Newsweek’s Alter Praises Helen Thomas for ‘Asking the Tough Questions’ to Bush After 9/11

On Monday’s Joy Behar Show on HLN, as host Behar led a discussion of long-time journalist Helen Thomas’s recent anti-Israel remarks with guest Jonathan Alter – of Newsweek and MSNBC – and comedian Robert Klein, Alter admitted that, as a Jew, he was offended by her words, but, although he claimed that "I`m not rationalizing it, Joy, I'm not trying to excuse her," he pinned some of the blame on "senility" and suggested that, because of her Lebanese background, her remarks are not necessarily anti-Semitic: "But she`s Lebanese. She`s a Lebanese American. And you do have to understand, you know, some of the history of the region and the feelings in the region, and not necessarily judge somebody who thinks of Israel as an occupying power as by definition an anti-Semite because they think Israel is occup-"

He also expressed his hope that Thomas’s rant would not tarnish the memory of her journalistic career, as he credited her with "asking the tough questions" to President Bush after 9/11, which he asserted other journalists were not willing to do: "I just wish that her whole career is not judged by this. ... I have known her for a long time, and she held many Presidents` feet to the fire at a time when nobody in the Bush press room would say boo about George W. Bush after 9/11, she was already asking the tough questions. And I just, you know, I like to see people be judged in the largest context of their career, not in their senility."

On the bright side, Behar complained that Israel "gets a bum rap a lot," sparking agreement from both Alter and Klein, with Alter observing that there is a "double standard":

JOY BEHAR: It seems like Israel gets a bum rap a lot, though, it seems to me.

JONATHAN ALTER: It does and there`s a double standard that Israel suffers from.

BEHAR: Yeah.

ROBERT KLEIN: How about the 80 people that were killed while praying in a Mosque in Lahore two days before and 100 some odd wounded, page 29 of the newspaper.

BEHAR: Exactly. That always fascinates me, why they pick on Israel so much more than other countries.

KLEIN: Hello!

ALTER: There`s more than a little anti-Semitism in that, but there`s-

BEHAR: Blame it on the Jews.

ALTER: -there's a double standard and a higher standard.

Behar and Alter then went a bit to the left on Israel as they suggested that the country’s right-leaning prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was missing a chance at peace with the Palestinians.

Below is a transcript of relevant portions of the Monday, June 7, Joy Behar Show on HLN:

JOY BEHAR: Eighty nine -year-old White House correspondent Helen Thomas announced her retirement effective immediately today after making anti-Israeli remarks. Watch:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any comments on Israel? We are asking everybody today-

HELEN THOMAS: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ooh. Any better comments?

THOMAS: Remember, these people are occupied. And it`s their land, not Germany, not Poland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So where should they go? What should they do?

THOMAS: They’d go home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where’s home?

THOMAS: Poland, Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the Jews should, you’re saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?

THOMAS: And America and everywhere else.

BEHAR: Can I just say I hope she`s not planning on retiring in Boca. With me now are Jonathan Alter ,author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," and fabulously funny Robert Klein, comedian. Okay, Jonathan, let me start with you. What do you make of this? Is she just getting senile, or is this something that she`s been feeling for many years.

JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK: Look, it`s just us Jews. We’re all Jews, right?

BEHAR: No, I`m not, but I might as well be.

ALTER: Okay, whatever. So am I offended by it? Of course, I am, but she`s an old lady, you know? And I don`t think she, her, and it`s great that she retired. She needed to. Eighty-nine years old, I basically don`t hold any 89-year-old accountable for anything they say in retirement, which she is now. I just wish that her whole career is not judged by this.

BEHAR: Oh, but it will be, Jonathan.

ALTER: It will be in her obituary-

BEHAR: Oh yeah.

ALTER: -but she was, look, I have known her for a long time, and she held many Presidents` feet to the fire at a time when nobody in the Bush press room would say boo about George W. Bush after 9/11, she was already asking the tough questions. And I just, you know, I like to see people be judged in the largest context of their career, not in their senility.

BEHAR: Okay, Robert, do you want to comment on that?

ROBERT KLEIN, COMEDIAN: Well, I personally have no horse in this race, but I think maybe, you know what, I agree for the most part with Jonathan because she`s not at her best game anymore.

BEHAR: Why? Betty White is at her best game, and she`s the same age.

KLEIN: I know, but that`s a crap shoot. My brother-in-law Harry is at his best game. He`s up there, he plays tennis and golfs.

BEHAR: But maybe this is her best game.

KLEIN: Well, there`s hate in there. There`s hate in there. I mean, in that remark is the reason why "never again," you know.

ALTER: But she`s Lebanese. She`s a Lebanese American.

BEHAR: Right.

ALTER: And you do have to understand, you know, some of the history of the region and the feelings in the region, and not necessarily judge somebody who thinks of Israel as an occupying power as by definition an anti-Semite because they think Israel is occup-

BEHAR: No, but we agree on that part I think.

KLEIN: But "Go back to Germany"-

BEHAR: But to Germany and Poland, to Auschwitz and Dachau-

ALTER: Hey, I`m not rationalizing it, Joy. I’m not trying to excuse her.

KLEIN: But that’s forgetting history, I mean, you know, the idea is that – there`s a great irony in there that’s nasty.

BEHAR: But I also saw all those Charlton Heston movies. I mean, you know, isn`t it, if you go back long enough, isn`t it the Jewish homeland, really?

ALTER: I would say yes, and, you know, I do think they have – but they don’t have, you know, there are some Israelis who think that they have a right, a biblical right to the entire West Bank. And that should be a Palestinian homeland, and actually the only way for peace is a two-state solution. If Israel puts its head in the sand ostrich-style, what will happen is demographically, the Arabs will soon outnumber Jews within Israel`s borders.

BEHAR: Yeah.

ALTER: You know, at that point, the Jewish state will cease to exist. So it`s in Israel`s-

BEHAR: Right.

ALTER: -survival interest to come to a two-state solution.

KLEIN: But it`s important to remember that the `67 war where they acquired these territories was after three wars, you know, this was the third war, `48, `56, I remember watching a Walter Cronkite twentieth century program, and there was no neutrality about that `67 victory, everyone was ebullient. It was little Israel had finally conquered the Golan Heights from which the shells have been-

BEHAR: Well, they got too big, I guess.

KLEIN: -and now people forget that, and they look like the monsters. So they have to tread a difficult water.

BEHAR: It seems like Israel gets a bum rap a lot, though, it seems to me.

ALTER: It does and there`s a double standard that Israel suffers from.

BEHAR: Yeah.

KLEIN: How about the 80 people that were killed while praying in a Mosque in Lahore two days before and 100 some odd wounded, page 29 of the newspaper.

BEHAR: Exactly. That always fascinates me, why they pick on Israel so much more than other countries.

KLEIN: Hello!

ALTER: There`s more than a little anti-Semitism in that, but there`s-

BEHAR: Blame it on the Jews.

ALTER: -there’s a double standard and a higher standard. But, you know, they used to say, Abba Eban said about the Palestinians, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity-

BEHAR: Yeah.

ALTER: -and the Israelis are starting to act like that a little bit too. They should seize the chance of peace-

BEHAR: Well, do you think maybe Bibi Netanyahu, who’s a very tough Jew, ought to get real and start to deal? I sound like Nipsey Russell all of a sudden. Another thing spewing spontaneously is oil in the Gulf.

ALTER: "Only Nixon could go to China" kind of thing.