In Defense of Helen Thomas: What’s Wrong with History?

By Tony Phillips

On Monday The Huffington Post ran a story by Michael Calderone covering the White House Correspondents Association’s decision to deny veteran journalist Helen Thomas a table at its upcoming dinner at the Washington Hilton. In a comment on that story I said, “It’s hard to imagine anything more wrong than this.”

I base my opinion on the fact that the 91-year-old Thomas, a former WHCA president, is unique among American journalists, having covered 10 different presidential administrations in a career stretching back to Dwight Eisenhower. It is because of Thomas as much as anyone else that women were first included at the WHCA dinner since, as the WHCA’s website mentions:

“Until 1962, the dinner was open only to men even though the membership included women. That changed when, at the prodding of Helen Thomas of UPI, President John F. Kennedy said he would not attend the dinner unless the ban on women was dropped.”

Thomas’s letter to the WHCA requesting a table was written as a past president and specifically mentioned her desire to attend with family and friends to mark the 50th anniversary of women’s inclusion at the event. A representative of the WHCA explained to The Huffington Post that no matter her past standing within the association, Thomas is only entitled to purchase two tickets to the event as a past president and another said it would be “logistically impossible” to allow every past president to get their own table. That, to me, misses the point. Not every past president covered the White House for half-a-century and not every past president is a living emblem of the advancement of women in journalism. For what it’s worth, I bet no other past president asked to buy a table in the first place.

Because of Helen Thomas’s unique place in American journalistic history, because of her many contributions to the WHCA and because she’s a woman in her 10th decade of life who would like the chance to share something meaningful, something she helped to bring about, with her nearest friends and family, I stand by my assertion that it’s hard to imagine something more wrong than the WHCA denying her request. I was prepared for some people to disagree with me. What I was not prepared for was the rancor of that disagreement or its basis in events from 2010, events that as far as I’m concerned remain ill-told.

I’ll risk stirring up an old brouhaha for the sake of telling a side of that story that I think got short-shrift at the time.

You probably recall the incident. In May 2010 Thomas was questioned briefly by Rabbi David Nesenoff who was at the White House for American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day. A slightly condensed version of that questioning follows.

Nesenoff: “Any comments on Israel?”

Thomas: “Tell them to get the hell out of Israel.”

Nesenoff: “Where should they go?”

Thomas: “They can go home.”

Nesenoff: “So you’re saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?”

Thomas: “And America and everywhere else? Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?”

Click here to watch the full two-minute video from on Youtube. Whether or not her remarks were indelicate I leave to you to decide.

I received a reply to my comment on the Huffington Post article that read in part:

“Do you have any idea what got Helen Thomas in so much trouble it effectively ended her career?”

Yes I do.

I heard from another commenter who wrote:

“Arabs are . . . colonial invaders. Jews have always been a majority in Jerusalem, until the ethnic cleansing by the Hashemites of Trans Jordan.”

That’s not true. Not by a very long stretch.

The same commenter added this particularly vitriolic feedback:

“Helen Thomas is a racist Arab. No nice way of saying that!”

I suppose there is no nice way of calling someone a racist, whether that person is an Arab a Greek or a Finn. Nice or not nice, it’s not accurate.

Helen Thomas is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. She was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. On the subject of whether she’s an Arab, Hugh Downs quoted her in his 2002 book My America: What This Country Means to Me by 150 Americans from All Walks of Life:

“We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people.”

So as for whether she’s a racist, I think probably not.

But the question, I suppose, is whether or not she’s an anti-Zionist, which is altogether different from her being an anti-Semite, or an anti-any ethnic or religious group. Her statement about Israeli Jews and their homelands of origin has, on its face, nothing to do with those Israelis being Jews and everything to do with the fact that their present home nation was taken by extraordinary means over the course of a few decades in the middle of the 20th Century from an indigenous Arab majority whose land it had been for centuries prior.

That’s the part of the story that I think bears clarification and as if I’m not already chastened under the acerbity engendered by a mere comment, I’m probably about to get very unpopular very quickly with some people, but the thing about the truth is this; I think it bears telling though it anger the multitudes because a blissful ignorance is still ignorance.

Most Jews living in Israel today were born there but most of their grandparents were not. Jewish out-migration from the Middle East dates to the start of the Diaspora with the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th Century B.C. The Jewish dispersion to regions outside the area of ancient Judeah and modern Israel accelerated in the 1st and 2nd Centuries of the modern era under Roman Occupation. Jews have represented a sizeable minority in Europe since Biblical times.

In 1948 there were approximately 1.35 million Arabs and only 650,000 Jews living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Today there are about 7.8 million Israelis, roughly 1.6 million of whom are Arabs and 5.9 million of whom are Jews. Only about 2 million of those Jews are of Palestinian ancestry. An equal 2 million are of European origin. Jews did not outbreed their Arab neighbors in the past 64 years – they immigrated. I doubt Helen Thomas, who is 27 years older than the nation of Israel, misremembers history. The one thing she remembers that most of us can’t is that Jews were effectively forced to seek a home far from Europe by the unthinkable atrocities of the Holocaust and the attitudes that outlasted it. Arabs were effectively pushed out of the modern boundaries of Israel by the arrival of those Jews and the one people who never really paid the price for the tragedy that befell Europe’s Jews were Europeans. To that extent if no further, Thomas’s comments reference historical facts that meant bad news for one people to redress the tragedy of another.

