Helen Thomas made a groundbreaking career in journalism by being pointed, persistent and fearless. She broke down barriers in journalism for women — she was the first female member of the White House Correspondents Association and the Gridiron Club. And she had a career longevity that most would envy. When she first reported for duty at the White House for United Press International, John F. Kennedy was president. For Thomas, who died July 20 at 92, it was an impressive run for a tenacious journalist.
Then came her infamous “go home” remark in 2010. At a White House celebration for American Jewish Heritage Month, a rabbi asked Thomas, then a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, for her thoughts on Israel. “Tell them to get out of Palestine,” she said, and “go home” to Germany, Poland or the United States.
The video of those remarks went viral and created an uproar. Despite her apology, Thomas’ career was over. But it was hard to dismiss seven decades of tenacious journalism. Perhaps there were mitigating circumstances for the outburst: She was 89, after all. She came from a Lebanese Christian background. She had switched roles from a reporter to a columnist. And she was, of course, pointed, persistent and fearless. Others said her hostility to Israel had been there all along and that her anti-Semitism ran deeper still.
We are not among those who consider Thomas to have been an anti-Semite. But we find it hard to ignore her animosity toward Israel. Nonetheless, we would like to remember how she survived professionally against the odds and how she showed that a journalist’s job is not to be awed by those in power, but to approach them with a respectful degree of skepticism. She also provides a lesson on why choosing one’s words carefully can avoid a world of trouble.