Rabbi David Nesenoff and his teenage son, Adam, are pretty far down the media food chain.
The son, active with the National Council for Synagogue Youth (the Orthodox Union’s affiliated youth group), runs Shmoozepoint.com. Dad operates a website called RabbiLive.com.
So it was impressive enough that they managed to snag media credentials for the American Jewish Heritage Month celebration May 27 at the White House. But in the past week, the senior Nesenoff took things to another level, turning his few hours as a hobnobber into 15 minutes of fame as the person who brought down a media icon.
It was the rabbi, armed with a camera and accompanied by his son and his teenage friend, who went around asking notables if they had any “comments on Israel.”
As the world now knows, Helen Thomas sure did.
“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” the doyenne of the Washing-ton press corps said, and laughed. “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land.”
Nesenoff asked where she thought they should go.
“Go home,” she responded.
Asked to elaborate, Thomas said, “Poland, Germany,” and after more prompting by the rabbi, added “and America, and everywhere else.”
The rabbi didn’t post the video (www.tinyurl.com/2fgmx3a) until June 3, but it quickly gained national attention, unleashing a flurry of demands for Thomas’ marginalization, if not dismissal.
On June 7, Thomas, 89, heeded the calls and quit, according to her employer, Hearst News Service.
After Nesenoff’s video went viral on YouTube, B’nai B’rith International and an array of Jewish organizations soon issued condemnations and demands that Thomas be fired. Ari Fleischer, press secretary for George W. Bush, and Lanny Davis, White House counsel in the Clinton administration, also slammed Thomas and called for her to be sacked.
Joe Klein, the Time magazine scribe who has been a tough critic of Israel’s Netanyahu government, called her views “odious” and said she should no longer have the privilege, accorded by the White House Correspondents Association, of a front-row center seat.
Thomas’ apology, posted June 4, preceded most of the broadsides against her.
“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” she said. “They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”
Critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, said the apology did not go far enough.
By June 7, such criticism appeared moot: After a series of blows, it was clear her career was finished. Thomas was dropped by her speaking agent. The following day, the Washington Post reported that Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., was withdrawing its invitation to Thomas to be commencement speaker.
Hearst announced her retirement June 7. It was a rapid fall for a woman who had become a liberal icon.
Thomas was a perennial, admired for becoming, during the Kennedy administration, one of the first women to cover the White House. She was granted the first question at news conferences, and finished each conference with “Thank you, Mr. President.”
The child of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was known to be a fierce critic of Israel and what she saw as the unwillingness of administrations to speak out against Jerusalem’s perceived misdeeds.
Recently, she had called Israel’s interception of a Gaza-bound ship a “deliberate massacre” and said the White House’s expression of “regret” was “pitiful.”
Dan Mariaschin, the director of B’nai B’rith, said Thomas’ videotaped comments were no surprise.
“There’s a Yiddish expression, ‘What’s on your lung is on your tongue,’ “ he said. “She has a long record of being purposefully hypercritical of Israel.”
Nesenoff, of Stony Brook, N.Y., said he had accompanied his son and his friend to the White House’s Jewish celebration.
Adam Nesenoff, 17, had applied for a media credential after hearing that the event would have a youthful emphasis. The elder Nesenoff asked the White House if he could join his son, explaining that otherwise he would be stuck outside all day waiting to drive him home.
They wandered the grounds near the White House pressroom before the event. Rabbi Nesenoff said he pointed out Thomas to the teens because she was a press icon. He was vaguely aware she had views critical of Israel, but did not think she would be vicious.
“People can have their opinions, but this was ‘Get out of the whole land, cleanse the whole land of Jews,” he said. “We’re there in our Shabbos best, we had driven down — we were taken back. If it was a skinhead in a parking lot — but here’s this sweet little old lady on the White House grounds. We were hurt.”
Nesenoff said he still hopes for a more expansive apology from Thomas.
“She has to do a little ‘tikkun olam,’” the rabbi said. “I hope to God she lives a very long time; she has business yet.”