writer is a founding member of the Jewish Mobilization for a Just
Peace, a grassroots organization in Philadelphia.
year, not long after the September 11 attack on the World Trade
Center, I overheard two well-dressed businessmen talking in the
streets of Philadelphia. "Oh yes," one of them told the
other. "All of the Jews called in sick on September 11. 4,000
of them never came to work that day."
ludicrous and blatantly anti-Semitic tale began making the rounds
of the Internet shortly after the WTC attacks. Groups that monitor
the extremist Right documented its appearance in the newsletters
and websites of various white supremacist and neo-nazi organizations
throughout last fall. It even cropped up in a variety of foreign
was certainly chilling to hear this kind of trash spoken out loud
- an unwelcome reminder that there's always plenty of cultural sewage
coursing beneath the streets of our collective awareness. But, well,
there really wasn't much more to say (or do) about it. So far, unfortunately,
no one has found a cure for conspiracy theories - or, for that matter,
for idiotic urban legends.
tired tale suddenly became news last week, when it made a cameo
appearance in a lengthy poem by Amiri Baraka, a longtime Black radical
who is currently the poet laureate of New Jersey. Jewish community
media outlets are alive with alarm about this latest manifestation
of Black anti-Semitism. The New York Times picked up the story when
the governor of New Jersey tried to fire Baraka as poet laureate
and found he didn't have the legal authority to do so. The last
I heard, the New Jersey legislature was rushing through a bill to
give him that authority, and to ensure that all future poets laureate
would serve only at the governor's pleasure.
was curious enough to look up the full text of the poem in question,
entitled "Somebody Blew Up America." In addition to the
allusion that has caused all the controversy, it also references
other signal moments in Jewish political memory, including the assassination
of Rosa Luxembourg, the Reichstag fire, the World War II-era pro-Nazi
"America First" movement, and the execution of Julius
and Ethel Rosenberg, casualties of the McCarthy era.
trouble is, none of these statements could remotely be considered
anti-Semitic; each of them, in terms of both content and the way
they are framed, affirms Jewish humanity and historic moments in
Jewish struggles for justice. And that's without even mentioning
the other 95 percent of this poem, which calls out milestones in
historic struggles for justice and freedom around the globe - as
well as key moments in the history of racism and repression.
me be clear that I'm not looking for ways to explain away Baraka's
anti-Semitic allusion. The story he repeats is both ridiculous and
offensive; conspiracy theories about mysterious and menacing Jewish
power have been a staple of anti-Semitic iconography for centuries.
My point is rather to raise some questions about what's going on
here: about how and why a story like this becomes news, and what
happens then. Questions, above all, about what we risk, and what
we lose, when we react to incidents like this without exploration,
without nuance, and without context. As if, so to speak, such matters
were entirely black and white, with no shades of gray.
Anti-Defamation League has played a prominent role in condemning
this poem and relating it to what they term Baraka's long history
of anti-Semitism. Within a few days of the poem's public performance,
their website displayed a lengthy page of quotes from his writings
to prove their point. In reality, all but two of the
quotes are criticisms either of Israeli policy or of attempts by
U.S.-based institutions to suppress such criticisms, mostly dating
back to the 1970s and 1980s. The ADL even quotes a 1980 essay by
Baraka, "Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite," perhaps
so they can include some of the language from his writings in the
1960s that he himself was repudiating. Their evidence that his "confession"
was not to be believed? A paragraph in which he distinguishes Jewish
people and the Jewish religion from his critique of Zionism and
you can agree with Baraka or disagree with him, you can like his
poetry or dislike it, you can appreciate the militance of his tone
or find it distasteful. But all of that is a far cry from believing
that he should be stripped of his honorary public position, his
voice silenced and disgraced. In that context, it's hard not to
understand the whole controversy as the latest salvo in the battle
to brand any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
has become one of those epithets, like "communism" or
"terrorism," that tell you it's time to circle the wagons
and, above all, stop thinking. The very suggestion that a little
thoughtful consideration might be helpful is held to be equivalent
to condoning prejudice, hate violence, or even mass murder.
we have any alternatives to knee-jerk condemnation (or equally knee-jerk
defense) of Baraka or any other public figure accused of anti-Semitism?
