Pathbreakers of Arab America: Helen Thomas
By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
This is the twenty-fourth in Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our twenty-fourth pathbreaker is Helen Thomas. Born in 1920 in Winchester, Kentucky, Thomas was the seventh of nine children of immigrants from Tripoli, Lebanon. Helen was an American reporter and author, and a long-serving member of the White House press corps. She covered the White House during the administrations of ten U.S. presidents—from the beginning of the Kennedy administration to the second year of Obama’s tenure. Thomas’ pro-Arab comments got her into hot water towards the end of her career.
Helen Thomas—indefatigable advocate of a free press and an early feminist in American journalism
Thomas was the seventh of nine children born to George and Mary Thomas, whose family name was Antonious before it was anglicized at Ellis Island. According to Wikipedia, she was raised mainly in Detroit, Michigan, where her family moved when she was four years old, and where her father ran a grocery store. Helen said of her experience growing up: “We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people.”
But living as an Arab American in Detroit in the 1920s was not always easy, as Thomas expressed it. She would sometimes come home from school crying, complaining, “They wanted to make you feel you weren’t ‘American’… We were called ‘garlic eaters’.” She attended Detroit Public Schools, deciding in high school to become a journalist, then enrolled at Wayne University in Detroit. Helen received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1942, which was the closest she could get to a degree in journalism, then not offered at Wayne. She grew up in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, her parent’s church from their time in Lebanon.
Helen began her journalism career in Washington, D.C., where her first job was as a copygirl, an entrée position. That was with the now-defunct Washington Daily News. Ever a feminist before her time, Helen was fired after eight months at the paper for joining with her colleagues in a strike action. She then joined United Press in 1943, reporting on societal issues, women’s news, and celebrity profiles. Later in the decade, and in the early fifties, she wrote UP’s Names in the News column, for which she interviewed numerous Washington celebrities. Helen was later, in 1955, assigned to cover the United States Department of Justice, followed by other agencies, as well as Capitol Hill.
A leader in her field, Thomas was elected president of the Women’s National Press Club from 1959 through 1960. Her feminism led her and a few of her fellow female journalists to force the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Working for the United Press and post-1958 successor United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, Helen became the first female officer of the National Press Club and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
Thomas had many other “firsts” in her august career as a journalist. In 1962, she convinced President Kennedy to orchestrate the annual dinners for White House correspondents and photographers so that women journalists could attend. In 1970, UPI named Thomas their chief White House correspondent, making her the first woman to serve in the position. It was also during Kennedy’s administration that she began ending presidential press conferences with a signature “Thank you, Mr. President,” reviving a tradition started during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Helen was the only member of the White House Press Corps to have her own assigned seat in the White House Briefing Room
True to her roots, Helen Thomas addressed the Arab-Israel issue forthrightly
An early example of Helen’s frankness occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term, when she reacted to Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s statements about arms shipments to the terrorists, asking: “Where do the Israelis get their arms?” He responded: “There’s a difference, Helen, and that is—What is the difference?” she asked. He responded: “The targeting of innocents through the use of terror, which is a common enemy for Yasser Arafat and for the people of Israel, as well as—” She interrupted him, saying: “Palestinian people are fighting for their land.” He responded: “I think that the killing of innocents is a category entirely different. Justifying killing of innocents for land is an argument in support of terrorism.” During the George W. Bush administration, Thomas was moved to the back row during press conferences.
Helen’s life as one of the top White House correspondents changed abruptly with the arrival of Barack Obama. Again, according to Wikipedia, on February 9, 2009, Thomas was present in the front row for newly elected President Obama’s first news conference. President Obama called on her with the statement, “Helen. I’m excited, this is my inaugural moment,” a reference to her long-term presence in the White House Press Corps.
Thomas’ ‘Waterloo’ came on May 27, 2010. A rabbi and his son visiting the White House prompted a conversation about Israel and Palestine. Responding to a question about Israel, she replied, “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine” and: “Remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. Not German [sic], it’s not Poland.” Then he asked: “Where they should go? What do they do?” To which she responded: “They go home.”
The rabbi followed up with: “Where’s the home?” She replies back, “Poland…” but in the middle of her answer, he adds to his question: “So the Jews…”, she adds: “…Germany.” He finishes off: “…should go back to Poland and Germany?” To which she finally responds: “And America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?” The interview went viral. Thomas later apologized for her comments but noted that no one could say anything critical of Israel.
In an obituary of Thomas’ life, the Times of Israel reported that she had received a prize in journalism from a representative of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority. In response, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, was reported as saying, he “was appalled by the award” to Thomas, “who has been completely shunned by all decent Americans after making anti-Semitic remarks, along with teaching Palestinian children to hate the Jewish State and to glorify suicide bombers.”
In Thomas’ defense, Ralph Nader averred that she “practiced her profession with a deep regard for the peoples’ right to know. To her, as Aldous Huxley noted long ago, facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Nader thought that she was judged by a double standard: “One off-hand ‘ill-conceived remark,’ as NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard stated, in praising Ms. Thomas, ended a groundbreaking career.”
Thomas died on July 20, 2013, at her home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 92. She was cremated and her ashes were buried in Detroit, following a traditional Antiochian Orthodox funeral service.
In these days of the Hamas-Israel war, frank conversations supporting Palestinians, such as those earlier statements by the bastion of a free press, Helen Thomas, are characterized by many critics as “antisemitic.” Were she here with us today, Thomas clearly would have condemned Hamas, while at the same time defending ordinary Palestinians who continue to live under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
–” Helen Thomas,” Wikipedia Biography of Arab Americans,” 2023
–“ Journalist Helen Thomas, who said Jews ‘should get the hell out of Palestine,’ dies at 92,” Times of Israel, 7/20/2013
–“Cashiering Helen Thomas,” Ralph Nader.org, 6/15/2010
John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, and is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.
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