Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas died last week. Thomas had covered every president from Kennedy to Obama and, as many noted, she was frequently the only woman reporter in a room full of men. Often referred to as the dean of the White House press corps, she is credited with breaking the glass ceiling in journalism and paving the way for a whole generation of female reporters. Her place in the front row at White House press briefings has been sacrosanct for years, complete with a plaque on it bearing her name — the only such reserved seat in the room.
But Thomas’ reputation was tarnished toward the end of her career when she made controversial statements about Israel and Jews. Though Thomas quit after being caught on video in 2010 saying that the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” this was not her first foray into incendiary territory regarding Israel. In 2000, it emerged that Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent, had excluded Jewish New York Times reporter William Safire from a journalist club because of his pro-Israel views. That same year, the Zionist Organization of America criticized Thomas for creating a list of the ten most wanted terrorists but neglecting to include any Palestinian terrorists who committed acts of terror against Americans.
But the incident that may well seal her reputation in pro-Israel circles took place on May 27, 2010, when Thomas was asked by Rabbi David Nesenoff, a blogger with RabbiLive.com, if she had “any comments on Israel.” Thomas responded, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” Nesenoff then asked where Jews should go. “Go home,” Thomas said. “Poland, Germany and America, and everywhere else.”
Thomas subsequently apologized for the comment: “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.”
Some critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, said the apology did not go far enough. Even President Obama weighed in, saying, “The comments were offensive. It’s a shame because Helen is somebody who had been a correspondent through I don’t know how many presidents, who was a real institution in Washington, but I think she made the right decision.” On June 7, 2010, Wayne State University, Thomas’ alma mater, withdrew its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award.
But Thomas wasn’t done. On Dec. 2 2010, in a speech to an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., Thomas said that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.” A month later, the Society of Professional Journalists retired a lifetime achievement award named for her.
Then in February 2011, in an interview with CNN’s Joy Behar, Thomas said that once World War II ended, the Jews “didn’t have to go anywhere really, because they weren’t being persecuted anymore. But they were taking other people’s land.”
In April, she told Playboy: “You cannot say anything about Israel in this country … Sure, the Israelis have a right to exist — but where they were born, not to come and take someone else’s home. I’ve had it up to here with the violations against the Palestinians. Why shouldn’t I say it? I knew exactly what I was doing — I was going for broke. I had reached the point of no return. You finally get fed up.”
In her final years, Thomas became a speaker on the Pro-Palestinian circuit. In 2011, she spoke at the Move Over AIPAC conference, organized by coalition of about 100 left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups, led by Code Pink and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. In 2012, the Palestinian Authority bestowed Thomas with a journalism award for “all of her actions supporting Palestine in the West.”