The sisters of Helen Thomas say her statements about Israel — which cost the White House correspondent-turned-Hearst columnist her job — have been widely misinterpreted.
In a telephone interview initiated by Journal-isms, three of them said Thomas was not calling for the destruction of Israel or the return of all Israelis to Europe or the United States, as has been the running narrative, but was expressing her opposition to the disputed Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
"They should stop confiscating the land that belonged to the Palestinians. We feel that there should be a two-state solution in Palestine," said one sister, who did not want to be identified. The sisters, who spoke from the home of one of them in the Detroit area, which houses the nation's largest concentration of Arab Americans, range in age from 87 to 95. Thomas is 89. A brother is 100. The family is Lebanese-American.
"Helen Thomas is for peaceful coexistence in the Palestinian territory," said Barbara Isaac, the youngest sister. "What she does not like is that the Palestinians have been completely devastated and made to live under occupation and all the deleterious effects, and the hazardous effects of that, stripped of their ability to live normal lives.
"Helen has lived with this problem for as long as she's been in Washington," she said. Displaced Palestinians become waiters and cooks there, "and would talk to her, and she's heard nothing but their stories of horror for 60 years," Isaac said, referencing the creation of Israel in 1948. "She's out to dinner and they find her.
"If nobody got angry about injustice, then people just go on suffering, knowing that nobody gives a damn."
As Laura Berman wrote Tuesday in the Detroit News, "When asked about Israel during a White House Jewish heritage celebration on May 27, Thomas told RabbiLive.com: 'Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.'
"As the recording continued, Thomas told the interviewer, Rabbi David F. Nesenoff: 'Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land.'
"Asked where they should go, Thomas answered: 'They should go home' to 'Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else.'
"The fallout was quick."
Even President Obama commented, saying Thomas' comments were "offensive" and "out of line." He told NBC that it was a "shame" that her career has ended in controversy, but called Thomas' retirement announcement "the right decision."
According to the sisters, the reference to going home to Poland, Germany and America refers to those who have populated the disputed Israeli settlements.
Obama demanded last year that Israel freeze construction of settlements in the West Bank, but Israel refused.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen exemplified the prevalent interpretation of Thomas' comments in the news media.
"Well, I don't know about 'everywhere else,' " he wrote, "but after World War II, many Jews did attempt to 'go home' to Poland. This resulted in the murder of about 1,500 of them — killed not by Nazis but by Poles, either out of sheer ethnic hatred or fear they would lose their (stolen) homes."
Helen Thomas was not talking calls, her sisters said, giving a hint at what her life has been like in the past few days. "She has so many bouquets of flowers they can't get into her condo," Isaac said.
Thomas issued this statement on her website on Tuesday: "I deeply regret my 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."
She has said nothing publicly since then.
Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News in Dearborn, Mich., which claims to be "the largest, oldest and most respected Arab American newspaper in the United States," told Journal-isms there was never any doubt about what Thomas meant.
"Helen Thomas hit it right on the nail. They should get the hell out of Palestine," he said. "It's illegal" — what is taking place, he said, "confiscating land" and "illegal settlements."
"She's talking about the settlements," he said without hesitation, asked to explain Thomas' reference.
"I saw the video six or seven times and I know what she meant."
Siblani ran a column on his website Monday from Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation magazine, which he called "the fairest" that he had seen. It was titled, "Isn't There Some Room for Helen Thomas?"
For his own editorial, he said, "We're not going to be shy about this. This is a very clear . . . example of the double standard that America has when it comes to Muslims and the rest of the world. You can write attacks on Jesus Christ, but you cannot say anything about Israel. You can criticize and attack the Prophet Mohammed, but you cannot attack the state of Israel, or even be critical of the Jewish state. It is disgraceful and unacceptable in our democracy."
In another development, Ben Burns, director of the journalism program at Wayne State University, clarified reports that the school was considering renaming the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award, which celebrates journalists who bring diversity to the media and was most recently awarded Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald and veteran journalist Lynette Clemetson, founding managing editor of theRoot.com.
"What I thought I said was that the university would certainly review that suggestion which had come from a number of folks in the community," he told Journal-isms. "I also said that I personally oppose changing the name of the award, but that decision would be made by the Board of Governors of WSU on the President's recommendation. I also said that WSU would move deliberately and carefully in reviewing the suggestions and that the final decision was way above my pay grade. We have had some push back from alums suggesting they would end support for the university if we changed the name. All in all a very sad situation."
(Siblani later added by e-mail: "Just for your information. I received her award this year from Wayne State University. And, if they remove Helen['s] name from the award I swear to God I will have a press conference and I will throw it in the garbage.")
Isaac said she was eager to talk because she believed her sister's personality was being misrepresented.
The comments have been the subject of reporting and opinion pieces around the globe — many expressing praise for Thomas' pioneering achievements but condemning her career-ending remarks. One journalism website debated whether Thomas' comments should be considered anti-Israel, anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic.
"She doesn't hate anybody," Isaac said. One of the older sisters recalled that during the Holocaust, Thomas closely followed first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's efforts to bring German Jews to the United States. "She was very upset about the whole thing, and she had fed them in her apartment building when I used to visit her back in the '40s. They were in the concentration camps. She's very close to all that.
"It's the old cliche. Our best friends are Jewish."
Agence France-Presse: Hezbollah salutes former White House press dean's 'courage'
Darrel Dawsey, Detroit blog, time.com: Hearing Helen
Eric Deggans blog, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: As Helen Thomas exits journalism stage in controversy, a new question arises: Who's next?
Ross Douthat, New York Times blog: The Return of the Repressed
Robert Dreyfuss, the Nation: Gaza: It's Not About Anti-Semitism
Roy Greenslade, the Guardian, England: Helen Thomas went over the top, but why is she gagged in the land of the free?
Errol Louis, New York Daily News: Come to our senses on Gaza: Those vilifying Israel are wrong; so are her knee-jerk defenders
Michel Martin blog, "Tell Me More," National Public Radio: Helen Thomas: The Good And The Bad
Richard Prince and Alicia Shepard on "Tell Me More," National Public Radio: Legendary Journalist Helen Thomas Quits After Israel Gaffe
Sam Sedaei, Huffington Post: Is Helen Thomas an Anti-Semite, or Are Her Critics?
Alicia Shepard, National Public Radio: Don't Take Away Helen Thomas' Front Row Nameplate