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. CNN-Observer

    If we reverse the roles by using PALESTINE instead of ISRAEL, do you think anybody ,in the USA or elsewhere, will give a damn about Palestine, Muslims, or Arabs ?

    Here is the modified article:

    Let's assume that Helen Thomas was asked about PALESTINE instead of ISRAEL and answered as follows:

    "Tell them to get the hell out of ISRAEL,” Thomas told them. “Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not JORDAN, it’s not EGYPT’s.”

    .... But Nesenoff followed up by asking where the ARABS living in PALESTINE should go.

    “They could go home. JORDAN, EGYPT,” Thomas replied, “ . . . and SYRIA, 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-ISLAM tied into anti-PALESTINE (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.”

    June 8, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
    • oceans

      Way to go! Impressive knock-down of a straw man! Practicing that for awhile, eh? This asinine "flip-this-around" approach is a waste of time simply because this issue encompasses so much more than mere personal emotion. The histories of the populations involved and the events that led to this point in time cannot simply be switched around.

      June 8, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  2. J Harris

    Perhaps with all of this publicity Helen will get a lot of new job offers?

    June 8, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Marlon

    Personally, I don't find her comments offensive. It's what she feels and if that rabbi wanted a diplomatic or political answer he should have addressed her in that forum. However, when one asks questions on someone's personal time expect a personal answer! There are MANY people that share her views. There are many that don't share them. Nevertheless, just because she feels this way does not, in any way, make her anti-semetic or anti-Israel. She only stating what she believes to be true. How many of us know that many truths are relative? So all these people that feels she should lose her job because she stated her opinion...you're anti-American and Communists! How about we take away some of the benefits of those that speak badly of our Commander in Chief? ........yea.....right

    June 8, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
    • JC

      You are right. I think that Rabbi was fishing for something like this to bring up some rediculous anti-semetism fears in order to get more public support for Israel at a time when more people, even in the US, are finally starting to catch on to Israel's unjust actions.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
    • Marlon

      Exactly JC. Why would you ask a question like that and not be prepared for VARIOUS ANSWERS? He wants an apology because of her personal opinion. Guess what? That apology will not change how she personally feels. So what's the point of the rabbi and his offended followers?

      June 8, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
  4. rgreality

    She should not be vilified as such. She said what many people are afraid to say for the unjust price she paid.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  5. Phil

    She was asked her opinion. Asked! You can't say anything anymore. It troubles me how a life of great work was distroyed by her opinion. Looks like every one has an opinion on what she said. My...My.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
    • Arden

      Look, yes she was asked her opinion. The problem was that her opinion was a stupid uninformed racist opinion that by it's very nature makes her unqualified to have a front and center position as a reporter for a major American news agency. So yes, she asked for her opinion and she gave it. She has freedom of speech but people have to accept the consequences of their free speech.

      Yes there are a lot of posters here who appear to agree with her. It's natural that that would happen, but in America as a whole this opinion is on the lunatic fringe. Virtually no one reasonable agrees with it and it's against the platforms of both major parties. On CNN's panel discussion "Reliable Sources" on Sunday not a single journalist on the panel defended her. That is why she is being "retired" not because she merely "gave her opinion." She gave an opinion with so much bias that she is, by that act itself, revealed to be unqualified to be a legitimate reporter.

      June 8, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  6. J Harris

    During the period of Crusader control, it has been estimated that Palestine had only 1,000 poor Jewish families. Jews fought alongside the Muslims in Jerusalem in 1099 and Haifa in 1100 against the Crusaders. They were not allowed to live in Jerusalem and initially most of cities saw the destruction of the Jewish communities, but communities did continue in the rural areas. For instance, it is known about at least 24 villages in the Galilee were Jews lived. Later in the history of the Crusaders state Jews settled in the Coastal cities. Unlike the treatment of Jews by the Crusaders Europe, where many Massacres occurred, in Palestine no distinction was made between Jews and other non Christians and there were no laws specifically against Jews. Some Jews from Europe visited the country, like Benjamin of Tudela who wrote about it. Maimonides escaped to Palestine from the Almohads in 1165 and visited Acre, Jerusalem and Hebron, finally settling in Fostat in Egypt.

