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. Igal1

    WOW, one serious terrorist attack on US soil (ie, 9/11) and I see those Islamist terrorists were able to accomplish so much more than they had intended. Not ONLY they scared the living HELL out of Americans, but they made so many of you start shaking in your boots SO MUCH as to start thinking like them. Gosh, another such attack and I see many of yo will grow beards and kneel to Mecca in prayer and the females among you who are soooooo "moved" by the Palestinian suffering, would being wearing burkas.
    WOW, who would have thunk it?? terror IS quite effective against the American chickens after all!!

    June 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  2. Seth

    Helen Thomas didn't put four bullets into anyone's head on the hígh seas Helen Thomas didn't burn families alive with white phosphorus in Gaza. Helen Thomas didn't maim thousands of children with mines in Lebanon. Israel did all those things. So I certainly hope that anyone criticizing Helen Thomas for her words is screaming even louder about Israel's actions.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  3. Travelightly

    The point for me is that she is a reporter, a journalist attending a professional event. She should keep her personal views to herself, as journalists are supposed to do. THAT is the issue for me. She could have answered that question much more professionally instead of turning it into a personal tirade.

    And yes, there IS so much ignorance in her answer: 1) expecting that those who survived the concentration camps should go back home where they were rounded up and sent away 2) many tried to go back but the Germans and Poles had taken over their homes and businesses and many wouldn't give them back. So where should they go? It's not as it there were no Jews in Palestine at that time. There have been Jews in Palestine since for millennia. THAT is another ignorance of so many....

    June 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • Tim

      I think she may have a had a drink before commenting.

      June 8, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
    • Tim

      Here is another clip from the good Rabbi.


      June 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  4. Stretch

    I really don't see how her statements are racist, or why the Rabbi feels she owes him and his child an apology. Thomas was asked her opinion on a political situation, and she gave a political answer. It was not directed at the Jewish faith, rather, it was directed at the state of Israel. And, let's be honest, she has a point. Israel was a "created" nation after WWI, and it was pretty much created because no other nations wanted to accept displaced members of the Jewish faith. Imagine how much less violent the Middle East might be today had the other great nations of the world, including the US, been more willing to open their doors, rather than saying "not in my backyard."

    June 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  5. Karen

    Why does this rabbi expect a personal apology? He asked her about thoughts on a country, and she criticized that country. He pushed the question and didn't like the answer, but she did not attack him or the Jewish faith. Israel is a country, and that seems to be a point so many forget. The country of Israel has been very heavy handed in the last few years, and are becoming just as big a block to future peace as the country they claim to need to protect themselves from. This is what Thomas was criticizing. Like them or not, the Palestinians are also human beings and people have the right to show them concern and humanitarian support. All governments are fallible, and we need to stop forgetting that.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  6. mikeindm

    I think the Rabbi and his son learned a valuable lesson. Don't ask a question you are not prepared to hear the answer to. Why should he expect to have everyone agree with him?

    June 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  7. clarke griswold

    Good on you Helen, you had no need to apologise for speaking the truth. Nesenoff is duplicitous weasel at best, I wonder what he would have to say if another "rabbi" shoved a microphone in his fat face and asked him to comment about Palestine? FYI Palestine is not a colony for nerdy European Jews. Helen Thomas is correct, they should all get the hell out of Palestine and go home.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  8. God

    Is the Modern State of Israel still the same as the original Nation of Israel?

    According to the Scriptures, The modern State of Israel is the continuation of all that God began to do. The Scripture foretold of the time when Israel would be scattered throughout the world and of the time when Israel would be re-gathered back into the ancient land of Israel!

    Ezekiel 36:22-28
    22 Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; I do not [this] for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name's sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went. 23 And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the heathen shall know that I [am] the LORD, saith the Lord GOD, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. 24 For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. 25 Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do [them]. 28 And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  9. Nave

    What was the question asked of her that she replied “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,”? If it was a question asked by David Nesenoff then no apology is necessary. If you ask a question then you must be prepared for any answer even if offensive. If this info was offered without being requested then, yes, an apology is warranted. As far as her remarks, they were not the politically correct thing to say and not wise to say in her position but I do not hold personal beliefs against her and if anything, appreciate the honesty although I do not agree with her views. On a purely technical aspect some what she said is true. They are an occupied people. Just as the American Indians are an occupied people, or the Hawaiians, or Aboriginals, etc. But I do not think, nor is it realistic, we will all go back to our originating countries and neither should they. I do feel that the public runs too much on emotion and always wants a pound of flesh for any wrong doing....of course until THEY themselves do something wrong..... then they want another chance.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  10. Bob

    I applaud her guts. The nation of Israel exists because the collective Allied guilt felt over the Holocaust allowed it, plus it was a handy way to deal with Europe's homeless Jews. Yet it was a solution bound to fail – opposing religious ideologies and confiscation of a homeland is not a recipe for peace. Still, having created the mess, the West could hardly be expected to simply say, "mea culpa, faux pas" and uproot the population again, so they made things worse by supplying Israel with unlimited military and financial aid. Small wonder that Israel has become so arrogant and aggressive.

    Her solution isn't a bad idea, but is ultimately impractical. Over a half-century after the fact, most of the Jews living in Israel today can be excused for viewing the land as theirs now. So, how about this? Encourage emigration while steadily reducing military aid to Israel. Sooner or later, there will be another war, but that's inevitable. When two sides both claim that God is favors them, let them rely on Him rather than our (and other nations') tax dollars to validate their claim. Then we can forget ideologies – whoever survives will be our friend.

    What I find really bizarre is the rabid support for Israel among Evangelicals.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  11. No Name

    What's anti-semitic in saying that the oppressors should go where they come from? The truth is Jews from mostly Europe established Israel in Palestine and immigrated there in the 1960s and ever since people who happened to live there when the Jews came have been occupied and oppressed. It is terrible that she is being called anti-semitic for simply stating the fact. To justify Israel's oppressive policies, terminology is all screwed. Oppressors (Israel) become victims and real victims (thousands killed in Palestine) become villains, and anybody who states the truth like Helen is labeled anti-semitic. I wish President Obama was more like Helen and had guts to actually name things the way they are and to finally bring the promised change. I see no change in the Middle East peace process. Let there be peace in the Middle East.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  12. Steven Kas

    The only mistake Helen made is to apologize. She made the fatal mistake to dare to say, what the majority of the people around a world would say, given the chance, without being labeled an antisemite.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  13. jo an

    I agree with Helen Thomas's analysis, not her solution. She was and is a great woman...She will help change the view of Israel/Palestine...that is what counts....the facts are slowly coming to light. Thank you Helen.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  14. Missy

    The sky is blue. Cats eat dogs. And what is this about?

    June 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  15. One of the fallen

    It's a shame she is so uneducated. Palestine is the name that the Roman's gave Israel when they occupied it 2200 years ago so the Jews would forget about their homeland Israel. When Turkey was defeated in WW1 much of the land was divided up and Israel was given less than 1% of the land. The many Arab groups were given over 99% of the former Turkish land and which was divided into 22 different countries. After the Jew reclaimed Israel in 1948 and expelled some 250,000 Palestian Arabs the other Arab countries retaliated by expelling almost 3,000,000 Jews who also lost their land and homes. Have the Arabs ever offered to compensate the expelled 3,000,000 Jews or even offered their land and homes back yet this is want they expect Israel to do with their homeland.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
    • Joe from IL

      Sorry to break it to you, but it was named Palestine because of the original people there, called the Phillistines.

      June 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  16. Missy

    It will all end when dogs and cats start living together. Thats when you know your in deep do do.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  17. Suha

    Nine innocent human beings were slaughtered in International water by Israel....You want us to be concern about a Rabbi's feelings!!!

    June 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  18. R.Levy

    Why are people picking on her looks or her age? I don't support her comments, and she did respond inappropriately. Or maybe to some she did? However, whether she's right or wrong, as always, some of you pick on her because she's elderly, or she's no longer attractive. Again, why do we in the US look down upon the elderly. With everyone, looks will eventually go. And there's no escaping this lifetime. TIME WILL BEND YOUR KNEES MY FRIEND. Lets stop being so shallow and help the elderly, not ignore them. And yes, the elderly are still human, some not so capable, both physically and mentally, but we all are allowed our opinion. She just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and it caught up with her.It's called Karma.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  19. Marc L from NY

    She doesn't owe anybody an apology, especially this Rabbi. What's the point? Those are her beliefs. She is free to believe them. While I certainly deplore them, an apology would just be a lie.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  20. Christoph

    I do not understand for the life of me how the substance of Helen Thomas’ comment is racist or anti-Semitic. I will agree that it was anti-Zionist, raggedy, and insensitive at best. I cannot, however, discern anti-Semitism in her invoking a fact of Israel's modern historical development— as a problematic and unjust “occupation” (especially with Netanyahu now building housing in East Jerusalem). I want to add that, as a Black American, I am very alert to white supremacist language and insensitivity. I also understand that sometimes—because of how endemic and normal racist language and behavior is –Blacks are wrongfully accused of race baiting or the like. With that said, I am not Jewish so perhaps I cannot sense the anti-Semitic vibrations of Ms. Thomas’ admittedly cold sentiments. I do however understand her frustration. The situation in Israel is not just. We cannot change history, but we can deal with each of as sisters and brothers. Israel is committing human rights violations against Palestinians. The Muslim world (along with those extremists) is a powder keg that I’m afraid hasn’t really released all its power. So, should the Jewish people “get the hell out?” No! Acknowledge what happened and specifically how it happened and sit at the table and atone together as children of Abraham.

    June 8, 2010 at 1:11 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.