Helen Thomas: Should We Forgive an Anti-Semite Who Apologizes?


Q: The Helen Thomas case prompts a question: What she said on that video was horrible, but given the fact that she apologized and is so old, isn’t it in the spirit of Judaism to forgive her?

A. Helen Thomas never apologized. On June 4, she placed the following statement on her website:

“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. 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.”

There’s no mention of the “go back to Germany and Poland” part of her diatribe, nor do we find the word “apology” at all. A regret is not an apology. To feel badly about a painful result is not the same as taking responsibility for having inflicted the pain. Richard Blumenthal’s recent admission of “mis-speaking” (read: lying) regarding his military service and Vietnam was something he regretted at first, but only a week later did he apologize. Thomas’ statements, of course, were far worse, and her apology has yet to appear.

She needed to resign, and the “grumpy ol’geezer” defense won’t cut it. Her comments were shocking and offensive for a person of any age, much like those of Reverend Jeremiah Wright that caused candidate Obama to compare him to an old uncle. Both Thomas and Wright are embarrassments to embattled professions that pride themselves in judicious use of language – and they are an embarrassment to elderly people as well.

I must admit that part of me feels uncomfortable about the instant trial that Helen Thomas received.

"Gotcha" journalism has now become so pronounced in the blogosphere and it reeks of what Jewish law calls rechilut, tale-bearing, one of the worst forms of gossip. Maybe, given her lifetime of service (apparently unblemished by prior smoking-gun anti-Semitism despite her vocal opposition to Israel), Thomas could have been better served had these remarks been shared with her and her employers privately at first, rather than creating an instant online firestorm. Private rebuke is a tack also supported by Jewish sources. If that approach didn’t result in her immediate resignation, that would have been the time to let the video go viral and let the court of public opinion decide.

I know and respect the rabbi who exposed Thomas on his blog. I can only imagine how shocked and pained he was to hear these now infamous Helen-isms, and I’ve no doubt that I would have responded similarly. So I’m not calling him out on this. (Otherwise, I should have done that privately too!)

I’m just hoping we all can step back and not feel so smug that we "nabbed one." Anti-Semites won’t disappear if we take them out, one at a time. Rabbi Nesenoff has seen first-hand how this viral, vile video has only stoked a hornets’ nest of Jew hatred, much of it directed at him personally. I’m also not convinced that Thomas was always a Jew hater even if what she said was clearly anti-Semitic.

There are times when Jew hatred needs to be exposed and confronted with an overwhelming response, like when a madman running a huge country calls for Israel’s destruction and denies the Holocaust. I’m not so sure Helen Thomas posed such a danger to society.

Which brings us back to the original question. Helen Thomas aside, should we forgive an anti-Semite who apologizes, or, to be precise, someone who makes an anti-Semitic remark, takes ownership of it, is remorseful and asks forgiveness?

Yes, we should.

Our sages suggested that the greatest hero is the one who can transform an enemy into a friend. The Torah unambiguously discourages us from holding grudges.

So, Helen, when you wake up one night in a cold sweat, finally sensing the full horror of what you said, give me a call.

We’ll talk.