Rabbi who filmed Helen Thomas told to 'go back in the oven'
Rabbi David Nesenoff tells Haaretz the incident opened his eyes as to the extent of anti-Semitism in the world and how central it was in certain social groups.
"Hitler was right. Time for you to go back in the oven," is one of the more subdued expressions to be found in the thousands of missives received by the rabbi whose interview with Helen Thomas included the veteran White House correspondent sending the Jews back to Poland and Germany.
"I asked everyone the same question about Israel, since I wanted to make a video supporting Israel," Rabbi David Nesenoff told Haaretz, saying his encounter with Thomas on May 27, too place as the White House celebrated Jewish Heritage Month, the first such event to organized by U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.
"I was very surprised when Thomas told me that not only was she opposed to the two-state solution, but that she thought that the Jews should leave Israel and return to the final solution, more or less," Nesenoff said.
Nesenoff said he knew Thomas had been critical of Israel in the past, but "the most I was expecting was that she would say something about a pullout from the Golan Heights. I wasn't provoking or asking anything on purpose. I asked a very simple question, but I guess 'Israel' was the code word that burst the dam."
Nesenoff said he was invited to the White House almost by accident, citing his teenage son Adam, who runs the Jewish video-chat website Shmoozepoint.com, as the reason for the invitation, saying, "everyone needs a seventeen year-old."
"I'm less focused on her resignation," Nesenoff told Haaretz, "than on the fact that this incident opened my eyes as to how much anti-Semitism there was in the world and how central it was in certain social groups."
Nesenoff added, however, that as a rabbi he was interested in making the world better (Tikkun Olam) and repentance, saying that "Helen Thomas has the opportunity to make amends. She is still alive and could still do a lot of good."
The rabbi also said that he had received approximately 25,000 missives, many of which he said were hate mail, following news of the incident and Thomas' resignation.
They were threats, saying things such as 'death,' 'you better watch out,' and 'will do to you things that were done to other people in history.' According to Nesenoff, the letters spelled out threats not only against him and his family but also against the Jewish people as a whole.
The rabbi was reluctant to go into the security measures he had taken as a result of the threats, but said that "as people in Israel know – you can defend yourself, but the situation is still dangerous."
Nesenoff added he received advice from some very prominent individuals, saying he spoke with former White House Press Secretary for U.S. President George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, "who gave me some useful tips. I talked to Elie Wiesel yesterday, who told me 'yasher koach' [may you have strength]. When Elie Wiesel says something like that, you know you did something right."
The rabbi also told Haaretz he believed the Helen Thomas affair was not incidental, saying he thought "it was fate."
"I've always asked myself what I as an individual could do for Eretz Israel. I'll turn 50 this year, and I ask myself what is my purpose in the world, how I could take advantage of the things that I have already learned and accomplished. I've always fought against racism and anti-Semitism – I started an anti-discrimination group in New York, I advised in largest case against restaurants that wouldn't serve African-Americans, I met Mel Gibson following his anti-Jewish comments."
Nesenoff said he had also participated in the production of films that had participated in many Jewish film festivals across the United States, using pieces he composed to convey a message of tolerance. "I will convey messages through art in this case as well," he said.
According to Nesenoff, he no longer sees a difference between anti-Semitic and anti-Israel behavior, saying that Israel was "a legitimate state and if there's any criticism it must be specific. But people keep returning to the question: Why are the Jews living there? They took over that country.' It is a re-writing of history while ignoring the centuries-long Jewish presence in Israel. Those are statements against Jews, with anti-Israel sentiment being only a part of it."
Nesenoff has uploaded some of the hate mail he had received to his website Rabbilive.com. "It may be vulgar and repulsive, but I don’t want to censor it," he said.