Here are just a few of the questions we might be talking about [3
ellipse] if we wanted to open up our understanding, rather than
choosing up sides so we can end the discussion:
Inside the American Jewish community, even at its most liberal
fringes, vocal alarm over anti-Semitism is increasing sharply
- not in response to incidents of anti-Jewish violence (which
have scarcely occurred in the United States), but in direct proportion
to the emergence of activist campaigns supporting economic sanctions
against Israel. Such campaigns, which target Israel's 35-year-old
military occupation of Palestinian territory, include legislative
advocacy, campaigns against military contractors, calls for divestment,
boycotts, and the like. Inconvenient facts that have dropped out
of the picture include statements of support for such initiatives
by some Israeli academics (and even a Jewish minister in the South
African government, Ronnie Kasrils). Also ignored is the involvement
of many Jewish groups and individuals in such efforts, in the
U.S. and around the world. This is not a case of "the Jews
against our enemies," but a difference of opinion over strategy
and tactics, not to mention ultimate goals, in the quest for Middle
anti-Jewish violence has occurred, for example in France, it has
occurred in a context that also includes a rising tide of anti-immigrant
and anti-Muslim prejudice, including political agitation and incitement
as well as hate violence. Here in the United States, open expressions
of prejudice against Islam and the Arab world are a daily staple
in the media and in public statements from political and religious
figures. This incessant demonization of Muslims and Arabs serves
a dual role - in the fabrication of an "enemy" sufficiently
ominous to justify the Bush Administration's rush to war, and
in clouding public awareness of, and blunting opposition to, the
unrelenting attacks on the Bill of Rights in the year since September
of these phenomena trumps or cancels out any of the others - on
the contrary, all are deeply and intimately related. Our understanding
of them is diminished, however, when we think about each of these
problems in isolation - in particular, when we try to respond
to anti-Semitism as if it were entirely separate from all other
forms of racism and prejudice.
Denouncing anti-Semitism, while keeping silent about attempts
to suppress open discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
only strengthens the hand of those who want to silence such discussions.
Just this week, hundreds of college presidents lent their names
to a full-page ad in the New York Times decrying the intimidation
of Jewish students on various campuses. Only a handful refused
to sign unless the ad also condemned the censorship on campus
of Palestinian and other anti-Occupation voices. While the former
problem certainly merits public condemnation, the latter is currently
the focus of a white-hot battle raging at campuses across the
just the past couple of weeks, pressure from "pro-Israel"
groups has induced SUNY New Paltz to withdraw funding from a feminist
conference on women and war, because conference organizers had
invited a speaker from the Israeli peace movement (psychiatrist
Ruchama Marton, the founder of Physicians for Human Rights in
Israel) rather than a pro-government speaker. A rightwing Jewish
think tank in Philadelphia launched a "campus watch"
website urging students to report professors who expressed critical
views on the Middle East. In Ann Arbor, a student conference on
divestment planned for next weekend has faced a host of attacks,
most recently a lawsuit that is seeking to prevent it from taking
are only a few of the most prominent current cases; anyone involved
in Middle East peace work could cite dozens or hundreds more,
involving blacklisting, censorship, threats, and hate mail. Even
our small local group of anti-Occupation Jews has been hit with
daily spam attacks, most featuring racist caricatures of Arabs.
Meanwhile, while Jewish communities, campuses, elected officials,
and just plain folks around the country are locked in battles
about what you can say about the Middle East and how you can say
it; the main thing we're not talking about is what is actually
going on right now in Israel and Palestine. Palestinian communities
have been essentially on lockdown for more than 100 days, denied
access to education, employment, commerce, medical care, and any
vestige of normal life. The infrastructure of Palestinian society
has been blasted into smithereens, as have hundreds of Palestinian
homes. With the death toll of the past two years approaching 2,000,
every day brings new stories of shootings of Palestinian civilians,
including in their own homes, by the Israeli military. Most recently,
the emergence of a new movement of nonviolent mass resistance
to the Occupation, which has included open defiance of the "curfew"
by Palestinians reopening schools and walking the streets of their
communities, has gone almost completely unremarked.
The blame game - endless, fruitless arguments about who is at
fault, who is a victim, who is a terrorist, who actions are justified,
and whose are not - has almost completely displaced consideration
of the simple human facts (and the
staggering human costs) of the Occupation, including the considerable
costs to Israeli society (where nearly 600 people have lost their
lives in the past two years, to say nothing of the economic and
political costs). If you care about Palestinians, you must not
care about Israelis - and vice versa.
