By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; C01
"Frankly, I was shocked," said Rabbi David Nesenoff, who was at the White House for a Jewish heritage celebration on May 27 and simply asked the Hearst Newspapers columnist, "Any comments on Israel?" Her response -- that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Germany, Poland and America -- triggered a wave of denunciations that a narrowly worded apology did little to quell.
"This was vile, a paradigm of hate talk," said Nesenoff, who was accompanied by his 17-year-old son and a friend. "She felt comfortable saying this in front of two boys with yarmulkes on."
While the 89-year-old Thomas is renowned as a trailblazer who aggressively questioned 10 presidents -- including President Obama, whom she pressed last month on Afghanistan -- her hostility toward Israel has been no secret within the Beltway. Though she gave up her correspondent's job a decade ago, she retained her front-row briefing-room seat, even as colleagues sometimes rolled their eyes at her obvious biases.
"She asked questions no hard-news reporter would ask, that carried an agenda and reflected her point of view, and there were some reporters who felt that was inappropriate," said CBS correspondent Mark Knoller. "As a columnist she felt totally unbound from any of the normal policies of objectivity that every other reporter in the room felt compelled to abide by, and sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters."
But few called her out for such conduct -- until Nesenoff, who heads a Long Island synagogue, posted the video on his site RabbiLIVE.com. Commentators on the right and left quickly eviscerated Thomas.
"She's always said crazy stuff," said National Review Online columnist Jonah Goldberg. "One reason she gets a pass is that there's an entrenched system of deference to seniority in the White House press corps. . . . This newfound horror and dismay that people are expressing about Helen Thomas are beyond a day late and a dollar short."
Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic reporter who specializes in the Middle East, said: "Helen Thomas offered the official Hamas position, as far as I can tell. There's a level of insensitivity that's almost comical in what she said, to tell Jews to go back to Germany, where things worked out so well for them."
Thomas told a Washington Post reporter Friday night that she was "very sorry" and had "made a mistake," but did not address the substance of her comments. By Monday morning -- after her agent had dropped her, Hearst expressed deep regret over her remarks and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called them "offensive and reprehensible" -- she decided to call it quits. Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, said in a statement that her comments "do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance."
She is the most famous woman ever to cover 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and served as the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association, which on Monday called her comments "indefensible." Thomas has written several books about the White House and played herself in the movies "Dave" (1993) and "The American President" (1995).
In 2000, when Thomas resigned from United Press International after it was bought by News World Communications, a company controlled by officials of the Unification Church, Dan Rather called her "a hero of journalism."
During George W. Bush's administration, Thomas became an icon for some liberals who applauded her outspoken opposition to the Iraq invasion and cast her as tougher than the reporters who failed to skeptically question the march to war. Ari Fleischer, who was Bush's first press secretary, led the campaign for her ouster over the weekend, e-mailing journalists who might have missed her remarks.
"It's a tragic ending, but she did the right thing by announcing her resignation," Fleischer said Monday. He was joined in the effort by former Clinton White House aide Lanny Davis.
In 2002, Thomas asked Fleischer: "Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?"
Four years later, Thomas told Fleischer's successor, Tony Snow, that the United States "could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon" by Israel, but instead had "gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine." Snow tartly thanked her for "the Hezbollah view."
Mark Rabin, a former freelance cameraman for CNN, said that in a 2002 conversation at the White House, Thomas said "thank God for Hezbollah" for driving Israel out of Lebanon, adding that "Israel is the cause for 99 percent of all this terrorism."
The Daily Caller Web site noted that during a 2004 speech to the Al-Hewar Center, a Washington-based Arab organization, Thomas likened Palestinian protesters resisting the "tyrannical occupation" by Israel to "those who resisted the Nazi occupation."
A handful of journalists questioned her role over the years. In a 2006 New Republic piece, Jonathan Chait accused Thomas of "unhinged rants," noting that she had asked such questions as: "Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there. . . . It's outrageous."
At Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School, where Thomas agreed to withdraw Sunday as a speaker at graduation, one student had created a Facebook page objecting to the choice. After the cancellation, other students started a group, which drew nearly 100 fans, titled "Helen Thomas should have been our graduation speaker." One of the creators of that group, Andrew Beehler, said that "the vast majority of the school" was in favor of the Thomas appearance, but that school leaders sided with a small group of vocal parents and students who threatened to protest at graduation.
The rabbi who triggered the controversy was deluged with e-mail and interview requests. After being told Monday that Thomas had retired, Nesenoff urged her to engage in a broader discussion about the Middle East. "She can't retire from the human race," he said. "May she live for many years, and use that time to make this moment an important moment." (The rabbi explained the delay in posting the May 27 video this way: "My son had finals, and he is my Webmaster.")
Sam Donaldson, a former White House correspondent for ABC, said Thomas was a "pioneer" for women, "and no one can take that away from Helen." While not defending her comments on Israel, he said they likely reflect the view of many people of Arab descent.
Donaldson, 76, who retired last year, was asked whether his friend, who started on the beat in 1960, had stayed too long.
"Her life was her work," Donaldson said. "She didn't have other interests. The thought that she'd give it up never entered her mind."
Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.