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. Justice Hall.

    Thomas "owes" nothing to anyone. Last I knew America protected speech and this reporter has all the right in the world to hold her own beliefs and to stand on a mountain top and tell the world just what her opinion is. Socialist Fascism has taken over this country and the people that make up the citizenry of this country are becoming enslaved with no rights...even the right to an opinion is being taken away by these socialist fascists

    June 9, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  2. Eva

    In a free society, no journalist should be fired for telling the truth.
    Every tyrant makes sure he silences the opposition.
    OK, America, you insist on sacrificing your own citizens for Israel, but please, do me a favor and NEVER AGAIN CLAIM FREEDOM OF SPEECH, unless you want to sound ridiculous.

    June 9, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • oceans

      What will to take for you to understand that freedom of speech is about restricting the government's ability to interfere with speech? Private companies are free to do what they want. If you don't like what the company did, then protest to them. This has to do with a company's focus on their public image. You make think of that as corporate tyranny, but it isn't governmental tyranny in the least.

      Media outlets fire journalists all the time for saying things that embarrass the employer. Other media outlets then hire the journalists. This isn't as uncommon or apocalyptic as you make it sound.

      June 9, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
    • JP

      Easy there PLO, oh I mean Eva.

      June 9, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • Eva

      Not true. It was the GOVERNMENT that said what she said was inexcusable. Why did the government not stand up for her rights if the corporation violated it?
      What you are saying is a complete b.s.

      June 9, 2010 at 3:11 pm |
    • oceans

      Eva, it would really help if you knew something about American law. The government cannot make an employer retain an employee if the employee resigned. Ms. Thomas was not fired, she resigned. Even if she had been fired, unless she was under a collective bargaining agreement through a union, there would be little the government could do. Simply because Obama or his press secretary criticized her remarks doesn't make this a freedom of speech issue. Obama, like all other politicians, panders to what they think is popular at the moment. Many presidents have commented on media stories in the past. This really isn't as big of a problem as you want it to be.

      June 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • Eva

      This is the biggest problem ever. Look at the people on this board and tell me WHO IS REPRESENTING THEIR VIEWS, if both, the media and the government are chickens?

      June 9, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • oceans

      Well, Eva I've tried to explain politely what the law is. If you don't want to have a discussion, that's fine. If you want to simply insist that your belief is the only one allowed, then I don't have time for it.

      June 9, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • Eva

      It's called "being right":)

      How come the American government knew how to defend the rights of Israel to massacre unarmed peace keepers, but was not able/willing to do anything to defend somebody's free speech?

      Honestly, what does this say about the government? You fill in the blanks.

      June 9, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
    • Eva

      I hate to say it, but even George Bush defended the rights of the shoe thrower......
      Obama with his big promises doesn't have the caliber of Bush? How sad.

      June 9, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
    • Kuzma

      Eva, it is strange that you do not understand that the freedom of speech is granted to ALL. Thus, you, I and Ms. Thomas – we all have the very same freedom. If as a result of your speech I critisize you or if I do not want to have any business with you – it is my right (and vice versa of course). And if beeing upset with me not willing to deal with you, you decide to retire – this is also your freedom. Ms. Thomas was not fired. If some people (companies) decided not to work with her – it was their right (their freedom). She could find others to work for. Instead, she decided to appologize and to retire. It was her choice and her freedom.

      June 9, 2010 at 11:03 pm |
  3. oceans

    I'm amazed at the stupidity on this board. Freedom of speech in America relates to the limitation on the government to restrict speech. Ms. Thomas said something on duty that embarrassed her employer. End of story. She had her freedom of speech and exercised it. She jeopardized her employment with it. There are many professions where the exact same thing can happen without violating freedom of speech. Lawyers and judges can be prohibited from working if they say something that violates their professional creeds. Business executives lose their jobs quite publicly when they embarrass their employers (stockholders and boards of directors). Even everyday workers can get fired for doing stupid things while driving the company truck or while wearing the company uniform.

    For those on this board whining about being called antisemitic, think about what you're writing. Many comments on this board criticize Israel and then go on to pontificate about "the Jews." Criticize the Israeli government all you want, but if you want to slam Jewish people as a whole, expect a negative reaction. The Israeli government does not represent all Jews, just like the US government doesn't represent the views and values of all Americans. What's disturbing is the number of people like who seem threatened when Jews or people supporting Jews stand up and call out the groundless broad-based criticisms of "the Jews." If you're going to be sloppy in your comments and mash together "Israel" and all "Jews" you're going to be called out on it.

