RIP Helen Thomas

Pioneering journalist Helen Thomas passed away on Saturday at the age of 92. She asked tough questions and was one of the only women in her industry for much of her life. She was first at a lot of things: The first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association, the first woman to join the male journo Gridiron Club, the only female journalist to join Nixon on his trip to China in 1972. She was a badass (if one whose really poorly-chosen remarks about Israel and Palestine cast a shadow over her career). I met Helen twice at different journalist events, and have rarely been more star-struck. We need more journalists who are forthright and willing to ask difficult, straight-forward questions of those in power. May she rest well.

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Jill has been blogging for Feministe since 2005.
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35 Responses

  1. Kerplunk
    Kerplunk July 22, 2013 at 8:01 pm |

    Helen Thomas was a force to be reckoned with, and one of the few who consistently challenged the official narrative of the powerful. And she was very much a trailblazer for women in journalism.

    Her remarks on Israel may have been ill-advised in that she could have predicted the reaction that they ultimately received and how it would affect her career, but the perspective that she expressed, though largely taboo in the United States, is a perspective held by many around the world, including a minority but significant number of Americans. Why should she have censored herself, and chosen to express a popular and safe viewpoint instead of expressing what she believed was right, on such an important issue? Especially considering that she is Lebanese, and therefore has a personal perspective about the issue.

    1. Fat Steve
      Fat Steve July 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm |

      Especially considering that she is Lebanese, and therefore has a personal perspective about the issue.

      I don’t understand how one’s heritage would affect one’s perspective on the the rightness or wrongness of an issue UNLESS one was racist.

      1. Fat Steve
        Fat Steve July 22, 2013 at 8:35 pm |

        I should also point out that Helen Thomas was born in this country (92 years ago, obviously,) so to say she is Lebanese is just wrong.

      2. Kerplunk
        Kerplunk July 22, 2013 at 9:47 pm |

        Saying that one’s origins should not affect one’s perspective on an issue doesn’t make a lot of sense. Should Latinos or Asians, for instance, not be affected by their culture of origin and life experience as a member of a minority in the US in how their views are shaped? I don’t know that anyone would claim that. In an interview I saw recently with a Lebanese filmmaker, he stated that the perspective that Helen Thomas expressed is the majority view in Lebanon.

        I know that she was born in this country, but she is of Lebanese ancestry. There’s nothing uncommon about referring to people of Irish ancestry as Irish, or people of Italian ancestry as Italian, so why should it be different for Lebanese people?

        1. Donna L
          Donna L July 22, 2013 at 9:58 pm |

          he stated that the perspective that Helen Thomas expressed is the majority view in Lebanon.

          So what? The fact that innumerable people all over the world share her perspective does not make what she said any less repulsive.

        2. Kerplunk
          Kerplunk July 22, 2013 at 10:18 pm |

          @ Donna L

          Does the fact that innumerable people are oppressed, marginalized, and sometimes killed, by Israeli foreign policy make their daring to speak up for themselves and make their perspective known repulsive? Or is the entire Arab world repulsive?

        3. Barnacle Strumpet
          Barnacle Strumpet July 22, 2013 at 10:33 pm |

          @Kerplunk: I’m pretty sure that unless it’s a Jewish person themself saying Jews have a secret conspiracy to rule everything, it’s gonna be repulsive.

          It’s also kinda repulsive how you’d try to bring up tragedies and oppressive miltiary actions to make excuses for someone expressing a “Jews rule the world” sentiment.

        4. trees
          trees July 22, 2013 at 10:43 pm |

          Does the fact that innumerable people are oppressed, marginalized, and sometimes killed, by Israeli foreign policy make their daring to speak up for themselves and make their perspective known repulsive? Or is the entire Arab world repulsive?

          That’s not what Helen Thomas did; those comments aren’t in support of Palestinian rights. I presume you’ve watched/read the pertinent quotes, so that means you are actually defending her vile comments. You do know that historically there have been longstanding Jewish communities throughout the region, including populations native to the land of Israel/Palestine? You also know about the mass expulsion of Jewish people from Arab/Muslim countries right?

