we give Texas back to the natives who lived there thousands of years before Europeans arrived? I guess you'd just have to accept your new government.

      June 8, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
    • E. Saab

      I appreciate the words of support, but please let me clarify for all. The words "chosen people" mean one thing and one thing ONLY: Chosen to spread the idea of one God, and one God only, to the other peoples of the World. That's it. Not favored, not special, and not any better or different than any other group. Just chosen as message-bringers. O.K.? MaxPax

      June 8, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
    • Inthe12

      Thank you, Texan! I couldn't have said it better.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • Howard Markowitz

      Well said, much applause!

      June 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  6. magnus

    The only way to handle the situation is to give everyone in Isreal/Palenstine one week's notice to get out of there. Then, drop enough atomic bombs in the area to make Isreal/Palenstine a waste land that no one can live on for 1000 years. There will be no more land to dispute. They can't work it out, then destroy the land.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  7. Jolan

    This whole incident about Helen Thomas’s remark is a little incorrect and the reaction is getting out of control. What Helen Thomas was really referring to was the occupied West Bank ONLY, from which Israel indeed should get out. It is occupied now for decades, but instead Israel leaving, they are building new settlements mostly from newcomer Jews from Europe or Russia. Vice President Biden himself was upset about it.
    Now the US is starting to behave as a dictatorship, where any comment if remotely critical of Israel is labeled anti-Semitism. Every single country, every single religion can be criticized but not Israel, without grave consequences. Where will this lead us?
    Being from Europe where my family sheltered Jews during the Second World War, we were the first to know the horror and tried to help and it really should never happen again. But we should also have compassion for others who are in grave situation.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
    • Irony

      Nice try, Jolan. But if so, then why didn't she say to go back to Israel? She said Poland and Germany, both sites of the worst of the Holocaust.

      June 8, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  8. k

    Yes. I am so sad to learn this about HT. As a woman, I have always respected her professional assertiveness and stamina. I did not know that she held these anti-semitic views. I am very sad. I fear that a wave of anti-semitism is about to burst forth on the world. I have noticed this type of thing going on for years; bubbling just under the surface. God help this world! God claims the Jews are His chosen people. Oui! With friends like God, who needs enemies?

    June 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  9. Cindy

    I'm just going to say it. Jewish people attacking a 90 year old woman? Nasty. Comeon. This Rabbi should be ashamed.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
    • paris2venice

      Asking a simple question is now an attack? If she is pretending to be an objective journalist, it doesn't matter how old she is.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  10. Shay

    "Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: 'Yids, go back to Palestine,' so we came back to Palestine, and now the worldatlarge [sic] shouts at us: 'Yids, get out of Palestine.'"
    Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2003)

    June 8, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • E. Saab

      Excellent and appropriate quote Shay.

      June 8, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  11. richard

    Helen thomas is allowed to her opinion in a free country. She did not incite anyone to violence, she simply stated historical fact, that palestinians lost land in the creation of the state of Israel , which was created by Jewish people who immigrated from Europe and America to create the state of Israel after WWII. Her comments were not Anti-Semetic and she owes NO ONE an APOLOGY. P.S what is the term used to describe Anti-Muslim/Arab/Islamic....We should create one....

    June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  12. Frank M

    ahh boo hoo. Welcome to America where we don't have to bow at your feet. Maybe you should listen and go home. This is America, not Israel. Get APAC OUT OF AMERICAN POLITICS!

    June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • E. Saab

      How about getting every lobbyist out of D.C. for good. Lobbyists have essentially destroyed our government by smothering our reps. with money. Sick all around.

      June 8, 2010 at 2:26 pm |

    God is laughing his socks off, he gave us all a beautiful world and these people fight over a small piece of desert.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  14. civiloutside

    Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from being criticised for the content of your speech. Actually, it is just the ability to criticize that is the point – if everybody agreed with each other, there would be no need for free speech.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  15. ellenln ln

    she spoke the truth .... israel is like the 5000 pound elephant in the room ... about time we quit tiptoeing around it

    June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Thanks Helen

    After reading Helen's comments I have interpreted them as such: Israel should stop oppressing Palestinians. If any apology should be required it should be to Helen by those who have willfully misinterpreted her comments for their own political purposes. Being against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is not the same as being anti-Jew.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  17. Reason

    Another point, Switch the religions of the perspective groups in Israel/Palestine, does that change your opinion of the situation?

    June 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  18. we love israel

    Jews have been living in Israel from the beginning of time and some have never left. The ones that left where forced out by the Romans, the Turks,... We are a family of more than 7 generations living in Israel. Most of the coast was never occupied by Palestinians. The only towns they lived in where Acco, Jaffa,...
    How disgusting to hear those words from this Helen Thomas, her family immigrating from Lebanon. (=She is an Arab... What else do you expect to hear from someone like that. ) You think she really meant her apology? For sure not. As some others already mentioned, she just regrets that she was caught on camera. Maybe she should go home – to Lebanon.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Edmond

      Consider the following; If world powers at some point decide that America belongs to the Indians, Navaho, Apache and others. Indians from reservations and Indian wanna bees from all over world converge on America and take posession of your country and properties notwithstanding the Deed you have in posession. How do you feel?
      Add to that, even if they didn't take your property, they use it at will for whatever reason they need to and put you out if only temporarily. This was shown on a newsprogram (PBS) about life for Palestinian in Israel.

      June 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  19. unreal

    It is unreal that her opinion taped off the air would be used againts her. I also agree that the Isreal /Palestine issue is almost impossible to resolve as Isreal is as agressive towards Palestine as the Nazi's were torwards Europe and the Jewish people in WWII. At her age she should be able to express her opinions and if someone happens to tape it off air she should not be responsible for it. An other example of our country bending backwards for Isreal and now an Icon if forced to retire.

    June 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  20. davesmall, Houston, TX

    I think an interesting side note on this affair is that Helen Thomas has long been an activist member of the White House Press Corps who actively supported the Democrats. During President GW Bush' press conferences she would badger him with questions that sounded like they were derived from DNC (Democratic National Committee) talking points. She carried water for the Democrats for years and now I'm sure they'll want to distance themselves from her.

    What's interesting is the so many American Jews have long supported the Democrats. Of course, they also support Israel. I wonder if we might see some defections to the Republican Party based on incidents like this along with Obama's stance toward Muslims?

    June 8, 2010 at 12:29 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.