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. Hugo A

    Why is it that it is OK to talk bad about the Mexicans, the Immigrants, the Colombians, the PuertoRicans, etc tec. but it comes to the Jews we all have to keep quiet because it is a career ending move? What do they have to be different from the Mexicans, The Immigrants and any other social or ethnic group? It is time we call things by their name and stop this charade. We need to protect our rights. The real question is not if Mrs. Thomas spoke her own personal mind, the real problem is that she referred a much powerful group. What would have happened is she had said that the Mexicans in Arizona should go back to Mexico? Nothing. Look at Mel Gibson, another example of how the first amendment has been thrown out the window.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  2. Jane D

    I think most people are being too rough on this woman. She is probably right. The sad fact is that the Isreali and Palestinian people will continue to fight and cause terrorists acts for generations to come. I'll use Ireland and England fighting over Northern Ireland for ages as an example. I wonder if it's possible to have Gaza form it's own government and separate from both of these countries.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Arden

      Gaza does have it's own government. The Israelis ended all settlements in Gaza and unilaterally withdrew. It is not, therefore, "occupied." In return the good people of Gaza voted democratically to elect a terrorist organization, Hamas, to run it. They shoot rockets across the border that randomly slam into Jewish towns and villages. These rockets have hit schools and killed Jewish children. So Israel does when any reasonable country would do, it blockades the port of Gaza. They have no problem with humanitarian shipments. They told the aide ship that all they needed to do was run it through Ashdod, the Israeli port just north of Gaza, but no, they were looking for a confrontation. I absolutely agree that everyone should just lay aside their differences and co-mingle with respect for the human dignity of the other. But what reasonable person could blame Israel after all this? I'm sorry but the only reasonable explanation is racism, even if the racists can't see it in themselves.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  3. Richard Miller

    I support Mrs Thomas, both for her right to speak her mind, and for what she said. I consider her position to be similar to that of the folks in Arizona who recently voted to deny benefits to illegal immigrants, and to allow their cops to ask for valid paperwork when they stop one. They were forced to take these steps because the Feds are not doing their job enforcing our borders. Mrs Thomas spoke out because the silence of our Federal representatives as well as our president, on any criminal issue affecting Israel have been bought and paid for with money from various pro Israel lobbies.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Raffi

      Yes. All Jews do is throw money at a problem and it goes away right? How dare there be a pro-Israel lobby in the country right? I mean come on, espousing their own viewpoint? How could they? And how dare there be people in congress who have pro-Israel sentiments? And how dare there be people who agree with Israel's right to defend itself?

      June 8, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  4. Phxresident

    The rabbi and israel owe the palestinians their land, freedom, and an apology for all the miseries they caused them, if it is time for every one owed an apology to ask for it.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  5. JT

    Helen Thomas' comments were an expression of frustration many in the world feel about the occupation of Palestine by the Israelis. Because Israel relegates the Palestinians to a status of second class citizens and restricts the kinds of freedoms that would justify to Americans an all out revolt, the whole world must teeter on the brink. Israel needs to be held to task by the world if there is going to be a world to bequeath to future generations. But American politics prevents the US from standing in solidarity with the natural human sentiments of the rest of the world. This blind support for Israel is unconscionable.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  6. David

    John said, "Only a liberal could defend this woman." – June 8, 2010 at 1:52 pm - Well John, only a conservative would be out to persecute a 90-YEAR-OLD woman who happened to have an opinion that differed from theirs!!!!

    June 8, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  7. James

    Despite her views, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press have been smashed in one fell swoop!

    June 8, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  8. Reality Check

    She had every right to say what she said. That's free speech. I have every right to oppose her. That's free speech. I have every right to not purchase her employer's product. That's free speech. Her employer has every right to fire her to preserve their company and its reputation. That's free commerce.

    You have the right to say what you want. You do not have the right to avoid the consequences.

    As for Israel vs Palestine. There is really not a huge controversy. In fact, there is a very large and growing consensus.

    In a poll ( a few years ago) 85% of Israelis and 85% of Palestinians agreed. The official foreign policy of the US since Jimmy Carter. The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia, as declared by then Prince Abdullah. The accepted policy of the Arab League. The official foreign policy of most European nations. To name but a few. All in agreement.

    The best, or least bad, solution is to return to 1967 borders. End the occupation and end terrorism. Allow Palestine to declare a state.

    It is the 15% radicals on both sides and various foreign powers who openly or secretly exploit the state of unrest that are allowed to maintain the current state.

    Whenever there is an act of terrorism or taking land for "settlement" all reasonable people, including most Israelis and most Palestinians, need to rally together and oppose it. Instead we allow ourselves to be divided and argue over who did it first.

    There is no excuse for displacing people in occupied land, there is no excuse for firing a rocket at a school full of children.

    Yeah, well they . . . is not excuse.