        5. macavitykitsune
          macavitykitsune July 22, 2013 at 10:46 pm |

          Does the fact that innumerable people are oppressed, marginalized, and sometimes killed, by Israeli foreign policy make their daring to speak up for themselves and make their perspective known repulsive?

          Psst. Innumerable people being oppressed, marginalised and killed =/= World Rulers. Unless you’re referring to the US, in which case carry on.

        6. trees
          trees July 22, 2013 at 10:47 pm |

          I screwed up the link, it should go to the wikipedia page:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_exodus_from_Arab_countries

        7. Fat Steve
          Fat Steve July 22, 2013 at 11:45 pm |

          Saying that one’s origins should not affect one’s perspective on an issue doesn’t make a lot of sense. Should Latinos or Asians, for instance, not be affected by their culture of origin and life experience as a member of a minority in the US in how their views are shaped? I don’t know that anyone would claim that. In an interview I saw recently with a Lebanese filmmaker, he stated that the perspective that Helen Thomas expressed is the majority view in Lebanon.

          So why is it that, I, a person of Jewish extraction, don’t agree with the majority view in Israel? Because I have the ability to think for myself?

        8. Donna L
          Donna L July 23, 2013 at 12:49 am |

          Does the fact that innumerable people are oppressed, marginalized, and sometimes killed, by Israeli foreign policy make their daring to speak up for themselves and make their perspective known repulsive? Or is the entire Arab world repulsive?

          You keep obfuscating and changing the subject, probably because your position on her actual remarks is indefensible. None of what you’ve been saying has anything to do with whether it’s anti-Semitic to tell Holocaust survivors and refugees, and their descendants, that their “home” is the specific place where their families and people were slaughtered, and that they should go there. As if there’s a “there” anymore. It is entirely possible, as I said, to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. Helen Thomas went way over the line, not only with these comments but with others. That’s what’s repulsive. I don’t care about her perspective, any more than I care about the underlying perspective of anyone else who makes racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic comments.

        9. Willemina
          Willemina July 23, 2013 at 1:32 am |

          trees, I was going to say something about the Nakba, but this should have just started in spillover and gotten locked immediately.

          I heard snippets of her anti-Semitism, and to call it anti-Zionism pollutes an already pretty tarred and feathered word. I preferred it when I just thought she was that crotchety old lady that got to sit in the front of the press pool.

        10. Kerplunk
          Kerplunk July 23, 2013 at 3:03 am |

          I’m not obfuscating or changing the subject. I’m just not talking about the subject that you want to talk about, and I haven’t been, from the beginning. You want to talk about your own subject, go ahead, but stop asking me to engage with it.

          I already said that I disagree with her statements that Israelis should leave Israel. I already said that those statements can be perceived as anti-Semitic.

          What I find interesting is her willingness to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a perspective that is at least present, and arguably prevalent, in the Arab world, when in the US there is very little room made to express that perspective in any public manner. I think it’s a meaningful and relevant perspective, though the way that she chose to express it was very troubling.

          You believe that what you view as an anti-Semitic intent to her remarks renders her perspective irrelevant. I’m not convinced that she was motivated by anti-Semitism. There are strong emotions and deeply held views on both sides of the conflict, and on both sides there is often the tendency to perceive controversial statements as hateful.

        11. trees
          trees July 23, 2013 at 5:53 am |

          trees, I was going to say something about the Nakba, but this should have just started in spillover and gotten locked immediately.

          Indeed (to both points). My comment was in no way meant as a defense of the horrors perpetrated against the Palestinian people. I was addressing Thomas’ specific anti-Semitic remarks, and hoping to move the conversation away from the usual clean and tidy Palestinian=good/Israeli=bad binary.

        12. Donna L
          Donna L July 23, 2013 at 9:37 am |

          I already said that those statements can be perceived as anti-Semitic.