The history of Palestine is to say the least a contentious subject. But the events in that region over the past century are fairly well established. Those events have led to a current state of affairs in which there are roughly 10 million Palestinian Arabs in the world, more than half of whom live in exile outside of Palestine. Most Palestinians alive today have never seen the homes of their grandfathers.

Meanwhile, since 1948, Israel has had 12 prime ministers. David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres were born in Poland. Moshe Sharett and Yitzhak Rabin were from Ukraine. Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin were Russian. Yitzhak Shamir was from Belarus. Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were born in Palestine under British rule. Their parents were refugees from Russia, Lithuania and Ukraine, respectively. Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who speaks the English of a Boston Brahmin, is the country’s first head of state actually born an Israeli and he spent half his boyhood in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania. He subsequently spent several more years in America earning BS and MS degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean was definitely the birthplace of Judaism, but it is not the homeland of most modern Jews, not ethnically and not numerically. In fact, of the five cities in the world with the largest population of Jews, two are in the United States, New York with nearly two million, and Los Angeles with 655,000. Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and South Florida are home to another 1.5 million, meaning a population of US Jews in just seven metropolitan areas roughly equivalent to all Jews living in Israeli. Paris is home to another 310,000, Buenos Aires to 244,000.

The fact is that Jews, like Muslims and Christians, are a feature of the world’s population, spread across every continent, represented among many national cultures and histories. Israel is no more their home than Moscow or Skokie. Nonetheless, the modern nation of Israel has entered into the community of nations as the world’s only Jewish-majority state. How it came to be such is a tale of woe for the Palestinian Arab majority that preceded the country’s birth.

In his magnificent book To the Ends of the Earth (1993), David Yallop wrote:

“On April 10, 1948, the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, was destroyed. Its inhabitants, 260 men, women and children, were slaughtered; some were shot, some hacked to death. The attack was a combined operation by two Jewish groups, the Irgun, whose commander in chief was Menachem Begin, and the Stern Gang, one of whose leaders was Yitzhak Shamir. In 1980, Begin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1983, when Begin resigned from office, he was succeeded as prime minister of Israel by Yitzhak Shamir. History is written by winners.”

I might amend Yallop’s maxim only slightly – history is written by survivors. It’s hard to say, given the ongoing conflict in Israel and its occupied territories, that either side has “won” very much. But as far as holding land is concerned, Israeli Jews have certainly outlasted their Arab adversaries. Some of their tactics have been unseemly from the start, dating back to before the Deir Yassin massacre.

One of the first dramatic statements in advocacy of an independent Israel was the blowing up of the British headquarters in Palestine at the King David Hotel in 1946. In 1947, 30 years after the Balfour Declaration had set British policy that Palestine was to be a homeland for the Jews subject to the rights of Arabs, Great Britain called on the United Nations to resolve the Palestinian issue. The original UN solution involved the partition of Palestine into a Jewish zone and an Arab zone. But with the departure of British forces, leaders at the head of groups like the Irgun and Stern Gang joined in declaring an independent Israel and launched an offensive aimed at extending the area under Jewish control. Between May 1948 and January 1949, 370 Palestinian villages in the coastal strip from Tel-Aviv to Haifa were obliterated. And thus was born the original modern-day Israel.

The tactics of Israeli militia in those early days were appalling. In 1948, reacting to the events at Deir Yassin, Albert Einstein wrote to Shepard Rifkin, executive director of American Friends for Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, a fundraising force for the Stern Gang. In response to Rifkin’s solicitation of funds, Einstein wrote:

“When a real and final catastrophe should befall us in Palestine the first responsible for it would be the British and the second responsible for it the Terrorist organizations built up from our own ranks. I am not willing to see anybody associated with those misled and criminal people.”

The history of Israeli brutality does not end, not by a very long shot, with the country’s bloody birth. Between September 16 and 18, 1983, Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon surrounded and controlled access to two Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. Over the course of that time Lebanese Phalangist militia were allowed access to the otherwise sealed camps where, according to the Red Crescent, more than 3,000 men women and children were murdered. While the slaughter raged, IDF units fired illuminating flares by night over the camps to aid visibility for the militia.

In 1983, the Kahan Commission found the IDF to have indirect responsibility for the massacres at both camps and it found Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, personally responsible for having allowed entry by the Phalangists into the camps and ignoring the atrocities that occurred under his watch. Eighteen years later, Sharon was elected Prime Minister. Perhaps surviving war criminals write history.

One of Israel’s subtler tactics to continue dispossessing Palestinian Arabs of their lands in any possible future state of Palestine is massive Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, all taken during the 1967 Six-Day War. More than 500,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem alone. As reported in the Washington Post, just this past Monday, Israel severed ties to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and announced it will bar a UN team from entering Israel or the West Bank for a planned investigation of Israeli settlements. Of that announcement Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, “It means that we’re not going to work with them. We’re not going to let them carry out any kind of mission for the Human Rights Council, including this probe.”

I have never met Helen Thomas, although it would be my very great honor to do so. I have never read any treatise by Helen Thomas regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, I don’t know if she has ever written or spoken on the topic at length. All I know is what she told one Rabbi one day on the grounds of the White House and I know that from what she said a lot of people seem willing to infer a lot of ugly things. I’m not willing to do that. But I am willing to consider why she might have said what she said and so far, I can’t really find anything wrong with it.

Actually I know one other thing that Thomas had to say about the matter, to wit, what she posted on her website a few days after her interview with Nesenoff:

“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.”

Indeed, Helen. Indeed.

– Tony Phillips contributed this article to

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