Returning for a moment to Amiri Baraka, haven't we all been down
this road a thousand times before? An African American figure
makes an anti-Semitic remark, and the institutionalized Jewish
community leaps into arms - to demand an apology, demand a retraction,
demand that whoever it is be banished from public life. Does anyone
honestly believe that this is helpful? Does it promote greater
understanding and community cohesion? Greater safety for Jewish
people? Does it open up more space for dialogue? Or does it promote
increased polarization, resentment, and mutual incomprehension?
Why is the focus always on anti-Semitism in the African American
community? Are we supposed to believe that just as many white
Christians don't harbor anti-Semitic beliefs and stereotypes?
Why do they never become the object of one of these media feeding
frenzies? We might raise the same question about the Muslim world
in general. It's fashionable these days to denounce anti-Jewish
statements from the Arab and Muslim world - and there's certainly
plenty of material to work with. One thing that is never mentioned,
however, is that the entire body of myths and stereotypes circulating
through the Arab press originated in the Christian west. Another
thing that drops out of the picture are the Arab and Muslim voices,
in the U.S. and internationally, that speak out to challenge this
racialized thinking. If we really cared about increasing cross-cultural
understanding, shouldn't this be part of the picture?
In the end, in our alarm over anti-Semitism, we are reinforcing
the exact ways of thinking that make anti-Semitism so dangerous:
treating an entire ethnic group or religion as monolithic, holding
every member of the group collectively responsible for real or
imagined misdeeds, and flattening out our understanding of huge
chunks of humanity into a one-dimensional caricature. The complexity
of community life, the diversity of opinion and interpretation,
the ambiguities of history, the gulfs of understanding across
cultures - all are erased as irrelevant. In the process, U.S.
interventionism, not to mention the entire Christian world, gets
off the hook completely.
Meanwhile, the self-appointed guardians of Jewish safety - the
institutionalized Jewish mainstream - has planted itself firmly
on the side of U.S. and Israeli militarism, a stance from which
it brooks no dissent: not from American
Jews, not from Israelis, and certainly not from anyone else. Are
these the people who should be guarding the boundaries of acceptable
discourse, not only in their own community but across the board?
Shouldn't we at least be able to talk about whether unrestrained
U.S. support for the Israeli government is actually in the best
interests of Jewish people, in Israel and around the world?
Blew Up America" is, above all, a poem about how to understand
the events of the past year: in the polarized language of holy war
favored both by Bush and bin Laden, the language of "the west
against the rest," or in the framework of global struggles
for freedom, dignity, and equality. Baraka seeks to question how
"the enemy" is defined and constructed; who we see as
"us" and who as "them"; how we understand our
interests, and our humanity. His poem may work for you or it may
not - but these are questions that all of us should be asking, as
urgently and as loudly as we can.
the reference to "4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers [who
stayed] home that day" anti-Semitic? I think so, and when I
hear things like that I speak up to challenge them. Does that cancel
out everything else the poem says, or prove that everyone who questions
Israeli militarism is motivated by anti-Semitism? I don't think
we can afford to live any more in that kind of either-or world.
The simple answers are mostly false - and often fatal.
got to do better than that.
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October 17, 2002
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Don't miss anything!
Commentaries in this issue:
Permanent War: Permanent State of Emergency
Trojan Horse Watch: Bob Johnsons
message invades Black radio...Rep. Harold Ford: mess of the blue
dog...The Trojan Horse TV show
Briefs:The Four Eunuchs of War...The
most dangerous game...Smack, Blow, and Blowback...Lethally stupid
IRAQ, WAR & COLOR RACISM: By Dr.
David Graham Du Bois, Guest Commentator
e-MailBox: The Real Rosa Parks...NAACP
challenged on war...Plato and the Emperor George...Deceitful billionaire
RE-PRINT: Harry Belafonte on
Colin Powell...CNN Larry King Live Interview with Belafonte
Interview: Educate and Advocate
- Henry Nicholas on social justice in America
Commentaries in Issue 13
October 3 , 2002:
Lantern of Liberty:
Harriet Tubman Mural Replaced by a Parking Lot
BET's Black Billionaire Trojan Horse:
"Democrat" Bob Johnson Fronts For GOP
Black Children Still Victimized by
Public education amid racism and isolation
by Elena Rutherford, Guest Commentator
Black political self-financing
Senator Ed Brooke mislaid
Hip Hop and heroin
A letter to our readers:
Black America and Bush's New World Order
can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety
by going to the Past Issues page.