          My, how generous of you.

          Once again, you misrepresent and attempt to excuse the specifically anti-Semitic nature of her statements. And once again, you just wave away the significance of the “home” she identified.

          You also misperceive my own point — which is that her intent doesn’t matter. Her comments were anti-Semitic regardless of her subjective intent.

          The only thing that people who take your position accomplish by refusing to admit that sometimes anti-Zionist rhetoric is also anti-Semitic, is to confirm, to those who believe it, that there’s no difference between the two. And, apparently, that there’s just about nothing Helen Thomas could have said that you would ever admit was actually anti-Semitic, and that to you, her “perspective” excuses everything. Which makes anti-Semitism, it seems, the single exception to the usual analysis of bigoted statements that applies here.

        13. Kerplunk
          Kerplunk July 24, 2013 at 6:57 pm |

          I am acknowledging your views, even though I disagree with them. I just don’t think that what she said was anti-Semitic.

          Her perspective doesn’t excuse anything: she expressed a view that is unpopular but a topic worthy of discussion, and then added remarks that were thoughtless and inflammatory, and that I disagree with, but that does not equal anti-Semitic.

          The charge of anti-Semitism is routinely and vociferously leveled at anyone who is critical of Israel’s policies, so its meaning has become very complicated.

        14. Donna L
          Donna L July 24, 2013 at 9:30 pm |

          added remarks that were thoughtless and inflammatory, and that I disagree with, but that does not equal anti-Semitic.

          Sure. Not anti-Semitic. Just “thoughtless” and “critical of Israel’s policies.” The Jews should go “home” to the places that no longer exist, where the ground is still soaked in Jewish blood. (The phrase used by an elderly cousin of mine, now deceased, explaining why he could never set foot in those countries, where his parents and brothers and sisters were slaughtered by the Einsatzgruppen.) Where the ground still moves and nothing grows, as at Treblinka, with the bone and ash of nearly a million Jews buried right under the surface, still occasionally bubbling up after 70 years.

          You don’t see how sadistic it was to say that?

          Tell anybody else to “go home” to the places that murdered and tortured their families? Racism. This? (Never mind “the Zionists a/k/a the Jews have bought the U.S. government”?) Impossible for you to admit that it could be anti-Semitism. Because apparently there’s pretty much no such thing. It’s just thoughtlessness.

        15. trees
          trees July 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm |

          @Kerplunk

          I’ve read your comments, thought about it, and am at a loss as to how to respond. Still, I feel the need to say “something” how ever inarticulate.

          The charge of anti-Semitism is routinely and vociferously leveled at anyone who is critical of Israel’s policies, so its meaning has become very complicated.

          True, but sometimes shit just be antisemitic; this is one of those times. Hating on Jewish people doesn’t forward the cause of Palestinian liberation, and does Palestinian people a disservice.

          Offline in my RL, I regularly encounter casual antisemitism in liberal/progressive circles. This really is a thing, and a serious problem.

          Have you known any Holocaust survivors; have you heard their stories? Are you familiar with the inter-generational trauma of descendants? Are you Jewish or part of a Jewish community? Are you versed in Jewish history and the history of antisemitism? Do you really know what antisemitism looks and smells like? If not, how can you be confident in your ability to recognize it when it’s right before your eyes?

  2. Donna L
    Donna L July 22, 2013 at 8:22 pm |

    the perspective that she expressed, though largely taboo in the United States, is a perspective held by many around the world, including a minority but significant number of Americans. Why should she have censored herself, and chosen to express a popular and safe viewpoint instead of expressing what she believed was right, on such an important issue? Especially considering that she is Lebanese, and therefore has a personal perspective about the issue.

    Do you have any idea what she actually said? Stop with the whitewashing.

    It is absolutely true that anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism, and that anti-Zionists are not necessarily anti-Semitic.

    This has become such acccepted wisdom among progressives that it can become a meaningless shibboleth. Some people seem to forget that sometimes anti-Zionism does equal anti-Semitism, and sometimes anti-Zionists are also anti-Semites.