    Okay so Jews and Muslims have a history of getting along. Perhaps we should all study history more! Helen and myself in cluded.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
  7. Brian

    What was the big deal? He asked a question, she gave him an answer he didn't like and he wants more than an apology? Tell that Rabbi to go to hell Helen! Helen Thomas is one of greatest reporters of all time and she doesn't have the right to have an opinion. If you ask me We should be bombing Israel.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  8. ElisabethinCA

    @Texas, @Judy@ Susan Goldstein, Why is it that people like you, get off on calling other people names and posting hate filled rants and nastyness? I was looking at the comments on here and for the most part, people were trying to have a logical and respectful debate...but then people like you (and a few others) feel the need to call people names, make fun of people, trash them, all while professing that your opinion and your opinon only, are the only ones that count, and everybody else is an idiot? Well, I hope that you aren't as angry as you sound..and that you are just hiding a behind a keyboard...because if in fact you talk to people like that on a daily basis in person....you might want to seek some anger managment.....and maybe a body guard or two....

    June 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  9. Fred

    Perhaps Helen should have been given the benefit of the doubt. Her family, coming from Lebanon, has seen the ramifications of Israeli governement policies on their country, including civil war and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Anti-Zionism is NOT the same as anit-Semitism. The Israeli government, through its lobbying in the U.S. tries to stifle any serious discussion concerning its treatment of the Palistinians, or any criticisms of any of its activities in the region. American Jews should seperate criticism of Israeli government policy from true ani-Semitism.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  10. JC

    I don't completely agree with her statement but I do not find it anti-semetic to criticize Isreal or even to criticize Isreal's continued existance. I agree that the decision to steal land from people who had nothing to do with WW2 in order to set up a Jewish state was a bad and unjust action, just like how the US stole land from Native Americans. At some point though, you have to move on and accept that Isreal is now a country mostly full of people who weren't even around in WW2. Now I do not expect Isreali's to just leave but the government could stop sanctioning the oppression of the Palestinian people in an attempt to control all of Palestine. Enough is enough. This people of this country need to stand up to Isreal without fear of being called anti-semetic and having their careers ruined. Israel needs to be punished, not with elimination but with sanctions until they stop building settlements to expand into palestinian territory, and stop oppressing the Palestinian people. It's Israel's fault that a horrible group like Hamas is in power.

    So thanks Helen Thomas, we should continue to criticize the country of Israel which is not a criticizim of all Jewish people, just as criticizing the actions of the US government is not anti-american. Why is it OK to criticize countries like France to your heart's content but not Israel? If you want to know the answer, read up on AIPAC and all the damage it has done to our country.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  11. Donald in CA

    Saying any thing about Israel is a career killer. You even have to get Israels permission to get elected to higher office in America. Even a 90 year old women can get beat up. Happy retirement Helen.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
  12. Needs 2 B Said

    You can tell more about a person by what he says about others than you can by what others say about him (Leo Aikman). The only person who cost Helen Thomas her job is Helen Thomas. Look, its fine if people ( such as posted here defending Thomas and defacing Israel, Jews, including self-ashamed Jews) want to air their seemingly anti-semetic, anti-Israel views as Ms Thomas did. That is your right. Its important to note that NO RIGHTS were infringed upon in any way with this 'incident.' However, saying what you want, just as doing what you want, may have consequences, be it legal or societal. Society tolerates (or doesnt tolerate) certain behaviors. Ms. Thomas found that out. You certainly can freely express your thoughts– its your right, just as its mine to describe your thoughts as I see them– as hateful. And when someone calls you on it, as they did Ms. Thomas, for gosh sake, stand behind what it is you are saying. I would've had more respect for her if she would've simply owned her views then sheepishly apologized for them. Own it. If you hate, own it. These half-assed apologies people make for expressing themselves are ridiculous. If you are a hater and you tell people you are a hater and they recognize you for it– own it.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Naana

      Needs 2 be said......

