Long-time veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas is retiring in the wake of comments she made at a recent celebration of the Jewish Heritage at the White House. When Rabbi David Nesenoff asked the 89-year old Hearst columnist if she had any comments on Israel, Thomas—who is sometimes called the “Dean of the White House Press Corps”—said, “Tell them to get the hell out Palestine.” When Nesenoff, who is a reporter for RabbiLive.com, asked her where they should go, Thomas said they should “go home” to “Poland, Germany, and America, and everywhere else.”
Whatever you think of the original decision to create the state of Israel, it doesn’t make much sense to ask generations of Israeli Jews to leave the country they were born in. And it requires a special moral insensitivity to ask Jews to return to the countries where their ancestors were the victims of the worst genocide in history. Thomas’ comments were quickly denounced both by the White House Correspondents Association and the White House itself. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called them “offensive and reprehensible.” Thomas herself said in an apology that they don’t reflect her “heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance.”
Thomas’ comments were bizarre and hard to defend. They appear to place the blame for the problems of the Palestinians not on any particular policy but on Jews in general, and seem to call for what would amount to the ethnic cleansing of a region. RabbiLive.com has received some 25,000 pieces of truly disgusting hate mail inspired by her remarks.
Yet I am sorry to see her go, precisely because Thomas cared so little about whether her remarks were appropriate or socially acceptable. Because of Thomas’ long tenure in the White House press corps—which she joined during the Kennedy administration, before President Obama was even born—she was able to get away with asking the kinds of undiplomatic questions that no one else could. And she never shrank from asking the hard, impolite, and even downright offensive questions that reporters should ask. While White House press correspondents too often simply pass on the official story—no matter how weak it might be—without comment, Thomas never stopped challenging the president and demanding answers. Perhaps we need someone who is crazy and obnoxious and even bigoted to ask the questions that a more polite, decent person would not. As Dana Milbank wrote yesterday, “She brought a ferocity to her questioning that has eluded too many in subsequent generations. At a time when others were getting cozy with sources, her crabby, unrelenting hostility was refreshing.”