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Hearing Helen

As a former journalism student at Wayne State University, located a few miles outside of the city's downtown, I've seen and heard of a lot of talented writers and reporters who've walked those halls as students. But as great as many of them have gone on to be, no journalism alumnus at my alma mater has been more heralded than the now-embattled Helen Thomas.

Each year, in fact, the school hosts the Helen Thomas "Spirit of Diversity" Awards and Reception, usually drawing some of the biggest names in the news business, both locally and nationally. The program honors the achievements of media trailblazers whose work reflects the spirit of diversity.

All in the name of Thomas, WSU Class of '42, who ended her legendary career yesterday in the wake of backlash created by her comments during an interview with a rabbi, comments where she urged Jews to "get the hell out of Palestine" and suggested they "go home" to Poland, Germany, America "and everywhere else."

"I think her comments represent the vilest form of blatant anti-Semitism," said Richard Nodel, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit. "Did she mean we should go back to the gas chambers? The concentrations camps of Germany and Poland?"

But that's just it, says a friend in the WSU journalism department whom I talked to earlier today about the controversy: Instead of simply condemning Thomas' remarks, perhaps we should take a closer listen to what she was trying to say, even if, in her outrage, you think she said it poorly.

"We need to be able to ask people what they mean when something like this comes up," says Alicia Nails, a journalism instructor at WSU and director of the school's Journalism Institute for Media Diversity."I think that (the situation) shows our inability to have a conversation when we're confused or when we're offended. Black people, we do this all the time, too. First thing we want to do is have somebody fired. That's ridiculous. There's this sense of 'swift justice' and then it's over and done with. A lot of heat — but no light."

Alicia, who teaches a course on race, class and gender in journalism, says she fears that larger issues fueling Thomas' outburst — on-going strife in the Middle East and social conditions in Israel — will go unexamined in the rush to condemn the journalist.

Still, I ask Alicia straight out whether she thinks Thomas' remarks — for which Thomas herself has apologized — were anti-Semitic. "I don't think it matters whether I think it's anti-Semitic or not," she says. "I'm not in a position to make that call, to tell someone that they shouldn't be offended. I teach that in my class. I can't tell you whether getting slapped hurt you or not."

She notes how black folks hate to be told what we should and shouldn't find offensive and says everyone else is equally as entitled to their own assessments. Still, she doubts that Thomas was making references to the horrors of World War II when she mentioned going "home" to Germany and Poland, noting that Thomas also mentioned the U.S.

Rather, she thinks Thomas was speaking from the context of another type of history — her own. Thomas is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who brought her to Detroit when she was a child. From her POV, Israel is occupied land. And even brief conversations with many in metro Detroit's vibrant Arab-American community tell you Helen Thomas is not alone in this belief.

"In my class on reporting on race, gender and culture, we might have an Arab-American group in; we might have a Jewish group in," says Alicia. "They have completely different perspectives on what moment in time ownership of that land should be considered. It is no surprise that Helen Thomas, an Arab-American, would view the situation from the perspective of her people."

I've read some strong condemnations of Thomas over the past day and some classy attempts to forgive her. But one of the very few defenses of her that I've seen goes to the same point that Alicia was trying to make during our conversation: That Thomas' comments were drawn from her personal concerns about the policies and politics of the Middle East, not to play on race-hatred or the Holocaust.

To liken Helen Thomas' comments about Israel's occupation of the Gaza strip, to comments telling African-Americans to “go back to Africa,” demonstrates a terrible misunderstanding of the plight of both the occupied Palestinians and the kidnapped African-Americans. A more apt comparison may be to telling Americans to get out of Iraq, a land they occupied, battered, and controlled because of a manufactured threat.


Realize that what Helen was recommending was that the occupiers return to their country of origin. Helen Thomas is making a statement against a nations foreign policy, not against individuals because of their ethnic group or race. Helen Thomas was not being anti-Semitic or racist.

A lot of people think it was well past time for Helen Thomas to retire anyway, believing she'd become shrill and over-the-top. There's truth there, although, personally, I always admired the bulk of her career and her willingness to ask the tough questions — especially among a White House press corps that often places decorum above real journalism. Her voice will always be appreciated.

Too bad that it went out on such a sour note.

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  • 1

    You're in fine company by admiring Helen Thomas' overall career and willingness to jab forcefully at presidents and their mouthpieces.

    While condemning "her bigoted remark," Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank appreciates the same qualities as you:

    "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. . . . Now that Helen is gone, there's more need than ever for others in the briefing room to share her opinion . . . that anybody standing on that podium should be regarded with skepticism. "

    Another echo comes from blogger Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic:

    "As reporters cavort with Joe [Biden] and Rahm [Emanuel] with squirt guns, one cannot see the end of her career without some regrets. . . . There's a fearlessness here that we desperately need. Instead we have socializing, trivia, source-greasing and stenography."