    Reasonable people oppose the extremists. Recognize the foreign powers who need the conflict to press their domestic policies, hold on to power and oppress their own people for who they are.

    Or keep fighting forever.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
    • Howard Barnes

      What an incredibly stupid proposal. They lost that land because they lost a war which they started.
      And now Israel should return it? Get a brain, guy.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • Reality Check

      The land currently occupied was taken in the 1967 "Six day" war. It was started by Egypt, Syria and Jordan and fought along with forces of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan and Pakistan. The fledgling PLO played only a minor support roll. The entire population of Palestine should not be punished by the actions of a small band that supported foreign powers 43 years ago.

      Palestine did not start the 1967 war. In fact, the foreign powers that were attacking Israel first had to invade Palestine to get to Israel.

      Being a believer in democracy, I believe that when the feelings the vast majority of both sides in a conflict actually agree, it is a very good foundation for peace.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  9. Raj

    Thomas was right , she had the right judgment Israel should leave the Palestinians alone. and go to Poland & Germany not to America.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
    • Howard Barnes

      Raj... then I think you should probably leave the US and go back to India, right? Because I know you didn't
      come frm there, either.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  10. DJ

    That's just great. Now we got paparazzi posing as Rabbi's. Karma's going to get you.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  11. JS

    Please, anyone here who calls her anti-semite, racist ect, you need a dictionary. Badly. She said nothing anti-jewish, nothing racist, what she stated is actually quite factual. How was Israel created, or right, the land was annexed to them and they forced the inhabitants out. (again, pick up a book) Many people who now live in Israel are German, Polish, or American. Even the ambassador to the US is American, what business do they have taking land from the people of Palestine ? None. Open your freaking eyes America.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
    • oceans

      Open a freaking history book JS

      June 8, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  12. Ed

    What Helen meant to say was" Tell them to get the hell home, i.e the occupiers, the ones who confiscate Palestinian lands, the ones who put checkpoints that choke Palestinian life, the ones who evict Palestinians to build settlements, the ones that fire live ammunition at children throwing stones at soldiers, the ones that create an economic blockade on over a million people because they voted the wrong way, the ones that attack an aid ship carrying humanitarian supplies", the remaining Israelis are exempt from her statement.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  13. Bailey630

    I totally agree with her. If you support the idea that it's okay to displace the Palestinians to create an Israeli state just because once-upon-a-time it was their homeland, then you would have to support returing the United States to the Native Americans, because let's face it...we've royally screwed them over! This is stupidity in the extreme. Nothing she said was even remotely anti-Semetic.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • Raffi

      This was not a forced settlement of Jews. In fact, the Jews chose to move to their ancestral homeland in various massive migrations beginning in the 1880s, though there were Jews living in the the land even after the second temple in Jersualem was destroyed (albeit at varying levels). In fact, the Turkish Empire had no problems with Jews moving into that territory. Contrary to your belief, the state of Israel was not a reward for Genocide. There already was a large portion of Jews living in British mandated-Palestine at that time. Though one could make the argument that if the British had a more relaxed immigration policy towards immigration in 1939, tens of thousands of Jews could have been saved by moving to that land. It is not "palestinain" land by right because the palestinians (arabs living in what is know as israel and the palestinian territories today) never had the entire territory of british mandated palestine by right. They tried to take it during the 1948 war, and subsequent wars, but lost.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  14. Jeff

    If you can not express what you feel and believe, where is democracy then? One thing I’ve noticed: You can offend the president if you want to but not the Jews. They are the chosen people! How sorry I feel for that poor lady.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  15. Naana

    GJ this was not a land claim, it was forced settlement of European Jews and a forced exodus of Palastinians. Sorry the Palastianias did not commit genocide against the Jews, nor the Russians, the Serbs the Poles the Greeks, so why are they punished?

    June 8, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
    • Raffi

      This was not a forced settlement of Jews. In fact, the Jews chose to move to their ancestral homeland in various massive migrations beginning in the 1880s, though there were Jews living in the the land ever since the Roman times (albeit at varying levels). In fact, the Turkish Empire had no problems with Jews moving into that territory. Contrary to your belief, the state of Israel was not a reward for Genocide. There already was a large portion of Jews living in British mandated-Palestine at that time. Though one could make the argument that if the British had a more relaxed immigration policy towards immigration in 1939, tens of thousands of Jews could have been saved by moving to that land. It is not "palestinain" land by right because the palestinians (arabs living in what is know as israel and the palestinian territories today) never had the entire territory of british mandated palestine by right. They tried to take it during the 1948 war, and subsequent wars, but lost.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • Arden

