In a recent column, Newsweek contributing editor and Daily Beast blogger Eleanor Clift listed several reasons why she respects the late Helen Thomas: Thomas was a woman reporter in an age when such a thing was rare; she worked long hours; she was tough; and she broke the story of the death of Caroline Kennedy’s hamster.
With such esteem for Thomas, perhaps it is understandable that Clift would wish Thomas’s legacy was not stained by the many hateful statements she made, which went from bad to worse in recent years. But it should go without saying that Clift’s feelings for Thomas should not come at the expense of her journalistic obligation to the truth. In the July 22 Daily Beast column, however, Clift misled her readers by stating that “An offhand comment about how Israeli settlers ‘should get the hell out of Palestine’ and go back to where they came from set off a firestorm from which Thomas couldn’t recover.”
Thomas, whose now infamous “get the hell out” statement came in response to a query about Israel in general, did not mention “settlers” in her reply. In fact, the context of this statement and subsequent comments by the late reporter make clear she was referring not to settlers but to Israeli Jews in general.
Asked if she had any comments on Israel, Thomas responded that they should get the hell out and “go home” to Germany and Poland. When the questioner repeated the statement back to her for clarification without the pronoun “they” — “so the Jews, you’re saying Jews should go back to Germany and Poland?,” he asked — she did not take issue with this restatement. That is, in the exchange she referred to Israeli “Jews,” not “settlers.” And she did not call on them to go “home” to Israel, as one would clearly expect from someone taking issue with settlers per se, but rather to Europe and elsewhere.
Likewise, when an interviewer from Playboy recounted that she said “the Jews” should go home, she accepted his phrasing without emendation:
PLAYBOY: It was your follow-up comment, when you said the Jews should go back to Poland, Germany and America, that really infuriated people
THOMAS: Well, that immediately evoked the concentration camps. What I meant was they should stay where they are because they’re not being persecuted-not since World War II, not since 1945.
Finally, in a Feb. 16, 2011 interview on CNN’s Joy Behar Show, she repeatedly clarified that she was referring to “the Israelis” and “the Jews”:
THOMAS: I said they — he said, where should they go? I mean, they didn`t have to go anywhere, really, because they weren`t being persecuted anymore, but they were taking other people`s land.
BEHAR: You`re talking about the Israelis?
THOMAS: Of course.
BEHAR: Well, OK. But I`m trying to see — if you had a chance to redo the comment, what would you say now?
THOMAS: Why did they have to go anywhere? They are not being persecuted anywhere.
BEHAR: The Israelis?
BEHAR: OK. Why did they have to go anywhere?
THOMAS: The Jews. The Jews.
The record leaves no doubt that Clift owes her readers a correction — in both initial statement and in clarifying comments, Thomas did not specify “settlers,” but did repeatedly specify “the Israelis” and “the Jews.”
The Daily Beast column was also somewhat misleading when referencing Thomas’s supposed efforts to apologize for her statements. “In any event,” Clift explained, “her efforts to apologize and/or clarify were dismissed as not enough, and she resigned from Hearst.”
The truth is, after issuing a pro forma statement expressing regret, Thomas made clear that she stood by her inflammatory comments. To Playboy, she explained that the had no remorse: “I went into self-imposed house arrest for two weeks. It was a case of “know thyself.” Isn’t that what Socrates said? I wanted to see if I was remorseful — and I wasn’t.”
And to CNN, she said that her only regret involves the behavior of her critics:
BEHAR: So you have no regrets about what you said, even though they – –
THOMAS: I have regrets that everybody has misinterpreted it and distorted it. And you had the Ari Fleischer and Abe Foxman distorting everything. So I should have — I certainly knew that and I should have kept my mouth shut, probably.
BEHAR: OK. But — you still don`t feel that it was insensitive in any way?
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that Clift “sanitizes Thomas’s anti-Jewish rant to an unconscionable degree.” Her column also sanitizes other anti-Jewish rants that Thomas made subsequent to her infamous “go back to Germany” remarks.
Thomas interrupted a Playboy interviewer as he was reading a journalist’s a critique of her comments, demanding to know, “Did a Jew write this?” She answered a question about whether she believes there is “a secret Jewish conspiracy at work in the country” by saying “Not a secret, it’s very open, what do you mean secret?” She claimed that Jews “own the White House.” And she denied that Jews are Semites at all.
In response to a question about whether she begrudged Steven Spielberg for memorializing the Holocaust, she hemmed and hawed some (“There’s nothing wrong with remembering it, but why do we have to constantly remember?”) before asking the interviewer,
Do the Jews ever look at themselves? Why are they always right? Because they have been oppressed throughout history, I know. And they have this persecution. That’s true, but they shouldn’t use that to dominate.
Eleanor Clift is entitled to respect Helen Thomas despite the late journalist’s explicitly anti-Jewish statements. But her readers are entitled to a forthright telling of the controversy. It is not about anti-settler remarks. It is not even about anti-Israel comments. It is about anti-Semitism.