Helen Thomas agrees to bow out as commencement speaker at Walt Whitman High

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; B04

Veteran journalist Helen Thomas, who recently made controversial comments about Israel and Palestine, agreed Sunday not to appear as commencement speaker at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.

(Photos of Helen Thomas throughout her career)

Alan Goodwin, principal of Whitman, where objections to the appearance had been raised, said he reached a niece of Thomas's earlier in the day. "We had a mutual understanding about her not coming," he said.

"Graduation celebrations are not the venue for divisiveness," Goodwin said in an e-mail to Whitman parents. "Graduation is the time for a cohesive and joyous celebration of our students' achievements," he wrote.

Thomas, 89, who has covered the White House for decades, provoked criticism by her response in an impromptu video interview that was posted online. In a brief comment, she said Israelis should "get the hell" out of Palestine and go to places including Poland, Germany and the United States.

In an interview, Whitman parent Raisa Slepoy said, "I don't know why anybody would ask a person like that to speak at a commencement ceremony . . . especially where there's a pretty large Jewish population."

If Thomas had appeared, Slepoy said, there would "be a lot of people booing her off the stage. . . . It would be an embarrassment."

The remarks have "already stirred up the community quite a bit," Slepoy said, bringing up "bad feelings." Germany, she said, is not a Jewish homeland.

Reportedly, a campaign against Thomas's appearance, which had been scheduled for weeks, was waged on Facebook.

Goodwin said he had received e-mails from Whitman parents and students, some merely calling attention to the statements, others suggesting that perhaps he should reconsider the invitation. Thomas has apologized, calling the remarks a mistake.

Goodwin said he and Thomas's niece talked about having her meet with students next year in a different forum. Neither Thomas nor her niece could be reached late Sunday.

The commencement is to be June 14 at Constitution Hall.

Patricia O'Neill, president of the Montgomery County School Board, said she knew of no such previous incident.

"You know," she said, responding to a question, "one worries about freedom of speech." But she added, "The biggest concern is this is the kids' day, and nothing should be a distraction."

Goodwin said the school is looking for a replacement.

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