      There would not have been an outcry if Helen T. said this about any other nation or people or religious group. For example if somebody said that the Cypress should be returned to the Greeks, no one would be screaming that we are Turkophobes, although Cypress was forcibly taken away from the Greeks in 1948 less than 100 years ago, however, the Jews were driving out by the Romans over 2000 years ago. So how is anyone anti Semetic if they point this out?

      June 8, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  13. Naana

    There is not a single nation, people, or religious group in the history of man who has been returned to their homeland 2000 years after they were driven out by an Empire... it this case the Jewish people were driven out of Palastine (yes it was known as Palastine over 2000 years ago for those who don't know history) by the Romans.

    In past history the Greeks were driven out of what is part of modern day Turkey about 600 years ago and finally the Greek population was massacred in WWI and WWII and the last few were driven out in WWII to today's Greek borders. After WWII Cypress was taken away from the Greeks. Makedonia was taken by force in the 10th century from the Greeks. The Serbs were driven from their ancestral lands a mere 15 years ago – no one is even contemplating or returning their ancestral lands to them.

    I understand the Holocaust happened and millions of people perished, Jews, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Poles, in the same concentration camps were the Jews perished. And yes they all had ancestral lands to go back to – those who were lucky to survive, however, the Palastinians did not commit genocide against the Jews... why did they pay the price? The English and the Western powers decided not to honour the treaty they signed with the Arab people in order to entice them to join the Allies during WWII, of a united Arab land and then formed the State of Israel and forced the Palastianians into exile.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  14. Victor

    I am happy to hear Miss Thomas speak out, her honesty is refreshing and is shared by the majority of the citizens. Too bad our leaders have no backbone to say the truth and their true feelings. We need more people like her, maybe her sacrifice will encourage other officials to do the same. Nazi Israel continues to operate concentration camps in Gaza and the West Bank. Norman Finkelstein a Jewish writer said:
    “The Zionists indeed learnt well from the Nazis. So well that it seems that their morally repugnant treatment of the Palestinians, and their attempts to destroy Palestinian society within Israel and the occupied territories, reveals them as basically Nazis with beards and black hats.”

    June 8, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  15. Kathie

    You know what Chuckster... Her position is well known on this matter, you bet he knew what her response would be and
    that is exactly why he asked her the question. Why ask a question if you don't want an honest answer? Since when is
    giving the politically correct response the only right response. If he was so horrified and insulted by her comment , why
    did he post it so the whole world could see it and risk others being horrified and insulted by her comments. This Rabbi
    had an agenda to make a name for himself. Nobody ever heard of this guy with his little camera before he did this to Ms. Thomas.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  16. Nunya

    Point blank: "YES," Helen Thomas should be fired. The right course of action was taken. End of story!!

    June 8, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Dan

      Says who, loser?? This pro-Israel country is crazy to support a 40-yr. occupation. YES, 40 freakin' years my friend. When is enough, enough??

      June 8, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
  17. StWolf

    "...perhaps not surprising for a U.S.-born daughter of Christian immigrants from Lebanon."

    Wait, why would an American Christian lean against Israelis and toward Palestinians??? I'm confused.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  18. harveys

    someone should tell her that there is no Easter Bunny, there is no Santa Claus and there has never been a country called Palestine.The country of Palestine is a fiction. If the Palestinans are so well loved, why did Jordan and eqypt not take them into their counrtry.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  19. commonsense

    all of you who find her remarks offensive, do you not find the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Gaza offensive? The murder of innocents by the Israeli army offensive? Does the Israeli army not target and shoot women and children in the streets? We have by now all seen the images of what Israel has done, just in the past 15 years with their disregard for innocent Palestinians in an effort to get at a few militants. My heart goes out to the poor people who live in those ghettoes occupied by an oppressive regime. This conflict will be the undoing of us all.

    June 8, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
  20. Norma M

    It's ridiculous for her to lose her job. She was asked her opinion and she gave it. Now if we want to apply that standard to everyone else, say those responding here, we're going to see a lot of jobs opening up! And we provided it without even being asked!

    June 8, 2010 at 5:34 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.