I was listening to National Public Radio on my car radio on July 20, driving to the east coast from Colorado, when I heard the news that my friend, pioneering journalist Helen Thomas, had just died. Over the past three plus years I’d been privileged to have dinner with her a few times and honored that she had attended talks I gave in Washington D.C., even introducing me to the audience at one of them.
The last times I saw Helen were in late 2012 when I visited her in her D.C. apartment. Her health was declining to the point that she described her condition as “decrepit.” Even so, her mind was sharp and she was as interested as she’d always been in learning more about the world and wanting answers to questions that had perplexed her.
More than once, Helen told me that Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s press secretary, had been “after her” for many years. Like others who are incapable of rational thinking when it comes to Israel-Palestine, these men were unrelenting in their eagerness to label Helen’s criticisms of Israel’s violations of international law as expressions of anti-Semitism. Slandering Helen was far easier than asking why she, or anyone, would voice such criticisms. So frightened were these men of what the criticisms revealed about them, they could not see the humanity at the heart of her criticism.
Helen told me that in the wake of her widely publicized comments that Israelis should “get the Hell out of Palestine” and “go back to Poland, Germany and America,” institutions that over the years had conferred honorary degrees upon her were being pressured to rescind them. But then she would say, “Well, I know who I am.” In turn, I would say, “Too bad they don’t know who they are.” I would share with her that despite the fact her comments were untactful, I knew that what she was really saying was that European Jews should never have come to Palestine in the first place if their intentions were to humiliate and steal land from the indigenous people.
Being Jewish, myself, and having acquired a unique insight into the unconscious thought processes that lead ordinarily decent people to support indecency, Helen often asked me what motivated some to react with unbridled hostility whenever she or anyone (even Palestinians) showed concern for the lives of mostly innocent Palestinians. I explained that when one’s identity is challenged, in order to defend that presumed identity, denial sets in along with projection. The slurs directed toward her were, more accurately, descriptive of the intentions of her attackers, who could not conceive that concern for one people did not have to be accompanied by a lack of concern for another. This was the projection. By attributing to Helen and others a callous disregard for Israel, her attackers were unconsciously exposing their own callous disregard for Palestinians.
I first met Helen shortly after her provocative comments and quick departure from Hearst Newspapers. During a conversation, my friend Paul Kinzelman urged me to contact her. He reasoned that without a full-time position, Helen would not only be more available, she would be more willing to review my book.
I searched for her in the white pages and, to my great surprise, found her name along with a phone number. Thinking that this was too easy and figuring that someone other than Helen would answer her phone and tell me that “Ms. Thomas doesn’t take calls from strangers,” I dialed the number in spite of myself. After a few rings, I heard a click. Someone picked up the phone and said “Hello.” The voice was unmistakable – I’d heard that voice for nearly fifty years.
I told Helen who I was, how sorry I was for all the trouble she’d gotten herself into and what my book was about. She was fascinated. We must have talked for thirty minutes. After I hung up I mailed her a signed copy of the book, which she read and positively reviewed. And thus began a lovely friendship!
Two qualities that made Helen a revered journalist were her honesty and open-mindedness. She wasn’t willing to merely repeat what she’d been told, to follow the herd. These qualities also protected her from losing her humanity, from demonizing the “other” simply because the other did not submit to the prevailing consciousness of the times. It is unfortunate that American media, to a large extent, does not exhibit Helen’s values. If it rediscovered the courage to do so, our politicians and society might very well be more compassionate and self-reflective; and so much unnecessary suffering throughout the world could be avoided.
Richard Forer is the author of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear Into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflic.