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Little-known rabbi brings down Helen Thomas

WASHINGTON – Teenager Adam Nesenoff and his father, Rabbi David Nesenoff, are pretty far down the media food chain.

The son, an active member of the National Council for Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s affiliated youth group, runs his own newsy site, Shmoozepoint.com. Dad operates a website called RabbiLive.com and sometimes portrays the satirical character of Julio Ramirez, a Hispanic priest who teams with a rabbi to deliver “Holy Weather” reports.

So it was impressive enough that both managed to snag media credentials for the American Jewish Heritage Month celebration May 27 at the White House. But in the past week, the senior Nesenoff took things to another level, turning his few hours as a hobnobber into 15 minutes of fame as the YouTube journalist who brought down a media icon.

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Helen Thomas, known for her rough questioning of presidents, resigned this week after being assailed for saying that Israeli Jews should “go home.” Michael Foley/Flickr

It was the rabbi, armed with a camera and accompanied by his son and his teenage friend, who went around asking notables if they had any “comments on Israel.”

As the world now knows, Helen Thomas sure did.

“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” the doyenne of the Washington press corps said, and laughed. “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land.”

Nesenoff asked where she thought they should go.

“Go home,” she responded.

Asked to elaborate, Thomas said, “Poland, Germany,” and after more prompting by the rabbi, added “and America, and everywhere else.”

The rabbi didn’t post the video until June 3, but it quickly gained national attention, unleashing a flurry of demands for Thomas’ marginalization, if not dismissal.

On Monday, Thomas, 89, heeded the calls and quit, according to her employer, the Hearst Corp. Thomas’ phone number was not answering.

The Nesenoff video went viral after being picked up by Yidwithlid, a popular site run by the conservative commentator Sammy Benoit, and then posted to the hyper-popular conservative video site Breitbart TV.

That’s when the complaints started: First out of the box was B’nai B’rith International, which issued a June 4 statement from its president, Dennis Glick, demanding that Thomas be fired.

A diverse slew of other Jewish organizations soon followed with their own condemnations. Officials of the two most recent administrations — Ari Fleischer of the Bush administration and Lanny Davis of the Clinton administration — also slammed Thomas and called for her to be sacked.

The first death knell for Thomas’ career, though, probably came when she found herself being criticized on liberal Websites such as Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, which have long lauded her for asking discomfiting questions of presidents — particularly her encounters with George W. Bush during the Iraq War.

Joe Klein, the Time magazine scribe who has been a tough critic of Israel’s Netanyahu government, called her views “odious” and said she should no longer have the privilege, accorded by the White House Correspondents Association, of a front row center seat.

Thomas’ apology, posted June 4, preceded most of the broadsides against her.

“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” she said in the apology. “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.”

Critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, said it did not go far enough.

By Monday, such requests appeared moot: After a series of blows, it was clear her career was finished.

On Sunday, Thomas was dropped by her speaking agent, Nine Speakers. The following day, the Washington Post reported that Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. — a Washington suburb with a substantial Jewish population — was withdrawing its invitation to Thomas to be commencement speaker.

The final blow was a one-two: The White House Correspondents Association met to consider her front-row center perch. And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the remarks “offensive and reprehensible.”

The die was cast: Midday Monday, Hearst announced her retirement.

“Helen Thomas announced Monday that she is retiring, effective immediately,” said a statement issued Monday by the corporation. “Her decision came after her controversial comments about Israel and the Palestinians were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet.”

It was a rapid fall for a woman who had become a liberal icon.

Thomas was a perennial, admired for becoming, during the Kennedy administration, one of the first women to cover the White House beat. She was granted the first question at news conferences, and finished each conference with a “Thank you Mr. President.” She earned the ultimate Washington status symbol: cameos in movies about politics.

Thomas, for decades a consummate insider who had watched her beloved UPI diminish into irrelevance, embraced her new status as an irascible outsider. In 2006 she published the book “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.”

Her posture as maverick was something of a feint: Washington has long nurtured an establishment journalist culture that cozies up to power, and Thomas since the 1960s was one of its denizens, hobnobbing with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, and their confidants.

Thomas, the child of Lebanese immigrants, was known to be a fierce critic of Israel and what she saw as the unwillingness of successive U.S. administrations to speak out against Jerusalem’s supposed misdeeds.

Her most recent encounter with Gibbs, after Israel’s raid on a Turkish-flagged aid ship, came after her remarks to Nesenoff but before he revealed them to the world.

She called Israel’s raid a “deliberate massacre” and said the White House’s expression of “regret” was “pitiful.”

Dan Mariaschin, the director of B’nai B’rith, said Thomas’ comments should have come as no surprise.

“There’s a Yiddish expression, ‘What’s on your lung is on your tongue,’” he said. “She has a long record of being purposefully hypercritical of Israel.”

Mariaschin acknowledged that the timing was against her. B’nai B’rith would have called for her dismissal even without the opprobrium visited on Israel after the flotilla raid, but it didn’t help, he said.

“The timing was such that, coming as it did right after the flotilla issue, I think perhaps it brought her comments into even starker focus,” he said.

Nesenoff, of Stony Brook, N.Y., said he had accompanied his son and his friend to share the joyful experience of the White House’s Jewish celebration.

Adam Nesenoff, 17, who in addition to running his own Website is his father’s Webmaster, had applied for a media credential after hearing that the event would have a youthful emphasis. The elder Nesenoff asked the White House if he could join his son, explaining that otherwise he would be stuck outside the whole day waiting to drive him home.

They wandered the grounds near the White House press room before the event. Rabbi Nesenoff said he pointed out Thomas to the teens because she was a press icon. He was vaguely aware she had views critical of Israel, but did not think she would be so outrageous.

“People can have their opinions, but this was ‘Get out of the whole land, cleanse the whole land of Jews,’” he said. “We’re there in our Shabbos best, we had driven down — we were taken back. If it was a skinhead in a parking lot — but here’s this sweet little old lady on the White House grounds. We were hurt.”

Nesenoff said he still hopes for a more expansive apology from Thomas.

“She has to do a little ‘tikkun olam,’” the rabbi said. “I hope to God she lives a very long time; she has business yet.”

JTA

 
 

And her little dog, too

 

Journalists’ group considers dropping Helen Thomas award

Helen Thomas’ decision to take her disparagement of Zionists from off the cuff (last May) to on the record (last month) has led a journalists’ group to consider dropping her name from a lifetime achievement award.

The Society of Professional Journalists is revisiting its decision last summer not to change the name of its Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award after Thomas, 90, told an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., last month that Congress, the White House, Hollywood, and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.”

Thomas, a 67-year-veteran of Washington reporting, resigned from her job as a columnist at Hearst last June after remarking to a video blogger that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany, and the United States. She later apologized, but her remarks in Michigan on Dec. 2 have raised fresh concerns about the sincerity of the apology.

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A journalists’ society may rename an award originally named in honor of Helen Thomas, pictured in Washington, D.C., in February 2009. Rachael Voorhees

“Ms. Thomas’ most recent remarks led to calls for a reconsideration of the issue by the executive board,” said Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an investigative journalist for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

The decision will be considered Jan. 8 at a meeting of the society’s executive committee. Ahead of the meeting, the society posted on its online magazine Quill what it said were two typical letters — one for renaming the award and one against.

Limor said the society, which advocates for press freedoms and promotes high-quality journalism through scholarships and awards, had been in touch with Thomas.

A message left at Thomas’ home by JTA was not returned.

Her website, helenthomas.org, still leads with her statement of regret, saying her remarks at the time “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.”

After her June remarks to blogger Rabbi David Nesenoff, the society considered calls from members and some Jewish groups to rename its Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement but decided against it, noting her apology and the off-the-cuff nature of the remarks, an official with the organization told JTA.

That changed a few weeks ago with her speech in Dearborn, where Thomas grew up.

“We are owned by the propagandists against the Arabs. There’s no question about that,” Thomas told the Arab Detroit group. “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is.”

Wayne State University, her alma mater, immediately withdrew its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award.

“This episode was a sad final chapter to an otherwise illustrious career as a trailblazer for women and minorities in journalism,” Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, wrote in the online letter to Quill seeking to rename the award. “Unlike her first off-the-cuff remarks into a camera, Thomas’ comments were carefully thought out and reveal a person who is deeply infected with anti-Semitism.”

Thomas, born to Lebanese immigrants, for decades was the White House correspondent for the United Press International wire service. She was among the first female journalists in Washington to break out of the traditional first lady coverage, scoring newsmaking interviews with Presidents Johnson through Clinton. When she left UPI to become a columnist for Hearst, she emerged as one of the first and sharpest critics of the Iraq war.

Wayne State’s decision was the right one, Foxman said in his letter, and “it should no longer be considered an honor to receive an award bearing her name.”

Countering was Lloyd Weston, a retired publisher and editor.

“The same First Amendment that protects my right to be a Jew and a Zionist in America protects Helen Thomas’ right to express her opinion of Jews and Zionists, no matter what that opinion may be,” said Weston, a Wayne State alumni who said his professors were likely “turning in their graves” at the university’s decision to rescind the honor.

The Society for Professional Journalists, established in 1909, granted Thomas its first lifetime achievement honor in 2000, and pledged to name subsequent awards for her. It has been awarded nine times since its debut. The award has no cash value.

On Saturday, the society’s executive committee could decide to rename the lifetime achievement award or not, or it could refer the matter to the full board, an official said.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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