Don't Sanitize Helen Thomas's Toxic Prejudices
Helen Thomas's death on July 20 brought to mind my last encounter with her, a couple of years ago, not long after she gave full vent to her almost comically hostile anti-Israel views.
In 2010, if you recall, Thomas, a longtime reporter and columnist, was asked by a rabbi with a video camera outside a White House Jewish heritage day celebration (of all things) if she had any thoughts on Israel.
It turns out she did. Here is what she said: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine."
The rabbi, David Nesenoff, asked her where they should go.
"They should go home," she said. "Poland. Germany. And America, and everywhere else. Why push people out who have lived there for centuries?"
Nesenoff: "Are you familiar with the history of that region?"
Thomas replied, "Very much. I'm of Arab background."
Thomas resigned from her job as a columnist for Hearst Newspapers shortly after the video surfaced, though she was mostly retired at that point, anyway: Only a handful of newspapers carried her reliably screedish columns.
Not long after the controversy, Playboy ran an interview with Thomas, who was asked to respond to something I had written about the controversy.
Playboy: "In the wake of your anti-Israel comments, a blogger from The Atlantic argued there's really no distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. He wrote, `Thomas was fired for saying that the Jews of Israel should move to Europe, where their relatives had been slaughtered in the most devastating act of genocide in history. She believes that once the Jews are evacuated from their ancestral homeland, the world's only Jewish country should be replaced by what would be the world's 23rd Arab country. She believes that Palestinians deserve a country of their own but that the Jews are undeserving of a nation-state in their homeland, which has had a continuous Jewish presence for 3,000 years…"
At which point, Thomas interrupted to ask: "Did a Jew write this?"
The interviewer gamely plowed through: "…and has been the location of two previous Jewish states. This sounds like a very anti-Jewish position to me, not merely an anti-Zionist position."
Thomas's reaction to my analysis of her essential atrociousness: "This is a rotten piece. I mean, it's absolutely biased and totally -- who are these people?"
As it happens, I ran into Thomas shortly after the Playboy interview appeared. I couldn't resist the urge to let her know that I was (and am, by the way) Jewish, that the expression "these people" is not terrifically respectful and also that telling the Jews of Israel to move to Germany, where their families were murdered, scores fairly high on the Goldberg Insensitivity Scale. She responded with something unprintable -- not anti-Semitic, just unprintable -- which I found delightful, because I have a fondness for old people who curse and are filled with vinegar.
I understand the tributes to Thomas that have been issued after her death was announced. She was a pioneer in the White House press room, and she carved a path through Washington journalism that was followed by many other women, including journalists of much greater talent and probity. And I understand why obituary writers feel the need to capture her in her fullness. But I don't think her anti-Semitism should be treated as an afterthought, as it has been. (This Eleanor Clift appreciation, which sanitizes Thomas's anti-Jewish rant to an unconscionable degree, is typical.)
The toxic tone Thomas struck in her 2010 comments wasn't the excusable byproduct of old age; it was the same tone she'd been using, in her questions and her columns, for years (this Jack Shafer column from 2003 will help you understand the Thomas method).
Thomas's sympathy for the Palestinians was a blinding compassion. Her prejudices followed inevitably from her inability to understand a competing and equally valid -- and equally tragic -- national narrative.
Which, by the way, isn't the mark of a very good reporter.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)