David Nesenoff travels the world talking about his May 27, 2010 encounter at the White House with the late Helen Thomas, longtime star reporter and dean of the White House press corps.
Invited by Brooklyn’s Chabad of Sea-Gate, Nesenoff spoke last month at Kneses Israel (the Big Shul). Rabbis Chaim Brikman, Leiby Brikman, Pinny Marozov, and Heshy Ceitlin thought it important for their fellow Jews to know the backstory of Nesenoff’s exchange with Thomas, especially with anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel on the rise in so many parts of the world.
Nesenoff – rabbi, filmmaker, blogger, author (David’s Harp), cartoonist, musician, motivational speaker, and professional comic – delivers his serious message leavened with humorous anecdotes.
At the heart of the story are Nesenoff, his then-teenage son Adam, and Adam’s friend Daniel Landau, who were attending a Jewish Heritage Month celebration on the White House lawn.
Nesenoff’s idea was to tape people’s responses to the question “What do you think about Israel?” He planned to publish the responses on his RabbiLive.com website. Suddenly, Nesenoff spotted Thomas walking toward them.
“Any comments on Israel?” Nesenoff asked her.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” said Thomas, a daughter of Lebanese immigrants.
Nesenoff reacted like he’d been stun-gunned to the core of his being. “Oooh!” he said. “Any better comments?”
Weirdly laughing, Thomas admonished Nesenoff: “Remember, these people [the Palestinians] are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not Germany. It’s not Poland.”
Though not a seasoned journalist, Nesenoff knew enough to keep it going and ask the logical follow-up: “So where should they go? What should they do?”
Thomas: They should go home.
Nesenoff: Where’s home?
Thomas: Poland. Germany.
Nesenoff repeated it back, making sure he’d heard what he thought he’d heard: “So the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany.”
“And America – and everywhere else,” added Thomas, who then asked rhetorically, “Why push people out who live there for centuries?”
To which Nesenoff asked her, “Are you familiar with the history of that region and what took place there?”
Thomas replied: “Very much! I’m of Arab background.”
The video of that conversation was posted online and quickly went viral, with media reps and reporters condemning Thomas, while contacting Nesenoff with interview requests.
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, called Nesenoff and told him it was important to find a “message” to go with the story.
But what, Nesenoff wondered, was the right message? His son asked him, “You can speak to anyone in the world – who do you want me to call?”
Nesenoff’s first choice, Elie Wiesel, said he’d read about Nesenoff’s habit of davening with Chabad. Find out what the Rebbe would have said about putting a message to the story, Wiesel suggested.
Nesenoff contacted Chabad Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who had known the Rebbe well.
What the Rebbe would have advised, said Shemtov, was something like this: “We are not the friends of Israel; we are the Children of Israel. Sometimes we are away for a little while in galus or sometimes we are away for a few years in Auschwitz. But we are still the Children of Israel. Israel and the Children of Israel are one – forever.”
Nesenoff repeated the Children of Israel message on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program a couple of weeks after his encounter with Thomas.
Yale University professor Charles Asher Small was near a TV when the CNN show aired. Small asked Nesenoff to be the keynote speaker at Yale’s inaugural 2010 Symposium on Global Anti-Semitism, which Small was chairing later that summer.
Meanwhile, criticism of Thomas’s remarks, which had come fast and furious from the moment Nesenoff put the video online, continued unabated, even after Thomas apologized a week after the encounter and retired a few days later.
President Obama condemned Thomas’s comments, calling them “offensive” and “out of line.” Lanny Davis, special counsel to former president Bill Clinton, said Thomas “showed herself to be an anti-Semitic bigot.” Ari Fleischer called for Thomas to be fired, adding, “If this isn’t bigotry, what is? What she said is as bad as someone saying all blacks should leave America and go back to Africa.”
Thomas’s agency, Nine Speakers, Inc., dropped her as a client. Craig Crawford, who had co-authored Thomas’s book Listen up, Mr. President, said he would “no longer be working with Helen on our book projects.” Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, canceled the commencement speech Thomas was scheduled to deliver at the school.
The White House Correspondents’ Association, over which she had once presided, called her remarks “indefensible” and the plaque engraved with her name was removed from her front row seat in the White House briefing room. In January 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists voted to do away with the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her alma mater, Wayne State University, took back the tolerance award it had bestowed on her.
There were plenty of people who still loved Thomas, though – some perhaps more than before – and Nesenoff (who would go on to receive the National Jewish Hero Award from the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute) was deluged with hate mail, even death threats, and required police protection.
Her fans included consumer advocate Ralph Nader, television personalities Joy Behar and Rosie O’Donnell, and political commentator Keith Olbermann, who called Nesenoff’s video a totally unfair “ambush” interview.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) gave Thomas a lifetime achievement award in October 2010. And, a bit belatedly, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s General Mission to the U.S. gave Thomas an award in April 2012 in honor of her “long career in the field of journalism, during which she defended the Palestinian position every step of the way.” PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi presented the honor to Thomas on behalf of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Nearly a year after her confrontation with Nesenoff, Thomas admitted her apology was disingenuous, telling writer David Hochman that she really didn’t regret her anti-Jewish, anti-Israel statements. In the course of that interview, published in the April 2011 issue of Playboy, she unabashedly proclaimed her belief in an “Elders of Zion”-type Jewish conspiracy that entailed “total control” over the White House, Congress, and U.S. financial markets.
“Everybody is in the pocket of the Israeli lobbies, which are funded by wealthy supporters, including those from Hollywood,” Thomas told Hochman.
An incredulous Hochman asked her whether she really believed “there’s a secret Jewish conspiracy at work in this country.” To which Thomas replied: “Not a secret. It’s very open. What do you mean secret?”
And she revealed to Hochman that shortly after she’d made the comments that would end her career, a sympathetic Jimmy Carter called to offer his support. “He talked about the Israelis in the Middle East, the violations. It was very nice of him to call, but I don’t want to get him into trouble,” confided Thomas.
Having aired her true feelings to Hochman, Thomas doubled down on her defiant and unapologetic attitude, telling an Ohio radio station a few months later that she realized soon after talking to Nesenoff that she would be fired because “I hit the third rail. You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive.”
She added that she issued an apology because people were upset but she still “had the same feelings about Israel’s aggression and brutality.”
Helen Thomas died on July 20, 2013, at the age of 92.
As for Nesenoff, the lesson he took away from his fateful encounter with Thomas is simple and straightforward.
“Each time I tell my story,” he says, “I tell my audiences the way to fight anti-Jewish is by doing Jewish. I know this is what the Rebbe would have wanted me to say.
Do Torah! Do Mitzvot! Do Shabbat! Do Kosher!”