Jewish and Arab communities butt heads over Helen Thomas speech

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – Cultures are clashing following comments by a former White House correspondent with local roots.

Helen Thomas, known for her 60-year career in journalism, is the center of controversy after she made a second controversial statement during a 300-person diversity conference speech Dec. 2 in Dearborn. She said, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists. No question, in my opinion.”

The statement echoed sentiments she made known at a May 27 Jewish Heritage Day event at the White House earlier this year that led to her June resignation.

Thomas, 90, has written five books and won numerous awards for her work in the field of diversity and political reporting after graduating from Wayne State University in 1942, where a Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award was awarded annually.

However, following her Dec. 2 statements and urging from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, WSU announced Dec. 6 that it was discontinuing the award.

“This episode was a sad final chapter to an otherwise illustrious career as a trailblazer for women and minorities in journalism,” said ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman in a statement. “Unlike her first off-the-cuff remarks into a camera, Thomas’ comments were carefully thought out and reveal a person who is deeply infected with anti-Semitism.”

The Congress of Arab American Organizations in metropolitan Detroit is standing up for Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent.

“We do not understand why a remark against a political group – the Zionists – would be interpreted as being anti-Semitic,” said Osama Siblani, CAAO spokesman, in a Dec. 7 statement. “We categorically reject equating Zionism with Judaism.

“We believe the real problem here is that some in the pro-Israeli community donor base are doing what they do whenever they can, which is silencing debate on the subject of Israel. But for an academic institution to silence debate is unconscionable. Universities are where debate should begin.”

The CAAO’s release warned that the hastily made decision negatively would impact relations between WSU and the Arab-American community for many years if not reconsidered and corrected.

“The ball is now in their court,” Siblani said.

The Society of Professional Journalists also has recognized Thomas for her lifetime of work and has a Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement named in her honor, which Foxman has urged the SPJ to rename or discontinue.

“Helen Thomas is not now and never has been anti-Semitic,” said Imad Hamad, CAAO executive committee member. “She has worked her entire career, 60 years, to bring truth to the American public, and she is simply continuing to do that.”

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