  • 2

    Darrell -

    Just to shift gears' a little bit concerning items from the media...

    is it my imagination that the Time Detroit Blog is ignoring the 'elephant in the room' by having made no mention at all about the Wall Street Journal piece on "Black Flight" from Detroit?

    This article appeared on cover of this past weekend edition...

  • 3


    Informed insight both your comments and Ms.Nails...Helen was indeed long in the tooth and like so many legends she stayed to long...I do resent any and all efforts that seek to censor speech regardless if it is good, bad, and ulgy..


    WSJ report was a yawner and old bit....Nothing to write home about certainly not a newsflash...

  • 4

    I do remember when then Mayor of NYC Ed Koch would often spit out vulgar and racist comments at David Dinkins and Black folks living in NYC...I never recalled JDL, ADL, ect demanding his resignation nor did any of these groups demand Jewish leaders to condemn good old racist Ed...


  • 5

    Your article is making me rethink my position on the Helen Thomas statement. Again.

    At first, I felt sorry for her and though the media was being cruel and purposefully scandalous; making a mountain out of an anthill.

    Then, I thought that she should be held to account just like anyone else - she has certainly mercilessly questioned numberless speakers over the years.

    But I like your perspective best. Why not allow her words to open a conversation? Shutting her up won't solve anything. Whatever her words meant, maybe having an honest discussion will bring us all some relief!

  • 6

    In the wake of Israel's attack on the flotilla, I think a lot of people are re-examining their position on the middle east. Helen Thomas expressed what a lot of people are feeling. Not necessarily that Jewish people need to leave their country, but that the situation in the middle east is unacceptable and that it's time America stops giving Israel a pass.

  • 7

    Helen Thomas' voice did not go out on a sour note. It went out on a vile and racist note, rather more Goebbelian in its pitch than Cronkitean. For years she got our "thank you" for challenging authority. Now she gets our "good riddance" for challenging human decency.

  • 8

    I didn't think that Helen Thomas meant for Jews in Israel to be annihilated in a holocaust, but what she apparently DID mean is bad enough. She put herself in the ranks of those who regard Israel as an illegitimate state, one in which Jews illegalIy possess Arab land (meaning ALL of Israel), and which should be dissolved, with its Jews expelled to the countries from which their grandparents came. (Of course, she only mentioned European countries and the U.S., and ignored the fact that that many of the immigrants to Israel came from Arab and Muslim lands.)

    It is this refusal on the part of the Muslim and Arab nations surrounding Israel and totalling about 650 times its area to accept and recognize the Jewish State that has been the major cause of the conflicts and suffering in the region in the past 60 plus years.

    Arabs/Palestinians have had many opportunities for the creation of their own state aside Israel, but have always rejected these, as most still crave, as Ms. Thomas, a one-state solution, meaning the elimination of Israel. This attitude is enough to make Ms. Thomas an enemy of Israel, and of most Jews.

  • 9

    I have not until now ever had reason to comment on Helen Thomas and even now, I still don't think that she should be censored for what she said.

    Given her background and that of her family it is plausible to assume that she grew up and watch in horror as Arabs where driven from their homes in regions that now make out the inner parts of Israel during the formation of the Jewish state. I personally think that this act constitutes as an act of ethnic cleansing but that is besides the point. These are the people that would later end up in refugee camps all over the region and their children would later go on to join organizations like P.L.O.

    Taking this and the current state of affairs into account I find it plausible that she indeed does view the creation of Israel containing property that was illegally obtained as a criminal act and the Israeli expansion in 1967 and the occupation of the Gaza strip and West Bank even more so. I can understand the Israeli needs for security as well as anyone but when we consider this issue we should take care not to confused the need for security with the political manoeuvrings inside Israel itself. These are distinctions that need to be made if one is to understand the problem wholly instead superficially.

    (hunevitch this is for you):
    I have to assume that Ms. Thomas is a reasonable person. Therefore I cannot understand why she should hate Jews or their wish to have a state of their own. But given who she is and still assuming that she is a reasonable person and humanitarian, I can fully understand why her comments against Israel took the form they did. I personally cannot see the parallel between the Israeli blockade of Gaza with greater security for the Jewish state, given the economic effects it has on the lives of the Palestinians. I cannot see what Israel has to gain from drawing the current stalemate in the region out.