    June 9, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  4. Howard

    It was not the Rabbi's question that ended Thomas' career, it was her answer

    June 9, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  5. dorian canalizo

    So sad that there are still so many Jew haters in the world. She can disagree with policy, but to suggest that Jews go back to Poland, etc. is like saying Blacks should go back to Africa. I also wish you ignorant people would read the facts and spell you r words correctly.

    June 9, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  6. Howard

    It was not the Rabbi's question that eneded Thomas" career; it was her answer

    June 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  7. Religions-SavetherestofUsfromyourFollowers

    Can anyone imagine a world without religion? Imagine people not being killed over Religion? Image people not hating others over Religion? Without religion we'd have to go back to (in some cases continue) racism to fulfill our unalienable right to force feed our own views and personal beliefs onto others. It amazes me how many people believe the religious BS created by man to employ control (albiet 3rd party) over man. I hope "other life" is discovered in my lifetime because every religion will be doing the politician two step to keep hold of their power (over you). "Ours is a friendly God" even when I do his (notso) evil bidding in his name. You can believe in one hand and crap in the other – see which hand gets filled first.

    X – "Please save us from your followers".

    June 9, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
    • oceans

      But, but, but without religion what would arrogant people like yourselves have to rely on to look down on people like us? I doubt the end of religion would bring an end of hate and arrogant superiority. Seems like you do well enough without it.

      June 9, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  8. Journalist Integrity

    Many of you are assuming that the uproar is because of Helen Thomas' opinion. I think the uproar is because Helen Thomas is a journalist and going on camera and giving her personal opinion and pushing that as the right opinion violates journalistic integrity. Journalists are to remain non-biased. They are to present both sides of the argument to let the people decide. I am a Jew and an supporter of Israel, but I am also an American and as such, I support Helen Thomas' right to have her own opinion and the freedom of speech to say it. Helen Thomas going to a pro-Palestinian demonstration is one thing, but giving her opinion as a journalist is another entirely. That being said, when you have a sort of celebrity status as a journalist, you have to know that what you say may be used against you by the public. It is the same with any celebrity, well known or not. If Brian Williams said that he thinks that eating meat is horrible for your health and that the cattle industry is cruel to animals, there would be an uproar from all sorts of groups.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  9. JP

    She is 87 years old. I think she also told Obama to get her coat and bring the car around.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  10. JewFromRussia

    If Helen Thomas has a freedom to speak her mind, as she should, why can't have her employer have a freedom to terminate her employment?

    June 9, 2010 at 11:33 am |
    • Eva

      Not really. Unless you advocate that Saddam was right to terminate the employment of the journalists who insisted on free press. Or the Chinese government was right to terminate the people on Tianneman Square.

      June 9, 2010 at 11:44 am |
  11. Rick Kane

    If all Americans returned to their ancestor's country of origin, it would be a pretty desolate place! And I'm afraid that Ms Thomas would have to return to Lebanon.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  12. DON62

    Did this woman lie. NO The jews came from europe after WWII murdered butchered brutilized the Palastinians
    Stole there land. stole there homes, and even stole there pesoal property and wiyh it and on it built the state of Israel.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:27 am |
    • JP

      So your basically saying that the Jews created their country similar to the way the United States was formed. Really WWII??? I thought the Jews migrated therer a couple of thousand years ago after being freed from slavery in Egypt.

      June 9, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • Eva

      Then what happened? Why did they leave?

      June 9, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  13. Dan

    Thomas had the (legal) right to say what she said, that she doesn't believe there should be a state of Israel, that is an opinion. But I found it to be shocking and outright libelous when she said during a press conference that Israel had "clearly committed an intentional massacre". Blood libel. It was so bizarre, so many people in the media and the UN were entirely convinced that Israelis had decided just to shoot ten of the hundred or so people on that one boat, just for kicks I guess. If they wanted a "massacre" why not a torpedo?

    June 9, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  14. Rick Kane

    This is not a free-speech issue. Ms Thomas was allowed to voice her beliefs freely without government censorship. What we are all learning is that we have to suffer the consequences of all our public utterances.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:21 am |
    • Eva

      What we are learning here is that there are certain things you are not allowed to utter if you want to keep your job. Just read the comments. Helen Thomas represented the opinions of the majority of the people here. Where have you the last time hear about people losing their jobs for representing the opinion of the majority? South Africa? Soviet Union? Communist China? Nazi Germany?

      June 9, 2010 at 11:28 am |
    • oceans

      Eva–what planet are you from? There are many jobs in this world where you can be fired or be made to resign if you say something inappropriate. Lawyers and judges can lose their ability to practice their craft if they say things that violate their professional standards. Business leaders get dumped by stockholders if they publicly embarrass the company. Even Joe Average can get fired for doing stupid things while driving the company truck or while in company uniform.

