(July 28, 2013 / JNS)
On June 1, 2010, the day after the Gaza flotilla incident in which nine Turkish militants were killed after attacking Israeli soldiers aboard the Mavi Marmara, famed reporter Helen Thomas didn’t hide her opinions about Israel in a briefing with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
“The initial reaction to the flotilla massacre, deliberate massacre, an international crime, was pitiful. What do you mean you regret something that should be so strongly condemned? And if any other nation in the world [besides Israel] had done it, we would have been up in arms. What is this ironclad relationship where a country that deliberately kills people… and boycotts, and we aid and abet the boycott?” Thomas asked Gibbs.
Little did the public know at the time that just a few days before that press briefing, Thomas had uttered anti-Semitic comments that would go on to garner far more attention than what she said about the Gaza flotilla. Adam Nesenoff, the 17-year-old son of Rabbi Dr. David Nesenoff who handled the technology-related aspects of his father’s RabbiLive.com blog, was busy graduating high school. That meant a May 27 video interview that Helen Thomas gave David Nesenoff on the White House lawn—in which Thomas said Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home, to Poland and Germany, America and everywhere else”—would not be posted online until a week after it was recorded.
Thomas, who worked 57 years for United Press International and a decade for Hearst Newspapers, died July 20, 2013 at age 92. She covered every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, and is credited with opening the White House press corps to women. But all it took was a roughly 90-second interview to end her career in 2010—Nesenoff’s video brought about her retirement shortly after it was posted.
Nesenoff believes that the “first part” of Thomas’s obituary should be her anti-Semitism, because her “poison infected everything she ever wrote.” Yet that wasn’t the type of Helen Thomas obituary Nesenoff saw from the mainstream media after her death.
“I got to hear people like Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC say that, ‘Helen Thomas is my role model,’” Nesenoff said in an interview with JNS.org. “That CBS News decided to say, ‘Well, it was a little controversy, she said that Jews should go back to Europe.’ They couldn’t even say the word Germany, because they have to whitewash everything.”
“It’s bothersome to see that the news really can’t call an anti-Semite an anti-Semite,” Nesenoff said.
Nesenoff was alerted to Thomas’s death through anti-Semitic email messages he received such as, “Happy now, kike?”
“It tells you the type of people that liked Helen Thomas, and basically it’s kind of emblematic of what my life has been like since being the reporter on the front lawn of the White House who uncovered an anti-Semite,” Nesenoff said.
“There are those who praised the work I did, and there are those who for some reason identify me as a bad person because I reported a news story they didn’t like,” he added.
RabbiLive.com was initially used as a platform through which Nesenoff, as a pulpit rabbi, streamed live video prayers to American-Jewish soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and on aircraft carriers. But the rabbi decided to revamp the site for the concept of showing videos on Israel, because he wanted to help Israel and thought his interview subjects “were going to say positive things” to contribute to that cause.
In 2010, the first day the website was used for its new purpose didn’t quite go as planned, as the featured content was the Helen Thomas video—not exactly a positive take on Israel. But what Nesenoff did get was widespread attention. The video helped RabbiLive.com garner half a million hits per day for about a month after it was posted, not to mention skyrocketing to a million hits on YouTube within one day, according to Nesenoff.
Nesenoff said the media “didn’t know what to do about” Thomas’s comments because “here’s this sweet old lady, and she’s saying these vile things about Jews going back to Germany.”
Over time, some came to understand Thomas’s statement that Jews should “get the hell of Palestine” as referring to Jewish communities located beyond the pre-1967 lines, not all of Israel. But Nesenoff disputes that interpretation, explaining that if Thomas was okay with Jews remaining in parts of Israel, she would have said “go back to Tel Aviv” or Haifa.
“She said tell them to ‘get the hell out’ and ‘go back to Germany,’” Nesenoff said.
Thomas apologized for her remarks to Nesenoff shortly after the interview, saying, “I deeply regret the comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. 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.”
Yet it wouldn’t be the last time she uttered anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments. Thomas went on to say that Zionists own the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street in an interview for Playboy magazine, in addition to similar comments in other interviews, Nesenoff noted.
Following the interview, Nesenoff—who attended Yeshiva University as an undergraduate and the Jewish Theological Seminary for his rabbinical degree and doctorate—had a stint as the editor of a weekly Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Star of Garden City, NY, and now spends most of his time speaking around the world. He just returned from a 150-city tour that included the U.S., Canada, Australia, England, and Ireland, and will soon embark on another six-month speaking tour. His speeches cover topics such as anti-Semitism, why Israel is the Jewish homeland, the role of women in Judaism, and “Why can’t I skydive on the Sabbath?”
The Helen Thomas interview is often a “jumper to get me to the topics I’m going to talk about,” Nesenoff said.
RabbiLive.com, meanwhile, is no longer used to post videos about Israel, but rather mostly to give people a way to contact Nesenoff to bring him in as a speaker.
“The key thing about my speeches is that they’re tremendously humorous… it’s a belly-laugh from beginning to end, and oddly enough on these [serious] topics, to the point that we’re putting it in a show form,” Nesenoff said, noting that there are talks of launching an Off-Broadway production based on his speeches.
Nesenoff said the legacy of his 2010 interview with Thomas was that it “brought down that wall of ‘I’m anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish.’” National legislators, including U.S. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Steve Chabot (R-OH), took notice and in April 2012 wrote a letter to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas denouncing an award the PA gave Thomas.
“There is no other way to see [honoring Thomas] other than [as] legitimizing Hamas’ anti-Semitic statements,” Engel and Chabot wrote. “There is a direct line running through Abbas’ meeting with the terrorist Amna Muna and the Palestinian bid at the [UN] Human Rights Council, and awarding a prize to a journalist who was shamefully expelled from the White House.”
At the time, Engel and Chabot also warned Abbas that the honor for Thomas might hurt U.S. assistance to the PA due to the parameters of the Preparing the Palestinian People for Peace Act.
“This legislation conditioned U.S. assistance on whether the PA was actively preparing its people for peace through compromise with messages of tolerance, understanding, and reconciliation,” the letter said, arguing that by honoring Thomas, the PA was undermining prospects for peace rather than preparing its people for it.
Although U.S. funding to the PA has never been abolished—only temporarily frozen at times—Nesenoff was happy to have at least been part of the conversation on the issue.
“Let me tell you something, I’m very proud of [the fact] that in some ways I might have helped to stop all funding to the Palestinian Authority,” Nesenoff told JNS.org.
“It’s the gift that keeps giving, this divine providence interview I did [with Thomas],” he said.