    Still working with my previously stated assumptions about Ms. Thomas, I have difficulty seeing how she could combine her love for her fellow man with a supportive disposition towards Israel's blockade of the Gaza strip, its settlement policy and its position on a two state solution. I guess one could say that the Israelites are more deserving of our support then the Palestinians, but how would you justify it? Is a person from Tel Aviv all the sudden a greater "Fellow man" to me than a person living in the Gaza strip? Not taking into account that horrible event that eradicated six million Jews 65 years ago (on the basis that one inhumane act can justify another), it seems to me that the immediate situation between the two parties, with their respective policies and strengths, would have our sympathies lie with the Palestinians.

    I would like to praise this piece for its insight and the perspective it gives and I am gratified that it has made people reconsider the problem, even if it has not changed their minds.

  • 10

    I do realize that when I read this blog, I'm going to encounter left wing type stuff, but your classification of the "defense" of Thomas carrying this nugget you chose to highlight takes the cake...

    "A more apt comparison may be to telling Americans to get out of Iraq, a land they occupied, battered, and controlled because of a manufactured threat."

    A manufactured threat? Against Israel? Are you serious?

    Are you like old enough to remember the Olympics in 1972?


    And some of the comments here are either from young and uninformed folks even considering the "expansion" of Israel in 1967. To read this you wouldn't even know that this "expansion" was the result of a war started by Arab nations and the land that Israel "expanded" to was merely land that the Israeli army captured as the Arab armies fled after their unsuccessful invasion.

    As apt comparision might be to suggest that the US should get out of Texas - not Iraq.

  • 11

    Great thought out article . I'm not a fan of Ms.Thomas , but like her I am outraged over recent events in Israel one of our closest allies . Many of us in times of anger have said things that have been misunderstood , or we wish we could have taken back to re-phrase without as much venom . Thanks for a different view when cooler heads are needed.

  • 12

    I just can not believe this blog has generated such response. How can you defend her in this haterd she is spitting out? The crabby old news woman, voiced what she has been holding in for many many years. She spewed out poisonous venom from her heart.

    Yes, it was towards the Jewish people. You defend her now because you think she is speaking journalisticly. Will you defend her next outburst, as a regular citizen? What if she speaks out against blacks or women or some type of mioniority? Will you be so quick to defend her then?

    Israel is a real state that has possessed a land they won in the Seven Days War. My thanks to "jbrandimore" for pointing out the history. Have you not read any history books or have the schools in Michigan rewritten that part of history?

    Stop and think this over. She needed to retire a long time ago. She can says what she wants to in her own living room without sending it into mine.

  • 13

    It is amazing at how many pretzels people will tie themselves into to try to declare Helen Thomas' comments for anything but what they were, bigoted hate speech.

    There is no need to parse each word, or some subtle unstated meaning. Her comments were as blatant as they were ugly.

    But rather than call her speech for what it is, hateful and evil, we have the list of progressives who are out to try to shine up her language into something rightous.

    Maybe it was political, maybe it was because of her background, maybe its because of Israel, maybe its because of the Jews, maybe, maybe, maybe. Something, anything, to stare at the face in the mirror and the ugliness there in the form of her hate.

    Her comments were nasty, that of a bully. She deserved the condemnation received for them.

  • 14

    Anybody hate these wars we have been in?

  • 15

    I think two things are true: Helen Thomas has led a groundbreaking and distinguished career in journalism, and, Helen Thomas acted unprofessionally by making highly inflammatory, insensitive and inappropriate remarks. Regardless of what her personal views may be, as a world-renowned journalist and role model, Thomas is obliged to maintain objectivity and decorum in a professional setting. Like other famous public figures and pubic servents, she is held to a higher standard of conduct than others. In this case, her remarks were akin to rubbing salt in both old and fresh wounds of millions of American Jews and Israeli citizens who have shed blood and lost lives as a persecuted people -- a people that has sacrificed everything in the name of peace in the Middle East. Does this lack of sensitivity and self-control negate her greatness as journalist? No, but it does disappoint those of who believed a woman of her wisdom and stature could rise above pettiness and demonstrate good character. In making those remarks, Helen Thomas undermined the untarnished respect she has commanded and deserved for a lifetime of professional achievment. I agree that is very sad.