      June 9, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  15. moondoggie

    Check this out. Those Israeli's are at it again:

    June 9, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  16. Emma

    As a private citizen, Helen Thomas may hold and express any political opinions she wants. As a reporter and a White House correspondent, however, she needs to be objective, above the fray and non-offensive. The media outlets recognize this which is why she has been forced to retire, a blight forever on her career.

    What is of more concern, is not that she expressed support for her compatriots, the Arabs, but rather how she did it, by suggesting that the Israelis should abandon the country of their birth and move to the European countries that tortured and murdered their parents and grandparents. Embedded in her comments was the age old anti-semetic tactic of classifying a diverse group of people from different countries with different languages as 'the Jews' and condemning them for something – or perhaps everything. – that is problematic in the world.

    What is equally of concern is how this now disgraced former reporter has given license to the neo-nutzies, the terrorism apologists and the just plain tinfoil-hatted crazies to make anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-semetic remarks and and roll them all into the ever-present, ever-disgusting 'Jewish Question,' with all its false and ugly conspiracy components. One has only to read this forum to see all the 'death to the Jews, Hitler was right, control of (you name it)' comments. This is not the stuff of rational political discourse and for all the talk here of freedom of speech, should be disallowed by CNN so that normal people, on both sides of the issue (any issue) can conduct a meaningful debate. Freedom of Speech does mot and should not protect hate speech. While we can disagree about what Thomas said, how she said it, why she said it, her lapse of judgment should not permit the free reign of crazies to inhabit CNN.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • Eva

      But you must admit one thing: If the intention of the jews is to tick off the whole world, they are doing a good job. People are not angry at them for being jewish, but for getting away with atrocities hiding behind the backs of the US and UN.

      June 9, 2010 at 11:21 am |
    • Danny

      If Israel is allowed to hate why cant the rest of us. And as for painting all the Jews with the same brush. when being Jewish is considered an automatic qualification for nationality of Israel and not just a religion then it is ok to paint them with the same brush as the cruel bas$%#ds that imprison the people of Gaza.

      June 9, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  17. Mike

    Israel's relationship with the Palestinians and the middle east is an important issue and there are many opinions on all sides. How do we expect to properly address the issue when we are trying to mute or villify (as anti-semitic) voices of those opposed to the actions of Israel? Maybe we need to get over the thin-skinned political correctness and engage in a more honest and open dialogue to air our greivances on the matter. Ms. Thomas is not the only American (or for that matter person of the world) who sees Israel as a threat to peace and stability in the region. Maybe we should listen instead of covering our ears and wagging our tongues.

    June 9, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • oceans

      Have you stopped for a moment to think that maybe people aren't being "thin-skinned" so much as others are being sloppy in their thinking? Comment after comment on this board happily switches "the Jews" for Israel over and over again. The Israeli government is no more representative of all Jews than the US is representative of all Americans. That's where criticizing Israel slops over into antisemitism.

      We can all express criticism of a government without making broad accusations against an entire people. Unfortunately, many people on this board seem quite content to slam Jewish people as a whole as a way of criticizing Israel and then whine when they're called antisemitic.

      June 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
    • Iconoclast

      To Oceans,
      While I agree with your point regarding grouping all jews as being aligned with the State of Israel it seems that Israel does play both sides of the line on this very issue. Israel is by declaration a "Jewish" state and I as a non jew am not likely to obtain citizenship through immigration. While I realize that Israel has granted citizenship to non jewish residents who already resided within it's borders it does so in a very restrictive and second class manner. Point being that Israel is by it's own declaration a "jewish" democracy (I would actually say "theocracy") thus it's difficult separating the state from the faith. I have to ask myself where did the denigrating label "self hating jew" originate? America or Israel???

      June 9, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  18. RDub

    Exactly what did she say that wasn't true?

    June 9, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  19. Willie12345

    It's apparent that the Rabbi "set up" Thomas. She was a 87 year old women that was showing her age in many ways. If the Rabbi feels that he was justified in taking her down, he's not much of a man. Does he go out and "fool" senior citizens in old folks homes for a hobby? To make this interview public with the intent of "exposing" Thomas as someone who is a anti-jewish when she takes a position against Israel is a bit of a stretch. They are two separate topics. It is very possible to be pro – jewish without being pro Israel. Catholic live everywhere and don't have a home land. So do many other followers of religious beliefs.

    June 9, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  20. Thomas Beck

    Why don't you rightwing filth who ended Helen Thomas's career go after Pat Buchanan for his infinite anti-Semitic comments on TV? He's far more offensive and anti-Jewish than she was, unapologetically so, but he gets away with being a Jew-hater because he's a rightwing extremist. You want to fight anti-Semitism, go destroy Pat Buchanan's career.

    June 9, 2010 at 10:21 am |
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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.