    Anyone who says that Israeli Jews should all “go home” to Poland and Germany is, in my opinion, not only a disgusting asshole but an anti-Semite. There is no room for argument. Do I really, really need to go through all the reasons why her statements to that effect were inexcusable, profoundly ignorant, and (to me) unforgivable? No, she wasn’t talking only about the occupied territories; please don’t use that excuse. Even leaving aside the fact that a substantial percentage of Israeli Jews were born there; even leaving aside the fact that a substantial percentage don’t have European ancestry (not counting the descendants of Jews who left Europe in the Middle Ages to move to North Africa and the Middle East); even leaving aside everything else; for her to say that the specific countries where Jews were slaughtered in the millions — including the families of many survivors and refugees still living in Israel, including cousins of mine who were able to escape there — is the true “home” of any Jews, is repulsive.

    And fuck you if you agree with her.

    1. Donna L
      Donna L July 22, 2013 at 8:41 pm |

      By the way, I deliberately didn’t get into the issue of “whose land” it is, or the debate about who migrated where or who did what to whom 2000 or 1000 or 500 or 200 or 100 or 70 years ago, and who can or can trace their ancestry to what ancient people who lived in a particular place, because those aren’t issues that anybody here is going to solve, and, more importantly, because none of it is remotely relevant to the hatefulness of what she said.

    2. Barnacle Strumpet
      Barnacle Strumpet July 22, 2013 at 8:58 pm |

      I’m just kind of boggling at her saying that. I thought there were really only two outcomes anti-Zionist people advocated for:

      1. dividing the territory fairly somehow between Palestinians and Isralies (two-state solution)

      2. creating one peaceful democratic country with both groups

      It’s hard to believe anyone other than a blatant happy anti-semite would see “Go home Jews” as a valid answer to the problem…So yeah, I’m in agreement with you on this one.

      1. Past my expiration date
        Past my expiration date July 22, 2013 at 9:35 pm |

        I thought there were really only two outcomes anti-Zionist people advocated for

        You might read up on this.

        1. Barnacle Strumpet
          Barnacle Strumpet July 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm |

          Care to expand on that/rec links?

    3. Kerplunk
      Kerplunk July 22, 2013 at 10:07 pm |

      First of all, fuck you too.

      I am aware of what she said. Calling her views anti-Semitic — though there are undoubtedly many anti-Semites who do hold those exact views — sidesteps the issue that she brought up.

      Most supporters of the Palestinian cause want a two-state solution, in which Israel would withdraw from the Occupied Territories and allow the Palestinians to create a sovereign state (even though Israel has shown absolutely no sign that it is willing to do so), but there is nevertheless the historical issue of how the state of Israel was established. Most (or at least many) Palestinian supporters accept that Israel exists, so the question of whether it is a legitimate state has become academic, but it isn’t a question that is entirely without merit, as an academic discussion.

      I don’t agree that people who live in Israel and who, in great numbers, have lived in Israel for decades, should have to leave. But I don’t think that it’s anti-Semitic to question or call attention to how the state of Israel was established, or even to question the claim of the people who settled in a place that was already-settled and where people were displaced in significant numbers, and where many continue to exist as an occupied people to this day.

      1. Donna L
        Donna L July 22, 2013 at 10:16 pm |

        And fuck you again. You still don’t see why telling Jews to “go home” specifically to Germany and Poland, when basically the only Jews in Israel who came from there are elderly Holocaust survivors, is an anti-Semitic comment? Regardless of the perspective from which it came? Give me a break.

        Her views on history, and on who does or doesn’t have rights to that particular corner of the world, have NOTHING to do with what she said, and don’t excuse or justify it.

        As long as you continue to be that obstinate in refusing to admit the obvious, and continue to engage in this kind of apologism, we clearly have nothing to say to each other.

        1. Kerplunk
          Kerplunk July 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm |

          Actually, I’m not going to let you tell me “fuck you” again without replying. Fuck you. Where are the mods?

