A veteran White House news reporter has retired in the wake of controversy over remarks she made recently about Israel. Helen Thomas, who worked for Hearst newspapers, apologized but drew a critical response from the White House and the association representing correspondents there.
Helen Thomas covered the White House since the early 1960s. Her retirement came after several days of mounting controversy over her comments last week. Thomas' remarks were made to Rabbi David Nesenoff, who is also a video journalist, on the sidelines of the first White House event hosted by President Barack Obama, celebrating Jewish-American Heritage Month.
Asked by Nesenoff for a general comment about Israel, Thomas said Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine," which she called "occupied land." She also said that Jews should go back to Germany, Poland or to the United States "or anywhere else."
Posted on Nesenoff's website, the video comments spread quickly on the Internet around the world, and were shown on television. At Monday's White House press briefing, Thomas, who was considered the dean of the White House press corps, was absent from her designated front row seat in the briefing room.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had this response when a reporter asked about Thomas' remarks: "Those remarks were offensive and reprehensible," said Robert Gibbs. "She should and has apologized. Obviously, those remarks do not reflect, certainly, the opinion of, I assume, most of the people in here, and certainly not of the administration."
Hearst newspapers, which syndicates Thomas' weekly column, announced that Thomas, who turns 90-years-old in August, would retire immediately. In a statement on her website, Thomas said she deeply regrets the comments and that they do not reflect what she calls her "heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance."
The White House Correspondents Association called Thomas' comments indefensible, saying that they were "especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trail blazer on the White House beat." Among the first women to cover the White House, during President John F. Kennedy's administration, Thomas had the only seat with a small metal plaque designated to her by name in the White House briefing room.
The correspondents association also said the matter "revive[s] the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the White House briefing room," adding that this would be discussed in a special meeting this week.
The controversy over Helen Thomas' remarks comes as the Obama administration faces ongoing questions about its position on Israel's blockade of Gaza, and intense criticism of Israel's recent raid on an aid ship that left 9 people dead.
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