(JTA) — Helen Thomas, who paved the way for female journalists in Washington and beyond and retired after saying Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” has died.
Thomas, who reported on every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama working mostly for United Press International, died Saturday at her home in Washington from what was described as a long illness. She was 92.
She was known for ending many presidential news conferences with the phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Thomas began as a copy girl at the Washington Daily News before joining the UPI wire service in 1943. She started out covering the young Kennedy family, becoming White House Bureau chief in 1974 — the first woman to have the post.
In 2000, she left UPI after it was purchased by News World Communications, which was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church. She was quickly hired as a Washington-based columnist for the Hearst Corp.
At a White House celebration for American Jewish Heritage Month in May 2010, Thomas was asked on video if she had any “comments on Israel.”
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, told Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com. “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land.”
Nesenoff asked where she thought they should go.
“Go home,” she responded.
Asked to elaborate, Thomas said, “Poland, Germany,” and after more prompting by the rabbi, “and America, and everywhere else.”
The video was posted five days later and almost immediately went viral, prompting calls for her firing. Thomas issued an apology, saying she deeply regretted her comments.
“They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance,” she said.
Thomas resigned several days later after The White House Correspondents Association met to consider stripping her of her front-row center seat in the briefing room.
Last year, Thomas received a prize in journalism from a representative of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.