A living legend is born in the field of political journalism. Her strong, determined voice for justice is applauded by many, yet there are also those who claim her views as being ‘insensitive’ to certain ethnic groups.
Whichever way her words are interpreted, it is clear that Helen Thomas will not give up her unwavering stance on human rights for all. She firmly stands up to speak against any entity who she believes is responsible for debasing the rights of others.
It is her longstanding commitment to demanding truth and justice from the leaders of the nation that has led Thomas into the spotlight today.
Thomas, who embraced journalism as a career at the age of 23 and continues to write at the age of 90, was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association and has been a reporter for the White House for over half a century; having covered 10 presidents of the United States. Thomas, an Arab-American from Detroit, held a front-row seat at practically every White House briefing, and would be the first person to ask a question when the President would end his speech.
With these remarkable achievements by a pioneering female reporter, Thomas soon became the recipient of several awards. And being a continuous inspiration to the community of journalists, she had two distinct awards named in her honor – the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media Award at Wayne State University (her alma mater) in 2000, and the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Society for Professional Journalists in the same year. Both were granted annually to deserving students and journalists.
However, Thomas’s journey has not always been a smooth sailing – especially in light of recent events that occurred within the past year.
Last May, Helen was stopped by Rabbi David Nesenoff and his two sons while exiting the White House, to be asked her opinion about Israel. Unaware that she was being taped on a cell phone, Thomas made a brief comment firmly denouncing Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and saying that the occupiers should leave the nation and return to their place of origin.
With her less-than-favorable statement about Zionist Israeli interests, Thomas was soon censured by the Anti-Defamation League for her ‘bigoted’, ‘anti-Semitic’ remarks about ‘Jews’. In fact, she had never mentioned a word about ‘Jews’, nor has she ever spoken in reference to the entire Jewish community while condemning denial of human rights to people in occupied Palestinian territories.
It is obvious to any person with unbiased judgment; any Jew with humane values that transcend nationalistic sentiments, that Helen was referring to the Zionists’ relentless support of the destruction of Palestinian homes and illegal occupation of West Bank and Gaza – severe violations of civil rights and International Law. Thomas has clarified this.
Medea Benjamin, a Jewish American political activist, who has personally known Thomas for many years, said in a press conference that she was inspired by Helen, who always stood up to speak for civil liberties at White House briefings. Whether it was on the “probing of lies that led us into the war in Iraq, or the questioning about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, or why we’re keeping people in prison without charges in Guantanamo,” Thomas determinedly demanded answers from Presidents and government officials about the destructive outcomes of their policies affecting innocent civilians. “She is not anti-Semitic. She is pro-human rights for all, Palestinians and Israeli Jews,” Benjamin affirmed.
Nevertheless, Thomas left her position as an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers soon after; as distorted interpretations and harsh objections were raised on what was only an opinion columnist’s freedom of expression.
Taken by the backlash of negative interpretations about her comment on Israel, Wayne State University withdrew the award of her name in December 2010, after she declared that to an audience that “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists.” Their overruling influence made it difficult for Zionist transgressions (in occupied territories) to be condemned in the US, she said. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League took immediate offense at her statement, calling for the withdrawal of all awards she had received in the past.
Helen stood firm and unwavering in her beliefs despite all the negative attacks thrust upon her. She had spent her life demanding explanations for the damaging consequences overseas resulting from US resolutions, which no one else dared to question in the White House. And she was not about to give up.
On January the 6th this year, a familiar voice resurfaced on the internet as Thomas’s first article for the Falls Church News-Press in Virginia was released; indicating that Helen, at 90, had not given up on her golden career as a journalist.
The Society for Professional Journalists, which since last year was being pressured to bring down the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, decided last Friday that it would be best to end the award. However, as clarified by its Board of Directors, this was only done out of respect for deserving recipients and honorees. The Board undeniably supported Helen Thomas’s right to free speech, but it was predictable that controversy over the award would not end anytime soon. And no person worthy of a lifetime achievement award should have to face the backlash from it.
A powerful voice still echoes in America today; a voice that spoke for innumerable civilians whose rights were being trampled upon overseas; for the voices that could never reach the US media, to be heard in the White House, in direct confrontation with those who ordained such policies. Helen Thomas made this possible. Says Thomas, “"I paid a price, but it's worth it to speak the truth."