By Harriet P. Gross
The usual question: “What in the name of God — or heaven — was she thinking?” But we don’t have to ask the usual question about Helen Thomas. If we were smart, we knew what she was thinking for a long time. Our question: Why in the world would she say it out loud?
A long time ago, I helped a new social service agency in Chicago set up its public education/information program before I moved to Dallas. Since this organization served seniors (which I was not yet, at the time), a man of “advanced years” was then hired in my place. When I returned to visit some months later, I learned he’d been fired. Why? Because while all of us harbor certain unpleasant thoughts about certain people and events, most of us have the good sense to keep them to ourselves. He did not.
And neither did Helen Thomas, the 89-year-old Wonder Woman of news gathering and reporting. She’s been at it for some 67 years, and at its highest levels since 1974, when she became the chief of UPI’s White House bureau. What an inspiration to female journalists everywhere!
But after all those decades, her own pin pricked that high-flying balloon. Thomas has shown the great bad sense to publicly unveil her personal anti-Semitic bigotry: Jews in Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine,” she said. Her solution to the Middle East crisis? Send them all back to Germany and Poland! Well, everyone who’s been following her career — most currently as a Hearst News Service columnist — already knew her pro-Arab leanings. But who would have guessed that she’d lean far enough over to fall flat on her face?
Both the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs stepped up quickly to condemn Thomas, and to call for Hearst’s suspension of her work. And, sure enough, Hearst quickly announced her retirement. Both of these — the request and the response — were (probably much too) kindly attempts to help Helen save her flattened face, a polite bow to her age and long service. But her unforgivable remarks were the polar opposite of “polite,” and I for one am certainly hoping that, in this context, both “suspension” and “retirement” equal “YOU’RE FIRED!”
Ari Fleischer, a former White House force, was blunt about it: If any other journalists or columnists “said the same thing about Blacks or Hispanics, they would already have lost their jobs,” was his comment after Thomas’ pro forma “apology,” but before her subsequent “retirement.”
Weighing in locally was Mike Ghouse, a Dallas Muslim who champions interfaith understanding. “Helen may resign and go,” he said, “but the spark of bigotry is in the air, latent somewhere with someone, ready to burst [into a fire] as it happened with her.” He was dreaming a dream beyond Thomas when he continued, “We should not become firemen … we need to extinguish the sparks that are waiting for oxygen….”
Here’s something more down-to-earth: an in-your-face op-ed piece by blogger Sara K. Eisen called “Get the Hell Out of … My Face.” A young Jew who uses words both well and wickedly, she’s a mistress of irony: “You know why we were in Europe to begin with?” she asks, rhetorically, in response to Helen’s “go back to Germany and Poland” bit. “Because we were told by the Greeks and the Romans to get the hell out of Palestine, where we had been living since the beginning of recorded history.” In just a few succinct paragraphs, Eisen encapsulates centuries of forced Jewish migration, then sticks it to Thomas with a litany of major Jewish accomplishments throughout time and across the world, followed by sarcasm: “But none of these things will absolve us of our real sin: existing and overcoming.” Then she winds up with a zinger: “So here’s the thing, Helen: We are not going anywhere this time. This time, getting the hell out is not in the cards. We’re just sick of moving….” (Find the whole story at http://the-word-well.com/.)
Helen Thomas is old, but not senile. Is she stupid, perhaps? Hardly, although her recent action was stupid in the extreme. So what can we say? Only that in a rare moment of unguarded honesty, she opened her mouth, and out came who and what she really is. Maybe, since we knew her roots and her proclivities before, we were the stupid ones. But now we must be smart enough to turn her lapse into our advantage.