  • 16

    I'm all for an informed dialogue and I'll be the first to admit that I don't know nearly enough about the situation in the middle east. But as a journalist, Helen Thomas has to understand the power of words and the prevalence of soundbytes in the current media landscape. She was not hoping to kickstart a meaningful conversation about the issue. If that was her intention, she certainly has the vocabulary to do so. The words she chose were imflammatory, particularly her comment that Jews should go back to their homes in Germany and Poland. What homes might those be? Those from which they were forcefully removed? Those that the Nazis pillaged? And what would they be going back to? Germany currently has less than 200,000 Jews. Let's not forget we're not that removed from the Holocaust. When I was in Germany I was impressed with just how progressive and cosmopolitan the cities were, but traveling in smaller cities was another world. We actually met people in Weimar (only a few kilometers from Buchenwald) who were still claiming ignorance. Even though prisoners were shipped by train into the city to perform forced labor in factories, numerous people told us they didn't know where they came from or that there was a camp 5km away. Considering the ruins that Germany was in after the war, it's amazing all that has been accomplished, especially since reunification. But no way am I going to suggest all Jews should go back there, to a land where their people lived for 1,000 years and were always treated as outsiders. Helen Thomas is entitled to her opinion, but likewise people are entitled to be offended by it. Her words (and her subsequent apology) made perfectly clear how she feels about the situation. If she "meant" something else, she would have said it.

    Of course this is an issue that needs to be discussed more. Regardless of the horrors of the Holocaust, Israel cannot do completely outrageous things under the guise of "security" (yes, I know, this applies to the U.S. as well). I saw one quote yesterday by someone from right after Israel was established (can't remember his name), who said (I'm paraphrasing), "For the first time, Jews are going to be the majority and not the minority. We need to show the prope way to act as such." There needs to be a peaceful productive dialogue. But I'm not going to thank Helen Thomas for it because that is not what she was advocating,

  • 17

    I also don't believe Helen Thomas was saying "Jews to the ovens." But to excuse her statements because of her ethnic background is a dangerous thing too.

    Why? Because if we acccept that anyone of Arab heritage has a right to oppose coexistance with Israel than we condemn both Palestinains and Israelis to perpetual war.

    (And there are Palestinians and other Arabs who would share the land and set up a Palestinian State next to Israel. Are you saying these people are betraying their heritage becasue they are willing to trade land for peace? And should we admire the non-compromising Israeli or Jew for the same reason, while throwing the potential peacemakers in the dirt?)

    Thomas could have told the Israelis to return to the 1967 borders. A reasonable position to hold. Instead, she said to leave the Middle East.

    There is no Israel in that picture.

    That's not peace.

    That's not Nazi genocide, but unless Israel agrees to shut down -- not likely -- it sounds llike justification to genocide to me.

    If Israel has no right to exist, than any time it takes action to defend itself it is certainly an outrage. Likely, even a war crime or massacre. The idea is to deny Israel rights given to all other nations while smothering it with a unique set of responsibilities applied to no other. In contrast, Gaza's Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority and people -- and anyone who self-identifies as a peace activist on a Gaza-bound flotilla-- apparently have only rights with no responsibilities.

    More than it was time for Ms. Thomas to retire; it is time to retire the anti-Israel delegitimization and double standard and move towards peace.

  • 18

    I hope that folks can learn to let go of rigid right-wing ideology in their faiths/worldviews- reactionary Islam, reactionary Judaism, reactionary Christianity, etc... There is no military solution to the conflict.. The only folks who prosper are those who sell military hardware, bombs, guns, rockets, ammunition, etc.

  • 19

    That old racist (Lebanese) ARAB woman Helen Thomas' 'ethnic cleansing' view reflects the 'conflct of the middle east' Arab racism & Islamic bigotry that is.

    You have to thank that old Arab hag for being honest, at least, at her last days...

    Take a good look at this "moderate" Arab and tell me it's not about Arab racism.

    The basic attitudes of the intolerant Goliath Arab Muslims world is that: 'You Jews are "outsiders" here in the middle east!' The Arab Palestinians who's parents or grandparents came over from Arab land and occupy the Jews' original homeland? they're OK, they're "home."

    Because the entire middle east is 'Arab Muslim land' all other non-Arab non-Muslim minorities are "outsiders" especially the Jews, Why? Because they're neither Arab nor Muslim...

    Now, let's here some radical liberals defending the Arab Muslim bigotry with "occupation and poor palestinians" slogans.
    The same radical liberals that couldn't care less what the Islamic Palestine or Hezbollah have in store for them, exactly what kind of Islamic states are in line with liberals' supposed claim for defending human rights, or even women's rights?

    I guess, that Palestinian crimes against humanity like torturing fellow "rivals," honor killing epidemic and oppressing Christians are OK with liberals' values.

    Not to mention the total fear in totalitarian like "Palestine" for speaking out, unlike in democratic free Israel, there's virtual no freedom of the press or speech.

    That's besides Palestinian & Hezbollah's routinely horrindeous crimes like taking the lives of their civilians for no more as toys in their games of bloodshed, in use of war.

    (Some call these type of radical Arabs: "IslamoChristians")

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