Retirement of Helen Thomas award brings wave of hate to SPJ national president

Retirement of Helen Thomas award brings wave of hate to SPJ national president

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Hagit Limor, an investigative reporter for Cincinnati’s WCPO-TV, says she knew she’d learn a lot during her year as national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

SPJ President Hagit Limor

“But I never thought it would be about who I am because of my birthright,” she says.

Over the two months since the SPJ board reconsidered and ultimately retired its Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award, Limor — an Israeli native and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor — has received hundreds of hate phone calls and e-mails.

“They’ve attacked me on several levels,” Limor says. “Some of them have used the word Jew. A lot of them are using the word Zionist because they feel that somehow that is different. It doesn’t matter really to me which one. When you pick up the phone and someone calls you an ‘f—ing’ one or the other, it doesn’t feel very good.”

SPJ’s Jan. 14 board vote to retire the Helen Thomas award marked the second time the society has taken up the issue in the wake of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel remarks the longtime White House correspondent made in 2010.

On May 27, when a rabbi outside the White House asked Thomas for a comment about Israel, she said the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and that Jews there should return to Poland, Germany and the United States. Thomas quit her job with the Hearst Corp. on June 7. Three days later, JTA reported that Rabbi David Nesenoff, who conducted the interview with Thomas, had received more than 25,000 antisemitic e-mails on his website,

In May and June, Limor was on SPJ’s executive committee but wasn’t president.

“The executive board took it up at that time and decided that it was a one-time slip,” she says.

On Dec. 2, Thomas told an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich. that, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street, are owned by the Zionists. No question in my opinion. They put their money where their mouth is.”

A day later, Wayne State University, Thomas’ alma mater, announced that it would discontinue its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in the Media Award.

Helen Thomas
Helen Thomas

“When she did her speech in Dearborn, which was obviously prepared with comments, no one could say it was one time,” Limor says.

SPJ members, Limor says, again called for the organization to reconsider the award.

“Now, I’m president, so I completely took myself out of the conversation because as president, I moderate the meetings, I run the meetings, but I do not contribute my remarks unless I have to break a tie. And on this particular issue I felt like I just wanted to let everyone else have the conversation so that no one would think that I was in any way trying to manage the conversation purely because of my background.”

Limor says the e-mails and phone calls she’s received have accused her of trying to force the vote through.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with it being on the agenda,” she says, “it was called for by members and our executive director advised me to just follow the protocol we had followed previously, which I did.

“But all of a sudden, because of who I am, I guess, people assumed that I was trying to railroad through a political position. They distributed my phone number, which is my regular extension at work, I must use for my regular job.”

In January, Limor says, SPJ’s executive board members were generally divided into two camps: those who wanted to remove Thomas’ name from the award and those who wanted to maintain it.

Facing a deadlock, Limor says that a member of the executive board who wanted to keep Thomas’ name on the award came up with the compromise measure to retire the award. All but one executive board member, including Limor, voted for the compromise.

“Unfortunately, some of those who wanted to maintain her name refused to accept this compromise and view it as a win for those who wanted to remove her name,” Limor says. “It is not a win. This doesn’t remove her name. It maintains her name on the award but retires the award.”

Limor has the strong sense that a few individuals in the blogosphere and at some media websites spread the misinformation that she orchestrated a move against Thomas.

Among these are National Arab American Journalists Association Blog, which accused SPJ of bowing to “anti-Arab racism.” Three or four SPJ members have accused her of marshaling the conversation because she was born in Israel, she says.

“Some attacks are coming from Jewish people,” Limor adds.

“I can see now how just two or three people, if they contact the right media outlets or blogs, can whip up a huge outpouring (of people) who just believe the initial posting that’s out there and as a result, vilify an individual who’s never had an opportunity to refute the original claim or offer any sort of perspective. And the initial lie becomes fact that is impossible to refute.”

Limor says she hasn’t received any credible threats on her life, but has been cursed at for her ethnicity, heritage and religion.

“Why can’t we disagree without hatred? Unfortunately, it seems like some people can’t.”

She stayed silent for a long time, thinking it would stop. Only now is the barrage of phone calls and e-mails starting to die down.

“In many ways, this has been an experience that has taught me a lot about myself and probably will make me a better journalist. This has served as a real teachable moment for me. Somewhere in the back of my head I am thinking about how to use this for my growth and for others’ growth.”

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