        2. Fat Steve
          Fat Steve July 22, 2013 at 11:58 pm |

          Thomas was a great reporter. She held some incredibly atrocious views. Those two things can coexist. People can also choose to look less generously on her career and her as a person given those views.

          Putting aside the anti-semitism, I disagree with your assessment of her as a great reporter. I mean, for a majority of her career she really just served as a mouthpiece for whoever was POTUS at the time.

          I find it hard to believe a sitting president would want a great reporter in his press conference.

          As a pioneer of women in the media she deserves incredible praise and credit. As a reporter…ehhh.

        3. Donna L
          Donna L July 23, 2013 at 2:23 am |

          By the way, I apologize for the fuck yous (not that I am the only person ever to use such language here!), but I had every right to be furious at the idea that someone would actually deny, with a straight face, that the very specific comments at issue were anti-Semitic.

  3. macavitykitsune
    macavitykitsune July 22, 2013 at 8:40 pm |

    Can we just all agree that trailblazers can also be problematic as fuck while still having accomplished things? Ditto celebrities (hello Sean Penn fans), famous political figures (hello Gandhians), etc, etc?

    It feels almost like how the roundabout goes is:

    Marginalised person: (Important Figure) was incredibly ist and hurtful.
    Other faction: HDU SAY THEY WERE NOT IMPORTANT!eleventy!

    I mean…that’s not actually what the marginalised person said, but it sure seems to be how they’re heard no matter what they say. D: I’d really like to avoid another Thatcher-style meltdown of communication.

    Also, I don’t know Helen Thomas from Adam, Eve or the snake, but if Donna’s summary of her remarks isn’t exaggerated (which I doubt it is, given Donna), wow that was some prize anti-Semitism. But at least kudos (of the “you tried and failed” sort) for actually suggesting an “alternative home” for Jewish folk? Most of the anti-Semites I’ve run into seem very keen on erasing Israel’s existence without wanting to let any Jews in anywhere else either.

    1. Donna L
      Donna L July 22, 2013 at 8:45 pm |

      I agree completely, mac. I wasn’t going to come here and post anything negative. She was a very important person who accomplished amazing things. But nobody should minimize what she said, and act as if all she did was criticize the actions of Israel. For God’s sake.

    2. yes
      yes July 22, 2013 at 9:21 pm |

      You can find the original comment here and an interview about it here in case you want to know what she specifically said.

  4. Donna L
    Donna L July 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm |

    In addition to the going home to Poland and Germany comments, she believed in the “Jewish control” theory, as expounded in this interview:

    PLAYBOY: Let’s get to something else you said more recently. In a speech in Detroit last December, you told an Arab group, “We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that. Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question, in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is. We’re being pushed into a wrong direction in every way.” Do you stand by that statement?

    THOMAS: Yes, I do. I know it was horrendous, but I know it’s true. Tell me it’s not true and I’ll be happy to be contradicted. I’m just saying they’re using their power, and they have power in every direction.

    PLAYBOY: That stereotype of Jewish control has been around for more than a century. Do you actually think there’s a secret Jewish conspiracy at work in this country?

    THOMAS: Not a secret. It’s very open. What do you mean secret?

    Sometimes, when people refer to “Zionists,” they really do mean “Jews.”

    1. Jamie
      Jamie July 23, 2013 at 9:47 am |

      Yeeeep. I saw a different part of that interview at LGM, and yeeep. That’s some fucked up, antisemitic bullshit. Like, is the Israel lobby powerful? Yes. Should people be able to discuss that? Of course. But if you’re a journalist — i.e., someone who makes their living as someone who writes, i.e., someone who knows how to use words — and if you’re wading into something as fraught as the I/P conflict and AIPAC and the centuries of “zomg Jews sekritly control the worrrrld!” conspiracy theories, you’d better damn sure be thoughtful and sensitive in your phrasing. She should have known better and could have done way better.

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