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Losing Helen Thomas

I put off watching the Helen Thomas video all weekend. Couldn’t watch.

Of course, I’d seen the headlines. I knew that the gist of it was her telling Israelis to ‘go back to Germany and Poland.’ When I first saw the headlines I thought, “There must be some mistake” – knowing, of course, what had happened to the Jews of Germany and Poland. It’s hard to hear the words “The Jews of Germany and Poland” and not think of anything but the millions and millions of Jews who were incarcerated, enslaved, tortured, starved and exterminated in the Holocaust.

There really couldn’t be any mistaking such a comment. Even with the best possible spin, it was…revealing. And it revealed something about Helen Thomas that I didn’t want to see.

Look, Helen Thomas is a hero to many, and up until a few days ago, that included me. She was a tough, tenacious woman pushing forward in journalism eras ahead of a time when it was commonplace for women to do so. During the Bush Administration, she sat there at the front of the briefing room, asking uncomfortable questions about two difficult wars. She sparred memorably with more than one press secretary. She cameo’d in Stephen Colbert’s now-legendary White House Correspondents Dinner gig. Did she have an agenda? Hell yeah. But she was a columnist, for one thing, and a legend, for another. For those who watched the goings-on in the White House briefing room, she was a welcome fixture — for coming on fifty years — understood to belong in that front row by dint of seniority, achievement and being one hell of a character.

Today, just months shy of her 90th birthday, that all ended. She resigned abruptly from the her longtime position with Hearst — and thus from her longtime seat in the White House briefing room, and said in a statement: “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

I do, too. Because with those comments, we lost an icon. Because all of the foregoing — being the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member of the White House Correspondents Association — and its first female president — none of that is enough to give her a pass.

It’s not enough to have spent a lifetime being an awesome, trailblazing journalistic and feminist icon. Because longer still than the shadow cast by such a great career is the one cast by the Holocaust. There are still people living in this country — and many others, not the least of which is Israel — who have numbers tattooed on their arms from concentration camps. People who remember seeing their mothers or fathers or brothers or sisters torn away from them and packed on trains taking them to their deaths. People who couldn’t go back to where their families came from in Germany or Poland even if they wanted to, because entire villages were wiped out.

So, yes, Helen Thomas took it way too far in suggesting Jews in Israel go home to Germany and Poland. Because there is only one reason they left that home in the first place. That doesn’t mean it’s not a damn shame. That she said it, yes — I’ve heard more than a few people lament that if she’d just retired sooner, or held out a little longer. But even sadder is that she could think that to say it, knowing what she knows about history and the history of this country (it was just the anniversary of D-Day, after all), working in an industry that trades in facts and information. And saying that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine” not only ignores the legitimate history of a legitimate nation, but makes it pretty clear where her bias lies. That such comments were made before the flotilla incident — at a White House event celebrating the contributions of Jewish Americans for Jewish Heritage Month, no less — make them that much more troubling.

Ah yes. About that flotilla incident. Would Helen Thomas have been castigated so thoroughly without that backdrop? Well, yes, probably — see the above. What the flotilla incident did, though, was trigger a major surge of outrage — and, if we are honest, of other stuff. There has been criticism of Israel; there has been holding Israel to an arguably higher standard than other nations (see: North Korea) and there has been anti-Israel sentiment, blurred in with…a little more. What Helen Thomas said was at the upper end of that category — and I think, frankly, it startled a lot of people. Because that’s one hell of a slippery slope.

I wish Helen Thomas hadn’t said those things, and I truly wish she hadn’t thought them. But she did. Which means that, sad as I am, Helen Thomas can no longer be a hero to me.



Photo via HelenThomas.org

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