“You ought not to speak ill of the dead,” a friend chided me. “They have no right of reply.”
I had just remarked that Helen Thomas, who died on Saturday aged 92, was a “bigot and journalist”. Of course, my friend was right: in general, one should not speak ill of the dead, or at least one should wait until the departed is beneath the ground.
Kavod hamet, respect for the dead, is a mitzvah in Judaism. Halakha details the proper treatment of the body before and even after burial and these prescriptions for bodily integrity are matched by a regard for the memory of the deceased. But there are times when speaking ill of the dead is legitimate, necessary even, if we are to prevent falsehoods from calcifying into received wisdom.
Truth is the first casualty of war but it doesn’t fare much better after the death of the revered, and the truth about Helen Thomas has been drowned in syrupy clichés and hagiographic hyperbole. The New York Times obituary praises her “keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy”; the Washington Post eulogizes its “feisty” subject for “her indefatigable pursuit of hard news”; “Ms Thomas,” the BBC intones, “was a pioneer for women in journalism”. NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell tweeted: “Helen Thomas made it possible for all of us who followed.” (The charge that Thomas is responsible for the career of Andrea Mitchell is perhaps the gravest we could lay against her.)
There can be no doubt that she was a consequential figure with a distinctly American story. This daughter of Lebanese immigrants, raised on a grocer’s salary in Detroit, broke through every glass ceiling she encountered in her chosen profession of journalism. She countered sexism with talent and tenacity and earned the respect of her colleagues who welcomed her into the National Press Club, the Gridiron Club, and the White House Correspondents’ Association. Thomas may have allowed her left-wing politics to color her work as a reporter, noticeably so when writing about Israel or George W Bush, but she seemed to have taken the epigram that “well-behaved women seldom make history” to heart and there was much to admire in her tireless heckling of authority.
None of these achievements, however, should obscure the fact that she was a rancid antisemite. If you doubt that assessment, or think it uncharitable or unfair, let us give Thomas a right of reply and allow her words to speak for themselves. In June 2010, she told Rabbi David Nesenoff that Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine” because the land was Palestinian and “not German and not Poland’s”. Asked where the Jews of Israel should go, she responded: “They could go home… Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who lived there for centuries?”
(We could be here a while correcting Thomas’s warped understanding of history. Instead, let’s hand over to Amos Oz, recounting his father’s experience of antisemitism: “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine,’ so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: ‘Yids, get out of Palestine’.”)
She was retired by her wire service and issued a pro forma non-apology that tried to spin her antisemitism as a political statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But repentant she was not. Speaking six months later at a diversity conference (irony is a many-splendored thing), she told her audience: “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion.”
We might chalk this up to a fit of pique, a wounded cry at the residual pain of her defenestration. We may even seek mitigation in her age or background. But, again, let’s hear from Thomas. She gave an interview to Playboy in April 2011 in which she expanded upon her earlier comments.
“Everybody is in the pocket of the Israeli lobbies,” she explained, “which are funded by wealthy supporters, including those from Hollywood. Same thing with the financial markets. There’s total control… It isn’t the two percent. It’s real power when you own the White House, when you own these other places in terms of your political persuasion. Of course they have power.”
For good measure, she added to the interviewer: “You don’t deny that. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
Helen Thomas doesn’t want your attempts at exculpation, dear reader. “I knew exactly what I was doing,” she told her you’re-Jewish-aren’t-you interviewer, “I was going for broke. I had reached the point of no return.”
But there was still some broke left to go for, and she went for it, offering the magazine her thoughts on the Holocaust:
There’s nothing wrong with remembering it, but why do we have to constantly remember? We’re not at fault. I mean, if they’re going to put a Holocaust museum in every city in Germany, that’s fine with me. But we didn’t do this to the Jews. Why do we have to keep paying the price and why do they keep oppressing the Palestinians? Do the Jews ever look at themselves? Why are they always right? Because they have been oppressed throughout history, I know. And they have this persecution. That’s true, but they shouldn’t use that to dominate.
That paragraph is an almost perfectly calibrated litmus test. If you recoil in horror at its minimization of the Shoah, its hoary straw men, its petulant self-victimization, its cynical logic of animus and duplicity, and its familiar theyification of the Jews, then you are probably not an antisemite. If at any point you stop and chew it over and permit yourself even the shallowest of nods of recognition, then you are almost certainly an antisemite.
The dead are due dignity but the living owe each other truth and the truth is that Helen Thomas was a bigot. She may have been other than a bigot but she was never more than one. The gushing tributes from colleagues and admirers, although genuine and heartfelt, are being paid to a sanitized version of Thomas. These panegyrics, in their obfuscation of who Helen Thomas really was, may not speak ill of her but they speak falsely of her, and that is surely the ultimate form of disrespect.