      Naana, the only one {punishing" the Palestinians is themselves. The UN tried to create a Palestinian state in 1948 and the Arabs rejected it. Israel was ready to recognize it at the time. If they would just stop firing rockets at Jewish school children and blowing themselves up on city streets and in shopping malls, they would have a nice a productive state by now and have a great trade and relationships with Israelis. But no, they rejected a state not once but twice (1948 and 2000) and insist on campaigns of suicide bombing and rocketry. Actually, it seems that the PLO/PA had figured this out and seems to be building a civil society in the West Bank. I, for one, would be happy if the UN created a Sovereign Palestinian state there. Gaza is another story. They HAVE independence. There are no Israeli settlements or soldiers within Gaza. But what do the Gazans do? They elect a terrorist organization to run the place and fire random rockets and Jewish kids. Then they are oh so surprised and offended when Israel blockades them and insists on inspecting incoming cargo. All they would have to do is renounce violence pledge to accept Israelis as people, engage in some trade and they would have a state in no time. No "punishment." No blockade. Friendly and cordial relations like, for example we have with Canada. But no... They just don't want to do this. It's honestly so sad... (not being sarcastic)

      June 9, 2010 at 12:04 am |
  16. Paul

    While I do not completely agree with what she said, I do believe the opinion she expressed is a a valid one and that she doesn't owe anyone an apology. She didn't say she condones terrorism, or that she supports Hamas or any thing like that. I think it is awfully sad that someone can be forced out of their life long career for simply stating an opinion on an issue. If this man didn't want to hear opinions that may contradict his own he should not have asked such questions.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  17. Ryan

    Americans are funny regarding freedom of speech. You have the right choose to say almost anything you want, like this lady did here. But with freedom comes responsibility, and with choice comes consequence. Freedom of choice does not exclude consequences. Besides sounds like this lady was more of a figurehead than a functioning reporter. She may be old and bigoted, but that doesn't make her a bad person! Everyone slips up every now and then.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  18. Jack W

    About time this troll was sent back under her bridge. What is she, 140?

    June 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  19. Howard Barnes

    It is sad that this woman's long, and perhaps distinguished, career will not forever be characterized by that one careless remark. Yet perhaps it is fitting, too. If a 70-year-old woman has not learned to control her mouth, then certainly
    we don't want her in public office ... much less in the White House. You are responsible for what you say and do. This
    time, a rabbi taught her a major lesson in life. Amazing.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  20. toxictown

    I don't know why she is being pilloried for this – she sorta had a point, albeit stated somewhat crassly and one that would have been more valid in 1948 (Helen is pretty old – she might think that was a lot more recent than it was :-). The state of Isreal WAS built on top of an existing society, mostly by foreigners, mostly from central europe (yes, Germany, Poland, etc...). They new arrivals did little to ingratiate themselves with their new "hosts" so it's a little understandable that there is going to be lingering bitterness and resistance – this is not ancient history. Yes, it is silly and crass to suggest that the settlers "go home" and yes, the indigenous local population "lost" but I don't know why anyone who even brings up this sort of discussion is automatically labeled an anti-semitic hater.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • Howard Barnes

      toxictown.. you need to read your history. The Jews owned Palestine over 3,000 years ago. For her to suggest
      that Europe and America are the true homeland of the Jews, is just plain ignorance. Why do we want ignorant
      people working in the White House? Don't we have enough problems as it is to solve? Sheesh.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • Raffi

      In fact, the Jews were let into the territory first by the Turks who controlled the land, and then by the British. At the time of 1947 resolution, there was a significant portion of Jews living in then British-madated Palestine. I don't know what you mean by "hosts" exactly. If you are referring you the Arab population living in the land, I don't know exactly what you would have liked them to do. Are you saying that because they didn't ingratiate themselves, there was a war? As I recall, the Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian armies also participated int he 1948 war.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • Jack W

      You could use that logic to apply to just about any country. Most of us have come from somewhere else. In South America, it's the Spanish in the US, everybody. It's not like the part of the world now called Isreal wasn't Isreal at some time in the past. People seem to forget that the jews were run out by the Muslims several hundred years ago. Now they're back. I don't see this much discourse over Tibet being occupied and inhabitted by the Chinese. Why not? Same oppression of an existing society by foriegn invaders. So isn't anti-semitism a valid possibility?

      June 8, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
    • toxictown

      You are correct as I did mis-speak regarding a significant indigenous jewish population in the area pre-1947 but you can't deny that the Aliyah movements of the 19th and 20th centuries introduced a significant non-middle eastern component to the area. Yes, what Helen Thomas said was silly – Jews living and born in Israel are not going to "go" anywhere anymore than people of european descent in the US can "repatriate" themselves back to the "ould sod". it was a dumb remark but there is a nub of some truth in there especially when people start throwing in supposed "historical" justifications for political actions. If we are going to go down that route, how far back do you go? Everyone in that part of the world has a common semitic ancestor. The Abraham story has the jews migrating from the Ur area in present day Iraq- is that the true ancestral home? You could keep going. Basing modern politics on the shoddy record keeping and dodgy "divine decree" of thousands of years old books seems an excercise in futility and the death of reason.

      June 8, 2010 at 3:33 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.