Rabbi David Nesenoff has given Accuracy in Media the most detailed account yet of how his encounter with veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas caused him to reevaluate not only his view of the media, but of the White House and President Obama.
Nesenoff is a self-described liberal Democrat who used to think Obama should be given a chance to change U.S. foreign policy for the better. Now he worries about the existence of the state of Israel.
He says he is increasingly troubled by the failure of Obama to speak forcefully about the right of Israel to exist, at a time when some of the country’s neighbors are more determined than ever to destroy it.
Thomas said the Jews ought to “get the he** out of Palestine” and presumably turn the land over to the Arabs and Muslims. She also said they should return to countries like Germany and Poland, where the Holocaust took place, which ultimately led to the creation of the Jewish homeland in Israel.
The Thomas interview was posted on YouTube and eventually given attention in the U.S. and around the globe.
Nesenoff tells AIM that he has learned a lesson in a personal way—that anti-Semitism is alive and well. He says he has felt the brunt of it as a result of exposing Thomas.
He explained, “It kind of rocked my world a little, because I have to kind of reevaluate my life and my standing and the agendas, because I’m a New York Democrat, Jewish, liberal, supporter of Obama, [and] donated to his candidacy for a year.”
He said he came to believe in Obama because the media constantly said “give him a chance.” But now he questions the media and Obama’s policy toward Israel, even though the Obama White House denounced Thomas’s comments.
Personally, the rabbi was surprised at the venomous emails he received and attacks in the media against him. After all, he didn’t take Helen Thomas’s words out of context and he didn’t suggest or urge that she be fired or resign.
Clearly angry, he said, “They want to make me out to be a racist—how dare they! How silly is that? How stupid of them, how buffoonish of them to call themselves journalists and not use the luxury of this beautiful media of [the] Internet in a responsible fashion.”
All of this stems from a chance encounter that Thomas had with Nesenoff and his son on the grounds of the White House on May 27th.
Nesenoff and his son and a friend were there for a White House ceremony honoring Jewish Heritage Week. Both the father and son have blogs, and they were asking people on camera for their views of Israel.
They openly had a camera as Helen Thomas passed by. He simply asked the question, “Any comments on Israel?”
Expecting perhaps to hear something in support of Israel and the Jews, instead Thomas was venomous.
Here is the full exchange of the relevant portion:
RABBI NESENOFF: Any comments on Israel? We’re asking everybody today. Any comments on—
HELEN THOMAS: Tell ’em to get the hell out of Palestine.
RABBI NESENOFF: Oooh.
RABBI NESENOFF: Any better comments than that?
UNKNOWN FEMALE: Helen is blunt.
THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland’s—
RABBI NESENOFF: So where should they go? What should they do?
THOMAS: They can go home.
RABBI NESENOFF: Where is their home?
RABBI NESENOFF: So the Jews—
RABBI NESENOFF: You think Jews should just go back to Poland and Germany?
THOMAS: And America, and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?
RABBI NESENOFF: Now, are you familiar with the history of that region, and what took place?
THOMAS: Very much. I’m of Arab background.
Nesenoff’s initial reaction was shock but he thought that other people might not regard it that way. He called up a reporter at a Jewish newspaper about the comments and was told this was nothing new from Thomas.
Nevertheless, he still thought it was newsworthy and waited for his son to post the interview on YouTube and his website, RABBIlive.com. It was only then, more than a week later, that word about the video—and the video—got out, creating a storm of controversy.
Fox News reported it, followed by the rabbi being invited on Fox & Friends to personally discuss it. The rest of the media tried to catch up. By the time the New York Times reported on it, Thomas had resigned her special place in the White House press room. But the Times didn’t even then report the most egregious part of what she said.
The media consensus was that the comments reflected Thomas’s differences with Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East, and that this was nothing new.
But Nesenoff argues that her comments are new—and that they are not just anti-Israel but anti-Semitic. The distinction he makes is that by stating it to be a controversy over policy towards Israel, the media miss the point that she is making, which is that the Jews don’t belong in Israel, and that there is no connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
He argues that, to call for the Jews to leave Israel, after they have sought and found refuge there after the Holocaust, in addition to those who were already there, constitutes unmistakable hatred for the Jewish people as a whole.
Thomas’s defenders offered various excuses for her hateful comments. We were told that it was hot that day, that she is no longer a reporter but a columnist, that she is 89 years old, and that she really didn’t mean that all Jews should leave Israel.
Her words speak for themselves.
Thomas resigned her position with the Hearst newspapers and then issued a statement saying, “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.”
In fact, her statement was not an apology but rather a justification of her previous remarks. Her criticism of Israel for what she sees as its lack of “respect and tolerance” for the Palestinians was consistent with what she sees as Israel’s “brutal occupation.” She has made it clear which side she thinks is at fault, and which side has the right to exist. She wants the Jews to leave “Palestine” and turn it over to the Arabs and Muslims.
Nesenoff believes with justification that this is about anti-Semitism, not just having anti-Israeli views.
He explains, “There are issues within Israelis that disagree with their government. And, by the way, they’re allowed to without being beheaded. That’s one of the only countries in the region that can disagree with their government, and vote against their government, and protest their government, without being beheaded and killed. There are American rabbis, there are Jews all over the world that might disagree with something Israel does, or doesn’t do. And Israel sometimes disagrees with what they do themselves, and fix it! But—but—when you start talking about the very existence of the state, that’s not up for negotiation. That’s anti-Semitic. That’s out of the realm of some political, geographical, regional discussion. That’s not about fences, or Gaza, or Golan, or West Bank, East Bank, West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem. You are talking about cleansing an area of a people that is established, is not even up for discussion, whether you believe God, or whether you believe the United Nations, okay?...”
His point is that the Jewish state can be justified by religious scriptures or by the U.N. resolution which created it. In any case, Israel is here—and here for a reason. And to advocate that the Jews leave, or be eliminated, as Iran’s president would prefer, is hard-core anti-Semitism at this point in history.
Asked about a poll taken in April by McLaughlin & Associates that showed that 78% of Jews had voted for Obama, but that the number was down to 42% who said they would vote to re-elect him, Rabbi Nesenoff stated that he still has hope for Obama and appreciates his way with words. But, he added, “I am definitely finding myself in a group that is terribly disappointed in him.”
“I was in Israel a few years ago, during that Lebanon war,” he recalled. “And I remember sitting in a hotel room, watching the television, and I saw President Bush get on television. And no matter what I had, feelings about different things with his administration, I was in tears because I saw the only leader in the world get on world television, as I’m sitting in a country at war, and say, ‘Israel has the right to exist, and Israel has the right to defend herself, and we won’t stop her.’”
He doesn’t see this pro-Israel view in the Obama White House.